Monday, September 13, 2010

A Tale of Two Platforms: From iPhone to Android and Back Again

[Ed. Note: This is the first blog post I've done on an actual topic. Please be kind to me, blogosphere -- I'm just learning! Leave me some comments to help me find my way. For starters, I expect to edit this one down soon and add  links to other relevant articles on the interwebs.]

After trashing Apple and making a long-anticipated switch to Android, two weeks later I was back on an iPhone 4. Why was my Android honeymoon so short-lived and what sent me back into the silicon arms of an abusive tech giant?

Why I Wanted to Switch

I've long been a vocal opponent of the way apple does business -- from their draconian app store, to their willingness to leave operating technology in the dust for the sake of forced upgrades, to their "technologier-than-thou" attitude in the public spotlight. I owned an iPhone 3G, but with the birth of Android and all the bad Apple press (which I agreed with), I couldn't wait to move away from the iOS platform.
Why go to Android? The list was extensive, but a few of my top reasons were: 
  • The ability to load apps that I wanted and to more easily program for the platform.
  • The openness of the Android Market
  • Replaceable batteries (and the capability of extra batteries)
  • Expandable storage
  • A notifications area (no more awful push notifications!)
  • Multi-tasking capabilities (the iPhone 3G was incapable of it by Apple's standards, except then I jailbroke it and it worked perfectly)
  • In general, a more "open" ecosystem.
After the iOS upgrades turned my 3G -- which otherwise had served me reasonably well -- into iMolasses, I was fed up. "I've had enough!" I proclaimed to friends -- "I'm switching to Android!" ...and then some time went by and I finally put some upgrade where my mouth was. I switched to the Samsung Captivate on AT&T (AT&T's variant of the Samsung Galaxy S).
But, I didn't get what I expected.

AT&T (and carriers in general) are Killing Android

My first experience with an Android phone went something like this:
I was incredibly happy to walk out of the AT&T store with my Captivate. I turned on the phone, was impressed with the screen quality and speed and other things that a latest-generation smart user would be impressed with. After going through the initial setup process, I selected my first app to use -- "Where", a location-based directory app that was pre-loaded on the phone. This program had been available for the iPhone and was pretty straightforward to use/test.
Upon diving in and opening the app, I received a "Terms & Conditions" message box, which I instinctively agreed to -- and as I did, noticed some disturbing fine print. On Android/AT&T, this app had been turned into a subscription app -- to use this pre-loaded app, I unwittingly agreed to allow AT&T to charge me $2.99 per month after the first 30 days. Naturally, I was not pleased.
But the application still worked, right? Well...not really. To be fair, this more likely due to the GPS Problems with the Galaxy S in general, but the application could not find my location or display data properly.  Okay, I said -- I can get over that. Carriers need to make money, too, and though I don't agree with this method, I did click yes to the terms, after all. I would just avoid the "crapware" that AT&T loaded (a lot of it, for the record).
So, next up, I decided to load a great utility, PdaNet, because I'd paid for it before only to find out that I had to jailbreak my iPhone 3G to use it (a point of contention with me). But Android Market wasn't the locked down app store, and I was excited to finally be able to access it. Except...when I searched for it, it wasn't there. I know the popularity of this application -- surely it would be listed in the market? It turns out, it is listed, but AT&T censored the Android Market results. AppBrain found the application, but upon attempting to install or update, the package could not be found. I searched on-line and found that this was something AT&T had done.But certainly I could side-load apps, right? Nope. AT&T had taken that ability away, too.
I hate to use the pun -- I truly do -- but this was not the 'droid I was looking for. I've heard similar things about other carriers -- crapware, custom UIs, lockdowns, and other carrier-introduced features are effectively destroying the intended Android experience.

