iOS: State of the Platform part 1 - Year in review

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
A look back at iOS in 2013
Last time, we took a long trip in order to cover the major changes we saw over the past year in Android, and what to expect in 2014 for Google's system. Surprisingly, the look into Apple has taken an even longer journey (both in how long it took to write and in overall length of the piece), because while we skimmed over Android hardware for the most part, it is impossible to do the same with Apple. This means there s a bit more to cover in terms of where Apple's platform has come from in 2013, and what to expect from iOS in 2014.

Just as we did with Android, we'll be looking at the changes that have happened with iOS over the past year as well as what to expect moving forward, because we often focus on day-to-day changes and rumors, which can hinder the view of an entire year of change. In the Android article, we focused mostly on Google Android and Google Apps to go along with general hardware trends, because there are simply too many manufacturers and devices to consider when it comes to Android. However, when you're talking about Apple, you need to focus more on both sides of the spectrum. Rather than talking about two incremental updates and myriad hardware permutations like Android, iOS had one major update - iOS 7 - and there were four new pieces of hardware from Apple - the iPhone 5s, iPhone 5c, iPad Air, and iPad mini with Retina display. Although, the 5c was little more than the iPhone 5 with a new case, which doesn't require too much attention. 

Overall though, Apple is easier to handle, because you could really just look at the span of time from September's iPhone announcement to October's iPad announcement, and that would give you the general idea of what happened with Apple and iOS in 2013. If you were to look at just one Android maker like Samsung, the yearly trend would look similar, but rather than back to back announcements, Samsung had the Galaxy S4 announcement in March, and the announcement for the Galaxy Note 3, Note 10.1, and Galaxy Gear in September. Of course, looking at it in terms of Android as a whole means much more happening consistently throughout the year, but each item is usually an even smaller change.

Market share and profits

We essentially ran through the numbers last time, but focused on Android of course, so it makes sense to take a look at those same numbers from Apple's perspective. As mentioned last time, Android was a beast in the market in 2013, shipping 781 million devices and taking almost 79% of global smartphone shipments. And, Android also continued to win a bit in terms of tablet market share as well.

Recommended Stories
Apple did see an overall increase in iPhone shipments in 2013 compared to 2012, but it still led to a drop in Apple's global market share. According to the numbers from Canalys, Apple shipped 135.8 million iPhones in 2012, and that number increased to 153.4 million in 2013. But, Apple's global market share dropped from 19.4% to just 15.5%. However, Apple is still extremely competitive in two major markets: the U.S. and Japan, and Apple is even holding the majority of market share in Japan. iOS can also claim to be the number two smartphone platform in many other countries across North America and western Europe, but the distance between number one (Android) and number two can be fairly wide in many places.

Of course, talking about Apple in terms of market share is somewhat counterproductive, because it isn't the main aim of the company. Sure, every company wants as big a portion of the pie as possible, but Apple likely understands at this point that just like in its fight of Mac vs Windows, it is essentially impossible to beat Android in terms of market share without completely upending the way that Apple functions and how it creates its products. The majority of Android's market share comes from the low-end, which is a segment that Apple doesn't get into because it would tarnish the company's "premium" branding. However, talking profits is a very good idea when you're talking about Apple, because that is the number one aim of the company; and, when it came to profits, 2013 was still an amazing year for Apple. 

The full-year numbers aren't quite out yet, but for the first three quarters Apple had about 56% of the mobile industry profits each quarter, and in the fourth quarter Apple had 72% of the profits. According to Canaccord Genuity, out of every dollar spent on mobile products in Q4 2013, 43 cents went to Apple. Apple's overall margin for 2013 was likely down a little compared to its high in 2011, but Apple still easily had the highest margins out of any company in the mobile world. Basically, only two companies in the mobile ecosystem actually make profits: Apple and Samsung. So, Apple may not be so sad about market share dips. 

Unfortunately, that outlook may not hold true much longer. As we mentioned with Android, the high-end smartphone market is quickly becoming saturated, which means there simply isn't the opportunity there to drive profit growth. Right now in the smartphone game, the only way to sustain profits is to cut your margins and aim lower-cost devices at emerging markets. The trouble is that low-cost devices and cutting margins are things that Apple has been very reluctant to do. 

