With iOS 8, Apple battles Android on its own turf, allowing its users more choice

ios 8 spotlight

So if, like me, you were hoping for any new Apple hardware at the company’s 2014 Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, you were left lacking. Look beyond that, however, and you can see how much Apple’s current and future hardware will improve thanks to dozens of upcoming additions, changes and upgrades in both OS X and iOS. And several of those changes actually remove some of the advantages offered by that other big mobile platform: Android.

ios 8 trio

Apple has less say over your app data but still protects it

Take the new Extensibility feature in iOS, for example, which lets apps talk to each other and share data between them in a sandboxed way: There are still strict walls between apps for security and stability but apps can work together for tasks. You might take a picture in the iPhone’s Camera app but you can add filters to your photo from another app without effectively leaving the Camera app. It’s akin to web extensions that add features to a browser only on a different scale; this all happens in native apps.

Apple’s iOS also opens up the door for developers to add different sharing options. With iOS 8, you’ll be able to share images, text or web pages not just to the default apps that Apple has chosen — Facebook and Twitter — but to whatever apps or services developers want to support. This is definitely similar to the “intents” system used by Google Android and takes away one of the key differences between the two mobile platforms. Heck, it’s one of the reasons I personally like Android: It’s just so much simpler to share something. Not once iOS 8 arrives in the fall, if developers embrace this new iOS feature, which I suspect they will.

Your choice of keyboard and widgets? Finally!

Of course, Android has long allowed for third-party keyboards; another personalized option that has kept some consumers away from the iPhone previously. Apple showed off a much improved native keyboard at WWDC, complete with contextual word prediction — the feature is called “quick type” —  that looks excellent. The keyboard learns how you personally communicate with others to improve the word prediction; something Google’s own Android keyboard can do. There’s a difference though. Apple’s keyboard learns from on-device data; with Android, you’re sharing your typing data with Google in the cloud.

Apple didn’t stop there, however when it comes to typing. You’ll be able to use third-party keyboards in iOS 8; long-time Android favorite Swype was shown on stage and the folks at SwiftKey have already told me they’ve got a version of their great keyboard in the works for Apple’s updated mobile software. You can even sign up now for a beta of the Fleksy keyboard app on iOS 8.

iOS 8 keyboard

And if that wasn’t enough, something the Apple faithful never figured would happen actually did: Apple showed off widgets on both iOS and OS X. You can see Apple’s elegant hand in the implementation though because these widgets won’t be covering up the home screen of your iPhone, iPad or iPod touch. Instead, they’re part of the pull-down Notification Center. They’re not quite glanceable as a result, but I think it’s a fair trade-off: Information with one touch of the screen.

Content sharing and seamless tasks regardless of device

There’s some icing on this cake though because Apple is adding something that Android doesn’t offer: Sharing of content purchases. Starting with iOS 8, up to six people can collectively share their iTunes purchases with Family Sharing. That’s completely opposite of the Android approach, where everything is tied to unique Google accounts. For families that have some iOS devices in house, this actually provides incentive to add more iOS devices; I called it a “super halo” effect during the live blog as a result.

iOS 8 family sharing

I was also impressed on how Apple has integrated different apps and features between iOS and OS X; something that you can do with Android but typically through third-party software or services. You can start a phone call on your Mac, for example, or edit a document on the iPhone that was started on a Mac. It’s all part of how the two platforms will work seamlessly together and it’s a big deal: When you don’t have to pick a device for a given task but instead use any device, it becomes a “magical” experience. The new iCloud Drive helps here too, looking more like an integrated storage set with lower pricing, while Spotlight becomes a far more useful universal search.

A welcome crack in the walled garden of Apple

As CEO Tim Cook so eloquently stated it, “This is something only Apple can do,” when describing the new software, and that statement is evident in how Apple’s software is evolving. It speaks not just to how Apple provides both software and hardware optimized to work together but also how Apple is giving users and developers more control without completely opening up either software platform to a wild-west show of chaos.

While iOS started as a very walled garden in 2007 it’s clear to me after hearing Apple executives earlier today the company is happy to advance its software and provide users more controls so long as Apple still has controls around the approach. I don’t think Apple will ever embrace the openness provided by Google Android, but this may be the next best thing. Why? Users win with more control over their mobile experience; developers are supporting a platform that will surely continue to grow because of it and Apple still maintains some of its walls without appearing to be completely closed relative to the competition.

It’s a win all around that will could provide Apple more growth over the coming years than analysts have previously expected. And as someone who uses Android at least as much as iOS, if not more, it gives me fewer reasons to keep my SIM card in an Android phone. Well played, Apple. Well played.

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