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What iPhone 4 means for Android

What do iPhone 4 and iOS 4 mean for Android, and will Apple's latest handset affect Android's steady advance? CNET's Kent German and Bonnie Cha debate the answer.

iPhone 4
What does it mean for Android? James Martin/CNET

Apple's new iPhone 4 marks the company's latest push in the smartphone wars. With a revamped design, an assortment of new features, and the new iOS 4 operating system, iPhone 4 is the device's biggest leap forward since the iPhone 3G. We now have long-awaited features like multitasking, the "Retina" display puts it on par with the iPad, and Apple's FaceTime feature has the potential to finally bring video calling into the mainstream.

Though Apple CEO Steve Jobs barely mentioned Android in last week's keynote address, Google's operating system has become Apple's biggest rival in the smartphone space. Sure, Microsoft is developing Windows Phone 7, RIM continues to pump out new handsets, and Palm is hanging on, but Android is expanding and innovating by leaps and bounds. And as the two companies face off, Apple and Android fans are not afraid to hash it out in online forums.

So what do iPhone 4 and iOS 4 mean for Android? How will Apple's latest handset affect Android's steady advance? Honestly, there's no correct answer and anyone who covers the industry will have their own opinion. That's why I got together with smartphone guru Bonnie Cha to debate these issues. And after you read what we have to say, tell us what you think.

First off, since the iPhone 4 is just one phone and Android is an entire OS, can you really compare them?

Senior Editor Kent German: Absolutely, because you need to look beyond the hardware at the core software. Regardless of how many phones each OS is on, the Android and iPhone operating systems represent two different visions for how smartphones will develop. Apple offers a highly organized and polished experience, but user-customization and choice on the iPhone are lacking. Android, on the other hand, is all about choice and personalization, but Google's OS can seem too technical for some users, and a bit ungainly.

You can argue that one side is better, but then you'd miss the point of what's happening here. The iPhone and Android are natural rivals and consumers get to select the vision that's best for them. Do they want want everything in Google's cloud or do they prefer Apple's ecosystem? As each camp continues to innovate, the fight will continue to be heated.

Senior Editor Bonnie Cha: I think the better and fairer comparison would be between Android OS and iOS. It's been interesting to watch the development of these two OSes, and how much the gap has closed between them, especially with Android 2.2 and iOS 4, but they're also very much doing their own thing.

With iOS 4, Apple is now on par with Android and other operating systems in terms of multitasking, folder management, and e-mail, among other things. However, Apple's focus still seems to be very much on entertainment features (e.g., iBooks and iMovie for iPhone). Meanwhile, Android seems to be concentrated on some performance issues like making the OS faster, allowing you save apps to an SD card, and mobile hot-spot capabilities.

Android and iOS 4 are the two hottest platforms right now, so the comparisons are going to be inevitable. However, they should also be celebrated for their differences. In the end, I still think it's not about which one is better (stand down, fanboys) but rather, about having a choice in OSes and finding the one that's right for you.

Do you see iPhone and Android users as the same?

And should he be worried?

Kent German: In general, I don't. Some users will make a choice because they believe in one of the visions I've outlined above. Alternatively, other people will pick a phone simply because they adore or loathe all things Apple. I'd say these two groups are the minority, but they are a vocal minority.

Most users, however, are choosing the iPhone or Android for more specific reasons. They may prefer the iPhone's ease-of-use or they're attracted to the device's multimedia capabilities and the extensive app selection. Alternatively, those selecting Android may want a physical keyboard, they prefer using memory cards, or maybe they just don't want to use AT&T.

Bonnie Cha: It's starting to head in that direction, but I think there's still a bit of differentiation between iPhone users and Android users. Because the iPhone is so easy to use and because of Apple's brand recognition, I think the iPhone has a broader reach with consumers. We've said it so many times before: You can pick up the iPhone and just know how to use it. It removes some of the intimidation factor for people who normally wouldn't even think about getting a smartphone.

