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Is iOS keeping up with modern technology?

| September 18, 2013 | 5 Comments

For the last few months, something in the back of my head has been nagging at me. I keep trying to swat it, but it comes back over and over again. It’s the same kind of feeling you get when your brain is trying to tell you something but you refuse to listen to it because you know it’s not going to be pretty when you finally do. There was a truth to it, but I didn’t want to listen. The truth was that I felt like I was outgrowing iOS. Up to iOS 6, I had no interest in looking at other mobile operating systems. Why should I? iOS worked perfectly for me, and there wasn’t anything I didn’t think it could not do. However, for years I’ve always thought “what if I could script my phone?”, or “what if I could do something with custom voice commands?”. As a developer, I’m always looking for new things to do, and I feel like I exhausted my ability to find ways to be creative based on Apple’s sandboxing.

When iOS 7 was announced in June, I watched Apple’s keynote with the same excitement as a kid waiting for his Christmas presents. However, this time, instead of getting the toys I wanted, I got clothes. Fluorescent clothes. Apple failed to deliver on what I expected the progression of iOS to be. I was hoping for inter-application communication, a document file system, NFC support, better camera controls, voice-to-text, scripting, and none of that happened. Instead, we got flat icons which is one of the things I criticized Android about, and a Command Center so you can run Flashlight and Calculator from the lock screen. That’s it. Oh, and you can have more than eight browser windows open. With every iteration of iOS we got one or more truly awesome technological features. Instead, this time we got a progression of iOS, but not a progression of technology as a whole, which is what Apple used to deliver. That little voice in the back of my head said, “you know that’s not very innovative”. I swatted at it for months, coming to terms that from a technological and developer point of view, iOS 7 was not very impressive. I knew it, but I buried it. I tried to find some way to convince myself that iOS 7 was the next best thing, but I knew it really wasn’t. Command Center may help when I need to use that Flashlight app once a month, but for the most part, iOS 7 delivers nothing that hasn’t been done before.

With every iteration of iOS we got one or more truly awesome technological features. Instead, this time we got a progression of iOS, but not a progression of technology as a whole

In July I had to get an Android device for work due to many more people asking for Android versions of our apps than there were two years ago. I got a Note 8 mainly for the Wacom technology inside in case I ever wanted to do any spur of the moment doodling. Even with the device next to me, I didn’t really look into how it worked. I didn’t need to, I had iOS.

In the beginning of August, my Twitter feed started filling up with people saying they’re dumping their iPhones for Android. These weren’t just some random people I was following, these were people I trusted in the tech scene, and some of them were hardcore iOS fans. I suspect these were people whose two-year contract cycles were up based on the 2007 summer launch of the iPhone, but there had to be a reason for their switching. I knew it, academically, but my emotional side kept me blind to it all. “Fools”, I said.

Then came the “Eureka!” moment. I was talking to a friend about Android who had just gotten a Samsung Galaxy S4 and loved it. I asked her what the big deal was. It’s Android, it can’t be good no matter how pretty the hardware is. She went on about the same old tired reasons that Apple isn’t innovating and Android is doing better. “Yes, but WHY?”, I asked. I’m one of those people that can’t take “just because” as an answer, I need to understand it. There had to be something other people were seeing that I wasn’t. I’m not so blind to other technology that I don’t see advantages on the other side, but the reasons I saw weren’t compelling. That was until I found an app called Tasker. Tasker allows you to run commands on your phone based on events such as a time, a date, or a location. That was the moment I realized that Android might have matured more than I originally thought.

When I started looking at Android this past week, I was completely blown away. The last time I gave any attention to Android, all you could do was play music and have animated wallpapers. I shrugged and laughed at it, realizing at that time that iOS was vastly superior, and it was. Then. However, after doing some hard research on Android, I realized that it may, in fact, be the operating system I was hoping to find in iOS, but Apple sandboxed their system too much to do anything outside of the apps themselves. The research got me excited about Android enough that I got a Samsung Galaxy S4 on the account that my MiFi was attached to, and since the S4 can act as a hotspot, I dropped the MiFi from that account. So, I haven’t switched and probably won’t, but I’ve been having a lot of fun with Android from a developer’s point of view.

