Friday, June 04, 2010

To Evo or to iPhone? – That is the question…

I write this story as the iPad has shipped more than a million units and has become the fastest technology product to gross a billion dollars in sales. The next generation iPhone hardware has been leaked and software details confirm that we will finally receive support for basic multitasking under the 4.0 operating system. Hot on Apple’s heels is the competitive Google Android mobile phone software which is slowly rolling out their latest “Froyo” version 2.2. Most importantly, the brand new Sprint Evo hardware now trumps the unlocked Nexus 1 hardware platform with its next generation 4G radio and 8 Megapixel camera.

The smart phone space has not been this hot since the Palm Treo fought with Microsoft Windows Mobile half a decade ago. To confirm my thought, the NPD group announced that Android handsets are outselling the iPhone – no small surprise as some 60 handsets are available on 50 carriers worldwide. A stark difference from the 5-year exclusive deal that AT&T signed with Apple in 2007 for iPhone distribution in America.

But is the Android software ready for prime time? And is the hardware truly better? The quick answer: Maybe if you are a geek, but read on for the details. First of all, where the iPhone is “visually silent” with notifications, Android phones have a blinking light. Some have two actually; one or two at the top near the speaker as a charge and bluetooth indicator, and the Nexus 1 has a big glowing track ball that changes color upon activity such as email, SMS or applications receiving data. That’s nice if you like visual alerts and keep your phone in silent mode.

Whereas you “buy the capacity you want” on the iPhone, with Android, to expand storage, you can buy a large micro SD card. Their latest version 2.2 operating system will allow you to run applications from this card, rather than require them in system flash memory. This was a feat Palm could not achieve on their platform, but memory interfaces have sped up since those days.

For those who want to use their smart phone without charging throughout a whole day, a second battery is a must. The processors in current smart phones now reach 1GHz, matching that of your laptop from just a few years ago. This plus the wireless communication that receiving a constant barrage of GPS data, email and Twitter feeds from your social network mandate a replaceable “on the go” battery. Android phones have this feature across their multi-vendor lineup. The battery of an iPhone always lives within; although backpacks can be purchased to provide more power. Android cameras are better too, with more megapixels and a flash. The Sprint Evo phone even has a second forward facing camera for video conferencing, plus two LED flashes on the back for extra brightness.

That sounds like some compelling reasons to go with an Android phone, especially if you do not like the AT&T wireless network coverage, cost or new data plan; although most users will have a hard time reaching 2GB of data in a month. In the US T-Mobile offers data only “unlimited plans” and Sprint still allows for 5GB of data use in a month. Most Android phones can act as a modem for your laptop when you travel – but do not expect broadband like speeds anchoring your devices together.

So what’s the bad news on this front? It’s all in the interface and software. Apple has made some amazing evolutions in their user experience. Things like inertia in the menu systems, keyboards that quickly auto prompt and correct your mistakes and a general ease of use are missing from the “half iPhone’s age” Android platform.

After using the iPhone for a few years, I feel that the keyboard is a bit cramped and dictionary not as predictive. Thankfully because of the openness of Android, you can change out its keyboard by installing third party programs, even mimicking an iPhone keyboard, or a new sliding keyboard called Swype.

Android does not have as many downloadable applications as the iPhone does, and Google probably does not have your credit card on file, so buying is a bit more cumbersome. It seems that iTunes sale of 10 billion music tracks at 99-cents sets the stage for you to easily buy applications at $1.99, or increasingly $9.99 for the iPad.

In addition to an ease of use through a near “one-click” purchase, the iPhone changed the way carriers would allow applications on mobile phones, by allowing computer software developers to create mobile programs more akin to those on a computer than a proprietary mobile device without the usual carrier vetting process – albeit one now controlled by a mysterious black box at Apple. An interesting side note is that years ago Apple licensed the “one-click” patent and that play seems like it has paid for itself over the years as Apple sells more digital assets than digital devices.

There are now more than 100,000 iPhone applications from alarm clocks to ones that let you stream media from your home television or hard drive to anywhere in the world. These developers can write a program for any of the near 100 million iPhones and iTouch devices sold, each with identical screen resolutions, or the upcoming iPad which has a 9.3” screen, but is capable of “pixel doubling” to stretch the content. The newest iPhone screen has been examined to have a resolution near that of the iPad, but in the size similar to the prior models of iPhone.

Compare that with Andoid which has several vendors like Motorola, HTC and the like creating handsets which have different resolutions, screen types ranging from LCD to AMOLED, different handset buttons below the screen, and some even with joysticks and full QWERTY keyboards. Some of these older phones run different versions of the Android operating system with no ability to upgrade. This means that next generation applications will not be able to run on those slightly older platforms.

While the Android platform loves Flash, supports hardware acceleration and the ability to play media from nearly ANY website, Netflix and ABC have circumvented the need for Flash support on the iPhone & iPad and have created applications that allow media into the devices.
If you want the “full web” and are willing to put up with some software quirks, then Android is a more open platform, that you may find worth the trouble. I feel that Google will get there eventually as their software is only “half as old” as Apple’s. If you want a device that will anchor with your car, run hundreds of thousands of applications and has an extremely polished Interface, then stick with the iPhone. The next generation hardware is going to be an amazing piece of artwork and technology.

When speaking at Maker Faire 2010, I was asked which mobile devices I carry with me. As a technologist my answer is far too many. I tried an iPad and had to sell it due to its limitations. I prefer a Netbok running OS-X. For my pocket arsenal, I carry an iPhone for appliations and testing on a data-only plan. A Nexus 1 or Evo depending on my country that I am visiting, and my tired and true Blackberry Curve on Sprint. The 3G Blackberry Curve runs several apps, most importantly makes and takes calls, handles email faster via a single inbox than any other device above, and the battery lasts all day long. It’s just not quite as sexy!

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