I bought an iPhone as soon as Steve Jobs started selling them in June, 2007. It was obviously the phone of the future. I sent my first one back because it struggled to manage email or calendars hosted by Exchange — something my Blackberry did effortlessly. Within three months however, the iPhone was ready for prime time and I was hooked. I have owned nearly every iPhone since and naturally grew to regard Android phones as inferior wannabes.
The iPhone is the single most revolutionary piece of technology that I have ever owned. My 6+ was my constant companion: beautiful, fast, and long-lasting. Over the years iPhones have improved and I have grown accustomed to their idiosyncrasies. Until recently, I thought it was a stable marriage.
So it surprised me a bit that yesterday, I broke things off. A few days with Google’s new Nexus 6p made me realize how much I was missing. The Nexus 6p has fewer irritating habits and is noticeably smarter and more considerate than my iPhone ever was. It may not strut a polished Apple body, but the camera, screen, and battery are solid and practical. The hardware has no shortcomings that I can find. With the Nexus 6p, Android has surpassed the iPhone because Google’s latest mobile OS, dubbed M or Marshmallow is a smarter operating system. So I lobotomized my trusty companion and listed it for sale on eBay.
In many respects there isn’t much to choose between them. Apple and Google smartphones are similar: both sport outstanding cameras. Both take full advantage of advanced battery extension technology, predictive features including apps you are likely to use next, fast and accurate fingerprint readers, and an extensive permissions architecture. The Nexus uses a USB Type C rapid charging technology, but Apple is introducing it as well.Apple has ForceTouch, which Google or others might copy if it turns out to matter. The companies copy each other’s UI swipes, reveals, and taps; at the moment, Android’s is newer and the UI is quite nice. For example, you can shut the phone ringer off for two hours while you watch a movie and it will come back on by itself (I could never do that on an iPhone, but Apple could decide to fix that tomorrow). Things like location based security mean that if you are home, the device stops nagging you for PINs, etc. Again, replicable by Apple. The Android OLED screen is more pixel dense and works outdoors — but you have to master a few tricks to keep the battery from draining too quickly.
Other differences reflect Apple’s control preferences, some related to security. Apple severely limits the ability of non-Apple apps to access third party apps. Android doesn’t, so apps like Dashlane or LastPass can unlock applications as well as websites — a huge advantage if you hate logging in all the time. Similarly, app linking means that if you click on a New York Times link, you go to the app, not to a web page that requires a login. Android has always had a user accessible file system, which makes some operations vastly easier. Apple relies on iTunes for access to media files — and Apple has tortured and twisted iTunes for so many years that it now leaves all but the most rabid fanboys cursing their screens.
More notoriously, Apple does not let you control your default apps, so you either jailbreak your phone or live with Apple’s choices. On an iPhone if you click on a date, iOS takes you to Apple Calendar even if you dislike the app. Click a link and hello Safari — even if Firefox is your browser of choice. Click an address, it’s Apple Maps, which may not be as horrible as it used to be, but is still not nearly as complete as Google Maps or Waze. If you want to play a game, you are part of Game Center, like it or not. Apple is very unlikely to fix these things because of their commitment to a controlled user experience that drives you to their apps. Android tries to accomplish the same thing by making the apps work together so well that you don’t want to leave the Google ecosystem — but you can leave any app if you want to.
In Nudge, a classic book on choice architecture, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler make the case for “libertarian paternalism” — a philosophy of giving users a nudge towards healthy choices but permitting any choice that does not harm others. Set the fresh fruit at eye level, but make the chocolate pie available for those willing to reach for it. Apple ignores the libertarian part of this principle — it is all paternalism. You cannot even delete the Apple native applications from your device (something Apple seems likely to change, if only because there are now so many native apps). Marshmallow is just as paternalistic — but at the end of the day, you can gorge on sweets if you are determined to do so.
This is not a small matter, as is obvious the minute you try Google Now on Tap. GNT is TNT — a G2014/04/on-a-city-bike-all-traffic-lights-are-yellow.htmloogle technology so powerful that the Wall Street Journal called it Google’s “nuclear weapon” in its fight with Apple. Google Now on Tap leverages Google’s massive advantage over Apple in data and predictive technologies. It means that in almost any situation, Android gets you more useful data faster and more accurately. As the Journal concluded, “it’s hard to imagine how Apple could match it.”
The results can be shocking. Google tries to figure out what you need to know or do next: create appointments, reserve a restaurant table (if eating out was in the email), or find an example from an artist if they were mentioned. It is highly addicting. Reading about Donald Trump? Tap the home key and Google offers up his Twitter account, details on his kids, or forthcoming campaign appearances in your area. (Not saying that you were following the Donald — but you get the idea.) Google Now Tap also works in many third party apps.
Can Apple match this? Nope — they deliberately don’t gather much data about you, so they don’t know you very well This badly limits Apple’s capabilities. Google, on the other hand, gathers everything and knows you incredibly well. Apple knows this and has suddenly embraced privacy and ad-blocking — in order to make a competitive weakness into a public virtue. (For the record, I commend their efforts — and I am happy with the vastly more extensive privacy controls that Android offers).
But iOS users can simply download Google apps: Maps, Mail, Calendar, Photos, and Google Search (like Now) and get the same advantage, right? Not really. When the operating system can integrate these apps and apply predictive analytics across them, magic happens. This is one reason why Google’s version of Siri (which needs a better name than “OK Google”) is so vastly smarter and more accurate than Siri is: Google simply knows you better. The second reason is that the OS understands you better, mainly because for the past decade, Google has hired more PhD linguists than any organization on the planet.
Will I miss Apple? A bit. I was sad to imagine saying goodbye to Apple Music, which for my money is simply brilliant. So I was stunned when Apple announced that they have made Apple Music available on Android. (In fairness Google Play also seems quite good — I have not tested it and now don’t plan to).
In short, I dumped my iPhone for the same reason guys dump and get dumped every day. I discovered a solution that is both smarter and less irritating. If you put both phones side by side, I am confident that you would make the same decision.