Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2

As the mobile battle narrows, the iPhone finally faces a real challenger

There've been many challengers to take the smartphone crown, but so far no one has dethroned the iPhone. Palm's WebOS posed a noble challenge but didn't sustain it. RIM's BlackBerry was easily dispatched by the more modern iPhone, and the forthcoming BlackBerry 6 appears unlikely to raise the bar. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 promises to be perhaps the weakest competitor of all, while the earlier Android-based Motorola Droid also fell short in key areas of concern to business.

But Android has continued to gain strength. The new Froyo version -- formally called Android OS 2.2 -- has become the default alternative to the iPhone for many customers, with broad support by cellular carriers and from Motorola and the Taiwanese hardware makers such as HTC and LG that had previously aligned to Windows Mobile.

[ See how iOS 4 and Android 2.2 compare feature by feature in InfoWorld's slideshow: "Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2, side by side." | See how the iPhone fares against the major competitors in InfoWorld's "ultimate mobile deathmatch" comparative review. | Discover how to deploy (almost) any smartphone in your business. ]

But Apple has not stood still, releasing its iOS 4 last month, which finally addressed long-standing omissions such as multitasking and enterprise security and management capabilities. Though iOS 4 seems to have been forgotten given all the focus on the iPhone 4's antenna woes, those troubles have no bearing on the iOS itself.

Which is the better mobile OS: Apple's iOS 4 or Google's Android OS 2.2? The InfoWorld Test Center decided to find out, based on the capabilities of interest to business and professional users. This deathmatch compares the operating systems, not specific devices using them, examining the OSes apart from the physical differences from device to device and network quality differences from carrier to carrier. I used an HTC Nexus One for Android testing and an iPod Touch 3G for iOS 4 testing, as they're comparable in their performance capabilities; I used only Wi-Fi for network testing to factor out carrier cellular network differences. Note that HTC and Motorola offer additional capabilities in their devices through UI overlays and custom apps; the focus here is on the native Android OS 2.2 capabilities furnished by Google.

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts If you look at the specs, Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4 look to be evenly matched: Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. Both allow for "push" synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange folder hierarchy for mail and make navigating among folders a snap. Also, setup is easy.

Basic email usage. Android has a poorly chosen visual scheme for email: It uses white text on a black background (iOS 4 uses the inverse color scheme). In sunlight, it's all but impossible to read the screen on an Android device, while in the same light an iOS device's display of the email remains readable, even if somewhat washed out. You won't be checking email on the beach with an Android device.

I'm not a big fan of iOS 4's new UI for mail. There's now a unified inbox for all your email accounts, then a separate list of your accounts so that you can go to their traditional hierarchy (for Exchange and IMAP accounts). I don't know why Apple had to break these into separate lists; for someone like me with four separate email accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see.

Email management. Once you're in your folders, though, iOS 4 is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving messages to folders. You can easily search for mail, reply or forward, delete, and select multiple messages, but you can't select or deselect all messages.

On the other hand, Android OS 2.2's folder navigation isn't friendlier, though you don't have to wade through the double lists. By default you get an all-message view, and if you want to go to a specific folder or see just the inbox, you must click the Menu button and then tap the Folders icon to get a list of folders. Also, Android uses a separate app for Gmail accounts -- an unnecessary division of labor.

Android OS 2.2 is on a par with iOS 4 when it comes to mail management. However, you have to use the Menu button when in a message to forward it -- an extra step compared to iOS 4. Both iOS 4 and Android let you mark a message as unread, though Android requires you do it via the Menu button's options. You can search your email in Android, but not from within the Email application; it's part of a general device-wide search, which is more work than iOS 4's method. Like iOS 4, Android OS 2.2 has no select-all capability for email.

iOS 4 remembers the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to a database of contacts that it looks up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields; Android doesn't do that. Both operating systems let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.

iOS 4 did add a message threading capability, which organizes your email based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but it does remove the effort of finding the messages in the first place. (iOS 4 lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) Android OS 2.2 has no similar capability.

