What I'm about to attempt--comparing Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich with Apple iOS 5--is a little like tiptoeing through a minefield. Most of you won't be happy and somebody could get hurt. (Read: me.)
Yet, this comparison must be done. For one thing, Google and Apple have both recently unveiled huge changes that respectively make their mobile operating systems far more powerful, and in some ways more similar to each other. For another thing, weighing the pros and cons of each platform against the other is a scenario that's played out daily among many people who are deciding which phone to buy.
Just a few parameters before diving in. First, I'm overwhelmingly looking at software, not hardware, but I'll point out where hardware does factor in. iOS 5 runs on multiple devices, but is the most powerful right now on the iPhone 4S. Ditto Ice Cream Sandwich. The unreleased Samsung Galaxy Nexus is the one phone that can currently show off the OS update's full spectrum of features, since it was purpose-built to be compatible with them all. That will change for both operating systems as additional future devices are built with the hardware to support the new software.
Second, I'm not just talking about new additions, but trying to look at the OS in its entirety.
Third, I'm looking at what each OS can do natively. Yes, there are scores of third-party apps you can download to do just about anything to satisfy something that one OS lacks that another has, but what we're looking at here is what Apple and Google have decided to bestow, not clever external developers. And I'm not talking about anything you can achieve only by jailbreaking or rooting. Official, but optional apps created by Apple and Google are OK--like Find My Friends and Google Voice.
Third, I'm throwing in two "fun" features for each (these will be the last two). I wouldn't recommend buying an iOS 5 or Ice Cream Sandwich device solely because of them, but they're pleasantly show-offy conversation pieces unique to each platform.
Got all that? Let's go.
ICE CREAM SANDWICH
Bold, powerful UI
For those who already use it, there's nothing hard about Android. Yeah, you have to know that sometimes you need to access the menu or long press for more options, and there are some extras you can get by swiping in certain places on the screen. But no other major OS can top Android's flexibility in terms of customizing the multiple home screens with stills or moving animations; widgets galore; and apps, apps, and more apps. Ice Cream Sandwich ups the ante by making widgets resizable, too.
And iOS 5?: Apple takes the opposite philosophy and opts for simplicity. There's customization in arranging apps the way you want them and in choosing which items you want in your notifications pull-down and how you take your notifications in general.
Turn-by-turn voice navigation
For many people, this is the platform's ace-in-the-hole. Broken out from maps, Google's turn-by-turn voice navigation for driving directions can effectively replace your in-car dash or GPS navigator--and possibly save you hundreds of dollars.
And iOS 5?: Integrated Google maps are great, but there's no voice readout.
After logging in with your Google account, the instant account-based access you get to Gmail, Google Maps, the contacts, the calendar, Latitude, and chat are great. I personally rely on Google Voice as well.
And iOS 5?: Gmail is integrated into iOS, you can sync the calendar as well, and Google maps are a de-facto part of the OS (minus voice navigation.) You can download Google apps from the App Store, too. The Google Voice app has a better layout for iOS, in my daily experience, but it's also slower and much less stable.
Ice Cream Sandwich brings on a whole lot of new photo tools, the most significant of which are the photo-editing tools in the image gallery. They include red-eye reduction, straightening, and "hipster filters," whatever those are. The camera app itself adds a useful panorama mode that seamlessly creates a landscape still.
And iOS 5?: Here's one of those places where it's hard to separate the software from the hardware because iOS 5 has great software image rendering, but photo quality also requires the image sensor and camera lens. The app itself lets you switch between the camera and camcorder modes, and between the front and rear cameras. You can adjust the flash level and turn on a grid or HDR mode, but that's about it. In the camera roll, you can create a slideshow, plus crop, rotate, remove red-eye, and auto-enhance, but from the looks of it Ice Cream Sandwich will have more features. We'll know more about those and their quality soon.
This won't appeal to everyone right now, but NFC (near-field communications) is becoming a big deal in mobile. If you have an NFC-compatible phone (this is where hardware comes in), you'll be able to use the on-board Google Wallet software right away to pay for purchases by tapping or waving your phone near a compatible terminal (MasterCard users can get going.)
Yes, there are still a lot of requirements, and Android isn't the only NFC-capable OS (Windows Mobile, BlackBerry, and Symbian already support it). But Google's partnerships and software put it in a good position to be immediately useful as the technology ramps up in the U.S.
And iOS 5?: No NFC for iOS 5 yet; it's one of the features we were collectively hoping to see in the update.
The benefit Android's openness to other manufacturers' custom interface designs is debatable depending on which side of the conversation you're on, but it gives cell phone-makers and carriers the opportunity to offer new features and visual experiences that are variations on the Android theme.
Some people prefer stock Android, just as Google designed it. Others appreciate accessing tools and information in ways that Google didn't envision. The company has clearly borrowed some innovations from these custom UIs, like bring able to open a specific app in conjunction with unlocking the phone (rather than unlcoking to the hom page, then opening your app.)
And iOS 5?: iOS is a famously closed ecosystem, and whether you love it or hate it is a matter of personal opinion. There's also something to be said for uniformity in terms of your expectations of how a phone will behave, and in offering consistent customer support.
Android Beam is fun too, but I think facial unlocking is even more novel, fun, and interactive because it (optionally) uses the front-facing camera to recognize your features and let your into your phone. So smile! It's also wholly unnecessary, but a harmless party trick.
