Now that iOS 8 is finally in the hands of millions, it's worth taking a step back to look at just how far Apple has pushed your iPhone's capabilities—and how much farther it still has to go. Especially compared to what Android lets you get away with.
The same Android versus iOS argument flares up every year. Apple fans brag about the smooth scrolling and quick responsiveness while Galaxy and M8 users boast about the endless customization opportunities available on their phones. It's a silly fight; both have their strengths, and both continue to improve. And after iOS 8, they're closer than ever; when I got my first look at it during WWDC, it seemed like Apple was finally allowing people to punch a few holes in the walls of its garden.
Custom keyboards. Widgets. A TouchID API. Extensions. Enough new frameworks to make it feel like iOS Christmas. But while iOS 8 is certainly more open than it's ever been, Apple's newest update didn't knock down all of the roadblocks to personalization any more than Project Butter made Android devices silky smooth over night. It's a good start, but there's a long way to go.
One of the biggest differences between Android and iOS has always been the home screen. Apple has stubbornly stuck to its app grid, while Android offers users a clean slate to work with, opening up a wide spectrum of customization options in the form of graphical widgets.
The good news is, Apple finally included widgets in iOS 8. The bad news is, they're nowhere near as useful as Android's. While both methods provide similar bits of information—forecasts, scores, package tracking, etc.—Apple opted to store its info-nuggets in the Notification Center, which diminishes the whole experience. For one, the Notification Center is not a place I ever think about visiting. Alerts often pile up for weeks before I get rid of them (and I suspect I'm not the only one). But even if iOS 8 were to get me to change my habits, there's another problem: They're just not very helpful yet.
It's possible that there will be great widgets once developers have a chance to play with all the new tools, but you can't escape the fact that they'll always be limited by how little room Apple has given them to operate.
On my Nexus, widgets are vivid standalone web apps that can be positioned virtually anywhere on the screen. The ones on my iPhone, by contrast, are barely distinguishable from each other, with a clunky horizontal hierarchy that requires either constant organizing or excessive scrolling. And without the ability to interact with them very much, the information they provide is sorely limited; ESPN's widget, for example only provides scores for your favorite teams. The same one on Android offers a comprehensive snapshot of a range of sports happening at any given moment.
For the first time ever, Apple is giving us an option to customize iOS at the system level, allowing users to swap out the QuickType keyboard with a third-party one of their choosing. It's one of the best reasons to upgrade to iOS 8, and Android defectors will find all of their favorites represented, including Fleksy, Minuum and SwiftKey. Apple needs to squash a few more bugs before it's perfect, but for the most part, it's leveled the playing field considerably and opened the door for future customizations.
But while the right keyboard can make any app better, when I click a link or accept a calendar invite, I'm still shuttled off to ones I don't necessarily want to use. On Android, users can pick whichever app they want to use for common functions, but in iOS 8, we're still forced to use the apps that come preinstalled on our devices. Even though extensions have allowed iOS apps to communicate and integrate with each other in new ways, we're going to have to wait at least one more version until Apple lets us open Fantastical or Calendar on the fly.
Speaking of extensions, Apple's focus on productivity and multitasking in iOS 8 has made our iPhones and iPads more powerful than ever. We can share files and functions between apps, and interact with notifications without leaving the screen we're on, and from what I've seen from the first crop of apps, it's pleasantly unrestricted and looks to be at least on par with Android's implementation.
But stock Android is only part of the story. It's pretty safe to say Apple will never be cool with jailbreakers accessing the root level of iOS, but perhaps they can give developers a bit more control over the interface. I'm not talking about themes here (though I can't say I'd mind), but iOS would surely benefit from a little outside ingenuity.
Android might lag iOS in the check-out-our-cool-exclusive-app-that's-going-to-change-the-world department, but Google Play is filled with awesome tweaks and utilities that enhance and personalize the user experience and increase productivity: There's the aptly named Multitasking, which brings desktop-style window management to tablets. Power Toggles puts a custom control strip widget of settings to the top of your screen. Sidebar Plus adds slide-out drawers of settings, shortcuts and widgets accessible from the edges of the home screen. You've got near-limitless options.
Apple has thus far disallowed developers to tweak the system in these sort of ways, but now that we have widgets and third-party keyboards in iOS, some real customization of the interface is theoretically possible, and would truly give Android a run for its money.
There's no denying that iOS 8 is giant leap for Apple in the direction of openness, but there's still plenty for Apple and Android users to argue about. Maybe there'll be peace and parity in iOS 9, but something tells me we shouldn't hold our breath.