decided to write up a comparison between these two devices as a way of coming to terms with my own indecision.
When comparing the two units, I have taken time to understand that some of the strengths and weakness of each are based on things that neither Apple nor Google can control, such as third party apps and accessories. There is also the “ecosystem” to consider; these devices are not used in a vacuum. They are meant to compliment existing hardware and software. In Apple’s case, the iPhone works best in an environment where the user also has an iMac and Apple TV, and also uses software such as iWork and Mobile Me. Android Phones compliment Google’s Online Services like Gmail, Google Docs, Google Apps, etc. While there can be crossover, ease of use in greatly affected when you try to use one phone in the other’s ecosystem.
One of the frustrations when comparing iOS and Android came from the simple fact that there were third party apps that did things well on one platform, but that same app did not exist on the other platform. For example, Podcasting. The native podcast app on iOS is pretty much useless without synching to a computer four times a day. Likewise the Google app for Podcasting (call Google Listen) has some serious shortcomings. On iOS I use a third party app called “Instacast”, but sadly this app is not available on Android. My preferred third party podcast app on Android is Dogcatcher, but when compared to Instacast, Dogcatcher is sorely lacking. It’s not really fair to ding Android in the Podcasting category because my preferred app is not there.
By the same token however, the third party app system is a valid point of comparison between the platforms. This is both in the number of apps as well as the “quality” of those apps. Popular software titles like Angry Birds, Pandora, and Evernote are on both platforms. It’s when it comes to smaller specialty titles that the cohesion breaks down. There’s also the curious case of titles like Skype and Netflix, which work on some Android devices but not others.
Single hardware design.
While some have criticized Apple for having a “one size fits all” mentality when it comes to hardware design, there is a MASSIVE advantage to it. The universal size, shape, and connector of the iPhone has given rise to a rich third party market. Nice handmade cases from Pad and Quill, BookBook, and Dodo can give the iPhone a classic 19th century look. Screen protectors from Zagg offer the ability to scratch guard your device from Ninjas. Companies like JBL, iHome and Sony make “iDock” products to charge your phone and play media on home theater systems and nightstands. There is even a company, Oxygen, that makes the O-Car head unit, which is a Single-Din Automotive radio replacement that uses the iPhone as your car’s primary entreatment computer.
…and there isn’t a gas station in the world that doesn’t carry crappy and over priced cases for the iPhone 4 and 3/3gs.
This is all because third party vendors have easy access to a market that does not require them to manufacture a dozen different versions of the same accessory.
iOS and iPhone are the Media King. It’s not just because the iPhone can carry XX gigabytes of MP3 music and MP4 video, but because Apple gives users convenient ways to play media from the device. This is a bit ironic, since getting media “into” an iPhone is a pain. Apple has a pretty much “universal” interface for media. While I am sure this stems in part to API calls to the operating system to play media, even truly third party solutions like Netflix have the same “look and feel” when controlling playing media.
The speakers on the iPhone 4 deliver a richer and deeper sound than any I have used on Android devices, and far better than the Nexus S. In my youth I wasn’t such an audio snob, but then again sound on any portable device back then was tinny. It really makes a difference switching back and forth between the two devices when playing podcasts and audiobooks.
While third party media apps on iPhone and Android deliver better experiences than their native counterparts, iOS does offer a system level function that puts it ahead of Android. iOS has the ability to change the all the audio and some of the video output on the fly from the device. This means that you can go from listening to an audiobook on the iPhones speakers to a bluetooth headset with a simple software switch. Apple calls the system “Airplay”. While “Airplay” describes a method of pushing audio and video content to wifi devices like the Apple TV or Airport Express, the same method of switching Airplay is also used to switch between headphones, internal speakers, the dock connector, and an A2DP bluetooth headset.
Because of this, the user can have a bluetooth headset in his or her ear waiting to take a call, while the audio for music could be playing through the headphone port to their car’s aux-in jack. When the phone rings, the audio is paused and the call is routed to the bluetooth headset. I personally use the feature when playing a podcast or audiobook in my car. My head unit has a dock connector which charges my iPhone and plays audio. But when I stop and get out to do something mundane (such as checking the mail), I can seamlessly switch the audio from the Dock to my Bluetooth headset.
In contrast, Android does have DLNA, which is supposed to do the same “pushing” of audio and video to DLNA equipped devices. However, despite several attempts to figure out the system, I have yet to figure out DLNA. Also, Android’s bluetooth is very clunky. My Jawbone headset is connected whenever it’s turned on. This means that because it’s A2DP, ALL audio from the phone is sent to my headset. This has caused me to miss calls because I don’t always wear my headset when it’s on my person.
While this is supposed to be a commentary on the “strengths” of each platform, I would be remiss if I did not point out that Android’s handling of A2DP, DLNA, and media in general is a serious and almost deal breaking weakness.