Today, Android is quite different than the anorexic version I saw years ago because Google built in some amazing technology that many iOS users may not even know existed. Listed here are a few of them, and why they were instrumental in raising my eyebrow several times, which eventually led to me getting that Galaxy S4. While Apple does have their impressive technologies, there’s a lot out there that Apple hasn’t even touched. It’ll be a whole year before we see iOS 8 so we’re out of luck for anything new until mid-2014. That bothers me a lot. I realize that Apple doesn’t jump on every new technology out there, but iOS is starting to feel like it’s standing still, and so am I.

Last week’s iPhone 5S announcement was pretty impressive from the hardware side, but the software side still needs work, in my opinion. Maybe if Apple had some of these technologies in their phones I might feel that there’s a more compelling reason to get an iPhone 5S. What I can’t understand is why there wasn’t more innovation in iOS 7. Is Apple sitting on their laurels, playing it safe? Have they become complacent? Or are they truly falling behind in what’s possible in mobile technology?

Android works for you, you don’t work for it

In writing this article, I had an epiphany about Android. The operating system seems to revolve around doing things for the user, instead of the user being trapped by the OS. While Android isn’t restriction-free, it does give you the feeling that it will do its damnedest to help you in any way it can to help you do what you want, and that’s what makes it so attractive.

App scripting

Back in the Symbian days, you could tell your phone to turn the ringer off at 8am when you walk in the door at work, and turn it on again at 4:30. It wasn’t the most amazing technology ever, but it led me to believe that someday you’d be able to do more. Today, iOS allows you to turn “Do Not Disturb” on an off at specified intervals, but Android goes light years beyond that.

As I mentioned above, I found Tasker, an app that allows you to tell your Android phone to do almost anything, at any time, for any event. Did your phone connect to your car’s Bluetooth? Run an app such as Google Play and turn on car mode. Did you enter an area with a specific WiFi name such as your home? Check your email and turn your ringer on. Move away from WiFi altogether? Don’t check email at all to save bandwidth. Did you enter a predetermined area such as your favorite movie theater or a conference room? Turn the ringer off automatically.

These are events and controls that I’ve wanted on iOS for years. On the Mac there’s always been Applescript, but nothing similar for iOS. Not only can you create tasks for Android, they can be triggered by different kinds of events such as NFC stickers or custom voice commands. That leads us to the next section.

Speech to text

Another long-term want I’ve wanted was speech-to-text where I was able to get the text string back. iOS users have been able to send predefined voice commands to their phone such as “Remind me on Thursday to send an email to Fred”, or “What is the score of the Giants game?” for a while, but Android allows you to do so much more. While the voice commands we have now may be passé for today’s smartphones in terms of talking to Google Now or Siri, as a developer, getting the converted text back is a major win for Android because now you can customize commands to your device. You’re no longer trapped inside what commands the phone understands. You can tell your phone “bedtime”, and have it turn the ringer off, set an alarm based on the day of the week, and even play music if you need it when going to sleep, all in one command. iOS can’t do that because Apple doesn’t allow interapplication communication, speech conversion to text for developers, or scripting.

To give you an idea of what Android is capable of with speech-to-text, I’m embedding a video for an app called “utter”. It’s free, and allows you to script your phone with your voice using custom voice commands. It’s very impressive.

NFC

Two years ago I was drooling over the idea that Apple could support NFC. When it never came, I figured that maybe Apple knew what they were doing. After getting the S4, I realized it had NFC support, so I went to BestBuy to puck up TecTile 2 NFC stickers. These stickers have small, rewritable chips on them that communicate a small amount of data with your phone that you can program yourself. For example, you can program the sticker so that when you wave your phone over it, it’ll send back a command specific to an app, a URL, an address, or many other types of custom data. I created one so that when I wave my phone over it, the phone goes into sleep mode, instead of having to run three separate manual commands like I have to do on iOS. Another sticker reverses it. NFC only works in small distances, like one or two inches, but that’s how they were designed. If you don’t want to use GPS events in Tasker because it may kill your battery, you can put a sticker next to your front door to trigger that you’ve come home. NFC is a tad better than QR Codes because you don’t have the problem of having to start an app and take a picture which I always found cumbersome. The NFC reader runs in the background.

