Sunday, January 30, 2011

iOS or Android?

This is one of the most hotly debated topics in the tech world over the course of the last year. Should one prescribe to Steve Jobs's 'walled garden', or go with Google's 'open' approach? Sadly, I don't have the finances to afford both - I have one contract phone and I'll be stuck with whatever I choose for the next 2 years.
Many people mock my indecision, but the latest generation of smartphones are far more than phones; for many that has become a secondary function. A smartphone in 2011 is also a pocket computer and web browser, a media player, a still and video camera, a calendar, an address book, a calculator, and an alarm clock. Furthermore, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of apps available, it can also be a GPS navigation device, an ebook reader, a photo editor, an rss reader, or a portable game machine. It can be the biggest time suck, or a lifesaver in a difficult situation. For Apple, the iPhone has turned them into one of the most valuable companies in the world; no wonder Eric Schmidt has repeatedly stated that Google's focus for 2011 is on mobile.
So what are the choices:
Symbian - still the most widely used mobile OS, thanks to its use in many Nokia feature phones, Symbian has been floundering, and their future in smartphones is uncertain.
WebOS - developed by Palm and bought out by HP, this is a fantastic OS but has limited prospects until HP's future plans are clarified.
Blackberry OS - another proprietary OS, RIM have captured a huge portion of the market, but even with the introduction of their touchscreen models, BB's remain mostly business phones.
Android - Google's open source OS has seen enormous growth in 2010 thanks to widespread adoption by the likes of HTC, Samsung, Motorola, Sony Ericsson and LG.
iOS - Apples iconic OS was at the heart of the touchscreen revolution and is exclusive to their products, including the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.
Considering the options, it looks like a simple choice between iOS or Android, but it's anything but simple. The two companies, Apple and Google, have completely different strategies, and depending on your requirements and/or expectations, these strategies will undoubtedly influence your choice. At first look, the choice for me seemed obvious. I'm a big fan of Google's products, and have long respected their efforts at openness. I've followed their development of Android with eager anticipation, and looked forward to experiencing entering my Google user name and seeing all my contacts, email and calendar events syncing before my eyes! Based on this perception I convinced my girlfriend to opt for a Sony Ericsson X10 Mini running Android when her contract came up for renewal. 
The problems started almost immediately. The phone was shipping with Android 1.6, when the talk in the tech world was all about the imminent release of 2.3. A couple of weeks later an upgrade was rolled out: version 2.1! And what's more, Sony Ericsson announced that this would be the last update for the X10 series. So, within less than 2 months of purchase, we learned that we would not receive any of the future Android goodness. The reason for this is clear; with the best intentions in the world, Google continue to push out update after update, but unless you have one of the Nexus range of Google phones, you're reliant on the phone manufacturer to take the latest version of Android and update their proprietary layer of software before they ship it. Then, in many cases, you have to wait for your carrier to add their bloatware as well! By the time you receive the update Google have pushed out 2 later versions! In contrast, Apple sends out their updates via iTunes, directly to the user, and depending on which version of the iPhone you have, you'll get all the new features that'll work with your hardware. Simple, direct and easy to understand.
My next headache came when I was asked to add some music and podcasts. I have not used an iPhone before, but I'm familiar with the process on iPods; plug into my PC running iTunes, choose which playlists to sync, and that's it. I had downloaded DoubleTwist in preparation, so I was all set to go. To be fair, DoubleTwist works quite well with music files. All my iTunes playlists appeared, and synced up quite easily. Podcasts were a different story. DoubleTwist have their own 'subscriptions', but the podcasts I wanted to sync already appeared on iTunes. Creating a 'Podcast' playlist worked, but the files then appeared as music files on the device, so if you stopped playback midway through, on restart the music player started at the beginning again! There are a number of workarounds, but this shouldn't be necessary. Why haven't Google developed an iTunes equivalent yet? The majority of people don't want to mess around with a bunch of different programs to get their media onto their phones; they want something logical and simple. Apple offers this, Google doesn't.
One of the advantages of Android over Google is the Android homescreen. While Apple only offer a collection of icons, or folders of icons, with minimal 'live' interaction by way of the 'badges' showing missed calls, unread messages, etc, Android has live widgets showing weather updates, stock market updates, etc. Androids also have a stunning feature called live wallpaper, introduced from 2.1. These features add some great bling to the Android experience, but almost no-one can keep them activated - they kill battery life!
And herein lies the rub. Apple controls the complete iPhone experience; they develop the hardware and the software together, and they have strict control over any apps that are loaded by the user. In contrast, Google have developed a great OS, but other than some guidelines, the phone manufacturers are left to develop the hardware in isolation. App developers are free to create almost anything they like, and the customer has no recall if the app doesn't perform as expected. Google have been concentrating on the OS, and while there are plenty of rumours about wireless syncing, and a cloud based gTunes (my name), there is nothing official right now. The future for Android certainly looks bright, and there's a lot of work going into Android 3.0 for tablets right now. But that's all in the future - I need to decide which phone I'm going to get right now. I can get an iPhone 4 and I know that iOS 4.3, when released, will be available immediately for my phone, and that it'll run seamlessly with all the apps I have. For a similar price I can get an HTC Desire running Android 2.2. If I'm lucky, I might get an upgrade to 2.3 at sometime, but there are no guarantees beyond that. If Google introduce gTunes, but it's only available on Android 3.0, I will probably not get access for 2 years, when my contract comes up for renewal again.
In many ways I believe that Android would be a better fit for me, but as it stands right now I don't think that they're quite there yet. In the past I have been critical of iTunes, and as a pure music player/manager I still believe there are better options, but as an overall product management system it is without peer. Google needs to roll out gTunes, or whatever they're going to call it, as a matter of urgency. They need to take back control of their OS; if the manufacturers and carriers want to add a layer onto Android it has to be separate, and not effect the updates that Google should be rolling out themselves. Every Android phone should be running the latest version of the OS that it's hardware can support. Google needs to set maybe 3 device specs: screen size & resolution and processor performance (perhaps), plus a couple more for tablets, so that anyone developing for the platform knows what needs to be supported. This may not be the 'open' utopia that Larry & Sergey envisage, but it's what the consumers want, and sometimes you need to listen.
The bottom line - unless something drastic happens before the end of February it looks like I'll be crossing over to the iPhone camp for the next 24 months.

Thanks for reading.