Feb. 15, 2011 at 7:49 AM ET
It's official — there are only two mobile operating systems that matter right now. Even as underdog competitors march onto the field trumpeting enthusiastic comeback strategies, the big money is on Apple's iOS and Google's Android, the Mac and PC of the 21st century.
No matter how much enthusiasm HP and Microsoft can drum up, their product lines are years behind the competition, and they currently sit on extremely minuscule market shares. Microsoft might get a big push from Nokia, but their joint products won't even come to market until 2012. Meanwhile RIM, former big cheese, is seeing its BlackBerry fortune fall fast. Though the PlayBook tablet may be the company's first buzz-worthy gadget in years, it comes with a strange requirement: To get full functionality out of it, you have to already use a BlackBerry. Preach to the choir much, RIM?
By contrast, Apple and Google are hustling to reach new customers. The Android camp wants to get into the iPad business that, with over 14 million in sales in just 8 months, Apple proved to be viable. In the phone business, Apple is fighting to gain back its lead from Google. Not only is Apple finally supplying iPhones to a second U.S. carrier — doubling its potential American customer base to roughly 190 million — but it's rumored to be devising a cheaper iPhone that addresses Android's best asset: its relative cheapness.
The main reason why these two will stay on top is half a million mobile apps, and counting.
Just look at the following chart, from a recent survey by Appcelerator, makers of cross-platform app development tools, who asked roughly 2,000 Web developers what platforms they wanted to create mobile apps for. Even with increased interest in the PlayBook and HP WebOS platforms, Android and iOS enjoy a massive lead, guaranteeing a continued flood of great apps for those two platforms — and a weaker stream for the rest.
So now that we've narrowed the race down to just the two biggest and fastest ponies, it's important to know what their differences are. Android may have come to maturity looking and behaving like iPhone, while being cheaper and available on more carriers, but under the hood it's quite different, in ways that will matter to you. They're differences that affect a phone's network performance, security, battery life, flexibility, available content and upgrade eligibility.
Natural selection vs. intelligent design
Android is an open platform. This means that anyone who wants to build a phone with the OS on it can, and they don't have to pay for the privilege. All of the software is open and available to hardware makers and software developers alike.
Google does what it can to ensure quality. In certain circumstances, Google partners with the hardware maker to create a phone or tablet, and any Android device that doesn't meet Google's specifications is denied the right to provide users access to the all-important Android App Market. Nevertheless, there is a Darwinian struggle happening in the Android camp.
Take HTC, for example. As Scott Schwarzhoff, VP of marketing at Appcelerator, told me, the company known for its Android initiative addressed a key early concern: The user interface was ugly. By introducing the "Sense UI," a fluid desktop with separate panes and interactive widgets, the company spurred innovation among other Android hardware partners. "We now get into natural selection," said Schwarzhoff.
For early adopters, this competitive struggle clearly works. Android phones were the first to run on a 4G extra-high-speed network — first Sprint's, and now T-Mobile, AT&T and soon Verizon, all likely to hit market before any 4G iPhone appears. They were also the first to have 1GHz processors and front-facing cameras, HDMI jacks and memory card slots.
And as in nature, a taxonomic diversity comes about: Some Android phones have physical keyboards, some have soft keyboards, some have really cool Swype keyboards that let you type literally without lifting a finger. Four-inch screens are now expected, as are dual-core processors; meanwhile, most carriers also offer freebie Android phones with tiny screens and slow chips. Sony is bringing PlayStation gaming to Android, but not to the platform at large, just to the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, and the subsequent line of PS phones that will follow it.
Some call this fragmentation, and indeed it can get confusing for customers and app developers alike: In the U.S. alone, there are nearly 80 different Android models for sale, with assorted screen sizes, processor speeds and software versions.
By contrast, there are only nine different iOS models in existence including iPhones, iPods and iPads, and half of those have been off store shelves for years.
iPhones only get front-facing cameras when Apple knows how to make the experience work; they only get higher screen resolutions when that doesn't cause disruption among software developers. Does Apple worry about being last to 4G? Presumably not, since carriers' 4G marketing push is confusing, and network quality and performance are not yet guaranteed. Apple will only innovate when it feels it's in control.
Open vs. closed
The most maddening thing about Apple's control freakishness isn't its design and feature choices, but that its underlying OS is locked down.
If you're a developer, there are things you just can't do with an iPhone that you can do with Android. We're not just talking about Flash video — the Web protocol Apple famously refuses to support on its devices, despite the gajillions of sites that use it. Apple blocks developers from going too deep into core components — system controls, telecommunications, data storage etc. They do it to keep the phone "safe" from malware, but also to ensure good network performance and longer battery life.
"When it comes to poor battery life, users won't blame an app developer. They'll blame the network provider or hardware maker," says Chetan Sharma, a wireless industry consultant and leading authority on mobile platforms and app development. "It taints the brand."
Android app developers can write software that more closely resembles PC software, uses more system resources, does more in the background and has access to the home screen, to file systems, to core controls. But the risk that's run is great. "If you just let everybody run amok, there's a disastrous impact on performance," says Sharma. And that's not all that can happen when a developer gets too deep into the Android OS.