Apple will be supporting iBeacon with iOS 7, but that’s nothing like NFC. NFC is, by definition, NEAR Field Communication, iBeacon is for larger areas like 30 yards. iBeacon is essentially a branded version of Bluetooth LE, which has support in Android 4.3.

TacTiles

Samsung’s TacTiles 2. These work with the Galaxy S4.

Notification Light

This is one damn cool little feature. The S4 has an LED inside which sits underneath the white plastic of the case at the top of the phone. When you get an email, the light blinks blue. When you get a text message, it blinks yellow. Every event you get for your phone can be customized for that little light, so long as the software you’re using supports it. For example, the SMS app I use (more on custom apps below) allows you to create different colors for different people. SMS from your spouse? Green light. From your boss? Red light. This way, you don’t even have to touch your phone to see if you got a message, which works great if you’re somewhere that you have to keep your ringer off but still want some notification.

SMSNotification

The notification light on the Samsung Galaxy S4. This custom magenta light tells me I got a text from a specific person.

Third-party apps for integrated functions

If you don’t like Messenger for iOS, there’s nothing you can do about it without a jailbroken phone. You’re stuck with Messenger unless you use another app like WhatsApp (and the other person has to be using it as well). I found that the default SMS app for the S4 is terrible until a friend told me that you can use a third-party app for SMS. I had no idea this was possible on any mobile platform because Apple forces you to use their app, and their app only. Go SMS is the app I’ve been using for text messaging, and it’s far beyond what you can do with Messenger. You can do the standard custom tone for a specific user, but you can also change the notification LED color for different people, change your theme, take a screenshot, run in night mode, and use a custom signature. That’s just one app for one function. If you don’t like the dialer that came with your phone, you can grab a custom one. I haven’t looked at all the third-party possibilities yet, but I don’t think there isn’t a single function on Android that can’t be used differently with a third-party app.

Application integration with the operating system

With iOS, if you want to upload a picture to your Dropbox folder, you have to fire up (or find!) Dropbox, give it access to your pictures, find the picture, and then upload it. With Android, apps can hook into the OS itself, and you can upload the photo from your gallery app directly into Dropbox because the Dropbox app integrates itself as a service the OS can use. These hooks are what iOS desperately needs. It would be nice to hit the share button on a photo on iOS and have it go directly to Dropbox.

 

Photo Sep 12, 11 32 01 PM

iOS only allows you to do predefined functions with images.

Screenshot_2013-09-17-23-56-12

Android allows you to share images with any service that hooks into their system.

Screenshot_2013-09-17-23-57-47

These are the services I have on my phone which can interact with Android’s sharing service.

 

 

Widgets

I’ve fallen in love with widgets. Unlike iOS which only shows rows of icons on each page, widgets are little windows to an app that take up all or a tiny fraction of your Android’s screen. For example, a weather widget will tell you time and temperature right on your home screen so that you don’t have to keep checking an app. Some even run on the lock screen so that you don’t have to unlock your phone to run certain tasks.

WidgetScreenshot

Home screen widgets. Accuweather on the top, Google Now (voice commands) in the middle.

IR Blaster

The Note 8 I originally got for work has an IR blaster on it, along with the WatchON app which allows you to control your IR devices from the phone. It didn’t work when using the Note 8 and it’s not a very good app, but I stumbled across some documentation when looking at the LED notification code that allows you to program the IR Blaster. In under 30 minutes I had an app written that sent IR codes to my home theater system, switching inputs, adjusting the volume, and turning the units on and off. I even wrote a small script for it to that it turns everything on at once, and turns everything off.

