Like all the best grudge matches - Manchester United/Arsenal, Oasis/Blur, Lannister/Stark - the current ding-dong between Apple and Google at the top of the mobile tech industry is about more than just two combatants vying for domination. It's a clash of philosophies.
Historically we would have described Google and Apple's attitudes to software design as open and closed respectively (although, since 'closed' has such a negative feel to it, Apple fans would sometimes substitute a euphemism like 'curated' instead). Google plays things reasonably fast and loose with the Android operating system, letting the user or hardware manufacturer reconfigure the way things look or behave. You want to reskin Android? Sure! You want to add widgets? Go for it! Apple’s attitude is a bit more security-guard-in-a-fancy-art-gallery. You want to make Dolphin your iPhone's default web browser? We'd prefer it if you didn't. Now take your hands off Stocks, please - you're smudging it.
But is that about to change? Well… maybe. Don't expect Tim Cook to be tweeting jailbreaking tips just yet, but at WWDC 2014 we heard the unexpected but pleasing news that with the advent of iOS 8, apps will be (to a strictly limited extent) allowed to talk to one another, and third-party developers will be permitted to create extensions and widgets that run in other apps and across the OS as a whole. This is huge.
Take the iOS system keyboard, that boring but vital and omnipresent part of the user experience. A persistent criticism of iOS 7 and its recent predecessors was that the keyboard was a queasy mix of dated and inflexible: the default keyboard had none of the innovative features (such as Swype’s predictive sliding) that users of other OSes were enjoying, yet forward-thinking users weren't allowed to download an alternative. (Or rather, they could, but it wouldn't help. Any app you downloaded in iOS 7 would be confined to its own sandbox, unable to perform its magic in other apps.) But now, with iOS 8, system-wide third-party keyboards are allowed - including, if the demo is anything to go by, one by Swype itself.
And take Safari. (No really - take Safari, please! Ha ha ha.) Poor old maligned Safari isn't actually that bad, but there are better mobile browsers out there, and it's always been frustrating that iPad and iPhone users can't make them the default. You still can't, but iOS 8 Safari will at least let you import new features by other companies and mould the browser to your own preferences. Software chief Craig Federighi showed off a Bing Translator extension (Bing? Do you need some lotion for that burn, Google?) that lets you change the language of web pages on the fly, but the entire point of this feature is its open-endedness - the possibilities are limitless.
In iOS 8, developers will be able to add extensions such as sharing, photo-editing and in-browser translation tools...
...as well as widgets for the Notification Centre and third-party keyboards. Click to enlarge
Take the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, a powerful hardware tool on the iPhone 5s (and presumably on a wider range of devices in the future) that until recently was limited to unlocking your device and a few other Apple-approved activities such as App Store purchases. With iOS 8, developers will get access to the Touch ID APIs, enabling them to make financial data or mobile payments, for example, fingerprint-lockable. We built a clever toy, Apple is saying to devs. Can you help us think of cool things to do with it?
Finally, take the Notification Centre, which is now customisable with widgets. Accessible from any screen with a single swipe, Notifications are a hugely important part of the OS, and being able to put chosen apps in there is a fantastic - and necessary - step forward.
The merits of closed design
All of this positivity, however, raises an obvious question. If openness is so great, why did Apple champion the closed OS for all those years? To put it another way, what took you so long, Apple?
The answer is that openness has its faults too: a few months on Android is enough to convince most (although not, of course, all) that Google's offering has at least as many problems as stupid old closed iOS, and probably rather more. iOS's airtight security, for instance, would be impossible without Apple’s strict controls; break down the walls and all kinds of mischief-makers can climb over. So would its consistently high level of user-friendliness.
Which makes it all the more important that we get an Apple kind of openness: one that remains accountable to a central authority with users' interests at heart. Federighi made it clear that Apple takes the security aspect of extensions seriously (the sandboxes aren't really being broken down - the walls are just being made slightly more porous), but we can be sure that the company will also impose strict controls on the extensions and widgets in the apps it approves.
You could argue that this isn't really true openness at all, and you might be right; after all, without wishing to sound too Orwellian, complete freedom and total security cannot co-exist. But this remains a significant change: a conscious relaxation on the limitations preventing users and third parties from being creative within Apple’s platforms.
The new Apple
The App Store is one of Apple’s greatest and most financially lucrative modern-day successes, but Steve Jobs - or so the story goes - had to be persuaded to allow third-party software on there at all. What would have been Apple’s single most damaging corporate mistake was avoided by getting Jobs to think (for once) in collaborative terms. Apple could benefit, he was persuaded to see, by building a platform and then allowing other people, and other companies, to be creative with it. You can't build 1.2 million apps by yourself.
What we saw at WWDC 2014 was that philosophy given free rein, as Apple finally emerged from its founder's shadow. Tim Cook’s Apple is a very different beast to the one that Jobs built, as we’ve known for some time, but this was the first time we’ve seen Cook’s Apple speaking with the confidence of its new convictions.
We're now seeing an Apple that embraces its partner companies instead of keeping them at arm's length. Fully half the iOS 8 presentation was aimed in increasingly technical language at the software developers in the audience, reeling off a bucket list of hoped-for features and developer-centric accommodations that encourage innovation.
Developers have always been central to WWDC's raison d’être (they’re right there in the name!) but they've been reduced in many past years, at least for the showpiece opening speech, to the role of trophy-expert set dressing while Apple is really talking to the world’s mainstream media. This year's developer focus was a visible acknowledgement that non-Apple designers and programmers have valuable contributions to make, and that allowing them greater creative freedom will be beneficial for Apple and its users alike.
Because we’re also seeing an Apple that responds to its users and their wishes. While we didn’t see an iWatch as users had hoped and some incurable optimists had expected (although interesting rumours on that front have trickled out since WWDC closed), the ways in which iOS and OS X have changed reflect many of the things most wished for in forums and on discussion boards. Not least among them a number of features previously seen (or similar to those seen) in Android… and Android's broader openness to greater user customisation.
So, even if their approaches to user and third-party customisation may remain strongly divided, the days of describing Google and Apple as the yin and yang of open and closed software design appear to be over. Which might lead consumers to view the companies in a different light; perhaps, if Apple's sly plugging of per-tab private browsing and the non-tracking DuckDuckGo search engine have the desired effect, they may start to contrast the two firms' attitudes to user privacy. Good luck with that, Google.