Whether you're a fan of Apple or not, its product announcements are a huge deal — sort of a block party and rock concert with new gadgets and concepts as the guests of honor — which echo throughout all walks of life, from hard-boiled technologists to casual users, from businesses to personal consumers. An Apple event is showcased with plenty of hullabaloo and nonstop social media coverage; I've even heard it referred to as the American version of the Royal Baby.
True to form (once Apple fixed the embarrassing problems with its live feed), yesterday's unveiling of the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus generated a wave of buzz over the size, form, and associated features that will be included. There's no shortage of information on what's new on the Apple front, so my goal here is focus on how the new iPhones will stack up against existing Android models and software. Let's shine the spotlight on where the Android platform might need to play catch-up.
The basics of the new designs
Before I talk about what's unique about the new iPhones (or at the very least, what might scare Android), let's look at some of the basics.
- The iPhone 6 will be 4.7 inches long and the iPhone 6 Plus 5.5 inches (it's being referred to as a "phablet"— a cross between a phone and tablet), both of which are improvements on the smaller 4" or less displays that have limited the capabilities of existing iPhones.
- Apple has improved the camera to 8 megapixels.
- The devices can take regular video at 30 or 60 frames per second and capture slow-motion video at 120 or 240 frames per second.
- The new iPhone designs are metal and glass bodies without direct edges, which are thinner than prior models.
- Apple is offering enhancements like a retinal display (Retina HD); an improved 64-bit A8 chip, which provides 25% faster CPU/50% faster graphics performance; 802.11C Wi-Fi; a barometer to measure air pressure (which seems part of a trend of fitness-related apps); a mobile wallet service (NFC for Apple Pay); and tie-in to the upcoming Apple Watch (to be released in early 2015), a wearable device which boosts the capabilities of your smartphone by providing access to convenient features.
- The iPhone 6 will have a screen resolution of 1334 X 750 pixels and 326ppi — more than one million pixels — while the iPhone 6 Plus will sport a screen resolution of 920 X 1080 and 401ppi — two million pixels.
- The new additions to the iPhone family come in storage sizes of 16, 64, and 128 Gb.
- The phones go on sale on September 19 and will cost $199 / $299 / $399 for the iPhone 6 in 16GB / 64GB / 128GB, and $299 / $399 / $499 for the same versions of the iPhone 6 Plus (two-year contract required).
- Apple's newest mobile operating system, iOS 8, will be released free of charge on September 17 and will be available for the iPhone 4S and later models, iPad 2 and iPad mini and later models, and the fifth-generation iPod touch.
Here's some of what's NOT different
- The bigger screen real estate is more of a leveling move against Android; nothing particularly new here in terms of overall smartphone size.
- The 8 megapixel camera is also unimpressive. This standard has been achieved on Android smartphones for some time.
- The screen resolution on the new phones isn't anything Android hasn't achieved already.
- The iPhone storage specs also aren't anything the Android models can't match, and the prices are impressive but no lower than you would reasonably expect to pay with a Samsung or Motorola; probably the contrary in fact.
- The Watch tie-in is nice, yet Android has the Android Wear smartwatch. Making phone calls over Wi-Fi will also be an option (at least, if you're a T-Mobile customer, though other carriers are likely to join in). But it's possible to use apps like Skype on Android to do the same thing regardless of carrier.
- The upcoming iOS 8 software for iPhones (and iPads) will provide a dedicated app for browsing through your iCloud files, but this is already possible with Google Drive.
- The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus come with 802.11ac networking for faster Wi-Fi speeds, but the Samsung Galaxy S5, for instance, already boasts this capability.
Here are the possible game changers
So where are the possible pain points for Android amidst this unveiling?
1: Form factor
The new iPhone designs are elegant to say the least, which is a standard we've come to expect from Apple, a company that even makes sure even the box the iPhone comes in is impressive. Cruder and clunkier Android smartphones can't compete in the looks and glamour department, at least not yet. This may not bother some people (I'm thinking of the hardcore techies who are more interested in Android ROMs than what the body looks like). But for those who dwell within the Apple ecosystem — or want to — this may be a substantial draw.