Meanwhile, Android still has a bit of a techie feel to it so, historically, I think it has attracted more gadget lovers and tech-savvy individuals, but I believe that's changing. With devices like the Motorola Droid and the HTC Evo 4G calling attention to the power and great capabilities of the Android platform, I think more people are giving Android a second look, especially when they aren't willing to switch carriers or are hesitant to get the iPhone because of the reception problems.

With the new features that iOS 4 and the iPhone 4 bring, does the iPhone gain new advantages over Android?

Kent German: My favorite new features from iOS 4--multitasking, home screen folders, and the unified e-mail box--Android has always had. Apple fans may argue that the iPhone now performs those functions better, but not everyone will agree. I'll have to wait until I review the iPhone 4 before I can weigh in.

The iPhone continues to rock as a media player and the addition of iBooks and iMovie will keep it on that path. Also, it will be very interesting to see how FaceTime develops. Though I'm not convinced video calling will ever really take off, Apple has a talent for repackaging an existing feature and making it popular. With FaceTime, Apple might be able to trump Android on that front.

I'm not ready to name the Retina display as an Apple advantage just yet. It looks nice, but the HTC Evo and Droid Incredible also have stunning displays. We'll see how they compare when we give the iPhone 4 a formal review.

Outside of the new additions, iOS 4 still holds a few advantages. Loading movies on the iPhone is easier, the app selection is more robust, and some features, like cut and paste, are a little more elegant. Most importantly, however, iOS 4 won't suffer from the fragmentation that we see on Android (yes, we still think fragmentation exists). Because the OS runs only on one phone, all iPhone 4s will get updates at the same time

Bonnie Cha: As I said earlier, Apple does a really good job of integrating entertainment/multimedia features on the iPhone and its app store is hard to beat. Android still struggles a bit in this area. Just try the stock Android media player and you'll know what I'm talking about, and with new features like iBook and iMovie for iPhone 4, Apple will continue to build its lead in this area.

I'm also curious to see the FaceTime video chat and multitasking capabilities. Kent, I think you've mentioned this before during one of Jobs' keynotes, or actually Jobs might have said this himself: Apple may not always be first to introduce a feature, but it is the ones to really do it right. If you need an example, just try to copy-paste on both platforms. Whether that will be the case with the aforementioned features remains to be seen. I'm also anxious to check out the iPhone 4's screen and camera quality to see if it's really that much better.

What advantages do Android phones still have over the iPhone?

Kent German: Android's biggest advantage is that it runs on multiple carriers and on multiple handsets. Seriously, you can't understate just how important that is. Other advantages are a removable battery, more user customization and openness, a multiple notifications bar, and USB mass storage support. Remember those original "iDon't" commercials for the Motorola Droid? They were so effective because they clearly pointed out these advantages.

Bonnie Cha: One of the biggest advantages Android has is the fact that it has multiple OEM and carrier partners. Having more than one choice when it comes to phone design and service provider is huge, and I think that's why we've seen such a surge in Android adoption. Also, as much as we're frustrated by the fragmentation, I can still appreciate that Google is plowing ahead with new features and sharing them with the public.

To that point, openness is certainly a benefit of Android. The ability for individuals and OEMs to customize Android is a wonderful thing, and though the Android Market might not have as many apps as the iTunes Store, at least Google gives developers more freedom and is't so stringent about which apps are approved for the store. And the openness isn't just limited to software: it's nice that Android devices have user-replaceable batteries and expandable memory, especially now that Android 2.2 will allow you to install apps onto SD cards. And, oh, did I forget to mention the upcoming support for Flash and tethering/mobile hot-spots?

Do you see the any of the new iPhone features as a direct response to Android?

Kent German: I don't think that's Apple's corporate philosophy. Though its designers and engineers are certainly out to beat the competition, they don't have a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. Of course, they analyze the strengths and weaknesses of their rivals--and Jobs loves to point out the latter in his keynotes--but Apple set its course with the iPhone long ago, and Android isn't going to faze them much.

Bonnie Cha: It's hard to say. I think Apple runs on its own schedule and the company's so secretive that it could have had some of these features in the works for a long time. I think someone once made the joke that Jobs probably already has all these great features baked for the iPhone, but he just releases them crumb by crumb to keep people hungry and coming back for more.

