On iPhone OS vs. Android – My Thoughts

A forefront where the debate and innovation is furious is the high-end smartphone market, particularly the operating system these devices run. No longer is the hardware alone the determining factor on consumer choice of devices, it’s what people can accomplish on a daily basis, something dictated primarily by the OS. These devices in a booming market are advancing at such a rapid rate, overlapping many functions which we used to depend on our computers for. In pure numbers, there is no doubt that Apple’s iPhone OS (used on iPod Touches, iPhones and iPads) holds the majority market share worldwide or smartphones, by a long way. Something in the vicinity of 2-3 times Android (with its variety of handsets), with small percentages being taken up by RIM (Blackberry) and Windows Mobile (also a variety of handsets). For this article, we can disregard the rest and focus on the two big players. They are both successful in their own right, but the question is, what are they doing right, who do they appeal to and how are they different?

One thing that annoys me no end are people who bring into a discussion prejudices (I admit I was one of these people), who find it far easier to immediately write-off the opposing point of view without bothering to learn the details. This is lazy and helps nobody. There are always going to be rabid supporters of a particular technology, but instead of resorting to vague and subjective claims, I will offer my thoughts as objectively as possible on this matter below.

What does the iPhone OS do right and wrong?

The iPhone was first launched a few years ago and it was revolutionary, because it was something that was never seen before. Not just on the hardware side, but soon after, people could easily download and run 3rd-party applications on their device. For many that came from feature phones and the world at large, this was an important step. Apple didn’t invent this feature, but they made it accessible to the mass market in a streamlined fashion. No messing around with file explorers or step by step installations. These applications allowed for a tailored level of functionality on these mobile devices which allowed people to mould their phones into whatever devices they wanted them to be (mostly). The iPhone OS is straightforward, easy to use/setup and is intuitive. Most people who use iPhones come to appreciate the attention paid to the finer details and slick lathering of polish that covers the system from tip to toe.

My experience is mild with iPhones to say the least, I know my way around enough to get most things done and I also know what they’re capable of, but I have never owned one, nor will I in the foreseeable future. Being as behind the times as I am, it was only recently that I managed to spend some hands on time with the iPad and given the grand tour of the device by a particularly helpful and enthusiastic Apple Store assistant. I felt slightly guilty because I already knew what it was capable of and that I would not be buying one (I even told him before hand and responded that I had a Google Nexus One when he asked about phones, but I don’t think he knew what it was). In any case I do know that sometimes, the specs don’t tell the whole story, first hand experiences are far more informative. In any case, what I would assume to be the normal routine covered things such as the basic functions (photo gallery, calendar, notes) but also Maps and a Google Sky clone. What I found was interesting was a few things, these of course are specific to the example here, but also are reflected in the grander scale:

  • The functionality that the Google Maps app provide was described as being an iPad/Apple ‘feature’. The GMaps app is labelled Maps and there is no actual Google logo easily visible in the program.
  • The descriptions by the sales rep of many functions were described in simple and practical terms. For example, ‘have beer with friends’ or ‘take photo at beach’. Everything had a real-life purpose, specifically what the end result would help to accomplish, rather than the process or steps of achieving it. This also reverberates with Apple’s marketing strategy and Job’s keynotes.
  • That everything (as on the iPhone) was a fully contained ecosystem. You can jump between the majority of tasks and never have to venture outside Apple’s playground.
  • I could see this guy was still as impressed with the iPad as the first time he used one and I can see how his enthusiasm can influence customers. Most of the staff I talked to also seemed as peppy.

It was there that I begin to see what makes these Apple products so appetizing. It’s not the hardware specs, but how it makes people feel when they use it. As with all sales, they are selling a solution, not just the product, but they emphasise this from start to finish. People want a way to communicate, watch, read and do so without worrying about the technical side of things and to this end, it achieves it perfectly. Does it justify the inflated price tag? Probably not. The people I talk to with iPhones are keen to point out how easy to use they are and how everything just ‘works’, rarely do they refer to anything technical (like “this 3MP camera has an excellent aperture setting”). In addition, everything from music to books to movies and TV shows are all accessible from the one store. It’s a very filtered process which is what these people want. Offer them the open world and they will stay with what is safe and what they know, there’s nothing unusual about that.

Of course, there are still apps to access third-party sites, but wherever I looked, I felt there were limitations: Syncing with cloud photo storage (such as Picasa/Flickr), background notifications for e-mail, tabbed browsing, all that empty space between icons. Then I realised, looking at the colourful graphics, the silky animations and the rounded edges, that this was no mistake. It’s a walled garden, but a very comfortable one at that, for most people that’s just good enough. Just think of those big plastic covers on engine bays, most people just prefer the ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ mentality, which is perfectly understandable. With the upcoming iOS4, they are addressing the biggest concerns that people have, so that they can continue to exist in this ecosystem happily and hand over more dollars. More than half of Apple’s revenue now comes from mobile devices and associate app sales, eclipsing it’s music retailing and Mac sales.

I’m convinced that their intentions are noble, however they remove the choice of freedom from the user, for some people that’s a deal-breaker, but some it’s paradise. Even as some people saying jailbreaking is a necessity to get functionality which should have been included in the first place, with Apple constantly updating their software to keep people within the system, the percentage of jailbroken iPhones is still in the single digits, a small minority. You can be sure that with future software and hardware releases, Apple will continue to find new ways to lock their devices down.

What does Android do right and wrong?

