Google and Apple are Both Catching Up

Many complained that this year’s developer conferences, WWDC and I/O, weren’t as big of a deal as the previous years. Last year’s I/O was a much bigger affair, with the announcement of Android L and the release of two Android Wear watches. Apple announced Yosemite, a visual overhaul for OS X. This year, though, was all about refinements and catching up.

Google I/O 2015

Google went first, with I/O, and announced a bunch of new features, notably the new Photos service and Now on Tap. Google Photos is a “new” service, taking the place of Google+ Photos, which wasn’t a hit with a lot of people, as they were worried about a social network storing their photos, publicly or otherwise. Google Photos is a standalone service and offers unlimited storage of photos upto 16 MP and videos shot in 1080p for free. This is pretty much unbeatable as every other service requires payment beyond a paltry amount of storage. The new Photos app is great and some nifty features such as the new multi select gesture are really useful. The organisation of photos based on year and month did remind me a bit of iOS but I suppose that’s to be expected. Google Photos also automatically sorts your photographs into appropriate collections and allows you to search for your photographs. And this just works. This makes looking for a photo very simple and Google’s sorting algorithms are great! They did get some photos wrong but I expect they’ll tweak the system as we go along.

Google also announced something called Now on Tap. Now on Tap is the next level of Google Now, Google’s predictive assistant. Now on Tap introduces contextual understanding. You no longer have to be fully specific when asking Google Now a question. Now on Tap introduces more natural language understanding. For example, you can now ask Google Now questions regarding your location and use “this place” instead of actually specifying where you are. Now on Tap can also see what’s on your screen when activated and it’ll give you suitable options based on what’s happening. So far, all we have to go on are what Google showed at I/O, as Now on Tap isn’t a part of the M Developer Preview.

Android M now allows you to control what permissions your apps have. Once the full version is released later this year, you’ll no longer have to accept permissions while installing the app. Instead, you’ll be prompted the first time the app needs access to the permission. You can disable each app’s access to a permission and you can also see which apps have access to a permission. This has been on iOS for a while now and it’s nice to see it coming to Android, as it gives more control to the users.

Android M will also come with Doze. Doze will use a variety of sensors to detect when a phone is lying unused, and inactive and it will limit the background process and updates to save battery. If this is implemented properly, the user won’t even realise Doze is there, except, hopefully, for an increase in battery life. Apple has something similar in iOS, but the background processes are always restricted, regardless of active or inactive.

Google also announced Android Pay, not strictly the successor to Google Wallet, but a more complete solution. You can use Android Pay on devices running KitKat and up and equipped with an NFC chip. Android Pay not only has the tap to pay function but also stores your online payment information and fills it out automatically when needed (you still have to confirm the payment). This has been likened a lot to Apple Pay, not least because of the name.

Last but not the least are somewhat smaller features. Android M will have native fingerprint scanning support (about time). Android M also has a highly experimental multi-window feature for tablets, which doesn’t really work that well right now.

Apple WWDC 2015

Moving on to WWDC, Apple had quite a lot to announce, starting with OS X. The new version of OS X is name El Capitan (try saying that without an accent) and it’s a rather minor update. Spotlight has been improved with the ability to understand natural language commands. The search box can also be moved around and resized. Safari now allows you to pin tabs, a feature that’s been present on Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox for a while now. You can also easily detect which tab is playing music and easily mute it or all tabs. OS X also has the ability to organise your windows side by side (Windows Snap anyone?).

iOS 9 is gaining several new features and perhaps the biggest of these is Proactive. Proactive is bringing contextual awareness to Siri and is very reminiscent of Google Now and more recently, Microsoft’s Cortana. While it can’t yet match Google’s Now on Tap, it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

iOS 9 brings split-screen multitasking to the iPad which is again very similar to the Metro interface on Windows 8/8.1. Several Android OEMs have also brought out this feature as a part of their skins, though Google is only now experimenting with this feature on Android M.

Apple Maps had a poor start when it was first announced, with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook eventually issuing a public apology and asking users to use an alternative solution. It has since improved quite a bit though it still can’t match Google Maps, which has become the standard of mobile navigation now. Apple Maps is now adding transit directions, something that’s been available on Google Maps for years now.

iOS 9 will also come with a new News app, which is very reminiscent of Flipboard. Much like Flipboard, you can select your sources and you’ll get a personalised feed of news articles.

Apple also announced WatchOS 2, for the Apple Watch. This update will allow apps to access the microphone, speakers, accelerometer and the Digital Crown. You can also customise your watchface with your own photos.

Apple is entering the subscription music field with Apple Music, which is set to take on the likes of Spotify, Rdio and Google Play Music. Unfortunately, not only are they rather late to the party, but their streaming quality isn’t on par with the rest. Apple Music also includes live radio with curated playlists, something the other services have automated. This will also be the first cross platform Apple app, with Android and Windows support. Apple Music has a couple of things going for it. It’s free for the first three months, which will help get a lot of iOS users, as the app is pre-installed. And, Apple Music has one of the cheapest family plans. But, while Apple Music might draw a lot of new users, it seems unlikely if users of older services like Spotify will be drawn away.

The conferences might not have brought major changes, but we can’t have major changes every year. This year was all about making the systems more stable and complete. As is evident, a lot of the features announced by both Google and Apple aren’t new. But, borrowing and adding features from other platforms is great news for the end user. Google and Apple are battling it out and fanboys take up this battle on social networks. And the winner is the user.

Aditya Saky
June 10, 2015