Android's new features in the upcoming version 2.2 (aka "Froyo," announced this week at Google I/O) are certainly intriguing, but some sections of the press have gone off the deep end in their analysis of what this means for the iPhone and the smartphone market in general.
PC World's piece, "7 Ways Android 2.2 Froyo Tops Apple's iPhone," is a perfect example of this phenomenon, and it reads like it was written by someone who's never even held an iPhone. All seven of their points are easily debunked, even leaving aside the fact that they're comparing today's iPhone with the as-yet-unbuyable Froyo phones of tomorrow.
Read on to find out why -- and bring marshmallows.
PC World's take: "Want to use your phone as a broadband modem for your computer? With Android 2.2 you can do it. With the iPhone you can't."
Android fans are parading this tethering option in Froyo around like it's something totally innovative; it's not. And don't kid yourselves -- carriers aren't going to give away Android tethering for free on US carriers any more than they do for any other phone. The excuses will be the same as they are for the iPhone: "Our network just can't handle that many users at once, so we're (not enabling tethering for Android / charging an arm and a leg for tethering with Android)."
2. It turns your phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot
I can do essentially the same thing with my iPhone right now via internet tethering (again, this isn't possible in the US without workarounds, but that's not the same as saying you can't do it at all). Tether your iPhone to a Mac via Bluetooth (thus meeting PC World's "no USB cables" requirement) and turn on Internet Sharing in System Preferences. Now multiple Macs (or Wi-Fi only iPads) can piggyback off the tethered Mac's connection to the iPhone. I did this during a lengthy vacation last summer, and it allowed my wife and I to both use our Macs to get on the internet even in fairly remote parts of New Zealand.
The only advantage the Android setup confers is that you don't need to use a Mac or other PC as an intermediary, but the only time that would come in handy is if you're not using any Macs or PCs at all in your setup, only an iPhone and iPad. In that case, the better option is to just get an iPad 3G and not worry about setting up Wi-Fi hotspots with your phone -- the data plan for the iPad 3G is going to be cheaper than any Android plan.
3. It plays Flash
First off, according to our own informal polling, a plurality of iPhone OS users consider the lack of Flash support a feature rather than a hindrance. 27% of people we polled said they were outright glad the iPad doesn't have Flash support; another 21% didn't care if it had Flash or not. Only 10% of poll respondents said they weren't buying an iPad specifically because of its lack of Flash support.
Second, reports of Flash support on Android are mixed. Many reviewers have said the playback stutters on even moderately demanding video content, crashes fairly often, and the handset gets "piping hot" and takes a significant hit to battery life after only half an hour of use. Hmm, sounds familiar... almost as if someone laid out a logical argument against including Flash on the iPhone for precisely those reasons.
Reviewers have been careful to note that the version of Flash running on Android is only in beta, with no support for hardware acceleration. Note that this is as far as Adobe's been able to come with Flash on Android despite 100% access to the platform and 100% co-operation with Google in its implementation after plenty of time to work on it. And once Google's got Flash's big boulder chained to their foot, good luck to them when they try to update Android without having Adobe constantly in their business.
PC World's claim that Android's Flash support gives Android users access to "far more content" than the iPhone is particularly amusing -- many sites (such as Hulu) don't work on Android either, even with Flash support. Other content providers, like ABC and CBS, are either switching their sites to iPad/iPhone-friendly HTML5 or building dedicated viewer apps for the iPhone OS.
Flash is a sinking ship; if your OS's main point of differentiation from iPhone OS has nothing to do with your own tools, then bon chance, mon ami.
4. It has open apps
PC World's take: "On the iPhone you can only download apps that Apple wants to let you download."
Yes: which means those apps are guaranteed to run on your iPhone without any need to configure your phone to work with them, or worry about your phone being bricked by tremendously poor code. It also means the apps are vetted by Apple, which means zero chance of malware disguised as a "Bikini Girls" app being loaded on your phone.
"On Android, you can download any app you want," PC World says. Guess what? I can on my iPhone, too. With over 200,000 apps on the App Store, I have yet to run into a situation where I said, "I wish there was an app that does (x)" without being able to find one. Maybe I'm not as demanding or discerning as the average Android user, but nevertheless, I've got nearly a hundred apps on my iPhone that enable it to do almost anything I can think of.
I have yet to hear any "open" evangelist tell me what advantage an "open" platform like Android gives a user like me. For developers it's undoubtedly a better deal, but what can the average user (read: non-geek) get from an open architecture that they can't get from the App Store (besides stability and security risks)?
5. It multitasks
This one is just flat-out dumb. "Want to run multiple apps simultaneously on an Android phone? Sure. Go crazy," PC World says. "Want to do it on an iPhone? Sorry, you can't do it."
PC World's take: "Android's built-in browser is excellent, but if you don't like it, you can always use another one, such as Opera, and eventually Firefox." Eventually Firefox. Just like Flash will eventually run on Android crash-free, with hardware acceleration, and without sucking the life out of the battery. Or Android will eventually have free(*) internet tethering. (*Free only outside the US.) Or Android will eventually disarm nuclear suitcase bombs with its handsets' dedicated "MacGruber" buttons. Normal people don't buy into platforms based on what they can eventually do. They buy into what can be done today, or at the very most, what you can prove the platform will do tomorrow -- not the day after tomorrow, and not eventually.
PC World's assertion that the only web browsers available for the iPhone are Safari and Opera is also incorrect. There are many alternative browsers available in the App Store other than Opera. True, all of them are based on WebKit like Safari, but that doesn't mean they don't count.
7. It gives more carrier choice
Again with the US-centric perspective. The iPhone I have sitting next to me here in New Zealand is unlocked and available for use on any GSM carrier in the world (except, ironically, AT&T, because of their lame carrier restrictions). My iPhone came completely unlocked out of the box. Again, just because that's not the state of affairs in the US thanks to AT&T doesn't mean that the iPhone is somehow artificially limited while Android is not.
Let's also not pretend that Apple loves AT&T so much that they could never, ever see themselves going with another US carrier like Verizon. In fact, as of June 1 AT&T will raise its early termination fees for smartphone users from $175 to $325. The timing certainly seems a little too coincidental; the next iPhone is almost certain to come out in June or July, and industry rumors point to a fall release for a Verizon iPhone. (Yes, I realize this makes me just as guilty of PC World of using an "eventually" argument, but nobody's perfect.)
Listen, I'm glad Android exists. I'm not going to switch to the platform, because the iPhone already does everything I need a smartphone to do, with far simpler and more pervasive integration with my Mac. But even though I may spurn Google's platform, I'm glad it's around, because it'll certainly be a kick in the pants to drive innovation in the iPhone OS.
On the other hand, let's please stop pretending, like PC World and other sources of breathless punditry, that Android's new features mean the iPhone is going to follow the Atari version of E.T.en masse into New Mexico landfills. Despite the innovation Android's exhibited in Froyo, which I'll admit is impressive, the "worst" that's going to happen is the two platforms will exist side-by-side, with each platform spurring innovation in the other. Android is not the "iPhone killer" -- if anything, Android's existence only ensures that the iPhone OS will continue to get even better than it already is.