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By Wilson Rothman
msnbc.com

Explainer: App showdown: Android vs. iPhone

  • John Brecher  /  msnbc.com
    Apple's iPhone 4 and Google's Nexus One Android phone face off in a battle of apps. The iPhone may be tops on gaming and entertainment, but Android's social-networking and location-based skills help even the score.

    Back in the day, a "smart" phone was one that let you manage a calendar and e-mails. Now, the IQ test is more rigorous. Ask anyone carrying an iPhone or Android phone these days what makes their phones brainy and they'll quickly tell you, "It's the apps, dum-dum."

    Apple has a commanding lead over all other smart phone platforms with 230,000 and counting in the App Store. But Google's Android platform now claims 70,000. There may be a big difference between the two, but it's not felt in all categories. In 10 of the most important app categories, iPhone and Android duke it out. Surprisingly, it's not a total rout, not on either side. Each platform takes its fair share of victories.

    The iPhone's huge app count doesn't help it in certain situations. After all, Apple only just bestowed multitasking to its development community, something programmers have been working with on Android for a couple of years. Also, iPhones don't run widgets — an extension of an app that appears on an Android phone's home screen. When it comes to music and social networking, widgets mean a huge advantage.

    But Android suffers in other ways. Because the OS is freely available to anyone who builds hardware, carriers sell Android phones with a variety of screen sizes and processor speeds. This makes game designers in particular kinda twitchy, especially since they know that a new iPhone will only come out once a year, setting a new top-bar standard when it does.

    Another developer concern is the overwhelming number of free apps in Google's disorganized Android Market. According to the mobile apps tracking firm Distino, free downloads account for well over half the apps, including nice ones made by Google itself. If you're trying to convince people to pay actual money for your apps, it's better to flaunt wares in the iPhone App Store, where freebies only account for just over a quarter of listed apps.

  • Games

    The iPhone has a huge lead here, and most game developers appear to be hanging back from committing to Android for the time being. The biggest exception is Gameloft, which has already published a considerable lineup of Android games including the platformer "Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles," and the first-person shooter "NOVA." Ironically, Gameloft said last fall that it was scaling back on Android development, and still refuses to sell apps through Google's embarrassingly chaotic Android Market, opting to sell through its own website instead.

    While there are lots of casual games for Android, there's nowhere near the momentum of iPhone, with marquee titles like "Sims," "Mass Effect" and "Plants vs. Zombies" (at right) already being downloaded by the masses. Though one imagines that Android's explosive growth this year would spur game developers, there's mostly just a lot of vague optimism. "We don't race to anything," said Garth Chouteau, a spokesman for PopCap, which publishes "Plants vs. Zombies," "Bejeweled" and other popular mobile games. "We are working on games for Android, adapting some of our most popular games. But we haven't announced which games or when they will ship." Winner: iPhone

  • Social networking

    Perceptive reviewers have taken the iPhone to task for not being a very friendly social networking platform. You can set up your phone to get alerts from Facebook and Twitter — sometimes through third-party apps that charge money, like Boxcar — but you can't really browse your feeds in a comfortable way without diving deep into the apps. Microsoft's upcoming Windows Phone 7 is built around the idea that your feeds should be visible as soon as possible, with panels that you can assign to your friends, that will aggregate each person's updates across multiple social media services into one easy-to-find square.

    Nevermind that Motorola and others have developed software for Android that's specifically geared to feeding you social updates quicker, all of the new Android phones have Facebook and Twitter widgets that let you browse your people quickly without making you launch any apps. Winner: Android

  • Kid stuff

    As a parent, I have come to think of the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad as very expensive pacifiers. There are some phenomenal books and educational games being developed for these devices, and anyone who knows they'll be stuck in a car with a 3-year-old for more than 11 minutes will happily pay for every last one. On the iPlatform, kids' apps are very high quality — and in the Android Market they're almost totally nonexistent. Seriously, I can't find any of my favorite kids' apps for Android.

    Caroline Hu Flexer, co-founder of Duck Duck Moose, maker of leading musical toddler edu-apps like "Baa Baa Black Sheep" (at right), shed light on the subject: "So far we haven't developed for Android primarily because of the wide range of devices that we would have to design for and test on," she said. "This would be very costly for our small team of three." She added that they were also intimidated by the higher ratio of free apps for Android. Winner: iPhone

  • Music, photos and movies

    When it comes to basic media playback, the iPhone still is what Steve Jobs called his "best iPod yet." Syncing songs, playlists, TV and movies — even rented movies — through iTunes is easy despite the program's famous bloat. And once the media is on the iPhone, it's easy to access and manage (as you can see in the presumably familiar image at right). For people who own their own music and movies, it's unparalleled. Though photo syncing is best performed through Apple's iPhoto, another bulky Mac program, it too provides unparalleled organization.

