Apple won the battle – will Android or Amazon win the war?


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Phones are becoming the hubs of our entire lives. / © Google

A phone isn’t a phone, and that’s important

Your phone isn’t a phone. It’s a computer with a phone app inside it – and for more and more of us, it’s become our primary computing device. Sure, you’ll do stuff on your PC, or on your Mac, or on your tablet. But you do much more on your phone. It’s your communications hub, your personal assistant, your sat-nav, your camera, your pretty much everything. And as we move into the internet of things era, with everything connecting to everything else and your phone at the centre, it’s going to become even more important.

If you’ll pardon the dreadful LOTR pun, your phone will be the one ring to rule them all.

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The battle is on to control smart homes and the Internet of Things. / © Google

Meet the new war, a bit more important than the old war

The ongoing move to mobile devices is causing another shift in technology: instead of running stand-alone software, we’re using apps – and those apps are usually connecting to services rather than running solo. We stream our TV and our music, play massively multiplayer online games and communicate via WhatsApp or WeChat.

Many of those services don’t care what platform they’re on. Netflix is Netflix whether you’re watching it on an Android tablet, an iPhone or a Smart TV. WhatsApp is identical across platforms. YouTube is YouTube on the web, on a tablet or on a connected Blu-Ray player.

A $200 Android can deliver the same services as a $749 iPhone

When a $200 Android can deliver the same services as a $749 iPhone, you need to have something special to offer if you’re going to keep shifting expensive hardware. And when it comes to services, Apple doesn’t. Its Messages platform is Apple-only, dwarfed by the likes of WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Its Maps are still a bit flaky. The current iteration of Apple Music, a hastily rejigged Beats Music, is hopeless.

The Apple TV suffers from a woeful lack of non-US content and what seems to be a permanently delayed streaming TV service. Siri, Apple’s Google Now, doesn’t work with many things and is often huffy. And HomeKit, Apple’s service for the smart home, has been around for two years without many people noticing. Where Google and Amazon have more than 100 home automation partnerships in place, Apple has fewer than 20.

Apple’s solution? Be more like Android.

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A lot of iOS 10 will look familiar to Android users. A lot of Android N will look familiar to iOS users. / © AndroidPIT

If you can’t beat ‘em, copy ‘em

If you tuned into Apple’s WWDC event this week you’ll have felt a major sense of deja vu. iOS is getting a more interactive lock screen, just like Android; a better photos app that resembles something beginning with “G” and ending with “oogle Photos”; a version of Apple Music that works pretty much like Google Play Music; some distinctly Google Now-ish features for finding points of interest; Raise to Wake, which Android has had since 1972… you get the idea. And that’s fine, because there’s a long tradition of iOS and Android copying each other’s best ideas. But that’s not the most interesting thing.

The most interesting thing is what Apple’s doing to Maps, Messages and Siri. It’s opening them up.

By opening Maps, Messages and Siri to third party developers, publishing APIs they can use to create their own apps and extensions, Apple is losing and winning at the same time. It’s a win because the more things that use a platform, the more attractive that platform becomes – but it’s a loss because Apple is losing some of its control. Siri currently connects to a carefully selected collection of internet services and Apple’s own apps. From later this year, it’ll be able to connect to anything. You can also be sure that whatever apps end up building on the Messages platform, they’ll be very un-Apple.

It’s a bold move for a company known for its control freakery, but it’s a necessary one: Google Now on Tap, Amazon’s Alexa, Google Maps and Nest are kicking Apple’s backside in personal digital assistants, useful map data and home automation. By keeping its platforms closed Apple hasn’t been able to benefit from the same enormous amounts of data that Google or Amazon have, and that means it’s fallen behind and will keep falling further if it doesn’t do something dramatic. And dramatic is a pretty good description of Apple’s new, more open approach.

Will it work?

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Siri seemed impressive, but Google Now actually delivers on its promises. / © ANDROIDPIT

Predictions are hard. Particularly ones about the future

Apple doesn’t need to win the war to be successful: as long as it keep selling its phones it’ll be happy. The days of rocket-powered iPhone growth are gone, but as markets become saturated Apple knows that if it can make its services more appealing it can make big bucks from those too. And don’t forget Apple Pay, the one service Apple has really done well compared to Google: later this year it hits the web and is likely to do everything the ill-fated Google Wallet didn’t.

Google isn’t really in the hardware business: it just wants everybody to use its stuff so it can harvest all that data and feed it to its learning machines while targeting ads. So far that approach has been extraordinarily successful, and there’s no reason why it won’t stay that way as the smart home and internet of things add yet more data collection points to Google’s empire.

The days of rocket-powered iPhone growth are gone

But Google’s main rival might not be Apple any more. More and more it looks like it’s Amazon. Amazon’s Prime already has music and movies, with a Spotify-style streaming music service imminent. Amazon has a really decent home automation hub in the shape of Echo, which already interacts with 1,200 different apps. Amazon provides the infrastructure for some of the web’s biggest properties, and analyses almost as much data as Google does. And in Jeff Bezos, Amazon has a man who wants complete world domination and has the money to help him achieve it.

What do you think? Is Google set to dominate the next wave of computing, with Amazon as its bitter rival? Or does Apple’s huge cash mountain and marketing machine give it an excellent chance of retaking its lead? Let us know in the comments.

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