Freedom-hating Apple fanboy

Potrero Hill, San Francisco
US

Android is the platform of freedom and openness. Apple’s iOS by contrast is a «walled garden» in which Apple holds strict control over the tools of development and even the content available on its platform. Freedom is better than tyranny, so ideologically as well as practically everyone should abandon Apple and get an Android device so that they can live happily, productively, and freely ever after.

At least that is what Android supporters say. It’s rather troubling that there are Android and Apple «supporters» in the first place, but it’s not too surprising. There was a time when people held grudges against their neighbors for buying a Ford instead of a Chevy or vice versa. However, the branding rivalries of yore didn’t often (if ever) carry the same ideological baggage that operating system choice does today. A much greater portion of Android is open-sourced; almost none of iOS is. Apple’s app store makes it tricky to deliver source code along with apps. Famously Apple has even told developers what tools they can and cannot use and what kinds of apps they will not accept into the App Store.

However, from the user’s perspective Android’s freedom isn’t free. Apple’s tight control over their platform means they are able to provide a consistent user experience, prevent a portion of malware from reaching customers, and push developers not to stray too far from Apple’s Human Interface Design specification. HP’s webOS has a more open development environment than iOS’s but webOS, like iOS, was designed to be used by people and there are conventions in place to enforce a seamless, common user experience. Both platforms’ overall consistency makes them easier to learn and easier to use than Android.

In making this evaluation I confess that the deck is stacked against Android. Variety in the marketplace is a wonderful thing and I certainly hope that Android continues to do well, but I’ve been spoiled with great user-experience devices. I used iPhones for years and for the past fifteen months I’ve used a Palm Pre running webOS. I have high expectations when it comes to handheld device user experience, and I went in to the experience skeptical that Android would live up to my expectations. Google voice integration is a pretty powerful incentive for adoption of Android.

The Android device used for this evaluation is an HTC Droid Incredible. Not the newest thing on the market—it’s running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) so it’s not really behind the tmes either—but I’m comparing it with my memory of a Palm Pre Plus and an iPhone 3GS. My high expectations are related to software design, not processor speed, but if one goes purely by specs, the Incredible ought to blow either of those devices away.

Doubtless it would be easy to find sources to state that the HTC Droid Incredible categorically beats either the iPhone 3GS or the Palm Pre Plus. Many of those contend that any other opinion is the result of fuzzyheaded brand worship or brainwashing by a marketing department. That logic itself leaves out important parts of the equation. Hardware specs or checklists of software features tell so little about a device these days it is hardly worth discussing. At best, low-end specs can be used as excuses for a device’s empirically-observed shortcomings. But if you haven’t got a complaint that you’ve seen in action, there is little point to talking about specs.

Screenshots?

This may not matter to very many people, but I’m writing a review of Android here, so it matters a lot to me. How do I get a screenshot so I can illustrate what I’m talking about? The official Android answer? It’s easy: just install the Software Developer’s Kit on a desktop machine, connect the phone to the desktop with a USB cable, then enable USB debugging on the Android device and run a batch file called «ddms» on the desktop, then… well, you get the idea. Back on an iPhone and on webOS, it was a matter of pressing a couple of buttons at the same time. Of course, there are plenty of third-party solutions, if you root your phone. As of last month, there is a screenshot utility available for non-rooted phones, for five bucks. I don’t begrudge the developer the five bucks for the utility, but I’m a little put off by having to pay for something that’s been built-in or free on every handheld device I’ve had since the Newton.

So why does this review lack screenshots? The author was too lazy to install the Android SDK and too cheap to pay for a utility that should have been part of the OS.

Software selection

This is likely to be the deal-killer for me. Although I’ve been living with the software selection on WebOS for over a year, I still use a lot of iOS software on iPad. For a while I even carried my old iPhone around with me to run apps on. Specifically, OmniFocus will likely never be an Android app. PocketMoney does have an Android version, but the Android version is missing one of its best features on the iPhone and desktop versions: photo recipts for transactions.

Coming from webOS, Android’s Market seems like a cornucopia of apps. But just as with webOS and to a lesser degree the Apple App Store, the useless apps clutter the view and makes it hard to find the few great apps that are out there.

