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Android O: Should iPhone be worried? Nah

Commentary: Google's new Android may be better than before, but it's kind of boring.


Last year after Google announced Android N (which became Android Nougat), I wrote that Android had blown past the iPhone and iOS.

Granted, it was deep in the iOS 9 era, just a few weeks before Apple unveiled iOS 10 at its own developer conference. But with N, Google wowed me with its better search, better AI than Siri and the then-new Daydream VR.

This year, I can't quite say the same with Android O. There's no one killer feature to take down the iPhone 7 -- and we're not sure which improvements are in store for the iPhone 8.

Apple is rumored to release the 10th anniversary iPhone (we're calling that the iPhone 8 for now) with brand new hardware and software that pulls out all the stops, like updating the Siri voice assistant and camera tools.

When Apple announces its updates to iOS at its annual developer conference on June 5, it has an amazing opportunity to wow us in a way that Android O has not.

Don't get me wrong. Tightening software's nuts and bolts is extremely important. Android O promises to save battery and speed up the phone. And Android Go, a version of the software for entry-level phones, will have huge implications for making Android work smoothly on handsets in emerging countries.

But this year, the Android updates that really excite me were either announced last year, appear in other phones, are "invisible" adjustments to base code, or aren't related to Android O at all.

Here's where Google pushes forward with Android O:

  • Instant Apps: Announced at I/O 2016, the mini programs will let you open slices of an app without downloading a thing. They're still not ready, and they're not even technically part of Android O.
  • Picture-in-picture: You'll be able to watch a video or navigate in Maps in a thumbnail window while using your phone for literally anything else. Previously seen with video on some Samsung Galaxy phones.
  • Improved copy/paste: Very awesomely selects a whole phone number, address or name when you press. Makes selection easier, but not a real killer feature.
  • Chrome autofill: I mean, it fills in name, address and password fields.

To be clear, Android O still seems like a promising step forward for Android, but it's actually Google's other announcements that have the power to change the way we work and live. Many of them will show up on Android phones, but they aren't tied to Android O -- they exist independently of it.

And that's where Apple should worry about matching Google's progress in ways that lay the foundation for things to come.


Read how Google is doing "deep surgery on Android" with its latest OS.

James Martin/CNET

More exciting than Android O:

  • Google Lens: Machine learning can identify objects like flowers, Wi-Fi router numbers and places. You can interact with them, too. And you can use it in Google Photos and Google Assistant.
  • Google Home updates: It recognizes different voices and answers based on who's asking. Free hands-free calling, Bluetooth support, and using your TV as Home's screen.
  • Google Assistant updates: You can now type a request in addition to speaking it, and it will be able to perform transactions, like ordering food at a restaurant. It'll come to the iPhone, too, as an app.
  • Google Photo updates: You can automatically share libraries with people, which is great for loved ones.
  • Google for Jobs: Making job listings as easy to skim through as a restaurant result, this could open the door to any kind of similar search: homes, babysitters, vacation rentals.

But Google isn't worried about the next iPhone, or about flashy phone features in general.

"Sometimes you can wow people for a moment," said Hiroshi Lockheimer, who heads up Google's Android business, "And they forget about it because it's gimmicky."

To Google's Android team, it's the vitals like battery life and smooth performance that are key.

"If your battery goes out at 4 p.m., it doesn't matter what features your phone has," said Stephanie Saad Cuthbertson, director of product management for Android.

So while Google's new announcements for I/O are set to perfect phones running Android O, or whatever sweet treat name it'll eventually pick up, what we get with Android O isn't going to even make a dent in the iPhone hype machine.

Apple has every opportunity to put a can't-live-without feature on buyers' lips, the kind that brings them in droves.