People looking for Android apps don't have to stick with the Android App Market, but if they stray too far, they can get into trouble. Malicious apps can sometimes be pirated versions of trusted titles like Google Maps or Angry Birds. Once installed, these things can take hold of your device, allowing hackers to track your location, read contact info, even place phone calls. There's a reason why one of the most popular free Android apps is Lookout, a mobile security suite that scans your apps to make sure no hanky-panky is happening under your nose.
On the iPhone, if you want an app, you have to go to Apple's official store and choose from a selection of apps that Apple has pre-approved. The selection is vast, but it's curated, controlled. You can "jailbreak" an iPhone to run illicit software, but in that state, you are either aware of the risks and gains and are proceeding with caution, or you're just being a fool.
And while there have been sporadic examples of Android and iPhone apps stealing user information, there are fewer ways for a malicious iPhone app to do you harm, even assuming it gets through the App Store's iron gates and onto your phone.
Content is king
Though the number of Android apps is growing at a faster rate than iOS apps, according to some estimates, there are certain things you won't find on Android. Big studio games, kids' edutainment, interactive books from big publishers — these are generally items you'd pay between $5 and $10 for on the iPhone or iPad, and for that reason alone, they're often not found on Android. This is in part because of iPhone's billing system — Sharma says that 93 percent of iOS users have iTunes accounts with credit card info, which makes it easy to impulse-buy apps. It's also in part because Apple allows in-app purchases, which game developers especially like.
But it's also because Google has encouraged a "free stuff" culture on Android, while Apple has been helping developers count the money. Just take GPS turn-by-turn navigation apps. Around the very same time that TomTom and others were listing $100 navi apps on Apple's store, Google went and built its own navi app for Android — and gave it away for free. Not only did that discourage competition, but it set the price impossibly low. (There are now paid GPS apps for Android, and freebie GPS apps for iOS, but the lesson was chilling for developers.)
At times this can work in Android's favor: Angry Birds comes in a free ad-supported edition on Android; until very recently, the only way to get the full version on iPhone was to pay for it. Still, Sharma says, the amount of money the game developer makes on iOS is far greater than the amount it makes on Android, no matter how many people see — let alone tap — those ads.
In-app purchases are finally coming to Android, which is good news, because it means that there may be some nice subscription magazines and other premium content available for Android tablets. I wouldn't hold out for News Corp's The Daily to make the jump, though: Apple helped develop it, and News Corp's Rupert Murdoch has long contended that Google unfairly profiteers off of his company's content.
The anti-Google sentiment isn't something to shrug off; it has greatly affected how many Hollywood movies Android owners can enjoy, compared to iPhone owners. Netflix famously said that Android wasn't secure enough for its content, and that it will have to build Netflix apps for particular phone models, instead of for Android as a whole. Hulu Plus will allegedly soon be on "select Android OS 2.2 phones," but there's no telling which. Sharma says this foot dragging is mostly political: "If it was purely about security requirements, there'd be ways around it."
Something many first-gen Android owners are currently experiencing is the inability to upgrade their phones to the latest Android OS. In fact, according to a recent poll in ReadWriteWeb, only 0.4 percent of Android phones run the latest version, 2.3 Gingerbread, and that, as of December, a minority, 43.4 percent, were on the most popular version, 2.2 Froyo.
By contrast, nearly 90 percent of iOS users are on one of the two latest versions. iPhone and iPad owners are free to update their own device OS as soon as Apple makes it available, whereas Android owners must wait until their carrier and hardware maker together enable the update. It could be months, years, or never.
For most Android users, this has not been a problem — app developers tend to write apps that cover the most popular versions, at the cost of taking advantage of the latest version's neatest tricks. But with the Honeycomb tablet operating system and its complementary phone OS (not yet announced), there will be benefits that everybody will want: Improved DRM, support for multi-core chips, better home-screen use.
As nice as it would be to say that, when buying an Android phone, you should ask whether or not the phone will be eligible for upgrades, there may not be an answer. Your best bet is to try and buy a phone with the very latest Android software, and hope for the best.
The comparison of iOS and Android to Mac and Windows — made often these days — couldn't be more fitting: On one side, there's a tightly married hardware-and-software combination that promotes style and stability over diversity and experimentalism. It's a little pricey, it comes in one look and feel, but people swear by it. On the other, there's a fairly open OS used by a plethora of hardware developers to build innovative gadgets. Many are unprecedented, some are so cheap that they're "free" with a phone plan. Not all are successful.
This month is big for the rivalry. "The true test of Android versus iOS is the Verizon iPhone launch," says Sharma. "It's the first time they're going head to head, directly."
However the Verizon battle plays out, what is clear is that these two will be duking it out for many a year to come. When you shop for a phone or tablet, you will likely do well choosing either. Just choose smartly, with an understanding of the key differences that make the platforms equally awesome — and aggravating.
More Google and Android news:
More Apple and iOS news:
More on competitors to iOS and Android: