iPhone versus Android

by Philip Greenspun, February 2011; updated May 2011

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This article is intended to help consumers trying to decide between purchasing an iPhone and an Android-based smartphone.

Advantages of the iPhone

The iPhone is older and has a broader and better range of applications available than in the Android Market. Because Apple consumers are accustomed to paying for every step that they take within their self-contained universe, the iPhone application market is much more attractive to developers than the Android market, where consumers are accustomed to getting everything for free. The most commonly used applications, e.g., social networking, weather, and games, tend exist on both operating systems (see list below).

The iPhone operating system, especially on the early phones, is simpler and offers less power to developers compared to the Android. The basic idea of iPhone was that only one application can be running at one time. This sounds like a disadvantage, but it makes life simpler and more predictable for users. Unlike on the Android, it is difficult for an application running in the background to slow down whatever the user is trying to do at the moment (the foreground application, e.g., making a phone call). My friend Jin points out that "One of the most popular Android apps is a task killer, something which the iPhone neither has nor needs. Your opinion of that is probably indicative of whether you think the Android system is better or worse." (I've been using Android every day for nearly 2.5 years and have never downloaded or used a task killer.)

Only one kind of hardware, which makes life easier for application developers. Since no iPhone has a keyboard, an application developer does not have to think about what a keyboard would do. This also makes it easier for Apple to issue operating system updates, whereas many Android devices are stuck on older versions of the software.

For people who are already using Apple's $100/year Mobile Me service, simple integration with the rest of their information. Novice users who live near an Apple retail store can take advantage of in-person support by reasonably knowledgeable people (see this story about a T-Mobile store for what the competition looks like).

Due to the fact that most iPhone users report never being able to type fast or accurately using the on-screen keyboard and the primary importance of email and text messages, the typical iPhone user would be more productive if he or she had purchased a Blackberry instead.

Here's part of an email received from a friend on May 7, 2011:

"(I would have written or sent a text earlier, but some young kid talked me into getting an iphone, and I no longer can stop and send a quick message; it takes too long. The iPhone does everything beautifully except what I need it for: emails, text and looking up contacts. I miss my Blackberry!)"

Advantages of Android

For people who rely on the range of Google services, e.g., Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Picasa, YouTube, etc., nothing could be simpler than syncing up a new Android device: type in Gmail account name and password and then wait a minute or two while the phone syncs.

If sending email and text messages is a primary reason for carrying a smartphone, a variety of Android-based devices offer physical keyboards, which are, for many people, much easier and more accurate for typing.

The technological breakthrough that would make a smartphone vastly more useful is high quality speech recognition. Google/Android is far ahead of iPhone in the area of voice control and likely to pull farther ahead. Google is a company with much greater technical depth than Apple. Where Apple might have some of the world's greatest designers of shiny cases for standard computing hardware, Google has drawers full of great mathematicians, scientists, and software engineers.

The diversity of hardware is also helpful for those with specialized needs. Photographers, for example, can get an Android-based 14 megapixel camera phone with 3X optical zoom (engadget).

A lot of stuff that is expensive on the iPhone is free on the Android. Navigation, for example, was $100 per year on the iPhone and Apple consumers happily paid up. Google Maps, a far superior system, was and remains free on Android. It is unclear what will happen with Apple's plan to collect 30 percent of any subscriptions sold to iPhone and iPad customers, but presumably this will come out of consumers' hides one way or another (like payroll taxes; supposedly your employer pays them, but really they are coming out of your salary). A lot of Apple customers buy from Apple as a form of conspicuous consumption. Their phone or laptop is something that they can display publicly and frequently and it communicates to others "I am rich enough to spend twice as much as necessary on a laptop computer or telephone." Therefore it is unlikely that prices of iPhones, iPhone service, or applications will come down in response to competition from Android. The high prices are exactly what attracts Apple's customers.

[In nearly 2.5 years of using Android daily, the author has never purchased an application. All of the capabilities that he wanted were already bundled with the phone or available as free downloads.]

