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Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 5 vs. Google Android OS

How Google's tablet 'Honeycomb' and smartphone 'Gingerbread' OSes fare in the battle with iOS 5 on the iPad and iPhone

After months of hype, Apple has released iOS 5 for current iPhone 3G S and 4 owners, for iPad and iPad 2 owners, and for third- and fourth-generation iPod Touch owners. I survey its key new features in the slideshow "iOS 5 and iCloud: The InfoWorld visual tour," but the fact is that iOS doesn't exist in isolation. It competes with Google's Android OS, and the group of smartphones running Android now significantly outsells the iPhone. (It's a different story in tablets, where the iPad is trouncing everyone, including Android.)

You can see the effects of the healthy competition in one of iOS 5's major new features: Notification Center, clearly based on Android's well-regarded notifications capability that allows users to access alerts and notices from any application. But iOS 5 largely advances the groundbreaking iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch in its own ways, as well as adapting recent enhancements to Apple's latest desktop OS, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion.

[ See iOS 5's and iCloud's new features in "iOS 5 and iCloud: The InfoWorld visual tour." | Get the best apps for your mobile device: InfoWorld picks the best iPad office apps, the best iPad specialty apps, the best iPhone office apps, the best iPhone specialty apps, the best Android office apps, and the best Android specialty apps. | Learn how to manage iPhones, Androids, BlackBerrys, and other smartphones in InfoWorld's 20-page Mobile Management Deep Dive PDF special report. ]

Apple delivers a unified mobile OS for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch, whereas Google has two Android tracks: one for tablets and one for smartphones. Google does plan on unifying the two Android OSes into a single one later this year, in Android 4.0 "Ice Cream Sandwich" now under development, but for now, Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" for smartphones and Android 3.2 "Honeycomb" for tablets are the ones competing with iOS 5.

Note that "Gingerbread" is a fairly minor update to Android 2.2 "Froyo," which most Android smartphones still run. "Gingerbread" adds an improved onscreen keyboard design, the ability to amend auto-correction suggestions when typing, a new universal menu shortcut to the Manage Applications preferences, support for multiple cameras, an updated downloads manager for the browser, and support for near-field communications (NFC) radios. (I tested "Gingerbread" on a Google Nexus One, which doesn't support NFC or have multiple cameras.) Note too that most Android tablets -- including the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 used for this review -- still run Android 3.1, and that the 3.2 update adds very little to the 3.1 version: a zoom mode for better display of smartphone apps and better apps-sizing support for 7-inch tablets.

Without further ado, here's the head-to-head comparison.

Test Center Scorecard

Web and Internet support

Business connectivity

Application support

Security and management

Usability

Overall score

20%

25%

15%

25%

15%

Apple iOS 5.0

9

8

9

8

9

8.5 Very Good

20%

25%

15%

25%

15%

Google Android 3.2

"Honeycomb"

9

7

7

7

8

7.6 Good

20%

25%

15%

25%

15%

Google Android 2.3

"Gingerbread"

8

5

7

5

7

6.2 Fair

Deathmatch: Email, calendars, and contacts

If you look at the specs, Android (both "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb") and iOS 5 appear evenly matched: Both can connect to Exchange, IMAP, POP, and Gmail accounts; make and synchronize appointments; and manage contacts. Both allow for "push" synchronization with Exchange. Both preserve your Exchange folder hierarchy for mail and make navigating among folders a snap. Both iOS and Android also try to autodetect your mail server settings wherever possible, though iOS is much better at handling nonvanilla settings.

Basic email usage. Android "Gingerbread" has a poorly chosen visual scheme for email lists: It uses white text on a black background, whereas iOS 5 and Android "Honeycomb" go for the easier-to-read, black-on-white color scheme. In sunlight, it's all but impossible to read the screen on an Android smartphone, while under the same conditions, an iOS device's or Android tablet's display of the email remains readable, if somewhat washed out. You won't be checking email on the beach with an Android smartphone.

I'm not a big fan of iOS's UI for mail, which iOS 5 leaves unchanged. There's a unified inbox for all your email accounts, then a separate list of your accounts so that you can go to their traditional hierarchy (for Exchange and IMAP accounts). I don't know why Apple had to break these into separate lists; for someone like me with four separate email accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see. Android "Honeycomb" has a nicer arrangement whereby you see all your inboxes and can expand them in turn, rather than open them from a separate section of the main mail application window.

iOS 5 does bring in a very welcome capability to email not available in Android: the option to apply rich text formatting, including boldface, italics, underlining, and indentation. I only wish I could apply the character formatting while typing, such as through keyboard shortcuts or formatting buttons, rather than have to select the text first and then apply the formatting via the contextual menu.

The "Gingerbread" version of Android lets you view attachments in Microsoft Office and PDF formats, as well as the common Web graphics formats, but "Honeycomb" requires you to rely on a third-party app, such as the basic version of Quickoffice included with some tablets. "Gingerbread" shows an attachments list in your email, but "Honeycomb" makes you first tap the Attachments link to get a list of attachments and an option to view or save each one. iOS's native Quick Look viewer handles a nice range of formats (the same as Android, plus Apple's own iWork formats), and it opens attachments with one tap, even downloading them if needed at the same time. And, unlike Android tablets' Quickoffice, the iPad's Quick Look in iOS 5 gives you quick-nav icons of each page in a multi-page PDF.

iOS 5 -- still! -- doesn't open Zip files without the aid of a third-party app such as ZipBox Pro ($2) and Unzip ($1). For that matter, neither does Android "Honeycomb"; you need to use an app such as Quickoffice, though opening Zip files is a standard capability on Android "Gingerbread." Go figure.

