iOS 8 v Android Lollipop: so similar, yet so far apart
In the past, the two operating systems were largely distinguished by features and polish, but that has changed Photo: Mashable
This post was originally published on Mashable.
In the mobile war between Android and iOS, something interesting has happened over the last six months.
In the past, the two operating systems were largely distinguished by features and polish. Android traditionally had more features and customisation than iOS, but iOS retained a higher level of finish.
That all changed with iOS 8 and Android 5.0 'Lollipop'. With these releases, iOS 8 now has almost as many features as Android. Just as notable, Lollipop's new Material Design ethos has an almost iOS-level of polish and finish.
It would be easy to extrapolate that iOS and Android are now more alike than ever before - and on the surface, this is true. But in practice, what is most interesting about the current state of the two operating systems is how different the overall experience has become.
As a result, iOS and Android are both more similar yet more different than at any other point in their histories.
It's worth examining the new similarities and differences between the two platforms.
As I wrote in my iOS 8 review, Apple's latest operating system really brings it to parity with Android from a feature perspective.
For years, iOS users wanted apps to talk to each other better, wanted a system for widgets and wanted third-party keyboards. Apple finally addressed those features, albeit in an unmistakably Apple way.
At the same time, Android has adopted similar UI paradigms and iOS's better notification system.
Both operating systems are guilty of lifting features from one another - and in my opinion, that's a good thing for everyone.
Yes, there are still feature differences that separate the two platforms, but increasingly those differences are becoming more about philosophical outlook. For example, look at the way the platforms deal with default applications. In Android, you can signify another browser, mail client or chat client to take the place of Google's built-in tool.
On iOS, you can install those additional applications and other programs can even talk to those apps. But Apple's core apps will always be the system defaults. Always. In other words, it isn't that iOS can't have a feature that Android has (or vice versa), it's that it chooses not to.
But more than just that, the world of apps has evolved, too. If forced to choose, most developers I talk to will still choose iOS first. That said, launching on both operating systems and keeping parity between third-party apps has become de rigueur.
Apps used to be the single biggest differentiation between Android and iOS but as those worlds have coalesced and the actual OS features have reached near-parity, the reason for choosing between the two systems has shifted.
The look and feel
Buoyed by Material Design, Android Lollipop is Google's most ambitious release from a design perspective.
Over the years, the look of 'stock' Android has evolved quite a bit. What started off life as a BlackBerry/Windows Mobile competitor has morphed into a touch-centric operating system and has slowly but surely come into its own.
The difficulty with Android is that the stock Google experience is not what most Android users use. Most use some sort of UI skin, be it Samsung's TouchWiz, HTC's Sense or Xioami's MiUI.
That's a shame because Lollipop is truly a beautiful release. The transparencies, layers, shadows and textures are all exquisitely designed. The good news is that Google is working with its partners at the big OEMs to bring aspects of Material Design to those skins, too. How well that will translate is unclear, but at least Google is thinking about it.
Getting everyone on the same page is important because it really does feel as if Android has a clear user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) vision for the first time in its history. More importantly, the design spreads across the tablet, phone, TV and wearable worlds with ease. You can see this in the layers and textures that cards have in Android Wear. It's also evident in the colour scheme and overall design language of Android TV. Everything finally looks like it belongs to the same family of products.
This is something that Apple has done well for quite some time. Moreover, with OS X Yosemite, Apple has taken the best parts of its UI and UX goals and merged them across ecosystems in a way that doesn't feel bolted on or awkward (I'm looking at you, Windows 8.1).
iOS 8 itself is a minor refinement of the massive changes Apple introduced with iOS 7. Apple has taken the last year to push those changes to its other products, most notably OS X Yosemite. The brief looks we've had at the upcoming Apple Watch show that those design cues are present on Apple's wearable too.
Visually, both operating systems share some similar language and colour palettes, but there are still profound differences.
These changes are primarily in how to navigate within apps and getting back to the home screen. Apple famously has its home button, and navigation takes place within apps, with most navigation typically existing at the bottom of the screen.
On Android Lollipop, the soft menu bar has been updated and it offers a semi-omnipresent way to get in and out of apps - though navigation within applications themselves can still differ depending on what is happening.
The bigger difference, however, is the experience with using both operating systems.
When I look at iOS - and the Apple ecosystem as a whole - the mantra that comes through is that Apple wants to help users do their tasks as simply as possible, with little cruft or fuss.
We see this most notably in some of iOS 8's best features - including its new Today Screen widgets, as well as Continuity and Handoff. With a swipe down, I can access weather, stocks or perform a calculation. It's easy for me to hand off my email or website to a Mac or iPad while on my phone.
The biggest shift that has happened with iOS in the last twelve months is that I find myself working faster and getting more done more seamlessly.
With Android, the experience is a bit different. Getting things done quickly is part of the routine, but the experience that comes through most with Lollipop is that Google wants to anticipate your next move and what you want before you even know that you want it.
With that, Google Now ends up playing a really large role in the Android experience. Not only does Android now always listen for the key words 'OK, Google' (Apple has a similar trip for Siri when an iOS device is plugged in, using 'Hey Siri' instead) to be ready to search for queries or perform small tasks, Google Now has taken over the lock screen and notification area in a way that feels designed to be a larger part of the experience.
This really goes hand-in-hand with the Google Now experience on Android Wear. There are also signs of this kind of contextual-based precognition in Android TV.
On both wearables and in the living room, Google Now isn't quite right. It works, but it still feels slightly disconnected from the overall experience and both limited and too broad at the same time. But in spite of my personal qualms with some of the data aspects of Google Now, I won't lie - the information can be disconcertingly accurate.
The Google Now experience has improved under Android Lollipop to the point that it really does feel like the under-represented center piece of the entire OS.
In contrast, Apple has given Siri a much more designated role as a background player that comes up primarily on command. Yes, Apple uses some of Siri's technologies to show appointments, travel time and weather information in the Today screen, but the company is much more cautious about serendipitous predictive analysis.
The fundamental goal for both companies is to make life easier, but it's interesting to look at the different approach each takes to get us there.
With Android Lollipop, Google has made significant changes to its UI - very much the same way Apple flipped the switch with iOS 7.
Because Apple is well, Apple, it can count on users and developers to adopt its new products and paradigms more quickly. iOS 8 adoption might not be as strong as prior versions, but developers and users can be relied upon to get with the program.
With Android, it's harder. Google has started to exert more control over its UI, UX and features over the last year, but the company still has to deal with the fact that most users aren't going to be living in its finely crafted experience.
The question will be how other apps will adopt the new UI guidelines, but perhaps more importantly, how they will integrate or assume some of the precognition stuff.
Beyond that, it will be interesting to see how each OS is able to shift into the next phase of wearable computing. Android is already on smartwatches with Android Wear, but that's really just baby steps.
Looking back at how much both ecosystems have changed in 12 months, it makes the next 12 that much more exciting.
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