For computer nerds only: Easy to write your own applications. Download the (free) SDK and run it on any desktop PC. Transfer your new program to your Android phone with a USB cable.

The main selling point of Android is also its main weakness. Motorola says "the DROID 2 offers PC-like power and speed". That's great, until you think about the fact that it might take your PC a minute to boot. Or that an application on your PC might take a few seconds to respond because some background application is hogging all of the computer's resources. Do you really want your phone to behave like that? As the device hardware becomes more powerful, this problem will very likely recede. The latest Android phones, for example, have dual-core processors. If one processor is dedicated to the foreground task and the background resource hogs share the remaining core or cores, the user can be guaranteed a reasonable response time. Note that this problem was solved in software decades ago, with the real-time operating system, but the Android developers elected to use standard Linux instead. The standard mobile "feature phones" generally use a real-time operating system, which is why their owners enjoy roughly the same response time to every keystroke.

App by App Comparison

Here are the most popular (by downloads) iPhone apps, as of February 2011:
  1. Facebook: on Android also
  2. Pandora: on Android also
  3. Google Mobile App: not necessary on Android (or you could say "Android is one big Google Mobile App")
  4. Shazam (song recognizer): on Android also
  5. Flixster (movie schedules and ratings): on Android also
  6. The Weather Channel: on Android also
  7. Google Earth: on Android also
  8. Bump (contact sharing at Starbucks): on Android also
  9. Skype: on Android also
  10. Paper Toss (game): on Android also
  11. Doodle Jump (game): on Android also
  12. Tap Tap Revenge (game): on Android also
  13. Pocket God (game): on Android also
  14. Angry Birds (game): on Android also
  15. Bejeweled (game): on Android also
  16. Traffic Rush (game): on Android also
From this we can conclude two things: (a) the Android can run all of the most popular iPhone apps; (b) the United States is finished as a place to find productive workers.

Long-term Prospects of Android versus iPhone: something new Dominates

Neither the iPhone nor the Android were the first smartphones nor the first "application" phones in which third-party applications could be installed. A notable pioneer in this area was the T-Mobile Sidekick, released in 2002 and incorporating substantially all of the capabilities of the iPhone, introduced five years later in 2007. Windows Mobile, then called "Pocket PC 2002", also gave consumers most of the capabilities of a modern smartphone, including the ability to install applications (albeit not from an online store). Thus there is no guarantee that either Android or iPhone will be the long-term standard. (Though don't hold your breath for Blackberry to make a resurgence or for Microsoft Windows Phone 7 to catch on.)

Long-term Prospects of Android versus iPhone: iPhone Dominates

David Wihl, the founder and CEO of SoftArtisans, a mobile applications vendor, has a very coherent argument for why the iPhone will dominate: iTunes. Wihl points out that Apple can make profits on selling music, video, apps, and books, then use those profits to subsidize the hardware if necessary to compete. Companies that sell only hardware can't afford to do that.

Wihl points out that Apple has succeeded with this strategy already in the MP3-player market. (In fact, the last time that I priced an MP3 player, the iPod was cheaper per GB than any competitor. Microsoft's Zune was a laughable example of a newcomer to the market trying to charge a higher price than Apple.)

Separate though related to Wihl's big idea is the fact that it is easy for developers to get money from iPhone owners. Apple consumers spend money for conspicuous consumption and therefore there is seemingly no limit to what iPhone owners will pay for content, if only to display their wealth to fellow Starbucks customers.

Finally there is the fact that, just as Android is overtaking iPhone in the smartphone market, Apple has achieved dominance in the tablet market with the iPad. Since there is a fair amount of commonality in building apps for the iPad and the iPhone, if the iPad holds onto its dominance of the tablet market that could further anchor the iPhone in the phone market.