When I was a teenager, my dad worked in sales, and he told me many people in his field felt the need to drive showy cars as a status symbol since the cars attracted interest and discussion. (Whether they really had the income for these luxury models was another story.) It's clear that the iPhone product line carries the same sort of appeal to those who live by aesthetics. Android manufacturers would do well to incorporate a bit more flash into their models.
2: Display specs
Bright sunlight is a huge problem with my Samsung Galaxy S3; the display is virtually unreadable unless I shade the device and squint hard. The Retina display for the iPhone 6 models will include a new polarizer in the glass to provide better readability in bright sunlight. Apple said that the display uses higher contrast: "...we developed an advanced process of photo alignment. This involves using UV light to precisely position the display's liquid crystals so they lay exactly where they should. Better-aligned crystals deliver a superior viewing experience, with deeper blacks and sharper text." Wider-angle viewing is another touted feature designed for users who share photos and videos. For those who need a clear, readable, and vivid display, this could be a major shot across Android's bow.
The iPhone 6 models will offer faster and more diverse networking than predecessors in the form of LTE (long-term evolution, a wireless networking standard). Speeds may reach 150 Mpbs, compared to 100 Mbps in prior models. While that doesn't necessarily edge out Android devices, the killer component here is that 20 LTE bands can be accessible to the iPhone 6 line, which means better roaming capabilities than any other current smartphone while traveling. Road warriors, line up!
4: Mobile wallet
Apple is entering the mobile wallet arena with its Apple Pay product, which it's partnering with Visa, MasterCard, and American Express (along with several banks) to make available for use with over 220,000 U.S merchants.
The mobile wallet idea is simple: You can buy stuff with your smartphone instead of cash or a credit card, which in this scenario involves an NFC chip in the phone that sends the transaction wirelessly. The iPhones integrate with Touch ID and Passbook, and users can add a credit card from iTunes or by scanning their card with the camera. Android has a similar feature in the form of Google Wallet, for instance, but it has had some significant problems gaining traction.
Tim Cook said this regarding Apple's designs in the mobile wallet space, "We're gonna start by focusing on payments. Payments is a huge business. Every day between credit and debit we spend 12 billion dollars. That's over 4 trillion dollars a year, and that's just in the United States... 200 million transactions a day. That's 200 million times we scramble for our credit cards and go through what is a fairly antiquated process."
Whether Apple can pull it off is another question, but given the ability to assess what's gone wrong in the mobile payments space and to meaningfully plan out innovative solutions, it may be poised to become the front-runner in that segment.
5: Wearable possibilities
Like Google Wallet, wearables have had some struggles, being seen as a niche (read: fitness) product by many. I've often heard comments such as, "My smartphone eliminated the need to carry around a wristwatch — now the smartphone makers want me to add one back on?" Both Apple and Android have a smartwatch candidate now, though it will be interesting to see how useful each one is in its respective ecospace. The Apple Watch will work with the iPhone 6 candidates and will be backward-compatible with iPhone 5, 5c, and 5s, heightening the possibilities that this is really the one wearable to beat — or at least it will saturate what market share there is to saturate for this kind of product.
6: Battery life
The iPhone 6 batteries will be more energy efficient. The iPhone 6 will provide 50 hours of audio, 11 hours of video, 11 hours of Wi-Fi browsing/LTE browsing, 10 hours of 3G browsing, 14 hours of voice, and 10 days on standby. The iPhone 6 plus will provide 80 hours of audio, 14 hours of video, 12 hours of Wi-Fi browsing/LTE/3G browsing, 24 hours of voice, and 16 days on standby.
Now, many Android models with beefier batteries can provide longer battery life. But it should be pointed out that the above statistics blow away the capabilities of my Samsung when I first got it, since it shipped with a weak default battery that literally would not last me from 7 AM past 3 PM. The ante has been upped in the battery contest, and here's hoping to see future releases more efficient and powerful on both sides of the smartphone debate.
