Updates are weapon in mobile war


The latest battle between Google and Apple for supremacy in the mobile market pits revamped Android against new iOS4, writes CIARA O'BRIEN

THE COMPETITION between Google and Apple has become increasingly fierce in recent months, with both firms striving for the top spot in the mobile market.

Striving to close the gap with Apple, Google has pushed out an update to its popular Android platform. Announced by the search giant in May, Android 2.2, or Froyo, may not have drastically changed the operating system, but it does contain some important upgrades.

However, Android is not the only one to get an update. The much-publicised iOS4 for iPhone was made available to users last month, bringing with it more than 100 new features or tweaks for 3GS users.

The iPhone operating system has one benefit. Unlike Android, which is available across a range of handsets, all with hardware capabilities, iOS4 only works with the iPhone – and the iPad of course. That limits it to the iPhone 3G, 3GS and 4, and Apple knows what hardware is in these handsets. Owners of the original iPhone are stuck with the previous operating system. Android, in contrast, is found in everything from entry-level handsets to high-end smartphones. While it means there are more handsets using Android, it also means the hardware profile is more diverse.

Like iOS4, however, Froyo is not compatible with all Android-powered handsets. It is not yet clear which handsets will be left on 2.1.

Apple has had tight control on how the operating system update was pushed out. You must connect to iTunes to get the update, and it was made available from June 21st. Android allows updates to be downloaded over the mobile data network, or through Wi-Fi, and you don’t need to connect to a PC to install it.

One of the key changes in the Froyo update – and the most useful – is the boost in speed, both for applications and the native browser. The system is more slick, and works better than its predecessors.

While many users may have downloaded alternative browsers such as Opera Mini, the native browser is still an important part of the system. It’s faster than its predecessor, and in some basic tests showed up as speedier than Apple’s Safari on the iPhone. JavaScript-heavy pages load quicker, thanks to the V8 tweaks.

A key advantage of the Google system is that it supports Flash. Although it can slow things down considerably, it offers consumers the option of accessing the content, rather than dealing with Apple’s decree that the standard will not appear at all on the system.

Multitasking is something that has been available on Android handsets for some time now. In fact, the Motorola Droid made it a key component in its advertising campaign, pointing out exactly what the iPhone couldn’t do. Apple’s latest operating system brought in multitasking for its 3GS and iPhone 4 users – the 3G is not compatible with that particular feature and, as previously mentioned, the original handset will not work with iOS4 at all.

While multitasking was one of the most eagerly awaited features of iOS4, it got a somewhat muted reception. This was due mainly to the way multitasking operated – ie, in a limited fashion. In a lot of cases, it’s not “true” multitasking. You can’t start an application and leave it working in the background. Most of the time, it merely suspends the application and remembers its state.

There are some exceptions, for example with GPS or music applications, which can now run in the background while you browse the web or check e-mail. Android, however, allows you to start browsing a web page and go check your e-mail before returning to the browser, which has been working in the background. The new feature also depended on iPhone developers updating the applications to take advantage of the multitasking option, however limited. This is somewhat of a slow process, with updates rolling out all the time.

However, the iPhone does have one advantage: while there’s an easy way to shut down the applications running in the background on iOS4, the same option is not afforded to Android users. The upshot is a slowly draining battery and, eventually, a dead phone.

Yet another update for the iPhone, the ability to create folders, is nothing new to Android; it’s been available since the Cupcake version – Android 1.5 – was rolled out. The iPhone version was a latecomer to the party. Up until now, your apps were spread over numerous pages. It was an unwieldy system rectified with iOS4. The iPhone version of folders, typically, looks better than the Android version.

Both operating systems offer Microsoft Exchange accounts, but iOS4 brings multiple accounts to the iPhone. Android has also beefed up its Exchange support. It offers account auto-discovery and calendar sync. Security has also been improved, and a remote wipe for lost or stolen devices can be performed. It also supports the Global Address List function.

Google’s developers have also brought the ability to install applications to an external storage medium, such as an SD card, to handsets. This opens up the capacity, quite restricted before. Apple does not offer external storage, but the memory users could install applications in was much greater.

Certain Android phones can now be used as a Wi-Fi hotspot, and the 2.2 update introduced USB tethering. Tethering has been enabled in the iPhone for some time, although carriers were slower to embrace it.

Overall, Apple has a slicker, more neatly packaged system. While it remains a more popular system than Android, this could change. Research firm IDC has predicted Android will overtake Apple in the mobile market by 2013 and, with some developers viewing the open platform as an increasingly attractive prospect, Apple may soon have a fight on its hands.