With the release of Android 2.2 (also known as Froyo) less than a week ago, the iPhone-Android battle has kicked into high gear.
Apple’s newest OS, iPhone OS 4.0, has been in beta among developers since its announcement in April and has won plaudits for its new features, such as multitasking and folders. However, Android users are quick to point out that many of the features now available on Apple’s device have been available on Android phones for a while now.
All Killer, No Filler
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Here at TheNextWeb, we’ve mulled over the upsides and downsides of both Operating Systems and we’re pleased to present a roundup of the strengths and weaknesses of the newest versions of Android and iPhone OS.
The biggest advantage that Android users (and Motorola Droid commercials) have lorded over the iPhone has been Android’s ability to multitask. Android has had this ability since Cupcake and Android fans have been quick to mention this as one of the main reasons that they bought the phone.
In iPhone OS4.0, Apple has finally caught up to Android in this regard. And in theory, they have actually passed Google’s product here. While both systems provide the ability to receive notifications in the background, some say Apple’s solution is more clever.
David Quintana took an in-depth look at the the differences between the iPhone’s multitasking and Android’s multitasking and found some interesting results. Since the iPhone’s architecture doesn’t require services to complete certain kinds of tasks in the background, it is less complex to code for a multitasking app.
The biggest advantage that Apple’s solution has, though, is that suspended apps don’t drain the battery with data calls. Because of the way that the iPhone OS is designed, suspended apps cannot poll services like Twitter and Facebook for updates. Instead, when there are updates, they are sent to the phone via push.
Android doesn’t have this restriction. When there are multiple apps open that can make these calls, battery life gets sapped quickly. While this is not necessarily a common issue for well-designed apps, it can be a problem.
While the iPhone’s multitasking solution may be more effective, it’s also long overdue. Rather than calling this close battle a push (no pun intended), we’re awarding this first round to Android.
Apps, Apps, Apps
Apple’s success with the iPhone has largely been due to the pull of Apple’s App Store. The store, which is the undisputed leader in app sales, ran over its competition when it was introduced in 2008.
The introduction of Android Market, though, has changed the App scene on mobile devices. For the first time, Apple’s App ecosystem actually has a legitimate competitor. As of the beginning of the month, an estimated 60,000 apps are available in the Android Market.
Unfortunately for Google, Apple still makes that look like child’s play. At the beginning of this month, Apple reported that their store has over 200,000 apps available for download and has served a staggering 4 Billion-plus apps downloads.
Despite this overwhelming success, Apple’s ecosystem still has flaws. The App Store’s application process tends towards the absurd and arbitrary, with apps such as iFart being allowed in while Pulitzer Prize-winner Mark Fiore’s app NewsToons being disallowed. Certain types of apps that thrive in the Android Market (like tethering apps and Google Voice) are nowhere to be found in the App Store. Apple has also been accused of imposing puritanical morality on the App Store, banning apps with any nudity, including newspaper apps.
Problems aside, though, the App Store has the Android Market whipped. Sure, the App Store has its share of crApps. And the Android Market does have most of the big apps that the iPhone has. But the quality of many apps for the iPhone, especially gaming apps, blows away the Android Market’s offerings.
Score one for Steve Jobs and his turtleneck. The App Store is still head and shoulders above the Android Market. Although the Market is growing quickly and is doing quite well, it still has a ways to go to catch the App Store. As Android gains steam, though, the Android Market could slowly start to reel in the App Store.
The Harware Behind The Software
Android phones come in all sorts of different flavors. Some are touchscreen only, some have full keyboards; some chug along with a 528 MHz processor while others rip along with 1GHz Snapdragon; some have low-resolution resistive touchscreens, while others have high resolution screens with multitouch.
This variety makes Android accessible to all price points, a valuable thing in a recession. Indeed, Android phones can be found (with special deals) at as low as $19 with contract (and it was a Droid, no less).
However, this type of ecosystem is also a problem. The Android experience will vary considerably from a Droid Incredible or Nexus One to a HTC Dream (or lesser Android device). This, in turn, makes it slightly more challenging for developers to make apps that fully take advantage of Android’s power.
Indeed, Google has indicated that Froyo will not work for certain phones, namely the HTC Dream. As it currently stands, Android handsets are spread across four major versions, Cupcake (1.5), Donut (1.6), Eclair (2.0/2.1) and Froyo (2.2). This fragmentation of the OS across handset manufacturers seriously hamstrings developers because they are still forced to (at some level) develop for four platforms.
