October 13, 2012, 7:05 AM — It's sacrilege, I know: leaving the Apple fold for another platform. But it's an idea to consider, given the strong advances in the Android OS this year and the wealth of compelling devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S III -- especially given the relatively minor advances in iOS 6 and the modest hardware changes in the iPhone 5.
I still find iOS a better mobile environment than Android, but the gap is closing and the differences matter little to many people. Also, the iPhone's screen is -- let's face it -- small by today's standards. But with vendor lock-in being the grail for so many technology classes these days, the question remains: Can someone ensconced in the Apple ecosystem really make the switch from iPhone to Android? The answer is, surprisingly, yes.
There are several aspects of the Apple ecosystem beyond the polished user interface that tend to keep users in it: iCloud, iTunes, AirPlay, and the App Store. They generally work well across Apple's devices -- Macs, iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Apple TVs -- and make it easy to move from device to device while maintaining your services. Sharing is simple within the Apple ecosystem, and you quickly become dependent on iCloud's syncing, AirPlay streaming, and so on.
If you replace your iPhone with an Android smartphone, you're leaving that nicely integrated ecosystem, which can really matter if you use a Mac and iPad as well. Google has no effective competition for the Apple ecosystem as a whole, though some capabilities such as Google Drive, Google Calendar, Google Contacts, and Gmail replicate parts of it -- mainly in Web and Android environments. As a friend discovered when he tried to go all-Google, you can't really do that. Microsoft will debut its own ecosystem in Windows 8 to compete with Google's and Apple's, but it too is less capable than Apple's. If ecosystem matters to you, you'll still be Apple-primary, and your Android smartphone will need to fit in as best it can.
I spent several weeks finding out just how to bring Android into my computing world as my smartphone instead of my iPhone. I started with a Galaxy Nexus, the flagship device for Google's pure Android experience, but I quickly switched to the Samsung Galaxy S III because Samsung made several smart UI refinements to both Android and key apps that simply add up to a better user experience. That matters to me as a longtime resident of the Apple ecosystem, which I switched to after the Windows Vista debacle. Here's what I found.
iCloud: Some parts you can keep, others you can replaceApple's iCloud started as a synchronization service for browser bookmarks, contacts, calendars, and photos across iOS, OS X, and Windows, as well as -- just in iOS -- app documents. It's now been expanded to include OS X apps' documents (iCloud Documents) for not just syncing but also permanent storage, syncing Safari Reading List bookmarks and open Web pages (iCloud Tabs), and even syncing mail and other settings. It lets you move among your iOS and OS X devices while maintaining consistency of experience and documents. iCloud also provides an IMAP mail account.
You can use Google Contacts and Google Calendar to accomplish the same syncing for contacts and calendars across Android, iOS, OS X, and Windows. And you can set the Chrome browser in all those platforms to stay in sync -- both bookmarks and open tabs -- by signing into your Google account on each platform. Google Drive can be your cloud repository for your documents; many iOS apps support it. Alternatively, you can use Dropbox or Box for that purpose, as they work across all the common platforms, including most iOS productivity apps.
But can an Android smartphone participate in iCloud? Yes, for the parts that matter most. Here's how:
- You can add your iCloud email account to the standard Android Email app. To do so, add the me.com version of your address -- not the icloud.com version -- as the email address. The incoming server is mail.me.com, and SSL should be on. The outgoing server is smtp.me.com, TLS should be enabled, and you need to require sign-in using your me.com address as the username and your standard iCloud password for the password.
- You can have your Android Calendar sync to your iCloud calendar bidirectionally if you buy the $3.77 SmoothSync for Cloud Calendar app by Marten Gajda. His $3.77 SmoothSync for Cloud Contacts app does the same for iCloud contacts. Both work easily. My only hesitation in using them was that, as is true for most users, my iCloud password is the same as my iTunes password, and you need to provide your iCloud login credentials to these apps for them to work. It makes me nervous to share such a key credential when dealing with a small developer on a platform notorious for phishing-oriented malware. Apple does let you set up separate iCloud and iTunes accounts, though that is not the default -- I advise you to do so.
You won't be able to participate in iCloud Documents, but Apple limits that service in such a way that you're likely to use a cloud storage service like Google Drive or Dropbox anyhow. (iCloud Documents requires that you use the same app on your OS X and iOS devices -- Keynote presentations can be opened only in the Keynote app, not in other apps that would support the file format, for example.)
On an Android device, you can't participate in Safari's Reading List or iCloud Tabs, but switching to the perfectly good Chrome browser on your Android devices, iOS devices, Macs, and/or PCs gives you the equivalent functionality.
Finally, you can't tie your Android smartphone into Apple's Find My Phone service, which is also part of iCloud; this handy tool lets you remotely find, send an alert tone and message to, lock, or wipe a missing iOS or OS X device from any iOS or OS X device or from the iCloud.com website. You'll need to use something like Lookout to do the same for your Android device should it get lost. But you can use your Android device to find, lock, or wipe an iOS or OS X device via iCloud.com.
iTunes music and video: Sync or streamThe cornerstone of the Apple ecosystem is iTunes, which started as a music library and repository but has grown to include videos, podcasts, e-books, ringtones, iOS device backups, and the amazing iTunes U free courseware library. There is no equivalent for iTunes in any other ecosystem. No self-respecting Apple user would stoop to playing the file-copy game via USB or SD cards to sync such files.
But Google does offer the free Music Manager app for OS X and Windows that syncs your non-copy-protected iTunes music with the Google Play online service that can then stream or download via Google's Google Play store to your Android smartphone's Play Music app. Your Android device likely has other music apps on it, such as from its manufacturer, which can be confusing. Play Music is Google's standard music player, which ties into the Google Play service. Ignore your device's other music apps.
For music, free Google Play service works like Apple's $25-per-year iTunes Match: You upload your music to Google Play, which then can stream it to any Android device that is tied to the same Google account. Apple's iTunes Match downloads any songs to your iOS device that you want to play, making it permanently available on that device. Google Play streams any music to your device unless you explicitly save it to the device (through an unintuitive but simple process). Thus on Android, you need to be careful about burning up your cellular data plan from music streaming. Fortunately (like iOS), you can set the device not to stream or download music unless you have a Wi-Fi connection.