Email management. Once you're in your folders, iOS is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving them. And only iOS 5 lets you add and delete mailbox folders from your mobile device. Android's folder navigation in both "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb" isn't exactly friendlier, but you don't have to wade through the double lists. On a smartphone, by default you get an all-message view in "Gingerbread" and iOS. If you want to go to a specific folder or see just the inbox, you must use iOS's navigation buttons at the top of the folder and account lists, whereas in "Gingerbread" you must click the Menu button and tap the Folders icon to get a list of folders. Both iOS 5 and Android "Honeycomb" take advantage of the larger tablet screen to make these controls visible in the mail message windows.

In both Android and iOS, you can easily search for mail, as well as reply to, forward, delete, and select multiple messages, though you can't select or deselect all messages. Android forces you to conduct your search from the OS's universal search facility; you can't search directly in the email client, as you can in iOS.

iOS 5 adds the ability to mark (flag) messages, which Android has done for some time. Android still does it better: It shows in your accounts list a section for flagged messages, so you can see them easily. By contrast, iOS 5 has no way to view just your flagged messages, reducing this feature's utility. (iOS 5's and Android's flagged messages appear as flagged in desktop clients that support the features.)

One continued beef I have with Android is that it uses a separate app for Gmail accounts -- an unnecessary division of labor.

Both iOS and Android remember the email addresses of senders you reply to, adding them to the database of contacts they look up automatically as you tap characters into the To and Cc fields. But Android has no quick access to your local address book, as iOS does. Both operating systems let you add email addresses to your contacts list by tapping them.

iOS provides a message-threading capability, which organizes your email based on subject; you click an icon to the left of a message header to see the related messages. That adds more clicking to go through messages, but makes it easier to find the messages in the first place. (iOS lets you disable threading if you don't like it.) Android has no similar capability.

Android "Honeycomb" is a close second to iOS 5 when it comes to email capabilities, with iOS 5's integrated search and rich text formatting capabilities providing the edge, despite Android's better flagging capability. Android "Gingerbread" suffers from its ill-chosen, white-text-on-black color scheme, which makes email harder to read than it should be.

Contacts and calendars. You can easily switch calendar views in iOS in the main calendar screen, both on tablets and smartphones. Android "Honeycomb" also lets you easily switch the calendar view in the main screen with simple taps, but switching in Android "Gingerbread" requires using the Menu button's suboptions.

Both iOS and Android let you send invites to other users for non-Exchange calendars. In iOS, your invitations for Exchange accounts show up in your calendar as a pop-up; you can accept them there within the full context of your other appointments. For both Exchange and other email accounts, you can open the .ics invitation files in Mail, then add them to the calendar of your choice. On Android, the Calendar app automatically adds Exchange invitations to your calendar with Maybe status, which is not apparent until you open the appointment. You can open Exchange invitations in the Email app, as well as accept or decline the invitation. But you can't open .ics invitations sent to POP or IMAP accounts.

A nice addition in iOS 5 not available in Android is the ability to set the default alert intervals for calendar entries; there are separate settings for regular events (those with start and stop times), all-day events, and birthdays. Another new iOS 5 feature Android doesn't have is the ability to set the time zone for each appointment you add -- a very nice tool for those of us who travel across time zones or set phone conferences with people in other time zones and have difficulty figuring out how to translate the time to our current time zone or our calendar's default time zone. (iOS lets you specify a fixed time zone for your calendar or set it to change automatically to the current time zone as you travel.)

Both iOS and Android have capable Contacts apps, but it's easier to navigate through your entries in iOS. You can jump easily to names by tapping a letter, such as "T" to get to people whose last names begin with "T," or search quickly for someone in the Search field by tapping part of the name. On Android, a gray box appears as you begin scrolling your contacts list, and if you drag it, you can scroll through the letters of the alphabet that appear in the box to move to names beginning with that letter. It's not as simple as the iOS approach, and its "secret handshake" nature means many users won't know it exists. Also in Android "Honeycomb" and "Gingerbread," you can search your contacts if you click the Search button (or, in "Gingerbread," if you click the Menu button and then tap the Search icon).

In Android, you can also designate users as favorites, to put them in a shorter Favorites list. iOS's Favorites capability is different: You can designate a person's specific contact info -- say, a phone number or email address -- as a favorite, which puts it in the Favorites list in the iPhone's Phone app (if a phone number) or FaceTime app (if an email address). iOS's take on Favorites is useful for the iPhone, but not for the iPad or iPod Touch, especially because you can't see your list of favorites in Contacts or Mail.

iOS 5 lets you sync local calendars and local contacts from your desktop PC or Mac via iTunes if you connect the device via a USB cable or Wi-Fi -- or a over an Internet connection via a free iCloud account. That way, you can get your Outlook or Address Book contacts into your device easily and even keep them in sync with your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch. Server-based contacts (and calendars and email addresses) are of course synced through the relevant server: Exchange, Google, and so on.