By contrast, the iPhone’s hardware picture looks significantly less complicated. There will be only 4 generations of the phone by the time iPhone OS4.0 releases, the hardware differences between the original iPhone and the 3G are essentially non-existent, and Apple has already bitten the bullet and announced that certain apps (games, mostly) will only work on 3GS phones and up.
This doesn’t make it any less annoying that iPhone 2G users are left out in the cold with iPhone OS4.0, especially given the phone’s similarities to the iPhone 3G, which is supported.
In this way, both the Apple and Google approaches are wrong. Both companies are seemingly arbitrarily punishing older device owners (iPhone 2G and HTC Dream owners, for example) with their newest software releases. Despite the fact that the hardware in both older devices is essentially identical to upgradeable devices (the iPhone 3G and the HTC Magic), the new devices will receive the new Operating Systems and the old devices will not.
The winner: Draw
Both companies’ hardware strategies have advantages and disadvantages. The seemingly arbitrary control over upgrades present in both companies’ ecosystems just ends up hurting their potential consumers though. There’s a fine line between reasonable forced obsolescence and absurdity and both companies come down firmly on the absurdity side.
Browsing and Flash Mobile
One of the biggest features that Google has touted with Froyo is its speed. Froyo’s compiler is faster than Eclair’s, its launcher is reportedly speedier than Eclair’s and Android as a whole supposedly feels speedier.
Google also made the bold claim at their I/O conference a few weeks ago that Froyo’s browser is the fastest mobile browser in the world (a claim which Opera has mercilessly mocked). However, some independent speed tests have backed this claim up. Despite the fact that the Froyo browser sometimes gets confused by banner ads, it has proven itself speedier than the iPhone’s Safari browser.
Or at least it did without Flash turned on.
Flash has been one of the most heavily-hyped features that Froyo has brought to the table. Finally, there’s a way to play Flash games and view Flash content on a mobile device (in real Flash, not Flash Lite).
Flash elements appear to load snappily and play very well on a Nexus One (as seen in this video). There is also the option to have Flash elements load on demand, rather than playing automatically.
However, when you add Flash to the speedy browser, it suddenly becomes a lot less speedy. It gets bogged down in loading Flash content, such as dynamic banner ads and browsing suddenly becomes much more clunky. Scrolling is jerky, things take much longer to load, and content plays back slowly in many cases.
Sure, it’s certainly a good thing that Android gives you the option to have Flash. One of the things that has been most annoying about Apple’s recent anti-Flash stance has been its nannying behavior, telling the users what they should and should not be able to run. However, after seeing Flash’s beta implementation in Froyo, it’s hard not to think that Steve Jobs was at least a little bit right.
Sure, it’s a kludgey solution. But for better or for worse, Android is treating its users like adults by letting them decide what they want to run on their device rather than nannying the users out of running programs Steve Jobs doesn’t approve of. This is an admirable goal, and hopefully Flash implementation will improve with subsequent updates.
Both Android and iPhone OS include the ability to control their respective devices with voice commands. However, there’s a huge gulf in functionality. Put simply, Android slays iPhone in the voice control stakes.
Sure, the iPhone’s implementation of voice control looked pretty cool when it came out last year. Time has proven that it was a feature that needed to wait until it was fully baked. Trying to play one artist would often result in playing another, asking to call your aunt could result in calling your boss; these errors will be familiar to anyone who’s ever tried to use the system.
Google has even managed to prove that it wasn’t a hardware issue. Google’s iPhone app has a version of Android’s voice control baked in to it and the accuracy with which it is able to understand queries is amazing. It’s even able to understand queries in other languages (sometimes). This makes it clear that Apple’s to blame for the lackluster voice controls on the iPhone 3GS.
As a simple measure of how much of a difference there is between Android’s voice implementation and the iPhone’s, just ask an Android user how often they use voice-to-text or voice controls. The answer will certainly be a greater fraction than those that use the iPhone’s similar features.
Even the fanboys at Cult of Mac are getting a little jealous. They said, “(it) just makes the voice control app’s flaws that much more prominent — it’s like a holdover from a Moto Razr that somehow snuck onto my iPhone. It’s not even good enough to use in the car — too great a risk of calling the wrong person.” And honestly, who can blame them. I’m jealous too, as are many iPhone users.
This is one of the areas where one side clearly destroys the other. Apple has a few similar areas in terms of media-playing ability and apps dominance, but Android makes Apple’s voice control efforts look amateurish by comparison.
Music, Movies and Photos
By contrast, Apple has absolute dominance in media playing and control. iTunes, as problematic as it can be, is still the gold standard for music playing, sales and importing (despite what our own Alex Wilhelm has said). The iTunes store has sold well over ten billion tracks.