Stability

Stability on Android is not impressive. The device I’m using is running I haven’t added many third-party apps, and the ones I have added were from trusted vendors. One of them is supposed to protect me from malware. I’m sad to say that the address book (it’s called People) crashes, as does Google Voice—and Google Voice integration is one of the reasons I was attracted to the platform to begin with.

The address book crash is perhaps the most disturbing. Of course, the phone is supposed to sync with my Google address book, but other than getting the initial import in, I’ve been unable to see any changes happen on the phone when I’ve made changes through the Google Voice website interface, even after 48 hours and repeated manual sync attempts. Furthermore, I’ve discovered that People crashes only when sync is enabled. After opening People, if the phone tries to sync, People closes. If autosync is enabled, sync attempts occur once every ten seconds or so. I’m sure it’s easy to see why that would be a problem.

Google Voice similarly refuses to sync properly. Deleted (and I mean really permanently deleted) messages still appear in the Google Voice app and since People won’t consistently sync my address book, the user avatars are not current.

Frustratingly the device has a habit of shutting itself down for no apparent reason. I’ll pick up the phone to make a call and find it not turned on. Battery is full, but phone turned itself off. Not from being in a pocket and pushing the wrong button by accident. This happened while it was sitting on a desk. Unnerving.

Speaking of unnerving, having to force close the Phone app in the middle of a call is not what I had in mind: the message? «Activity Phone (in process com.android.phone) is not responding.» Only happened once, but I think most would agree that’s once too often.

Compounding the problem with application selection is the solution I found to most of my stability issues: reset the device to factory defaults and don’t install any third-party software. I had already limited myself to software from known vendors, but that just wasn’t enough. I’m now running with two apps that did not come from HTC or Google: an antivirus program that came recommended by Android users and the status.net client.

User experience

The first few days with Android were the worst. Google has made downright counterintuitive user interface and user experience choices all through Android. It’s not just a matter of doing things differently than Apple, they do things that make no sense from a design perspective. Imitation is the sincerest form of not caring enough to solve the problem yourself, and Google seems to have taken iOS design decisions and simply reversed, inverted, or mutated them so that they aren’t quite the same, which would be fine if they stopped to consider what problems Apple may have been solving and found another approach rather than just doing the same thing backward.

For example, when an iPhone rings, the user must swipe from left to right on the face of the phone to answer. There are clear instructions telling you how to answer, and if you don’t want to take the call you can hit the power button once to decline. On webOS the process is very similar: you swipe your finger from the bottom of the screen up to answer the phone. With Android, if you want to unlock the screen, you swipe from top to bottom. If you want to answer the phone, you swipe from top to bottom. To decline an incoming call, swipe from bottom to top. That’s right: up is always «no» or «off», and down is always «yes» or «on». Just like the lightswitches your incompetent brother-in-law installed.

Similarly, dialog boxes where the options are «OK» and «cancel» are always in that order, which leaves the option to proceed on the left and the option to retreat on the right. I live in a society where we read left to right. Things on the right tend to signify the future or forward movement. Two buttons next to one another, shouldn’t «cancel» be on the left and «next» be on the right? Not in Android’s universe. That is at least when there is a visible option to cancel. More often, one has to tap a dedicated «back» button. Of the four buttons on the face of the phone, the second from the right is a back button. Again I’d really like to talk to whoever it was that decided the right hand side is a good place for something that signifies «back». In any case, relying on the back button is a mistake in Web browsers, and one would think Google, of all companies, would understand that.

(The position of the buttons on Android devices varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, so this is HTC’s idiotic decision not Google’s, but it is nevertheless a fine example of how «freedom» eg the freedom to position required buttons anywhere, leads to confusion.)

At every opportunity, Android made me hunt for features that should have been right up front. As a test I took pictures of the moon with the very nice 8 megapixel camera the HTC Droid Incredible has, and attempted to upload them to Google+ and see what they look like. My first mistake may have been declining the option to automatically upload every photo I ever take to Google’s servers, but I’m not convinced I want Google to have every photo I take. So from the Google+ app, I tapped photo icon and found to my delight that the photos were ordered by date. But I realized almost immediately that the photos I was being shown weren’t my photos. I was only shown the optional wallpapers that came with the phone. OK, that’s fine, but how do I get to the photos I shot?

