Dec 4, 2013
Posted on Apr 25, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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