Debugger

Apple Ripped Off Android — and Made Its Features Much Better

‘The list of reasons to stay with Android has grown ever shorter’

Photo: Apple

When Apple unveiled iOS 14 at WWDC, its yearly developer conference, the company showed off some big features coming to the iPhone later this year — like widgets that allow users to bring content from inside their apps to the home screen, and picture-in-picture video. Android fans were quick to point out something obvious: Many of the features announced at WWDC have been available for years on their devices, and Apple is playing catch-up.

They aren’t wrong. Widgets have been a part of Android since its inception, allowing users to put weather, clocks, and whatever else they like on their home screens, rather than a sea of app icons. Similarly, picture-in-picture video debuted as a part of Android 8, released in 2017.

While it’s true that many of iOS’ features debut on Android in some form first, those same critics are missing a key point: Apple may be late to the game, but they’ll likely do a much better job of integrating these features into their products than the competition. I switched to Android a few years ago when Google released the Pixel because I was tired of waiting for some of these features, but after this year’s event, I find myself envious of the level of polish in Apple’s latest update.

Google often releases features years ahead of the competition, but the company commonly fails to encourage developers to use it, or worse, doesn’t create a set of rules or expectations around how it should be used by developers. Take widgets, for instance. Android has had widgets since its inception, but they’re a chaotic mess: There’s no enforcement of any design aesthetic or simple rules, making for an inconsistent experience. Even different widgets made by different Google product teams don’t match up in size or layout, or use a consistent style.

While Google has made leaps and bounds in making its visual design more consistent since the debut of the material design language, its hands-off approach hasn’t translated to any improvements for widgets. Widgets on Android might be functional, and provide flexibility to surface information, but they’re sloppy.

Widgets on iOS 14, by contrast, are predictable and consistent, complementing the grid of app icons rather than allowing a freeform place for developers to dump information into. Apple provides a set of only three sizing options (small, medium, or large) and suggests developers build dynamic, “delightful” widgets that do more than just open an app. Providing these limitations means that the experience will be consistent, regardless of who develops them.

Another new feature, App Clips, allows developers to create NFC-enabled QR codes that launch tiny slices of an app to get a task done, like unlocking a Bird scooter or buying a coffee at Starbucks, then offer to download the full app after the task is completed. It promises to be a game-changer in a world where it’s difficult to convince people to download new apps. It may very well remove the majority of the friction and allow iPhone users to decide whether or not they want to commit to the full app later.

Google beat Apple to this feature too with Instant Apps in 2016, which leveraged web technology to allow users to instantly use an app without installing it, but stopped short of offering quick ways to launch them in the physical world. Despite existing since 2016, few developers seem to have used them and it’s still rare to stumble across one in the wild.

Every year, it’s the same story after WWDC: Apple has copied Android or ripped off one of its features. There are countless examples of this beyond the ones I’ve given here, from NFC payments to wireless charging and keyboard swiping, but what stuck with me this year is how much better Apple’s version is, despite arriving later.

While it’s easy for fans of other platforms to point fun at the fact that Apple launches features years after Android does — because it’s objectively true — but the difference is that the company often takes the time to get the details right, and this time around it really shows. Google’s loose approach to consistency and refinement is starting to leave it behind, even when it’s the first out of the gate.

I’m not ready to switch away from the Google Pixel to an iPhone yet, but this year, the list of reasons to stay with Android has grown ever shorter — and it’s not because Apple showed off anything revolutionary or original, but it’s because the company did it better, despite being last.

Developer, accidental wordsmith. OneZero columnist trying to debug the why behind tech news. Follow: https://twitter.com/ow Blog: https://char.gd

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