Long-term Prospects of Android versus iPhone: Android Dominates

The closed nature of the iPhone and Apple's one-size-fits-all approach should result in additional market share for Android. For example, the open-source Android has been adapted by Motorola to make a competitor to the secure corporate Blackberry phones. Also, a company that wants to produce and distribute its own applications internally can do that privately on the Android, but not with the iPhone, which requires the company to get permission from Apple (and pay $299 per year for the privilege of using all of the phones that they've just bought).

The iPhone supports small innovations, e.g., the development of a new game, but Android provides much better support for significant innovation. Due to the open-source nature of the Android operating system, a developer can adapt the software to run directly on innovative hardware, e.g., a new medical device.

In Android's favor is that application development can be taught in universities. iPhone application development requires that every student purchase a Macintosh computer, something very few people can afford. The Android SDK runs on almost any PC, Linux, Mac, or Windows. iPhone application development uses a computer language that is peculiar to Apple: Objective C. Android application development uses the standard Java language that high school and university students already know. Distribution of an application to a physical Android device is as simple as plugging in a USB cable. Distribution of an application to a physical iPhone or iPad requires approval from Apple and the payment of fees. It would simply not be practical to teach iPhone application development to a group of high school or college students. (By contrast it was easy to include Android development in our three-day RDBMS/SQL programming course at MIT.)

As someone who advises startup companies from time to time, I was approached in February 2011 by an entrepreneur who had developed a wearable medical device. It communicated with an Android application his team had developed and he demonstrated it with a standard Droid X onto which he had been able to transfer his application privately (takes less than one minute per phone). What if he had chosen to innovate with the iPhone instead? Each of his four developers already owned a Windows or Linux PC, but the fledgling enterprise would have had to purchase a Macintosh computer for each of developers, the total price exceeding all of the capital expense that the company had spent thus far on developing the device. Once the Macintoshes were delivered and installed, the startup company would have had to pay all of the developers to learn Objective C. Finally, the entrepreneur would have had to bet his business on continued cooperation from Apple to place his applications on physical devices.

A programmer with a great idea can download the Android SDK on a Friday night, run it on the computer that he or she already owns, and have the application built and running on a physical phone by Monday morning. This is impossible with the iPhone and therefore my prediction is in the long run that Android will predominate. Both kinds of devices will enable a consumer to accomplish the basics, but for any particular consumer, only an Android will have that one extra critical capability, e.g., an interface to a medical device or an interface to an automobile. [That said, currently there are some innovative medical applications on the iPhone, e.g., AliveCor and dermscope.com. See imedicalapps.com for more.]

Android has gotten off to a rocky start, mostly by trying to offer a fully general-purpose computer in one's pocket rather than a streamlined appliance, which would have made more sense given the state of processor and battery technology circa 2008.

Personal Prediction

I will go out on a limb with a prediction that by the year 2015, Android will outsell the iPhone by 10:1 (In 2010, Android outsold iPhone by 67 million to 46 million, less than 2:1) and the iPhone will shrink to irrelevance in the market by 2020.

In the early years of the Web, e.g., 1990-1995, the prevailing wisdom was that consumers would buy lots of subscriptions and tiny items of software or content ("apps"!). Eventually it turned out that advertising would support the vast majority of Web services. If that proves to be true in the smartphone world, many of the iPhone's commercial advantages will be neutralized. Any device that can show ads will be equally profitable.

While iPhone customers pay $100/month for some voice minutes and unlimited data and are locked in for two years, the unlimited-data Android experience can be obtained in the U.S. for $25 per month with no commitment (see Virgin Mobile USA). Especially for younger consumers, the idea of going from $300 per year for service to $1200 per year is going to be a tough sell.

If it turns out that people do want to pay for each track of music or each app individually, this prediction will likely go down in flames...

Which phone to buy today?

One operating system might dominate the smartphone market at some point in the future, but right now (2011) the market is fairly evenly divided among Android, Blackberry, and iPhone.

If your primary interest is email and you're not a Gmail user, take a look at the Blackberry before committing to a phone. The hardware and software are very well-tuned to primary tasks such as phone calls, email, and Web browsing. The phones will also do most of the things that you'd expect a smartphone to do, e.g., function as an MP3 player or provide navigation. It is not an accident that a majority of employers, whose primary interest is worker productivity, purchase Blackberry smartphones.

