iOS & Android: Market Positioning and Typography

Apple goes for beauty while Android goes for functionality

iOS and Android now have very similar features, implemented with roughly the same ease of use, and with Apple playing feature catchup about as often as Google. So, the biggest remaining difference between the two OSs is arguably how they’re marketed, with corresponding differences in how they look and how the devices are priced.

A big part of this difference is that Apple markets the iPhone explicitly as a beautiful, status-conferring product whereas Android is marketed mostly as the collection of features that compose it, tied to some supplementary values like choice/customizability and affordability.

The Android site invites users to “Browse Devices” and extolls Android’s other virtues, but it rarely uses the word “beautiful”. It has fewer images than Apple’s site, and the images it does have are smaller. Apple’s visual overhaul in iOS7, meanwhile, is very fashion conscious, as Khoi Vinh pointed out in a thoughtful post.

Another key difference is that Apple markets the iPhone as being about people, while Android’s marketing focuses on the technology as a “beyond smart” tool that gives the user more ability/control—an idea directly embodied in the name “Android”. To put it in Apple-ese, you use an Android but “fall in love” with an iPhone.

I don’t think these differences in marketing and design can be entirely explained under the assumption that Apple and Google are aiming to appeal to the same people, but that one company (i.e. Apple) is simply executing better than the other. Rather, it seems like Android’s designers are placing a relatively higher value on function, while iOS’s designers focus more on form.

One interesting example of this is with the two platform’s choice of primary typeface. Apple uses Helvetica Neue, whereas Android uses Roboto, a font Google designed in house specifically for Android.

While Roboto and Helvetica are quite similar, they differ in enough ways that it’s not fair to call Roboto a Helvetica rip-off, as some have done. In short, Roboto is much less smooth, even, and rounded than Helvetica, and instead feels more mechanical, which fits with Android’s other marketing.

Helvetica’s ‘b’ at left; Roboto’s at right.
Then ‘Quirky’ in Roboto followed by ‘Quirky’ in Helvetica. Finally, Roboto’s variable stroke endings followed by the uniform stroke endings of Helvetica.

This effect is produced in a number of ways.

First, where a curved stroke meets a straight one (as in a ‘q’ or ‘b’), the connection is gradual and gentle in Helvetica but harsher, and much more interesting, in Roboto.

Second, capitals, like the ‘C’, ‘G’, ‘O’, ‘S’, and ‘Q’, which are fairly round in Helvetica, become much narrower in Roboto, as do the rounded portions of lowercase letters like ‘b’, ‘c’, ‘e’, ‘g’, and ‘o’ (see above). Roboto also has a jointed ‘k’ that’s wonderfully idiosyncratic.

Finally, while all the letters in Helvetica end in a consistent, ordered manner (see left), those in Roboto have varied endings, which is highly unconventional.

Because of these harsher angles/curves and inconsistent letter endings, most people would agree that Roboto is far less beautiful than Helvetica, especially at large sizes where the letter shapes shine.

Helvetica’s on top. At larger sizes, Roboto’s capitals feel too narrow and the ‘a’ feels unbearably loose.

But, while Roboto’s differences make it less beautiful than Helvetica, they also make it much more legible at small sizes and for long blocks of text. It’s in this way that Apple is clearly trading function for form by choosing Helvetica.

Precisely because Helvetica is so smooth and consistent, it’s bad for on-screen reading. Its evenness makes it harder for the eye to move along the line, and some letters, like the ‘e’ and ‘g’, are forced to close up in order to comply with the font’s program of 90º or 180º stroke endings. Helvetica’s characters are also pretty wide, so Roboto can and does build in a little extra space around each character, which improves legibility while the final result is still no wider than Helvetica.

Here’s a side by side comparison.

Helvetica, at left, closes up in some places (e.g. ‘augue’) and the negative effect of its evenness is clear, especially in “flat” words like ‘accumsan’.

While typography is, of course, only one way in which Android and iOS position themselves differently, I think it’s an interesting case study. If, as Khoi asserted in the post linked earlier, “digital devices are becoming ever more a part of our thinking about style and personal presentation, and digital media as a whole has been striving to appear less male-centric, less geeky, more worldly”, then the tradeoffs Android’s making with Roboto may not be a good strategy. But in its current position as the cheaper iOS alternative that’s also good for geeks and tinkerers, it may make sense.