Mobility

iOS vs. Android race is too close to call

It's too early to declare Apple the victor in the mobile device OS war, according to Donovan Colbert. Read his thoughts and predictions on iOS and Android.

I recently read two blogs that have themes I want to explore with TechRepublic readers. The first was by a TechCrunch blogger who proposed that iPhone on Verizon has stopped forward momentum for Android, and that the iPhone 5 may reverse Android's climb. The second was by ZDNet blogger James Kendrick who suggested that Android tablets just don't have what it takes to compete with the iPad because of fragmentation. (Note: ZDNet is a sister site of TechRepublic.)

Thoughts on the TechCrunch blogger's post

I think most people who've joined the ranks of Android owners are pretty well informed; they understand there are some hassles and headaches associated with Android that Apple device users don't experience as often. Android suffers more apps force closing or not working right. Android does not handle battery management as well as iOS. Because of the wide variety of hardware platforms and device formats, Android has more issues with app compatibility across the wide range of hardware devices than you'll encounter on iOS.

But Apple dragged its feet, and Verizon established Android as a compelling alternative to iOS. We'll never know exactly how or why that all went down, but as consumers, it is where we find ourselves today. (If I were a conspiracy theorist, I could make a compelling argument about this going on just long enough for there to rise a compelling alternative to prevent SEC anti-trust investigations.)

There are two main platforms for digital devices: iOS and Android. The TechCrunch blogger assumes that the iPhone on Verizon stopped Android's growth and that the arrival of the iPhone 5 will reverse it. That would mean a mass exodus from Android to iPhone.

I'm an Android user, and I've got an iPad and an iPod Touch; I'm familiar and comfortable with both platforms. I have no plans on dumping the Android platform for Apple, and unless Apple were to make some changes that I think are *very* unlikely, that won't change. When an iOS device has USB host and SD card support, maybe we'll talk. I think there are a lot of Android users out there who feel the same. While we cannot deny that the Verizon iPhone seems to have momentarily stopped the forward progress of Android OS (and it is possible that the Verizon iPhone 5 may temporarily cause Android to retreat), it would be premature to declare Apple the victor in the mobile device OS war. The same factors that have allowed Android to jump ahead of all other challengers will continue to be the reason that Android grows going forward. Apple and Android fanboys can argue endlessly about this, but the truth is, it is really anyone's guess how it will all turn out when the dust is settled.

As it is today, iOS doesn't do enough to ever be more than an accessory device. The voluntary limitations placed on the iOS platform by Apple and accepted by iOS users mean that iOS devices will always be bound and beholden to have more powerful platforms like OS X and Win32/64 around to do "real" work on. The fact that the same iOS platform that works on an iPhone or iPod Touch remains basically unchanged on the iPad and iPad 2 illustrates this point.

An Android device, on the other hand, begins to bridge the divide between a mobile OS like iOS and a full-fledged OS like Linux, OS X, or Windows and is arguably more robust and full-featured than ChromeOS. Android 3.0 Honeycomb (despite frequently getting a negative response from the press) seems to be a significant effort to increase this distinction for the Android platform. Honeycomb is doing a lot more than traditional Android or iOS. Perhaps the bigger problem is that Honeycomb isn't holding anybody's hand in delivering its capabilities. I've heard lots of complaints in the blogsphere about Android tablets not supporting certain video formats. My experience with the Coby Kyros 7015 led me to a RockPlayer Lite, a full-featured alternate media player that has wider media format support than the bundled Android player. This is the trade-off; in being comparable to a traditional desktop OS, Honeycomb expects the user to be a little more skilled in operating the device and taking the initiative when necessary.

Ultimately, I don't think it matters tremendously whether iOS or Android is in the lead because I believe the lead will be marginal. There really isn't any killer app to lock users into either platform. There is no Microsoft Office as a ubiquitous application that just works better on one platform than the other. Pages and Garage Band aren't going to cause a max exodus. There are going to be a stable and growing number of global Android users. Likewise, Apple iOS users are probably not topped out yet. I think both platforms are probably starting to achieve maturity. Growth will not be as rapid or as dramatic for either, and one may shoot ahead while the other stays dormant. It really is fan-boyism at this point to predict, "the iPhone 5 will reverse Android growth on Verizon." It might, though if it does, it will likely be temporary. Head to head, depending on your priorities, iOS or Android "wins" on the merits that the competitor loses on, customer by customer. I love the built in, free, turn-by-turn GPS guidance on Android; it is a value-add that Apple hasn't met or beat, as of yet. The iPhone 4 has maybe the best mobile camera on the market; no other handset has really delivered a complete smartphone platform with such nice camera optics. Pick your poison. What can you can you give up, and what can't you live without?

Thoughts on the ZDNet blogger's post

The ZDNet blog about the Android tablet suggests that perception and a uniform, non-fractured market are critical to success. I think this misses the point. In the early days of the IBM/PC era, the hardware was fractured and there were issues that the market was working out. You had to know the difference between a clone and a compatible, and what that meant for how MS/DOS and apps would run on your system. There was a lot of confusion and hesitation. The flexibility of the PC platform, the competition of multiple vendors, the freedom of consumers to leverage their equipment without vendor limitations, lead the PC platform to become and remain dominant even to this day. I'm not claiming that a fractured platform isn't hurting Android - I'm saying there is ample evidence that a uniform, non-fractured market is not critical to success. I've said several times that with Android, iOS ,and emerging personal digital devices, we're in roughly the same place as the 8-bit era of personal computing. It is brashly premature to try and predict how this is all going to sort out, and these devices are in their infancy as far as design and features are concerned.

Conclusion

I think it is wishful thinking to hope that the iPhone 5 will mean the end of forward momentum for Android, or that Android tablets will disrupt the success of iOS devices. Neither of these platforms has the leverage to unseat the other. It will take a critical misstep by one to give the other a strategic advantage. Barring that, this will remain a race that is too close to call for the foreseeable future.

Also read on TechRepublic

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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