Apple's iPhones may seem more cool, but the Google-backed Android phones are much more popular in the United States. In 2011, Android's U.S. market share was 53 percent, compared with 29 percent for the iPhone, according to the research group NPD.
And those Android phones are everywhere, even in food trucks. Kristi Whitfield owns Curbside Cupcake, a Washington, D.C.-area
company. When customers show up without cash, Whitfield uses her Android phone to process their credit card payments with a system called Square. It lets her swipe the cards on her phone, and email or text receipts to customers.
Whitfield says that at first, she used an iPhone for the transactions. But then she switched to Android.
"We started on the iPhone," she says, "but then as we got more phones for the trucks, we went to the Android. It was an affordable choice, and it worked just as well as the iPhone, and it was the right choice. We didn't need all of the things that the iPhone did just to run our business."
Open Source, And Less Oversight
Pricing, usability and simplicity are all part of Android's appeal. But Hiawatha Bray, a technology writer at The Boston Globe, says there's one other thing that makes Android stand out —
it's "open source." Basically, Google lets the world see, and tinker with, its Android code.
"Anybody can take their software, break it down, analyze it, see how it works," Bray says. It allows Google to get apps to its Android market with remarkable speed. So when Apple introduced the voice-recognition technology Siri on the iPhone 4S, Android wasn't far behind.
"There's this guy in Bangalore, thought that [Siri] was cool," Bray says. "[He] tried to create a knockoff, which he called Iris. Within a day or two of Siri, people started to get a crude imitation."
But the Android app market is also something like the Wild, Wild West, Bray adds.
"Google tells you outright — 'We don't do any kind of testing to make sure this app is safe,' " Bray says. That means malware and spyware can make it onto Android phones through apps. It's a problem Apple doesn't have because it tests its apps.
An Android 'Commando'
Another advantage for Android is that it's available on multiple phones and service providers, so there are many types of smartphones running the operating system. And some can do things iPhones can't.
One example is the Casio G'zOne Commando. Verizon's Brenda Raney says the phone met a number of military requirements before it went on sale, making it possibly one of the toughest smartphones on the market.
Raney says the Commando was submerged in water; survived winds up to 40 miles per hour; was subjected to heavy dust for six hours; and endured saltwater spray for 24 hours. It also withstood solar radiation, pressures at 15,000 feet below sea level, and survived high temperatures of 185 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 13 below zero.
You could call it the indestructible Navy SEAL Team 6 of smartphones. I tested a Commando at home, with my friends Madeline Clayton and Ryan Whalen.
We threw it down the stairs. We tossed it into a frying pan. And the final test? Beer. We submerged the phone, which retails for between $179 and $449, in Budweiser.
The Commando rang when we dialed its number as it sat in two beers. "And it's bubbling!" exclaimed Clayton, as suds frothed from the phone's vibrations. "It's bubbling!"
A Mobile Rivalry
Bray says the Android-iPhone dynamic can be compared with another pair of competing brands. If Apple is Starbucks, then Android is, perhaps, Dunkin' Donuts. "Both companies produce good coffee," says Bray. "But I gotta admit, I prefer Dunkin' Donuts because it's so unpretentious and straightforward."
It's the kind of comparison that makes the case that the Android isn't just an iPhone competitor, but almost its antithesis.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This has been a good year for Android phones. IPhones might seem trendier, but more people have Android phones, and even more are buying them in the U.S. and around the world. For our series A Good Year, NPR's Sam Sanders explains why Android is so strong.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Google should definitely be celebrating this New Year's Eve. This year, Android's market share was 53 percent compared to 29 percent for the iPhone. And those Android phones, they are everywhere.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Two vanilla with the chocolate tops.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Two chocolate with vanilla tops.
SANDERS: Drew Green's(ph) being a good boss and picking up a dozen cupcakes for the office at a food truck called Curbside Cupcakes in northwest D.C.
KRISTI WHITFIELD: All right. So that's going to be $27 and we'll swipe this right here for you.
SANDERS: Green's paying for the transaction with a credit card. She swipes it on an Android phone with a system called Square. It's Kristi Whitfield's phone. She's one of the owners of Curbside Cupcakes.
WHITFIELD: We started on the iPhone, but then as we got more phones for the trucks, we went to the Android. It was affordable choice and it worked just as well as the iPhone, at least, and so it was the right choice for us because we didn't need all the things that the iPhone did just to run our business.
SANDERS: Pricing, usability, simplicity. These are all part of Android's appeal, but Hiawatha Bray, a tech writer at the Boston Globe, says there's one other thing that makes Android stand out: It's open source.
HIAWATHA BRAY: Anybody can take their software, break it down, analyze it, understand how it works.
SANDERS: It allows Android to get apps in their market with remarkable speed, so when Apple introduced Siri, the voice recognition technology on the iPhone 4S, Android wasn't far behind.
BRAY: There's this guy - and I think he's in Bangalore, India - who saw that, thought that was cool and tried to create a knockoff, which he called Iris, and it started appearing on the Android market, and within a day or two of Siri, people with Android phones started to get sort of a crude imitation of Siri.
SANDERS: But they don't just imitate. Android is available on multiple phones and service providers, so there are all kinds of Android phones and some can do things that iPhones can't.
For example, the Casio G'zOne Commando.
BRENDA RANEY: It has been submerged at a depth of three and a quarter feet for 30 minutes, subjected to rain at 3.9 inches per hour.
SANDERS: This is Verizon's Brenda Raney. She's listing all of the military caliber tests the Commando went through before it went on sale.
RANEY: ...test for one hour, subjected to saltwater spray for 24 hours, subjected to 95 percent...
SANDERS: So, yeah. You get the point. This is like the indestructible Navy SEAL Team 6 of smartphones. To prove it, I tested it with my friends Madeline Clayton and Ryan Whalen. We threw it down the stairs. We threw it in a frying pan.
MADELINE CLAYTON: Stirring the phone.
RYAN WHALEN: Slow simmered phone.
SANDERS: Final test: beer. We submerged the Commando in Budweiser.
WHALEN: It's the king of beers.
SANDERS: Would anyone ever try this with an iPhone? Well, they could, but they might not hear this sound at the end of the test.
WHALEN: Oh, my God, it's ringing.
CLAYTON: And it's bubbling. It's bubbling.
SANDERS: But Google's still got room for improvement says Hiawatha Bray, especially when it comes to Android's apps. Right now, the Android market is something like the wild, wild West.
BRAY: And Google tells you outright, we do not do any kind of testing to make sure that this app is safe.
SANDERS: That means malware and spyware on Android phones. It's a problem Apple doesn't have because they test their apps. Bray says the Android-iPhone dynamic can be compared to another pair of competitive brands. Apple is Starbucks. Android, Dunkin Donuts.
BRAY: Both companies produce good coffee, but I got to admit, I prefer Dunkin Donuts because it's so unpretentious and straightforward.
SANDERS: It's the kind of comparison that makes the case that Android isn't just an iPhone competitor, but almost its antithesis. Sam Sanders, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.