Love it Or Hate It, the Future of the iPhone Will Look More Like Android
Good artists copy and great artists steal, but the iPhone’s collision course with Android was as much chosen by Apple as it was forced by regulators in 2023.
It’s a claim that’s made so many times it seems stale, but in a wilder year than most, I’ll make it again: We have Android to thank for the modern iPhone experience as much as we do Apple’s designers.
It’s been commonly accepted that Apple arrives late to ideas popularized by other platforms like Android so it can apply its signature level of polish and deep integration to its hardware and software. In this way, Apple stays current (relatively) while keeping the implementation and look of new features distinctly Apple.
It’s a method that’s not only paid dividends across the basic functionality of iOS, but also the hardware of the iPhone itself. A tacit admission that companies like Google and Samsung have good enough ideas for the iPhone maker to “steal” and make its own.
What’s unique about 2023, though, is it’s the first year in a long while that the iPhone’s slow adoption of Android’s concepts and open standards has been forced by regulators as often as it was chosen by Apple, and all signs point to it not being the last. The iPhone’s future looks a lot like Android, and the only way that changes is if Apple tries something new.
Software and Hardware
The obvious lineages you can trace between the iPhone and Android, and the ones that are most present of mind for anyone who came up in the age of iOS jailbreaking, are personalization and customization.
Apple introduced widgets — a major component of the Android operating system from the start — to the iPhone in iOS 14. That same update included the App Library for storing apps you don’t want on your home screen, which was very similar to Android’s app drawer, and the ability to set default apps, another bit of flexibility that Apple adopted. The changes made with iOS 14 were big enough at the time to make Inverse deputy editor Raymond Wong wonder if there was even a reason to consider Android over iOS, and Apple didn’t stop there.
iOS 16 brought customizable lock screens with a way to add widgets and change up the clock font and color. If there’s anything we associate with Android, it’s customization — being able to tweak just about everything about how your phone looks, especially since Google’s Material You redesign. The last few years of Apple software updates have been defined by a loosening up of what your iPhone can look like, and at the very least the popularity, if not the idea itself, can be traced back to Android.
In many ways, the iPhone sails in the wake Android manufacturers are making.
It’s more than just software. The iPhone’s hardware has followed trends Android phones have set, too. Android phones had an always-on display long before the iPhone 14 Pros got it. We would not have the iPhone 15 Pro Max if it weren’t for Samsung experimenting with larger screens in the 2010s. The Action Button, a customizable button on the iPhone 15 Pros that replaces the traditional mute switch, might seem borrowed from the Apple Watch Ultra, but there’s an argument that Samsung tried a reassignable button first with the Active Key on the Galaxy S6 Active and then the Bixby button on the S8. (The Bixby button wouldn’t actually be remappable until the release of the Galaxy S10, but the point stands.)
Apple’s adoption of new camera technologies — you guessed it — were Android ideas first. The HTC One M8, released in 2014, was the first to use two rear lenses to create photos with bokeh (blurred-out backgrounds) before the iPhone 7 Plus popularized “portrait mode” in 2016. Google’s first-gen Pixel in 2016 made “computational photography” a household term and an essential feature for all smartphones; Night Sight, for capturing incredible low-light pictures, furthered solidified computational photography’s place again in 2018. Recently, the iPhone 15 Pro Max introduced a 5X telephoto lens with a “tetraprism” design, which is just an Apple riff on the “periscope” telephoto lenses pioneered by Android phone maker Oppo way back in 2017. Also, the ability to record 3D “spatial videos” with an iPhone 15 Pro? The HTC Evo 3D could record stereoscopic video way back in 2011. In many ways, the iPhone sails in the wake Android manufacturers are making.
And yet, some of the biggest changes Apple has made in the last year have had nothing to do with what its competitors were doing. The iPhone 15 line uses USB-C rather than Apple’s proprietary Lightning connector, a major win for convenience if you, like many people, already own a laptop or tablet that uses USB-C for charging. But Apple likely wouldn’t have made the jump now if regulators in the EU hadn’t forced it to. Specifically, the European Parliament is requiring all new smartphones to use a USB-C connector by 2024, and will expect the same from laptops by 2026. The goal is to make it so everyone only needs one charger, but there are obvious benefits in regards to the ability to transfer data that Apple is touting about the switch too.
Apple’s sudden acceptance of the Rich Communication Services (RCS), the more secure and capable successor to SMS and MMS backed by Google, is similarly driven by government scrutiny. Apple’s iMessage service is being looked at as a potential “gatekeeper” to be broken up by the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA), and the fact the company purposefully makes messaging non-iPhone owners awful could be seen as an issue. Apple is likely adopting RCS next year as a show of goodwill, and further proof that the Messages app on iOS doesn’t limit choice or get in the way of anyone doing business.
Bloomberg reported in 2022 that the company is also prepping iOS 18 to support some kind of sideloading and third-party app stores. It would be another dramatic change for Apple — making money on App Store transactions is a big part of its bottom line — driven by the DMA, and the belief in the EU that the company has created an anti-competitive environment on the iPhone.
These are all concepts and standards Android has more or less supported from the beginning (or in the case of USB-C, since it was available) largely because the operating system is open for anyone to use. Pretty much all phone makers except Apple build on the platform, and ideologically, Google has been more open from the beginning. That hasn’t stopped Google from doing everything in its power to keep competitors from circumventing the Play Store, but it’s a much different environment than what Apple created with the iPhone, and now Apple’s being forced to in some small way recreate it.
How Can Future iPhones Stand Out?
Not to say any of these moves, whether willingly adopting Android features by choice or being forced to support things the operating system has backed since the beginning, are bad. Apple polished and repackaged software elements from Android because it knew iOS users would respond positively to them and that it would keep the iPhone competitive. Using USB-C or RCS are net goods for interoperability and ease of use. There will be security complications to consider and account for, but supporting third-party app stores and sideloading will give users choice and help put more money directly in the pockets of developers as opposed to being forced to give Apple a cut.
The only way forward for Apple, in a world forcing it to play fair with others, is by offering something entirely different.
An iPhone that works and looks more like an Android phone is one that’s harder to lust after and easier to leave for the dozens of Android phones that are just as good. In a world increasingly interested in AI, Android phones are even better positioned to stand out because of Google’s expertise. The only way forward for Apple, in a world forcing it to play fair with others, is by offering something entirely different. New features and likely a new look. Something as alienating as the flat design of iOS 7 was, but perhaps even more appealing to the average person. Without that, using an iPhone will get better, but it’s hard to say whether it will feel as distinct as what Apple has allowed until now.
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