How Apple can take on Android from the inside

It’s safe to say iOS will never have as wide of a reach as Android. While Apple is far and away the most successful handset maker and iOS 9 is slaughtering Marshmallow’s adoption rate (and Lollipop, for that matter), there are just too many Android phones out there for the iPhone to pose any kind of a threat to its dominance. The iPhone 6 may have attracted a healthy share of switchers, but the last time I checked, Android held something like 83 percent of the worldwide market share, to Apple’s 14 percent.

But much like the battle for desktop dominance in the ’90s, market share has little to do with mind share. Apple has learned how to turn its relatively small percentage into extraordinary revenue, and even with a sixth of the installed base, the iPhone is easily most recognizable phone. And perhaps more importantly, everyone knows the Apple brand—even die-hard Android users.

And Apple can use that to its advantage. Despite its stronghold in the OS wars, Microsoft still understood the benefit of establishing a foothold in Apple’s kingdom, and for a while Office and Internet Explorer were just as important on the Mac as they were on Windows. However, despite Google’s presence all over iOS, thus far, Apple hasn’t really made much of a mark on Android. But there are some areas that could use a little iOS ingenuity.

No matter which mobile platform you use (yes, even Windows), you’re going to spend a lot of time with a messaging app. But while we all communicate, universality eludes us. Apple has nicely synced texts and iMessages across Macs and iOS devices, but the synergy doesn’t extend past the walled garden.

I recently took a month-long vacation from my iPhone to try out the Nexus 6P, and on iOS, the messages I sent on Android are basically in a void. It’s bad enough that everyone I contacted was forced to read my messages inside gross green bubbles, but now that I’ve switched back, those exchanges are forever locked inside my Nexus.

But it wasn’t just the continuity I missed on Marshmallow—the whole messaging experience was inferior to the one on iOS. Android’s Messenger app has none of the charm of Messages, and on more than one occasion I was forced to reboot my phone in order for incoming pictures to load. And a couple times texts simply refused to send.

Messages was probably the iPhone app I missed the most. On iOS, I’ve never considered using another messaging app, but after just a few days with Android, I started browsing my options on Google Play—had Apple’s Messages been available, I would have downloaded it in a heartbeat. With an Android version of Messages, Apple could create an network overnight that rivals WhatsApp and establish a colony in enemy territory, all while showing Android users just how much better texting can be.

Along with Messages, there was another constant reminder that I wasn’t in Cupertino anymore: the Apple Watch on my wrist. Even after I swapped my SIM into the Nexus 6P, I still wore it as my everyday watch and fitness tracker, but the distinct lack of notifications made it feel like a brick rather than a luxury timepiece.

It reminded me of the iPod. When that first came out, it was a luxury gadget that was tied to the Mac, and it wasn’t until Apple made the surprising move of opening it up to Windows PCs when it truly began to take off. Apple Watch is by no means a failure, but it’s not exactly a must-have gadget either, and it’s hard to imagine many people switching from Android because they have to have one.

Opening Apple Watch up to Android users—at least as far as basic notifications are concerned—seems like a logical step in the development of Apple Watch. As expected, Google has already brought Android Wear to iOS, but an Android entrance by Apple would be of far greater significance. Eventually, the Apple Watch will be an independent device that doesn’t require an iPhone to properly function, so an Android app will only get the ball rolling.

While I was using my Nexus 6P, I would have loved the ability to send its alerts to my Apple Watch. Admittedly, mine is a relatively rare case, but plenty of Android users buy iPads and Macs, and if watchOS is going to be a serious platform, Apple needs to get as many users under its tent as quickly as possible. And much like the iPod boosted Mac sales, I can see a possible halo effect here, with Android users buying an Apple Watch and then switching to an iPhone down the road.

There’s no denying that Google does web services way better than Apple. From email to storage and search, Google has a laser-sharp focus on services that rivals Apple’s attention to materials and thinness. Apple has gotten better, but there’s still a wide gulf between the two.

However, I was surprised that the cloud syncing experience on Android wasn’t stronger. Most of the apps I used relied on Dropbox for storage and syncing instead of Google Drive, and it wasn’t nearly as seamless as the iCloud toggle on my iPhone. iCloud actually seemed superior in this arena, and the simplicity of it would play well on Android, as well as encourage better cross-platform synergy.

While Apple’s CloudKit JS isn’t technically limited to iOS and OS X—Apple would likely block any Android app trying to access its backend system—there’s no reason to keep iCloud Drive inside the walled garden. All of the other major storage lockers—Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, Amazon Cloud Drive and, of course, Dropbox—all offer apps on all platforms, but Apple could take it one step further by expanding its API to include Android apps.

While using the Nexus 6P, I had to switch iAWriter from iCloud to Dropbox on my iPad to see the notes I had taken on my Nexus and I had no way to access the files stored in my iCloud Drive. It was more of a nuisance than a real problem, but it’s one of the few areas where a proprietary system actually hurts the user. If Apple truly wants to beat Google at its own game, simply competing on an app-by-app basis won’t be enough. Letting Android apps tap into CloudKit would benefit both platforms and help iOS developers bring a better cross-platform experience and create a better experience overall.

Siri may have been the first big virtual assistant, but it’s no longer the only game in town. In fact, Siri is the only one that’s limited to its place of residence; Microsoft’s Cortana landed in the App Store just last month, and Google Now has played nicely with iOS for a while now.

But despite Siri’s advancement within its own ecosystem, Apple hasn’t made any moves to let its digital assistant roam free. Siri may have been a novel feature back on the iPhone 4s, but a capable assistant is no longer a selling point for a premium handset. But Siri has grown well beyond the iPhone and iPad now that it’s playing a major navigation role on Apple Watch, CarPlay, and Apple TV, and it might be ready to expand its horizons even further.

The debate over which is smarter and more accurate may never be settled, but in my experience using both, Siri is just more fun to use. There’s a personality that just isn’t present in Google Now. When I use Siri it feels like I’m actually communicating with my iPhone, rather than just dictating or searching.

Ultimately, that’s what Apple can bring to Android: a piece of its personality. Google already makes gobs of money on the back of iOS, thanks in large part to the proliferation of its apps and web services. Apple’s motives for infiltrating Android would be more about dominance than dollars, but with the right moves, it could definitely benefit from a comprehensive Android strategy.

And maybe next time, my Android vacation won’t take me so far from home.


Michael Simon

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