Android still has one killer feature up its sleeve

commentary At Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) this year, we saw the latest iteration of iOS unveiled with a laundry list of updates to extend the growing appeal of the iPhone. But, there's still one key feature that Apple isn't likely to improve enough, to catch up to Android.

While iOS 6 features Apple's new 3D Maps app, Facebook integration and an update to Siri, the platform still has one big weak spot: alerts.

It's hard to argue that Google's Android is more usable than iOS, overall. The truth is that iOS is a more limited, simplified experience, but that makes it easy for most users to pick up and start using right away, and makes it hard for them to get themselves in to trouble by mis-configuring things. By contrast, Android is more flexible and customisable, but it can also be more difficult to navigate, and more apt to confuse smartphone novices.

However, the alerts system is the one area where Android is just flat out more useful and more usable than iPhone. If that sounds trivial, it's not — especially for business professionals and others who do a lot of stuff with their smartphones. Alerts give you timely updates of important information, quickly let you know about things that need your attention and give you an at-a-glance look at your latest messages from various sources.

Apple made big strides with its alerts system in iOS 5 — taking obvious inspiration from Android — but even the vastly improved alerts system still didn't match the power and efficiency of what Android offers. In fact, iOS 5 didn't match Android 2.3 Gingerbread, which still powers the vast majority of Android phones. Meanwhile, Google enhanced the alerts functionality even more in Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, which debuted at the end of 2011.

The biggest advantage that Android alerts have over iOS alerts is its immediate glance-ability — and a lot of that has to do with the fundamental design of the platform. That's why iOS appears unlikely to catch up in this area any time soon.

What I'm really talking about when I say "immediate glance-ability" is that, when you turn on the display on your Android phone, you see a bunch of little badges in the top left corner of the screen. They let you know you've got new messages, that a calendar appointment is about to happen, someone is talking about you on social media or there's a severe weather alert in your area.

Android badges

(Credit: Jason Hiner/CNET)

In iOS, you actually have to swipe down from the top of the screen to open the Notification Center, and then scroll through your whole alerts list by app to see what all you might need to address. A lot of iOS users just aren't in the habit of checking the Notification Center since it's a newer addition to the platform.

iOS Notification Center

(Credit: Jason Hiner/CNET)

More often than not, the habit in iOS is to see if your apps for Mail, Messages, Calendar or Twitter (or various other apps) have their red alert badges in the upper left corner activated, with the number of important new things you haven't seen yet. Then you go straight into each app and check the new stuff. Lots of iOS apps can use the red alert badge now and it's handy for the stuff you want to track most often, but it's obviously not as efficient as that quick glance in Android.

iOS alert options

(Credit: Jason Hiner/CNET)

Once you get past the glance-ability, Android also has iOS beat when you dive into the listing of alerts. Ironically, iOS is actually more configurable and customisable in its listings, but Android's default configuration nails it, and that's more important since most people never change the defaults. While iOS lets you decide how many alerts you want to show for each app and how you want to organise them, Android simply mixes up the alerts and shows them in chronological order from the time they happened. In Android 4.0, you can also simply swipe right to dismiss individual alerts, which isn't possible in iOS.

iOS vs. Android alert messages

(Credit: Jason Hiner/CNET)

Another thing to keep in mind here is that Google is just really good at alerts and Apple isn't. Take a look at what Google has done with Google+ alerts by building them into the universal Google toolbar and giving an excellent at-a-glance look at the activity that's happening around your Google+ content. Meanwhile, Apple has still never built a decent universal alerts system into Mac OS; the most popular solution is the third party app Growl.

Google+ alert

(Credit: Jason Hiner/CNET)

Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of other things that Android does better than iPhone, but Apple is catching up quickly. Alerts represent the one area where Android is a lot more friendly and usable than iOS, and that's unlikely to change any time soon, unless Apple does a more drastic redesign of the user interface of its home screen.


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Runrate posted a comment   

Nice to see Apple catching up.


SpiceTrader posted a comment   

Everyone can learn and improve, problem is that they're not allowed to learn from each other anymore, because if they do someone hits them with a lawsuit (Yeah, I'm looking at you Apple.)


arspoon posted a comment   

Um, I hate to burst your buuble, but you seem to be forgetting that notigications appear on the iPhone lock screen, which is, in fact, pretty much the same thing. Depending on taste, a more elegant solution than tinny little icons messing the top of your screen and giving you more info about what the alert is actually about.

So I'd kinda call this story a fail.


Dunners posted a reply   

If you have a facebook posts, twitter comments, emails, appointments, sms' and missed phone calls how would you know without trawling through all your app screens..?
Even with your lockscreen pop ups you have no way to glance and see exactly what you have missed. You have to trawl your way through your notification drop down, multiple pop ups or constantly flick through your app screens.
Android, glance and you can see exactly what is there, dropdown for more info, shortcut to or to delete. Hands down, faster, easier and more efficent for 'business professionals and others who do a lot of stuff with their smartphones' as specified at the start of the article.

The article doesn’t say that iOS doesn’t have notification features, it just says that Android’s have better ones which are more useful.
PS. droids have pop ups on the lockscreen to :)


Toni BerndH posted a comment   

How about the WP7? I think even android can still learn.


Will1505 posted a reply   

To a point, windows is the best of both worlds, nice layout but still customisable.

Hopefully WP8 fixes the massive limitations that the platform has.

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