The iPhone 5c was too expensive to sell where Apple needed it to and has been called a failure. The device was so expensive that Apple essentially priced itself out of the market in many regions, which forced Apple to re-release the iPhone 4 in India last month and resume iPhone 4 production in general in order to hit a lower price point in emerging markets. The question is whether Apple will finally give in to market pressure in 2014, but there really is no good answer to that question right now. 

Software (iOS 7)

This was an "S" year for Apple, and regardless of the various marketing speak that Apple puts forward, the "S" most often means a bigger focus on software changes rather than hardware. The internals of Apple devices always get an update, but the years where the hardware is a flat number (iPhone 3G, iPhone 4, iPhone 5) are the years when Apple focuses on redesigning the iPhone hardware, and when the iPhone hardware ends in "S" (iPhone 3Gs, iPhone 4S, iPhone 5s) the focus tends to be more on software. For example, iOS 3 came with the 3Gs and brought video recording, copy and paste, limited voice control, and MMS. iOS 5 came with the 4S and brought iCloud, Siri, iMessage, Newsstand, wireless iTunes syncing, Twitter integration, and hotspot. And, that brings us to the iPhone 5s and iOS 7.


For years, critics have been complaining about the iOS UI being somewhat stale, because aside from a couple minor changes like folders, wallpapers, and an additional row of icons, iOS didn't see a major visual update in over 5 years from the release of the original iPhone. Although many still loved the design of iOS, over that time, even diehard Apple fans wanted a change in the visual flavor of their chosen platform, and that's exactly what Apple delivered this year. The update was announced at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) back in June and we saw a string of beta builds between then and the September release of the new iPhones. 

To put it plainly: iOS 7 has been divisive. Even ignoring the always-present Apple rage that exists around any new Apple product, iPhone and iPad users themselves have had very mixed reactions to the new design. Some loved the new flatter and more colorful design, the more minimalist touches, and the increased use of transparency. But, there were also quite a few people, including many professional designers, that found quite a lot of flaws in the overhaul. Some found the colors to be too cartoonish, and the animations were slow enough to make iOS feel like it had taken a step backwards from a usability standard. 

The new iOS 7 software has generally felt rushed, including inconsistent use of the new design language. The system is still quite buggy and leads to a variety of crashes and reboots for many users. iOS 7.1 is expected to fix many of those issues, but that isn't due out until next month (March 2014). And, it even took Apple a couple months after the release of iOS 7 before it finished updating its own core set of apps with the new design language for the system. 


Still, the outrage around iOS 7 has mostly quieted down, which has allowed users to find some of the nice new functionality that Apple added to the update. As we mentioned when talking about Android, both Android and iOS are at the point now where the platforms themselves are essentially feature-complete. No matter what you want to do with a mobile phone, you'll find the functionality somewhere on one of those two platforms, either in the system itself or in the app ecosystem. At this point, the majority of changes to either Android or iOS are added bonuses and polish. For example, a big addition in iOS 7 was the Control Center, which allows you to control audio and access various quick settings and links no matter where you are in the system. This is undoubtedly a very useful feature and makes things much easier, like its Android analogue Quick Settings - but neither adds new functionality, just easier ways to access existing functionality.

There will be those who will continually denigrate iOS for its lack of widgets and "true" multitasking; but really, if you are that in love with widgets, and can find major usability flaws in how iOS handles multitasking, you should be using an Android device and not care what is offered by Apple. In the real world users enjoy iOS, and it is often exactly because of those limitations set by Apple, not in spite of them, because those limitations lead to positives. Apple has carefully designed multitasking to allow for as much functionality as is necessary for the majority of users without causing a huge hit on the iPhone's battery life. 

iOS 7 brought in a new visual scheme for multitasking, which looks a lot like Windows Phone, but the point is that it works much better for users. Apple has slowly added options for apps to play music in the background, and use GPS in the background; and, iOS 7 adds options to download data periodically if you want, so various social or news apps will always be up-to-date when you open them. Even better, as is standard with iOS, you have a centralized section in the Settings menu to control what apps can use this functionality. Unfortunately, you still need to go into each app for controls deeper than just an on/off switch, but a centralized list is always nice.

