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What do you sacrifice by choosing an Android-based phone over an iPhone running Apple’s iOS operating system? How different are the two?

BY ANTHONY DOESBURG

If you don’t already have a smartphone, the chances are you will within the next year or so.

Worldwide sales of the devices, which put email in your pocket and come with numerous other productivity (and time-wasting) applications, almost doubled in 2010. This year, the pace is expected to pick up further.

In total, just over 100 million smartphones flew off the shelves last year, says market researcher Canalys. And as sales boom, seismic shifts in market share are accompanying them.

WINNER

Last year’s big winner was Android, the smartphone operating system from Google that runs on phones made by, among others, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, HTC, LG, Motorola and Huawei. Vodafone, Telecom and 2degrees all feature Android-based phones in their smartphone product line-ups.

The casualty of 2010 was Nokia. Android has passed Nokia’s Symbian to become the global smartphone market leader, Canalys told AFP in February.

That doesn’t mean Nokia doesn’t still sell the most smartphones — it does, with 28% of the market. But its market share fell last year from 44%, as Android’s climbed from 8.7% to 30.6%.

Although still able to claim more than a quarter of the market, Nokia sees the writing on the wall. It is not only up against an ascendant Android, but Apple’s iPhone and RIM’s Blackberry have also eaten into its sales.

In February, Nokia boss Stephen Elop announced the company was pulling the plug on Symbian and would work with Microsoft to put Windows on its handsets.

PRICES

The competition may be painful for the Finnish company, but it is a tonic for smartphone buyers who might previously have been put off by high prices. The proliferation of Android devices has pushed smartphones below the $300 mark.

For about that price, 2degrees sells the Ideos U8150 from Huawei; $50 less gets the own-brand Vodafone 845 (although early this year it was out of stock online); and the best Android smartphone deal from Telecom in February was a Samsung Galaxy i5503T for $349.

DIFFERENCE

What do you sacrifice by choosing an Android-based phone over an iPhone running Apple’s iOS operating system? Perhaps not much.

Cheaper Android models such as the Ideos U8150 are unarguably less well made and pleasurable to use. But rather than a comparison of handsets, the Android versus iPhone choice comes down to picking which smartphone “ecosystem” offers best value.

This is where Apple has shown its genius, leaving Nokia floundering, and Android and others — including Microsoft — in catch-up mode.

When the iPhone went on sale in 2007, “Apple blew everybody away”, says Tim Hayward, the mobile devices product manager at 2degrees, “and everyone has been scrambling to catch up since.”

Apple’s ground-breaking achievement, apart from making a phone that continues to be the industry quality benchmark, was creation of the App Store. As an online distribution system for iPhone applications from third-party developers, it drew on an existing element of the Apple ecosystem, iTunes.

From iTunes on a PC, or directly from the iPhone, users have access to hundreds of thousands of applications in the App Store. The measure of its success is that early this year the App Store reached 10 billion downloads.

There are apps for remotely accessing company financial systems and networks, currency converters, mapping tools for finding routes in foreign cities, tip calculators, memo recorders and countless games to play and e-books to read between meetings. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

As ecosystems go, it is vast, simple to plug into and closely controlled by Apple, which restricts the applications the App Store stocks.

The Android market, however, is closing in on Apple’s first-mover lead.

A standard Android handset comes with numerous Google apps, including Documents, Maps, Latitude, Calendar and Gmail. Supplementing that set through the Android Market can be done directly from the handset or through the web, requiring a Gmail account.

WHICH IS FRIENDLIER?

Which ecosystem is the more user-friendly? US publication Network World compared them at the start of the year and, although declaring Android Market the winner in areas such as updates, refunds and web access, overall honours went to Apple for being easier to browse and having a wider app selection — about 280,000, versus Android’s 200,000.

In terms of the cost of apps, it found the average price of Apple’s top 100 to be less than half Android’s; but 60% of Android Market’s apps are free, versus 29% in the App Store.

In the end, there wasn’t much in it. And when it comes to handsets, too, 2degrees’ Hayward thinks it’s too close to call.

“If you showed a high-spec Android phone and an iPhone to somebody from Mars, they’d have trouble distinguishing between the two. They’re both phenomenally capable systems.

“I think if you get into the detail you have strengths and weaknesses in each but, to be honest, it comes down to personal preference.” [END]

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