Normally when it comes to Android announcements they pass by without me feeling the need to comment in any length. I’m not one to publish “Apple is doomed” articles, and I’m not about to start now. However, Google released some stuff yesterday, and it’d be fair to see that the company has really outdone itself. Four new products and services caught my eye in particular, and those are the obvious ones which will affect iOS users directly and provide direct competition to Apple.
Wow! It was the general consensus before yesterday that Google’s Maps is better than Apple’s own maps service. Forgetting the fact that its had Street View for years, it simply has more accurate information and satellite imagery. iOS Maps got some negative press last year, and it had a long way to come to convince us of its worth, and that’s before Google previewed the new Maps interface.
There’s so much to admire about the way Google will be improving Maps this summer I could write an entire article just on that subject. But, I’ll try and keep it short and bullet point-y.
Firstly, the new interface ensures that users get a consistently good experience regardless of what they’re using. You could be using a Google Maps on iPad or iPhone, or have maps.google.com opened in browser, and it’ll all be exactly the same and optimized to look as sharp and clear as it can on your device. It’s a key element. Consistency ensures that you don’t feel short-changed for using Maps on a phone over using it on a PC.
Perhaps the most important change to Google Maps is that it’s been made to fit around each person individually. It gets to know you and shows you only the information and points of interest that you need or want to see. The way it finds you directions and public transport information, highlighting your route has all been improved. In essence, the days of Google Maps showing you a bazillion things on one screen are gone, the clutter’s been cleared away to provide you with what you need. I’m pretty sure I had my mouth open the entire time I was watching Google show off the new Maps features yesterday.
On to the visuals, and like Apple’s own Maps it’s now vector based making it much quicker loading. It also features 3D buildings and of course Street View. But, Street View’s been improved. Using the Photo Sphere technology to grab images from inside buildings you can now peek inside structures and take a look inside them. You’re no longer confined to just the flat looking images of the streets.
Before yesterday, Apple’s Maps already needed a lot of work to catch up with Google. Now it looks almost unreachable. Not only does Cupertino need to follow suit on improving data and imagery, it now needs to compete with a more beautiful, immersive and personal experience from its rival. Will it get there? I’m not so sure. Let’s not forget though, Apple’s only been at this for a year or two. Google’s had years to refine and improve what’s become the standard in mapping technology.
Apple has tried social in a few different ways and with varying degrees of success. Perhaps its most popular contributions to the social scene are FaceTime and iMessage. Both are seamlessly built in to iOS and OS X. Although I don’t use FaceTime personally, iMessage is an inescapable part of my day-to-day life.
And then Google announced the new Hangouts app, and promptly released it for iOS and Android, making it instantly available to millions of users worldwide. It allows for great group messaging, one-on-one IM and photo sharing as well as video calling between one or multiple users. In effect, its combined the likes of WhatsApp/BBM/iMessage with GroupMe and Skype/FaceTime. All of a sudden, I have all the kinds of communication I could possibly need inside one beautifully designed and functional app. And, I don’t have to worry about whether the other person has an iPhone, iPad or Mac. It’s cross platform and accessible via web browser. As long as they’ve got a Google account, I can chat.
That’s just touching the surface of what this app does. Group messaging allows for not only productive collaboration between colleagues, but also a communicating with family or friends who shared a common experience with you. It saves any shared images in an an album for that event and allows you to relive memories. What’s more, it remembers everything you’ve ever typed or shared in there in the cloud. So, pick it up where you left off on another device.
I’ve been using Hangouts for the past few hours (video up soon) and I can say with confidence: if I could communicate to all my friends through it, I’d never need or want to use anything else again.
3. Google Play Game Services
It’s third on my list, but it was possibly the most important announcement for me yesterday. Since launching iCloud and the game progress saving ability almost two years ago, barely any game developers have hopped onboard Apple’s proprietary service. The reason is simple: most devs have games on other platforms too. What’s the use in saving game progress to iCloud if you can’t access it from your Windows desktop, or an Android device lying around?
And then there’s Game Center: Apple’s leaderboard and achievement measuring app. It could be so much more, and yet it isn’t. It doesn’t help that the app is a pile of skeuomorphic hideousness.
Google’s new game service for developers will allow game makers to provide cross-platform cloud saving and leaderboards/achievements. It won’t matter if you started playing your favorite game on your MC/PC and then pick up a tablet and switch to your phone later. It will save in the cloud as you make progress and you’ll pick up where you left off. And because it’s cross platform and open, developers will almost certainly jump on.
What’s more, it’ll also enable real-time multiplayer. Add your friends to your network, and challenge them. The closest thing we have to that on iPhone/iPad is time shifted multiplayer on Real Racing 3. Which isn’t real-time.
4. All Access Music
We’ve been hearing of rumors that Apple will be releasing its own music streaming service for years. And yet, it’s failed to materialize. Google’s All Access Music is basically the same as Spotify in that you pay $9.99 per month and get access to thousands of tracks and albums. You can create playlists, or a “radio” list based on specific genres of music.
While I doubt Apple will miss this boat, it’s frustrating that Cupertino clearly has the ability to provide this service, but its tough negotiating with record labels is holding it up.
Where does Apple go next?
In a market where improved hardware specs is becoming less important and services are becoming more prevalent, Google has announced four potentially market shifting services. The great thing for us iPhone and iPad users is that most of them will be available to us via an app. We’ve got Hangouts, we’re getting Maps and the new gaming tools will be usable on iOS games too. So, it’s not like we can’t take advantage. But, with Google Maps, YouTube, Hangouts, Gmail and Chrome all finding their way to iOS does it signal that perhaps Apple needs to pull its socks up and get on with giving us something great?
The iPhone is by far the smallest flagship phone by any manufacturer. Its most appealing apps and services have better cross-platform alternatives. And increasingly, they’re being provided by Google. Perhaps the only thing that remains intrinsically Apple is the way software, ecosystem and App Store all blend seamlessly in to one experience. But, the more I see other products and devices come out, it seems that might be the only thing Apple still has.
So, where next for Apple? Does it need to scrap Maps, or improve it to match the new Google program? How will Siri improve to keep up with Google Now? Can Game Center become a mobile version of Xbox Live and offer multiplayer games in real-time?
I have complete trust and faith in Jony Ive and his team of designers and engineers. I really do. So, let’s hope they surprise us with something truly incredible at WWDC 2013. Nothing sparks creative juices like fierce competition. And the way I see it, Google has just lit a huge fire under Apple’s backside which can only lead to good things for us.