Look and Feel
Almost every iOS app has the same basic controls. Apple has done a fantastic job in getting developers to sing from the same hymnal in regards to user interface. This means that when I install a new app, even if I’m not sure of all of the apps functions, there are some basic conventions that will help me navigate. For example, swiping down while at the top of a list will refresh the list. Swiping left or right over a list item will bring up more functions. The “back” button is generally located in the top left corner. Preferences for an app are in the “Settings” on the phone. While there are some conventions on Android (for example a long touch will bring up a context menu), it seems like every app is different in how the user is presented and navigates data.
While I count this as an iPhone strength, there is a fairly compelling argument that this is also a weakness of the platform. If there really is an iron hand in the Apple App approval process that mandates uniform functionality, then this does not leave much room for innovation. However, I like think that Apple just publishes good guidelines, and leaves developers room to innovate a bit. An example here would be games. While most of my iOS business apps have the same look and feel, no two games function in the same way.
OPEN OPEN OPEN
Android has always touted itself as the “open” platform and it really is. Third party apps can do “core” functions such as SMS and Calling that iOS would never consider allowing. For example, Skype has an option to “dial” a number via Skype over 3G rather than using cell minutes to make the call. In the iOS world, if you wanted to make a call over Skype, you would have to open the Skype app, enter the number, and then realize that Apple kowtows to cell companies and doesn’t allow Skype to use 3G to make call.
Android also allows third party apps that do not come from the Google Market App Store. This means that if I want to install an app that does something that AT&T might not like, such as tethering, no one can stop me.
…Side note on tethering… AT&T has “come down hard” on tethering without a “tethering data plan”. I have one of the “unlimited” data plans from AT&T and I will give that up only when they pry it from my cold death hands and even then I’ll sue the bastards for breach of contract. “Unlimited” means “without limits” and while I know there were some weasel words in the actual agreement for service, I take offense that AT&T wanted to offer “unlimited” data plans for marketing purposes without investing in their network to handle it. Here in rural Tennessee we still only have 2G “Edge” speeds, and that is a source of contact consternation to me as I have been paying for 3G data for 3 years now. A BIG BIG strength of Android is that someone can use their “tethered” computer via an encrypted VPN on the phone. This means that AT&T has NO WAY of knowing if the data be used by your handset is for streaming Netflix, torrenting the entire Metallica Discography, or providing internet access to a 20 PC office network. …end side note..
Part of being open also allows Android to be more secure.
There is a high value market for lost cell phones in large cities all over the world. It’s well known and documented that unscrupulous persons can get $100 for a lost phone by simply driving up to a known street corner, handing out the phone, and getting back five twenty dollar bills. Like a reverse drug deal. The buyer of the phone is looking for two things: first the resale value of the phone unlocked, and second all the information on the phone that can be used for identity theft. Of the two, ID theft is far more profitable and less risky.
To combat this problem, third party developers like Whisper Systems, make boot-time, whole-device, encryption systems for Android. This means that when the device is powered off, no person, hacker, or tyrannical government, could read the data without your encryption key… forever… period. This makes me feel a little safer carrying around my Nexus S. While this is third party software, it’s the openness of Android that allows for these advantages over iOS.
Data entry on any hand held device is miserable. In days of old this was compensated for by the use of a “hardware keyboard”, and to this day the 5 or 6 hardcore Blackberry users that are left swear that physical keyboards are the only way to compose mobile email. Sadly, physical keyboards take up a lot valuable space on the front of a devices for the purpose of composing epic prose like: “b home @ 6, nd mlk?” As a result, serious smart phones all now have on-screen keyboards. iOS keyboard and text predicting system is nice, while Android’s is less so. But Android has something that iOS does not, speech-to-text. Using Google servers, almost ANY data field on the phone can be entered by tapping the microphone and saying “Honey, I will be be home at 6. I know you have been busy, do you need me to get milk? I both love and cherish you every waking moment of my life,” (fyi, both messages cost the same to send, but the second might help you score tonight). In practice the system works at about 90% accuracy, which is quite frankly phenomenal, given that human transcription of a random voice is between 85% and 90% accurate. The one drawback is that the system requires that your voice be sent to Google for the process, which means that if you are out of 3G or wifi coverage the system is impractical.
In addition to transcription, the system also has a wide set of commands. Using Google’s business database, you can tell your phone, “call the chatterbox in stites idaho” and sure enough your phone will dial 208-926-7190 even if you’ve never heard of Stites Idaho or have “The Chatterbox” in your contact list.
Even here, Google’s open architecture rides high. Adding a service like Rdio means that you can say “Listen to send me an angel by real life” and google will pass the “listen” command to Rdio, pandora, or any one of dozens of great music apps.
This voice feature more than overcomes the deficiencies in the Android’s on-screen keyboard. But of course being open, you can replace the default keyboard with something like Swipe.
This is another one of those “third party” software comparisons, except in this case what iOS needs a third party for, Android does natively. Google maps is the de-facto mapping and navigation system on the Internet, so it seems that Android would have the best maps available. One can get Tomtom for iOS, but it’s a $50+ software title, and while it does have its advantages (like not needing 3G to work), Tomtom is still limited by iOS’s refusal to allow close integration between software and the operating system. Google’s navigation also integrates with voice, so one can simple say “navigate to Harr’s Grocery in Big Cove Tannery Pennsylvania” and you have an instant road trip planed.
