Saturday, October 31, 2009

SmartPhone Comparison

Posted by Hidayat Hidayat at 6:27 PM
I found this comparison of the current generation of smart phones to be interesting. Droid is shaping up to be a heck of a phone. I don't think it's going to pull a lot of people away from the iPhone, but I think it will do well and will probably be the biggest boost for the Android platform to date.

Are there really 10,000 applications on the Android Market now? I'm somewhat surprised that it's that high. I think even if that number's true (Googling finds me a lot of people regurgitating this same estimate from an unofficial source, but I can't find an authoritative source for the actual number of apps in the store), that comparison doesn't really represent the true differential between the App Store and the Android Market. Not even 1% of the applications in the Android Market have been downloaded over 250,000 times (including free ones!), and less than a quarter of them have even been downloaded even 5,000 times. By App Store standards, almost every app in the Android Market is a failure, including the best selling paid apps. That will change, but it hasn't yet and it's definitely a factor in comparing the phones. The App Store is, to put it simply, far more than 10x better than the Android Market.

My concerns about Droid's battery life don't appear to be true if the numbers in this comparison chart are accurate. Although the standby time for the Droid is noticeably shorter than the iPhone, the talk time is greater by a comparable margin. I'm also wondering if these are manufacturer's claims, or real world results. I'm especially curious to see how the Android's battery holds up when playing games or video on that big, beautiful screen. I really wish I could get my hands on one of these for a few weeks. Actually, at some point, I may buy a developer phone just to try and do a real comparison of the platforms from a developer's perspective and also to see if there are any good procedures for developing apps for both platforms simultaneously. I probably won't do that until I'm sure Android has secured the #2 spot, though, and the Android Market starts showing more commercial potential.

One thing I've heard from a few people, and the videos I've seen seem to support it, is that Droid's use of hardware acceleration is really inconsistent. Certain things like video must be leveraging the GPU to work as well as they do, but many other aspect of the UI don't seem to use it at all, which means things like scrolling or zooming often seem sluggish, at least compared to the experience on the iPhone. It's a subtle thing, but the iPhone's ubiquitous ability to leverage hardware acceleration really is a big deal, and one that's not often mentioned in phone comparisons.

Also, I'm hearing mixed things about multitouch on the Droid. The best I can figure is that it does support multitouch, but doesn't make very extensive use of it. It seems to be at least the case that the default browser doesn't support multi-touch gestures like pinch-zoom, which I would find annoying. If anyone can clarify this for me, I'll be happy to correct the post with the right information.

Other than the bigger screen, the iPhone and Droid are surprisingly comparable. In a way, that's bad, though. I'm not sure that having a higher-resolution screen (which I've heard looks nice, but isn't really noticeable unless you put the screens next to each other) and a higher-megapixel camera is enough. I was kind of hoping that Android would kick the iPhone's ass in a few more categories, because that would be a great motivator for Apple. If the Droid is really trying to be an "iPhone Killer", it won't be enough to be as good as the iPhone. But, the smartphone space is big and growing, and the Droid doesn't have to be an iPhone Killer to succeed. It certainly looks to be better than what Palm is offering, or any of the Windows Mobile devices that are available.

I will admit that Droid does look to be a pretty darn nice piece of hardware. If Motorola were willing to invest some time and resources into making Android's interface more intuitive and less designed-by-committee and also was willing to throw some resources at implementing system-wide use of that big GPU they've got in the phone, they could have a real winner on their hands. They've got the hardware in place to challenge the iPhone, but it looks like they're still falling short on software. Even though they are falling less short than others, Software is still king, and until they get that right, they're going to continue to be bridesmaids, and never the bride.

One row in this chart that I want to niggle with a bit with is the multitasking row. First of all, the iPhone does have muli-tasking. It has a very good preemptive multitasking kernel very similar to the one in our Macs. The ability to use it just isn't exposed to third-party developers through the SDK. And, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

In the early days of the iPhone SDK, I was one of the loudest proponents of adding multitasking and background tasks to the iPhone SDK. There are whole classes of applications that would become possible if Apple did, and that's all I was concerned about as a developer. But, you know what? Now that I've spent twenty months with the SDK and know more about the current state of embedded hardware, I've come to realize Apple was right on this call. The time isn't quite right yet. The tradeoff is such that you are doing most of your customers a disservice if you allow multiple applications to run. I've seen multitasking on the HTC Hero, the Palm Pre, and on a few models of Windows Mobile phones, and having multiple background apps running can really kill your performance and your battery life.

Sure, you can just quit those apps if performance suffers, right. Yeah, if you're reading this blog, sure. But the iPhone isn't a device targeted only or even primarily at tech-savvy people like developer. I'm reminded of when I would sit down at a certain family member's computer and he would have every application he had opened since he last booted his computer. It never occurred to him to quit programs he wasn't using. I suspect that there are more people like this family member than like you and me in the pool of potential customers. On a modern computer with virtual memory, who cares if there's a bunch of unused applications open, since they don't really have much of an impact. But on a phone? It still matters.

At some point in the near future, it will make sense on phones, too. But for now, given the hardware limitations, more people will have a better experience if they don't let developers write background processes or let users have more than one app running at a time. Battery life will be longer in real world use, performance will be better, and there are relatively few applications that can't get by without this ability.

Frankly, I'll be honest. I hope Droid fails for a completely selfish reason. I want to see Verizon get the iPhone. Of all the cell phone companies I've used, they were the least obnoxious and had the best service. If they got the iPhone, I'd go back to them in a heartbeat, even if I had to pay a termination fee to cancel my AT&T contract. At present, I just don't see the Droid betting better by enough to lure me away from the iPhone as either a consumer or a developer.

Ah, enough Saturday night rambling. I've got to go finish Chapter 10 which needs to be finished by the end of the day tomorrow.

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