Once upon a time there was a catchy slogan used by a certain fruit company to prove a point. “There’s an app for that” was more than something just said in endless advertisements. This meant that while iPhones lagged terribly in features compared to Android phones, any app available from Apple’s App Store would undoubtedly make up the difference.
These days, iOS is little more than another version of Android; a reality that becomes more and more apparent from year to year. At least 10 other Android features can be found (opens in a new tab) in iOS 16, and the same story applies almost every year. Sometimes these features are the ones that Google thought weren’t suitable for its best smartphones (opens in a new tab) and deleted years ago. Other times they’re iterations of Google’s approach and getting better.
In most cases, however, I wonder if anyone will even bother to use most of these features more than once. No, I’m not talking about useful passive features like better voice dictation or haptic feedback on software keyboards. I mean things like 3D objects on maps, lock screen widgets, and the clunky SharePlay feature, among several others. These are all good, I guess, but does anyone really care? I would bet not.
Replace optional apps with bloat
There was a time when feature creep was discouraged. Companies like Samsung have been openly criticized in the public eye for including too many features that users would never actually get. use, although they were useful from time to time. So why would you want to integrate all of this into the operating system itself? Isn’t bloating bad?
In many ways, yes; adding additional functionality to an operating system only complicates development further. It introduces more variables when creating an update, increasing the chances of bugs whenever a major operating system change is made. Last year we posed the question whether Android 12 was too buggy or not (opens in a new tab) at the end of the beta program, and I guess the complications of a massive visual overhaul of an entire operating system was the main culprit.
So why has the paradigm changed? My most educated guess – or, maybe, guess is a better word – is that companies like Apple were tired of hearing “my phone can’t do this” when Android users came up with their latest phones.
I look at Apple’s version of Live Text – an iOS feature that can visually translate printed words through the phone’s camera – and realize that I was able to do just that with Google Lens on any Android phone. for much of the decade. I clearly remember visiting a small German village in 2015 and using my Google Nexus to visually translate the menu and being thankful for such wonderful technology.
But the operating system doesn’t have to be the thing that does this. I would question the idea that building this kind of functionality into the operating system increases exposure and makes a feature more likely to be used than if it were in a standalone application. After all, you still have to go to a submenu within the camera or photos apps to find any of these features, and I’d be surprised if most users even cared about that in the first place.
If anything – especially in the case of the iPhone – the idea of adding too many features is counterproductive to the “simple” image of the phone. The reputation of the iPhone, in particular, rests on being an “easy to use” device that “works” when you need it to.
However, Jitesh Ubrani, IDC’s Global Device Tracking Research Lead, doesn’t necessarily agree with me. He says that “for many consumers, having more features built into the operating system is ideal because it provides a frictionless experience.” In other words, while you might have to dig to find a feature – if you knew about it at all – it’s better than having to find and download a separate app.
Still, Ubrani thinks there’s room for separate apps, even among a plethora of features built into the operating system. He notes that “an example might be using Expedia for travel fares rather than relying on Google Assistant or Google search to find you the best fare.” I know for myself, in this specific case, that I will never rely on a single service provider to give me what I would consider the best airfare, and I will always look for at least a second source to verify the price.
Given the power and amount of storage and RAM in modern phones, the negatives of the bloatware of yesteryear – i.e. making a phone sluggish and sluggish, especially over time – are not really a problem and help negate what was once considered bloat in an operating system.
Do the features actually increase sales?
Among the many reasons why feature creep is out of control, it comes down to the annual cycle of the product. Now that smartphone hardware has largely stagnated in hardware innovation (aside from foldables), companies need to focus more on smartphone software to maintain customer interest. While most new features are still making their way to older phones these days, the occasional feature will be locked to the newer phone model.
But manufacturers have to be smart to introduce too many features specific to a new phone model. There’s a balance to be maintained, and people looking to stick with their current phone for longer don’t want to feel left out. Ubrani notes that “the smartphone market is mature, so most new phone purchases are driven by replacements rather than a specific feature someone would like to upgrade to.”
Given that IDC tracks smartphone sales and why consumers upgrade in the first place, that seems like good advice to follow. With the Samsung Galaxy S22 (opens in a new tab), for example, Samsung used the new hardware to launch a new version of its One User Interface, then rolling out those updates to older models in a relatively short period of time. It’s a great way to incentivize new hardware for enthusiasts who don’t want to wait for the update, while simultaneously rewarding customers who have stuck with a device for the long haul.
In Apple’s case, the continued focus on adding features to appeal to power users – who have long preferred Android – seems to be paying off at retail. (opens in a new tab) In the United States, it’s not enough to attract everyone, but a notable number of people are considering switching after the announcement of iOS 16, according to a recent poll by Android Central.
But Ubrani says “smartphone sales have increased because there’s been an increase in penetration,” not that people are buying new phones because of any specific feature. It means more people buy smartphones, not that the same number of people buy After smart phones. He notes that a rare example of people buying a new smartphone for a specific feature was “when the iPhone 6 launched with a bigger screen.”
However, I still wonder how often people actually use all the new features on a phone. Apple went out of its way to show off the cinematic nature of the iPhone 12 camera last year, but how often do you see people using that specific mode on their social media or in videos of all days ? I know I haven’t seen any examples of real-world usage since then.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love features as much as the next enthusiast/power user, but often those features are so buried that they’re hard to find, even if you’re actively looking for them. Grab Samsung’s Absolutely Awesome Photo Restoration Tool (opens in a new tab), who helped our editor Derrek Lee restore priceless family photos. Yes, even his grandfather’s horribly damaged ones had taken decades before.
I certainly won’t look a gift horse in the mouth; the features are great and I always appreciate something new and fun to do with my phone. But the focus on new features seems a bit silly.
How about, instead of throwing away more and more e-waste with annual product cycles, companies instead focus on longevity and service? When that happens, I can guarantee that features will become a much bigger deal for consumers looking to see which service they want to continue subscribing to. Fairphone (opens in a new tab)The latest program does just that, and I think that’s what we really need to see in the tech space.