Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 5 vs. Google Android OS

How Google's tablet 'Honeycomb' and smartphone 'Gingerbread' OSes fare in the battle with iOS 5 on the iPad and iPhone

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Deathmatch: User interface
It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the soon-to-be-discontinued MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS is in fact a better-designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster. iOS 5 doesn't mess with what you already know, but it does enhance the UI further with the Notification Center, improved gesture support, much simpler synchronization capabilities, and a few enhanced settings.

Operational UI. I noted earlier how Android "Gingerbread" makes you click the Menu button and go through one or more levels of options to access most capabilities in its apps. This really slows smartphone operations, even though it is consistently implemented. Apple is smarter about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen, even in the screen-constrained iPhone.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Android smartphones have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press it when, say, reading an email, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it lets you search your address book. It's not clear why the Search button is available in some contexts and not others, especially for apps like Email that have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

Android "Honeycomb" is less awkward to use than "Gingerbread," as it takes advantage of the tablet's larger screen. But so does iOS on the iPad.

The Settings app in both versions of Android can be confusing. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. By contrast, iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on Android and iOS. But iOS 5 makes better use of gestures: You can navigate among running apps with new motions, as well as go to the home screen and open the multitasking dock. iOS also has strong UI support for the visually and hearing-impaired, such as options for zooming text, presenting screens in high contrast, and enabling text-to-speech for text selections. In iOS 5, these are augmented with gesture assistance for those with motor coordination issues. Android simply doesn't accommodate such needs.

A nice change in iOS 5 is the ability to set custom sounds to various alerts. Now, in a room full of iPhones and iPads, you have a better chance of knowing whether it's your device that just beeped. Android doesn't allow for such per-app alert tone configuration.

iOS no longer requires you connect to a computer to set it up; iOS 5 lets you set up the device and update the OS wirelessly -- which Android has done from day one.

For text entry, I find iOS's on-screen keyboard to be slightly easier to work with than Android's, with clearer keys and better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application. Although Android "Honeycomb" makes good use of Tab and other keys not found on iOS on the iPad, the result is that the keyboard is not quite full size in landscape orientation (whereas iOS's is on an iPad) and, thus, a tad difficult for touch-typing. I'm sure I'll eventually get used to it, but it remains an annoying UI decision.

I also like iOS 5's new split keyboard option for the iPad, which makes it easy to thumb-type while holding an iPad with both hands. It's simple to turn this mode on and off as you type. In addition, iOS 5 lets you float the regular keyboard for those times you want to see a full screen of contents behind it. Android has nothing like it. Be warned, however: When I type rapidly onscreen on the regular keyboard, my iPad frequently switches to the split keyboard; I can't figure out what I'm tapping to cause the switch, but it's really annoying and seemingly random.

Text selection and copying. Android falls short in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when entering a URL, it can be difficult to move the text cursor to the typo's location in the text. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu. It took me a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insertion cursor to a new location in text without opening that menu. "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb" 3.1 have tweaked text selection so that it's more precise, and there's now a slider to move the text cursor -- but these enhanced controls are not universal across apps.

By contrast, on iOS, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go. You then add and delete text at that location. Plus, the controls for text selection appear, so you can use those if you'd like -- there's no worry about some screen-filling menu appearing as in Android "Gingerbread." The text-selection controls in Android "Honeycomb" are more like iOS's, but they're less precise and a bit harder to control via touch than in iOS.

Copy and paste -- even basic selection -- is often not available in Android. In some fields, tapping and holding brings up the Edit Text contextual menu that lets you copy or paste the entire field's contents; in others you can't even do that. Although the browser lets you select and copy text, this ability is not universal. For example, you can't select text in email messages. In iOS, any textual item can be selected. It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

The winner: iOS 5, by a mile. Android's awkward text-handling features are inexcusable, even with some of the recent enhancements. People used to regular cellphones, BlackBerrys, and Palm OS devices will be thrilled with the Android "Gingerbread" UI; certainly, the friends and colleagues I showed Android to felt that way. But if you're familiar with the iOS UI on the iPhone, the Android smartphone UI will feel clunky and a bit awkward, as if you were being forced to use Windows or Linux. The difference in usability between an iOS tablet and an Android "Honeycomb" tablet is not as stark -- but nonetheless, iOS is easier to use, and its capabilities more universally available.