 

"Closed" vs. the Myth of "open"

Apple's App Store is famously closed -- apps are reviewed, verified, inspected and occasionally often denied admittance based on (previously) unpublished and seemingly arbitrary guidelines. However, this is the way Apple has always been. I knew that going in, and nothing has changed since (though Apple did relax its restrictions on 3rd-party development apps and publish its app review guidelines). 
One thing I will say -- while Apple was "closed" about its ecosystem, these restrictions never went so far as to actually be a hassle for me. They were restrictions I disagreed with deeply, and that made it a pain point for me, but none of my actual productivity or experience was hampered (need something that's not allowed? There's a jailbreak for that.)
However, as offended as I am by a closed ecosystem, it's nothing compared to how angry I was at an ecosystem that pretended to be open. Switching to Android, I found the same roadblocks I encountered with the iPhone -- only in this case, I hadn't expected to encounter them, and wasn't supposed to. 
Android is a fantastic open-source product -- until the carriers get their dirty, grubby paws on it. Then it is locked down, the source code is hidden, features are removed, the UI is stripped of its functionality, and it's published as Android when in reality, it's another OS entirely.
Android -- and the promise of Android to deliver us from the clutches of ecosystems like Apple's -- comes with a set of expectations, and the carriers have all but abandoned those principles in its implementation. In my opinion, this proves to be much more damning and hurtful to the mobile arena.
 

The Android Time Sink

I'm by no means a novice phone or device user, and one of my favorite things is to tinker with a new gadget. I was actually excited to get under the hood of Android, deep into the settings, and customize it to work exactly how I wanted. But, almost 2 weeks in, my phone still didn't do nearly wanted I wanted it to.
Synchronize only a subset of my contacts? No, I had to pull down all 1600 of them. Alerts? Still scattered all over my phone and going off even with Silent mode turned on. Daily workflow? I found myself messing with all sorts of settings just to get through an average day.
Working with Android makes me realize that a proper analogy for comparison would be cars. Android is great for "mechanics" -- those who like getting under the hood and messing with something to see how it works for its own sake will love it. But most people just want a car to get them places in a pleasing way. After two weeks of experienced tinkering, reading, and adjustment, my phone still did not fit smoothly into my standard day-to-day life. The phone had become the center of my productivity, when it should have been my productivity that became the center of my phone. I don't want to be playing with my phone all the time; I want to be accomplishing things with my phone.

Where Apple Shines: Appreciating a Thorough Experience


Say whatever you want about Apple politically (and the things I say don't tend to be nice), but one place where iOS is undeniably king is making things work without you noticing how they're working, or even that they're working in the first place.
Within one hour, I had my e-mail/calendar (both work & personal), contacts, apps, notes, feeds, articles, music, and videos set up, connected and synced exactly the way I wanted them to be, and haven't had to change a setting since. That's powerful stuff.
The truth is, I hadn't noticed Apple's UI consistency until it wasn't there. Like all good design, it felt natural and intuitive, and going back to it after the scatterbrained and varied nature of Android is like a breath of fresh air. Even the frustrating things about iOS (push notifications, etc.) are at least consistently frustrating.

How Android can Save Itself

All is not lost, and I think Google has the ability to save the Android platform before it's too late.
What does Android need to do?

  1. Google Needs to wrestle control away from the carriers. Carriers have taken Android's good name and reduced it to a second-class mobile OS. Google has the finances and industry power to get tough with its licensing, and now that Android is accepted as the main alternartive to iOS in the smartphone world, Google needs to treat it like such and lead the charge against carriers wrecking its product.
  2. UI Consistency Standards need to be agreed upon and passionately enforced; branding should be relegated to the hardware. A part of removing carrier control should be to disallow any UI modifications that users don't explicitly authorize. They deserve to start on the same level as all other Android products, and carriers UIs should succeed on the basis of their merits, not carrier lockdown. Let carriers compete to be offering the best phones that run Android, and not trying to differentiate themselves through crapware and UI branding that does nothing but give Android a bad name.
  3. Open needs to commit to being open to realize its full potential. Android has more potential than any OS because its ecosystem wants to be open. If it embraces this mantra in an unwavering way, and backs it up, it will rightly dominate the smartphone OS market.
For now, I'll wait to see if Android grows up into the power mobile OS that I know it can be.

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