    For Android users, media help for the moment has to come via third-party software. My favorite for now is DoubleTwist, sort of an iTunes "lite" that runs on Macs and PCs and syncs music to most phones, and even helps organize movies and photos too. Meanwhile, the DoubleTwist app for the phone itself acts like the iPod app on iPhones. (Both the computer program and the phone app are free.) Winner: iPhone

  • Streaming music

    When it comes to streaming music and new music-on-demand services, Android suffers no disadvantage. All the popular iPhone music apps — Pandora, Slacker, Rhapsody, Mog, and even utilities like SoundHound and Shazam — they're all available on Android too. The difference is, most of them get widgets in Android. Pop open your phone and flip through tunes, ditch one service for another, hell, play two or three songs at the same time from the same screen in some freaky mashup performance piece, all without dipping into an app. You can't do that on an iPhone, but if you're half crazy, you'd definitely do it on an Android phone.

    Now, Apple's newest OS release does give most of those apps the ability to be played from the iPhone's multitasking menu, but only once they're launched. And if you launch a new one, you have to go back to another app to get it to play again — there's no way to switch from, say, Mog to Pandora, without going in and launching Pandora to take precedence over Mog. Winner: Android

  • Dining in

    As a guy who owns lots of knives and pots and kitchen gadgets — and actually uses them fairly regularly — I love to try to enlist my digital helpers into my cooking misadventures. Although I'm partial to the iPad in the kitchen, the iPhone has the most cooking apps of all. So I was surprised to find that not only were many of my favorite cooking apps already in the Android Market — Epicurious, BigOven and even Michael Ruhlman's indispensable Ratio — there were also a ton of crappy little cooking apps from all over the place. They may not all be that useful, but it is a healthy sign. There's even a Grocery IQ for Android, a grocery-list syncing app that is probably the most used app in our home. If you have more than one iPhone or Android phone in your house, you need it (and it's free). Now bring on Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything (at right), and we're in business. Winner: iPhone

  • Dining out

    Going out — particularly hunting down worthwhile restaurants and funky bars — forms the third part of an equilateral triangle with music and social networking, so it's no surprise that this is also an app category where Android had no trouble catching up to iPhone. The free trinity of Yelp (at right), Urbanspoon and OpenTable have all made their appearances in the Android Market, as has the elder statesman Zagat, complete with its $10 price tag. There are widgets for some of these apps, but to be honest, I can't figure out the real advantage. The Zagat widget just shows you a random nearby restaurant — you can refresh it to get another suggestion, but after doing this a few times, you miss the normal search interface. Point is, there is no widget advantage here, and all apps are equal. Winner: Tie

  • Travel

    This one was a near tie — it's impressive how many iPhone staples like FlightTrack, Kayak and TripAdvisor have made it to Android. However, I took points off of Android because the Expedia app (at right), a free and very useful extension of the popular travel service, is not listed. Not yet anyway. I also find that the iPhone's push notifications are particularly suited to flight updates, and I can't really see how a widget would provide huge advantage. Winner: iPhone

  • E-books

    I read every night on my iPad, but I've never read more than a page of a real book on any phone. Still, the arrival of e-book apps on smart phones is a big buzz maker, and Android is, as of this week, essentially caught up to iPhone. When it comes to marquee e-book apps, both platforms have Amazon's Kindle, Barnes & Noble's Nook (at right) and Kobo, which is supported by Borders.

    Android doesn't have Apple's iBooks, obviously, and Apple is bound to grow it and possibly even release it for other platforms. Still, you'd be out of your mind to spend money on iBooks now, when the other services are accessible from such a broad variety of gadgets, including iPad, iPod and iPhone.

    Android phones do have a small e-book advantage of their own: You can copy files to an Android device via USB without needing iTunes or some special app. As more and more titles are available online, in many formats, both with and without content protection, this will keep things simple. There will always be third-party ways to move files to an iPhone and read them, but Apple might try to limit what files can be recognized and transferred through iTunes. Chalk one up for Android openness. Winner: Tie

  • Google apps vs. Apple apps

    One of Android's not-so-secret weapons is Google, a powerhouse software innovator that has yet to charge a dime for an app on any platform. Google co-developed the Maps app for iPhones, but they went one better for themselves: Most Android phones running 2.0 or later come with a full turn-by-turn navigation app. Google doesn't stop there: The Android Market has Google Sky Map (at right), Google Translate and Google Goggles — a visual search engine — as well as Google Earth (which is also available for iPhone).

    By contrast, the apps Apple releases are either too redundant (MobileMe Gallery), too self-serving (Apple Store) or too damn expensive (iMovie $5, and that's assuming you already forked out the money for the newest and best iPhone). We haven't seen iWork for the iPhone yet, but on the iPad, that's $10 ... each. So $30 for Pages, Numbers and Keynote. Winner: Android

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