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Apple’s iOS 5 announcement Monday was not the most monumental thing unveiled by Steve Jobs and Co. at WWDC 2011, but it proved one ancient business adage true: strong competition rewards us all. By addressing some of the longest-held complaints about iOS that not so coincidentally were strengths of Google’s Android software, Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) proved once again that the best way to get a company to acknowledge its faults is to have a competitor nipping at its heels.
You can almost hear the Android fanboys cueing up the “Cupertino, start your photocopiers” taunts following Apple’s iOS 5 unveiling, in reference to a famous Apple joke from years ago mocking Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) for liberally borrowing design ideas for Windows Vista from Mac OS X. Given the great deal of similarity between Android and the iPhone, introduced more than a year before the first Android phones hit the market, they’d probably be best to heed the old warning about glass houses and throwing stones. But for the moment, Google can take a little credit for forcing Apple to adapt two key Android concepts: unobtrusive notifications and a Web-based configuration process.
The loudest cheers of the morning from the assembled software developers were reserved for those two features, their absence long the bane of iOS. Apple’s current push-notifications system forces you to stop whatever you’re doing to acknowledge the notification and make a decision about whether or not to act on it, and multiple notifications coming in at the same time can be a nightmare.
The new system that will arrive later this year with iOS 5 is very Android-like, with a notifications bar at the top of the phone or tablet’s screen that will collect incoming alerts and allow you to deal with them as you see fit. It even mimics the way Android users swipe down the screen to expose the different types of notifications received.
Likewise, Apple can finally talk about the “post-PC era” with a clear conscience now that it has found a way to allow iOS users to set up their new devices without having to connect to iTunes running on a PC or Mac. It will also allow users to receive software updates over the air, which is a theoretical advantage of Android but in practice is actually an issue because Android partners often dictate when those over-the-air updates will be released, not Google (NSDQ: GOOG). Apple didn’t get into details, but it seemed that its over-the-air updates will not be subject to review by AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon, or other carrier partners: they’ll just go out when Apple makes them ready, meaning Apple may have one-upped Google in that regard.
Two relatively simple ideas, but two features not prioritized in the early development of IOS that Android quickly proved were winning concepts. Without Android (and WebOS, to be fair) how long might it have taken Apple to bow to this reality? It’s impossible to know.
We’ve talked about the chaos of the modern mobile industry at some length, and the hard choices it forces third-party developers to make about which platforms they are going to support. But this is the upside of such chaos: when five mobile operating systems collide, those in charge of their development have no choice but to find a way to advance the conversation: simply mimicking the products that are in vogue isn’t good enough anymore. The end user is the winner of that process. We saw the opposite situation in the PC market, where Microsoft’s dominance of the PC led to security problems, stagnant software, and its myopic approach to mobile computing.
By making the iPhone a better multitasking computing that is truly free of the PC, Apple has taken a step in Google’s direction while not giving back anything on the host of advantages it already enjoys, such as true tablet momentum, mobile developer fealty, and a shrewd eye for beauty. Now Google is working to make Android a better tablet operating system, and any breakthroughs they make could eventually inform the future of the tablet.
Ever since launching the first few versions of iOS, Apple has done just enough every year to keep it ahead of the pack while systematically eliminating its weak points. It crossed two big ones off the list Monday.