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What Android and iOS Can Learn From Each Other

Patent fights and marketing hype aside, each of the two leading smartphone operating systems has some key features the other would do well to adopt -- for the benefit of consumers.

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Yet another patent trial pitting Apple against Samsung, the biggest maker of Google’s Android phones, has come and gone. And the two leading smartphone makers are, as always, battling it out in advertising.

But the truth is that each of the top mobile operating systems — Android and Apple’s iOS — has some obvious features that the other is missing. And it would benefit consumers if each adopted its own version of these. For all you lawyers out there: I am not advocating patent violations. I frankly don’t know which, if any, of these features are patented, or otherwise unable to be emulated. But I do know that Apple and Google have each aped some of the others’ features in the past, apparently legally.

There are numerous differences between the two platforms, and, on the Android side, these differences are multiplied by the many variations of Google’s interface that handset makers create. I certainly don’t think that iOS and Android should be identical. I believe in competition.

However, there are a handful of key, core items that stand out as especially useful on one platform or the other. I picked these based on my use of Apple’s iOS 7.1.1 running on an iPhone 5s, and Google’s Android 4.4.2 running on a Samsung Galaxy S5 and a Google Nexus 5. I focused only on the built-in software, not hardware or third-party apps.

These are some things Apple and Google could learn from each other.

Email: Android typically comes with two email apps, one of which is strictly reserved for Google’s Gmail. If you have personal or work accounts that aren’t Gmail accounts, you have to use the second email app, which is usually somewhat stripped-down. This is ridiculous, in my view. The iPhone manages to handle Gmail and numerous other types of email accounts in just one solid email app, and includes a unified inbox for all of them.

On the other hand, Android’s main email app, the one for Gmail, allows you to attach any file to an email as you are composing it. The iOS Mail app only allows you to attach photos and videos while composing a message. To attach other file types, you have to compose the email by starting in an app that creates, edits or displays those kinds of files. That’s also ridiculous.

Screens: In both systems, the screens are mainly filled with icons that launch apps. But Android offers more creative options. For instance, you can add a variety of “widgets” that give you a peek at content — news, weather, media, your calendar and more — without launching apps. On iOS, there are no widgets. Another plus for Android: You can pin, right to the home screens, any contact in your address book for quick texting or dialing.

Quick Settings: Because wading through smartphone settings can be tedious, both platforms include a quick-settings feature — with a subset of common settings, like turning on airplane mode or adjusting brightness — that you access by simply swiping from the top or bottom of the screen. Android had this feature first, but I prefer Apple’s version, called the Control Center. It’s cleaner, more logically organized, and it isn’t commingled with notifications, as on many Android phones. It even includes quick access to other frequently used items, like music playback controls, a flashlight feature and the calculator.

By contrast, on the latest Samsung, the “quick” settings are so long you either have to swipe through a row of icons wider than the screen, or select an even more extensive list with 20 settings that includes marginal items. However, Android gets points for including an icon in its quick settings that takes you right to the full settings app. Apple doesn’t.

Privacy control: On iOS, there’s a special settings section for controlling privacy. It allows you to decide which apps can use your location, contacts, calendar, photos, microphone and more — all in one place. Some of these options are available on Android, but I couldn’t find any similar, detailed, unified privacy-control panel on the latest Samsung, Nexus or HTC models.

Customization: Apple doesn’t allow iPhone users to customize common features like the lock screen (beyond choosing a photo or design) and keyboard. You can’t even see the temperature by glancing at the iPhone’s lock screen, and if you don’t like Apple’s keyboard or auto-correct function, you’re out of luck.

By contrast, many Android phones do allow customization. For instance, on the latest Samsung Galaxy, you can choose among four different keyboards, and show not just the time and date on the lock screen, but also the weather, and even readings from the built-in pedometer.

Tablet apps: Apple boasts around half a million apps optimized for the iPad in its App Store. These apps make use of the larger tablet screen to add additional panels or other user interface features that aren’t available in iPhone versions. When you download an app, Apple’s App Store gives you the appropriate version for the device you’re using. On Android, there are some tablet-optimized apps (Google doesn’t say how many), but far fewer. In most cases, Android tablet users are stuck with stretched-out versions of phone apps. On iOS, stretched-out phone apps are a last resort, in cases where the developer hasn’t added a tablet version.

There are many more features that some users will see as pluses or minuses for each operating system, but I consider these to be things you’d expect from any mobile operating system. You may disagree.

But even the fiercest of competitors can learn from each other, and when they do, consumers are the better for it.

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