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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Still, LTE is the future, and in the world of technology, not supporting an emerging standard is a real turn-off to techies. The LTE issue will matter to them -- that is, to much of the tech press trumpeting mobile devices. It will also matter more to everyday users in the next few years as the carriers' LTE deployments become common. Not having LTE in the iPhone 5 would have sent a signal that Apple is seriously behind, even if the practical benefit of LTE is a couple years away for most users.

Apple did announce with a world-compatible LTE radio, which will mean international travelers should be able to get LTE wherever it is available. (Whether they'll be to afford to is a different question.) But this so-called benefit is more for Apple's sake, letting it simplify its hardware design, testing, and manufacturing.

Large screens: The iPhone's historic 3.5-inch screen (measured diagonally) has long been a strain on older eyes. In contrast, the last year or so has seen Android smartphones upsizing to 4.0-, 4.3-, 4.5-, 4.7-, and even 5.0-inch screens.

A bigger display can do one of two things: Cram more items on the screen, or magnify the same number of items on the screen. If you're 25, you want the former; if you're 50, you want the latter. Most Android devices have done the former. But the larger screens better support the use of larger fonts and of the magnification capabilities for sight-impaired users (also useful for anyone who wears reading glasses). On the iPhone's small screen, the built-in magnification option means lots of scrolling, so you trade visibility for usability.

The iPhone 5's screen measures 4 inches, which is the bare minimum. Unfortunately, the way Apple upsized the iPhone's screen was to make it longer, not magnify the screen for easier readability. Essentially, it adds pixels to allow a 16:9 aspect ratio when turned horizontally for better viewing of widescreen movies. So, for those of us past our 30s, the iPhone 5 will be no more readable than previous models.

I'd argue for a 4.3-inch screen with the same number of pixels, since the very large screens begin to have issues of pocket fit and difficulties in thumb-typing; bigger is not always better. In this aspect, Apple is truly behind the curve.

The iPhone 4 did introduce the very high-resolution Retina display that Android competitors have yet to emulate. Retina is sharper and clearer, but not dramatically so compared to a quality "regular" smartphone screen. It's nice to have, but doesn't make or break a purchase.

NFC: Near-field communication has been a blogosphere darling for more than a year, but it's very limited in its utility, plus it's a battery hog. As a zero-configuration short-range network chip, it should allow for swipe-style transactions such as for payments, ticket scanning, and bus passes. But the infrastructure for such services is minuscule. More common are the use of QR codes on screen, such as for airline boarding passes, and Internet-based transactions, such as Square payments at Starbucks. Apple's new Passbook ticket-managing app in iOS 6 could provide the incentive for that missing infrastructure -- assuming an Android-compatible service quickly followed that could use the same infrastructure. On the other hand, Passbook doesn't need NFC to work.

So, given all these issues, it's no surprise that Apple hasn't adopted NFC in the iPhone 5.

As for the use of NFC for personal information exchange, that would be lovely. I rarely have business cards any more, nor really any place to keep them. All my contacts are in my address book or email archives, and there's no easy way to add business cards. (No, I'm not going to type them in.) I've been at lots of meetings where I've wanted to bump our smartphones to exchange cards, but there's no simple core service to do so across devices.

Also, NFC-based information-sharing needs to be OS-agnostic to take off. So far, every mobile OS that has implemented NFC for such sharing -- WebOS, BlackBerry, and Android -- has limited its use to its own OS. Thus, usage approaches zero.

But there are some uses of NFC beyond mobile payments and information sharing, such as device authentication, that Apple could do on its own. The trick is that anything Apple does on its own can't try to subsume or bypass an established ecosystem. For example, iOS 6's PassBook service is a great enhancement to online ticketing, but doesn't require airlines and others to not use other technologies on other platforms. Contrast that to Research in Motion's announcement yesterday that it has a new capabilty for some of its BlackBerrys that let them use NFC as identity badges for buildng access using HID Global's card readers. Currently, only BlackBerrys are compatible, which means adoption will be nil -- how many companies require all employees to have BlackBerrys any more? HID Global does plan to support other mobile platforms in the future, at which point the use of NFC-enabled smartphones as ID badges could make sense.

But all that's in the future.

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