Siri also saw quite a bit of improvement with iOS 7 with new functionality and faster performance. Siri now offers richer answers to questions, new voice options, and options to toggle system settings like turning on or off Bluetooth. Much like Google Now's voice commands, Siri excels in some ways and falls short in others. Siri tends to work better as a personal assistant with features to better control and organize your schedule, whereas Google Now tends to be faster and more useful when it comes to... well, Google search functions - finding information, etc. The thing is that Apple's biggest issue with Siri isn't in the functionality, but in getting people to actually use the product. Some data has suggested that only 15% of iOS 7 users have actually called on Siri for any reason. The stats aren't available for Google Now, but in general the average smartphone user is still reluctant to use voice commands, no matter how useful they are. So, it is unclear as yet how helpful these updates really are for the general population. We get the idea that this is all work that will bear fruit once the iWatch becomes a reality, because voice command will likely be the easiest way to interact with wearable devices that have limited screen real estate.

The last major addition was AirDrop. For a couple years now, Android users have been talking about NFC and Bluetooth file transfer options, and AirDrop was Apple's answer to those options, which each have limitations. NFC requires two devices that have NFC, and it has taken a while for the ecosystem to make that commonplace; and, Bluetooth transfers are just slow. So, Apple went with essentially a Wi-Fi direct option that it has called AirDrop. Obviously, it requires two iOS devices to work, as you might expect.

Beyond those, there are myriad smaller updates to iOS 7, including on-the-fly private browsing, iCloud content streaming, automatic app updates, iTunes Radio, and plenty more, but we simply don't have time to go through all of that, and most of those updates are smaller ease-of-use changes rather than major additions. So, it's about time to move on to:


As mentioned before, in an "S" year, there isn't as much to talk about when it comes to hardware, so we'll try to keep this section relatively brief. There are essentially three major hardware updates that we need to touch on in the iOS ecosystem: the A7 processor, the Touch ID sensor, and the iPad Air. As we mentioned before, the iPhone 5c was essentially an iPhone 5 with a plastic case. The idea here was three-fold for Apple. First, it made the 5c cheaper to manufacture than the iPhone 5 would have been with a metal case. Second, it made it easier for consumers to visually discern the various price points offered. Rather than having the 5s and 5 which look identical, the 5c made it easy to see the difference between the high-end (5s), mid range (5c), and low-end (4s). And last, contrary to popular belief, the 5c wasn't really aimed at low-end markets, the price alone debunks that idea. The 5c was likely aimed more towards kids, which is why it was so colorful and had the also-colorful range of cases to go along with it.

The iPad mini was also updated with a Retina display, but that was basically inevitable. Apple needs to push out the older low-res displays from its ecosystem, so making a Retina iPad mini was a necessity. Plus, the production issues with the iPad mini Retina essentially made the tablet a non-factor in 2013, so it doesn't really deserve a place in this section of this piece. Let's get to the real changes. 


If you were to only look at the marketing of the iPhone 5s, iPad Air, or iPad mini Retina, you'd assume that the major change of the A7 is with bringing 64-bit processing to the iOS ecosystem. While there are some benefits to 64-bit, the real benefit is a bit more complicated. It's understandable that Apple stuck with the 64-bit tag for marketing, because many average users have come to understand that 64-bit is a good thing, so the marketing doesn't need explanation. But, the reality is that 64-bit is more of an ancillary update, and the real benefit of the A7 processor is in the ARMv8 processor architecture. 

This is something that we touched on a bit when we talked about the work needed to get Android ready for 64-bit compatibility. Simply put, the most efficient way to increase performance on an ARM chip is to switch to the ARMv8 architecture because it can do the same in a single transfer as 32-bit ARM can in as many as 32 transfers, which leads to impressive performance increases. The performance boost requires the software optimizations before you see the real performance increase. Luckily, Apple has full control over the system software and can make it easy for developers to update apps, because of the integrated system. So, the switch was made very easy on iOS. 

