Each year, Apple's iPhones get better, and each year, I find it harder to resolve my Apple-vs-Google smartphone dilemma. Despite the appeal of the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus arriving this week, though, it looks like Google will win out for another year.
Switching back to an iPhone would be a big shift for me after five years primarily using phones powered by Google's Android mobile software. I've invested in lots of Android apps, trained my muscle memory to use its features and grown fond of the back button.
But I'm a pragmatist, not a religious fanatic, and some iPhone advantages are hard to resist.
Last year's bigger iPhone 6 and 6 Plus brought the screen sizes I need. The three features I find most compelling about this year's Phone 6S are a faster processor for snappier apps and better graphics; more memory hardware for faster switching among apps; and a better camera to feed my photography habit.
I applaud Apple for its customer-first engineering priority of building something that "just works." What I'm concerned about, though, is that I'm not the sort of customer Apple has in mind. Specifically, I'm a customer who doesn't want to confine himself just to Apple products and services.
Today's technology products span many categories, and getting them all to work together is an immense challenge. As Apple expands from phones, tablets and computers to watches, TV set-top boxes and maybe even cars, it can keep all those products marching in lockstep. In principle, it can show the video-infused "live photos" you took with your iPhone 6S on an iCloud gallery viewed with an Apple TV. When you're using your phone on the bus writing an email or watching a TV show, you can pause and then later, with an iPad or Mac, pick up where you left off. The Apple Watch can use your iPhone to handle a phone call or look up your location on a map.
Expect more of this integration as Apple expands. And expect the iPhone to play a central role --perhaps unlocking your car as you get near or telling your home to wake up when return after work. Macs are good when you need to be productive, the Apple Watch when you want to be unencumbered, but the iPhone has the balance of network connectivity, computing power and portability that will put it at the heart of everything Apple does.
A gateway drug
To me, the iPhone feels like something of a gateway drug to the increasingly broad collection of Apple products. There are a lot of customers who'll be fine living in an Apple world -- heck, I'm generally happy with the MacBook Pro and iPad I use daily -- but I also want to be part of the Google world, the Amazon world, the Microsoft world and whatever else comes along that proves compelling.
I find Apple's approach too insular, and the company's recent choices emphasize that direction. The new Apple TV won't be able to run apps written with Web technologies, something that shuts out a lot of programmers and undermines the Web's advantages as a universal foundation for computing that spans many devices. With no browser, there's also no way to just go a website like YouTube or Vimeo to watch what you want. Instead, you'll have to use what's built in or head through the Apple app store for Apple TV apps.
Another example: A programmer selling a game in the Apple TV app store is welcome to use a traditional game controller like you'd see on a Sony PlayStation or Microsoft Xbox -- but Apple requires first that "your game must support the Apple TV remote."
Apple isn't totally exclusionary. On iPhones and iPads, you can use Google Docs and Microsoft Word apps for word processing, not just Apple Pages. You can synchronize files and back up photos with Dropbox, not just iCloud. You can edit photos with Adobe Photoshop Fix, not just Apple Photos. Apple Music is coming to Android, and iTunes is on Windows. But Apple often gets special privileges. Good luck trying to change your default browser on an iPhone to Chrome or the default navigation to Google Maps. Want to watch video purchased through iTunes on a Roku streaming-media device? Sorry.
In short, buying an Apple smartphone is a bit too much like buying into Apple's ever-broader suite of products and services. The Apple integration is similar to what Scott McNealy, co-founder and former chief executive of Sun Microsystems, called a welded-shut hairball when disparaging Microsoft. Google shows this behavior, too, but not to the same degree. It lets people install any browser on Android, offers its core apps on iPhones and strongly supports the Web as an open alternative for operating systems like Windows Phone for which it doesn't offer native apps.
So for now, I'll forsake the iPhone's top-notch camera and responsive hardware. Restricting choices may well keep messy chaos from intruding onto Apple devices, but I for one would like a little more messiness.