Every year, two mobile industry titans birth new software into the world like a pair of newborn cubs from rival lion prides.
I speak, of course, of iOS and Android. After a series of beta releases this summer, new versions of both operating systems arrive to much hoopla, and anyone with more than a casual interest in their phones likes to argue which one is the best, pointing to various features to highlight which OS is “ahead” and which one is playing catch-up. This year, with iOS 11 and Android Oreo warming up in opposing corners, is no different.
The tech press (Mashable included) encourages this line of thinking, sometimes implicitly with feature comparisons, and sometimes explicitly by directly asking who’s winning.
This is all very natural and, to a certain extent, useful. When judging the quality of, say, a feature or a UI design, it’s obviously helpful to look at alternatives. Competition, after all, often leads to improvement on all sides.
But as a guide for customers, this horse race mentality is just stupid. To think that, at this stage in the game, any meaningful buying decision is guided by whether or not iOS or Android has, say, better picture-in-picture or more support for whole-house audio is asinine.
What does it matter how far “ahead” Android may be when it really only matters to Google Pixel owners?
For starters, both iOS 11 and Android Oreo are in still in beta. The software isn’t final, so any judgments made at this point are either based on half-finished software or the rose-colored promises made through keynote glasses — either are dangerous to build conclusions on.
Also, even if you accept that one platform is somehow “ahead” of the other, a victory on the Android side has little meaning for the vast majority of its users. Although Android has commanding market share (85% at last count), the number of phones that will both be able to run Oreo and actually get it in a timely manner is the tiniest fraction of that market.
Even today, the portion of Android devices running the latest software (Nougat) is a paltry 13.5%. Compare that to 87% of iPhones and iPads running iOS 10. What does it matter how far “ahead” Android may be on any particular feature when it really only matters to Google Pixel owners?
Lastly, I find it hard to believe that very many people these days are watching the platform race, eagerly anticipating a winner to guide their next smartphone purchase. Buying a phone isn’t the same as picking up a jersey of your favorite sports team. When you choose iOS or Android, you’re basically committing to an ecosystem, complete with services, accessories, and even a design language. While there is certainly “churn” between the Big Two, no one switches from iOS to Android (or vice versa) lightly.
That’s not to say each OS doesn’t have its strong and weak points. Password managers have a hard time filling in apps on iOS. The iPhone has less bloatware. As for which platform is more forward-looking, you could easily make a solid case about whether one or the other is the better platform for VR, AR, digital assistants, or whatever you think the Next Big Thing is in mobile. But so far there’s no indication that these move the needle in the slightest today.
One thing that may encourage people to switch is social experiences, but on this score Apple is winning, too: “Green bubble” FOMO isn’t just a trope of Apple keynotes — there’s evidence to suggest it’s one of the stickiest things about Apple’s ecosystem, with a steady trickle of users migrating from the Android side just so they can finally experience the pleasure of sending messages with a strobe light.
But annual version updates? They’re big news, but only for the users already locked in. As for who’s winning, have you seen the list of the most valuable companies in the world lately? There are no losers here.