Earlier today Google posted some iOS code aimed at helping developers use a combination of URL schemes and x-callback to basically set Chrome as the default browser from within their own apps, if it detects the user has Chrome installed. Call it a hijack, call it a take over, call it a 5th column, call it whatever you want, but it's a smart, strategic move on Google's part, and it's something Apple will have to address.
Google, once the envy of Soviet-era Russia with the utilitarianism of their iOS apps, has embraced much, much better design as of late. While hamburger-and-basement laden, they're also, for the most part, consistent and even downright whimsical in their design now. They've once again made so the iPhone one of the best Google phones on the planet, and the only phone that offers both a great Apple experience and a great Google experience. That's something no Android phone can match.
Now, I don't really use many Google apps on my iPhone or iPad. (Pause for nerd gasps.) I do use Google+ and Google Drive, because they're for Google-specific services and there are no default, Apple alternatives. For everything else, I use the default, Apple alternative. I have more than just a Gmail account (I also use iCloud and Exchange) and I want a unified inbox, so the Gmail app is out. Apple Maps has a better interface and is good enough for day-to-day use in my area (though I will jump into Google Maps if I have to when I travel). Google Voice isn't available in my part of the world. Google Search with Google Now is really interesting but drains my battery so much I've deleted it (let's get that fixed, shall we?). And I dislike Chrome's interface on mobile even more than I do on the desktop. (I do use Chrome on the desktop quite a bit -- for everything Flash-requiring or Google services involved.)
As trite as it sounds, as many fiesty comments as it will generate, when I use an Apple app -- even one that looks every bit its 6 years of age -- I feel like it's an app someone made for me to use. When I use a Google app -- even the latest, most colorful and animated -- I feel like it's an app someone made to use me. I realize I might be in the minority here, but to me, data is worth more than money. I can make more money. I can never get my data, or my privacy, back.
And that's kinda what these URL schemes and x-callbacks feel like. Google's been doing them for a while, and if you're all-in on Google on iOS, they're a great way to be all-in on Google on iOS. They're not the best way, granted, but since there's no way to change default apps in iOS -- because iOS wasn't made for geeks! -- it's the best possible way, at least for now. Still, to me, they feel like a way to try and keep me trapped all-in Google on iOS, and while it's a part of town I don't mind visiting on my own terms, it's not a part of town I want to get stuck in. Or logged in.
Hopefully responsible developers will make any Google URL schemes and x-callbacks optional, so that people who have Chrome as a secondary rather than primary browser can still have links sent to Safari.
How Apple will handle it -- if Apple decides it's something that needs to be handled -- is another question. Apple didn't spend most of last year pruning Google from the built-in iOS apps for no reason. They have a fundamental differences in business philosophy. Apple doesn't care who we are, they just want our money. Google doesn't care about our money, they just want to know who we are. Maybe Apple is okay with that in the App Store, okay with greater location and data tracking, than they were in the built-in apps. Maybe not.
Apple probably can't block Google from the App Store, or from sucking down as much of our data as we let them. Free countries. Consenting adults. All that. What Apple can do, however, is make the default iOS apps better. Much better. They can make Mail better, and Safari better, and add new features that are so delightful, and so compelling Google apps lose some of their appeal.
There's a rumor Jony Ive is already working on new versions of the core apps. No one can beat Google on services right now, and probably not for a while to come, and certainly not Apple. But software is another story. Software is where Apple lives. The best way for Apple to stop Google from taking over iOS, is to make iOS so good there's nothing left to take over.
Now feel free to tell me how much you prefer Google's iOS apps, or how Apple has to let default apps be changed, or how hamburger buttons are the tastiest kind, or whatever else you please in the comments!
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Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.