Mobility

Android's killer feature just boosted its lead over iPhone

A key feature where of Android trumps the iPhone is notifications. With iOS 6 and Android 4.1 on the horizon, the gap is about to widen.

Google's Hugo Barra introduces Android 4.1 at Google I/O 2012. Photo credit: Google

Leading up to Apple's WWDC 2012 earlier this month, I wrote that Android still had one killer feature that was unlikely to be replicated in iOS 6. The feature, of course, is Android's alert and notification system that provides timely updates of key messages and glance-able views of the most important information on your smartphone.

Now that WWDC and Google I/O have spilled the beans on the next versions of iOS and Android, it's clear that the iPhone not only failed to gain ground on Android in notifications but is falling farther behind.

While Apple announced some good stuff coming in iOS 6 — such as 3D maps, Siri improvements, FaceTime over cellular, and the new Passbook app to digitize loyalty cards, coupons, and tickets (my favorite new feature) — the new iOS does little to improve the notification system introduced in iOS 5.

Meanwhile, in the upcoming Android 4.1 "Jelly Bean," Google is unleashing major improvements to its already-potent notification system. With a two-finger gesture to expand the alert, Android notifications will now include additional preview information and more actionable options. For example, this enable the following :

  • For a missed call, tap "Call Back" or "Message" (to send a text)
  • For a calendar notification, snooze the alert or quickly email all of the participants using a canned response (if you're running late or can't make it, for example)
  • For Gmail, preview messages more fully and initiate a response
  • For Google+, see a photo that has been shared and +1 it or share it straight from notifications
  • For Google's Music app you can see the song that's currently playing and hit pause, play, or skip straight from the notification

While all of the examples here are from Google's own apps, the new notification capabilities aren't limited to those apps. Google has rolled out all of these capabilities to third party app developers and apps like Pulse, Foursquare, Spotify, and Path are already queuing up their apps to take advantage of it.

Of course, if too many apps take advantage of notifications then it can flood the notification shade and make it a lot less useful. Fortunately, Google now has a better solution for that, too. You can now long-press any notification to see which app posted it and get into the notification preferences for that app where you can disable all notifications from the app or even uninstall the app.

To get a look at the new notification system in action, take a look at the two videos below. The first video is Google's introduction to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and the part about notifications begins at the 3:23 mark in the video. The second video is CNET's first look at Android 4.1 and the bit about notifications runs from 0:40-0:59.

The biggest beef with Android 4.1 notifications is that they will never come to a lot of current Android devices because of the slow update fiasco in the Android ecosystem. Currently, about 65% of Android devices are still running Android 2.3 and only 7% are running Android 4.0.

The prospects for getting a lot of today's devices onto 4.1 aren't very good, although Google said that the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus S, and Motorola Xoom will get the 4.1 update in mid-July. New Android devices will start getting 4.1 in the second half of 2012, beginning with the new Nexus 7 tablet that was announced at Google I/O. However, a lot of the Android phones that will arrive in the coming months will come with Android 4.0 and will have a questionable timeline for ever getting Android 4.1. That's too bad, since this notification system upgrade takes a great feature and makes it even better.

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About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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