A 21st Century Battle of Operating Systems

Rekindling the history of the Pirates and the Clones in a smartphone world


1983. One year before the premiere of the original Apple Macintosh, Steve Jobs rallies the defeated Apple team to change the world. Although few still fully realize how impressive the next year would be for computing, “modern” technology will always be drastically different because of it. Hoisting a Jolly Roger above the Apple Headquarters, Jobs presented three propsitional commandments to the rag-tag development team:

The pirate flag, as posed for Fortune Magazine in 1984.

1. Real artists ship.
2. It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.
3. Mac in a book by 1986.

For the few that represented Apple Computing, it was finally time to defeat the clones of IBM and Microsoft.


Today, there are movies and plays and history books that depict the famous rivalry as if it was a time long past. But today, the conversation of “who eats who” is still just as fiery— even though Apple is as far from rag-tag as it can be. No Jobs doesn’t mean no spirit, and the company’s strive to identify as those who “think different” seems as potent as ever, as the major smartphone competition increasingly becomes an IBM clone reincarnation. Now that the Mac team is long gone, and their figurehead rolling in his grave, who are the pirates? Most assert that it’s the developers, be them mighty or independant. So why would you choose one over the other?

iOS

Peeking through seas of gradients and secrecy are a triumphant wave on Apple developers who, interestingly enough, don’t quite work for Apple. We are the iOS devs, a set of people who populate the ever-growing communities of StackOverflow, and the Developer Forums. With a comforting nest of information in both APIs and jumping-off points, iOS developers are made to be in good hands. Although it’s not always quite as believable as they’d have you think (iTunes Connect, at the time of this article, still remains a pile of terrible design and implementation optimized for iOS 6), it’s easy to believe there are thousands on thousands of us. Out of pure technical interest, it’s easy to create usable, playful applications on iOS. From concise WWDC sessions to simple frameworks and classes (UIInterpolatingMotionEffects I’m looking at you), pushing new content to the three screen sizes (iPhone 3.5", iPhone 4", iPad) and two resolutions (Retina, non-Retina) is always lively. When troubleshooting, there are an infinitesimal amount of resources available, and when testing, services like Testflight are unstoppable for support and distribution. Yes, developer provisioning profiles and development certificates (requirements for any form of debug, testing, or distribution) are a hassle, but only for the first few projects. In a sense, iOS is a pleasure to create for— although no problems are made too much easier, or work done for you, it’s leagues away from vanilla coding for most other platforms, in most other languages (Objective-C and the clang compiler are godsends).

Android

Quick, without hesitation, and jam-packed with features, Android is the mobile operating system that unleashes itself. With hundreds of devices (and almost equally as many screen sizes and densities), Google has somehow brought the market of TVs (and the gradual introduction of HDTVs, Plasma Screens, 3DTVs, iris scanners, etc) to your palm. How does it size up against the mighty, glossy iOS-ers? Not to bad! On tag results alone, Android takes the cake. The developer portal, although daunting, is welcoming, and the prospect of an OS that’s run on in-house open source code is beyond intruiging. Objective-C versus Java seems like a piece of cake, but Android’s flavor of Java isn’t quite what you’d expect, and there are a fair amount of differences through compilation and environment alone. So, is Android the future? Hm.

iPhone or Droid (xkcd #662)
In Gary Hustwit’s 2009 documentary film Objectified, Rams states that Apple Inc. is one of the few companies designing products according to his principles.

Fascinating, no? Two beautiful systems built on a massive amount of devices, on fluctuating consumer bodies. Everyone on the iOS side wants to believe that Apple may still be the pirates, and those on Android praise the freedom and thriving attitude that make up a root-able future. On one side you have Design As Little As Possible, on the other, The Power Is In The User. One side, smooth scrolling and hundreds of thousands of apps, on the other, jittery performance and a bleak collection of ports. One side, no prospects for amicable freedom or sensical design momentum, the other, an unstoppable future of unlocking and an admirable vision for mobile design.

The hope was to end this article with a decision. A bottom-line. But there is none. And I still have yet to form complete thoughts on the best system. Android is tactile, fully-featured, but Apple is smooth, and feature-perfected. For me, I think the winner is always a jailbroken iOS— allowing everyone to keep the incredible apps, fan base, developer community, and performance, of plain Apple, with the addition of an Android-like symposium of hacks, freedom, and thrill of expansion. The evasi0n logo alone makes me feel like a pirate. Plus, I think all the good designers are here.

Please let me know your thoughts, I’d love to add to this train of thought.


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