Google's Android mobile operating system proved a formidable rival to the wildly popular iPhone in a recent real-world test.
Android will overtake the iPhone in sales this year, according to an IDC forecast released Tuesday. IDC predicts that by year's end, Android will have a 16 percent market share worldwide, compared with the iPhone's 15 percent. Symbian will continue to lead with 40 percent, and the BlackBerry platform will hold on to second place with about an 18 percent share, IDC said.
Trying out a Motorola Droid 2 on Verizon Wireless alongside my own AT&T iPhone 3GS over the past few weeks, I found Android a tempting alternative to the iPhone platform, though there were surprises on both sides.
Even leaving aside the improved display and other advances in the latest model, the iPhone is a remarkably easy device to use. It's far more approachable than the Droid 2, which runs the latest Android operating system, Version 2.2. Yet Apple's simpler user interface presents some limitations.
The most obvious additional feature the Droid 2 has is its physical keyboard, which feels well-made, with a nice sandy texture and good-sized keys. Yet it takes some getting used to. Whereas a virtual keyboard like the iPhone's can redraw itself in several modes, the Droid's physical keyboard requires an ALT key to activate numerals and some punctuation marks. Those marks appear in blue on the black keys, and at handheld scale, it can be hard to tell the punctuation marks apart. The phone also has a virtual keyboard, but although it's well-sized in landscape mode, the Droid's narrower screen becomes a liability when it's flipped to portrait mode. Then, the virtual keys become too small to easily use.
The Droid also falls short in its general screen design -- out of the box, at least. The seven panels of the homescreen were cluttered with large, ungainly widgets along with some smaller icons. In a "drawer" that's pulled up by touching an arrow at the bottom of the screen were several dozen more icons. The iPhone's screen, by contrast, has just one level, unless the user adds folders. It also comes with far fewer built-in application icons, and those icons are bigger and more attractive than the ones on the Droid.
However, with a bit of work, the Droid's central homescreen reveals its advantages. The widgets can be removed. And taking a frequently used icon from the drawer to the main screen requires nothing more than pressing it for a few seconds and watching it reappear on the main screen. To send it back, there's a trashcan icon that appears on the main screen when an icon there is pressed for several seconds. On the iPhone, once a user has tapped into the vast App Store and filled up a few extra screens with new icons, getting the most important ones on the main panel requires a whole series of displacements, like a slider puzzle.
The iPhone still has the superior touchscreen in terms of sensitivity and accuracy. On the Droid, it's easier to activate the wrong thing by accident. However, Android 2.2 brought a whole other type of interface for many tasks: voice. Extensions to its Voice Search feature allow users to send an e-mail or text message, go to a Web page, get directions or a map and carry out other functions. These worked fairly well, though the cloud-based speech recognition system wasn't always able to understand a phrase on the first try. But it's not clear how often these tools would be useful. Google gave the example of walking through an airport with no hands free, yet using Voice Search functions requires at least one finger tap and sometimes more. The iPhone's built-in voice search functions are much more limited.
Another tool available for use with Android 2.2, called Chrome to Phone, also is unlike anything in the iPhone, and it might be useful occasionally. With a free app on the phone and a plug-in for Google's Chrome browser, users can send a Web page or a map from a PC-based browser to the phone. There is no tool yet for sending items the other way.
The Droid 2 has something else that can't be found on an iPhone, even though AT&T now allows tethering to one computer. The Motorola handset can act as a Wi-Fi hotspot for several devices at once. This worked remarkably well in several tests with one or two devices at close range to the Droid 2, though connection speeds degraded when three devices were connected. Using Speedtest.net, a MacBook achieved downstream speeds as high as 1.73M bps (bits per second), with upstream links up to 190K bps. The hotspot capability is available at extra charge from Verizon.
Network performance is one trait for which Verizon is often praised and AT&T frequently criticized, and for the moment at least, Verizon's touted coverage isn't available with an iPhone. In informal testing in San Francisco -- ground zero for AT&T-bashing -- the Droid 2 did experience a better online experience and fewer dropped calls overall. However, this wasn't always the case. Some subway stations with usable AT&T coverage were without any Verizon signal at all. In addition, a drive halfway across California into rural and mountainous areas showed Verizon stronger in some locations and AT&T in others.
The distinctions between the phones go on forever, at all levels of the user experience. Add in what's available from the Android and iTunes app stores, and it gets even more complex. But two final examples of telling details demonstrate how differently a smartphone can be conceived of at this stage in the game, and how much more room there is to refine these devices.
In ringtones, the Droid is heavy with electronic and classic-rock bits, many of which sound outdated even in terms of quality, like old polyphonic ringers. The iPhone's selection won't satisfy anyone who really wants to rock, but its tones are by far the better in quality. However, when it comes to wallpaper, Android has taken a step ahead of the iPhone's colorful, static screens: It offers animated wallpaper. This means the background image on the Droid 2's homescreen can change from blue sky at midday, to dim light at dusk, to darkness and stars at night. It's the kind of stylish, ingenious move that might have been expected of a company like ... Apple.