So what would it take?
Finally it begs the question: what would it take for me to pick a platform and not look back? This is not an easy question, obviously. I’ve spent the last few years building a Mac and Apple centric environment, I use Mac OSX as my primary computer, and I have iTunes and Apple TVs as my home and office media systems. But I also use Google Apps for my email, calendar and contacts. Google Apps are not as smooth as MobileMe for synching on Macs, but they do have more features and better support. (I have a linux server that automatically schedules maintenance via a command line script to my Google Calendar; beat that Mobile Me). I have been using an iPhone for three years, so my point of view is “what would it take to switch?” when it comes to my infrastructure. Much of my attachment to the iPhone still comes from media; I have iDevice chargers all over my home and office. My clock radio charges my iPhone, I have a nice dock at my office desk, my car radio is built around an iPhone. But chargers and docks can be replaced if there is a compelling enough reason.
My media collection, however, is a stumbling block. 2TB of music, movies, TV, audiobooks, podcasts, images, eBooks, writings, PDFs, etc, etc, all contained in a nice organized iTunes Library which is streamable and sharable throughout my empire. There is NOTHING on Android that can approach this level of integration, and no corresponding third party system that can address maintaining, let-alone converting, a library like this. My media computers play video on TVs and even have a low power FM transmitter hooked up so I can play music and audiobooks around my house on a dozen or more regular FM radios. I’ve written scripts to scream NPR in the morning and Twit podcasts on the weekends. From my iPhone I can use my iTunes remote app to manage the playing of media throughout my domain. VNC and SSH programs allow to to log in and take finer level control or execute scripts. Without iOS, control over all of this would have to be done via a computer, and that’s just not practical when I’m getting into the shower.
Here’s what I would want in order to make the Nexus S and Android my primary phone.
1. A nice Moleskin case. I know it’s silly, but I have one for my iPhone and the classic book look is a big part on how I self-identify. Moreover, having something this specific would mean that there is a healthy third party accessory ecosystem.
2. Better and system level control over audio output. It is just silly that an OS as advanced at Android Gingerbread does not have the ability to pick the output location of audio. While a system like Airplay would be nice for sending audio and video to my home media infrastructure, I know that there are third party apps that will already do this in part, so if you give developers a away to do it, it will be done.
3. More polished apps for SSH, VNC, and iTunes Remote control.
Here’s what I would want to have to make iOS and the iPhone 4 my primary phone.
1. AT BOOT SYSTEM WIDE ENCRYPTION BASED ON A USER PROVIDED KEY!!!! – After just a week on the Nexus S and switching back to the iPhone I found myself fearing that the phone would be lost and my life compromised by identity thieves. It’s the same kind of gross feeling I get when I sit down to use a computer without antivirus software. I know that it will work, but I’m taking an unnecessary risk doing it. Apple swears that the iPhone 4 has “hardware level encryption” but it’s not based on user provided entropy and has already been cracked. Apple’s official lost phone security position is that you can “remote wipe” an iPhone 4. But that only works if the phone has access to a data network (not always a given) and if the user realizes that the phone has been lost BEFORE the data is compromised. While there is no such thing as a “hacker proof” system, true security can only be boot time encryption based on a user supplied key, “locking” the system to prevent access until the user unlocks the phone (with something better than a 4 number pin), and a dead-man switch.
2. Voice Commands. Right now the Apple voice system is restricted to dialing only and is less functional than my Microsoft phone was 6 years ago.
3. Better link between the OS and third party software. This is not to say “open” per-say, because I honestly believe that if you suggested making the iPhone more “open” inside Apple HQ, Steve Jobs would beat you senseless with his old liver and wipe the blood up with his stock options. Apple has made an empire on a closed system, and there is no way that Stalin is going to suddenly allow free elections, but surely allowing shared storage on the file system and approved third party software to assist core phone functions wouldn’t topple the Kremlin.
When I moved from the Windows Mobile 6 platform to the iPhone, it changed my life. There was indeed a “Halo effect” on me because at that time I switched over to an all Mac computer environment and haven’t regretted it. In attempting to move from iPhone to Android, there just isn’t that “revolutionary” feel.
I want very much to Love my Google Nexus S. As a computing platform for doing things like mobile communication, casual gaming, and in my case Mobile IT support and Management, Android and the Nexus S are a cut above the iPhone 4. However, without strong media integration, whenever I carry just my Nexus S, I strongly feel the media gap in my life.
The next versions of these Phones OSes (iOS 5 and Android “Ice Cream Sandwich”) are set to debut in 2011. One of the rumors in iOS 5 is better voice control. Sadly, I’ve not been able to confirm is there if going to be better DLNA or Bluetooth audio support in “Ice Cream Sandwich”.