Contacts and calendars. The iOS's more elegant UI for email applies to its Contacts and Calendar apps as well. You can easily switch calendar views in iOS 4 in the main calendar screen; by contrast, doing so in Android OS 2.2 requires using the Menu button's options to select a view. Likewise, iOS 4 more elegantly lets you manage the display of multiple calendars, but neither mobile OS lets you send invites to other users for non-Exchange calendars.

Both iOS 4 and Android OS 2.2 have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries in iOS 4. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On Android OS 2.2, you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon). You can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list; iOS 4 has no equivalent.

But iOS 4 lets you sync contacts (and calendars) from your desktop PC or Mac via iTunes if you connect the device via a USB cable. That way, you can get your Outlook or Address Book contacts into your device easily and even keep them in sync with your smartphone. Android has no such local syncing capability. You must sync through a Gmail account -- a no-no for many corporations -- or, for Exchange data only, through an Exchange account. You can import and export contacts to an Android device via an SD card, so you could export your computer's contacts to a file and then move it to an SD card -- a fine work-around for initial setup but not for ongoing synchronization.

Corporate email, contacts, and calendar support. Android OS 2.2 is significantly inferior to iOS 4 when it comes to corporate email capabilities. That's mostly because Android OS 2.2 supports just a limited set of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, so most corporate Exchange environments are unlikely to permit access. The biggest omission is support for on-device encryption, which is a basic EAS requirement. You can tell Exchange to ignore such policy misses, but that lets any noncompliant device onto the Exchange server -- not a viable option for most enterprises. Although iOS 4's EAS support is nowhere near as extensive as what BlackBerry and Windows Mobile offer, it remains the most compliant of any new-gen mobile OS.

Also, Android doesn't let you automatically sync Exchange folders; you have to go to each folder and manually update them. By contrast, iOS 4 lets you designate which folders are automatically synced as part of the mail settings.

Another Android OS 2.2 omission: Exchange calendar syncing (though Motorola provides the Corporate Calendar app on its devices to add this capability). In contrast, iOS 4 syncs with Exchange calendars natively and lets you both initiate and respond to calendar invites from Exchange -- but you can't accept invites sent to IMAP, POP, or Gmail accounts. Android OS 2.2 also can't accept such invites if sent to IMAP, POP, or Gmail accounts.

iOS 4 also integrates Exchange contacts into its Mail app, so it looks at your Exchange contacts database as well as your local database when you enter a person's name in a To or Cc field. Similar to iOS 4, Android integrates Exchange contacts into the local Mail app, assuming you can connect to Exchange. Neither operating system automatically puts Exchange contacts into their Contacts app; you have to add them manually from within an email. This is not a bad thing; it means that departing employees don't have your entire company contacts database on their mobile device, and it keeps the Contacts app from being filled with contacts a user probably doesn't need.

Both mobile operating systems support multiple Exchange accounts (this is new to iOS 4).

There is a work-around to Android's Exchange omissions: The $20 TouchDown app creates a sandbox that encrypts the mail stored in it, so it complies with many Exchange servers' EAS policies. It also lets you choose folders to autosync and flag messages, but its UI for folders is unfriendly. Any folders designated for autosyncing are accessible via a menu at the top of the TouchDown screen, so you can look at specific folders, not just the inbox or all messages (the default view), though only one at a time and without the context of your folder hierarchy. And TouchDown can't add email addresses in mail messages to the native Contacts app in Android; it works just with Exchange and EAS-compatible mail servers such as Lotus Notes 8.5.1 with Lotus Traveler and the forthcoming Novell GroupWise Data Synchronization Mobility Pack. But TouchDown does work well with Exchange contacts, calendar items, and notes.

If you use Lotus Notes, you can work with IBM's Lotus Notes Traveler app on iOS if you're also running the Notes 8.5.1 server with the Traveler extensions. There's as yet no such app for Android, though TouchDown works with that Notes 8.5.1/Traveler server combination. Novell has no support for either device, but plans to add EAS support later this year that should work through iOS 4's Exchange support and through TouchDown on Android.