If you're a Gmail user and want to learn just one smartphone operating system and be reasonably sure that you'll never have to re-learn those skills, get an Android phone.

If the idea of switching operating systems and repurchasing all of your most-used applications doesn't bother you, try out an iPhone in the store. If you are comfortable using the on-screen keyboard and don't mind spending $70-100 per month (plus taxes!), get an iPhone, which is, right now, the most mature general-purpose smartphone.

Here's an IM transcript of a conversation with a friend who, a year earlier, switched from Blackberry to iPhone:

(She was chatting from her desktop PC at the time, not her phone.)
Copyright 2010-2011 by Philip Greenspun. Top Photo captured with a Motorola Droid 2.

Reader's Comments

Re: Real-time Operating Systems. The upcoming BlackBerry PlayBook uses QNX, a RTOS. However, that doesn't keep from it being a piece of crap for development purposes. [I thoroughly enjoyed reading Jamie's narrative on many fronts. It expressed well the frustration of developing on RIM both technically and organizationally. It was yet another example of the power of an individual blog post that goes viral. And it shows the futility of one committed RIM employee, Tyler Lessard, in the face of a dysfunctional organization. The post and responses could be made in a Michael Crichton novel.]

-- David Wihl, March 3, 2011
The iPhone/iPad space is more about media consumption than development, nevertheless there is a HUGE demand for developers (and a huge pool of aspirants), most of whom already own Mac OS X computers and possess some of the skills (Object-oriented programming, scripting, etc.). The iPad is dominating the tablet market 10:1 and is in great demand for enterprise appliance development. You are no doubt right about Android becoming another pervasive mobile/tablet platform, but I seriously question your prediction of 10:1 dominance. iOS will remain a major force until the next tectonic shift (wearable?, implantable? digestible? devices?).

I have some visibility into the Apple world via a family member who is a major iOS developer and training shop. His business is phenomenal, and the target market is far broader than conspicuous consumers.

-- Don Hodges, March 3, 2011

I run an iOS software development company in Canada. I have a significant philosophical bent in favour of Android, but in my entire time consulting with clients and shipping finished work, the ratio of iOS to Android projects is 5:0.

Your comment that, as an avid Android user for years, you have never once purchased an application, is more or less the entire reason why this platform is attractive to developers. Apple has successfully created an audience of people who expect to pay for content and features. Apple is paying its independent developers about $1B a year. Those "one critical extra features" you cite in favour of Android are not being shipped with an application ecosystem 1/10th the size.

-- Stephen van Egmond, March 4, 2011

Aren't Android & IOS really libraries running on Linux & FreeBSD? Seem to recall OSX was a Mac library on FreeBSD. These days, the middleware has become the operating system, & no-one mentions the UNIX part.

The big question is not how many platforms a ball of spagetti like Android runs on but how consistent the Android implementation is across platforms. Java stacks tend to be extremely inconsistent across platforms & real spagetti hacks, especially with the multimedia & graphics.

It costs a huge amount of money to implement a Java stack that uses the hardware to its full potential & complies with an open standard where many different vendors each sneak in their own idiotic requirements. At least the IOS is very good at maximizing the hardware.

In a previous rant, you said Android users were better looking than iPhone users. At least around Silicon Valley, the iPhone users are about 10x better looking than the Android users. The huge surplus of baby boomer men have to buy their 34 year old girlfriends the most expensive phones available, to compete for their love, & they have to hawk iPhone's to demonstrate higher status.

Writing Android software basically gets you into a circle of lesser status, overweight, pale nerds, while writing IOS software gets your name on the tongue of the 5 blond hotties.

Having said that, I would buy an Android, purely based on cost, & study up on being happy alone. I never had the stomach to buy more gadget than necessary, to demonstrate higher status or have the best hardware integration. The iPhone cost is a killer. After every Apple event, you go in an Apple store expecting some revolutionary functionality, but it's really just luxurious packaging for very little meat.

