Monday, December 10, 2012

Why Android Jellybean has overtaken iOS

Over the weekend, I have been using Jellybean 4.2.1, the newest Android OS update from Google, on my Galaxy Nexus. I have been using iOS 6 on my iPad since a month as well. After comparing the latest operating systems from Apple and Google, I have to give it to Google - in a remarkably short time span, Android has surpassed iOS in terms of features, user experience and sheer future potential. It is clearly the most dynamic operating system in the market now, and competition will have its work cut out to deliver something more compelling.

Here are my reasons why Android has pulled ahead of iOS with this update

1. Google Now - the future lies in telling you what you need, before you search for it

Google Now represents a huge breakthrough in search interface and technology innovation. Search till now has been a passive  tool - as a user, you have to type a search query - and the search engine uses algorithms, a knowledge of your profile, and an understanding of what other users searched for (and wanted to search for) to deliver what it thinks are the best results. 

With Google Now, search moves from passive to active, and truly predictive. The cards used by  the service proactively deliver the information that you will need. For instance, my search cards give me an update on traffic and estimated time to reach work based on Google Maps data, the birthdays of my social network contacts on Google +, and reviews of nearby restaurants. Cards change interactively depending on the area - when I am near a bus stand, they show me bus timings and routes. Google Now can even be set to search my email and send me flight reminder notifications. As Google Now with the cards system is set to migrate to the desktop, the predictions are going to get better. And it offers a superb convenience to users. Every click and swipe saved on the phone, is a precious resource of time and energy saved for the user. If I can access all the information I need through search cards instead of opening individual apps or typing queries, I regard it as a big convenience.

Both the concept and the implementation are superb and offer immense business opportunity for Google and advertisers. I can see a future for location based paid search opportunities to list restaurant and retail deals, nearby events, empty seats in movie halls - the opportunities are endless and real time.

Here Google's edge over Apple lies in their search expertise, honed over years, and the tight integration with Google Maps which makes real time location based prediction possible. 

2. Voice driven operation, with local accent/dialect recognition

Apple's Siri has proven to be huge hit with customers, providing useful and relevant answers to queries including some (un)intentionally  funny ones. A voice assistant powered by Artificial Intelligence, offers great and often humorous companionship and manages your phone, life and appointments, even opening apps at your command - what's not to like?

Sadly, Siri does not like my voice. I spent nearly 15 minutes  with a friend's phone trying to get some responses to my questions but received no response. Accents in a country like India can differ hugely, and even with the best wannabe American drawl I could put on, I got nothing. Yes, my English is heavily Indian accented.

I do know that language recognition software needs a training period to learn and understand your speech, and I was expecting a frustrating time with Google's voice SMS dictation and voice search. To my surprise, there was no learning curve at all. I have to speak close to the microphone and a little slower than usual, but from Hour Zero, I was able to dictate my SMS and voice commands were recognised with almost no errors. Seriously impressive stuff.

With giant user bases in the maturing mobile markets including India, Google clearly has a stake in getting voice recognition right. The exciting thing for me about voice assistance on Google, is that it is meant for everyone who buys an Android smartphone running JellyBean. As the user database expands and scales up rapidly, Google will be able to refine the services better. I do feel bad that Apple gives Siri access only to people who buy the  iPhone 4S/ third generation iPad and above. I understand that older hardware like my iPad 2 can support Siri, but Apple has taken a business decision to restrict their flagship service to flagship devices. Frankly, it's not enough of an impetus to make me upgrade to a newer device, but it's a good enough reason to feel resentful. And when I get a similar feature, gratis, as an Android update, it's a delighter. 'Nuff said.

3. Better cross platform integration of Google products

Apple has always offered a tight integration of products and services within the Apple ecosystem. If you use an iPhone, MacBook and iPod, you will experience this first hand. But if you own a standalone Apple product in conjunction with a Windows PC and an Android phone, as I do, you will soon run into some of the headaches of integration. Recently, I evaluated the purchase of Keynote for my iPad and had to go in favor of Quick Office because Keynote will only sync to iCloud, while Quick Office supports Google Docs, Box and Dropbox. iCloud is not a natural or first choice for a Windows PC or an Android phone while the other cloud solutions are device and platform agnostic. 

Google has an advantage in being a  web and browser based (and until recently, primarily desktop-based) ecosystem. Google products and services work on a Linux distro, work on a Win PC and on a Mac, and on almost any web enabled phone.

If you use GMail, YouTube, Google Docs, GTalk and Chrome - and you probably do - you will just experience how much better they integrate into a seamless and smooth user experience on Android. I first began to appreciate this when Google launched Chrome with ICS Android 4.0 and the integration just gets better. A single sign-in to Google configures all accounts automatically. I can pick up reading on my phone, where I left  off on my iPad, thanks to Chrome's device sync. The Android Gmail client is truly superior to Apple's mail solution, and as our business uses Google Apps, it's yet another good reason to choose Android.

With JellyBean introducing multiple profiles sign in (similar to user login on Windows and currently only available on tablets), you can even have separate home screens for different users. Useful if you have kids and want to restrict their access only to certain items, or if multiple family members share a tablet and want to maintain their separate organisation of apps and desktop. 

iOS6 has its strengths - the biggest one's being its stability, intuitiveness and the fact that it 'just works beautifully' - but they may not be differentiators for long. Android is catching up rapidly in all these departments and emerging as a smooth, mature and polished operating system. Right now, I would use one word to describe it - exciting. And in the world of tech, that's always a good thing.