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Phone Wars

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Posted on Apr 25, 2011
Flickr/nrkbeta (CC-BY-SA)

By Peter Z. Scheer

A man stares at his phone, oblivious to his daughter’s soccer game. Another man fiddling with his phone jumps into what he thinks is the back of a taxi and spews directions, not realizing he’s actually in a cop car.

This is the world we live in as depicted by the advertising people at Microsoft, and although commercials like these didn’t persuade many people to buy Microsoft-branded phones, they did capture the global phenomenon that is reshaping how we communicate, learn, consume and create. The world’s most successful technology companies are engaged in all-out war to power the plastic in your hand, so much more than a mere phone or computer.

More people bought smartphones last quarter than computers. More and more Americans now get their news from their phones. For many of us, it’s also how we check our email, capture and share our ideas, take photos, buy and listen to music, play games, find directions and keep in touch with friends.

The companies that make the software that makes smartphones smart are mainly interested in monetized services—such as music streaming and downloads—and advertising. These phones know where you are, who you are, who your friends are and how to get hold of them. (We should care to know as much about the corporations to which we entrust all that information.) But for most, the concerns are more practical. What are the differences between the iPhone and Android phones? Which is better?

I’m not in a position to answer deep privacy concerns or address the long-term social implications of the screen-obsessed culture, but I’m more than happy to give you my take on which phone you should buy. After all, progressives too play Angry Birds.

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To that end, I got my hands on three test phones, the iPhone 4, the Google/Samsung Nexus S, and the Samsung Focus, each a fair representation of one of the three main platforms vying for your attention—iOS (Apple), Android (Google) and Windows Phone 7 (Microsoft), respectively. Just to be clear, this is a review of the software, not the hardware.

While there is only one iPhone worth considering, there are dozens of Android devices, most of which are highly customized, and a growing number of Windows Phone handsets. But each camp’s operating system has pronounced strengths and weaknesses, and that is what we’ll be putting to the test.


A note: There are other major platforms, including some with much bigger market share than those I’ve chosen to review. Here’s why I didn’t consider them: Research in Motion has many followers in the cult of BlackBerry, but all the lawyers and corporate executives in the world won’t change the fact that this operating system lags far behind; Palm’s WebOS will benefit from HP’s deep pockets and ambition, but it’s even less proven than Windows Phone, which at least has Windows Mobile’s lineage; Nokia is still a force, but the pioneering phone maker is now running Microsoft’s bits. My apologies to those fanboys and -girls. Keep the faith.

The iPhone or iOS

It’s easy to forget now that the iPhone launched this revolution, defining our idea of what the smartphone is and should be. Apple built a device that was more ambitious than anything else out there, and it worked better, too. Clearly Apple had a winning formula. In some areas, the iPhone continues to outpace competitors. In others—well, there’s a reason Apple is running “if you don’t have an iPhone …” ads, and it’s not because they’re outselling the competition.

Advantages:

Power management. Apple devotees take it for granted, but the iPhone is unrivaled in this department. The iPhone manages to do a fairly decent job of multitasking without asking to be plugged in more than once a night—and that’s while keeping Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and GPS on all the time.

Music and Video. It’s the best iPod-style device on the market. Buying and transferring music, podcasts and videos are easy, as long as you stick with iTunes. Somehow this concept baffles Google.

App selection and quality. The App Store was the first and developers like it, so it has the most apps. There are many more apps available exclusively for the iPhone than for any other phone and, while your selection is limited by the censors at Apple, who want to keep you safe from porn, said apps tend to be more polished.

Security. Apple is pretty involved in most aspects of the iPhone and, as a result, it’s like an Orange County gated community—convenient, tidy and secure (but God help you if you like bohemian coffeehouses). Android users have access to wilder and crazier stuff, but they also spend more time looking over their shoulders.

Disadvantages:

Notifications. Do you like it when you’re browsing the Web and an ad pops up across the middle of your screen, blocking your view? Of course not. So why would anyone want text messages and other notifications displayed in the same obnoxious fashion? You don’t and I don’t. But for some reason, Apple is taking an eternity to devise an alternative.

Useless home screens. Apple treats home screens (aka the desktop) as nothing more than app storage. There are no widgets to tell you the weather, no tiles to keep you in touch with your friends—just a barren wasteland of apps and, more recently, folders to house even more apps.

Do as you’re told. As foreshadowed above, Apple can be a bit of the overbearing parent. There’s an upside—security and quality control—but it can also be stifling and limit the usefulness of the phone. For example, Amazon recently released its Cloud Player, which lets you put your entire music library on Amazon’s servers and stream your music to any Web browser or phone—as long as it’s an Android phone. Whether Apple sees the service as competition to its own music store or Amazon didn’t want to bother jumping through hoops only to be denied access at the eleventh hour, we can’t be sure. The point is this: Often cutting-edge services—Google Voice when it was first launched is another example—are blocked by Apple for bad reasons. But Apple’s micromanaging can be frustrating in other ways, too. The company known for claiming to discover the “best” way of doing something—whether it’s copy and paste, multitasking or listening to music—is loath to allow you alternatives.

Windows Phone 7

If the iPhone is the standard by which the others are judged, Windows Phone (nee Windows Mobile) views it as that most-popular-girl-in-school who you hoped would suffer a tragic accident. In some ways the two platforms are very similar: Both use a rich, resource-intensive desktop program to keep files synced and both have a mostly locked-down approach to apps and services. But, like any angsty teenager, Windows Phone also wants to do its own thing. Microsoft hasn’t sold many Windows Phone phones, but don’t think they’re giving up in Redmond. The company is reportedly paying Nokia something like a billion dollars to use the software on its new products.


