Implicit in the WWDC keynote this week is Apple's effort to reduce reliance on Google for search, and to answer the complaints about the lack of features by those who have adopted the Android platform. The most blatant example of the former was putting Bing search in Spotlight. The trend had started with Siri, and it's clear Apple and Microsoft are working more closely together than ever nowadays.
It's notable that Microsoft managed to deliver a version of Office for the iPad, but it's still missing in action on Windows 8. To be fair, Microsoft is also going to release an Office for Android in the near future. But to Microsoft, expanding Office to other platforms only expands the use of Word, Excel and PowerPoint as industry standards. Besides, it means more money for Microsoft, so why not? But it's telling that a touch version for Windows 8 is taking very long to complete and may not arrive until 2015.
Now when it comes to Google, it's also telling that Safari searches will also rely on Spotlight for results, and that, again, means Bing. Adding DuckDuckGo, a search engine that promises not to track you, as another option under OS X, must further dilute Google's prospects. Sure, if Google remains the default when OS X Yosemite is released, and previous defaults settings would likely be retained, that will still give the world's number one search engine the upper hand, but in an environment where there's more to lose.
In passing, I wonder why Apple doesn't just buy DuckDuckGo, though that might cause a political problem with Microsoft. But the price has to be real cheap.
In any case, the message is clear. Besides, Siri is already using Bing, so Google has been out of the picture there for a while. Indeed, Google reportedly earns more money via the Apple connection than from Android, so this has to be an ongoing problem for them.
Beyond search engines, Apple's new posture of opening up iOS to more third-party opportunities goes far to eliminate the features that many may prefer on Android. I remember when one well-known Mac pundit, Andy Ihnatko, famously adopted Android because iOS didn't let you install third-party keyboards on a systemwide basis. While you could get keyboards from Swype and other vendors, you had to use a complicated copy and paste routine to put text into your email or Pages documents. With iOS 8, you can drop in another keyboard and be assured it'll fully replace Apple's. You may prefer the default QuickType keyboard, offering smart predictive capabilities, or perhaps you'll want to consider SwiftKey, highly praised for originating similar capabilities. Regardless, it appears that the major developers of alternative keyboards for Android will have replacements available for iOS 8.
Does all that give Ihnatko the incentive to return to the iPhone? Right after this column was posted, it appeared that he had indeed reached that conlusion.
Apple is also addressing other perceived Android advantages by letting you add widgets to the Notification screens, and to allow apps to talk to one another. That means, for example, that a third party can deliver extra filters and features to Apple's new Photos app. There's also an iCloud file browser, so you can see and manage your files in a way similar to what Android offers. Sure, Android is accessing files directly on your smartphone or tablet, but iCloud Drive means your documents are in sync on all your iOS gear and your Mac. It also preserves the limited storage space on your device.
I'm sure Android uses can cite chapter and verse of how their chosen mobile platform still offers other advantages compared to iOS. There is, of course, the feeling that Apple is too controlling, and the looser environment offered by Google is an advantage.
I suppose it does, especially for power users who want to explore every nook and cranny of their gadgets and customize to a fare-thee-well. But Apple doesn't add features because they exist. Offering extra sandboxing capabilities for iOS means that Apple has tested them to provide the maximum level of security. This is why it didn't just happen overnight. It's also true that you can find a number of features that Apple has "borrowed" from other platforms, even though you are apt to find a unique slant on the original concept. It's not the same as Samsung matching an iPhone feature-for-feature without thought to making changes to avoid patent lawsuits.
Most important of all is that, by this time next year, over 80% or possibly more of iOS users will have upgraded to iOS 8. That the iPhone 4 is no longer compatible will leave tens of millions of customers behind, though I can see where the next iOS might simply have performed so poorly on the older hardware that the user experience would be unacceptable. Don't forget that, until the 7.1 update, running iOS 7 on an iPhone 4 wasn't always a pleasant experience.
Does this mean Android users will suddenly come rushing to Apple? Well, supposedly half of the new customers Apple signed up in China gave up Android, so the potential is there. What's more, it's not as if Google has been rushing to add loads of new features. In recent years, Android updates have been relatively minor. Version 4.4 KitKat, released last fall, is installed on less than 10% of existing Android gear. The next version of Android is widely expected to be 4.5, although the rumors claim there will be a greater emphasis on new features. We'll see.
In any case, the other reason Android users may prefer their gear is that the screens are larger, sometimes much larger, than an iPhone. But that state of affairs is widely expected to change with the iPhone 6, which may come in 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch versions. That appears to leave Android users with fewer excuses not to jump ship, but we'll see how it all turns out come this fall.
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