Android versus iPhone, Diversity versus Homogeneity

Just over two years ago in this blog, I laid down the reasons why I felt that Android OS would be a success. I attributed the success down to being hardware agnostic and having a clean set of application APIs. I further stated that it was imperative that Apple allow applications on their iPhone OS before it was too late.

Well, as we now know, Apple announced their App-Store in March 2008 (4 months after the Android OS announcement and my original article). In a little over a year and a half, over 100,000 applications have been approved and listed within the iPhone App-Store.

On October 22nd 2008 the first phone loaded with the Android OS, the HTC Dream was released sporting a hardware keyboard and version 1.0 of Android. In the following year, new phones were announced, slowly at first, the HTC Magic, then the HTC Hero, Samsung Spica, and Motorola Cliq. More recently the second generation phones have either appeared or been announced (Dell Mini 3i, Motorola Droid, Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, Samsung Behold II, and more).

The Android flood has started, and with the deluge of consumer choice, Android OS is finally gaining significant market share in the Smartphone market whilst Apple continues to eat into the market share of the other major players. RIM, Nokia, Palm and Microsoft look set to fight for their very survival.

The remainder of this article is a critique of the features and strategy of iPhone OS versus Android OS in the battle for market share in the Smart phone market.

iPhone best bits

  • First to market with ergonomic and user-friendly multi-touch media player and smart phone combination.

  • The speed of the iPhone is excellent.

  • Excellent on-board browser (no-frills but high quality).

  • Easy to navigate between applications and an easy learning curve.

  • Able to make iTunes purchases directly from the device. Makes easy to find and download new content.

  • Maps/GPS implementation is excellent and you will never get lost again.

  • Excellent 3D and video acceleration hardware inside the device.

  • Excellent choice of over 100,000 (and rising) approved applications in the App Store. Easy to browse and install.

  • One major and one minor OS upgrade per year (usually). New features added for free.

iPhone's shame

  • The physical design of the iPhone between owners is exactly the same. The iPhone (aside from a choice of 2 colours) is completely homogenized and as an owner, there is almost a sense of shame in producing an iPhone out of your pocket when everyone else around you has the very same phone in their pocket. Even if you love what it does, pulling it out of your pocket makes you feel like a sheep and rightly so. More hardware variety is required.

  • No background apps means that only one application can run at a time. Many useful applications are not possible due to this restriction (such as incoming VoIP phone calls, bluetooth location aware services, etc.)

  • Lack of customisation/advanced options in the iPhone OS... The OS treats you as if you were an idiot, which is a great default feature, as most users are not power users and giving users access to advanced features usually results in more support calls. BUT, there are millions of users that are advanced users and need access to advanced settings. These users wish to be able to set the mean time between snooze alarms, they wish to be able to attach multiple images to emails, they wish to have a unified inbox, they wish to be able to specify a six digit pin code instead of the weak 4 digit. Browser lacks many advanced options such as selected cache flushing.

  • Restrictive App-Store terms and conditions means that its not possible for me to run emulators, flash, java, alternative browsers, to run Voice-over-IP software over the 3G network. Apple lets you know at all times, that you do not own your own device and you do not have the right to decide what is allowed on it or not. Using the exceptional hardware to its full potential is purposefully crippled by the OS as mandated by boardroom decisions in Apple HQ. Cannot transfer application purchases between regions. Some applications are locked out of certain regions. Very restrictive and completely unfair.

  • Battery life is still a problem. If using the iPhone for gaming, don't expect to have any batteries left after 80 minutes. Never game for longer than 30 minutes a day if you want your phone to be able to actually be used as a phone. The more I think about it, I love online distribution system of the iPhone for gaming, but I would prefer to have an iPhone touch for gaming as there is no risk of running your phone batteries down.

  • No hardware back button means that when an app links to a webpage, your state in the referring app is lost and you have to click the menu button, find the originating app, and find the item that linked to the webpage in order to continue. Its terribly unergonomic.

  • iTunes integration is still tied to the iPhone hardware. Makes it problematic to move to a different phone type without losing content or without having very good IT skills.

Android's Best Bits

  • A large choice of handsets that is set to explode in the coming year. Cheaper handsets with slow CPUs, luxury handsets with fast CPUs, a variety of styles, colours, keyboard, no keyboard, capacitive touch screens, resistive touch screens, low res screens, high-res screens.

