Android's two killer innovations since the iPhone 5 launch

Since Apple announced the iPhone 5 over 7 months ago, Android has made two big leaps forward. One came from Google and the other from a third party app.
Written by Jason Hiner, Editor in Chief
Image credit: CNET

It's been 229 days since Apple announced the iPhone 5 and iOS 6. In Silicon Valley time, that's roughly a millennium.

And we're unlikely to see major updates to the iPhone, iOS or any other major Apple products until this fall, based on CEO Tim Cook's comments during the company's latest earnings call.

Meanwhile, Android has lengthened its stride. 

I'm not talking about the Samsung Galaxy S4 with its flurry of software features, or the HTC One with its amazing hardware design. I'm talking about the killer feature in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean as well as the latest version of the one killer app on Android that you can't get on iOS. 

Here's why those two big leapfrog innovations matter. 

1. Google Now: The killer feature

We first saw Google Now last June when Hugo Barra demoed Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean" at Google I/O. While the demo had its share of whizbang-ness, it wasn't something that looked like a game-changer. It even appeared a bit gimmicky. But, with a steady stream of software improvements and the fact it's stunningly useful once it's activated and starts doing its thing, Google Now emerged as one of Android's biggest advantages over the iPhone. 

As I noted earlier this year, Google Now has given us one of the great "Ah, ha!" moments in tech in recent memory. It automatically alerts you when you need to leave for a meeting based on current traffic conditions, or warns you that your flight has been delayed, or reminds you that one of your favorite teams is playing tonight, or has navigation directions ready for you on that restaurant you just searched for — and it does all of this without you even having to configure anything. It's truly a big data moment, and although Google has indicated that it would like to bring Google Now to iOS, for now it's only available on Android and the iOS version will obviously never have the same deep integration. One of the things that makes Google Now so great is that it goes hand-in-hand with Android's other killer feature: notifications.


2. SwiftKey 4: The killer app

This one doesn't have anything to do with Google, but it has everything to do with Android. It's one of those apps that cannot exist on iOS because Apple doesn't give developers access to enough of the fundamental layers of the operating system, but Android does. Occasionally that can lead to malware threats and configuration issues, but other times you get amazing pieces of software like SwiftKey.

A replacement for the native Android keyboard, SwiftKey allows you to move a finger across the keyboard in one continuous motion over the letters of the word you'd like to spell and SwiftKey magically interprets that word at a high accuracy rate — especially for standard dictionary words. Often, it also predicts the next word you are going to type and if it's correct then you can select that word with one tap and then keep inputting new words. 

This is significantly faster than using the standard touch keyboard on Android or iPhone, and SwiftKey took another big step forward with the release of SwiftKey 4 in February. In the two months since it was released, it has saved me 7,749 keystrokes and made me 33% more efficient, according to the SwiftKey stats. It honestly feels even more efficient than that. Those of us who used a Palm Treo or a BlackBerry with a hardware keyboard before moving to virtual keyboards on iPhone or Android know that we definitely traded typing accuracy and speed for the benefits of better apps and ease-of-use. SwiftKey now helps overcome the keyboard drawback on Android.


Apple's challenge

It's been a very quiet year so far for Apple. While the iPhone remains simpler to use and still gets many of the best apps and app updates before Android does, Google Now and SwiftKey 4 are two powerful advantages that the iPhone is unlikely to match in 2013. 

That puts an important challenge on Apple's shoulders. The iPhone needs a unique next-step-forward innovation before the end of 2013, or else Android is likely to take its mantle as the platform where the future is unfolding.

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