Every year, around Apple WWDC time, I like taking off my Android geek and fan cap, putting it aside, and enjoying what our friends-slash-rivals from Cupertino are doing for their users. While a few years ago, I might’ve enjoyed discussions about which OS was superior, these days I’m mellower and more pragmatic. iOS has borrowed a lot from Android and continues to do so, and vice-versa. The two ecosystems have a mutually beneficial rivalry and keep pushing themselves further, and in doing so keep pushing each other too.
That’s why I have fun watching WWDC’s main keynote. I expect Apple to implement a few features that I’ve been wanting on Android for years, and to add a few innovative and obvious options that I never knew I needed but now can’t get out of my head. With that in mind, I’ll share with you the 18 iOS (and iPadOS, watchOS, tvOS) features that I wish to see on Android one day soon.
When I did this last year, a lot of arguments were made about how Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, LG, Sony, or other OEMs had already implemented some of the features. Or how a third-party app or a custom ROM could do them. Yes, technically, that’s all true. But when I talk about Android here, I mean stock Android. An option being available for one brand — or ROM or app — is not universal. For example, Samsung had a dark mode before stock Android, but most third-party devs didn’t take it seriously until Android implemented it for all. So yes, I’m aware your Android phone may already have some of these options, but I’d like to see them there for all Android users.
We already had this and this and this and all of this in the Google app and widget on Android, but they were removed toward the second half of 2019 and haven’t come back since. In the meantime, iOS 14 just leapfrogged Android with a universal search bar that launches apps, finds contacts and files, filters through personal notes, opens websites, and brings up answers to weather and maps and other general questions. Good for Apple. And no, Assistant doesn’t count; it’s just a clumsy way of doing something that can and should be done with a few taps.
Currently, the Play Store Family Library supports sharing of purchased apps, games, books, movies, and TV shows. But plenty of apps use in-app purchases or subscriptions for their paid models, and those can’t be given to your significant other, kids, or parents. They have to buy them again. Apple used to have the same limitation, but is now offering devs the choice to allow in-app purchases and subscriptions sharing with family members or not. Some devs may not enable this, but at least the option is there, and users might end up saving a pretty penny.
Widget stacks and smart stack
Apple made a big hoopla about its widget support on iOS 14, but one particular aspect caught my attention: the stacks. Instead of littering your homescreen with different widget shapes and colors, you can create a stack of multiple widgets by dragging one on top of the other, then swipe through them. So if you use a local music player, a streaming service, an audiobook app, and a podcast player, you can have a single stack of audio widgets. Oh what I’d give to have this on Android!
There’s also a “Smart Stack” that surfaces the widget you need based on your context (time, location, activity) using on-device AI. It sounds like Google’s At a glance widget for Pixels, but with plenty of extra oomph since it’s not limited to a few types of data.
PIP resizing and minimizing
Picture-in-picture arrived in Android with Oreo, but hasn’t changed much since then: drag, expand, close. There’s the promise of freeform windows on Android, but it’s still a developer feature and so far not as elegant or useful as PIP. Apple just implemented PIP in iOS 14, but is offering two extra features from the start: pinch-to-zoom to resize the floating window and an easy way to minimize it off the screen then bring it back.
Sending voice messages with Siri
In my side of the world, people use voice messages much more than typing since they’re faster, more personal, and don’t require knowledge of multiple alphabets. But Google Assistant still doesn’t play nice with these. It doesn’t let you listen to received audio clips from any messenger, and only supports sending them with WhatsApp — no Google Messages, Telegram, or any other service. (And even the WhatsApp implementation is finicky.)
In comparison, Apple just added the ability to send a voice recording on iMessage via Siri, and I’m sure it’ll work better than whatever hacky mishmash Google already has with WhatsApp. There’s no mention of playing these notes, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Siri gets that before Assistant ever does.
Threads in group messages
iOS 14 improved group conversations in iMessage with plenty of fun features, but a really useful one stood out. Instead of showing replies like WhatsApp or Telegram do, Apple will display these as Slack-style threads. No more going scrolling up and down to follow the conversation and see who replied to what; you just tap the main message and get everything that followed in a floating view. Granted, this wish is more of a specific messaging platform one as opposed to an Android one, but it stuck with me.
A better smart home experience
Apple’s Home app continues to run laps around Google’s. The app is a real dashboard for things you’ve installed around your house (and not just a half-baked shortcut to some features for some product types only, while others are mysteriously missing but show up in other places). Oh, I digress. With iOS 14, Apple’s Home experience is getting better. There’s a scrolling bar at the top with the items that have a new status to share with you or that need your immediate attention (lights that were left on or locks that are still open after you leave the house). Plus, there’s a new adaptive light feature that adjusts brightness and color throughout the day without you setting up individual scenes or scheduled routines.
The app will also contextually suggest controls or scenes in the morning, evening, or when you get home, and it’ll surface suggested actions when you first set up a new device. Say you install a new porch light, you’ll get a pop-up that suggests turning it off when you leave, and on when you get home or if a nearby motion sensor is triggered. In comparison, we still don’t have any kind of automation in the Google Home app or in Assistant. Sigh.
Maps cycling and downloadable guides
Google once had a nice travel planning app called Trips that it shut down in favor of a website. Most of the features were retained in the web version, but one was let go: the downloadable itineraries and guides. Now Apple is adding guides in its maps app and has made them easy to save and download for offline use, i.e. perfect for travel.
