WWDC 2013: The Difference Between iOS and Android

After the rambling 3.5 hour keynote at I/O, Apple’s two hour Keynote was enough to make even me jealous. Tim Cook et al moved nimbly between hardware refreshes, OS X updates, and the radically new iOS 7. The Mr. Fusion-like new Mac Pro was unveiled with the pizzaz of a next-gen video game console, albeit one that respects exactly what its users want and need.

But let’s talk about iOS 7. Its new Control Center, automatic app updates, and multitasking suggest a new, coherent commitment to efficiency, which is no surprise given Jony Ive’s background in hardware. Hardware, unlike software, has to respect and accommodate physical limits, and Ive’s first iteration of iOS has stripped away the flights of fancy that once characterized iOS (linen textures, glossy app icons) for something that feels closely moulded to its hardware. This iOS knows that it’s running on a Retina display, inside devices with tons of sensors and lots of apps.

Much of the above overhaul brings iOS closer to high-end Android (i.e., Android Jelly Bean and later). Control Center in particular finally gives iOS a rough equivalent of Jelly Bean’s rich Quick Settings and notifications menus. I don’t think it matters that iOS can’t yet match all of Jelly Bean’s incredibly detailed notifications (quick reply in Gmail, expandable weather, etc.) – after all, the new iOS, even more so than its predecessors or any version of the less-flat OS X, is all about oneness with the hardware, and a large part of that oneness is still respect for battery via sandboxing. iOS doesn’t want to have apps de facto taking-over either its home screens (via widgets) or its notification tray (via rich notifications).

The most subtly powerful part of iOS 7 is AirDrop. If notifications and settings are an area in which iOS is perpetually playing catchup to high-end Android, then AirDrop is a nice microcosm of all the ways in which Android still trails iOS.

More specifically, tons of professional users in specific clienteles (education, government, script-reading) use iOS in ways that they still do not use Android, sadly. I worked for several years for an iOS developer whose app catered heavily to the above audiences. The biggest single issue that users wrote in about was file transfer – problems with sync (Dropbox, Google Drive) or iTunes transfer mostly. The app didn’t support iCloud for a variety of reasons (some self-induced, others Apple-induced) and for a while it actually used a proprietary wifi transfer app. You can see the lengths that it went to, and the obstacles it had to work around, in order to allow academics in particular to transfer literally 1000s of files.

Which is why AirDrop for iOS (especially for iPad) is such a revelation. It’s huge. But it’s not a feature in a vacuum or for novelty: it’s an outgrowth of the specialized, identifiable clienteles that use iOS (and OS X in tandem with it), in the same way that Microsoft’s increasingly sophisticated Azure services are an outgrowth of its audiences in enterprise and gaming. Android doesn’t quite have these clienteles yet – many Android users don’t even know they’re using Android, while the enthusiasts (like me) are mostly a niche group that hangs on Google+ and dabbles in custom launchers, icon packs, and widgets whose hex values match the wallpaper.

So while Apple may not have met the impossible expectations that are now routinely set for it, its 2013 WWDC keynote demonstrated its maturity. It knows exactly who uses its products: iOS is full of power-users who will love both AirDrop and new features like pushing Maps routes from their Macs to their iOS devices. Android is a great, incredibly flexible OS, but its oft-cited fragmentation isn’t so much an issue of version differentiation as it is one of missing (or incoherent) user identity, which is mirrored in Google’s own focus on everything. That’s the main reason that WWDC felt so different than I/O this year.

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