I backed up a step and went back to the home screen to see if there was a photos app already built in. I scrolled down through the alphabetical list and didn’t see anything called «Photos» or «Pictures.» Eventually I found «Gallery.» My pictures were visible in Gallery and I can send photos to Google+ without leaving Gallery. Pick a picture of the moon, then hit the button on the right to go for— whoa, cowboy! Not so fast! «Next» is on the left. «Cancel» is on the right. I nearly screwed up uploading a photo to Google+. Sure, I got it right eventually, but this ought to have been a process taking a total of two or three taps, not three or four minutes of research, missteps, and trial and error.

Android annoyances

Android includes an annoying vibration every time I type a key or tap something. «Haptics» that’s called. Some people like haptics, as it provides tactile feedback even on a smooth glass screen. There was an add-on feature on webOS that did the same, but unlike the Android feature it was configurable: the duration and strength of the vibration could be increased and decreased, and it could be disabled. Android’s settings purport to allow haptics to be disabled, but that setting is only respected by a few applications, and even those sometimes slip back from time to time. It’s a feature that ought to stay off when it’s turned off, and Android doesn’t respect the user’s choice in this matter.

If Apple had done the same thing, it would be because they wanted everyone to have this experience of tactile feedback while typing. They would have made a decision and restricted choice in the matter. It seems even worse to go the path of «freedom» where the execution is so sloppy that the user doesn’t get to make a choice, and that restriction of user choice was not made deliberately or with any purpose.

I’d have thought that they would have called their browser «Chrome» like their desktop browser. Instead the browser on the HTC Droid Incredible is called «Internet.» I have to assume this was renamed by HTC; there is no way an Internet-savvy company like Google pretends that their Web browser—or even the Web itself—is the Internet. That’s such a Microsoft-in-1994 thing to do.

In order to «use» the «Internet» I had to first configure Flash, making me wonder what kind of masochist put this together. It’s not obvious, but I did find the setting to disable Flash in «Internet». I had to disable all plugins in order to do it. Not sure whether that’s a point to Android or not.

Sync

My contacts all sync through Google, just like they did on the Palm, but I want to offload my photos directly to my Mac. I expected that if I plug the USB cable it will mount like a hard drive. Instead I got a message: the disk you inserted was not readable by this computer. Thank goodness for Google, which led me to the Droid Forums post Macbook will not except (sic) Droid through USB which tells me that I can

turn on usb debugging in settings>applications>development, pull down notification bar, hit usb option and select usb storage.

I turned on USB debugging, pulled down the notification bar, then I had USB storage option. I’m pretty sure that turning on USB debugging is not how we’re supposed to move image files, but at least I have the option. The Mac still complains that the disk is unreadable every time I plug the Droid Incredible in, but it lets me copy files off without any trouble after I enable USB drive mode.

Contacts

Once again, Android manages to obscure necessary functionality. I’ll jump to the answer before describing the problem and you may have guessed the answer after seeing my comments about the back button above. If you use Android, you must learn the functions of the four buttons positioned below the screen. No, really, they mean it. After decades of devices with dedicated buttons that have been used rarely if ever (F1 through F12 on your keyboard, the dedicated application buttons on Palm devices prior to webOS) Google decided that its dedicated buttons would be used, and they did it by not including duplicate functionality anywhere. You want to get to the Home screen? There is no other way than by pushing the home button. If you want to access a «menu» of arbitrarily chosen functions in a given app, there is no way other than to hit the menu button. And no matter where you are, if you want to search, you hit the magnifying glass.

So the contacts list is just that: a list. If you have more than a couple dozen contacts, scrolling through the list endlessly gets to be a chore. How do I find a contact in this list of all the people I know? Oh, the magnifying glass initiates a search in context. Seems weird not to have a place inside the application space for searching, nor an easy way to jump directly to a letter in alphabetical order. You can grab a scrollbar at the side of the screen if you are fast and nimble enough to catch it before it disappears.

Google Voice

Google Voice integration with the Android platform is one of its most attractive features. It’s an important selling point and one that is compelling in my own platform choice. It’s a feature that ought to be a jewel in Google’s crown.

Yet setting up Google Voice illustrates that user experience and user interface were not thought through, even for a crown jewel. When first opening Google Voice, there is an instruction to «log in.» On tapping that message, a series of configuration options appears, and then a pane which lists all the settings which can be configured. At that point there is no clear next step.

