What Google's Honeycomb Has That Apple's iOS Lacks

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Apple iOS vs. Google Android
During the Apple iPad 2 launch, Apple supplied only a few morsels of what to expect from the version of iOS that will ship with the iPad 2. That's fitting, perhaps, given that what we heard makes iOS 4.3 sound like only a nominal revision of the operating system. What we didn't hear was anything about the company's plans to take iOS to the next level. As Android continues to ramp up, Apple needs to consider what elements in competing mobile OSs are missing from iOS--and how best to integrate those elements into its winning interface.

Google's Android 3.0 (Honeycomb) isn't the only rival that Apple needs to think about--HP's WebOS is another threat. HP has outlined an ambitious strategy for getting WebOS out into the wild on tablets, phones, PCs, and printers. And both Honeycomb and WebOS have some key features that Apple's iOS lacks.

Here are four areas in which Honeycomb has a head start.

Widgets: Making the Home Screen Come Alive

Most of the widgets I've seen so far for Honeycomb are well implemented, and they demonstrate the power of having information at your fingertips. In the Honeycomb universe, widgets are modules that you can place on one of the six home screens, and they provide easy, finger-flicking access to a Website (such as AccuWeather.com or YouTube) or resource (such as your e-mail, books, calendar, or Web bookmarks).

Apple's iOS remains a static, one-way experience. So far, nothing about iOS screams immediacy; rather, it's all about activating an app to get your updates. (Yes, you do receive notifications, but those are fraught with their own issues; see the next section.) I don't want Apple to mess with the fundamental serenity of its device, but I do want the company to get with the connected-everywhere program and allow widgets as an option. I can imagine an iOS first home screen that presents a couple of widgets and then shows frequently used apps, all arranged to suit the user's individual needs. Or maybe it should have an extra, widget-only pane beyond the search pane. Or, better still, perhaps it should reveal the widgets only on command, as Apple's next Mac OS, Lion, will do; there, a multifinger swipe gesture will reveal a pane of widgets.

Notifications: More Convenience, Less Disruption

Notifications on Apple's iOS remain poor. When they pop up, you have to exit what you're doing and move into the originating app--which may have to restablish its connection first (depending on how the app was written).

By contrast, Honeycomb's approach to notifications is much more direct, and less disruptive. If you receive an incoming text or e-mail, you'll see the item pop up at the bottom-right corner of the screen (with or without an audio alert). The alert then disappears on its own, without interrupting what you're doing, leaving behind only an icon in the notifications pane to indicate that something awaits. If you tap at the bottom right, the notifications display expands upward. The design offers an easy way to stay abreast of what's going on.

Settings: Improved Flexibility, and a Dashboard

Apple's iOS holds appeal in part because of its simple elegance. iOS doesn't offer nearly as many tweak options as Honeycomb does, and that's mostly a good thing. It would be nice, however, to have a greater degree of customization on iOS. I'm not asking for excessive options that would overwhelm the user or mirror Honeycomb. But I would like more customization options, implemented in ways that most benefit the iPad and positively affect how people use it.

For example, I'd like to see easier-to-use on-device functions with regard to app management and folder organization. As it stands, app management--whether through iTunes or via drag-and-drop on the device itself--can become unwieldly when you have a large collection of apps. I'd also like the ability to customize my most frequently used options and move them forward, to minimize how many layers down I have to go to reach them. If anyone can figure out how to make a settings dashboard work elegantly, it's Apple--and I want to see what the company can do.

Direct Transfers: Streamlining File Management

It's odd that a "post-PC" device, as Steve Jobs calls the iPad, requires a PC for updating the operating system. Regrettably, you also need a PC to transfer files to the iPad (at least, if you want files associated with specific apps or the photo gallery). Ditto for backing up your app data, and for syncing your music and video library with iTunes.

iTunes has long since outgrown its original purpose as a music manager. A decade has passed since its introduction, and now it juggles far more tasks than originally intended. As an app, it's in need of a serious overhaul. iTunes must now handle file-management and backup chores, and it's the single worst file-management program I've seen for any platform. All iPad users have accounts with iTunes--why can't we use the cloud just as we do on Amazon or Google?

The IPad would enjoy a huge boost if users could handle account management directly on the device. At the least, we should be able to do that for music, videos, and apps purchased via iTunes. The idea of a digital locker isn't new; and persistent rumors point to changes in Apple's MobileMe that would turn the service into Apple's complementary cloud component for the iPad.

Beyond basic backup and syncing concerns, the iPad and iOS would greatly benefit from Apple's opening up the "walled garden," even if it merely provides a common holding pen within the walled garden that individual apps can choose to access. Drag-and-drop file transfers are one of Android's strengths. And the lack of interoperability remains a blemish on iOS's record in comparison with Android. As the tablet market competition heats up, I can see iOS's lack of direct file transfers becoming more of an issue for consumers.

Wait for WWDC?

To a degree, Apple's reluctance to say more about iOS isn't surprising. We still need to hear plenty more details, such as how the dual-core A5 CPU will handle multitasking. I'm betting we'll hear far more information about iOS (5.0, perhaps?) in the lead-up to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in June. Typically, that's where the company has discussed major iOS revisions, with rollout tied to the next iPhone release.

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