  • Customisable look and feel means that each manufacturer can have their own unique feel whilst building on a secure infrastructure that has access to thousands of application as standard.

  • Excellent set of standard OS features including turn by turn GPS navigation for free (Android 1.6+).

  • Excellent integrated browser (HTML5 compliant). Customisable and alternative browsers can be installed by the user if they desire (such as Firefox) .

  • Exchange integration, multiple email accounts and email account unification.

  • All types of applications are supported including virtual machines and services that overlap the core OS services (user has a choice of what he/she wants to use).

  • Android Market place has thousands of free and paid-for applications.

  • Support for background applications.

  • Widgets supported -customize the look of your phone. Provide convenient short cuts to system functions in a way that suits your usage pattern.

  • Android OS upgrades provided on a regular basis.

Android's shame

  • Version 1.0 of Android did not support on-screen keyboards so we were limited to the HTC Dream only for the first 6 months of Android's life. It wasn't until recently that an iPhone contender appeared from a hardware point of view (the Motorola Droid) and most existing handsets fit into the 1st generation camp right now.

  • The iPhone OS is still conceptually easier to use and easier to understand (at the expense of advanced features). Android still has some ergonomic hiccups to address such as the clunky pull-up menus and lack of pinch zoom on many handsets.

  • Android does not currently attract game development due to unoptimised libraries and a diverse set of hardware that makes it difficult for developers to target and test on all platforms.

  • The application store is currently less profitable for developers due to the much larger install base with iPhones and possibly for demographic reasons.

  • The first Android devices suffered from slow and clunky operation. This was a combination of the early versions of Android along with Anaemic CPUs (528MHz ARM11 CPUs) that simply could not compete with the fast and responsive iPhone.
  • Some early devices remain 'clunky'. Some of this may have to do with the unoptimised Dalvik virtual machine.

  • The Dalvik virtual machine has been and continues to be a huge disappointment in terms of performance but does provide an excellent sandbox that is required for application to leverage the Android platform. I would be extremely surprised if there were not some major optimisations in store (such as JIT) for Dalvik in the next year but this a key area for improvement in the Android infrastructure.

Looking ahead

Apple is far ahead in the lead right now but Apple has a lot to consider if it wishes to maintain its lead.

By this time next year, there will likely be scores of 2nd and 3rd generation Android phones available, all with usable, ergonomic user interfaces and all phones able to leverage a huge libraries of custom applications. These phones will come in a huge range of form factors, specification, some with keyboard, some without keyboard, some hip, some corporate, some suiting games, some optimised for battery life. Android OS is designed to fit on a variety of hardwares and therefore has the ability to fit inside every niche. Applications will be portable across devices but each device will be personalized and unique. The Android OS will continue to accrue new features and new optimisations and with Google as its sponsor, its sales momentum looks set to accelerate.

The iPhone will continue to be a dominant force in the next year mainly down to their superior hardware and excellent user experience (at some expense of flexibility). But the hardware advantage is fast disappearing. The Motorola Droid goes toe-to-toe with the 3GS in terms of performance, and there are phones based on the snapdragon chipset that should outperform the 3GS significantly.

But performance is not the battleground. The battleground is choice and features.

Some potential iPhone customers have already been put off by the lack of physical keyboard on the iPhone and have either chosen a different phone or are waiting until a phone appears that matches their aspirations.

So, what will Apple do now? Will their next phone have a physical keyboard, or not have a physical keyboard? Will it have curved edges or well defined lines? Will it come in white or in black or in red or in blue? Will it have a WVGA screen (as with the Droid) or a HVGA screen as with the current models? Extrapolating just these few options leads to problems.

How will Apple fill the niches that the market demands? Will they produce a series of iPhones (keyboard, non-keyboard, basic, hi-res, gaming edition, etc.)?

The only possible defence that Apple has from the coming Android onslaught is licensing the iPhone OS and using their current momentum to beat Android OS at its own game.

I predict that Apple will either announce multiple new iPhone models this year (beyond the simple capacity differences we have seen the previous 3 years) OR that Apple will announce the licensing of the iPhone OS to third parties (as well as continue with its own hardware development). The former would help Apple in the short term but it is the latter that is the only chance for Apple to maintain its momentum in the long-term.

Watching and discussing the mobile OS market is a most enjoyable hobby and I look forward to watching the story unfold over the coming years.

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