Android has no such local syncing capability; you must sync through a Gmail account -- a no-no for many corporations -- or, for Exchange data only, through an Exchange account. You can import and export contacts to an Android device via an SD card (if it supports external storage), so you could export your computer's contacts to a file and then move it to an SD card -- a fine work-around for initial setup but not for ongoing synchronization.

Where iOS falls surprisingly short is in its lack of support for creation of groups. It supports email groups created on your computer or available on your server, but you can't create them on an iOS device. Also, you can't pick a group in iOS's Mail address fields. Instead, you select a group, then open it up to select just one member, repeating this step to add more names -- a really dumb approach. What you can do in iOS is link contact cards to create virtual groups; for example, if you have separate entries for a couple, you can link their cards so that each person's contact information appears in both of their cards.

Android "Honeycomb" both supports groups and lets you create them, though the process is unintuitive: When you add or edit a contact, there's a field in which you can select or create a group. You can't start by creating a group, then adding contacts to it; instead you have to go to each contact in turn. Also, the groups capability is not available for Exchange-based contacts. And you can't send email to groups, so this feature has little value. "Gingerbread" doesn't support groups at all.

Corporate email, contacts, and calendar support. Android "Gingerbread" is significantly inferior to iOS 5 when it comes to corporate email capabilities. That's mostly because "Gingerbread" supports a very limited set of Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, so most corporate Exchange environments are unlikely to permit access. The biggest omission is support for on-device encryption, which is a basic EAS requirement. You can tell Exchange to ignore such policy misses, but that lets any noncompliant device onto the Exchange server -- not a viable option for most businesses.

If you want to use an Android smartphone on a secured Exchange server, you'll need to use a client app such as NitroDesk TouchDown that provides a secured EAS-compatible Outlook-style functions or a mobile device management (MDM) server/client combo. The beta Divide app from Enterproid looks very promising for such management: It creates a separate "partition" on Android with its own EAS-managed email, contacts, calendar, tasks, and messaging apps, so corporate and user environments are kept separate. Plus IT can wipe and set EAS policies on the Divide environment, in the same way TouchDown allows within its app despite the lack of native Android support for those policies. Divide is expected to ship in 2012. Also in 2012, Google subsidiary 3LM will offer on-device encryption and richer EAS policy support to device makers as essentially an add-on layer to the Android OS, so special client software won't be needed for devices using it. Already, Motorola Mobility offers smartphones with such added security.

iOS, by contrast, has all of this baked in, so there is no special software needed nor any waiting required; it's securable now.

Unlike Android "Gingerbread," Android "Honeycomb" does support on-device encryption (though setup is a pain, as I describe later); it easily connected to InfoWorld's corporate server and passed our Exchange ActiveSync policies. I particularly like how "Honeycomb" let me know specifically what permissions I was granting IT over the device -- details not provided by iOS 5. Overall, iOS 5 has a slight edge in Exchange policy support over Android "Honeycomb," but both should work natively in moderately secured Exchange environments.

Also, Android doesn't let you automatically sync Exchange folders; you have to go to each folder and manually update them. By contrast, iOS lets you designate which folders are automatically synced as part of the mail settings.

Both iOS 5 and Android integrate Exchange contacts into their mail apps, so they look at your Exchange contacts database as well as your local database when you enter a person's name in a To or Cc field. (Of course, for Android smartphones, this assumes your Exchange server welcomes noncompliant devices.) Neither iOS nor Android automatically puts Exchange contacts into their Contacts app; you have to add them manually from within an email. This is not a bad thing; it means that departing employees don't have your entire company contacts database on their mobile device, and it keeps the Contacts app from being filled with contacts a user probably doesn't need.

Both iOS and Android support multiple Exchange accounts.

If you use Lotus Notes, you can work with IBM's Lotus Notes Traveler app on iOS or Android if you're also running the Notes 8.5.1 server with the Traveler extensions. Novell likewise offers EAS support for its GroupWise email client via the Data Synchronization Mobility Pack server add-on, allowing access to iOS and Android devices. Again, Android "Gingerbread" access is limited by its small set of supported EAS policies.

The winner: iOS 5, though Android "Honeycomb" comes fairly close overall. But Android smartphone users are very much out of the corporate loop due to the poor native EAS support and lack of on-device encryption in "Gingerbread."

Deathmatch: Applications

It's now part of the popular culture: "There's an app for that." There are hundreds of thousands of apps for iOS, from games to scientific visualization tools. Sure, there's a lot of junk, but you'll find many useful apps as well. Android doesn't have nearly the same library of apps as iOS, but its smartphone app portfolio is now in the tens of thousands, with many useful titles -- and more coming as the OS gains popularity. There are fewer tablet-specific Android apps in the Android Market, though their numbers continue to increase as well.

The native apps included with iOS and Android are comparable, providing email, contacts, calendar, maps and navigation, browsers, a music player, a YouTube player, and SMS messaging (on smartphones only). iOS 5 supplements its iPhone-only SMS messaging app with a proprietary messaging service, called iMessage, for all iOS devices. Thus, the Messages app for the iPhone is now on all iOS 5 devices, providing iMessaging and SMS on iPhones and just iMessaging on other devices. I believe such platform-specific messaging limits iMessage's utility needlessly. It's like being able to call only people whose phone service is on the same carrier as yours. (FaceTime, Apple's videoconferencing app, has the same self-imposed limitation.) I know that iMessage is a clone of Research in Motion's BlackBerry Messenger service that works only among BlackBerrys, but given RIM's precipitous market decline, it's not exactly a model to copy. (And remember, BBM came in a bygone era when BlackBerrys ruled unrivaled.)

