How iOS Stays Ahead of Android from Behind It
Why so much of Android’s innovation is lost in its tainted reputation.
Before I owned an iPhone, I owned at least 6 Android devices, starting with T-Mobile’s MyTouch 3G and G1 models, eventually giving up on Android devices some years later when the Galaxy Note 6 failed to hold or impress me, forcing me to switch back to the iPhone 5 I had sold two days prior. When I owned Android devices I was a fanboy in a true sense. I would argue specs, features, and get into battles about which phones and platforms were better. In all, the only people who wanted to have those conversations with me were tech/phone nerds. They, we, do not make up most of the market. The people who do, however, often have far more than just raw specs and gimmicky features in mind when purchasing their next device.
How Android Got Tainted
When the Android platform first came out, I was excited. The platform was, and still is, open-sourced, meaning everyone, anyone can contribute with a brilliant idea that would benefit everyone. It would be a technological Utopia, in theory. This made Android, as a platform, sort of like a community pool. Anyone could come in and help everyone else have a great time. But like anything else open to the public, you have to expect the good with the bad.
In Android’s attempts to make their platform inclusive, they ran into the exact problem Apple never aspired to even attempt to have — the pool becomes very dirty, very quickly, when no one is actually enforcing the cleanup.
What was intended to be a contributors haven turned out to be a playground littered with malicious content in apps that, due to a lack of hardcore gatekeepers, went largely unchecked or undetected until someone invested in the community did some digging. This was mostly an internal community issue, one that people outside of the pool probably weren’t aware of early on. It gave the impression that there would be time to clean up and change things around.
Outside of the pool, however, Android lent itself to a similar ideal of inclusion, one which ultimately led to the poor perception the platform still deals with today — fragmentation.
Android, again, wanted to be all-inclusive. Unlike Apple — which traditionally put their latest iOS software on one device at a time each year, later updating all devices that could handle the new features at the owner's approval — Android put their software on countless devices from different manufacturers at varying device qualities. The idea behind this, seemingly, was to win by sheer numbers: make the software visible and accessible to all, and beat Apple at its own game of prestige and exclusion of those who couldn’t afford their devices by fighting the big fruit with inclusion and lower price points.
This quickly backfired on Android for one simple reason: it was near impossible to define a consistent Android experience across their user-base.
For Android nerds and enthusiasts this was not true. We knew that there was a pure Android experience we could find consistency with and it was pretty sweet as long as your battery could stay alive long enough for you to enjoy it. It was vanilla Android and it was ready to be experienced by anyone who purchased a Google device like the G1, G2, or, for more recent devices, the Google Pixel 2 and 2XL. We knew where to find this experience and we knew where to not go looking for it.
Most people, on the other hand, didn’t know and didn’t care, especially in the early days of Android. The reasoning for that is because much of the market (I’m talking US market here) seemingly didn’t know what kind of experience to expect from one Android device to another, making hundreds they’d be spending seem more like a gamble than a purchase.
Two people could buy two high-end devices — one directly from Google and one from Samsung, with the Google one being a year older than the Samsung model — and find out that the older of the two phones would receive all of Android’s newer features before the newer device, assuming the newer device would even get the damn update.
The Android platform was offered on some of the cheapest phones available, while also on its own high-end devices. So, two people could buy Android-running devices at the same time, one high-end and the other the cheapest in the market, and have two completely different experiences.
Common sense would inform some not to expect the same performance, but common sense is far less common than its name insinuates and Google/Android did not factor that into how it plays out in the market.
While the person who bought the high-end device might be happy with their experience in silence or within the hardcore Android fan community forums, the general public was hearing more from the person who bought the cheaper device and blamed the poor performance not on the actual manufacturer of the cheap device, not on themselves for expecting top-shelf performance from bottom-shelf devices, but instead they blamed their devices’ short-comings on the Android platform.
It didn’t matter that this wasn’t logical. It didn’t matter that consumers had options and chose low-grade. It did, however, matter that the name, Android, was being dragged through the mud as a poor performer by so many people.
While we, the nerds, were going on and on about the specs and capabilities of our very niche devices, which made us feel super cool, the people we were trying to impress were too busy being happy with their iPhone’s in general and also laughing at us because, although we had the unicorn devices of Android, most of the other users had mid- to low-level Android devices and were complaining via the most important marketing tool — word of mouth.
Even when they weren’t, as Instagram became a thing and people started posting more photos of themselves and the selfie became more prominent, it became obvious to iPhone users, purely from a visual standpoint, that Android devices didn’t even have good cameras in comparison to the iPhone and Blackberry models that were out at the time. Even Android’s higher-end devices had a visible quality difference when Snapchat first arrived for the platform, although I think some of that has to do with Snapchat not optimizing the app itself for Android.
Android’s attempt to be for everyone was making potential users think, well, not for me. Strapping the brand to such low-quality devices helped people define the Android experience as one that was cheap and often broken. This would go on to haunt the Google-driven mobile platform for years and, arguably, still haunts them now.
If it weren’t for Samsung devices being so visually stunning when their displays are on and their overlay, which simplifies some of Android’s processes and improves others, I’d question if they’d still be doing this well.
