How Google's tablet 'Honeycomb' and smartphone 'Gingerbread' OSes fare in the battle with iOS 5 on the iPad and iPhone
It's now part of the popular culture: "There's an app for that." There are hundreds of thousands of apps for iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. Android doesn't have nearly the same library of apps as iOS, but its smartphone app portfolio is now in the tens of thousands, with many useful titles -- and more coming as the OS gains popularity. There are fewer tablet-specific Android apps in the Android Market, though their numbers continue to increase as well.
The native apps included with iOS and Android are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browsers, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging (on smartphones only). iOS 5 supplements its iPhone-only SMS messaging app with a proprietary messaging service, called iMessage, for all iOS devices. Thus, the Messages app for the iPhone is now on all iOS 5 devices, providing iMessaging and SMS on iPhones and just iMessaging on other devices. I believe such platform-specific messaging limits iMessage's utility needlessly. It's like being able to call only people whose phone service is on the same carrier as yours. (FaceTime, Apple's videoconferencing app, has the same self-imposed limitation.) I know that iMessage is a clone of Research in Motion's BlackBerry Messenger service that works only among BlackBerrys, but given RIM's precipitous market decline, it's not exactly a model to copy. (And remember, BBM came in a bygone era when BlackBerrys ruled unrivaled.)
Android has no native notepad app, a very odd omission for a mobile device. iOS's Notes app even integrates with IMAP and Exchange servers, so your notes can be automatically synced to and made available from your email. This is an amazingly useful feature, as your notes are always available. Apple's iCloud extends this utility for locally stored notes. iOS 5 also adds a basic task manager, Reminders, that integrates with Exchange's to-do capabilities and syncs via iCloud to iCal on the Mac and Outlook in Windows 7.
The document-syncing protocol introduced in iOS 5, Mac OS X Lion, and iCloud is a game-changer for many business apps. The fact that a Keynote presentation syncs across all my devices, reflecting the current version no matter where I edit it, is a huge productivity boon. As app developers beyond Apple adopt this protocol, it will become increasingly easy to work in a mobile context without all the sync and file-management hassles of today. Google has nothing similar.
Another big deal in iOS 5 unmatched by Android is its enhanced AirPlay support. You can now send your screen image and audio to an HDMI-connectable presentation device attached to a $99 Apple TV, as long as the iOS device and the Apple TV are in the same wireless network. With an iPad 2, you can mirror the entire screen; on other iOS devices, you can use AirPlay only with apps that work with the protocol, such as Keynote for slideshows and Web Presenter for Web demos. This will make it very easy to give presentations from an iPhone or iPad -- and I can see many conference facilities adding an Apple TV to their standard presentation equipment, given its low cost. Android has no such native capability. Some hacks are available, but I can't see those getting widespread use. Some Android devices come with apps that support the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) protocol found in a smattering of TVs for wireless video, but it's a hardware feature added by the phone makers and not consistently available either on Android devices nor on presentation equipment.
Unlike Apple's App Store, the Android Market is not curated, which makes it easier for developers to get their apps listed but has also let cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking or other programs to steal user information. Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.
You're much more likely to find an app you want in the Apple App Store than in the Android Market. But of course, you don't have to use the Android Market to get Android apps. If you want to get down and dirty, you can configure Android's application settings to install apps from other sources.
Multitasking. iOS is often criticized for not providing "real" multitasking. Instead, it enables some services to run in the background, then limits developers to those services, in an attempt to prevent resource conflicts, as well as to maintain battery life and performance. Other app attributes are stored when the user exits and resumed when the user returns. By contrast, Android boasts PC-like full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties.
In practice, I don't see a difference: Both iOS and Android look and work like "real" multitasking in everyday use. However, iOS makes it easiest to switch between apps.
I have noticed that iOS 5 seems more responsive than iOS 4 as you switch apps -- which is easier to do with the new four-finger swipe gestures. In iOS 4, switching apps required pressing Home to go to the home screen or double-pressing Home to open the multitasking dock, then opening the desired app.
The ease of app switching in iOS 5 is really noticeable when compared to Android "Gingerbread," where you have to drill down several levels in Settings to see which apps are active; that list is littered with various Google services that are also running. This Running Services view really isn't meant for daily usage. You can long-tap the Home button to see a list of recent apps, any of which you can then tap to open. That is more like iOS 5's multitasking dock and a better option than the settings drill-down.