The winner: iOS 4, by a wide margin. The difference between the two operating systems is a classic case of the specs not telling the whole story. iOS 4 has a much more intuitive interface that makes using email, contacts, and calendars far easier than on Android OS 2.2, and overall it has more capabilities. When it comes to corporate usage, Android simply fails the requirements of most organizations. The TouchDown app can work around much of this gap, but at the price of poor integration with the rest of the device.

Deathmatch: Applications It's now part of the popular culture: "There's an app for that." There are tens of thousands of apps for iOS 4, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but there are many really useful apps as well. Android doesn't have nearly the same library of apps as the iOS, but its portfolio is now in the thousands, with many useful apps -- and more coming as the OS gains popularity -- such as TouchDown and Quickoffice. But you won't find more specialized business apps like OmniSketcher or Concur -- yet.

The native apps for both operating systems are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browser, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging. One strange exception: Android OS 2.2 has no native notepad app, while iOS 4 does. That's a very odd omission for a smartphone.

Unlike Apple's App Store, the Android Market is not curated, which makes it easier for developers to get their apps listed but has also let cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking or other apps and steal user information; Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.

In the Android Market, you're much more likely to not find an app you want than is the case in the Apple App Store. Of course, you don't have to use the Android Market to get Android apps. If you want to get down and dirty, you can "root" the Android OS to install apps from other sources. It's not quite as drastic as jailbreaking an iPhone, but is in fact a hack.

Multitasking. Until iOS 4, the lack of multitasking was a common criticism of Apple's mobile OS. That has sort of changed: Apps need to be multitasking-enabled in iOS 4 (otherwise, they stop working when you switch to another app as before), and Apple has limited the types of capabilities that can run in the background. By contrast, Android supports full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties.

Very few iOS apps have been multitasking-enabled, so it's hard to judge Apple's implementation. On the other hand, there aren't many Android apps that remain running in the background, either. In my usage, I found no issues relating to memory management with multiple apps running on either platform. Some iOS users, however, have reported problems with app switching and app loading on the old iPhone 3G model with iOS 4 installed, which seems related to that device's lack of multitasking support. (Apple says iOS 4's multitasking is available only on the iPhone 3G S, iPhone 4, and third-generation iPod Touch, with iPad support planned for release this fall. Some older devices can run iOS 4 but will have multitasking automatically disabled, Apple says.)

The major difference related to multitasking is the UI for switching among apps. On iOS 4, a double-click on the Home button pulls up a list of running apps, making it easy to see what's running and switch among them. In Android OS 2.2, you have to drill down several levels in Settings to see which apps are active; that list is littered with various Google services that are also running. This Running Services view really isn't meant for daily usage.

App management. Android also makes managing apps a little more work than in iOS 4. Android reserves the home screen for a few preinstalled apps, then lets you add other apps to it by tapping-and-holding and then dragging app icons to the desired location on the home screen, one at a time. Getting to those apps is where there's extra work: You press a grid icon at the bottom of the screen to get the full set of installed apps. Fortunately, copying apps to the home screen is easy, but the modal switch is still annoying. By contrast, iOS 4 simply adds more home screens as you add apps and easily lets you arrange them by dragging them. (You can't rearrange apps in Android's app screen, just on its home screen.)

iOS also lets you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- that's great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as iphone.infoworld.com. Android can add bookmarks only to its browser's bookmarks list.

iOS 4 added the ability to create app folders, which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are too small to make out, so knowing what's in a folder is not always easy. Android has no folder capability.

Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly; iOS 4 also lets you manage apps and update them via iTunes, so they are backed up to your computer.

