All five people who have been following my blog for the past two years may recall that in 2010 I had gotten an HTC Droid Incredible as my first smartphone. At the time, I had to be on Verizon. Today I still do, but February 2011 brought the iPhone to Verizon. I ended up getting the phone a few months later, frustrated with many of the issues that the Incredible had. It crashed. A lot. The battery was wimpy. The physical power button was messed up only a few months into owning the device. The browser stunk. Facebook and Twitter stunk. Yet despite all of that, I still liked it. Smartphones are awesome, even the ones with flaws.
The iPhone 4 is much higher quality than that phone was, though. It has never crashed, at least without the user screwing it up - were the notification icons worth jailbreaking for? Nope! The battery lasts twice as long as the Incredible’s did. The buttons have never gone bad - even the home button, which got a bad rap on the iPhone 4. The camera works fine. The apps are, within Apple’s limitations, extremely high quality.
I’ve noticed something troubling about those limitations, though - they are becoming increasingly noticeable. I’m going to compare applications I frequently use to their Android equivalents to illustrate what I mean.
- Music and Video: Apple nailed this one from Day One of the OS, no complaints. However, DoubleTwist’s music app back in 2010 was ridiculously good. It was as reliable as the iOS apps, coupled with very slick design - Sebastiaan de With is a UI badass. On top of that, it could load up any video grabbed with any app on the device. On iOS, there’s a limitation: music and (to some extent) video are sandboxed into their individual apps, and sharing between apps is limited mainly to what’s in the libraries of the Apple apps.
- Browsing: Safari is a very good browser. However, I prefer Chrome’s UI and omnibar. On the desktop, I also prefer it’s speed. Because I use it there, I want to use it and sync with it on my phone. And that’s what I do even now on my iPhone, despite the hurdles I endure. iOS limitations 2 and 3: Apps cannot have their own HTML renderers, and apps cannot override default application settings. So Chrome, despite being better, is condemned to both not being as good as it could be, and being something I have to fight the phone to use the way I want.
- Facebook and Twitter: iOS wins here, hands down, particularly for the Twitter side of things. With one important caveat: Facebook Messenger has the ability to integrate with SMS’s on Android much like iMessage integrates with it on iOS. iOS limitation 4: Apps cannot access SMS. Now, that limitation isn’t a dumb decision - do you want someone reading all your text messages? - but Google lets the user decide who to place their trust in.
- RSS Reading: Reeder kicks some serious RSS - I’ll take it over any other feed reader, no matter the platform. Google Reader on Android does have one cool trick, though: the volume buttons will page through posts. Reeder could probably do this, though, if it really wanted to - Apple removed restrictions on volume button overrides.
- Podcasting Apps: Instacast definitely has a nice interface, but it runs smack up against today’s fifth iOS limitation: No downloading anything in the background unless it’s streaming audio, a VoIP call or navigation data. Android apps have a huge strength here in that they can pull data without your intervention. Of course, that hurts the battery. Again, I might like to be able to make that choice.
- Email: Apple’s Mail client is alright. Not wonderful, but alright. I think the same could be said for Android’s email clients, except for Gmail which is definitely better on Android. Sparrow was one heck of an iOS email client, but sadly it ran into limitations 3 and 5: it couldn’t be the default email application, and it couldn’t do background downloads. It’s not surprising that it wasn’t successful prior to Google’s purchase.
- Maps: I don’t think we’re in any doubt that Android has this one beat for now.
On the whole, we can see that while there are definitely problems with the Android ecosystem, Apple’s app garden has some weeds in it too, and most of them are restrictions. Most of them concern battery life. I think we’re at the point where Apple could stand to loosen up some of these rules - do the limits on battery life imposed really still outweigh the limits on how you can use your device?
Still, apps are Apple’s strongest selling point for the iPhone. There are other areas that irritate me just as much if not more. Notifications, for instance. The only place notifications will permanently show up is in the notification panel or as badges. The panel is always hidden by default, and you only see badges when you flip through your homescreen. The lockscreen shows notifications, but only until you next unlock the phone. It would be nice to have something more permanent, like the LED indicators on Android phones or the icons in their status bars.
Perhaps a bigger problem for most people is that Apple’s cloud services, with the awesome exception for OS updates, stink - iTunes Match is very buggy for me, and iMessage is notoriously buggy for everyone else. Google pretty much invented these services, and while there have been occasional outages, when was the last time you heard of usability issues?
The case for the Android phone, provided that the OS is stable and the user knows what they are doing, is an OS that can get more done, and when you take “The Cloud” into account, more reliably too. If anything is a threat to the iPhone’s future, it’s that.
However, if a random stranger were to ask me what phone they should get: iPhone 5, no question. Why? Because for every sharp corner in iOS that could poke you, Android usually has a trap door into a dungeon of pain: malware apps that newbies don’t understand, background applications and live wallpapers that really do burn out the battery in hours, and annoying UI limitations are just some of the things that I had lived with on Android. Could this have changed? Maybe, and I’m strongly considering trying out an Android as my next phone for this reason. But they have to work to earn my respect now.