All kidding aside, I can't help but think that some of the new iPhone/iOS 4 capabilities are in direct response to the competition, and I'm not just talking Android. Take multitasking, for example. I think Apple was pressured to respond to the great multitasking capabilities of Palm's WebOS, and we're finally getting it in iOS 4. (On a side note, I still really love WebOS and hope HP really uses it to its full advantage.)

Is Apple really playing catch-up, as some have asserted?

Kent German: If you define catching up as "adding features that someone else already has," then I would say yes. But Apple would never see it like that. For the reasons I stated above, I don't think that Apple introduced multitasking just because Android had it first. I'm sure that Apple always meant to include multitasking, but it wanted to do so only in the way that it saw fit. And if that means offering multitasking later than everyone else, then so be it. Apple fans may complain about the wait, but they'll wait it out. Whether Apple's way is the "best way" is open to interpretation, but that's a whole other discussion.

Remember also that Apple often often fails to introduce many features that are commonplace on competing devices. Think about it...we went years before we saw an FM radio on the iPod and I'll bet that you'll never see an expandable memory slot on the iPhone. Apple plays on its own terms--if it's going to add a new feature, it's only going to do so when it's good and ready.

Bonnie Cha: On paper, it certainly seems so. Multitasking, folder management, threaded e-mails--come on, we're just now getting this on the iPhone?

Frankly, I was completely underwhelmed by the iPhone 4 and iOS 4. Of course, I welcome the new hardware changes and additional functionality, but there was nothing there that really made me jump out of my seat, and it did seem a little bit like a game of catch-up to me. But like I said, Apple has its own rhyme and reason for doing things the way it does and it certainly hasn't hurt the company's bottom line, so clearly something's working for them.

What does the iPhone 4 mean for Android? Should Google respond?

Kent German: As I said, iOS 4 has erased a few of Android's feature advantages. The battle hasn't been redrawn, but it's been rejiggered a bit. Android needs to respond, of course, but it can't look like it's trying too hard. Android has been successful so far because it offers a quality alternative to the iPhone experience. It's successful because it hasn't tried to copy the iPhone, and I hope it never tries. Really, what would be the point?

By continuing to offer that alternative experience it will continue to thrive. All it needs to do is concentrate on its strengths, mainly an open OS, a choice of manufacturers and carriers, and a less controlled experience for users and developers. And, of course, innovation and a constant stream of features won't hurt.

Bonnie Cha: Google should keep on doing what it's been doing. I think it's pretty clear that Google isn't just responding to the competition, but also blazing a trail of its own, which is the right thing to do. It shouldn't be about tit for tat or company against company; it should be about innovating and looking for ways to make the devices better so they better serve the customer. That's why I like that Google is, among other things, working to make Android faster.

How do you see the battle developing over the next six months?

Kent German: Even without reviewing the iPhone 4--that should happen on or around its June 24 release date--I know that when it comes out it will get a lot of attention for a couple months. Apple products always get the spotlight, and the iPhone is perhaps the biggest spotlight grabber of all. But after summer wanes, and after we get an Android OS update, and more high-profile Android handsets go on sale, Google will grab the spotlight back.

The biggest wild card is whether the iPhone will come to other U.S. carriers. AT&T is such a stigma at the moment that it is scaring some current and potential iPhone users off. But if iPhone users suddenly have a choice in carriers (even if it is just T-Mobile) that could spell trouble for Android. And as Bonnie points out, how Microsoft, Palm and RIM--the latter is desperately in need of an OS upgrade--will respond will be fascinating to watch.

Bonnie Cha: Let's be honest. The iPhone 4 is probably going to do really well for a number reasons, the first being that it's Apple. The difference this time around is that the iPhone won't dominate. With the range of Android devices on all four of the major U.S. carriers and the rate at which new smartphones are coming out, Android's market and mindshare are only going to go up. I think the more interesting question over the next six months will concern how the likes of Microsoft, HP/Palm, and Symbian will respond.