-- x y, April 3, 2011

Android is at present "A JOKE" I switched from a blackberry to an android, as the former was stolen. I am avid open source promoter and run Linux... however, upon using the android on "samsung galaxy", one of the best android phone, my comment is that Android is far behind "iPhone" or blackberry in terms of creating a real smartphone experience. Take for instance, a. It should not forget that it is a PHONE first !!! Android is more of a web-device than a phone. The Phone app on Android has crashed so many times for me.. And its dialer can learn a lot from the blackberry dialer. b. It is horrendous in battery life. About 10-15% battery is lost every hour on standby. Blackberry Storm/iPhone aren't any better in this regard but they guarantee a charge of 60% charge in about 30-40 mins. This makes fast drain-out bearable.. recharge while I am in a meeting.. Android takes half a day !!! c. Cross application do not work. For example Skype and dialer are not happy together. d. UI is still cumbersome and non-intuitive. Google VOICE works very well one of the strong points. e. After trying my best to use it, am trading it in for an unlocked iPhone. f. My verdict.. .. someone needs to get behind “developing Android using real money”. Droid/Samsung use it but do not build it. Apples strength is not only its hardware but software, a system. Cannot be beaten and shall win ultimately. Only serious threat is Blackberry. Android remains a joke for serious business users. g. I have seen Ubuntu being a wonderful operating system now but it took quite some time to get there and with some serious developers like Novell/Redhat/Canonical. Hope someone picks up Androids cause other than google. h. Its very difficult to make sure that an app does not “destroy” the OS. So apple’s model of testing the application for stability system is not wrong.

-- Navendu Sinha, April 10, 2011
One thing worth noting is that your comments on the pricing are generally rather US-centric; the US telecoms market is very different from those in most of the rest of the world. In most European countries, for instance, iPhones are available on all networks, and at pricing comparable to high-end Android devices for the iPhone 4, or mid-range Android devices for the 3GS.

It is much-rumoured that Apple will eventually also compete in the low-end smartphone space; a sort of equivalent on an iPod Nano.

-- Robert Synnott, May 8, 2011

"the unlimited-data Android experience can be obtained in the U.S. for $25 per month with no commitment..."

Where is this mythological scenario that you speak of? Virgin caps at 5gb for $40 and the Android experience you get at that amount without contract sure isn't Droid X or iPhone 4 level; TMobile (going the way of the dodo) certainly isn't $25mo. All the vendors are pulling away from allowing tethering without additional fees, the big lollipop for Android geek users. So who is it that supplies this cheap all you can eat buffet of data in everything is free Android land?

-- sleep d, May 9, 2011

I don't think it makes sense to compare an OS - Android - to a device - iPhone. It makes sense to compare the iPhone to a Samsung with Android or to an HTC with Android. The Android OS (all versions) user base is indeed growing faster compared to iOS but I doubt that Motorola, HTC, Samsung etc will outsell Apple or make as more profit. They Android OS handset makers are all competing with each other for the same market. Just like in the Windows PC world it will be a race to the bottom of profitability.

"In nearly 2.5 years of using Android daily, the author has never purchased an application. All of the capabilities that he wanted were already bundled with the phone or available as free downloads."

That attitude from Android users - and recent changes to the Google license - is what makes me doubt the long term viability of the Android ecosystem. Users flocking to get cheap phones running a free OS who are unwilling to pay for software is not the sort of customer I would want.

-- Khürt Williams, May 10, 2011
I've still yet to find a modern smart phone that had a keyboard anywhere near the quality of the sidekick II. It's a shame that the android system that came to prominence didn't have more in common with the sidekick. That was a truly great device well ahead of its time.

-- David Watson, December 21, 2011
Alternative perspectives are geographical (Japan) and chronological (after Google Play release). Experience level is somewhat over a year with an HTC smartphone running Android 2.3 and four months with a Toshiba AT 200 tablet running Android 3.x. Heavy user of tethering, both USB and WiFi.

