With the debut of Android 5.0 (also known as Lollipop, in keeping with Google’s habit of naming each major OS upgrade after a dessert), it’s worth taking a moment to break down how the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system matches up against Apple’s iOS 8. After years of battle, the two are… remarkably similar.
This year, Google is pushing a visual language it calls “Material Design,” which it claims “synthesizes the classic principles of good design with innovation and possibility of technology and science.” Sweeping mission statement aside, Material Design is bold and graphics-focused, with an emphasis on animations and the sense that all actions take place within a unified environment:
Like the new Android, Apple’s iOS 8 places a premium on boldness and color, with effects such as translucent overlays giving the software an added feeling of tangibility. Whereas older versions of the operating system embraced skeuomorphism, or the use of real-world elements such as green felt or wooden bookshelves, the new-ish iOS (the aesthetic first transitioned with iOS 7) is a textbook example of “flat” design, in which strips all that out in favor of minimalist graphics:
So while nobody would ever confuse Android and iOS, both Google and Apple seem determined to go “flatter” (and more brightly colored) than ever. Whether or not you agree with their choices, they’re the cutting edge of mobile UX design.
The Seamless Package
Apple takes great pride in building its hardware and operating systems in-house, claiming that the practice results in better, more seamless products. Meanwhile, Google has spent years defending its decision to effectively give away Android for free to device manufacturers, which has led to multiple flavors of the OS running on devices of wildly varying specs—a fragmentation issue, to put it mildly. (Anyone who owned or reviewed Android phones in the Wild West days of late 2009 and early 2010, including yours truly, recalls how many devices came loaded with crapware, and suffered comically poor battery life.)
Although pundits (and iOS fans) like to denigrate that fragmentation, the sheer variety of Android devices means there’s one for just about any need. If you want a powerful smartphone camera and don’t really care about anything else, some manufacturer has a piece of hardware just for you; if you want an oversized screen, there’s a stunning variety available at your local carrier store or electronics emporium. With the Nexus devices, Google also offers a “flagship” device, meant to show off Android at its very best (re: no crapware, and significantly improved battery life).
If Google succeeds in its recent push to reduce fragmentation to a more manageable level, it could leave the Android ecosystem in an interesting place: more consistent than ever on the software front, thanks to Lollipop, while remaining wildly diverse in terms of hardware. While that combination won’t necessarily persuade longtime iOS users to jump ship for Android, it does give iPhone and iPad users a viable alternative if they ever find themselves sick of the Apple ecosystem. And if Lollipop persuades more developers to build software for Android, it could end up giving iOS a lot more competition on the app-ecosystem front.
Android 5.0 features a variety of backend tweaks meant to improve performance and battery life (and it comes with a Battery Saver feature, for those who have problems charging their phones consistently); Google’s also tweaked core apps such as Gmail, added the ability to set up Guest accounts, and instituted automatic updates—all of which places Android either on par (re: auto updates) or ahead (re: guest accounts) of iOS.
Apple remains determined, meanwhile, to keep its users in a walled garden: although iOS 8 features more customization options than ever—you can deploy third-party keyboards, for example—users still can’t do much to alter the system’s look, feel, or functionality. That’s bad for any developer who likes to customize their systems, but it’s good for run-of-the-mill users who don’t want to endlessly fiddle with their devices or worry about security.
For years, Google and Apple have been locked in a war over smartphone features. One side will add a new and interesting app or function, only to be imitated by the other during the next upgrade cycle. That perpetual battle has reached a climax of sorts with Lollipop and iOS 8: both offer their own version of an NFC-powered e-wallet (Apple Pay vs. Google Wallet), a health app (Apple’s Health app vs. Google Fit), car-dashboard control (Android Auto vs. CarPlay), and home automation.
These apps are still far too new to declare a “winner,” and their success—particularly in the case of Health and Google Fit—will depend largely on how many partnerships Apple and Google can land in coming years. While Apple Pay has enjoyed significant early gains on the e-commerce front, its success may embolden Google and its retail partners to make another, more aggressive marketing push for Google Wallet; that particular battle definitely isn’t over yet.
With Lollipop, Google Android is slicker and stronger than ever; Apple remains its polished, powerful self. Deciding between the two is no longer a case of one side boasting better features or performance; now it’s down to apps and personal preferences.
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Images: Google, Apple