The winner: iOS 4, but not by much. Its app catalog is large, but mainly as a function of its installed user base. The Android Market is slower than the Apple App Store, and the UI for managing and working with apps is clunkier in Android than in iOS 4 -- a common theme in Android. But most users will quickly adjust to each operating system's approach.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that both offer capable Web browsers. Do note that neither is as HTML5-savvy as their desktop versions, however. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, mobile Chrome scored 176 out of 300, versus 197 for desktop Chrome, and mobile Safari scored 185 versus 208 for desktop Safari.

The main differences between the iOS 4 and Android OS 2.2 browsers center around the UI: Android usually requires the use of the Menu button to access Chrome's controls, whereas iOS 4 makes more Safari controls accessible without such machinations. For example, Safari has a Forward button on all screens; it's buried in the Menu options on Android. Likewise, bookmarking, sharing pages via email, and switching among open Web pages require several steps in Android but not in iOS 4. And I really noted the lack of a .com button on the Android OS 2.2 touch keyboard when entering URLs; it's a significant timesaver in iOS 4.

Both browsers let you select text on Web pages, but only iOS 4 lets you select graphics. Both browsers also have settings controls over pop-up windows, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, and image loading. Chrome has a few additional controls, such as for opening pages in the background, while Safari has them for autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging.

Although not preinstalled with the Android OS, a beta version of Adobe's Flash Player is available at the Android Market as a free download. This beta version worked in my testing on a variety of websites that use Flash, both for videos and for interactive capabilities. I didn't experience the crashes or timeouts that some users have reported when loading Flash assets, but Flash was quite slow, causing pauses of tens of seconds to as much as a minute on many Web pages. Perhaps the final, shipping version will be faster, but I can see that many users might happily disable it if they frequent Flash-based sites. (The only way to do that is to uninstall it.) iOS, of course, has no Flash support, given Apple's dislike of the Adobe Flash technology.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either iOS 4 or Android 2.2 is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can't edit a text document, and all you can do in calendars is view and delete appointments. But that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the iOS 4 and Android browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through some front-end Google Docs app.

The winner: iOS 4, by a whisker, thanks to its easier UI and its ability to copy graphics. I can't yet credit Android for Flash Player support, given it's a beta product not included in the operating system, and I have reservations over its slow performance.

Deathmatch: Location support Both iOS 4 and Android OS 2.2 support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. Both operating systems also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. Both operating systems let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature.

Both iOS 4 and Android 2.2 let you control your location privacy. However, Android only lets you control whether your location is detected by disabling or enabling the GPS and Wi-Fi location services, while iOS 4 lets you control this per application. Android apps can ask if it's OK to use your location, but there's no central way to manage these location permissions as there is in iOS 4.

I do prefer iOS 4's implementation of Google Maps better than Android's because Android's Maps app is much slower than iOS 4's, though they run on comparable hardware. It's also more work in Android to switch views, such as from map to satellite, due to the use of nested menus.

The winner: A tie.

Deathmatch: User interface It's often a throw-away comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS 4 is in fact a better designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster.

Operational UI. I've noted earlier how Android OS 2.2 makes you click the Menu button and go through one or more levels of options to access most capabilities in its apps. This really slows operations, even though it is consistently implemented. Apple is smarter about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Devices have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press it when, say, reading an email, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it does let you search your address book. It's not clear why the Search button is available in some contexts and not others, especially for apps like Email that have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

Finally, Android's Settings app can be confusing to use (and the white-on-black text makes it nearly impossible to use in bright daylight). For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. On the other hand, iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, works equivalently on Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4.

HTC's Sense UI overlay makes Android behave more like iOS, so people who appreciate the elegance of the Mac OS or iOS should look to HTC's devices if they decide to go Android. For example, HTC's virtual keyboards are less error-prone than the standard Android OS because HTC has adjusted the sensitivity to tapping to account for the parallax factor -- the optical illusion caused by the layer of glass between your finger and the LCD. iOS does that as well.

Text selection and copying. Where Android really falls short in UI is in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when typing a URL, you can't simply move the text cursor to that error's location in the text. You have to backspace to that point, erasing the text in between. On iOS, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse); a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go. You then add and delete text at that location.