Custom keyboards

While I can adapt to a new keyboard, the ability to install custom ones was truly amazing. I started to get used to SwiftKeys, which is a custom keyboard that not only works in the traditional sense, it also allows you to swipe your finger from one letter to another, building the words as you go. The default keyboard even has a function built in that suggests words for you as you’re typing, based on context. So, if you typed “I’m going”, the keyboard will suggest three words for you, such as “to”, “away”, and “now”. Press “to” and the next three words could be “the”, “see”, and “try”. This way, you just have to tap the words instead of typing them. Ingenious.

A real file system

If there’s one thing that annoys me the most about iOS is that it doesn’t have a user-friendly file system. The most you can do is access photos and music from other apps, but that’s all. If you have a movie, even if it’s not DRM’d, it’s locked into being used with the Videos app if you synched it with iTunes. If you want to use VLC with your movies, you can’t due to the fact that the Videos app sandboxes the files, and VLC can’t play the movies if they’re DRM’d in the first place. To use videos with VLC you have to upload the files to VLC’s sandboxed file system and no other apps can use them. The same goes with PDFs, you have to copy the same PDF to each app’s application space that you want to use to view the PDFs. It’s a very inefficient system. Android gives users a very friendly application space, and some devices have MicroSD support to extend that file system. I was able to copy several movies to my S4, and access those movies with different apps to see which one I liked better.

The problem with putting apps on the MicroSD card is that the apps have to have support to do that, and if your device is connected to your computer via USB, the app won’t run from the MicroSD card while it’s mounted on your computer.

Not everything is perfect

While I love the tinkering aspects of Android, there are some things that don’t work well if you’re trying to switch. Google Wallet doesn’t work on Verizon, due to Verizon trying to push its ISIS payment system. You have to root your phone, edit the config file on your phone, and get a modded version of the .apk file in order for it to work. It’s a messy process, but I might give it a shot at some point.

If you bought movies on iTunes, you can’t play them on your Android phone. At least, not without finding some app that will convert it for you, but that might not be worth the money. The same goes for any music you had bought before iTunes stopped selling DRM’d music.

iTunes Match is $25/yr. for an unlimited number of songs, Google Play is free for up to 20,000 songs, and then $10/mo. afterwards. Also, iTunes Match matches your songs with the songs on Apple’s servers, Google Play forces you to upload all your music to their servers, whether one million people uploaded the same song or not. I find Google Play to be highly inefficient and expensive, especially since I currently have 24,000+ songs.

There’s no Facetime on Android, but it does support Skype, and who doesn’t have Skype?

Playing it safe?

While I don’t see myself switching away from my iPhone 5, now I feel like there’s a platform out there that suits my needs as a developer where I can play outside the sandbox. It’s called “jailbreak” on iOS for a reason, but I feel that the jailbroken apps are inferior and not worth using. I also don’t feel like I’m as ignorant about Android anymore. Could these kinds of software enhancements help Apple in the long run? Is Apple’s sandboxing making users feel like they’re constrained? Or is Apple playing it safe because they don’t want to give the users too many options, making the OS more confusing? If the hardware specs don’t impress people, the software might, and Apple may be falling behind in that regard.

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  1. Buxley says:

    To be fair, some of those things are hardware (NFC, notification light) features, not iOS features. Maybe this should have been titled “Is iPhone keeping up with modern technology?”

    I too wish that the iPhone had NFC. The fact that it’s taken any handset this long to get NFC is bad enough, but Apple not having it is ridiculous. They’ve had transactions with NFC overseas for years. They can get a freakin’ Pepsi out of a machine with an NFC transaction for crying out loud.

    There are many hardware features in Android handsets that are extremely attractive. I’m not sure how Android developers deal with differences screen size; that’s an issue with iOS too, but storyboarding has mitigated that to some extent.

    The one thing that drives me wild is the OS fragmentation problem. I’ve dealt with that before.

