Each year, Apple and Google hold press conferences to show off their new mobile operating systems. These days, both are often met with a resounding “meh” followed by outcries that Apple’s just an imitator. Here’s an unpopular opinion: I don’t care.
Apple and Google have trained us to expect amazing things. With new operating systems and phones every year, we think we deserve a revolution with each iteration, because that’s what we saw when these products were new — but that’s what you’d expect with something new. Innovating at the same rate for years was never going to be possible. Not only that, it’s not useful.
Do you remember the Amazon Fire phone in the US? It was new and different. It also sucked. Even relatively recent innovations from Apple and Google — like Apple Pay, Passbook, Google Wallet, and SMS in Hangouts — have been met with a resounding shrug from most users. After nearly a decade with these devices, we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. We don’t need revolutionary any more, we just need our devices to do what they already do…better.
For example, in its 2015 keynote, Apple spent three minutes talking about the addition of transport directions to iOS 9. That’s far from revolutionary, but it’s an iteration Apple desperately needed at the time. At this point, that’s really all I want. Small, useful iterations.
If you take a look at the feature list of Android and iOS, you’ll notice they’re pretty similar. The two companies built operating systems that anyone can use from the get-go. They have common gestures, similar notifications, and a feature set that makes it easy to switch between the two. A lifelong iOS user can pick up an Android phone and use its basic functions right away, and vice versa. The two have been playing off each other from the start, and it’s really starting to show.
In that sense, the platform wars don’t matter nearly as much as they used to. Both Android and iOS are good. Both are useable. And more and more, you can use all of your favourite services on both devices. Apple Music is available for Android. Google Play Music is on iOS. More importantly, third-party services everyone uses, like Spotify, Facebook and Netflix, exist on both. Does any normal person care whether you use Android or iOS? No. And at this point, there’s nothing to gawk at with new phones because we’ve seen them all before. Good. I don’t want to talk about my phone any more.
And it’s OK that Apple and Google are imitating each other. The big steps have been taken, and it’s time to take the little ones. New versions of Android and iOS are about hashing out the fundamental ecosystem and making everything work together better. Is Apple playing a bit of catch-up with certain Google innovations, and vice versa? Yes, but that’s good. That means they’re actually paying attention to what else is happening in the industry and have finally pulled their head out of the sand and looked around. The more the two companies play off each other, the better we’ll all be for it.
This feels like the last stretch for smartphone innovation. From here, things will get better, faster, and more efficient. Your smartphone is not a revolutionary new product; it’s just another appliance.
Of course, both Apple and Google still have some great tricks up their sleeves with their new operating systems. Each continues to improve on their personal assistants, helping us manage the huge influx of notifications, events, and notes we’ve come to rely on. In future OS updates, we’ll likely see more of these types of small, incremental improvements to existing services. But it doesn’t really matter which operating system you choose any more. It’s just about your preferences, because they all do the same thing.
Constant innovation isn’t sustainable for a company or its users. iOS 11 isn’t proof that Apple has lost its innovative touch, it’s just proof that these phones are finally reaching their potential. Innovation will come in the form of new kinds of devices, not overhauling the smartphone. What big new phone features do you really want (besides more battery life, or better performance)? I don’t want to learn how to use a new smartphone operating system every year. I want to be able to treat it like the appliance that it is: it should disappear into my daily workflow so I don’t have to think about it.