Apple – what the hell, guys? Where’s the innovation?
I’m generally very fond of Apple’s mobile offerings. I’ve consistently found iOS to be a better mobile OS than Android. But Android is catching up, and some of the players in the Android market have come out with some fantastic stuff. Motorolla, HTC and LG are all making excellent handsets. Samsung are throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, and that horrendous TouchWiz bullshit is still kicking for reasons that escape me. Apple’s price premium was usually justified by the fact that their phones were well made, had excellent app support, came with good cameras, and to a lesser extent had a decent cloud ecosystem.
That’s changing significantly. Android app support has mostly caught up (perhaps the tablet app sector is still a bit weak though), to the point where apps are usually coming out at the same time for both platforms. Many Android handsets match or exceed the iPhone in terms of capabilities – many come with better cameras and additional sensors. Google have significantly bolstered their ecosystem in recent years too. Google Drive is incredibly cheap for storage, and comes with 15GB free, and you can even store your photos for free if they’re under 2048 pixels on their longest side. Google Docs still has issues with offline support on desktops, but their apps are remarkably good for general word processing (though Office still rules the document processing world). And the Android sector has beaten Apple with innovation – Android smart watches, although still in early stages, beat Apple to the punch such that it looks like Apple are playing catch-up.
Traditionally that hasn’t mattered, because Apple would release around the same time and would generally refine things. But lately they’ve had a number of slips and it looks like they’re not getting away from that hole. Here’s why Apple are starting to lose me, and pushing me towards Android.
Apple Maps is a disaster. While it’s nowhere near as bad as some people suggest, and while I’ve found it adequate for general navigation (for addresses only), it’s still laughably inadequate next to Google Maps. And this isn’t just a question of Street View either, Apple’s maps are positively anaemic when it comes to points of interest, and they frequently end up being totally wrong. If I want to know where something is, I have to use Google Maps. Honestly, the only reason I use Apple’s mapping solution is because it works with Siri, and I can speak out an address while driving (or ask for directions home). The fact that Apple haven’t said anything about when they’ll stop sucking is telling. They should never have lost it.
iCloud Drive is okay, but expensive. Lately I’ve been making extensive use of iCloud – everything from calendars and email to contacts. iCloud’s odd storage system has finally been given the boot with Yosemite and iOS8, but their pricing is atrocious. 5GB for free is absurd, especially when you remember that a chunk of that will be used by device backups. $9.95 USD a month will get you 1TB of storage (about $120 a year), while Apple’s 1TB option is double the price. Even the insanely expensive Dropbox changed their pricing. At that price you might as well get an Office 365 subscription – you won’t get as much storage space, but you will get 5 licenses of Office!
iCloud services are fiddly and sometimes useless. iCloud’s email service can be a bitch at times – sometimes mail doesn’t sync very well, and despite this being an Apple service, there’s no syncing across devices. If I read an email on my iPhone, it’ll still appear unread on my iPad until I open the Mail app and then refresh the server. The Calendar app has a “Location” box, which does nothing useful under iOS but does accept location data under OS X. It’s absurd that this field exists, yet I can’t say “Siri, navigate to my next appointment” and have it pull that data. Contact photos are occasionally not aligned properly, or sometimes disappear for no apparent reason.
The new iPhone has nothing exciting or interesting. Apple have caved in and opened the floodgates for a massive phablet. I hate phablets, and 4.7″ is about the most I’d accept for a phone. Outside of that, there’s very little, if anything, of interest with the new phone. The camera will be somewhat better, it’ll have a newer CPU, and it’ll have new motion sensors to match up with the Health app. Oh, and NFC along with Apple Pay, which may not even see support here in Australia. That’s more or less it. Everything else of interest is locked up in iOS 8.
iOS8 looks interesting, but still feels a bit short. I’ve installed iOS 8 on my iPhone 5S, and really… I’m not seeing much of a difference. Yes, the keyboard now has predictive text, and there’s now the option to install other keyboards when they appear. These features should have been there in iOS6 or 7, guys! iOS8 feels like Apple are playing catch-up, which is good, but they’re also quite late to the party. Some of the newer features are intriguing, but also seem limited. The new iCloud photo sync doesn’t appear to do anything yet, but if it’s anything like Photo Stream was when it came to uploading photos, it’s probably not going to be that reliable. Handoff looks great, but you’ll only see the benefit with OS X apps (and even then only those that support it), and in the modern age of cloud storage this isn’t as big of a feature as it appears. Being able to take calls or answer text messages from your OS X device is also a neat feature but it’s hardly a deal-maker.
Google are doing it better, and cheaper. The Nexus 5 is a very solid, capable phone for a bundle less than the iPhone. It lacks in some ways (namely its camera) but is otherwise packed with features, and tightly integrates with Google’s services. There are premium Android handsets that are not only cheaper than the iPhone, but offer similar features, sometimes more. Google’s services are supported by most things (except Windows Phone), are cheaper should you need to start paying, and are rock-solid reliable (except offline Google Docs, which still seems finicky).
The Android landscape is more exciting. Google Glass and smart watches come from out of the Android spawning grounds. Handset manufacturers are more willing to build in new features. Samsung are basically making shit up to see what ends up selling units. There’s a lot more actual innovation in the Android landscape. Announcements about new Android tech are genuinely interesting, because more often than not, someone is trying something new. With the latest iPhone announcement, it’s positively pedestrian by this point.
Apple are still doing a number of things right. They have the right idea with connecting the mobile and the desktop – a focus on cloud storage with specific apps for each platform, unlike Microsoft’s attempt to splice the two together. Their iCloud service, when it works, is pretty much set and forget. The iWatch seems like the better approach to a smart watch too; while Samsung just tried to shove as much shit onto the watch as they could, Apple are seeing it as an adjunct to your phone, which will probably be the better way to do it. Apple are also able to tailor make iOS to their handsets, and it does make a big difference from a performance perspective, as well as ensuring things integrate well. But they’re nowhere near being innovative. Google’s services have mostly eclipsed iCloud – I can safely and reliably back up my iPhone photos to Google+, Gmail is probably the best web mail service out there, Google Docs is probably better than Pages and Numbers (Keynote beats Presentations easily), and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to boot. Apple seriously need to start thinking about modifying pricing or coming up with some better ideas – because right now, the Android tide is probably going to sweep some of us away.