    I tried to handle with this back in the early Java mobile app days and it was a nightmare. I’d been programming Java since the day of its release, so that wasn’t an issue. I just couldn’t keep up with the demands that the carriers had to 1) support all phones no matter what version of the Java Mobile platform they had; 2) certify apps with each different carrier and 3) approve apps in their stores. And I’m not talking about weird non-family friendly apps…. I mean ANY app. There’s a huge difference in Apple’s approval process and the way it used to be. I’ve had zero issues with Apple’s approval process. I know some Android developers point this out as a flaw, but I don’t consider it one.

    I finally just concentrated on Palm apps, and while their third-party app store people were terrible too (50% of revenue cut for each app sold), they were nothing compared to the cell phone carriers.

    Now, no one is forcing developers to support every handset. That’s not the fault of Android itself or what it’s capable of. Not at all. It’s something I blame on Samsung, Moto, and all the rest of the phone makers. If they had a unified way of making sure that all phones made within the last three years or so could upgrade to the latest version of the OS, it would make things a lot easier. This is an area where Apple has done a pretty good job.

  2. Guest Apple says:

    Apple just filed a patent to do basically Tasker. So the are doing it just a little slower.

  3. Foxlore says:

    The article provides a really good breakdown Michael. I know you have been on the Apple bandwagon and (like myself) have had to come to terms with Apple falling behind in the phone market. I respect the fact that you can look at the issues fairly objectively despite being such a fan of Apple (as am I). I continue to see articles beating the Apple drum as if they are still king of the hill. That is certainly not the case here in Asia, where I have watched most of my students migrate from Apple iPhones to various Samsung (and a few other Android devices).

    For the past two years I have used a Galaxy Note (I). This was a move over from the iPhone 3G. Being both an iPad user and an iPhone user I’ve not been able to afford to upgrade with each rev. I was attracted to the Note because of the screen size. I’ve also considered getting a Note 8 as a replacement because of the Wacom sketch functions you mentioned.

    Despite liking many of the points you raised about Android innovations, I am seriously considering moving back to an Apple phone (5s). The main reason (which you touch on above) is the iTunes Store. Living overseas, but also having a US residence I am able to access both the US store and the HK store. It’s a bit of a minor irritation to have to always log out and re-log in but it works smoothly and efficiently, especially with my Apple TV in the mix. The Google Play store on the other hand does not allow me to switch to a US account (despite already having a US Google Wallet account), not without rooting the phone (which is something I do not want to do). This excludes me from many US only apps. Add to this the fact that third party apps like Amazon don’t allow me to view/stream movies and it turns out that iTunes does the best job of providing media for me.

    Also with the death my last PC, I don’t really have a desktop device for dealing with my Android phone. I’ve tried using my MBP and iMac and neither plays well with the phone. I really do like many of the features, but in the international market, it turns out that (for my uses) Apple is a bit more versatile for apps and media content. That being said, I do kind of feel chained to a phone that is not really doing all that it could be. I’m still tempted by both the Note 8 and the forthcoming Note3, but I think for now I’m going back. And with regard to the design, I actually like the new 5c line a bit more than the more traditional 5s, but if I am going to spend the $ I want to go for the hardware. It’s too bad we can mix and match.

    Thanks again for sharing the insights.

    Paul

  4. Rob Usdin says:

    Great article. I’ve debated Android for a while but I find a lot of the reasons to switch just aren’t strong enough for me.

    One big downside to Android for me is OS fragmentation. Unlike iOS you are at the mercy of your carrier or hardware manufacturer or both for updates to the OS. Even then – you can’t be sure about app compatibility. My parents got a Nexus 7 2nd gen. My mom could not install EA Scrabble on it. SCRABBLE. The Google Play store said it was incompatible. It was extremely hard for me to fathom that. This kind of incompatibility and OS fragmentation is something I have seen previously on Android. With Apple these issues are near non existent due to their control over the hardware and software. If an app is incompatible the iTunes store won’t let youget it – BUT they just introduced an amazing feature where iTunes asks if you want to download the last compatible version. That was a win for me on my first gen iPad.

    –*Rob

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