Video is a similar story. The breadth of content out there for iPhone’s closed ecosystem dwarfs anything else. In fact, when iPhone OS4.0 releases, it will likely bring even more content to the iPhone in the form of Netflix.
But playing media like this is only the beginning. Apple’s devices also provide a much cleaner photo-viewing experience than similar Android products, especially given that the iPad’s improved photos program will likely make its way to the iPhone in iPhone OS4.0.
Apple wins this round easily. It just has better media controls. That’s what it knows best.
Android has taken big strides from its first releases in terms of aesthetics. The first release of Android, 1.0, was much less-polished than the comparable iPhone at the time.
Since then, Android has steadily reeled in Apple in and has really made a legitimate case for Android.
However, there’s still a pretty considerable gulf between the two. While it’s difficult to tell whether or not the folders system and the ability to change backgrounds in iPhone OS4.0 will end up being an aesthetic step forward or backwards, it’s still pretty clear that Apple would have to make a major misstep to be overtaken by Android’s interface for this release.
That’s not to say that Android’s interface is bad in any way. In fact, it’s clearly a legitimate competitor to the iPhone’s interface. It’s smooth, slick and looks pretty good. It’s just that it seems like Apple still has a nicer, cleaner feel in their OS.
Android has made lots of progress in catching up to Apple’s largely unchanged aesthetic. However, there’s a good reason why few changes have been made so far. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be Apple’s philosophy.
New Features, New Beginnings?
Both Froyo and iPhone OS4.0 roll out some new features to their users. But, at least from what we’ve seen so far, the two companies are taking very different approaches to their new OS.
Froyo also brings the compelling addition of Microsoft Exchange support, which sweetens the pot for office environments looking to ditch their Crackberries for something newer. When you add this functionality to the Flash support and mobile hotspot support that Froyo also adds to Android, it makes for a compelling argument for the OS.
Apple has taken an entirely different tack, though. Where Froyo is an incremental change over Eclair, iPhone OS4.0 is a paradigm shift over iPhone OS3.0. OS4.o brings some features that bring it up to Android’s standard (like multitasking), while completely moving the goalposts on others.
For example, where Android has introduced Exchange support, Apple has beefed up their office environment support by allowing for multiple Exchange accounts. Where Android has introduced a compiler that speeds up gaming, Apple has released an Xbox Live-like matchmaking system.
Whether this tack will benefit Apple is yet to be seen. The betas of iPhone OS4.0 have given us some clues as to what’s under the hood, but it will be tough to know for sure what’s in there until we see Steve Jobs speaking at WWDC next week.
Android makes a really good argument. It will definitely sway people towards Android in the near future and will likely rise to challenge Apple’s new-found smartphone dominance. However, Apple’s strategy seems to have worked. We won’t know for sure for another week, but it looks like Apple has made a very good argument for going iPhone.
However, it’s entirely possible that Apple has screwed up again. After recent breaches of protocol, Apple is looking much more human than they normally do. It remains to be seen if their big gamble will pay off, but if recent results are any indicator, it would be unwise to bet against the guys from Cupertino. Therefore, I’m giving this particular battle to Apple, by a nose.
So where does that leave us? It’s hard to say for sure. Android has become a much meatier competitor to the iPhone. Previous releases of Android were just that little bit too clumsy to really catch on widely. With Froyo, it looks like Android’s hit has finally come. It’s snappy, responsive and looks good enough to win away many users disillusioned with Apple’s smartphone dominance.
However, Apple is refusing to rest on their laurels. Sure, they’re doing quite well, but they understand that Android is quite appealing and that it will only grow as a competitor. As such, they understand that they need a winner with iPhone OS4.0 to keep the momentum on their side.
And from early reports, it looks like they have that winner. iPhone OS4.0 catches up to Android in fields where the iPhone had lagged while leapfrogging Android in others.
What does all of this mean for the consumer? It means that this is an incredible time to be in the market for a smartphone. The new iPhone will undoubtedly be a killer device. The newest Android devices have also proven to be pretty slick pieces of kit, too.
Which device you’ll want to buy is something that will vary from person to person. Do you value the ability to carry around all of your music, movies and games? Then you’ll probably want that new iPhone. Do you want the ability to create a mobile hotspot, to text hands-free and play stuff at addictinggames.com on your phone? Then you’ll want that Android device.
Even if you have a good idea of which device is right for you, give the other side’s device a try. Who knows? Maybe, like Robert Scoble has recently discovered, the Android device will be a revolution for you. Maybe you’ll decide that you want to ditch your Droid for the new iPhone. Both sides have the potential to surprise.
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