Unlike on iOS, where you know what to expect across devices, Android’s fragmentation often leads potential customers to wonder exactly which Android experience they would get, regardless of if their device choice was based on their budget. This helped make the more expensive iPhone seem like more of an investment in expected quality and consistency than anything else.
Android Did That First and Nobody Cares
The day before writing this piece, Apple released news of their new devices as they do every September. I caught some of the new iPhone features at a glance but one was being talked about on my timeline more than anything — the ability to change the depth of field in photos after they are taken.
This is a really cool idea, especially as a photographer who gets pissed if I mess up the depth of field in a moment I will never be able to replicate.
Under the tweet about this new feature were Android users saying that certain Samsung Galaxy devices had already had this feature. They were also saying that the dual SIM capability being added to new iPhone models had already been done on Android devices and that Apple was late to the party.
I shook my head as I read through person after person stating these things. That used to be me wasting my time telling people shit. They were right. These things did exist on the Android platform first and yet, here Apple is passing it off like something new to the game. How dare they?! It’s angering for some people and I get it.
I also get that nobody cares if you know Android did it first because of the perception — and sometimes the reality — that although Android did it first, it was probably in poor quality because that’s their thing.
For all intents and purposes, Apple did it better. For some, once Apple does it, it’s truly being done properly for the first time. This is where the magic actually begins. This is where Android’s part in the innovation gets lost in the smoke.
The fact of this innovation doesn’t matter to the market. The perception of it being done in quality does.
Android Did That First and Apple Likes That
I don’t have anything bona fide to back this, but it seems like Apple intentionally lets Android bring things out first. I think they do this simply to see where the innovation is lacking and how the market reacts to it.
While Android is trying to lead the pack, Apple hangs back and lets them do all of the testing for them. Once they spend time tinkering and making it better after likely being shat on for messing it up — an inevitability in technology, but one that haunts Android because of things already mentioned — then Apple can swoop in, start at where Android adjusted to and, with fresher legs, go one step, only one, further, and voila: Apple innovation!
So while you’re griping about Apple not actually creating things, keep in mind that they might not even aspire to.
Maybe Apple functions on the old Brooklyn, New York stick-up motto: Y'all make it, we’ll take it. You do all the work and we’ll soak up the rewards.
Again, with the eyes on them for quality, people are more interested in the first quality x-factor than the x-factor itself.
Elitism is Bad but It Feels So Good
I don’t think anyone would argue against Apple being an elitist brand. They know they are, they know you know they are, and they like it like that.
When we think of elitists we often think about the people who control money and screw everyone in the process.
The conceptualizing elitism as stepping on the backs of others, I believe, is what led Android to take an all-inclusive footing in their strategy.
The market chases elitism, though. It’s why people buy $500 pants like they’re bulletproof to keep your ding-dong or hoo-hoo safe. It’s why we all aspire to look like we are living our best lives on Instagram. It’s why companies pay influencers to promote their product. If we share that status symbol, we, too, are elite, right?
Although Apple may not portray itself as a brand that looks to make its users step on the backs of others, they themselves do so in the production of their products.
They know this is wrong, fundamentally. Even more so, they know we’ll probably care more about the tech-forward people we seem like when someone sees us with one of their top devices. People will perceive us to be financially stabler, cooler, and more technologically advanced. This is just a part of capitalism and Apple is not the only offender.
The feeling of being better versions of ourselves when we buy new Apple products is what drives Apple to continue its stride without feeling the brunt of an angry market. The elitism is hidden under the guise of not only product quality but also perceived improvement of quality of life with said products.
The market, itself, craves this feeling as a part of the capitalist machine we live in. This is me, you, your aunt with the big hair, your cousin who chews with his mouth open, etc. Apple knows this, as many other companies do. You may write think-pieces on their practices but they know they can still hold us because while we admonish their practices in writing, in practice, we all want to be seen as just that much cooler.
Apple Doesn’t Sell Products with Specs
While Android flagship devices were supposed to out-spec the competition in hopes to impress you, and Samsung remains busy trying to make you feel different about your iPhone in comparison to their handsets, Apple knew there is one really easy way (if you do it right) to sell products. It wouldn’t be done by shoving specs down your throat. It wouldn’t be done by trying to tarnish the names of competitors.
Apple knew that the best way to get you to buy their products was to sell you the thing you care about more than anything — you!
Sure, they toss in specs here and there for the nerds, bloggers, vloggers, and reviewers. But for the masses, they sold them themselves.
And they don’t sell you just any you. No. They sell you a version of you that somehow exists in bliss in a stressful world. The new you would be more efficient, happier, healthier, more glamorous, less stressed, and seamlessly integrated across devices. The new you is somewhere in the very near future looking back at the present you screaming,
“Do it! You don’t even use your thumb anymore. Just unlock it with your face, fam!”
The best part is that the new you — the one who is happier, cooler, less stressed, and more efficient — is only one pre-order, one card swipe, or one button-push away.
You don’t want to lose out on that version of you over some money. Do you? Of course, you don’t. Now push the button. You know you want to.