Apple's operating systems is steadily losing the game to Google's Android

Last month, Apple fired Scott Forstall for reportedly refusing to publicly apologise for bungling Maps on the Apple iPhone. It was Forstall's team that had launched iOS in 2007, the operating system that powers the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch, which make up the most popular devices Apple has ever made. He was known internally as mini-Steve indicating similarities between him and his former boss and late Apple CEO and co-founder, Steve Jobs. Forstall's firing is also an indication that things aren't going as well for Apple in the software department as they were in the first four years after launching iOS in 2007.

In 2011, Apple introduced Siri, an artificial intelligence-based personal assistant on the iPhone that would intelligently answer the owner's questions as well as open apps, set alarms and meetings, search the Web among other things. Siri was a ground-breaking feature - there were voice recognition software available for smartphones but none that matched its artificial intelligence powered by Wolfram Alpha. However, Siri did not become a killer feature that its makers (Forstall & Co) thought it was destined to become. It was slow, could not follow many accents and did not work in all countries. Even after a year of its introduction, Siri carries a beta tag indicating it is still not ready for primetime, a rarity for an Apple product or service.

Inspired by Siri, Google's engineers started working on their own service, which the software giant introduced earlier this year. Called Google Now, it not only does most of the tasks that Siri claimed it could do but also predicts what information the user will require next and brings it up even before the user asks for it. The key difference between Siri and Google Now is that Google's service actually works. It works in most countries and works well even with Indian accents.

Once panned for its unintuitive and non-uniform user interface, Android has evolved fast over the last year. The operating system finally looks like a cohesive package and Google is effectively bundling its online services as features to differentiate itself from competition, especially Apple. Take for instance voice dictation, which now works even in offline mode across the operating system.

While Android became the fastest growing smartphone platform globally, it always lacked the polish of iOS. Apple, on the other hand, had a well thought out operating system but it lacked popular features like live widgets and getting more information on the phone's lock screen, something that Android provided. Both platforms could learn from each other and evolve. But now it is clear that Android has evolved much faster than iOS. That's not to say that iOS hasn't evolved at all, but recent feature additions have either not been up to the mark or aren't exactly the features that consumers craved for.

Siri was a good start but since then has not really improved and consumers now have a better alternative on Android. In the most recent iOS update, Apple let go of Google Maps to introduce its own maps software. In typical Apple fashion, Forstall proclaimed it to be the best maps software available on a smartphone, while introducing the new Apple Maps. However, when these maps were released to users, they found streets marked over rivers, entire cities disappearing and a flawed navigation system. Calling these maps horrendous would be an understatement. Google, meanwhile, rolled out turn-by-turn voice navigation with real-time traffic information in a bunch of countries including India.

In iOS 6 Apple introduced ‘Passbook’, a feature that would hold the user's membership/loyalty cards, airline boarding passes, movie tickets etc that would pop up on the phone’s display as soon as the user reached a relevant place like airports, movie theatres. However, it relied heavily on third parties to develop apps for Passbook. It is for the first time that we have seen developers ignore a new iOS feature with very few companies creating apps for Passbook. Its cloud storage service, iCloud, isn't perfect and many users find it confusing.

Old ties

What's still working for Apple is an installed base of loyal users who are heavily invested in Apple’s ecosystem. While it is floundering on the software side, Apple’s hardware design is still unbeatable that makes iDevices the most sought after gadgets. However, Apple cannot rely on that for long as Google and others are fast catching up. The so far mythical iPhone killer might be just around the corner and this time it might not be a new iPhone that kills the older one.

(The author is executive editor of www.bgr.in)

(This article was published on November 29, 2012)
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