Android has no native notepad app, a very odd omission for a mobile device. iOS's Notes app even integrates with IMAP and Exchange servers, so your notes can be automatically synced to and made available from your email. This is an amazingly useful feature, as your notes are always available. Apple's iCloud extends this utility for locally stored notes. iOS 5 also adds a basic task manager, Reminders, that integrates with Exchange's to-do capabilities and syncs via iCloud to iCal on the Mac and Outlook in Windows 7.

The document-syncing protocol introduced in iOS 5, Mac OS X Lion, and iCloud is a game-changer for many business apps. The fact that a Keynote presentation syncs across all my devices, reflecting the current version no matter where I edit it, is a huge productivity boon. As app developers beyond Apple adopt this protocol, it will become increasingly easy to work in a mobile context without all the sync and file-management hassles of today. Google has nothing similar.

Another big deal in iOS 5 unmatched by Android is its enhanced AirPlay support. You can now send your screen image and audio to an HDMI-connectable presentation device attached to a $99 Apple TV, as long as the iOS device and the Apple TV are in the same wireless network. With an iPad 2, you can mirror the entire screen; on other iOS devices, you can use AirPlay only with apps that work with the protocol, such as Keynote for slideshows and Web Presenter for Web demos. This will make it very easy to give presentations from an iPhone or iPad -- and I can see many conference facilities adding an Apple TV to their standard presentation equipment, given its low cost. Android has no such native capability. Some hacks are available, but I can't see those getting widespread use. Some Android devices come with apps that support the DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) protocol found in a smattering of TVs for wireless video, but it's a hardware feature added by the phone makers and not consistently available either on Android devices nor on presentation equipment.

Unlike Apple's App Store, the Android Market is not curated, which makes it easier for developers to get their apps listed but has also let cyber thieves create phishing apps that masquerade as banking or other programs to steal user information. Apple's App Store seems to be less at risk to such Trojans. The Android Market is also slower to load than the App Store and not as easy to navigate within the app details.

You're much more likely to find an app you want in the Apple App Store than in the Android Market. But of course, you don't have to use the Android Market to get Android apps. If you want to get down and dirty, you can configure Android's application settings to install apps from other sources.

Multitasking. iOS is often criticized for not providing "real" multitasking. Instead, it enables some services to run in the background, then limits developers to those services, in an attempt to prevent resource conflicts, as well as to maintain battery life and performance. Other app attributes are stored when the user exits and resumed when the user returns. By contrast, Android boasts PC-like full multitasking, whereby default apps continue to run in the background when you take care of other duties.

In practice, I don't see a difference: Both iOS and Android look and work like "real" multitasking in everyday use. However, iOS makes it easiest to switch between apps.

I have noticed that iOS 5 seems more responsive than iOS 4 as you switch apps -- which is easier to do with the new four-finger swipe gestures. In iOS 4, switching apps required pressing Home to go to the home screen or double-pressing Home to open the multitasking dock, then opening the desired app.

The ease of app switching in iOS 5 is really noticeable when compared to Android "Gingerbread," where you have to drill down several levels in Settings to see which apps are active; that list is littered with various Google services that are also running. This Running Services view really isn't meant for daily usage. You can long-tap the Home button to see a list of recent apps, any of which you can then tap to open. That is more like iOS 5's multitasking dock and a better option than the settings drill-down.

Android "Honeycomb" provides an onscreen button to open a dock of running apps -- also similar to iOS's multitasking dock, though with the nice addition of preview screens showing each app's current status. But neither Android version lets you just move among running apps through gestures as iOS 5 can (as does the WebOS-based Hewlett-Packard TouchPad tablet).

App management. Managing apps is also a little easier in iOS than in Android. Android reserves the home screen for a few preinstalled apps, then lets you add other apps to it by tapping-and-holding and then dragging app icons to the desired location, one at a time. Getting to those apps is where there's extra work: In "Gingerbread," you press a grid icon at the bottom of the screen to get the full set of installed apps; in "Honeycomb," you tap the Apps button at the upper right of a home screen. Fortunately, copying apps to the home screen is easy, but the modal switch is still annoying. By contrast, iOS simply adds more home screens as you pick up apps and easily lets you arrange them by dragging them. (You can't rearrange apps in Android's app screen, just on its home screen.)

iOS also lets you add Web pages to the home screens as if they were apps -- great for the many mobile Web pages that are essentially Web apps, such as iphone.infoworld.com, the beta version of InfoWorld's mobile site that lets you take quizzes and play our slideshows. Android can add bookmarks only to its browser's bookmarks list.

iOS lets you create app folders, which can be useful to reduce scrolling among home pages. Unfortunately, the folder icons are still too small to make out, so knowing what's in a folder is not always easy. Android also has a folder capability: tap and hold the Home screen to get a contextual menu and tap the New Folder option. To name the folder something other than New Folder, tap the folder to open it, then tap and hold its menu bar to open the keyboard so that you can enter a new name. Yes, the procedure is that awkward.

Both operating systems alert you to app updates and let you download them wirelessly; iOS also lets you manage apps (including their home screen arrangement) and update them via iTunes, so they are backed up to your computer.

