Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2

As the mobile battle narrows, the iPhone finally faces a real challenger

There've been many challengers to take the smartphone crown, but so far no one has dethroned the iPhone. Palm's WebOS posed a noble challenge but didn't sustain it. RIM's BlackBerry was easily dispatched by the more modern iPhone, and the forthcoming BlackBerry 6 appears unlikely to raise the bar. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 promises to be perhaps the weakest competitor of all, while the earlier Android-based Motorola Droid also fell short in key areas of concern to business.

But Android has continued to gain strength. The new Froyo version -- formally called Android OS 2.2 -- has become the default alternative to the iPhone for many customers, with broad support by cellular carriers and from Motorola and the Taiwanese hardware makers such as HTC and LG that had previously aligned to Windows Mobile.

[ See how iOS 4 and Android 2.2 compare feature by feature in InfoWorld's slideshow: "Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2, side by side." | See how the iPhone fares against the major competitors in InfoWorld's "ultimate mobile deathmatch" comparative review. | Discover how to deploy (almost) any smartphone in your business. ]

But Apple has not stood still, releasing its iOS 4 last month, which finally addressed long-standing omissions such as multitasking and enterprise security and management capabilities. Though iOS 4 seems to have been forgotten given all the focus on the iPhone 4's antenna woes, those troubles have no bearing on the iOS itself.

Which is the better mobile OS: Apple's iOS 4 or Google's Android OS 2.2? The InfoWorld Test Center decided to find out, based on the capabilities of interest to business and professional users. This deathmatch compares the operating systems, not specific devices using them, examining the OSes apart from the physical differences from device to device and network quality differences from carrier to carrier. I used an HTC Nexus One for Android testing and an iPod Touch 3G for iOS 4 testing, as they're comparable in their performance capabilities; I used only Wi-Fi for network testing to factor out carrier cellular network differences. Note that HTC and Motorola offer additional capabilities in their devices through UI overlays and custom apps; the focus here is on the native Android OS 2.2 capabilities furnished by Google.

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts
If you look at the specs, Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4 look to be evenly matched: Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. Both allow for "push" synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange folder hierarchy for mail and make navigating among folders a snap. Also, setup is easy.

Basic email usage. Android has a poorly chosen visual scheme for email lists: It uses white text on a black background (iOS 4 uses the inverse color scheme). In sunlight, it's all but impossible to read the screen on an Android device, while in the same light an iOS device's display of the email remains readable, even if somewhat washed out. You won't be checking email on the beach with an Android device.

I'm not a big fan of iOS 4's new UI for mail. There's now a unified inbox for all your email accounts, then a separate list of your accounts so that you can go to their traditional hierarchy (for Exchange and IMAP accounts). I don't know why Apple had to break these into separate lists; for someone like me with four separate email accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see.

Email management. Once you're in your folders, though, iOS 4 is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving messages to folders. You can easily search for mail, reply or forward, delete, and select multiple messages, but you can't select or deselect all messages.

On the other hand, Android OS 2.2's folder navigation isn't friendlier, though you don't have to wade through the double lists. By default you get an all-message view, and if you want to go to a specific folder or see just the inbox, you must click the Menu button and then tap the Folders icon to get a list of folders. Also, Android uses a separate app for Gmail accounts -- an unnecessary division of labor.

Android OS 2.2 is on a par with iOS 4 when it comes to mail management. However, you have to use the Menu button when in a message to forward it -- an extra step compared to iOS 4. Both iOS 4 and Android let you mark a message as unread, though Android requires you do it via the Menu button's options. You can search your email in Android, but not from within the Email application; it's part of a general device-wide search, which is more work than iOS 4's method. Like iOS 4, Android OS 2.2 has no select-all capability for email.

iOS 4 remembers the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields; Android doesn't do that. Both operating systems let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.

iOS 4 did add a message threading capability, which organizes your email based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it does remove the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) Android OS 2.2 has no similar capability.

Contacts and calendars. The iOS's more elegant UI for email applies to its Contacts and Calendar apps as well. You can easily switch calendar views in iOS 4 in the main calendar screen; by contrast, doing so in Android OS 2.2 requires using the Menu button's options to select a view. Likewise, iOS 4 more elegantly lets you manage the display of multiple calendars, but neither mobile OS lets you send invites to other users for non-Exchange calendars.

Both iOS 4 and Android OS 2.2 have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries in iOS 4. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On Android OS 2.2, a gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list, and if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter -- it's not as simple as the iOS approach and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists. Also in Android, you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon). You can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list; iOS 4 has no equivalent.

