The iPhone 5 plays catch-up with Android smartphones

4G LTE and big screens are old hat in Android, but new to the iPhone 5. NFC is still MIA in the iPhone. Where does Android's hardware edge matter most?

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So far, NFC capabilities have offered little to no user benefit in competing devices, so Apple is behind only in terms of PR value. If in a future iPhone Apple were to adopt NFC and enable useful services at the same time, Apple could suddenly make it clear the competitors missed the point and were being vapidly trendy in their premature NFC deployments.

Wi-Fi: Every smartphone has at least basic 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Until the iPhone 5, iPhones supported only that frequency, even though some Android smartphones had adopted 5GHz Wi-Fi, which typically has better range and fewer competing devices such as cordless phones and garage-door openers to slow down traffic. As dual 2.4GHz/5GHz wireless routers become more common, the iPhone's lack of 5GHz support matters more. So the iPhone 5's adoption of 5GHz frequencies makes perfect sense -- and it's something the third-gen iPad had already done.

The iPhone also lacks Wi-Fi Direct support for zero-configuration ad hoc networks. Some Android devices have supported Wi-Fi Direct for a while, though their number (including PCs) has not yet reached critical mass so that the iPhone's omission matters to users. But as with LTE, iPhone users may care in the next couple years if Wi-Fi Direct sees broader deployment.

This is another area where the Android competition has jumped the gun, but unlike with LTE or NFC, the blogosphere doesn't care about Wi-Fi Direct, so there's been little marketing advantage. Apple is a big believer in zero-configuration networking, with its Bonjour protocol and AirDrop, AirPlay, and AirPrint services; it's surprising that Apple hasn't taken the lead on zero-configuration Wi-Fi Direct.

Video and audio output: Nothing in the Android world works as easily and simply as Apple's dock connector or its AirPlay streaming capability (which requires an Apple TV). The iPhone can become a presentation device in seconds by using a VGA, HDMI, or DVI adapter. In contrast, Android devices are all over the map in terms of their support for MicroHDMI, and those that do usually have very clunky software that makes presentation sharing or screen mirroring a fruitless exercise. The iPhone has ruled for a couple years when it comes to video output, and Android competitors are still bumbling.

For audio, the iPhone is well matched by its Android competitors; both platforms have long supported the standard audio jack, and Bluetooth audio streaming in both is old news. The iPhone 5 promises a much better microphone and "wide" audio speakers that should deliver a better audio experience. We'll see. Some Android manufacturers, such as HTC, make similar promises.

The battle in industrial design
In the early years, Android smartphones tended to look like generic cellphones, while Apple has long shown off a distinctive profile for the iPhone, one sharpened rather than reimagined with the iPhone 4's edgier appearance. The Google/Samsung Galaxy Nexus, Samsung Galaxy S III, and Motorola Mobility Droid Razr Maxx are recent Android smartphones that show distinctive design need not be just an Apple advantage, though the cheap-feeling backs of the Razr Maxx and awkward buttons on all three units suffer in comparison to the iPhone 4's solid construction and hard-to-confuse buttons. These are details many users won't explicitly notice, but they contribute to the Apple reputation for high quality. So it's not a surprise that the iPhone 5 takes the iPhone 4 design and simply thins and elongates it.

You don't mess with identity or quality feel, and Apple may be in a pickle on how to keep its industrial design feel fresh after two years of the same design, without losing its iconic look or feeling of substantive quality. Android device makers haven't had that problem yet. Give it time.

This article, "The iPhone 5 plays catch-up with Android smartphones," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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