One of the app advantages in Samsung's version of Android "Honeycomb" is its widgets feature. Widgets are mini apps that you can place on the home screen, and they can be very helpful, showing the latest email message or Facebook update or the current time in a large clock. Thus, you can see at a glance the current status of whatever you want to easily track. Neither Android "Gingerbread" nor iOS has this ability -- and "Honeycomb"-based tablets from other manufacturers don't have it either, so I can't credit it to Android.

Both versions of Android have long offered a notifications capability. Pop-up notifications make it easy to see if you have new email or other alerts, whatever you happen to be doing. On tablets, alerts appear in the lower right of your screen, not at the top as in Android smartphones. In both cases, you can pull up a notification pane to see recent alerts.

iOS 4 had a basic notifications capability: Apps using the notifications API could be set to sound an alert, indicate the number of open messages via a badge on their home screen app icon, and/or display an alert window. iOS 5 has copied the Android-style notifications-tray capability in what it calls Notification Center, but Apple's version is better. In iOS 5, you pull down from the top of the screen to get a pane of notifications, and tap any to open it within its app. You can also delete groups of notifications -- such as for mail messages -- by tapping the X icon to the right of the group's name. I like iOS 5's notifications better than Android's because iOS's notifications are much easier to read, and Notification Center shows individual messages and tweets, whereas in some cases Android shows only a group alert, such as "5 new mentions," rather than list them (iOS lets you specify a max number of notifications per type to display, by the way).

iOS 5 can also display notifications on the lock screen, and by sliding a specific notifications icon, you can open the app and the relevant notification item, such as an email. Plus, unlike Android, iOS 5 lets you decide which apps may present notifications on the lock screen and elsewhere -- you're not restricted to a predetermined set. Not only does iOS 5 let you turn notification on or off on a per-app basis, but you can specify whether the notification sounds a tone, whether it appears in the lock screen, whether its badge updates with the number of relevant notifications, and how the notification appears onscreen (as an overlay in the middle of your screen, as Calendar does by default for appointments, or just in the Notification Center pull-down pane). You get to choose when and how you are interrupted.

iOS 5 adds a new storage management API that will ease file handling when you want to free up space. The Settings app's Usage pane now shows how much storage each app consumes. If you tap a compatible app in that list, you get a sublist of all its document files, which you can delete individually as needed. Non-compatible apps show only their total data usage; you'll need to manage their documents within the apps themselves or via iTunes' file management facility. Android can show how much space apps and types of data (such as music) take, but it has no file manager nor a facility like iOS 5's. (You can buy file manager apps in the Android Market.)

The winner: iOS 5, by outdoing Android's notifications capability, improving its app switching capabilities, and adding automatic document syncing and Apple TV-mediated presentation. Plus, Apple's app catalog is large. If you use a smartphone or tablet for work, and not just for Web surfing and content consumption, iOS takes you very close to being able to work without a PC. Android's capabilities are pretty strong, especially if your business needs are minimal, but simply not as good as iOS's.

Deathmatch: Web and Internet

Both Apple and Google are strong forces behind HTML5 and other modern browser technologies, so it's no surprise that both offer capable Web browsers. Based on the HTML5 Test site's scores, Safari in iOS 5 has taken a major leap forward in HTML5 compatibility compared to its previous version, as the chart below shows. Only desktop OSes -- Chrome, Firefox, and the beta Internet Explorer 10 -- support more HTML5 capabilities than iOS 5's mobile Safari browser. By contrast, Android, WebOS, and BlackBerry lag significantly.

OS

Browser

HTML5 score

Mobile browsers

iOS 5.0

Safari

296

iOS 4.3

Safari

217

Android 3.2 "Honeycomb"

Chrome

222

Android 2.3 "Gingerbread"

Chrome

184

BlackBerry OS 7

BlackBerry Browser

230

BlackBerry Tablet OS (QNX)

BlackBerry Browser

257

WebOS 3.0

HP Web

229

WebOS 2.1 (Palm smartphones)

Browser

155

Windows Phone 7.5 "Mango"

Internet Explorer 9

140

Windows Phone 7

Internet Explorer 7

25

Desktop browsers

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows 7

Chrome 14.0.835.202

340

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows 7

Firefox 7.01

313

Mac OS X 10.7 Lion, Windows 7

Safari 5.1

293

Windows 7

Internet Explorer 9

141

Windows 8 preview

Internet Explorer 10 preview

300

I experienced that HTML5 advantage firsthand in iOS 5 Safari's newfound support for the contenteditable attribute in HTML5, and thus its ability to work many of the capabilities In WYSIWYG AJAX Web-editing tools such as TinyMCE, used by Drupal and countless other sites. Hallelujah! (Item dragging doesn't work, perhaps because iOS's drag gesture starts with a tap, which opens the drag handle's internal URLs, thus blocking any drag action.) I now can do most of my work on InfoWorld content directly in our content management system from my iPad. It's not 100 percent -- text selection in AJAX floating dialog boxes often grabs the content underneath, for example -- but it's at least possible now.

The Android "Honeycomb" -- but not "Gingerbread" -- browser also supports the TinyMCE WYSIWYG JavaScript editor widely used in Web forms to allow rich text editing. But I experienced repeated display problems, such as the rich text window not always refreshing its contents after scrolling. Text selection didn't always work either. Other JavaScript windows had display problems, as well as significant typing and scrolling lags; in some cases, the scrolling gesture wouldn't work. None of this happened in iOS 5.