But iOS 4 lets you sync contacts (and calendars) from your desktop PC or Mac via iTunes if you connect the device via a USB cable. That way, you can get your Outlook or Address Book contacts into your device easily and even keep them in sync with your smartphone. Android has no such local syncing capability. You must sync through a Gmail account -- a no-no for many corporations -- or, for Exchange data only, through an Exchange account. You can import and export contacts to an Android device via an SD card, so you could export your computer's contacts to a file and then move it to an SD card -- a fine work-around for initial setup but not for ongoing synchronization.

Corporate email, contacts, and calendar support. Android OS 2.2 is significantly inferior to iOS 4 when it comes to corporate email capabilities. That's mostly because Android OS 2.2 supports just a limited set of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, so most corporate Exchange environments are unlikely to permit access. The biggest omission is support for on-device encryption, which is a basic EAS requirement. You can tell Exchange to ignore such policy misses, but that lets any noncompliant device onto the Exchange server -- not a viable option for most enterprises. Although iOS 4's EAS support is nowhere near as extensive as what BlackBerry and Windows Mobile offer, it remains the most compliant of any new-gen mobile OS.

Also, Android doesn't let you automatically sync Exchange folders; you have to go to each folder and manually update them. By contrast, iOS 4 lets you designate which folders are automatically synced as part of the mail settings.

Another Android OS 2.2 omission: Exchange calendar syncing (though Motorola provides the Corporate Calendar app on its devices to add this capability). In contrast, iOS 4 syncs with Exchange calendars natively and lets you both initiate and respond to calendar invites from Exchange -- but you can't accept invites sent to IMAP, POP, or Gmail accounts. Android OS 2.2 also can't accept such invites if sent to IMAP, POP, or Gmail accounts.

iOS 4 also integrates Exchange contacts into its Mail app, so it looks at your Exchange contacts database as well as your local database when you enter a person's name in a To or Cc field. Similar to iOS 4, Android integrates Exchange contacts into the local Mail app, assuming you can connect to Exchange. Neither operating system automatically puts Exchange contacts into their Contacts app; you have to add them manually from within an email. This is not a bad thing; it means that departing employees don't have your entire company contacts database on their mobile device, and it keeps the Contacts app from being filled with contacts a user probably doesn't need.

Both mobile operating systems support multiple Exchange accounts (this is new to iOS 4).

There is a work-around to Android's Exchange omissions: The $20 TouchDown app creates a sandbox that encrypts the mail stored in it, so it complies with many Exchange servers' EAS policies. It also lets you choose folders to autosync and flag messages, but its UI for folders is unfriendly. Any folders designated for autosyncing are accessible via a menu at the top of the TouchDown screen, so you can look at specific folders, not just the inbox or all messages (the default view), though only one at a time and without the context of your folder hierarchy. And TouchDown can't add email addresses in mail messages to the native Contacts app in Android; it works just with Exchange and EAS-compatible mail servers such as Lotus Notes 8.5.1 with Lotus Traveler and the forthcoming Novell GroupWise Data Synchronization Mobility Pack. But TouchDown does work well with Exchange contacts, calendar items, and notes.

If you use Lotus Notes, you can work with IBM's Lotus Notes Traveler app on iOS if you're also running the Notes 8.5.1 server with the Traveler extensions. There's as yet no such app for Android, though TouchDown works with that Notes 8.5.1/Traveler server combination. Novell has no support for either device, but plans to add EAS support later this year that should work through iOS 4's Exchange support and through TouchDown on Android.

The winner: iOS 4, by a wide margin. The difference between the two operating systems is a classic case of the specs not telling the whole story. iOS 4 has a much more intuitive interface that makes using email, contacts, and calendars far easier than on Android OS 2.2, and overall it has more capabilities. When it comes to corporate usage, Android simply fails the requirements of most organizations. The TouchDown app can work around much of this gap, but at the price of poor integration with the rest of the device.

Deathmatch: Applications
It's now part of the popular culture: "There's an app for that." There are tens of thousands of apps for iOS 4, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but there are many really useful apps as well. Android doesn't have nearly the same library of apps as the iOS, but its portfolio is now in the thousands, with many useful apps -- and more coming as the OS gains popularity -- such as TouchDown and Quickoffice. But you won't find more specialized business apps like OmniSketcher or Concur -- yet.

The native apps for both operating systems are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging. One strange exception: Android OS 2.2 has no native notepad app, while iOS 4 does. That's a very odd omission for a smartphone.

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 apps and 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.

In the Android Market, you're much more likely to not find an app you want than is the case in the Apple App Store. 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 the Android OS's application settings to install apps from other sources. It's not quite as drastic as jailbreaking an iPhone, but is in fact a hack.

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