iOS & Android: Walled gardens vs. free-for-alls

June 14, 2012

iOS 6 was rather obvious even before the accidental reveal, the laptops were getting long in the tooth (and don't even get me started on the desktop Mac Pro).

But even with the launch of the admittedly spectacular Retina MacBook Pro, the thing that jumped out at me most during the keynote wasn't about iOS, or even Apple. It was that only a tiny fraction of Android users are using the most recent Android OS. Apple of course trotted out that fact—complete with passive-aggressively snarky pie charts—as evidence of their superior mobile OS.

The fact that 80% of iOS users are up-to-date, but only 7% of Android users follow suit is rather stunning. As Apple paints it, these numbers are indicative of better user engagement and better software, but that's really just smoke, mirrors, and clever Keynote slides.

Since they control the whole widget, it's a lot easier for Apple to update the OS, and have users follow along. iOS users know that an update will work with your device. And you also know that apps will be tested against that update. So you (and most other users) go ahead install the new OS.

Android is a whole different story. With thousands of different Android devices in the wild, the update situation is much more complicated. All those manufacturers have to decide individually if they should support later versions on legacy hardware, and when you're in the business of selling widgets (tablet and otherwise) are you going to devote resources to updating older devices, or to making newer, faster, better ones?

The end result is that many Android users stay put. And that's indicative of the whole Android vs. iOS debate. One is a free-for-all, and safety isn't guaranteed. The other is a walled garden, where certain decisions have been made for you.

There are plusses and minuses on both sides, of course. Apple enthusiasts are outraged when Apple chooses to leave out a feature the other guys have. But when the other guys get bogged down in wonky apps and compatibility issues, they gleefully download new stuff with wild abandon, confident that Apple has done due diligence on users' behalf.

Android's double-edged sword

Android's openness is a classic double-edged sword. It allows developers tremendous freedom to innovate, but it does so at the expense of simplicity for both devs and end users.

I'll admit it. Android can be a challenge. It's my job to know all of these devices, but when I'm spending time troubleshooting, it's usually an Android device.

Even something as simple as taking a screenshot of an Android app can get very complicated. There are apps to do it, but they don't all work the same way, and they don't all work, all the time. Even digging into the Android Software Development Kit doesn't always help, and inevitably requires downloading hefty updates for each new device. On an iPad—any iPad—I hit a few buttons, and move on.

But that doesn't make the iPad a cakewalk. When it comes to changes to the OS, Apple is slow and deliberate—the audience at the WWDC keynote cheered for multiple signatures in Mail…in 2012.

Apple's notoriously finicky App store policies can also force developers to remove features from existing apps, which is frustrating and feels a bit totalitarian Big Brother.

But which one is better?

It's a question I get all the time. People always want to know what they should buy. But I don't engage in holy wars. Android is Android, and iOS is iOS. Besides, what works for me isn't what will work for you.

Apple's walled garden is great for stability, and the relative ease of development encourages lots of apps, which benefits users. But Android's Wild West mentality results in features and apps that iOS users can only dream about. Maybe Apple will bless them eventually. Maybe not.

In the end, I always encourage people to use whatever you like, need, or (in some cases) are forced into. I can't tell you which one is "better" because the true answer is neither. They're not better or worse, they're different.

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