The new cycling features in Apple Maps are interesting too. Sure, they’re limited to a few cities, but I like how thoughtful the implementation is with bike paths, elevation (Google has those in a few cities too, not all), plus street busyness and warnings for steep inclines and stairs. As far as I can tell, Google doesn’t offer the latter options in any city.
Powerful and ubiquitous App Clips
With App Clips, Apple is essentially copying Instant Apps, a feature that’s been on Android for years, but making it more useful from the get-go. You get payment and sign-in integration in the Clip, plus an easy way for stores and services to present their clip to you (NFC tags or QR codes). That means you could use a bike sharing service or get on a public train by scanning a code and approving a payment, all without downloading the service’s app first. You know thousands of stores worldwide will jump on this opportunity as soon as they can and it’ll make using them on iOS a lot faster and easier than Android.
Limited location and contact sharing with apps
Privacy continues to be a big talking point in both Apple’s and Google’s OS updates, and iOS 14 is no different. The first feature that struck me was the option to share an approximate location with apps, which would be great for looking up nearby restaurants or stores, or finding some locally-specific content without giving away your exact location.
The second is even more intriguing and wasn’t mentioned at the keynote: you can now deny access to your contacts to third-party apps, but use your keyboard to type individual names and get their phone number, address, or email address to share. It’s a targeted autofill that happens on-device and eventually only shares with the app what you actively type and send, not your full address book. Neat.
Less tracking from apps & websites
Continuing with the privacy theme, both websites and apps will be better scrutinized in iOS 14. For sites, Safari’s new privacy report shows cross-site trackers and can also block them. For apps (looking at you, Facebook), devs will have to ask for your consent before they can track you across other apps and sites to serve you better ads. Neither Chrome nor Android offer that level of control yet.
App privacy info in the App Store
Apple is also putting privacy front and center in app listings on the App Store, so that before you even download a new piece of software on your phone or tablet, you know what to expect: which data is used to track you across apps & services, which part of that data is linked to you, and which part is collected but in an anonymous way. For now, devs have to self-report this, and there’s no telling what happens if they lie, but it’s a great first step towards more transparency from them.
More Carplay app types
Despite multiple overhauls, Android Auto’s development continues to be so slow it may as well be stagnating. Currently, Auto supports third-party messaging, music, and (some) mapping apps. Carplay had a similar scope, but has now added support for third-party parking, EV charging, and quick food-ordering apps. That’s one clear way of making the platform more appealing and increasing both dev and user enthusiasm for it.
There’s no denying that Apple’s car key demo with BMW was one of the highlights of WWDC. In it, the company announced a virtual key for your car that lets you unlock the door and start the engine with your iPhone’s NFC chip, and that works up to five hours after your phone’s battery is dead. The key can be shared with your contacts too, and you get to choose whether they have full access or a restricted profile that limits how fast they can go or how loud the stereo can be set at. It reminded me a lot of my Nuki smart door lock and its temporary and restricted shared virtual key features.
We know Google is working on letting our phones replace drivers’ licenses and passports, but for many people, car keys are used and needed daily, making them a more appealing item to digitize.
Seamless Airpods device switching
AirPods already play with Apple devices better than most Bluetooth buds ever could with Android — the only ones that come close are those with Fast Pair and there are only a model or two available. Now, AirPods should also switch seamlessly between iPhones, iPads, Macs, and Apple Watches (if they’re set with the same iCloud account), so you can put down your phone, pick up your iPad, start playing something, and the buds will instantly know to get their audio from there. It’s like Bluetooth Multipoint, but on another level and with more than two devices.
Comparing Apple Watch to Wear OS is downright painful, so I’ll just say I really liked the idea of the shareable watch faces (some Wear OS apps like Facer and Pujie attempted that, but the feature is absent on the platform level), the new workout tracking capabilities for dance and core training, and the automatic hand-washing detection. Wear OS recently added a hand-washing feature, but you either have to manually open it or rely on the notification. So I used it all of three times before I forgot it existed. If it were automatic, I wouldn’t have to think about it.
iPadOS UI and Pencil improvements
I keep telling my Android Police colleagues that Android tablets aren’t that bad and just do what I need them to do. But then Apple comes along and unveils features that are so far ahead of anything Android or Chrome offer on tablets and I have to shut up a little and face the music. Be it all the Pencil features or the new app UIs that make a much better use of the larger screen, Apple knows what it’s doing with its slabs. I’d love to have these same capabilities on Android one day, but well, I’m a pragmatic person, and I know that’s not going to happen.
tvOS multi-user and home controls
I’m already jealous of proper multi-user support on Apple TV, which in comparison, is a frustrating experience on Android TV. But now Apple has gone and added its Arcade gaming service to it, so individual players can easily continue where they left off in each game, a boon for roommates, friends, or families. There are also improvements to smart home controls, which are only accessible via Assistant on Android TV — if it works — and the option to send your Apple TV audio to two AirPods to enjoy your content without keeping the whole house awake.
With every iteration, iOS and Android are becoming more powerful and more similar, but they’re also still diverging in a few ever-shifting ways. Apple continues to do interesting things for its mobile platforms, things that will hopefully ripple through to our side one day, just like many of Google’s Android changes have made their way to iOS and its larger ecosystem throughout the years. Still, the Cupertino giant’s vertical integration of hardware and software, plus its large portfolio of tightly-consolidated products, is an increasingly appealing offering. It’s OK to be a little jealous of that.