Contrast this with Android’s approach: When Google bought a company called Android Inc, in 2007, what they had was something very different to what it is today. Things looked grim: It was a clunky looking thing, reminiscent of Windows Mobile. They stepped back and moved to bringing the user experience forward to something that was competitive with the iPhone (which had set the standard for ease of use). However, it’s important to understand why their approach is a bit different. For Google, they don’t profit directly from hardware or OS sales, but the fact that people use the internet (and in turn, provide advertising revenue, which is where the vast majority of Google’s profits come from, around 98%+). Android is open-source and free for anybody to use as they see fit. You can see the evidence of this by the half-hearted Google Nexus One campaign they ran and pulled shortly after. Why? Either way, people will still use the internet. However, the playing field has just recently changed dramatically, with Apple entering the advertising space and banning Google/Microsoft from advertising on their iAd service, soon to be rolling out to iOS devices.

There is a noticeably different approach within Android. Instead of prioritising the ease-of-use or user experience, they prioritise functionality. Just look at the standard Android keyboard. It’s flat and lifeless, but does the job, almost like a machine somewhere designed it. This is evidenced elsewhere throughout the system, there are some UI inconsistencies between core applications, occasional technical terms like permissions being thrown around and more hands on configuration than most people are comfortable with. However, the potential of the device is much higher, both from a software and hardware point of view. This is because there aren’t senseless, arbitrary limitations put in to keep you locked into spending money in one place and competition between OEMs has resulted in rapidly improving phones (just see the battle for screen size that is currently underway). What you have is something bordering on a flood of hardware configurations, a healthy developer community and a rapidly evolving OS, all ingredients to mainstream adoption of the platform. The ease of use is now approaching a level where average people from the street can walk in and immediately figure out how to use, and enjoy, the phone without being frustrated (see Sense UI / Android 2.2 improvements).

It’s by understanding the different revenue models of the two companies that you can understand the different design decisions put into place on each platform. To install non-market applications on Android is one tick box away. To make your phone into a wireless hotspot is four button presses away. To gain root access on a Nexus One is one command on a prompt away. It’s all like this by design as well. Android gives you by default a limited environment to work within, but if you wanted to, you can open it up. The freedom of choice is there for you if you specifically wanted it and you can do nearly anything you want, the options are limitless. For some people, this is crucial, but for some people, this is scary.

This openness has its pros and cons. Being so tightly integrated with Google services is something that all Android users benefit from (ie. accurate and quick voice recognition). Also, with access to more phone functions, application developers can create genuinely unique and creative ways to improve phone functions (such as the brilliant Swype application, which I would thoroughly recommend to anybody who does any decent amount of typing on their device), the list goes on. They can do this without the user having to root the phone (gaining superuser permissions to access system files). On the downside, at some time or another, Android will assume some small degree of user technical proficiency, which may put some people off. It’s not entirely idiot proof, yet. Market apps are tested for memory leaks before they are accepted, but that’s all, it’s for all intents and purposes it’s an open market.

However, this system also has it’s drawbacks. It relies on Google’s OEM handset partners to regulate their hardware manufacturing decisions. Since Android itself is a free and open OS, technically it can be loaded onto anything, but this is NOT a good thing. Even now, while Android is still in the minority, there is already a growing confusion on what phone does what, what version of Android it’s running and what proprietary skin it’s running. Many average consumers who buy phones will buy it because it either looks good to them in the photos, or their friends/family have recommended it. They won’t know what the difference is between MotoBlur, Timescape, Sense UI or Vanilla is. Very rarely do they change a buying decision based on the fact that there are only 3 home screens in one but 7 in another. But here is where things get complicated, because where Android started off appealing to the technical user, now it’s becoming more mainstream. Android’s open nature works against itself when it goes mainstream, by causing undue widespread confusion if not controlled. This does not mean they need to implement a closed system, but they do need to make it easier for people to understand the variants, and to do away with manufacturer customisations WHILE offering manufacturers an effective way to differentiate their product from the next.

What happens next, and what should I buy?

From here, two things happen. The momentum on Android devices continues to pick up pace and they become an equally competitive platform that appeals to a large amount of people within the next 18 months. It’s just a matter of time before the Android Market equals the number of apps of Apple’s App Store, because of it’s open nature. However, it’s arguable whether pure numbers alone dictate to better apps, or whether having access to more phone functions results in more user functionality, or whether the ability for Android to install non-market apps results in a flawed app counting mechanism. At this point, Apple will then shift from boasting about how many apps it has to something else.

Each platform has it’s own benefits and drawbacks. People will still choose what they think is best for them at that point in time. If their previous product has worked for them, or they like the look of something, then they’ll go for that. The mainstream consumer wants features that their friends have so they have something to show off. Apple’s revolutionary design a few years ago has now been met with everybody else catching up, they are discovering that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to be as innovating as they once were with phones. Google needs to switch focus from rapidly piling on functionality, to improving the core user experience, which they are doing in Gingerbread. The difference is that with each company’s unique business model, it’s more difficult to do the former, than do the latter. This may explain why Apple made the decisions with iAd that it did, it messes with Google’s income source (via Admob), which no amount of direct phone sale revenue does. What we do know is that the mobile space in the next 12-18 months is going to see some big changes in the way people use their devices.

If you are purchasing a mobile device in the future, my only recommendation is that you research all options thoroughly with an open mind, then only make your decision. It’s through informed purchasing decisions by you and me, that innovation and advancement is rewarded, no matter whichever one you choose.

If you’re after a no-nonsense quick comparison between the various current Mobile OS platforms, be sure to check out my spreadsheet.

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