Motorola Droid vs. Apple iPhone 3GS: finally, a contender?

Today's formal unveiling of the Motorola Droid smartphone on Verizon's network was an anticlimax, given most of the details had been leaked days earlier. Nevertheless, it's the boldest, most open iPhone challenge yet.

[ Android 2.0: Your complete primer ]

The announcement in New York revealed a handset almost exactly the size of Apple's wildly successful iPhone, but with a sliding QWERTY keyboard. And it's the first smartphone to run the new Android 2.0 operating system.

The event underlined the conviction, or at least the hope, of Motorola and Verizon that cutting edge, Android-based wireless devices can challenge successfully the iPhone for a big chunk of the still-nascent U.S. market for cellular data.

The iPhone has been unexpectedly successful in the enterprise as well, with one recent study finding that nearly one-quarter of its enterprise respondents were supporting the phone. Android will find it tougher going at least initially: Apple has offered a range of OS updates to meet enterprise security and management requirements, and has garnered support from enterprise software developers and integrators.

The Droid licenses Microsoft ActiveSync, so the phone can connect to corporate Exchange servers. But there are no details yet on what features and capabilities the initial implementation actually supports. For example, according to one reviewer there is no support for encrypted e-mails.

Verizon triggered a headline-grabbing controversy last week with quietly in-your-face TV commercials that mocked the failings of a smartphone called "iDont" and promising that the Droid would make up for all of those deficiencies. Now that details about the Droid are out, here's a closer look at the Droid vs. the iPhone 3GS.

1. Hardware

It's been widely reported that the Droid uses the 600MHz Texas Instruments' OMAP 3430 system-on-a-chip, which is also used in the Palm Pre. The Motorola spec sheet only refers to an underlying ARM Cortex-A8 processor, which is the basis for both the TI chip and the Samsung S5PC100, also a system-on-a-chip with CPU, graphics processing unit and memory controller, the heart of Apple's iPhone 3GS.

The Motorola spec sheet doesn't mention clock speed, but ARM's information says it's adjustable from 600MHz to over 1GHz. The Cortex-A8 was introduced earlier this year, designed as a very high-performance chip that can use less than 300mW of power. It includes components for multimedia and signal processing, and for optimized compilation of Java and other bytecode.

The Android OS was developed for the ARM architecture, and Google and ARM have worked closely to optimize the OS and the Android browser.

Edge: It's a draw. Both processors have similar core capabilities. "Your mileage may vary" based on differences in the implementations

2. Screens and keyboards

Both the Droid and the iPhone are offering big multi-touch screens. Motorola says the Droid's 3.7-inch diagonal display, with 480x854 pixels, or over 400,000 total pixels, boasts "twice that of the leading competitor." The iPhone 3GS offers 640X480 on a 3.5-inch diagonal screen.

The debate over virtual vs. physical keyboards boils down to one of personal preference. The Droid is offering both. The key is in the execution. One early review by BusinessWeek's Stephen Wildstrom, who handled the Droid for a few hours, expressed some qualms. The touchscreen is "fast and responsive", though the position-sensing accelerometer sometimes slows. The software keyboard is "decent, but falls well short of either the iPhone or…the [BlackBerry] Storm2." The hardware keyboard (and not only the Droid's) strikes Wildstrom as "unbalanced and awkward." The almost perfectly flat keys made it hard to do touch typing, he says, and the largish five-way navigation pad positioned to the right of the keyboard seemed awkwardly placed.

Edge: On paper, the Droid gives you more options. But as Wildstrom's initial assessment makes clear, it's all in the details.

3. Operating systems

J.D. Power's surveys of smartphone users have consistently given the iPhone operating system the highest scores for reliability and ease of use. The Android operating system, on the other hand, is still a relative unknown even though devices that employ it have been on the market for more than a year.

But the just-released 2.0 version of Android offers an array of key improvements: multi-touch; synchronization with multiple e-mail systems; and a new framework that lets software developers more easily exploit the core synchronization engine for their own apps. Overall, the user interface is more polished and intuitive.

Despite the undoubted improvements, one Android developer, Justin Shapcott, founder and lead developer at, says there are a range of bugs and fixes that Google still has not addressed in Android. And with the SDK's release this week, with the Droid itself due in two weeks, that creates a brutal schedule for Android developers to become familiar with the SDK, test compatibility and fix any problems they encounter, "let alone create great new apps that take advantage of these new features for a Day-1 release."

Both Verizon and Motorola are stressing the fact that Android has multi-tasking (as does the Palm Pre and for that matter Windows Mobile) – the ability to run several applications at once – switched on, something that Apple severely restricts on the iPhone. But so far, that fact hasn't sparked a stampede of users. Multi-tasking's significance may lie in how developers can exploit it to inter-relate user functions, as long as those active applications don't step on each other, or drain the battery.

Edge: The iPhone operating system has an edge in maturity, now in its third year of release. But Android 2.0 would seem to demonstrate that the open source OS has moved into the big leagues.

4. Applications

Apple's App Store now boasts more than 100,000 native iPhone applications, while the Android Market offers just over 10,000 for the growing line of Android phones.

But the raw numbers don't tell the whole story. The issue is whether Android users can find the apps they need on the Market to add value to their phone.

Google is leveraging its cloud-based offerings with aggressive mobile development. The Droid, by virtue of Android 2.0, comes with the just-released Beta version of Google Maps Navigation, a free, turn-by-turn navigation app that plugs into the phone's GPS data, and via text and voice search, into continuously-updated Google Maps. GPS meets the Internet.

The Droid's Web browser, updated in Android 2.0, is based on the open source Webkit engine, as is the Safari browser on the iPhone. Part of a new breed of mobile browsers, they represent a tectonic shift in mobile access to the Web. Both Apple and Google have been aggressive in bringing full browsing capabilities to mobile devices, including the early deployment of HTML 5, which is a still-developing standard. The result is increasingly fast mobile browsing, with growing capabilities to run Web applications locally and store data and application information locally.

The Droid browser now includes support for a double-tap on the screen to automatically zoom in and out, and it's been designed to support Adobe's upcoming release in 2010 of Flash 10. Apple so far doesn't support Flash on the iPhone.

Edge: Apple leads in numbers, but Droid highlights the Web-centric bias of Google's application vision.

5. Carrier quality

IPhone users love to complain about AT&T. And they've got lots of survey data to back them up, as Verizon has continuously come out ahead of AT&T in customer satisfaction rankings and studies on call quality and data coverage.

Recent research has indicated that AT&T's iPhone users fall into two distinct groups, with those who switched to AT&T from another carrier to get the iPhone far more critical of the carrier.

The controversial Droid ad campaign shows Verizon is betting heavily on being able to make the Droid a hit with subscribers. It's not just the number of Droid users, or the number of defections from other carriers that Verizon is counting on. The key is how Droid owners actually use their smartphone. And, if they mimic iPhone users, Verizon could end up with some of the same network and customer service problems that plague AT&T.

The iPhone's most important success has been opening users' eyes to the mobile Web, a world of data. AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega earlier this month revealed that just 3% of the carrier's smartphone customers, presumably iPhone users, use 40% of all smartphone data on the network, and consume 13 times the amount of data of the average smartphone customer.

Edge: The Droid-Verizon combination for now has an edge. Unless Verizon suffers a massive network meltdown between now and November, the edge goes to the Droid. Also of note: Verizon will be the first carrier to start rolling out 4G LTE technology sometime next year.

This story, "Motorola Droid vs. Apple iPhone 3GS: finally, a contender?" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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