And iOS 5?: It'll be the boring power-swipe combo for iPhone, every time.
Right now the Samsung Galaxy Nexus will be the only compatible device, but put two of them together and they can transfer content like contact information, maps, and details of running apps (the app you've got open will trigger your friend's phone to open the product page for that app in the Android Market.
And iOS 5?: The closest you can get is a third-party app, but this isn't native.
You can't argue with the idea that when you pick up an iPhone, you already know how to work it. There are increasingly more hidden tricks: taking screen shots, opening the "multitasking" menu, accessing universal search, operating the notifications pull-down, and launching voice actions (or Siri), but for the most part, what you see if what you get, and there aren't any hidden menus in the apps. Those standardized icons are easy on the eye, too.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: The app tray isn't front and center, the menu system can add a layer of complexity, and there's a bit of a higher learning curve to take advantage of all you can do. The uncurious may overlook some of Android's customization options because they don't know how to find them.
From the very beginning, iTunes and iPod integration is what made the iPhone a killer. It's simple to store, play, and buy music. iOS 5's wireless syncing forgoes the need to plug your iPhone into the computer to sync songs. Now, as long as it's charging while you're connected to Wi-Fi, you can set it to automatically sync with iTunes.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: Android borrowed iPhone's strengths as a music player, but the Android showing is so far slim, and it's closest feature, Google Music, is still a rough beta that's very much in development.
As I mentioned above, this one's stickier because there's no way to completely separate the hardware and software. The camera app interface in iOS 5 is simple to operate, and not very deep, but there's great editing software behind the scenes that help photos render with crisp detail and good color representation, even on an iPhone 4 running iOS 5. HDR mode is a nice plus. However, the camera's lens and image sensor qualities also play a significant part in the making of good mobile photography.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: The OS has a much richer feature set than iOS, with photo-editing software and panorama mode built in. However, the photo components that each manufacturer uses for their armies of Android handsets will cause the image quality to vary from Android 4.0 phone to phone.
No OS can boast more apps than iOS' more than half a million. Not all are good, it's true, but Apple blew the app store concept wide open and everyone else scrambled to follow.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: Android may have the second-largest app store, at over 250,000 titles; that's half the size of the iOS storefront.
BlackBerry may have pioneered in-ecosystem messaging with Blackberry Messenger (a.k.a. BBM), but Apple has succeeded in making it a seamless part of the messaging app. The phone will automatically switch between iMessage and a text message when it detects that the other user is also on iOS 5. Translation: it won't count against your texting plan, so more texts for you.
Giving credit where it's due, Windows Phone got to the IM/text convention with its "Mango" update before iOS 5 launched, and Mango taps into Windows Live Messenger and Facebook chat.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: Google Talk is a separate app that's preloaded into Android, but which is separate from the texting app.
One of iOS 5's most significant additions, iCloud does over-the-air syncing from the device to the cloud (no more USB connection to the computer!) and syncs content like apps, music, and contacts, so you can later restore. You can also wirelessly edit photos, manage e-mail folders, and create and delete calendars. iCloud is an excellent resource for syncing music you own.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: Android has long enjoyed over-the-air OS updates, and its online Android Market also takes advantage of over-the-air app installation. Google Music is one big cloud feature, but as I mentioned above, it's still too rough around the edges to really be a killer feature (give it time though).
Probably iOS 5's most buzzed-about feature, Siri is the voice-triggered assistant with an attitude that replaces the Voice Control app. She's fun to talk to the way you would converse with another person, and comes up with some snarky responses to some inquiries that make her the talk of the town.
Much like before with voice commands, Siri can create reminders, search for directions, text people, call you a cab, and so on. The real innovation is the flexibility in which you can phrase your questions, like: "Do I need an umbrella today" rather than "Weather San Francisco." Ultimately, the shot of personality is fun, but the abilities aren't substantially different than what's already out there. Besides, like all voice command apps, Siri's comprehension ain't flawless.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: Android has also had its own voice actions app, which can launch navigation, calls, texts, search, and more, at your command. It lacks Siri's "personality."
If all the people you want to talk to have iPhones on Wi-Fi, FaceTime is great. The in-ecosystem video chat app won't make you look your best through that front-facing camera, but it does work without taking away from your minutes, and it's a neat addition besides. FaceTime is hardly innovative--mobile video chats through front-facing cameras existed long before.
And Ice Cream Sandwich?: Thanks to Google+ (a downloadable app at this point,) there's video chat through Hangouts.
Is it only a matter of time before these platforms and other converge? In some senses yes, but what Apple and Google have both demonstrated is an ability to keep pushing the envelope to add their own special touch--for example with iOS's Siri and Ice Cream Sandwich's facial unlocking. Whichever mobile ecosystem of the spread you personally prefer is a matter of personal opinion, and a reflection of the features or philosophy you value most.
At the end of the day, that's a decision you have to make and defend on your own. But when it comes to which OS does one thing better than the other, it's sometimes a little more clear-cut, but neither one here lacks for compelling reasons to jump on their gravy train. And that's good news for everyone.
Article updated 10/20/11 at 6:03pm PT: To correction about Android's video features and iOS 5's camera-editing tools.