May 25, 2015 8:12 AM PT
How Google led an Android user back to the iPhone
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
[Derek Walter is a freelance writer who contributes to several sites, primarily about the intersection of technology and society.]
Google Calendar was the last straw.
There it was – another Google app that was once exclusive to Android waiting for me to download from the App Store. It would join Gmail, Chrome, Drive, Play Music, and Hangouts on my home screen, making my iPhone look similar to its Android counterpart.
Despite my affinity for Android, there has at times been an internal struggle (admittedly a very first-world one) about loyalty to Google’s OS. Sure, all those customization options, widgets, and home screen launchers are cool. But waiting for Android updates isn’t (only 10 percent of Android devices are running the latest build, Lollipop 5.0). And if you’re a Mac user like me, you can’t beat the convenience of iMessage and Find my Friends, services that of course don’t play with Android.
Google has supported Apple’s operating system from the beginning, even continuing to do so after Apple parted ways with the built-in YouTube and Maps applications. So seeing Calendar come to iOS wasn’t a huge surprise.
Additionally, Google just recently brought its Google News app to the Apple Watch. It’s not particularly impressive, but it’s likely a first step into the shallow end of the Apple Watch pool. I expect Google to eventually take a deep dive with its other services, especially key ones like Gmail and Google Now.
So why would an Android user be willing to embrace the iPhone? There’s now little reason to use Android to get the best of Google. Piece by piece Google has transported apps and services that once ran only on Android over to the iPhone. Even Android’s best feature, Google Now, is on iOS – though it’s admittedly buried inside the Google search app and doesn’t perform all the tricks it does on Android.
But the other apps do rather well at playing nicely with Google Services. The Gmail app lets you import files from Drive. Drive interacts with the excellent Sheets, Docs, and Slides apps. You can open a link in Chrome or an address in Google Maps with Google’s other apps. It’s essentially a shadow operating system that allows you to use Google services on iOS and ignore those from Apple or other competitors. There are 50 Google apps in total, comprising everything from Blogger to Google Voice.
Even with all those services, such an arrangement certainly won’t be for all Android fans. If you like trying out different home screen launchers or prefer to use Google Wallet as your tap-to-pay choice, you’re out of luck. You’re also stuck with Siri as your digital assistant on the iPhone, while Android users can just speak, “OK Google” from their home screen. Though in true Android fashion, fragmentation prevents all devices from having this feature.
Android also lets you set new default applications for various services, so you can make Outlook your email app instead of Gmail—something iOS doesn’t do. Chrome purists would also point out that Chrome for iOS isn’t based on the same rendering engine as Chrome on Android due to Apple’s browser restrictions.
But if those issues aren’t as important to you, then you can transform the iPhone into a pretty good phone running atop Google’s services. You get the superb build quality of the iPhone, Apple’s support, and the Google services you like, all on one device. If you’re OK with a few of the tradeoffs, it’s a rather compelling package.
And as we approach Google I/O this week, we’ll get a better idea about how much Google’s commitment to iOS will continue. There are rumors of a new Google Photos application, which more than likely will wind up on the iPhone by replacing the photo backup and sharing tools that are currently hidden inside the Google+ app.
There’s also buzz that Google is working on making Android Wear compliant with the iPhone in much the same way that a Pebble Watch can talk to iOS apps. This is another way to have your cake and eat it too. Android Wear may not have the app selection that Apple Watch has, but it’s great at prioritizing notifications that flow from Google Now. You could get all those Google-centric alerts you care about but still have those great apps that tend to come first, or sometimes only, to iOS.
It’s a clever strategy by Google, which makes its money through its various applications instead of hardware sales. It picks up revenue through users clicking advertisements in search and with subscriptions from services like Google Play Music and Google Drive. Ultimately Google doesn’t care as much if you’re using Android or iOS—the goal is to get you in its ecosystem, regardless of device.
That philosophy has produced an impressive app portfolio of Google apps for the iPhone. One that the company remains committed to growing, even as it extends the capabilities and reach of Android.
Whatever new services Google rolls out down the road, you can bet they will at some point find a place in the App Store, nestled among 50 of their fellow Google apps. So no matter which device you use, there’s always going to be a way to stick close to Google’s cloud.
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