The A7 also included a new M7 motion co-processor to offload the sensor tracking in new Apple devices, which is nice and helps battery conservation, but the real benefit of the M7 may come this year with Apple's new focus on health. In the end, the majority of the most popular apps have already been optimized for the A7, which has led to impressive performance gains for iOS users throughout the system and the apps when combined with hardware that supports the optimizations. The A7 has been called a "desktop-class processor", which could very easily play into Apple's plans for 2014. But, the move to 64-bit and the ARMv8 architecture aren't the only improvements of the A7, because there is also:

Touch ID and the Secure Enclave

Part of the A7 chip is the "Secure Enclave" which has one very important purpose: it is designed to store your personal fingerprint data that comes from the Touch ID scanner, and make sure that the data is inaccessible by anyone and anything. Approved apps can be authenticated by your fingerprint, but never actually have access to that data itself. The way this all works is a mystery (or else it wouldn't be so secure), but the basis of it is in the ARM TrustZone security technology, which Apple has adapted for its own use. 

The general consensus with security experts for years now has been that passwords are a terrible solution for securing data. There have been devices like the Motorola ATRIX 4G which offered fingerprint scanners, but as is Apple's tendency, it has taken an existing feature and brought it into the mainstream. This has led to plenty of people claiming that the Samsung Galaxy S5 is "copying" Apple with its fingerprint scanner, but the truth is that fingerprint scanners have been around for a long time and just haven't been successful until now. 

Right now, only the iPhone 5s has gotten the Touch ID sensor, but it speaks to big changes coming. Touch ID is the fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5s, which is currently used for unlocking your phone and as an alternative to entering your iTunes password when buying or downloading content from the App Store, iTunes, or the iBooks Store. Again, it has a relatively limited use case right now, but it is obvious that fingerprint scanning will not only expand in the iOS ecosystem, but will be the standard for security on smartphones in 2014. Apple may not have been the first to use the technology, but it certainly has been the first to make it successful and kickstart the ecosystem.

iPad Air

The general rule of thumb as we mentioned before is that in "S" years, Apple focuses on software changes, and other years it focuses on hardware changes. But, that rule only applies to the iPhone, because ever since it was first introduced almost four years ago, the iPad has not seen any major hardware redesigns. It received a Retina display with the short-lived iPad 3, but the overall hardware design has been essentially the same, until 2013 with the iPad Air. 

Let's just take a look at the raw numbers. The iPad Air is a bit shorter (.05 inches) than the iPad 4 and a bit thicker (.07 inches), but it is much narrower (.64 inches) and lighter (6.5 oz). The iPad Air weighs 16.86 oz, just over 1 pound, which is amazing for a 10-inch tablet. For comparison, the iPad 4 was 23.35 oz, the Nexus 10 was 21.27 oz, and the Galaxy Note 10.1 (2014) was 19.29 oz. The first major 10-inch tablet that is set to beat the iPad on weight is the newly announced Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet, which will weigh just 15.49 oz. 

Had Apple been gradually tweaking the iPad design over the past four years, we might not have thought much of it, but instead Apple opted for a massive change from the iPad 4 to the iPad Air. The iPad Air was essentially the same as this "State of the Platform" idea: gradual change is harder to notice in aggregate, but one massive change is much easier to see. That is Apple's way of operating. It releases limited devices at certain times of the year. Compared to Samsung, which will release the Galaxy S, then likely a few variations on that same device (Active, Mini, Zoom), then the Galaxy Note, all you get with Apple is one major update per year. Maybe it isn't always as big an update as you might like, and other times it is a huge change as with the iPad Air. 

Next up in Part 2, we'll take a look ahead at what is in store for iOS in 2014 starting with Apple's market share issues and the coming iOS 8 update. And, in Part 3, we'll look at the hardware on the way including the iWatch, iPhones, and iPads.

Recommended Stories

Loading Comments...
FCC OKs Cingular\'s purchase of AT&T Wireless