Here’s a thing I didn’t really expect to write: I’m finding that I enjoy Google’s apps more on iOS than I do on Android. Or more specifically: I think that there’s more interesting innovation coming out of Google’s iOS app teams than on Android — at least for the moment.
Back in May, my colleague Ben Popper talked about how Google’s apps on iOS were so good that he saw little reason to switch over to Android, despite the fact that he spends so much time in Google’s waters. Lately, I’ve found myself in basically the same boat. Email? Inbox. Calendar? Google Calendar. Keyboard? Gboard. Maps? Duh. The list goes on and on.
Ben already praised Gboard, Google’s excellent keyboard. I like it too, despite the fact that third-party keyboards on iOS still feel like a buggy mess sometimes. Because of Apple’s restrictions, you can’t use dictation and it sometimes just plain doesn’t even appear when you need it. But even though all that is super aggravating, the clever features and touches inside the keyboard keep me coming back to it.
It’s so good, it makes me wonder why the hell it isn’t on Android. Apparently there are plans to "bring the same functionality to Android," but it sure seems like the iOS side of things is where the innovation is happening right now. Perhaps it's that constraints tend to breed creative solutions, or perhaps it’s just that – even for Google engineers — iOS is simply easier to develop great apps for.
Apple’s continued refusal to allow us to set third party apps as the default for things like browsers, calendars, and (above all) email means that there are sometimes hoops to jump through. But Apple has also, ever so slightly, made tools like widgets and advanced share sheets that allow these third party apps to not feel totally isolated from the rest of the phone. (I’m excited to see this trend accelerate in iOS 10.)
Let’s take one example: Hangouts, Google’s oft-maligned (and justly so!) chat app. On iOS, it feels coherent and consistent. On Android, the design and placement of the buttons change seemingly every other month. On iOS, you can use extensions to share directly to a person in a chat right inside the pop-up share sheet. Google added the ability for apps to do something like that on Android in October 2015, with a feature called "Direct Share." Hangouts only began supporting it last month.
Here’s another: Google Search! It’s built deeply into Android, yet often feels stateless. You do a search, but after you’re done it’s just sort of gone into the ether of the OS, not stored in a browser tab or anywhere else that’s easy to find. For example, on the new version of Android coming out later this year, doing a Google search and tapping on a link brings up a random browser window. Close it and it’s gone. But inside the Google search app on iOS, the stuff you look at is kept in a history of vertically scrolling cards that you can reference later. It’s super helpful.
Of course, these Google apps still don’t feel nearly as integrated into the iPhone as Apple’s own, increasingly subpar, apps. Which is a huge bummer, because Google seems to be working way harder at coming up with clever new app ideas than Apple is. Take a look at Inbox. It integrates the ideas of bundling similar emails, snoozing them, and integrating basic reminders all into your email. I really love it, but even if you don’t like it, you have to admit that Google is pushing more on the idea of rethinking email than Apple is right now. (For the record, Inbox on Android and iOS are about at parity, quality-wise).
But the app that has delighted me more than anything else in the past month is Google’s Motion Stills app. It’s just remarkably good — and it’s quickly become the default way that I look at photos.
We’ve actually written about how lovely this app is in the past, but allow me to pile on. What’s remarkable about Motion Stills is that with it, Google has cracked a code that literally every phone maker — Apple included — has been trying to figure out for over three years now. The challenge: take advantage of the fact that smartphone cameras can take small movies as easily as snapping a photo, then making it totally shareable in the places where we actually share photos.
HTC tried with with Zoe, Samsung has a Gif mode you have to manually toggle into, and even Apple itself is trying it with Live Photos. Each, for different reasons, feels a little bit like a failed experiment.
Here’s what happens with a live photo: it takes a little movie every time you shoot a picture. To view that movie in Apple Photos, you have to 3D Touch or (if you don’t have a 3D Touch device) press-and-hold on the image to see it. That’s fine, I guess, but it’s not very fun or whimsical.
Seriously, tell me which of these is more likely to make you happy, because the answer is obvious.
What Google’s Motion Stills does is just take all those little movies and put them in a big old vertical scroll, Instagram-style. I now exclusively look at my photos this way because it’s just so much more fun and alive than trying to remember to press (or seeing a tiny bit of movement when you switch from photo to photo). I see lovely little moments of people posing themselves, preparing to be photographed. I have a video of my Herculean efforts to smile before reverting to my resting grump face:
What’s more — and better — is that Motion Stills just works as a GIF or a short movie. Those are the formats we actually use to share moving pictures right now, the formats that work in any app and across any device (excepting, well, a lot of iOS apps and devices. Ahem). Instead of just letting us use what we are already using, Apple is trying to get everybody to support a new format that was designed to only work on iOS.
But back to the main point — what’s most amazing about Motion Stills is that it’s on an iPhone, not an Android phone. It’s done a better job of getting me to take more photos and enjoy more photos than any other camera innovation in the past year, and it took Google’s willingness to be open and Apple’s strength at making good camera hardware to make it happen.
This is the part where I make a grand pronouncement about how Google needs to try harder on Android and work harder to take advantage of what Android can do. Or maybe it’s the part where Apple needs to either improve its apps or open up iOS and get out of the way a little more. I believe all of those things, but I also can’t work myself up into a lather about them. Google will bring some of these neat ideas to Android. iOS 10 will make it slightly easier to use the apps you actually like across the entire OS. It’ll just take a minute.
In the meanwhile, just promise me that you’ll turn Live Photos back on and use Google’s Motion Stills app to browse them. In return, I promise you will have a few more smiles than you did before.