Along these lines, copy and paste -- and even basic selection -- is often not available in Android OS 2.2. In some fields, tapping and holding brings up a contextual menu that lets you copy or paste the entire field's contents; in others you can't even do that. Although the browser lets you select and copy text, this ability is not universal. For example, you can't select text in email messages. In iOS, any textual item can be selected, and you can adjust specifically what text is selected by using little sliders. It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

The winner: iOS 4, by a mile. Android's poor text-handling features are inexcusable. People used to regular cell phones, BlackBerrys, and Palm OS devices will be thrilled with Android OS 2.2's UI; certainly, the friends and colleagues I showed Android to felt that way. But if you're familiar with the iOS or even Mac OS X, the Android UI will feel clunky and a bit awkward, as if you were being forced to use Windows or Linux.

Deathmatch: Security and management Apple's not known for supporting enterprise-level security and client management demands, but iOS 4 covers much of what most businesses need in these areas. It has remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and an assortment of password controls (such as requiring a strong password or disabling access after so many failed attempts to log in) that are manageable through Microsoft Exchange and, soon, through iOS 4-enabled management tools from companies such as Good Technology and Mobile Iron. Unfortunately, these tools aren't yet shipping, so it's impossible to see how well they perform in practice. Apple has its own utility to deploy these security profiles, but it doesn't scale well beyond a few dozen users, so large businesses will want to look at the mobile management tools as they become available.

iOS 4 also supports several types of VPNs, provides SSL message encryption, and has on-device encryption for data such as email and notes.

Make no mistake: BlackBerry Enterprise Server and the BlackBerry OS, as well as Microsoft Exchange and the Windows Mobile OS, provide better security and manageability than iOS and its tools do. (Their on-device encryption is harder to break, for example.)

But Android OS 2.2 simply can't meet most corporate security needs, and there is almost nothing in the way of mobile management hooks in the OS for third-party management tool providers to tap into. The biggest omission is the lack of on-device encryption, which pretty much renders Android unusable for corporate Exchange environments. As previously noted, individual apps can implement encryption within their sandbox, as TouchDown does, but IT rarely has a way to ensure that only such apps are deployed (Exchange's EAS policy detection is one of those rare ways for email, calendar, and contacts apps).

For smaller organizations, Android OS 2.2 is supposed to support remote wipe via Exchange, but many users have complained that it does not work. I could not test this because our corporate servers won't let Android devices connect due to lack of EAS policy compliance.

Android does support complex passwords, VPNs, and SSL message encryption.

Android OS 2.2 can back up contact, calendar, and email data wirelessly to Gmail, as can iOS 4 to Apple's MobileMe service. Android can also back up system settings and application data to Google's servers. In addition, iOS can back up all of your device's data and apps to iTunes, which most large businesses would prefer not to have on corporate PCs.

The winner: It's not even close. Of the two, only iOS 4 can meet corporate security and manageability requirements. Small businesses and independent contractors can probably get away with using Android OS 2.2 -- if they keep a tight rein on their servers, passwords, and so on.

The overall winner is ... There's no question which is the better mobile OS: iOS 4 beats Android OS 2.2 in almost every category.

But Android OS 2.2 does offer a strong core platform whose UI may be inferior to iOS 4 but is good enough for most users. Android OS 2.2's other major deficits center around security and manageability and around corporate apps. Should Google get serious about these areas, Android could easily tie with iOS. After all, it was only a year ago that iOS (then called iPhone OS 3.0) started to take corporate needs seriously, and only last month (with iOS 4) that the necessary foundation was in place to do so.

In the United States, the flawed AT&T 3G network continues to give users a reason to want an alternative to iOS, thanks to the carrier's lock on Apple, and that fact just adds fuel to the Android fire. Android's momentum with users and the support from developers and device makers alike give it a real opportunity to catch up to iOS at some point. No other would-be iPhone-killer can make that claim today.

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This article, "Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile computing and read Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog at InfoWorld.com.

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This story, "Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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