Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2

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

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Multitasking. Until iOS 4, the lack of multitasking was a common criticism of Apple's mobile OS. That has sort of changed: Apps need to be multitasking-enabled in iOS 4 (otherwise, they stop working when you switch to another app as before), and Apple has limited the types of capabilities that can run in the background. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties.

Very few iOS apps have been multitasking-enabled, so it's hard to judge Apple's implementation. On the other hand, there aren't many Android apps that remain running in the background, either. In my usage, I found no issues relating to memory management with multiple apps running on either platform. Some iOS users, however, have reported problems with app switching and app loading on the old iPhone 3G model with iOS 4 installed, which seems related to that device's lack of multitasking support. (Apple says iOS 4's multitasking is available only on the iPhone 3G S, iPhone 4, and third-generation iPod Touch, with iPad support planned for release this fall. Some older devices can run iOS 4 but will have multitasking automatically disabled, Apple says.)

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On iOS 4, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of running apps, making it easy to see what's running and switch among them. In Android OS 2.2, 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.

App management. Android also makes managing apps a little more work than in iOS 4. 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 on the home screen, one at a time. Getting to those apps is where there's extra work: You press a grid icon at the bottom of the screen to get the full set of installed apps. Fortunately, copying apps to the home screen is easy, but the modal switch is still annoying. By contrast, iOS 4 simply adds more home screens as you add 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 -- that's great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as Android can add bookmarks only to its browser's bookmarks list.

iOS 4 added the ability to create app folders, which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are 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 you can enter a new name; yes, the process is that awkward, Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly; iOS 4 also lets you manage apps and update them via iTunes, so they are backed up to your computer.

The winner: iOS 4, but not by much. Its app catalog is large, but mainly as a function of its installed user base. The Android Market is slower than the Apple App Store, and the UI for managing and working with apps is clunkier in Android than in iOS 4 -- a common theme in Android. But most users will quickly adjust to each operating system's approach.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet
Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that both offer capable Web browsers. Do note that neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop versions, however. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, mobile Chrome scored 176 out of 300, versus 197 for desktop Chrome, and mobile Safari scored 185 versus 208 for desktop Safari.

The main differences between the iOS 4 and Android OS 2.2 browsers center around the UI: Android usually requires the use of the Menu button to access Chrome's controls, whereas iOS 4 makes more Safari controls accessible without such machinations. For example, Safari has a Forward button on all screens; it's buried in the Menu options on Android. Likewise, bookmarking, sharing pages via email, and switching among open Web pages require several steps in Android but not in iOS 4. And I really noted the lack of a .com button on the Android OS 2.2 touch keyboard when entering URLs; it's a significant timesaver in iOS 4.

Both browsers let you select text on Web pages, but only iOS 4 lets you select graphics. Both browsers also have settings controls over pop-up windows, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, and image loading. Chrome has a few additional controls, such as for opening pages in the background, while Safari has them for autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging.

Although not preinstalled with the Android OS, a beta version of Adobe's Flash Player is available at the Android Market as a free download. This beta version worked in my testing on a variety of websites that use Flash, both for videos and for interactive capabilities. I didn't experience the crashes or timeouts that some users have reported when loading Flash assets, but Flash was quite slow, causing pauses of tens of seconds to as much as a minute on many Web pages. Perhaps the final, shipping version will be faster, but I can see that many users might happily disable it if they frequent Flash-based sites. (You can do so by disabling plug-ins in the browser's settings, but that disables all plug-ins. To stop just Flash, you'll have to uninstal it.) iOS, of course, has no Flash support, given Apple's dislike of the Adobe Flash technology.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either iOS 4 or Android 2.2 is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can't edit a text document, and all you can do in calendars is view and delete appointments. But that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the iOS 4 and Android browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through some front-end Google Docs app.

The winner: iOS 4, by a whisker, thanks to its easier UI and its ability to copy graphics. I can't yet credit Android for Flash Player support, given it's a beta product not included in the operating system, and I have reservations over its slow performance.

Deathmatch: Location support
Both iOS 4 and Android OS 2.2 support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. Both operating systems also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. Both operating systems let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

Both iOS 4 and Android 2.2 let you control your location privacy. However, Android only lets you control whether your location is detected by disabling or enabling the GPS and Wi-Fi location services, while iOS 4 lets you control this per application. Android apps can ask if it's OK to use your location, but there's no central way to manage these location permissions as there is in iOS 4.

I do prefer iOS 4's implementation of Google Maps better than Android's because Android's Maps app is much slower than iOS 4's, though they run on comparable hardware. It's also more work in Android to switch views, such as from map to satellite, due to the use of nested menus.

The winner: A tie.

Deathmatch: User interface
It's often a throw-away comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS 4 is in fact a better designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster.

Operational UI. I've noted earlier how Android OS 2.2 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 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.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Devices 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 does let 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.

Finally, Android's Settings app can be confusing to use (and the white-on-black text makes it nearly impossible to use in bright daylight). 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. On the other hand, 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, works equivalently on Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4.

HTC's Sense UI overlay makes Android behave more like iOS, so people who appreciate the elegance of the Mac OS or iOS should look to HTC's devices if they decide to go Android. For example, HTC's virtual keyboards are less error-prone than the standard Android OS because HTC has adjusted the sensitivity to tapping to account for the parallax factor -- the optical illusion caused by the layer of glass between your finger and the LCD. iOS does that as well.

Text selection and copying. Where Android really falls short in UI is 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 typing a URL, it can be difficult to move the text cursor to that error's location in the text. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu; it took a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insrtion cursor to a new location in text without opening that menu. On iOS, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse); 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 also appear, so you can use those if you'd like -- there's no worry about some screen-filling menu appearing.

Along these lines, copy and paste -- and even basic selection -- is often not available in Android OS 2.2. 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, and you can adjust specifically what text is selected by using little sliders. It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

The winner: iOS 4, by a mile. Android's awkward text-handling features are inexcusable. People used to regular cell phones, BlackBerrys, and Palm OS devices will be thrilled with Android OS 2.2's UI; certainly, the friends and colleagues I showed Android to felt that way. But if you're familiar with the iOS or even Mac OS X, the Android UI will feel clunky and a bit awkward, as if you were being forced to use Windows or Linux.

Deathmatch: Security and management
Apple's not known for supporting enterprise-level security and client management demands, but iOS 4 covers much of what most businesses need in these areas. It has remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and an assortment of password controls (such as requiring a strong password or disabling access after so many failed attempts to log in) that are manageable through Microsoft Exchange and, soon, through iOS 4-enabled management tools from companies such as Good Technology and Mobile Iron. Unfortunately, these tools aren't yet shipping, so it's impossible to see how well they perform in practice. Apple has its own utility to deploy these security profiles, but it doesn't scale well beyond a few dozen users, so large businesses will want to look at the mobile management tools as they become available.

iOS 4 also supports several types of VPNs, provides SSL message encryption, and has on-device encryption for data such as email and notes.

Make no mistake: BlackBerry Enterprise Server and the BlackBerry OS, as well as Microsoft Exchange and the Windows Mobile OS, provide better security and manageability than iOS and its tools do. (Their on-device encryption is harder to break, for example.)

But Android OS 2.2 simply can't meet most corporate security needs, and there is almost nothing 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 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 for email, calendar, and contacts apps).

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