When the iPhone first came out in 2007, it lacked cut-and-paste and an App Store, and cost almost $600. Today, Apple outsells every other smartphone manufacturer, and companies like Motorola race to build phones with features like 4G wireless Internet before Apple does.
The smartphones made by Apple's competitors usually run Google's open-source Android operating system, which offers a "generic-brand" version of the iPhone's user experience. In some ways, Android is less polished, but it offers features that the iPhone lacks, like home screen widgets.
The thing is, whenever an Android feature is actually good, and improves the user experience -- like cut-and-paste, or a pull-down notification area -- Apple builds it into the iPhone sooner or later. And when it does, it does it with class and superior attention to detail, making it work the same way for all apps unlike the Android free-for-all.
With this in mind, one has to ask: Is there any point in buying an Android phone that has new, half-baked "features" the iPhone lacks, when Apple will just "do them right" later on? And are there any Android device makers that show an Apple-like attention to polish and detail?
Losers of the features race
Motorola and Samsung are some of the biggest Android device manufacturers, with their own lines of smartphones and tablets. But Samsung is being sued for copying Apple's designs almost exactly. And Motorola seems to think that the biggest selling point of its Android tablet, the Xoom, is that it's not an iPad.
These companies take Google's stock Android OS and build devices around it, layering on a "skin" like Motorola's MotoBLUR or Samsung's TouchWiz that tends to be poorly reviewed. But wait, you ask: Aren't both companies doing extremely well in the market? Actually, no. They both sell millions of handsets, but make only a few dollars from each, while Apple's per-unit profits are sky-high. It seems that their strategy is to sell phones as cheap as they can make them, and then "make it up in volume."
Companies like HTC, meanwhile, sell slightly classier Android smartphones, which compete less on "specs" or "features" and more on the HTC Sense user experience. And while Samsung's new 10-inch tablet is almost identical to the iPad, hardware-wise, and to most other Android tablets software-wise, HTC's Flyer tablet and Barnes and Noble's Nook Color both offer their own unique user experience. The Flyer is based around HTC's pressure-sensitive stylus, while the Nook Color is designed first and foremost as a simple e-reading tablet, with a multitouch web browser and app market included.
The way to go?
Competing with Apple on "features" works in the PC world, where manufacturers like HP can make extremely cheap computers to compete with the Mac. But an Android smartphone, on contract, costs almost as much as an iPhone 4 does, making it a less attractive proposition. And Apple sells its old phones, like the iPhone 3GS, at extremely competitive prices on AT&T's network.
It seems like the way to go is Apple's iPhone, unless you already have reasons to prefer Android, or you know of a truly unique Android device which stands on its own. And is its own brand-name product, instead of another throwaway Android smartphone.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.