From an operational perspective, the main differences between the iOS 5 and Android browsers center on the UI. All three have persistent buttons or fields for Back, Forward, Bookmarks, Refresh, and navigating tabbed panes. On an iPad, iOS 5 now shows a row of tabs at the top for each open browser window, as does Android "Honeycomb." Both iOS on an iPhone and Android "Gingerbread" make you tap a button to see how many windows are open and then switch to them.

iOS 5 also adds two features that debuted on Mac OS X's version of Safari: Lion's Reading List and Snow Leopard's Reader. Reading List is a separate bookmarking utility meant for content pages you want to read later and then remove from the list, whereas Reader strips out most of the Web page so that you can concentrate on its contents. Android has no equivalent to either feature.

Both iOS and Android can share pages via email, but iOS also lets you share the page via Twitter (iOS 5 has integrated Twitter into many of its communications-oriented services). Plus, iOS can print the page to a wireless printer, either to an AirPrint-compatible printer or to a local unit connected via one of the many printing apps available for iOS. Android has no native printing capabilities, but third-party printing apps are available. These include apps that work with Google's Cloud Print service to send print jobs through your desktop computer or directly to ePrint printers. Note, however, that Cloud Print is still in beta testing after a year.

However, iOS's separate Search and URL boxes are less convenient than Android's unified URL and Search box; you have to be sure to tap the right box on iOS. Android also has a separate search control, if you prefer.

Both iOS and Android "Honeycomb" offer a .com button when entering URLs, which is a significant timesaver. Both OSes pop up a list of alternative domains, such as .edu and .org, when you tap and hold the .com button. Android "Gingerbread" has no equivalent.

In both iOS and Android, you can select text and graphics on Web pages, but only iOS lets you copy graphics. Android can save graphics to the tablet's local storage, whereas iOS can save images to its Photos app.

Both the iOS and Android browsers offer settings to control pop-up windows, search engines, JavaScript, cookies, history, cache, form data, passwords, image loading, autofill, fraud warnings, and debugging.

Using the cloud-based Google Docs on either mobile OS is not a pleasant experience. It's barely possible to edit a spreadsheet; the most you can do is select and add rows, as well as edit the contents of individual cells. You can edit a text document -- awkwardly. Partly, that's because Google hasn't figured out an effective mobile interface for these Web apps; the Safari and Chrome browsers are simply dealing with what Google presents, rather than working through a mobile-friendly front end.

Some of the limitations may be due to the fact the mobile Safari and Chrome browsers don't support all the same capabilities as their desktop counterparts, but given that iOS 5's Safari now works well with many AJAX-based websites, I think the fault lays mostly with the Google Docs team. Things have improved a bit on the Google Docs front this year. For example, you can create, edit, and navigate appointments in Google Calendar in all four of its views (day, week, month, and agenda) pretty much as you can on a desktop browser.

In iOS 5, versus iOS 4, Safari's page cache seems more stable -- you can switch away from tabs, then come back with less chance of the Web page refreshing and losing any changes you may have made in Web forms. This has not been an issue in Android, and I suspect that part of why iOS 5 handles browser caching better is because of under-the-hood improvements related to multitasking.

Although not preinstalled with Android, Adobe's Flash Player is available at the Android Market as a free download. This beta version worked in my testing on a variety of websites that use Flash, both for videos and for interactive capabilities. I found that the most current Flash Player (10.3) did well with videos and basic Flash animations, such as those that let you rotate views, open content via hotspots, and the like. Flash games worked sometimes. Other Android devices using earlier versions of Flash Player (as well as RIM's BlackBerry PlayBook running the current version) have had trouble running Flash content, but it appears that after years of effort Adobe may be close to finally breaking that string of Flash failure.

iOS, of course, has no Flash support, given Apple's dislike of the Adobe Flash technology. One work-around, for Flash videos only, is the $5 Skyfire for iPad app ($5) or Skyfire Web Browser app ($3) for iPhone and iPod Touch.

Android also offers voice-based search and text input that iOS does not. After tapping the microphone icon and speaking the text, you wait a few seconds for the search term to be transmitted to Google's servers for conversion to text. The results are surprisingly good, and the process usually takes no longer than typing in a term, especially on the constrained onscreen keyboard of a smartphone. (But I can't get into the idea of talking to my tablet; to me at least, its utility is confined to smartphones.) iOS 5 has nothing like it, unless you count the voice-based Siri "personal assistant" technology that will ship as beta software in the iPhone 4S due on Oct. 14. Because Siri will run on just that one iOS device, I can't count it as an iOS 5 advantage, even if it were available for testing.

The winner: iOS 5, by a mile, thanks to greater HTML5 compatibility, its addition of tabbed panes on the iPad, and its ability to copy graphics. If Flash is important to you, Android becomes your only dependable option.

Deathmatch: Location support

Both iOS and Android support GPS location, and both can triangulate location based on Wi-Fi signals. They also come with Google Maps, which can find your current destination, provide directions, and otherwise help you navigate. But using Google Maps is a bit more work in Android "Gingerbread" than in iOS or "Honeycomb" to switch views, such as from map to satellite, due to the use of nested menus. Android's version of Google Maps also has no print option, unlike iOS 5's version.

