In the last few days Paul Stamatiou’s article Android is Better and Marco Arment’s excellent response Google Blindness have been generating a lot of heated debates. This article is pretty much my two cents on the subject.
First some background - I’ve been an Android user for 4 years, before switching to the iPhone 5. I’ve also used several Android tablets casually and I own an iPad. While I’m a software engineer I’ll try to suppress the geek inside me and write from the perspective of a casual smartphone/tablet user.
Subjectivity, subjectivity, subjectivity
Many people are saying Android is better! or iOS is better!. Most of them try to make their personal view sound like some universal truth - of course they’re making subjective statements and their view on Android/iOS reflects mostly their personal preferences. Through years spent developing software I’ve understood that it is impossible to cater to everyone’s needs - some people love the direction you’re taking with a project; the rest - totally hate it. The same goes for operating systems and pretty much everything in life.
I’ll try to be as objective as humanly possible, but I’m aware that nobody is totally objective, no matter how much he tries. This article will not feature inflammatory points and will not end with a conclusion Android is better! or iOS is better!. If you’re looking for something like this - I guess you should stop reading right now.
My story with Android
I was pretty excited for Android from day one, since at the time I was extremely fond of free software, Linux and Google. I bought the second Android phone that went on sale globally - the HTC Magic. This was before the era of UI customizations, so I got what’s commonly known today as the Nexus experience. I was pretty pleased with the device for a while, but then Android 2 came up and everything got messed up for me. It turned out the only update HTC had planned for my device was from Android 1.5 to 1.6 and for some reason I didn’t even qualify for it. Soon after Android 2’s release a lot of apps simply dropped support for Android 1.x and I was (for lack of better words) fucked. Finally I decided to install CyanogenMod and got a hold of the precious Android 2. I’m pretty tech savvy but I guess most regular users (like my and your parents) are probably not and they had to live with the mostly unsupported older Android release. Not cool!
At this point my faith in Android was not shaken at all - I assumed HTC were just a crappy company and that if I bought a device from some respectable vendor I’d have much better experience in the long run. So I went ahead and bought the Sony Xperia Arc, which at the time was Sony’s flagship device, came with the latest Android at the time (2.3) and was going to get Android 4 when it came out. This was my first encounter with a crappy custom Android UI - I totally hated what Sony had done with the UI (but then again Samsung’s TouchWiz was no better). What I hated even more was that their meddling with the pure Android seemed to introduce some instabilities and crashes (some of which required removing the device’s battery). Anyways, I told myself - Android 4 would come soon and with it the problems will go away. Android 4 never came for me (at least not from Sony) - 6 months after Sony announced that have started rolling out the update for the Arc I hadn’t got it. Back to CyanogenMod again…
Do you seen a pattern emerging? This bring me to…
The Big Problem
The biggest problem Android has, has nothing to do with the core OS itself. It’s actually related to the Android business model - lots of vendors try to differentiate themselves from the other Android vendors and do so by messing up the UI, bundling crappy apps, etc. The vendors sell you something and neglect it afterwards. AFAIK from the major Android vendors only Samsung provides reasonable upgrade paths to their users. That said - my girlfriend has a Galaxy SII and got an Android 4.1 update just a couple of months ago…
This has lead to the legendary Android segmentation, that Apple fanboys often refer to. Obviously one cannot provide updates for a device forever, but providing at least a couple of updates seems pretty reasonable to me.
I guess most normal people don’t care that much about getting updates, otherwise I cannot imagine how the vendors could be getting away with that level of customer support…
Somewhat ironically the biggest problem of the business model is closely related to it’s biggest strength - the ability buy a device with size and specs you want. Apple’s choice it the hardware department is rather limited.
The Good Stuff
The Android OS has a lot of merits, of course:
- proper multitasking
- powerful notification system
- the ability to change your default apps
- the ability to change the keyboard application
- great integration with Google’s apps
- the extendable sharing infrastructure - you install an app that is a possible share destination and you can use it for sharing from everywhere sharing is supported
- the ability to integrate apps like Viber and Skype with your contacts
The Bad Stuff
All of the bad stuff I can think of is not actually in the Android OS itself, but still:
- few tablet optimized apps
- most apps still debut first on iOS and arrive on Android a few months later (although not nearly as much as 5 years ago)
- you’re trusting an advertising company with all your personal data
My Story with iOS
Even after my huge disappointment with the Arc I was still planning to buy a new Android smartphone - this time I had learned my lesson and were going for the Nexus 4. Unfortunately Google and LG had serious inventory problems and after a few months of trying to buy one I reluctantly bought myself an iPhone 5 instead. At first I was kind of disappointed by the OS.
iOS seems kind of old and limiting (at least to a geek):
- pretty restricted form of multitasking (fixed in iOS 7)
- no quick way to do simple things like turn off the wi-fi (fixed in iOS 7)
- no way to change the default browser, email client, etc
- crappy notifications
- limited number of sharing options
- no support for alternative keyboard applications
- no apps co-operation
iOS is a pretty restrictive environment by all means, but once you get past the initial shock you realize that to some extent this is also iOS’s biggest strength.
- shit just works
I often experience Android lock-ups that required a reboot on both my Android phones (although there were fewer of those with Cyanogen). With iOS I have mostly forgotten what a lock-up is - I think I’ve never restarted by iPhone since I bought it (my iPad, however, did freeze on me about 5 times for about 2 two years). I Also experience much less app crashes than I used to, but I guess Nexus users don’t get a lot of those either. With no multitasking for everyone I’ve also forgotten the scenario when an app misbehaving in the background would eat up my entire battery (iOS7 will have multitasking for all apps).
- apps rock
Most of the apps I’ve used on Android and iOS are a bit more polished, feature-rich and stable on iOS. I guess this has to do with the fact that even though Android has much more users, iOS still generates more revenue.
- lots of guaranteed updates in a timely manner
The iPhone 3GS got the iOS 6! Yep, it’s slow as hell, but it got it! That’s why I call proper customer service! Of course, for Apple it’s a lot simpler to achieve this - it controls all the hardware and the software. It’s also pretty independent of wireless carriers.
Android as an OS is great. Android + a device from some crappy company - not so great.
Most people who praise Android got converted by a Nexus device (see the link from the beginning of the post). The Nexus Android experience is excellent, but unfortunately very few people can benefit from it. Hopefully the situation will change in the future - the addition of devices like HTC One and Galaxy S4 to the Play Store is a step in the right direction. If you contemplate buying an Android phone - for the love of God, buy it from the Play Store!
iOS as an OS is pretty underwhelming (but iOS 7 might change that). The iOS ecosystem on the other hand is pretty awesome! A complete fusion of software and hardware - much the same as a Mac + macOS.
All things considered it’s pretty hard to make judgement calls like one is better than the other. I like them both to some extent for various reasons - for now I use an iPhone, but who knows what the future holds for me. I don’t suffer from brand loyalty to tech companies, the only brands I’m truly loyal to are New Balance and BMW.
The important takeaway for you, dear reader, is not to take fanboy fiction at face value, but to think for yourself, to be skeptical and analytical and to make your own conclusions. Your personality, preferences and needs alone determine what is the better (best?) OS/device/etc for you!