For the past few years, we’ve been in a relatively healthy balance when it comes to our smartphones. Both Apple and Google provided us with relatively decent platforms that were pretty straightforward to use, provided us with interesting and useful functionality, and at mostly decent price points. In return, we accepted a certain amount of lock-in, a certain lack of control over our devices and the software platforms running on them. I felt comfortable with this trade-off, whether I was using an iPhone or an Android phone at the time.
Recently, however, I’ve been feeling like this balance in iOS and Android is tipping – and not in the right direction. The users’ interests have taken a decided backseat to corporate interests, and the user experiences of the two platforms in question have, consequently, suffered, and I see little in the future to counteract this development
Let’s start with Android. Over the past few years, Google has taken several steps that have eroded some of the traditional strong points of the platform, while leaving traditional weak points addressed. First and foremost, Google is transitioning more and more functionality into Google Play Services. In and of itself, this is a good move; it means more parts of the Android operating system can be updated through the Play Store, which benefits users.
There’s a massive downside, though, and it’s a big one: Google is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Play Services are closed source, not freely available, and as users, we really have no idea what’s in them, or what will be in them in the next update. The primary reason for moving things to Play Services is one of control: Google wants to assert control over its OEMs.
In other words, a traditional strength of Android is sacrificed at the corporate altar. There is no reason for Play Services to be closed source, and there really is no reason for Google to let the affected parts of AOSP languish in the meantime. Google is clearly placing corporate interests over user interests.
That’s not all though. The Android user experience, too, is starting to suffer from corporate pressure. Even though Google does not allow it, Youtube has been using the Android notification system to spam you with “recommended videos”. You can turn off this “feature” somewhere deep in the settings (for now), but the fact that’s on by default clearly shows where Google’s priorities lie.
In case you need more evidence, opening the YouTube application now just shows you one giant ad (and an irrelevant one in my case, too), instead of showing you the videos that you actually want to see (like your subscriptions). Again – your interests take a backseat to their interests.
If you think you’re spared from this kind of stuff because you use iOS – think again. Apple has been taking several concrete steps to promote its own interests over that of its users, and it’s showing up all across iOS.
More and more, we see Apple using its lock over iOS users to show advertisements. Much like the YouTube application on Android, Apple is using notifications to show advertisements for its own services and applications, such as this one, for its new News application. Like the YouTube example, they can be turned off (for now), but by default, they are turned on. And, also like Android, they are supposedly not allowed.
An even more insipid example of Apple fording advertisements upon its users is, of course, the Apple Watch application. This application was pushed to all iPhone users without consent, and forced into the most personal space on my phone: the homescreen. In true iOS crapware fashion, it cannot be removed. The Apple Watch application is completely and utterly useless if you do not own an Apple Watch – it serves zero purpose, adds zero functionality to your iPhone, and offers no benefit whatsoever. It’s a giant advertisement that you cannot remove.
There’s another sad example of Apple placing its own interests above that of its users, and it’s one where you don’t expect it: the content blocking feature coming in iOS 9. Content blocking sounds like a great feature, but in reality, it’s nothing but a stick to get publishers to create dedicated iOS applications or take part in Apple’s new News application. With advertising easily blocked in mobile Safari, publishers will have to partake in the new News application, or make a dedicated iOS application, because – surprise, surprise – iAds cannot be blocked.
In other words, Apple would gain strict control over what kind of news you get to see on your iOS device. Does that sound like a desirable situation to you?
Where will this end?
Let me make it very clear that it’s not like I’m finding out about the fact that you don’t really ‘own’ your Android or iOS device only now – I’ve always known this, and so have all of you. However, despite not really owning ‘your’ device, it was, for the most part, an acceptable trade-off. These trade-offs differed between the two platforms, but in general, I found them to be acceptable for both Android and iOS.
However, with that we’ve been seeing lately, I’m seeing more and more signs of this balance being tipped in favour of Google and Apple, at the expense of us as users. It might be that you look at these things and think, “whatever, I don’t really care, the trade-off is still acceptable to me”, and that’s completely fine. We all pick our own battles and make our own considerations.
However, you do have to ask yourself – now that Google and Apple don’t really have any serious competition in the mobile space, where will this end? Where do you draw the line? Will you accept giant ads showing up atop Google Now? Will you accept Siri telling you to buy an Apple Watch every time you set a reminder? How many more parts of Android need to be closed up and tied up? How many more unremovable spam applications may Apple force onto your homescreen?
These are the questions that should define your mobile choices over the coming years. I don’t have all the answers just yet, but I do know that if you do refuse to think about this problem, you will, at some point in the near future, realise just how insipid your smartphone has become.