Android "Honeycomb" provides an onscreen button to open a dock of running apps -- also similar to iOS's multitasking dock, though with the nice addition of preview screens showing each app's current status. But neither Android version lets you just move among running apps through gestures as iOS 5 can (as does the WebOS-based Hewlett-Packard TouchPad tablet).
App management. Managing apps is also a little easier in iOS than in Android. Android reserves the home screen for a few preinstalled apps, then lets you add other apps to it by tapping-and-holding and then dragging app icons to the desired location, one at a time. Getting to those apps is where there's extra work: In "Gingerbread," you press a grid icon at the bottom of the screen to get the full set of installed apps; in "Honeycomb," you tap the Apps button at the upper right of a home screen. Fortunately, copying apps to the home screen is easy, but the modal switch is still annoying. By contrast, iOS simply adds more home screens as you pick up apps and easily lets you arrange them by dragging them. (You can't rearrange apps in Android's app screen, just on its home screen.)
iOS also lets you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as iphone.infoworld.com, the beta version of InfoWorld's mobile site that lets you take quizzes and play our slideshows. Android can add bookmarks only to its browser's bookmarks list.
iOS lets you create app folders, which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are still too small to make out, so knowing what's in a folder is not always easy. Android also has a folder capability: tap and hold the Home screen to get a contextual menu and tap the New Folder option. To name the folder something other than New Folder, tap the folder to open it, then tap and hold its menu bar to open the keyboard so that you can enter a new name. Yes, the procedure is that awkward.
Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly; iOS also lets you manage apps (including their home screen arrangement) and update them via iTunes, so they are backed up to your computer.
One of the app advantages in Samsung's version of Android "Honeycomb" is its widgets feature. Widgets are mini apps that you can place on the home screen, and they can be very helpful, showing the latest email message or Facebook update or the current time in a large clock. Thus, you can see at a glance the current status of whatever you want to easily track. Neither Android "Gingerbread" nor iOS has this ability -- and "Honeycomb"-based tablets from other manufacturers don't have it either, so I can't credit it to Android.
Both versions of Android have long offered a notifications capability. Pop-up notifications make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing. On tablets, alerts appear in the lower right of your screen, not at the top as in Android smartphones. In both cases, you can pull up a notification pane to see recent alerts.
iOS 4 had a basic notifications capability: Apps using the notifications API could be set to sound an alert, indicate the number of open messages via a badge on their home screen app icon, and/or display an alert window. iOS 5 has copied the Android-style notifications-tray capability in what it calls Notification Center, but Apple's version is better. In iOS 5, you pull down from the top of the screen to get a pane of notifications, and tap any to open it within its app. You can also delete groups of notifications -- such as for mail messages -- by tapping the X icon to the right of the group's name. I like iOS 5's notifications better than Android's because iOS's notifications are much easier to read, and Notification Center shows individual messages and tweets, whereas in some cases Android shows only a group alert, such as "5 new mentions," rather than list them (iOS lets you specify a max number of notifications per type to display, by the way).
iOS 5 can also display notifications on the lock screen, and by sliding a specific notifications icon, you can open the app and the relevant notification item, such as an email. Plus, unlike Android, iOS 5 lets you decide which apps may present notifications on the lock screen and elsewhere -- you're not restricted to a predetermined set. Not only does iOS 5 let you turn notification on or off on a per-app basis, but you can specify whether the notification sounds a tone, whether it appears in the lock screen, whether its badge updates with the number of relevant notifications, and how the notification appears onscreen (as an overlay in the middle of your screen, as Calendar does by default for appointments, or just in the Notification Center pull-down pane). You get to choose when and how you are interrupted.
iOS 5 adds a new storage management API that will ease file handling when you want to free up space. The Settings app's Usage pane now shows how much storage each app consumes. If you tap a compatible app in that list, you get a sublist of all its document files, which you can delete individually as needed. Non-compatible apps show only their total data usage; you'll need to manage their documents within the apps themselves or via iTunes' file management facility. Android can show how much space apps and types of data (such as music) take, but it has no file manager nor a facility like iOS 5's. (You can buy file manager apps in the Android Market.)
The winner: iOS 5, by outdoing Android's notifications capability, improving its app switching capabilities, and adding automatic document syncing and Apple TV-mediated presentation. Plus, Apple's app catalog is large. If you use a smartphone or tablet for work, and not just for Web surfing and content consumption, iOS takes you very close to being able to work without a PC. Android's capabilities are pretty strong, especially if your business needs are minimal, but simply not as good as iOS's.
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