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Android vs iOS Part I: The User Interface & Design Philosphy

Friends often ask me which is better, Android or iOS. Between the staunch followers of each mobile operating system, it is really hard to get objective advice. I feel like new entrants to the smartphone market seem to be taking a poll, to help them make a decision. Me, I give them the one answer they do not want to hear: It depends.

Over a series of articles, I will try to give you the lowdown on the world’s two most popular operating systems.

Most people are familiar with the most discussed differences between the two platforms. Android and the iPhone have separate app stores. The majority of the apps are shared in common, but there are apps available for one platform which are not available for the other. We will revisit this in the future.

Android vs iOS User Interface

The other obvious difference is the user interface. The differences in the user interface reveal more about the two mobile operating systems than you think.


The Apple iPhone operating system, iOS, originally had a user interface composed of two basic elements: a fixed dock where you could put your four most frequently used apps, and several home screens where you could arrange your other applications. Spotlight, an in-device search tool was added by iOS 3.0 in 2009. Initially, it was a little more than an app launcher, with a settings and in-device search application.

The Android user interface varies with the different manufacturer implementations. The basic elements however are common. Android was launched in 2009 with a user interface which featured an app drawer, home screens, widgets, folders, a task switcher, a notification panel, and a context menu. The following year, Google’s manufacturing partners added a configurable dock. Moreover, a quick access to settings was incorporated into the notification panel. By 2010, the basic elements of the Android interface you have today have remained the same. Later releases focused on the divergent paths of adding functionality and streamlining the Android experience.

Over the past three years, the features of the two user interfaces have converged, with iOS adding folders, a task switcher, and a notification panel. This year, iOS 7 will add a Control Panel. Basically, quick access to some commonly used settings, accessible via a panel at the bottom of the screen.

Despite the convergence of elements in the user interface under the skin, the two operating systems are rather divergent, and will appeal to different types of users.

Design philosophy

The iPhone was originally designed to be used in conjunction with a laptop or desktop, preferably a Mac or MacBook. It interfaces with a personal computer through Apple iTunes software, now supplemented by iCloud and Air Drop. It is an excellent, intuitive smartphone operating system.

Android is different. With Android, Andy Rubin, sought to create a handheld computer. Like desktop computer systems, multitasking was built into Android from the start. Like desktop computers, Android also supported file managers. Interfacing with a computer requires no software intermediary. An Android phone can operate in mass storage mode, which essentially converts it into a portable hard drive. Connection to a Mac or Linux box is handled natively, while only drivers need to be installed for Windows.

HTCOneFile transfer can also be done through Bluetooth or through any computer with a web browser through WiFi. On a local area network, an Android device appears like any other computer. Some Android phone even support microSD cards and USB-on-the-Go and can connect to external storage. Then of course there is the Cloud. Android Web browsers can even support flash, to give you the full desktop web browsing experience (though ironically abandoned by Google Chrome for Android).

And there is where the difference lies. Google had no hardware ecosystem, so Andy Rubin designed a piece of hardware designed to work independently of, but with the ability to interface with, any other type of computer.

In deciding which of these two operating systems is better for you, that is the first thing you should consider. Apple’s iPhone is a smartphone with an excellent smartphone operating system. Google Android is a handheld computer with phone functionality.

The difference in operating system design philosophy has implications on the user experience, functionality and even the available apps. Over the next few days, we will look at more concrete examples.

Check out Part II and Part III of the Android vs iOS series.

Photo credits: Apple and HTC

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