Thursday, January 13, 2011, 07:00 pm PT (10:00 pm ET)
Feature: iPhone 4 and iOS vs. Android on Verizon
How Verizon's smartphones stack up: Android
Android, like BlackBerry, is also updated by the carrier, meaning that updates might never arrive for some older or cheaper models, might be delayed for months after the official Android OS release by Google, and will certainly be bundled with Verizon's chosen mix of hard-to-remove apps from partners, including annoying nagware for subscription services. A variety of reviews of Verizon phones specifically note "Verizon bloatware" as a major negative.
The most responsive Android licensees (in terms of delivering new updates for their phone users) are Motorola and HTC, but both take on average nearly two months to get Google's latest updates pushed down to their users. Other Android makers take even longer to update their phones, with Samsung sitting on updates for around five months and LG continuing to delay the most recent update for its low end Verizon Ally; its now been more than six months since 2.2 Froyo shipped, and LG says it will likely be another month before it can roll it out.
Sony Ericsson's Xperia X10 isn't even a low end smartphone, and it was released three months after Google debuted Android 2.2 Froyo. Despite that, the company shipped the Xperia with the older 2.1 software and later announced that it won't ever be offering its users an update to Android 2.2 Froyo, which has already been replaced by Google's latest Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
In sharp contrast, Apple issues regular iOS updates that iPhone users can install themselves on the same day. Software updates are important not only for the new features and refinements they bring, but also because updates fix bugs and patch security issues. A variety of the latest apps also require the latest software update, ranging from some games to the official Flickr app to Adobe Flash Player to Google Voice Actions to Yahoo Messenger video calling. Despite this, a few of Verizon's Android phones still ship with Android 2.1 from last summer.
Verizon's mixed bag of Android models
Unlike the iPhone or RIM's BlackBerry, Android ships on a variety of phones from different makers, so you can't generalize about the feature set you're getting, just because a phone runs Android. For example, HTC has historically used cheaper, lower quality 16-bit displays compared to Motorola, while Samsung frequently opts for its own high quality AMOLED displays, although those have their own drawbacks related to use in bright daylight.
Thus, while "iPhone" conveys a clear meaning about what features and standard of quality are going to be available, "Android" does not; it only refers to the shared code used across a variety of extremely different products from very different manufacturers, making the brand nearly meaningless to shoppers.
Another major difference among various Android models is the version of Android OS they use. Many new phones ship with an old version, and won't be updated within three to six months of the next Google release. Many cheaper models ship with software that is a year old, and users can't typically install their own software updates in the same way iPhone users can. Verizon's lineup (apart from the low end models) are just now getting around to all being updated to Android 2.2 (Samsung models are getting their updates this week). But Android 2.2 Froyo was released last summer, and Google has since released Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
Verizon's Android updates are not only slow to roll out, but are also packed with third party trial-ware and other apps users can't easily remove. That only aggravates the problem of Android licensees typically installing less memory on their phones than Apple does, as well as Android's less sophisticated use of storage memory compared to Apple's iOS.
In addition to the related bloatware issue, hardware manufacturers and carriers may also decide to include or exclude Google's own apps. For example, Verizon ships a variety of its phones, from the low end LG Vortex to the Samsung Fascinate, with Bing search and maps apps instead of Google as part of a deal with Microsoft.
That results in a very different experience compared to other Android phones "with Google," further illustrating that "Android" is not a very meaningful description of the overall feature set a given phone will deliver. Verizon also sets up the contacts app to launch its own VZ Navigator, a subscription based GPS mapping app, in preference to finding a contact in the free Google Maps Navigation even if users install that themselves.
Apple offers one iPhone 4 model on Verizon, and a second, older iPhone 3GS option on other carriers. Apple also prevents carriers from removing core iOS apps or bundling their own or partner-affiliated apps. Apple supports Google, Yahoo and Bing search according to the users' preferences, rather than just picking one for search as most Android devices do (depending upon the carrier and their affiliates).
In general, Android phones are harder to compare as a class because they range from high end models in the range of iPhone 4, to new but very low end models that are slow and lack key features, and may only ever run the outdated version of Android OS they ship with.
Verizon's fragmented Android software market
Verizon's wide range of Android phones also result in fragmentation in terms of third party software. Getting a new Android phone doesn't mean it will be able to use the latest apps, again because the latest phones may be low end models offering inadequate performance and running antiquated versions of Android that will never be updated.
That issue is also a problem for users who want to buy the fastest high end Android models, because it means that developers targeting the Android platform may want to aim for the lowest common denominator to make the most sales.
But there's another fragmentation problem affecting Android users: there's no good software store. Google has clearly failed to deliver an app marketplace, no surprise given the company's complete lack of experience in retail.
Verizon is running its own parallel store for Android apps, and it offers some exclusive titles that aren't available to Android users on other carriers (including, originally, Bing and Skype clients). However, Verizon's store isn't as visible to developers and multiple stores combined don't deliver the same kind of economies of scale that Apple offers in its one store for iOS apps and iTunes music and video.
Verizon also operates a VCAST video subscription service that costs $10 per month, including Rhapsody music, video on demand, and mobile TV channels, and bundles Amazon's MP3 app as an alternative to Apple's iTunes Store. These apps, intended to provide media organization for users' music and movies to cover a shortcoming of Android itself, are not equivalent to the iOS iPod and iTunes apps by any stretch of the imagination.