The beta Navigation app that comes with Android is a much better navigation app than the Maps app that comes with iOS. On an iPad or iPhone, you'll want a real navigation app such as the $45 Navigon MobileNavigator, whereas on an Android device, you could stick with the free one.

Both iOS and Android let developers integrate location information in their apps, so location is just another native feature. And both iOS and Android let you control your location privacy. However, Android only lets you control whether your location is detected by disabling or enabling the GPS and Wi-Fi location services for the entire device, whereas iOS 5 lets you control location services per application. Android apps can ask if it's OK to use your location, but there's no central way to manage these location permissions as there is in iOS 5. Plus, iOS 5 adds extra controls for system-level services, including iAds, time zone, compass calibration, traffic services, cell network search, and diagnostics. iOS 5 now also differentiates in its presentation those apps currently tracking your location from those that have done so in the last 24 hours.

The winner: A tie. iOS gives users much more control over location policy, but it doesn't provide as good a navigation app as Android.

Deathmatch: User interface

It's often a throwaway comment that Apple's UIs are better than everyone else's, and it's not always true (as the soon-to-be-discontinued MobileMe service attests). But in mobile, iOS is in fact a better-designed UI, one that makes accessing capabilities and information easier and faster. iOS 5 doesn't mess with what you already know, but it does enhance the UI further with the Notification Center, improved gesture support, much simpler synchronization capabilities, and a few enhanced settings.

Operational UI. I noted earlier how Android "Gingerbread" makes you click the Menu button and go through one or more levels of options to access most capabilities in its apps. This really slows smartphone operations, even though it is consistently implemented. Apple is smarter about bringing common capabilities to the top level of iOS apps' UIs, so they are accessible through a quick tap -- yet they don't clutter up the screen, even in the screen-constrained iPhone.

Another example of Google's poor UI choices: Android smartphones have a Search button, but it's not always functional. If you press it when, say, reading an email, it does nothing. However, if you press it when viewing a contact, it lets you search your address book. It's not clear why the Search button is available in some contexts and not others, especially for apps like Email that have a search capability. Fortunately, the Home button always works.

Android "Honeycomb" is less awkward to use than "Gingerbread," as it takes advantage of the tablet's larger screen. But so does iOS on the iPad.

The Settings app in both versions of Android can be confusing. For example, there are two Wi-Fi options: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi Settings. Tapping Wi-Fi turns off Wi-Fi -- not what I expected. To find a Wi-Fi network, you tap Wi-Fi Settings. After a while I learned the difference, but it was an unnecessary exercise. By contrast, iOS doesn't let you confuse turning Wi-Fi on or off with selecting a network, thanks to a single location with clearly designated controls.

The good news is that pinching and zooming, as well as autorotation as you turn the device, work equivalently on Android and iOS. But iOS 5 makes better use of gestures: You can navigate among running apps with new motions, as well as go to the home screen and open the multitasking dock. iOS also has strong UI support for the visually and hearing-impaired, such as options for zooming text, presenting screens in high contrast, and enabling text-to-speech for text selections. In iOS 5, these are augmented with gesture assistance for those with motor coordination issues. Android simply doesn't accommodate such needs.

A nice change in iOS 5 is the ability to set custom sounds to various alerts. Now, in a room full of iPhones and iPads, you have a better chance of knowing whether it's your device that just beeped. Android doesn't allow for such per-app alert tone configuration.

iOS no longer requires you connect to a computer to set it up; iOS 5 lets you set up the device and update the OS wirelessly -- which Android has done from day one.

For text entry, I find iOS's on-screen keyboard to be slightly easier to work with than Android's, with clearer keys and better contextual use of extra keys, such as in the Mail application. Although Android "Honeycomb" makes good use of Tab and other keys not found on iOS on the iPad, the result is that the keyboard is not quite full size in landscape orientation (whereas iOS's is on an iPad) and, thus, a tad difficult for touch-typing. I'm sure I'll eventually get used to it, but it remains an annoying UI decision.

I also like iOS 5's new split keyboard option for the iPad, which makes it easy to thumb-type while holding an iPad with both hands. It's simple to turn this mode on and off as you type. In addition, iOS 5 lets you float the regular keyboard for those times you want to see a full screen of contents behind it. Android has nothing like it. Be warned, however: When I type rapidly onscreen on the regular keyboard, my iPad frequently switches to the split keyboard; I can't figure out what I'm tapping to cause the switch, but it's really annoying and seemingly random.

Text selection and copying. Android falls short in its text selection. If you're tapping away and realize you've made a mistake not caught by the autocorrect feature, such as when entering a URL, it can be difficult to move the text cursor to the typo's location in the text. If you tap too long, the screen is filled with the Edit Text contextual menu. It took me a while to figure out how to tap long enough to move the text-insertion cursor to a new location in text without opening that menu. "Gingerbread" and "Honeycomb" 3.1 have tweaked text selection so that it's more precise, and there's now a slider to move the text cursor -- but these enhanced controls are not universal across apps.

By contrast, on iOS, you tap and hold where you want to insert the text cursor (sort of like using a mouse), and a magnifier appears to help you move precisely to where you want to go. You then add and delete text at that location. Plus, the controls for text selection appear, so you can use those if you'd like -- there's no worry about some screen-filling menu appearing as in Android "Gingerbread." The text-selection controls in Android "Honeycomb" are more like iOS's, but they're less precise and a bit harder to control via touch than in iOS.

