Android vs iPhone: the ultimate platform war? £400

15th Jul 2009 | 09:45

Android vs iPhone: the ultimate platform war?

How the smartphone rivals are building their communities

iPhone and Android compared

Android and the iPhone OS aren't just phone systems: they're platforms, locked in a war to decide the future of portable computing.

It took nearly 20 years for the billionth PC to be sold, but analysts predict that by 2012 there will be more than three quarters of a billion smartphones in circulation.

That's a huge market, and Apple and Google would both like the biggest slice of it.

While both players have world domination in mind, they're going about it in very different ways. Apple offers a closed, proprietary system with peerless marketing, an excellent user interface and strong ties between hardware and software; Google prefers open-source apps, spreading awareness via word of mouth and a hands-off approach to the hardware.

Android was quick to react to the iPhone's weaknesses, but the new iPhone 3.0 firmware addresses many of these, with MMS, cut and paste functionality and tethering

That means that both platforms offer copy, cut and paste, MMS and stereo Bluetooth, but the iPhone also offers accessory support, parental controls, peer-to-peer connections (via Bluetooth) and Voice over IP.

The iPhone still doesn't offer background processing for third-party applications, however, which makes Android the better multitasker.

One of the most interesting things about the iPhone 3.0 update is its new support for accessories. Developers will be able to write software that communicates with connected peripherals, either wired (via the dock connector) or wirelessly (via Bluetooth).

Apple has already demonstrated an application that ensures diabetics take the correct amounts of insulin by connecting a blood sugar monitor to the iPhone. Other examples might include pedometers and external input devices (such as games controllers or keyboards for people who prefer real keys to on-screen ones).

Different approaches

Although both platforms are mobile computing platforms that include phone features, rather than phone operating systems, the philosophies behind them couldn't be more different. Apple, as ever, is very controlling.

Applications can't be sold without Apple's approval, they can't operate in the background when other applications are running, and they can't duplicate the features of the core apps. That means no Safari rival (while there are web browsers in the App Store, they're just front-ends for Safari) and nothing else that competes with Apple's own apps.

Android is much more open. You can build any kind of app that you like and take advantage of any features that you want to use. The rules resemble a typical ISP contract or web hosting agreement, making sure that you don't feature illegal content, hate speech, pornography, copyright violations or "create a spammy user experience." The only non-competition clause asks you not to create apps that provide an alternative to the Android Market.

Both platforms take 30 per cent of application revenues, although Android is free to sign up to, while Apple charges developers $99 per year. However, there are more subtle differences between the two. The Android Market offers a basic sales channel and doesn't automatically notify users of updated apps like the iPhone does.

The new iPhone 3.0 update, on the other hand, goes one step further, giving developers the option to add in-game purchasing of content, such as add-ons for games, or to charge subscription fees rather than one-off payments.

The app ecosystems

Developers also need to consider the numbers. The iPhone OS also works on the iPod Touch, giving developers a potential market of 30 million devices (17 million iPhones and 13.7 million iPods, according to Apple).

The iPhone benefits from massive advertising, too – seems that O2 is spending all of its money on full-page iPhone adverts at the moment – whereas Android's marketing is more about word of mouth.

At the moment the numbers are firmly on Apple's side, although that may change over the next year. Manufacturers including HP are reportedly considering Android-powered netbooks, HTC is planning more more Android handsets, and Google's Andy Rubin suggests that Android could run on set-top boxes, sat-nav systems and home entertainment devices, including TVs.

Money talks

If you're a developer writing mobile applications, Apple has the numbers and the profile, and as endless reports of iPhone developers coining in the cash demonstrate, having a successful iPhone application can be extremely lucrative. Because of this, the iTunes App Store makes the Android Market look positively tiny, featuring as it does a huge selection of applications – good and bad – in almost every category.

The range doesn't just cover the usual suspects such as social networking apps, mobile Ebay, Shazam song recognition and the inevitable, unfunny fart applications, either: it also includes things like artist-branded rhythm games from musicians, utilities for controlling Sky+ boxes, games franchises such as Metal Gear Solid and many, many more.

Even accounting for some well-known problems, including Apple's reluctance to give the green light to fully written applications for trivial reasons, the growth of the App Store has been enormous. In July 2008 it launched with 500 available applications, and by September the number had increased to 3,000, with some 100 million downloads delivered.

The number of available applications has reached 65,000 and over 1.5 billion apps have now been downloaded. That's even more impressive when you consider that it took iTunes three years to deliver a billion music downloads.

Apple has the hardware, the hype and, most importantly of all, the killer apps that make people choose one platform over another. Until Android appears on more phones (and perhaps on netbooks too), Google's offering appears to be to the iPhone what Microsoft's Zune is to the iPod: interesting, but not enough to give Steve Jobs sleepless nights.


First published in PC Plus issue 283

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