One of Android's weakest links is is inability to offer a direct challenge to Apple's savvy in music and video playback. From the store, to the content available, to free content options, to working with your own personal media files, to using new features such as AirPlay wireless streaming to your TV or stereo, the Android platform just doesn't stack up to Apple's iOS media offerings.
Amazon to the rescue?
Amazon is working to help improve this situation with its new Amazon Appstore for Android. It hopes to apply its online retailing expertise to build the software store Google fumbled. The only problem is that neither Google nor Verizon has a direct interest in giving away their potential software revenues.
Google created Android as a mobile platform for delivering its ads. If it hands its software store over to Amazon, its ad revenue may be displaced by iOS-style direct purchases instead. Google also risks having its search rivals (including Microsoft) replace it on its own platform (and one that it makes no direct licensing revenues from). Verizon is rumored to be wanting to do just that.
Verizon also already operates an Android app market, so promoting Amazon's store would be a curious strategy for the carrier. That tilts reality away from favoring Amazon's new effort, because Android users will likely have to find it themselves, rather than getting it bundled on their phone or by their carrier.
Again, with lots of small stores, Android won't gain the critical mass to attract unique development. Currently, Android only gets ports of the most popular iOS puzzle games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, and does not get the more interesting iOS titles simultaneously, if ever, ranging from cutting edge games (such as Infinity Blade and Firemint Real Racing) to innovative apps like Word Lens or Hipstamatic, to apps requiring more security than Android delivers (including Netflix and full Exchange Server support), to, of course, Apple's own titles ranging from iMovie and Remote to its iTunes and MobileMe offerings.
There's also no integration between Android's existing but mostly hobbyist or junkware app market, and the platform's intended leap to tablets. When mainstream Android tablets arrive running the first tablet-savvy version of Android 2.3 Honeycomb this summer, they'll have their own unique user interface and won't share integrated compatibility nor Universal Binary packaging in the same way that the iPhone does with iPad apps.
And again, the Android smartphone platform offers little hope for thinking that Android tablets will in any way rival the iPad in terms of apps, certainly lacking Apple's own Pages, Keynote, and Numbers productivity apps, with no vendor able or interested in offering alternatives of similar quality.
Verizon's Android strengths
Android does offer some competitive strengths over Apple's iPhone. Android users will be quick to point out that their phones can run content created in Adobe Flash. Again, that's only true for some models, as Flash Player requires Android OS 2.2. While that came out the middle of last year, many of Verizon's phones still ship with OS 2.1 and don't offer available updates.
Those that can install the player are still stuck with the core problem of running Flash on mobile devices: it's simply not optimized for mobile use, and most content developed in Flash was intended for playback on desktop PCs, and subsequently doesn't work well on a mobile device. Still, for users with casual needs for access Flash content, Android offers something iOS doesn't.
Verizon also offers some Android models for free, or even in "buy one, get one" offers intended to sell smartphone contracts. Its cheapest iPhone option will be $199 with a contract, providing a minor barrier for some users interested in upgrading to a smartphone. To get a cheaper iPhone, users will have to opt for AT&T's $49 iPhone 3GS. Of course, the Android products Verizon offers for significantly less than the iPhone 4 are also very low end models, as detailed below.
Two features AT&T has touted (the ability to use data service while on a phone call and the ability to use the iPhone to roam on foreign GSM/UMTS networks) won't apply to the Verizon iPhone. Verizon does sell Android phones that can accommodate a GSM SIM card, enabling them to be used in Europe and Asia just like AT&T's phones. This might not be a major competitive feature for most users, particularly given the outrageous cost of global roaming, but might appeal to some business users as a convenience.
One feature that has been unique to Verizon Android users, personal hot spot sharing (aka WiFi tethering), is a feature of Verizon's network that isn't yet available on AT&T. With the Verizon iPhone 4, that will change, erasing a key reason for preferring Android.
Google also offers some features that are unique to Android, including voice recognition for search and text input, free turn-by-turn GPS via Maps Navigation (if Verizon doesn't take the app off to replace it with its own service), and integrated support for its other services, such as Latitude friend tracking and Google Voice (which are separate downloads for iOS devices).
However, even Verizon's best Android models don't match iPhone 4's Retina Display, installed memory, camera features (most notably its front facing FaceTime camera), and video output features. Combined with other elements of the iOS ecosystem (including Apple's far superior iPhone App Store, iTunes and compatibility with iPad), Apple's rapidly rolled out frequent software updates for iOS, all the same features of Verizon's network without the junkware, and a consistent, hardware optimized experience managed by a single vendor, and Verizon now has a very clear and obvious flagship smartphone to promote.
Previous articles have compared aspects of the Android and iOS platforms in greater detail:
iPhone 4 and iOS vs. Android: hardware features
iPhone 4 and iOS vs. Android: desktop and cloud services
Inside Google's Android and Apple's iPhone OS as core platforms
Inside Google's Android and Apple's iPhone OS as business models
Inside Google's Android and Apple's iPhone OS as advancing technology
Inside Google's Android and Apple's iPhone OS as software markets
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