Apple's next big battleground

There’s a lot of excitement at the moment about Apple’s iWatch but the tech giant’s focus on harmonising the smartphone/tablet/PC experience may pay more dividends.

Apple made a lot of noise about the continuity feature that will power the next version of its mobile operating system, iOS 8, and Mac line with OSX 10.10 Yosemite -- and for good reason.

'Handoff' enables you to seamlessly pick up from the exact point you left off regardless of the Apple device you are using. As an example, you can start an email on your Mac and once you move away from your computer, your iPhone or iPad will prompt you to finish it there with a single swipe from the lock screen taking you directly to your unfinished content. It all happens automatically so long as your devices are signed in to the same iCloud account. Handoff will work with all native Apple apps like Mail, Safari, Pages, Numbers, Keynote and Reminders but, crucially, it will also support third-party applications as well.

But Handoff will extend beyond just applications as your Mac and iPad will also be able to make/receive calls and text messages while your iPhone is in another room or buried in your bag, effectively turning your Apple devices into a supplemental iPhone.The OS level integration means that phone numbers and addresses effectively become context sensitive so highlighting a number in Safari for example will give you an option to call the number directly without ever having to reach for your iPhone. 

The latest beta of iOS 8 also revealed plans to bring Handoff functionality to the Apple TV, allowing for videos and music playing on your iPad or iPhone to be automatically beamed to your television as soon as you enter the house, with the content resuming at exactly the same point.

In essence, Handoff caters to the multi-device reality we live in by understanding the context of what you are doing on one device and thereby enabling you to pick up your session in exactly the same place on the next device you use -- as long as you’re using Apple branded hardware, that is. But will this locked-down approach hurt Apple in the long run or will it be a critical pillar in driving hardware adoption? And how much of a say will the other big two (Microsoft and Google) have on the race to harmonise the smartphone/tablet/PC experience?

Graph for Apple's next big battleground

Open standards versus Apple

Apple’s strategy of restricting Handoff to its own ecosystem might have benefits of market share but it may only be a short-term gain until we see a platform agnostic solution hit the market.

“We see the real success of this is going to be the ability to do this cross-platform, across devices, regardless of who actually manufacturers the device,” says Tim Sheedy, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Given Apple’s history, it’s hard to see the company opening up Handoff to work across other platforms but it will, at the very least, spark the conversation around the need for an open standard.

Developers, after all, want to have their apps work on as many devices as possible and so are likely to rally around an open standard. This is where Google and to a lesser extent Microsoft could really come into play.

Both companies offer popular services that are driven by a robust cloud platform with applications such as Google Drive, Chrome browser and Microsoft’s Office 365 already working seamlessly across devices and platforms.

Microsoft originally stated that its goal is to ultimately converge Windows and Windows Phone operating systems, and given the company’s newfound focus on making its software products and services available on all platforms, it may well have intentions of rolling out a competitor to Handoff. The company does have the market share -- at least on the desktop side -- for it to be a serious competitor.

Google may indeed be in the strongest position as it’s a company that arguably cares less about the device and more about the cloud. Its aims are bolstered by the fact that the search giant owns the lion’s share of the tablet and smartphone market with Android. Google also has an established messaging service, Hangouts, that works across all platforms but the company has yet to enable SMS/MMS capability on Apple’s platform.

“I think Google has the upper hand and will offer something similar to Apple’s Handoff on Android that will work across all platforms including Mac and PC on the desktop side,” says Sheedy.

“It will be linked to the Google Drive service and there’s no reason why they couldn’t do that with other apps. Also the technology to move calls between devices and across networks is already there at least at a telco level that Google could leverage.”

Google is expected to make greater investments around enterprise mobility solutions and that will include devices but also the services and software to support it, so it would make sense for the company to offer a more integrated approach that extends beyond its current slate of productivity applications and file-syncing capabilities.

If and when Google does update Android to support an open standard competitor to Handoff, uptake is likely to be a lot slower due to the amount of time it actually takes for software updates to reach end users, with handset makers and network carriers effectively dictating the rollout schedule. It’s the reason why only 9 per cent of Android users are running the latest version of the mobile OS. Apple on the other hand delivers the updates directly to user devices as soon as they are released and, as a result, the uptake on new versions of iOS is extremely high with 89 per cent of iOS users already running the latest version of iOS 7. This means that Apple has a massive base of hyper-connected users that are ready and waiting to take advantage of new features like Handoff.

“Apple will have an early comfortable lead but you feel that the larger market share of Android users will eventually catch up and overtake Apple in this space," says Sheedy.

But Android handset makers aren’t standing idly by waiting for Google either.

Samsung last week revealed 'SideSync', a software feature running atop its custom Android OS -- TouchWiz -- which enables Galaxy tablet owners to virtually mirror their Galaxy smartphone directly on the tablet’s display, allowing users to make calls, send text messages, and share files and app data between devices. SideSync also works on the PC but Samsung’s solution is limited to Galaxy devices. Admittedly, the overall execution is cumbersome and the experience is far from seamless.

Canonical’s convergence vision

Then there are periphery players like Ubuntu’s parent company, Canonical, whose approach to the continuous client involves powering your tablet, smartphone, PC and even television with the one Ubuntu operating system, thereby moving your state between devices at both an OS and application level seamlessly. Ubuntu is an open source platform and is the most popular flavour of the Linux desktop operating system.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu also has some clout in the enterprise cloud space and is the OS of choice for OpenStack deployments.

Canonical is backed by founder and billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, and the company has struck deals with mobile device manufacturers such as Meizu (China) and bq (Spain) to bring Ubuntu smartphones to the market later this year. However, for Ubuntu’s vision of convergence to succeed, the company needs mass adoption of the requisite hardware and platform. The reality is that Ubuntu is a small-time player in the smartphone and tablet landscape and will struggle to gain traction in a hyper-competitive market. Still, its approach to the continuous client is intriguing nonetheless.

The prevalence of cloud-based services coupled with the ubiquitous nature of smartphones and tablets means our interactions are no longer contained to a single touchpoint. As a result, multitasking across PCs and smartphones have become second nature to consumers -- whether it’s shopping online, planning travel, consuming content or increasing productivity.

Now the challenge for the industry is to make the device-to-device transition as seamless as possible. With Apple set to roll out Handoff later this year, it will have the first say in how users will make that transition. But expect to see competing standards emerge from companies like Google and Microsoft, along with niche players like Canonical hitting the market sooner rather than later.

“As always happens in this industry, someone will get ahead of the curve, someone will introduce a competing standard, and then there will be a third and fourth and, invariably, the market will decide,” says Sheedy.