Apple iOS vs. Android : the feature vs. user experience paradigm

Last month, Apple slashed the price of the iPhone 3GS in India to an affordable Rs.19,990. This was a logical move by Apple, given that the iPhone 4 has just been launched here. The iPhone 3GS is now a two year old handset and its specs have long since been outdated. Yet I was surprised to see how much interest  the news generated among some of my younger friends, who thought it was a solid bargain. For them, it was not about owning the latest phone with the best specs; it was about getting onto the iOS platform. It was about accessing the world's largest app marketplace. And above all, it was an opportunity to realise their dream of owning an iPhone at last, at an affordable price.

Obsolescence is here to stay. Intel created it in the world of PCs and now Android OS and handsets (especially from HTC and Samsung) have created it in the smartphone category. It's not a new thing, but what's new is that the cycle of obsolescence is shorter than ever before. It takes only a few months for hardware to get upgraded and Android is in perpetual beta. Unless you own a Nexus, you are dependant on the handset manufacturer to roll out an update - few people are intrepid enough to root their handsets and load custom ROMs. In effect, if you own the world's greatest smartphone, it's a tenuous title. You may be lucky to retain it for 3 months and then something better will come up.

But the Apple ecosystem exists in a little time warp. Yes, there are updates and upgrades, but they come at reasonable intervals. Older iterations and handsets are supported by Apple. If you have an iPhone 3GS, you are still way better off than someone running Android 1.6. The user experience on an iPhone remains a smooth and consistent one, even as features, processor speeds and hardware improve. That's why my friends can still see a value in a two year old handset with a tired spec sheet.

Android manufacturers have created this new paradigm of constant upgradation as a counter to Apple's paradigm of consistent user experience. Both are valid paradigms and both have a market. Android has leveraged it better because of a choice of handsets and price points. Today the iPhone 4 cost approximately Rs.34,000. For a slightly lesser price you can get the super-powered Samsung Galaxy S2 or the HTC Sensation. Both trump the iPhone 4 on specs. Both carry the aura and buzz of being the best smartphones on the planet. And for a substantially lesser price, you can get Android handsets that match the iPhone head-on in specs. But then people who buy the iPhone 4 are not buying specs, they are buying the iOS experience. You will pay for what you value.

And it's not as if Android does not offer a great user experience.  It does, and with Google's cloud venture taking off and Google Plus coming up, the user experience is only going to get better, with a tighter integration of personal data, and a strong native social interface built into the operating system. But it's very telling to me that when we talk Android handsets, we compare hardware specs. And when we compare iPhone with Android handsets, we compare user experience. This goes to prove my point that both operate with different paradigms.

And both paradigms require different conditions to exist and flourish. For Android handset manufacturers, constantly raising the bar on hardware is a must. This creates excitement, the image of a market leader and of course, generates sales. Remember the buzz around Samsung Galaxy S, only last year, and around Nexus S, only six months ago? First it was a 1 gig processor, now it's a dual core. First it was an AMOLED screen, then a Super AMOLED, now SAMOLED Plus. Hardware is what drives the excitement around the Android platform and sustains its market leadership status. It's easy to manufacture and upgrade hardware specs, so cycle times are shorter. And as newer hardware is introduced, it devalues the older hardware, so you can have products at multiple price points. It's a pricing structure that consumers can easily comprehend - you pay the most for the fastest, biggest processor, best screen etc. and less for lower specs. And in this paradigm, the Android OS simply rides on the better hardware which makes the user experience smoother, faster, better. Manufacturers do not rely on sales of Android apps for their own sustenance (though they may be earning money on app sales). Independent of the Android marketplace, the hardware itself facilitates so much - whether its an 8 megapixel camera, or HD video or super-fast browsing. You could enjoy the sheer plethora of features without needing to spend money on apps. This again probably explains why the developers in Android marketplace face a much bigger fight to be profitable.

With Apple, the focus is on building an interface that meshes tightly with the App Store - Apple makes a one time profit from sale of hardware but sustained profit through the lifetime of the handset comes from your purchase of content and apps from them. Therefore, the emphasis is on creating a smooth and reliable user experience which is enhanced through apps and services. In this paradigm, hardware ceases to be the central focus - indeed, post launch, Apple does not emphasise on it at all - though they emphasise on design. As long as your phone runs smooth and fast and does not crash, why would you look at the specs?

Also in this paradigm, to maximise your experience of any iOS device you would need to eventually purchase apps, content and services. If you use an iPad or iPhone you would know what I mean. There's no free lunch on an iOS device, though there are tantalising snacks to whet your appetite. The paradigm created by Apple has proved vastly profitable  - you pay a premium for the handset and then you pay to use it!

Each paradigm has its advantages and disadvantages for us as consumers. With Android phones, the constant flux can lead to confusion, and in my case, decision paralysis! An overload of constantly changing specs can make it hard to take a call. And you have to be prepared for everything to change, tomorrow. For some, that's exciting - for others its a cause of irritation, or even an entry barrier. And yes, there is huge freedom to customise, root, do exactly what you please. What's freedom for me, may be anarchy for someone else!

And with Apple iOS, there is the fabulous user experience - at a price. The decisions as to how you will browse, what will work and not work, have already been taken for you (Flash video? Easy transfer of files?). Speaking from a two month experience with my iPad, I would like to draw an analogy. It's like being in a luxurious, five star hotel room. Beautiful furniture, great food. You want something extra? It will be added to your bill. Sorry, the windows are hermetically sealed and you can't open them, but isn't there a fabulous view? You see the guy lurking below in the street? He's a jailbreaker. Talk to him and he will throw up a stone and crack the window. But we are not responsible for what happens if you let in the atmosphere :)

Which paradigm do you belong to? Or do you feel comfortable with both? I don't mind living in Apple's gilded cage for brief periods. In fact, I was so happy that initially I forgot about my laptop. But now I am re-discovering the freedom and flexibility that it offers, with relish. I think I like both - I like the freedom to mess around and then I like to spend some time in my five star room. And that's an honest answer!

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