Mostly satisfied with Android, but HTC seems to have some serious problem with the Japanese market. The four main carriers all offered HTC phones in the past, but I think the only remaining trace is residual inventory. My own experiences with HTC as regards HTC-specific problems were pretty terrible, and my English ability ought to have helped smooth things over... Haven't really had enough interaction with Toshiba to say for sure, but they seem far better than HTC. Most of my friends seem to have Toshiba or Sharp smartphones, but I notice a lot of Sonys on the trains. Some of my friends are iPhone users, and Apple has a heavy presence here. Not sure of the market breakdown.

Most applications have been satisfactory in both languages (Japanese and English), but the voice recognition has been something of a disappointment. I haven't been able to find out why, but all Android smartphones in the Japanese market are apparently blocked from speaker-specific training. I haven't checked as many tablets, but it's certainly the case for my Toshiba, too. Doesn't matter which language is in use. My current guess is that there is some hassle with the voice recognition for Japanese (though everyone I've spoken to agrees that it is better than the iPhone's for Japanese), so rather than fixing it in Japanese, they just disabled that feature. I have trouble believing in the coincidence, but perhaps they all reached that decision independently... Anyway, the generic voice recognition without speaker training is okay, but not really good enough to dump the keyboard...

Google Play was just released recently, and it was initially quite confusing to me until I talked with a few Apple fanbois about how iTunes works. My initial impressions are mixed, but I think that it won't take too much polishing to apply some heavy pressure on Apple's position. Overall it looks to be be a major factor in favor of Android, but still doesn't offset my increasing feeling of evil within the google...

Another deviant perspective, but I feel like noting that I also came out of the PDA world of a Palm device, and I feel my smartphone has mostly replaced that. I still had some old Palm data until a few months ago, and I wish that someone had created some Palm emulators and data conversion utilities for Android. Too late now, I guess.

P.S. (as of 12 June 2012) is that I've added a couple of months of experience with a Huawei smartphone. Improved version of Android 2 that puts it pretty much on a par with the Toshiba tablet, but most of the Huawei improvements are just about what you expect from the Moore's Law push. However, I do think that the battery management of Android has become my #1 annoyance. Almost NO apps are properly tracked for their battery usage. Here's a typical usage report "Android System 50%, Cell standby 26%, Phone idle 22%, and Display 2%". It would be EXTREMELY useful to know which app is really draining the battery.

-- Shannon Jacobs, June 12, 2012

It's been over a year since this article was written and updated. What trends have become apparent? Apple's iPhone is doing well. Samsung is doing well with Android. Everyone else? Not so good. Not HTC, Motorola, Microsoft, RIM, Nokia, etc. I have to agree with a poster above. What developer wants customers who expect everything to be free? This leaves only one "winner" in the Android market. Google, due to advertisements. A big selling point in the Apple market is, the developer gets paid by including ads in apps, or directly with customers willing to pay a buck. I can live with that. Many customers (Android or iOS) just want a smart phone that's also a computer. Not a computer that does double duty as a phone. A big, big problem for Android will be price. That sounds crazy on the surface. But look at Apple's trends in the smart phone market. The prior year's phone always gets cheaper. Cheaper every year until it's 'free'. Cheap or 'free' Android phones are designed to be cheap from day one. Sell it, then forget it. A new (cheap) model is coming in six to twelve months anyway. iPhones get cheaper due to years of volume, on a small variety of hardware. Apple depends on software (and OS upgrades) to a greater degree than hardware to sell phones. Developers can count on the user base growing on a stable platform to target for many years. Android? Let's not even discuss the problems with updating the OS on many (most?) Android phones. That negatively impacts developers over the life of an app. My speculation? Apple will continue to own much of the smart phone market for many years to come. And conspicuous consumption? You can find that in the Android market too. However, most sales are to ordinary people. Not those of us who are technically inclined in the PC market. That gives Apple an edge that'll be hard to beat.

-- M. Foley, October 13, 2012
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