Deathmatch: Security and management
Apple's not known for supporting enterprise-level security and client management demands, yet iOS is second only to BlackBerry in terms of enterprise security and management support. It has remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and an assortment of password controls (such as requiring a strong password or disabling access after a specified number of failed log-in attempts) that are manageable through Microsoft Exchange and, soon, through iOS-enabled management tools from companies such as Good Technology and MobileIron. iOS 4 also supports several types of VPNs, provides SSL message encryption, and has on-device encryption for all data that can't be turned off.

By contrast, Android's security and manageability are not enterprise-class. Android "Gingerbread" simply can't meet most corporate security needs, and there is little in the way of mobile management hooks in the OS for third-party management tool providers to tap into. The biggest omission is the lack of on-device encryption, which pretty much renders Android unusable for corporate Exchange environments.

As previously noted, individual apps can implement encryption within their sandbox, as NitroDesk TouchDown does, but IT rarely has a way to ensure that only such apps are deployed. (Exchange's EAS policy detection is one of those rare ways to secure email, calendar, and contacts apps on mobile devices.) One option is to get one of Motorola Mobility's recent business-oriented Android "Gingerbread" smartphones -- the Atrix 4G, Droid 3, Photon 4G, or Xprt -- to which Motorola has added on-device encryption that works with Exchange's EAS policy requirements. The Photon 4G I tested worked perfectly well under our corporate EAS policies. In 2012, Android smartphones using 3LM's add-on security layer for Android should begin appearing, making corporate support of Android more plausible and less labor-intensive.

The situation is markedly better for out-of-the-box Android "Honeycomb." Google, having recognized Android's security deficiency, has added on-device encryption to "Honeycomb," but you have to enable it manually. Not only does encrypting the tablet take an hour, but the battery has to be fully charged before you can begin, even if you are plugged into a wall socket. (The rationale is that the battery needs to be at full capacity in case the power goes out or the power cord is disconnected.) It can take several hours before your Android tablet is finally encrypted and ready for use. Fortunately, it's a one-time activity.

Android "Honeycomb" comes close to matching iOS's support of EAS policies (unlike Android "Gingerbread" smartphones), allowing for complex passwords, password expiration, and password history restrictions. But "Honeycomb" can't enforce policies to disable the camera, control access to Wi-Fi access points, or block use of the app store as iOS can.

Both versions of Android do support complex passwords, VPNs, and SSL message encryption. But neither could connect to InfoWorld's PEAP-secured Wi-Fi network, despite displaying a PEAP-oriented dialog box when trying to initiate the connection. By contrast, iOS had no trouble connecting to that PEAP-secured Wi-Fi network. (Google tells me PEAP is supported but requires extra work by both IT and users to create the connection; the company is looking at making the process as simple as iOS's for a future update.)

Android can back up settings, contact, calendar, and email data wirelessly to Gmail, as can iOS 5 to Apple's iCloud service. In addition, iOS can back up all of your device's data and apps to iTunes, both over a USB connection and, new to iOS 5, over Wi-Fi. But of course, most large businesses would prefer not to have iTunes on corporate PC, even with iOS's support of backing up specified types of data on one computer and other types on other computers, to keep data backup separated based on type. Still, whether you back up to iCloud or iTunes, you get the option to encrypt those backups -- a security feature IT should appreciate.

The winner: Only iOS 5 can meet midlevel corporate security and manageability requirements. Android "Honeycomb" comes close enough for many businesses, but Android "Gingerbread" isn't a real option unless you bypass the native Android capabilities and install manageable email clients from firms such as NitroDesk, Good Technology, Enterproid (still in beta), MobileIron, or Zenprise.

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