When Apple announced that its oft-maligned Maps app is integrating public transit directions, the Internet rejoiced. Finally, iOS users would be able to figure out how to use their local subway or bus systems. This was hailed as a transcendent moment in Apple history.
Except…it really isn’t.
Once upon a time, Apple relied on Google Maps. That service has had public transit baked in since 2007. But Apple ditched it a few years ago in a bid to encourage use of its own apps rather than its arch-competitors’. So Apple Maps was born.
Unfortunately, the Maps debacle seems to be part of a recent trend for Apple. Gone is the innovative spirit that turned the computer into a usable consumer device, made MP3 players ubiqituous, and sparked the smartphone revolution.
Now, Cupertino seems more focused on catching up than sprinting ahead.
To be sure, plenty of companies have copied Apple too. Google’s Material Design is aesthetically distinct, but fits within the same simpler-is-better ethos introduced by Apple’s flatter iOS revamp a few years ago. And Android has taken a lot of cues from iOS, from its basic app drawer and “dock” to more recent permission settings.
Timothy B. Lee, writing at Forbes way back in 2011 during the Samsung-Apple patent wars, made a good argument for why Google copying Apple’s features (or vice versa) was desirable:
Do you want to live in a world where only Apple is allowed to make phones with pinch-to-zoom capability (and dozens of other features) until 2027?
But, given Apple’s real innovations over the years and the company’s massive mobile market (and attention) share, it was hard to watch WWDC this week and see any of Apple’s touted new features as groundbreaking. The new Proactive Assistant, for example, might mean a more helpful Siri, but Google Now has been doing that for a while now, and quite well.
As Ars Technica points out in its excellent report on just how much Apple borrowed in its latest announcements, “everyone copies everyone else in the smartphone business” but Cupertino seems especially on the defensive in recent years.
The iPhone Revolution
Apple didn’t invent the mouse, the graphical user interface, or MP3 players. But it certainly improved them better and made those technologies consumer-friendly.
So it was with smartphones. Palm PDAs had a long run as the dominant device in the handheld, touchscreen personal assistant category, and Blackberry made a name for itself with mobile email. But it was the 2007 iPhone that pushed these technologies into the mass market. What was “new” and innovative was how they were packaged together and made easier to use.
But in many ways the iPhone was the last big innovation from Apple. It took what had been a niche technology and re-crafted it as an object of mass market desire. The “God phone” was a mini-computer that could seemingly do anything. It could change the world.
And it did.
The iPhone was a smashing success. It still is. Last year’s iPhone 6 debuted to long lines and better-than-expected sales.
And for the first few years, it was at the cutting edge of the smartphone market. The first Android phone, HTC’s Dream, was released in 2008 to mixed reviews. It just didn’t match the iPhone’s ease of use, feature set, or street appeal. For a long while, Android was the clunky Windows to iOS’s smoother, “it-just-works” experience.
The iPhone truly was a revolutionary shift in how people interact with technology.
But along the way, while Apple was perfecting its coveted, aesthetically pleasing mobile appliances, Android was experiencing its own evolution.
Google Strikes Back
Apple’s forward-thinking has mostly been focused on iPads and Watches in the years since the iPhone established dominance in the mobile market.
But the iPad is more an evolutionary step than any kind of technological leap. The smartphone super-sized. Not computers reinvented as desktop consumer devices or reimagined as handheld companions.
And the Apple Watch, released this year to the usual fanfare, has been met with skepticism rather than fawning.
Google, meanwhile, has been more concerned with pushing its mobile operating system forward. That’s more about keeping its core search business strong than competing with Apple, and nowhere is this more evident than the amazingly useful For Google, bigger screen sizes (long an Android hallmark) mean better mobile ad sales. And keeping people tightly integrated in the Google cloud and searching everything from the Web to apps means the company has more information about users to maximize those ad dollars. If Google can make apps obsolete altogether, all the better.
Why Apple Copies
That strategy means Google needs to do what its competitors (namely Apple) are trying to do: keep you, the end user, in its ecosystem of products on an almost constant basis. Google has an advantage because of its search dominance. Apple just has its widely-used devices. By maximizing the software advantage, which is already cross-platform, Google can ensure you rarely have reason to use, say, Apple Maps.
But Apple has been so focused on the look and feel of its products, from gold MacBooks to a flat iOS, and introducing new items to covet like the Apple Watch, that its software advantage has fallen by the wayside. Google’s apps are slicker, easier to use, and altogether more useful. Apple Maps’ lackluster quality might have been ignored if it was first to the game. But Google had perfected that game years before.
What was once a common refrain of Android fanboys – that iOS additions were just Apple playing catch up – has become such a fact of life that the most recent WWDC seemed more like a litany of Apple takes on old Android features than anything uniquely Apple.
Apple remains a vertically-integrated hardware company that wants consumers to buy only its products. But there’s been so much of a focus on the form of those products that function has taken a backseat. Android, a much more differentiated platform than Apple’s iOS, has an advantage in app downloads as well as hardware sales. Those lagging Apple alternatives can easily be replaced by a third-party alternatives in the app store, including Google’s. Suddenly, the company’s long-running commitment to a top-to-bottom, uniquely Apple experience seems under threat in a way it previously wasn’t.
And that ultimately explains why Apple seems to be in catch-up mode of late. This fall it will even release an app to ease the Android-to-iOS jump it hopes more people take as well as an Apple Music app (itself a riff on Spotify and Google Play Music) for Android. Those moves seem un-Apple-like, but are two more examples of the company feeling threatened by a new status quo. It may feel secure in its more unified iOS hardware dominance, but if nobody is using Apple apps on those devices they may just turn into very pretty carrying cases for Google software.