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By IVR, July 28, 2011 at 1:44 am Link to this comment

There is no denying that smart phones are changing the way people live and interact, although it all boils down to how quickly you need access to information these phones provide. For me, I still prefer reading books (yes, real books, not Kindles) or chatting than thumbing on rather pointless games to pass time in the tube.

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LocalHero's avatar

By LocalHero, April 29, 2011 at 1:27 pm Link to this comment

Nonsense like this only reaffirms my wise decision to
throw my cell phone into a river 3 or 4 years ago.

Don’t need ‘em and I certainly don’t need the tumor
that these things, given enough time, will produce nor
do I want my location tracked 24/7.

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By Mike G, April 29, 2011 at 6:37 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The review of smart phones was a disappointment.  These devices are neither good phones nor useful computers because of hardware and software limitations. Wireless is the most hostile environment for communications and the signal is at the mercy of geography, proximity to the cell towers, weather, and unique technical problems such as cell breathing on CDMA networks (i.e., Verizon) that drops connections when cell towers are congested with too many users. There isn’t enough space to describe how poorly AT&T handles telephone calls on iPhones or the health issues posed by cell towers. Watching people fiddle with smart phones while driving a car is alarming and a reminder that humans lack the common sense necessary to operate devices that are neither good phones or useful computers. The mindless infatuation with smart phones demonstrates how truly disconnected we have become from our surroundings and the real environment.

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By ardee, April 27, 2011 at 5:02 am Link to this comment

As I was composing a criticism of this article’s content and its place in a political forum I recalled that the revolution in Egypt was fueled by tweets…..whatever the heck those are…...

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, April 26, 2011 at 6:00 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

After jailbreaking an iphone you can get an app which
disables the location tracking device.  Google “how to
disable the location tracking device on an iphone.”

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By Blackspeare, April 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm Link to this comment

That is a well researched and informative analysis of the cell phone choices——thank you.

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By TDoff, April 26, 2011 at 1:19 pm Link to this comment

Geez, the wired world eagerly awaits the soon-to-be-released, unisex INPAD, the programmable digital rectal vibrator with genital, mouth, nose, ear and brain insert attachments. It promises that users will be in constant contact with everyone on earth simultaneously, using all five senses, experiencing any and all sensations and activities that the INPADDICT can imagine. And all experiences will be recorded in the GLOCENDABA (Global Central Data Base), so that the INPADDICT can relive any experience at any time. GLOCENDABA, of course, claims to be totally secure and unhackable, so INPADDICTS are ‘not to worry about privacy’. 
What more could one want?!
Jobs, sensing big bites being taken out of the Apple, is rumored to be developing the UPPOD, which will offer essentially all the features of the INPAD, plus apps for constant contact with all animals, and extraterrestrials.
What will they think of next!?
Someday, maybe someone will come up with a device that lets users be alone, quiet, peaceful, and free to dream, imagine, and reminisce…undisturbed.

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By Privacy means very little, April 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you want privacy don’t get a mobile smart phone. The goal of all smart phones is to know as much about you as they can and they will only get better at this. Privacy policies are no help and in fact are carefully crafted to allow the mobile operators and OS developers to maximize the information they can collect from your device. Be very Leary of the word ‘Anonymous’ in privacy policies. Just because your locations are being recorded anonymously does not mean that your information cannot be reconstructed to determine who you are. In fact that is quite easy to do by just looking at the time of day where the locations were recorded and correlating with public records.

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By Leo, April 26, 2011 at 11:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Economist Sen suggested ... famines (and other calamities I suppose) do not
happen in functioning democracies because their leaders must be more
responsive to the demands of the citizens.

Let’s face it, the political ‘leaders’ no longer are voter sensitive.  With the PR
machines they have, they pretty well control how the mass think and act.

When they need the votes, they throw money at it, and they get elected.  After
they did something horrible, they throw money at it, spin it, and everything
becomes okay again

The ‘smart’ phones are part and parcel of the whole system.

Sorry, we are defeated.  (By the greedy Corporate machinery)

However, in the grand scheme of things, this is only a brief period in the
history of life on earth, one needs to think of it in terms of 165 millions of
years.  The ebb and flow, the life cycle…  Someday, someone else will have a
better life.

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By Lafayette, April 25, 2011 at 11:30 pm Link to this comment

GET A LIFE

PZS: I’m not in a position to answer deep privacy concerns or address the long-term social implications of the screen-obsessed culture, but ...

Unfortunately, answers to the above question are the more important. What make of car you employ to run into a brick-wall is, really, of little consequence.

Privacy is simply a matter of staying away from such phones and, most importantly, the social web-sites (such as Facebook) that obtain personal information and sell it for purposes of data-mining. Which allows marketeers to sell your contact information towards directing pertinent advertisements to your phone. (Wow, what a money spinner that is ...)

You become like a laboratory rat, or perhaps Pavlov’s dog, a robotized human being who reacts to the world depending upon the stimulation made upon it.

That’s a dog’s life - responding to the latest whistle. Anyone dumb enough to willingly bring it upon themselves, because they are otherwise inept at constructing a life of True Value without the mindless Advertising Pablum proposed, probably deserves it.

Get a life ...

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