13 August, 2013

Battle of the mobile OS 2013: iOS 7 vs. Android 4.3

For those of you that know me from last year, you'd know me as an outright anti-Apple, anti-Microsoft, anti-Oracle, pro-Google, pro-Canonical open source purist. One who became so anti-Apple in particular as a result of the patent litigation scandals that it threw me along with millions of pro-Google users and developers over the edge.

Not anymore.

Turns out, there's ups and downs to both business models. What? It's true. The one thing that pushed me to the edge regarding that Motorola Flipside that, when its screen finally shattered in a go-kart race on November 10, 2012 (at a friend's birthday party, who would be turning 20 the following day), was the fact that it was still on Froyo with JB (in all its Google Now glory) already out. I don't know about anyone else, but being stuck on an outdated OS annoys the **** out of me.

Fast forward to November 26, 2012. My 2-year contract had expired. Whew! Time to upgrade. The only problem: All the Android-based upgrade options were non-Nexus devices. If I were to get a Nexus 4, with a contract, it would have to be through T-Mobile, not AT&T, which means, guess what? I would be paying my own smartphone bill! Good luck with that, especially for the time being. And the GNex was Verizon and staying that way. You would have to go back 2 full years to the Nexus S to find any smartphone with stock Android (though the updates still weren't timely; AT&T still loved to block updates like mad, as I found out months later) that AT&T ever offered with a contract, and by then, Google had already dropped support for the Nexus S anyway. Even the Atrix HD wouldn't have gotten an update to Android 4.1 until February 2013, with 4.2 already having been out a good 4 months.

So, with AT&T's seemingly totalitarian control over Android-based phones, it seems I had to explore alternatives. And I already knew of one that does get timely updates: iOS.

I know. It almost seems like a paradox: Android, an open source, Linux-based, popular OS, is not being updated in a timely fashion at all, yet the tightly-controlled iOS is? Yes, it is alright. In fact, friends of mine that have had iPhones before (including those that have had them since I got the Flipside) have gotten iOS updates for years on end and in a VERY timely fashion. And the OTA updating capability that iOS 5 introduced only increased its appeal. But an iPhone would be far out of price range at $199, right? Wrong!

Sure, an iPhone 5 would have. But what about a one-year-old 4S? With iDevices being supported with timely software updates for at least 3-4 years since being released (which is even longer than the 2 years of support the first-gen Nexus devices had), even an old iPhone would sure suit that need well. And the price of the 4S dropped a full $100 for the holiday season to a dirt-cheap $99. Win!

And it turns out there's stuff for iOS that most Android users can only dream of. The iLife suite (including the go-to for music writers/recorders like me: GarageBand) is definitely one of those things that make use of a phone for what were tasks that only desktop users could accomplish possible on iOS. And then there's Google's set of apps. Including the search app, which in March was updated to support, what? None other than Google Now cards.

As for Android's strengths: Multitasking on iOS prior to 7 is very limited. In fact, apps don't even run in the background at all. They're paused. They're frozen. Multitasking on iOS 6 and earlier is like playing a game of freeze tag: Apps can't do anything unless they're at your fingertips. Now sure, some of them can access location services in the background, play music when not in focus, and send push notifications even when completely killed, but what about data use? If I'm uploading a large 15-minute video, on Android I was able to go to the home screen, open another app, and still have the video upload to, say, YouTube or Facebook in the background. On iOS 6, that's simply not possible, and I must add that the very few background services apps can take advantage of nag the user for permission at runtime with pop-up alerts instead of displaying a list of permissions when the app that's requesting them is being installed, not nagging the user again if that on-install dialog is accepted. However, iOS 7 does indeed fix this issue, and I'm very excited indeed for that.

Which brings me straight to the topic: How do Android and iOS 7 compare? Well, iOS 7 really does a good job at making iOS feel more modern, up-to-date, and most importantly, less skeuomorphic. In fact, not skeuomorphic at all!

It also has some awesome features that further play catch-up with the competition. Multitasking is one. Not only are apps allowed to actually run as background processes and take advantage of background data to do stuff they couldn't before, but the switcher itself has been redesigned. Instead of just a boring list of icons on the lower edge of the screen, when the home button is double-pressed, the entire home screen (or app you're currently in) zooms out to display a horizontal list of full thumbnail previews of the apps you're running above their icons, and closing them, just like in Android, is only a swipe away, in contrast to the press-and-hold plus tapping that millimeter-wide "-" button currently seen with iOS 6. That makes for a much more awesome multitasking experience.

Let's not forget Control Center: Again, a page from the Android book has been copied. Users can now access certain settings that they use most, like Airplane Mode, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth, with a quick swipe up from the bottom of the screen, instead of having to delve into the Settings app just to get simple, mundane tasks accomplished.

Aside from the above two (plus the Google Now-like "Today" view), there's not really much to say about iOS 7 in terms of new features. In terms of changes, however, search across all home screens is definitely a welcome one, as is folder pagination, which I had on the Flipside even with the outdated Froyo on it. So, glad to see that Apple is starting to implement features I had been taking advantage of for years on other devices. Even in iOS 6, there's iMessage, which is MUCH more useful for group conversations than just straight-up SMS/MMS, and I give Apple plenty of credit for that.

Let's not forget AirDrop. Sure, there's NFC sharing (Android Beam), but tapping devices to other devices doesn't sit well with most people. Guess what? AirDrop eliminates that need altogether. Now, content can go from phone to phone even if the phones are 10 feet away from each other. That's a good thing— well, for iPhone 5 users anyway, since Apple seemed to bring on that bias yet again in this case.

On the Android 4.3 front, however, there's again some awesomeness that I can only dream of on my iPhone 4S, even with iOS 7 coming out. Among the features I wish even iOS 7 had (correct me if it actually does): OpenGL ES 3.0. So far, the only mobile OS — in fact, the only OS at all, mobile or desktop — that I know of with native OpenGL ES 3 support is Android. For those of you who don't know what OpenGL ES 3 is, it's a graphics API that allows for game graphics quality that is as yet unprecedented. Facial shadow masking, lens flare effects, 3D-rendered water droplets, reflectivity of objects, and unprecedented color and quality are all possible with OpenGL ES 3.0, and so far, I haven't heard any news on even iOS 7 supporting it.

Also, and this is something Apple had plenty of room for but chose not to implement: With Spotlight now accessible across all home screens, Daahboard should have taken its place. I know, I know, maybe it's just the Android bias again, but seriously: The iOS home screen — even the iOS 7 one — has little embedded previews of functionality. To get to see data, you must launch an app. Well, guess what? Android has allowed Dashboard-style widgets and app icons to coexist on the same home screen since at least 1.5. Where has that mentality with Apple gone?

So, I have to say, there's a tie going on here. Apple designers have finally got some sense knocked into their design principles with Scott Forstall off the job, and Google's features continue to make Android a more and more powerful OS. The entire mobile device industry is innovating at a completely unprecedented pace. Now with iOS 7 going public (supposedly) next month, it's time to see what Android 5.0 and the Nexus 5 have in store a few months from now...