Apple's Reachability is a feature that facilitates one-handed operation on the iPhone 6 models. Users can double-tap the home button to move the user interface down to put elements at the top of the screen within thumb's reach. Samsung has done the same, but the results have been less than satisfying in my personal view. I continuously find myself having to exit a menu or app I inadvertently pressed; I find the interface clumsier than it should be. True one-handed operation is a must for me, whether I'm carrying something in my other hand, trying to multi-task, or just quickly gain access to something vital on my phone. I think if Apple can polish the screen sensitivity to a more responsive level, this will be a hot space to watch.
8: Enterprise features
iOS 8 will bring a number manageability options for enterprises to take better control of mobile devices. For instance, it will include a Device Enrollment Program that can automatically set up smartphones with certain settings, applications, and content, as well as apply desired restrictions for users. It will bring better security to protect data and apps, per-message encryption controls, and content filtering opportunities for third-party developers.
Google offers some similar options for Android devices (and so do third-party providers), but many of these are applicable to Google Apps customers or have to be cobbled together. The default settings for Android devices hooked up to Exchange 2010 via Activesync, for instance, are somewhat limited and basically revolve around mandating passwords and allowing apps to run. With the BYOD movement in full swing, businesses sorely need better administration, safeguards, and customization of employee mobile devices.
If there's one word that comes to mind when you think of Apple, it's probably integration. Integration among the Mac OS, iPhone, and iPad products is the best in the field, and Apple is holding onto this trend with features such as Handoff, which can let you switch using apps or functions between devices. Google does a good job linking data via Google Drive and synchronizing apps like Gmail, Chrome, Google Calendar, and Google+ across devices — and the advent of Chromebooks can help it continue to build upon the transition of function and data between smartphone, tablet, and desktop/laptop operating systems. At the moment, Apple still leads the integration charge thanks to its gift of publicity. But Android can change the direction with a bright enough spotlight.
With each product launch, Apple seeks to capitalize further and further upon its reputation as a user-friendly industry. "It just works" is something I've heard applied to Apple products so many times that if I hear the phrase at parties, I know immediately what the speaker is referring to.
Android isn't necessarily out to be user-friendly, so it's a different type of platform — one often geared more toward tinkerers and customizers who like to pick and choose elements they want to use or work with. The attraction to Apple is that it's a "one-stop shopping" environment for devices, applications, and data. This can be a distinct turnoff for other people, of course.
I'm not saying Android should try to be something it's not (this is not a teen comedy from the 1980s, after all). But I will admit that even as an IT guy, I've sometimes had to dig my way out of a few Android challenges that I genuinely don't know how a layperson might have solved. While there are plenty of resources are out there, in terms of help guides, support forums, and alternate apps, making sense of the mountain of options can be a challenge. For Android to retain its popularity (it does possess a significant market share among devices), a blend of customization and simplicity to attract and retain a wide set of users will remain a key priority.
Cleaning up the champagne bottles
Well, the long-awaited iPhone 6 launch has come and gone, and I'm sure the array of reactions will be as varied as the array of features shown by Apple. How Android responds in the upcoming months will be the next big question in the never-ending game of mobile device brinkmanship... which always keeps pontificators like me guessing!
- Apple announces iPhone 6: Better specs, new features
- iPhone 6 phablet optimism overdone: Will the masses really go for 5.5 inch screen?
- Apple's iPhone 6, Apple Watch rollout: Winners and losers
- Apple iPhone 6 Plus trumps the need for an iPad Mini
- Apple to developers: Your apps will scale on iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus
- Who's getting the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus in the UK?
- What's right (and wrong) with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus
- If Apple can't stream an iPhone 6 event, is there really an enterprise story?
- IBM Executive fills in critical details about Apple partnership (Tech Pro Research)
- CNET's complete iPhone 6 review (CNET)
How do you think the iPhone 6 is going to stack up against Android? Any diehard Android folks out there tempted to jump ship? Share your opinions with fellow TechRepublic members.
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.