Apple's iPhone 6 is catching up to Android in some ways, and presenting new challenges in others. Here are three ways Google can improve Android to compete with the latest iPhone and iOS.
Android versus iPhone remains one of the great fanbase battles in technology today. Rabid fans take to internet forums to spit jargon-heavy venom about which company is better in tune with users.
The recent iPhone 6 announcement by Apple is a breaking point for both companies, but especially for Android as Apple seeks to capitalize on features and functionality that have been available to Android users for years, in many cases.
Here are the three issues that Google needs to consider if it wants to compete with iOS on features.
1. Improve the marketing
While it may seem antiquated, most consumer products are sold with the assistance of traditional marketing tools such as television advertising. Good advertising not only explains new features and why you need them, it also elicits emotions that consumers will attach to the product itself.
Apple has done this beautifully, with a slew of iPhone commercials that emphasize physical and mental strength, creative power, and familial closeness. Android vendors have been able to market a few of Android's impressive features through advertising, but they haven't been able to create a larger sense that using Android products will somehow improve your daily life.
This is evidenced by one of the iPhone 6's biggest selling points: Apple Pay (powered by the NFC chip). Google announced its Google Wallet NFC payments program more than three years ago, back in early 2011, but it has failed to gain the type of traction expected by Apple Pay, mostly due to poor marketing.
As soon as the Apple NFC announcement aired, I saw a barrage of tweets from Android-toting friends about how they had been using the same capability for years. One social media post read: "iPhone users, welcome to 2012."
While Android users have been privy to mobile NFC payments for quite some time, its early version was buggy and Google failed to properly cross-promote the feature with its partners. However, the argument could be made that Apple has enlisted a stronger partner network which will be why Apple Pay takes off faster than Google Wallet did.
Outside of tech circles, many Android users aren't even aware of Google Wallet, let alone how and why they should use it. Google relies on phone makers and wireless carriers to do much of the phone marketing, which is inconsistent and fragmented. Every time an iPhone 6 owner pays with his or her phone from now on, that is a free advertisement for Apple, and Android vendors could have the same opportunity. Google should incentivize and help vendors to promote and explain new Android features and functionality.
The bottom line is this: Google and its Android vendors need to tell a better story.
2. Tackle fragmentation
Smartphones are not only consumer products, but they are tools for further consumption, which is critical to both companies' revenue models with their respective smartphones and operating systems.
Android and iOS are fundamentally different models. Apple is a closed system where the parent company controls every aspect of the product experience, hardware and software. As it stands, Android is not OS for the average user. It is an OS for the technophile, the tinkerer, and the user who values customizability over anything.
Android 4.4 KitKat, the latest iteration of the OS released in October 2013, had almost 21% market share of Android devices as measured in August. Different Android Jelly Bean versions hold 54.2% and Gingerbread, which was released in 2010, still hold nearly 14% market share of Android devices. At the time of this article, 92% of iOS devices were running iOS 7, the company's latest OS released in September 2013.
While OS marketshare is not the absolute metric by which we can measure the success of an OS. It does explain, partly, why the massive disparity in smartphone market share between Android and iOS, roughly 80/20 in favor of Android, hasn't contributed to higher Android revenue.
One option would be for Google to "close off" a section of Android to provide a consistent user experience. Google has a great opportunity to do this with its Google Play Edition phones and/or its rumored Android Silver program.
Google needs to mandate the use of "pure" Android OS and establish baseline hardware specifications, such as an NFC chip, a certain processor speed, and a minimum megapixel rating for the camera, to ensure that users would have access to features like mobile NFC payments or photo identification and a somewhat consistent experience if they were to upgrade or switch devices.
With that being said, open source is one of Android's greatest strengths and the reason why Android is often first to market with innovative new features, so Google has to continue to invest in the open source. Another option would be for Google to split off Chrome OS as a "closed" operating system with a few select vendors, while maintaining Android as its open source option and its main R&D arm.
3. Improve security
Android has become known for its vulnerabilities to malware, and it has yet to shake that image. Google tried to tackle the problem with Bouncer, which was supposed to flag malicious apps before they reached the Play Store, but even that has its flaws. Research conducted by an academic team including a Columbia University professor seemed to suggest that Bouncer was easily circumvented.
Some reports note that neither Android or iOS is more secure than the other, and that most malware originates from third party app stores on Android, not native apps. Still, Apple is seen by the general public -- and enterprise IT -- as decidedly more secure. The myth that Apple products are not susceptible to viruses is taken as fact and that plays into assumptions about the company's mobile devices as well. Even after certain iCloud accounts were hacked, and compromising celebrity photos were leaked, many customers will continue to trust Apple with their personal data.
The interesting point here is that Google does, indeed, offer some quality security tools. Part of the issue is that these security features are not widely known, or are only available on certain versions or in tandem with certain features. For example, according to a Google Wallet FAQ, a virtual card number is stored in place of your personal card number.
"Your actual credit card number is not stored. Only the virtual prepaid card is stored and Android's native access policies prevent malicious applications from obtaining the data. In the unlikely event that the data is compromised, Wallet also uses dynamically rotating credentials that change with each transaction and are usable for a single payment only. Finally, all transactions are monitored in real-time with Google's risk and fraud detection systems," the website said.
In my opinion that is one of the most interesting aspects of Google Wallet as a whole, but I was barely aware of Google Wallet's security features before I began writing this piece.
When Google launched Android 4.4, it came with unique security upgrades such as per user VPN, device monitoring warnings, and certificate pinning. These are major assets for Android users, but fragmentation means that they will not affect the 80% of users that do not have Android 4.4 installed.
The recent integration of Samsung Knox into the Android ecosystem could be the key to regaining consumer trust and pushing the brand forward with consumers and with the enterprise. Although Android die-hards might push back against Knox's APIs running natively in the upcoming Android "L," Knox would be a key asset to an Android strategy that included a separate, "closed" line of phones.
Android is great operating system with a unique community built up around it. Unfortunately, some of the same aspects that make Android unique and innovative are keeping it from creating a more unified user experience and telling a better story about the overall value of the ecosystem.
What do you think?
We want to know. What does Android need to change, if anything, to better compete with Apple? Should Android even be worried about competing with Apple?