Mobile OS deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2

As the mobile battle narrows, the iPhone finally faces a real challenger

There've been many challengers to take the smartphone crown, but so far no one has dethroned the iPhone. Palm's WebOS posed a noble challenge but didn't sustain it. RIM's BlackBerry was easily dispatched by the more modern iPhone, and the forthcoming BlackBerry 6 appears unlikely to raise the bar. Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 promises to be perhaps the weakest competitor of all, while the earlier Android-based Motorola Droid also fell short in key areas of concern to business.

But Android has continued to gain strength. The new Froyo version -- formally called Android OS 2.2 -- has become the default alternative to the iPhone for many customers, with broad support by cellular carriers and from Motorola and the Taiwanese hardware makers such as HTC and LG that had previously aligned to Windows Mobile.

[ See how iOS 4 and Android 2.2 compare feature by feature in InfoWorld's slideshow: "Mobile deathmatch: Apple iOS 4 vs. Android 2.2, side by side." | See how the iPhone fares against the major competitors in InfoWorld's "ultimate mobile deathmatch" comparative review. | Discover how to deploy (almost) any smartphone in your business. ]

But Apple has not stood still, releasing its iOS 4 last month, which finally addressed long-standing omissions such as multitasking and enterprise security and management capabilities. Though iOS 4 seems to have been forgotten given all the focus on the iPhone 4's antenna woes, those troubles have no bearing on the iOS itself.

Which is the better mobile OS: Apple's iOS 4 or Google's Android OS 2.2? The InfoWorld Test Center decided to find out, based on the capabilities of interest to business and professional users. This deathmatch compares the operating systems, not specific devices using them, examining the OSes apart from the physical differences from device to device and network quality differences from carrier to carrier.

I used an HTC Nexus One for Android testing and an iPod Touch 3G for iOS 4 testing, as they're comparable in their performance capabilities; I used only Wi-Fi for network testing to factor out carrier cellular network differences. Note that HTC and Motorola offer additional capabilities in their devices through UI overlays and custom apps; the focus here is on the native Android OS 2.2 capabilities furnished by Google.

Deathmatch: E-mail, calendars, and contacts

If you look at the specs, Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4 look to be 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. Also, setup is easy.

Basic e-mail usage. Android has a poorly chosen visual scheme for e-mail: It uses white text on a black background (iOS 4 uses the inverse color scheme). In sunlight, it's all but impossible to read the screen on an Android device, while in the same light an iOS device's display of the e-mail remains readable, even if somewhat washed out. You won't be checking e-mail on the beach with an Android device.

I'm not a big fan of iOS 4's new UI for mail. There's now a unified inbox for all your e-mail 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 e-mail accounts, the result is extra scrolling to switch accounts based on the mode I want to see.

E-mail management. Once you're in your folders, though, iOS 4 is easy to use for most operations, such as deleting messages and moving messages to folders. You can easily search for mail, reply or forward, delete, and select multiple messages, but you can't select or deselect all messages.

On the other hand, Android OS 2.2's folder navigation isn't friendlier, though you don't have to wade through the double lists. By default you get an all-message view, and if you want to go to a specific folder or see just the inbox, you must click the Menu button and then tap the Folders icon to get a list of folders. Also, Android uses a separate app for Gmail accounts -- an unnecessary division of labor.

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