Copy and paste -- even basic selection -- is often not available in Android. In some fields, tapping and holding brings up the Edit Text contextual menu that lets you copy or paste the entire field's contents; in others you can't even do that. Although the browser lets you select and copy text, this ability is not universal. For example, you can't select text in email messages. In iOS, any textual item can be selected. It's easy, intuitive, and universal.

The winner: iOS 5, by a mile. Android's awkward text-handling features are inexcusable, even with some of the recent enhancements. People used to regular cellphones, BlackBerrys, and Palm OS devices will be thrilled with the Android "Gingerbread" UI; certainly, the friends and colleagues I showed Android to felt that way. But if you're familiar with the iOS UI on the iPhone, the Android smartphone UI will feel clunky and a bit awkward, as if you were being forced to use Windows or Linux. The difference in usability between an iOS tablet and an Android "Honeycomb" tablet is not as stark -- but nonetheless, iOS is easier to use, and its capabilities more universally available.

Deathmatch: Security and management

Apple's not known for supporting enterprise-level security and client management demands, yet iOS is second only to BlackBerry in terms of enterprise security and management support. It has remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and an assortment of password controls (such as requiring a strong password or disabling access after a specified number of failed log-in attempts) that are manageable through Microsoft Exchange and, soon, through iOS-enabled management tools from companies such as Good Technology and MobileIron. iOS 4 also supports several types of VPNs, provides SSL message encryption, and has on-device encryption for all data that can't be turned off.

By contrast, Android's security and manageability are not enterprise-class. Android "Gingerbread" simply can't meet most corporate security needs, and there is little in the way of mobile management hooks in the OS for third-party management tool providers to tap into. The biggest omission is the lack of on-device encryption, which pretty much renders Android unusable for corporate Exchange environments.

As previously noted, individual apps can implement encryption within their sandbox, as NitroDesk TouchDown does, but IT rarely has a way to ensure that only such apps are deployed. (Exchange's EAS policy detection is one of those rare ways to secure email, calendar, and contacts apps on mobile devices.) One option is to get one of Motorola Mobility's recent business-oriented Android "Gingerbread" smartphones -- the Atrix 4G, Droid 3, Photon 4G, or Xprt -- to which Motorola has added on-device encryption that works with Exchange's EAS policy requirements. The Photon 4G I tested worked perfectly well under our corporate EAS policies. In 2012, Android smartphones using 3LM's add-on security layer for Android should begin appearing, making corporate support of Android more plausible and less labor-intensive.

The situation is markedly better for out-of-the-box Android "Honeycomb." Google, having recognized Android's security deficiency, has added on-device encryption to "Honeycomb," but you have to enable it manually. Not only does encrypting the tablet take an hour, but the battery has to be fully charged before you can begin, even if you are plugged into a wall socket. (The rationale is that the battery needs to be at full capacity in case the power goes out or the power cord is disconnected.) It can take several hours before your Android tablet is finally encrypted and ready for use. Fortunately, it's a one-time activity.

Android "Honeycomb" comes close to matching iOS's support of EAS policies (unlike Android "Gingerbread" smartphones), allowing for complex passwords, password expiration, and password history restrictions. But "Honeycomb" can't enforce policies to disable the camera, control access to Wi-Fi access points, or block use of the app store as iOS can.

Both versions of Android do support complex passwords, VPNs, and SSL message encryption. But neither could connect to InfoWorld's PEAP-secured Wi-Fi network, despite displaying a PEAP-oriented dialog box when trying to initiate the connection. By contrast, iOS had no trouble connecting to that PEAP-secured Wi-Fi network. (Google tells me PEAP is supported but requires extra work by both IT and users to create the connection; the company is looking at making the process as simple as iOS's for a future update.)

Android can back up settings, contact, calendar, and email data wirelessly to Gmail, as can iOS 5 to Apple's iCloud service. In addition, iOS can back up all of your device's data and apps to iTunes, both over a USB connection and, new to iOS 5, over Wi-Fi. But of course, most large businesses would prefer not to have iTunes on corporate PC, even with iOS's support of backing up specified types of data on one computer and other types on other computers, to keep data backup separated based on type. Still, whether you back up to iCloud or iTunes, you get the option to encrypt those backups -- a security feature IT should appreciate.

The winner: Only iOS 5 can meet midlevel corporate security and manageability requirements. Android "Honeycomb" comes close enough for many businesses, but Android "Gingerbread" isn't a real option unless you bypass the native Android capabilities and install manageable email clients from firms such as NitroDesk, Good Technology, Enterproid (still in beta), MobileIron, or Zenprise.

The overall winner is ...

There's no question which is the better mobile OS: iOS 5 beats both Android "Honeycomb" and "Gingerbread" in almost every category. iOS 5 has significantly widened the lead in several areas, including applications, Web and Internet, and user interface.

Nevertheless, Android "Honeycomb" offers a strong core platform that's good enough for most users. Its decent security capabilities also give it a meaningful shot in many businesses. It's clear that Google has given the smartphone version of Android the short end of the stick in the last year, as it has focused on the tablet version. "Gingerbread" is essentially the same as the year-old "Froyo," an OS that is not in tune with the market needs or competition.

With Google unifying the tablet and smartphone versions of Android later this year, it has a chance to rectify that neglect -- and perhaps give iOS 5 a new run for its money.


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