The third and final instalment of our Ware Wars II series aims to take a closer look at some of the native features of iOS 6, Android Jelly Bean and Windows Phone 8, to highlight what they bring to the table in terms of innovation within each mobile OS. Whilst some of these features may have been previously explored in part 1 and part 2 of the series, here we’ll attempt to determine if these so-called unique features are exactly that…
Although Google has incorporated voice actions into Android since its inception, it was the debut of Apple’s Siri on the iPhone 4S that pushed the notion of the ‘voice assistant’ to the fore. Its first incarnation proved popular and became synonymous with the iPhone (despite Apple not inventing the technology itself – a familiar situation), but did leave a lot to be desired by way of functionality.
iOS 6 however has seen Apple make Siri an integral part of interacting with the iPhone and the digital assistant will now open apps, recall recent queries directed at it, allow users to post to Twitter and Facebook and display sports results from within the app itself. Whilst Samsung’s S-Voice and Google’s revamped systemwide search functionality (which utilises Google’s Knowledge Graph much in the same way that Siri does the Wolfram Alpha “computational knowledge engine’) certainly do provide a similar service, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that Siri sets iOS apart from rival platforms. For now at least.
In a similar vein, iOS 6’s Passbook might merely be the Cupertino-based tech giant’s take on ‘wallet’ services -just as Windows Phone 8’s ‘Wallet’ and Google Wallet are- but this feature extends the reach of the latter somewhat, despite an absence of NFC support in the iPhone. Unlike Google Wallet, Passbook stores digital versions of loyalty cards, boarding passes, discount vouchers and eTickets in one place, although the contactless payment option is sadly lacking.
Passbook also uses location data to bring up relevant vouchers and cards when in the vicinity of the venue or store that requires them, and reacts to time-based events (such as flight delays or gate changes). Windows Phone 8’s Wallet app does all this and has the added bonus of NFC payments, but as iOS 6 beat it to the punch by rolling-out first, we’ll consider this a unique feature.
Finally, FaceTime is now available over cellular networks with iOS 6, although only on the iPhone 4S and upwards. Whilst other mobile platforms do offer integrated VoIP solutions – most notably Windows Phone 8 and the way in which Skype calls are integrated into the standard call interface – FaceTime on iOS 6 is to be commended for linking users phone numbers with their Apple ID meaning FaceTime calls can be answered on other iDevices within their eco-system.
Android Jelly Bean
The latest iteration of Android promises increased imaging functionality thanks to the introduction of a redesigned camera app. Slated to launch with the forthcoming LG-produced Nexus 4, Android 4.2 will feature Google’s new Photo Sphere functionality, which lets users take 360-degree photos of their surroundings in a similar fashion to Google’s StreetView.
Photos taken using this feature are shareable across other Google products including Google + and excitingly, Google Maps, possibly paving the way for user generated content to be included in the service. However, whilst Photo Sphere does appear to be genuinely innovative, it could be said that it does bare some similarities to Microsoft’s PhotoSynth and the unexpected addition of a panorama mode to iOS 6.
The introduction of Google Now with Android Jelly Bean also brings functionality largely unseen on rival mobile operating systems and forms part of Google’s attempts to align its products and services more closely within Android. An optional feature that can be toggled on and off as the users sees fit, Google Now taps into your GPS, calendar, and search history and uses the information it gathers to predict commute times, suggest nearby amenities, and present realtime sports scores.
Similar to Siri but minus the voice activation element, Google Now could be described as a digital assistant and proves useful over time as it builds up a data profile of the person using it. Whilst other mobile platforms offer the information Google Now provides via various means, we’ve yet to find a feature on rival operating systems that takes the pulse of its user’s life in such a way.
A new text input method in the form of Gesture Typing has made its way to Android 4.2, although its uniqueness could be called into question as it’s ostensibly Google’s take on Swype, a third-party app that allows users to type out an email or text message by dragging a finger across the keyboard.
Windows Phone 8
Whereas the features examined so far do appear to share elements with existing ones from other operating systems, those introduced by Windows Phone 8 don’t share the same ambiguity when it comes to uniqueness. A prime example of this comes in the form of Kid’s Corner, a feature that enables a ‘guest user’ mode that can be configured so that only selected apps, features, and games are accessible. This is especially useful for those with curious children wanting to explore the handset as users can rest safe in the knowledge that their important emails will not be inadvertently erased, or even worse, have expensive phone bills racked up though errant calls.
The feature is easily set up via the settings menu or Kid’s Corner Live Tile pinned to the homescreen from which users can select from a list of apps, games, and areas of the phone they want to allow access to. A password needs to be set up however so as to prevent children – or guest users – from reconfiguring the settings. Once this is done, a swipe left from the lock screen will reveal an entirely new lock screen from which Kid’s Corner can be accessed with an upwards swipe. The Start screen within Kid’s Corner is as customisable as the standard one, but the list of apps usually accessed with a swipe left will not appear. Although Android 4.2 introduces similar functionality by way of guest profiles, this will initially be restricted to tablets.
Another feature giving Windows Phone a slight edge is the addition of Rooms to the People Hub. This allows users to invite selected contacts to share a specific ‘Hub’ with its own dedicated messaging thread and calendar, and the functionality to allow the sharing of notes and photos. Each Room can be pinned to the Start screen and all of the messages in that particular Room’s thread will update in realtime as with the regular People Hub Live Tile. NFC support within the People Hub allows the sharing of contacts – something that give this feature an advantage over iOS.
And finally, there’s Lenses – a series of custom settings and filters that incorporate into the Windows Phone 8 camera app and enhance image capturing abilities. With Widows Phone historically suffering from a lack of apps owing to the difficulty developers have in porting them from other platforms (something that has hopefully been remedied with the rebuilding of the OS using C++), third-party apps such as Instagram have been noticeably absent. Lenses looks to redress the balance somewhat and will be opened up to developers to bring extra functionality to the camera of WP8 devices.
At present there’s a smattering available including Photostrip, which allows shots to be taken in burst mode, panoramic imaging lens PhotoSynth, and Nokia City Lens, an augmented reality feature that overlays information pertaining to your surroundings as seen through the viewfinder of the Lumia 820 and Lumia 920. More will undoubtedly be hitting the Windows Phone Store post-launch however.
Having considered the features of each OS deemed to mark out the platforms as unique Windows Phone 8 is perhaps the most innovative in this respect as those features introduced by iOS 6 and Jelly Bean can be found in some form or another in rival platforms. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be held in higher esteem than iOS 6 or Jelly Bean, or that those two operating systems will quickly fall by the wayside – the quality of devices produced to run WP8 will prove a defining factor in whether Microsoft gains ground on its market dominating competitors.
iOS will always occupy the upper echelons of the smartphone world as a result of the cult-like dedication Apple inspires from its followers, and whereas Android certainly has the devices, it could turn the screw and gain even more ground if it could somehow emulate Apple in terms of smooth roll-out of software upgrades. If anything, the similarities between each OS highlighted in this article and across the three part series raises an interesting question; has ‘true’ innovation within mobile operating systems reached its limit? That’s one for another day and another lengthy feature, but it does make us wonder exactly where smartphone software is heading next.