When I got to this stage I tapped the home button and then went back to Google Voice, which again said that I needed to to log in. Tapping «log in» again brought me to the configuration pane, so I started going through all the configuration options to see what I had missed. After several minutes I went back to the Google Voice app and it still said that I had to log in, and tapping still brought me back to the config screen. What I eventually discovered is that in order to log in, I had to tap the «back» button on the handset from the configuration pane. The next step, as usual with Android, was to go back.

Notifications

When iOS 5 was released in October, Android evangelists were quick to point out that iOS 5’s notifications bear strong resemblance to the way that Android has handled notifications all along. Both systems use a swipe from the top of the screen down, but here we see the difference between imitation and enhancement. Where Android has stuck to a physics-based model where the user «pulls» the «drawer» open, iOS’s drawer is gesture activated. This is a subtle distinction, but it makes a smoother and more consistent experience. With Android, if let go too soon, the drawer slides back closed, forcing the user to tap back at the top of the screen and slide the finger down again. In iOS, gestures are a language of sorts, untied to physical models. So there’s no spring-loaded drawer behavior. Android’s notifications engage more of the user’s brain, making the experience less smooth. When the Apple people talk about iOS’s «polish» versus Android’s «rough edges» this is exactly what they mean.

Voice interface

Android supporters also claim that Apple is following Android’s lead by including the Siri voice interface, and it is true that Android’s voice interface has been around for longer. But here we go again: just enabling Voice Actions was confusing. Google has a helpful video and many helpful articles about the great app called Voice Actions, none of which point to the fact that there is no such app as Voice Actions. It’s just a feature of Voice Search.

As such, Voice Search has a specific language and syntax one needs to learn. Apple’s Siri uses natural language. Compare:

«Directions, 757 Beach Street San Francisco»

with

«How do I get to 757 Beach Street in San Francisco?»

«Show me 757 Beach Street in San Francisco»

«Direct me to 757 Beach Street»

The first example will bring up driving directions in Google Maps using Voice Search. The rest bring up a Google search for every word Voice Search recognizes. Even that capacity is pretty impressive, but Siri will actually give you the directions for any of those queries without requiring you to use a predetermined artificial syntax or memorize commands.

Pay no attention to the man behind the blog

No doubt mine is not a typical Android experience. Every maker of Android phones uses a different user interface, and I only spent time with one Android phone. I’ve spoken to many users that did not encounter the same stability issues I did. Also, these stability issues kept me from installing third-party applications that other people claim are indispensable.

I’ve tried to show my reasoning for every objection. Sadly, that won’t prevent the partisans from declaring that I’ve gone out of my way to find fault with Android. I ought to point out that despite all my complaints the experience is not terrible. Google’s disregard of design, ergonomics, and user experience is not so blatant as I found last year with the Nokia e75. In fact, the FM radio application was easy to find, so I’m glad to concede that the HTC Droid Incredible’s FM radio feature is in fact better than Apple’s FM radio in the iPhone.

(There is no FM radio in the iPhone. In my earlier comparison, Nokia lost points overall for including a feature that was impossible to find and use, and Apple gained points for not bothering to include the feature. That’s how flawed looking at specifications and feature lists is.)

Unquestionably Android represents huge progress over the likes of the Nokia e75. Google has put together a smartphone platform that does the things that smartphones are supposed to do. An Android phone may be good enough for nearly anyone. Yet therein is the problem itself: in almost every regard, Android developers have stopped at good enough. It’s clearly a platform designed by developers rather than a platform designed for users.

Many people will prefer an Android phone over any other platform for these reasons. It’s a platform that should appeal to tinkerers and people who always want problems to solve in order to feel smart. Android phones will almost certainly always appeal to those who look at lists of features and ignore user experience, who dismiss the design refinements of the likes of Apple or Palm as «window dressing.» And no question, free software advocates who want as little proprietary software as possible will prefer Android on moral and ethical grounds. These are all valid reasons to prefer one platform.

However, the world is already complicated enough and I believe that we already have enough hoops to jump through to get our work done with ever-changing technology. Most of us are on the threshold of information overload. Information architecture, user interface, and user experience cannot be neglected as it continues to be all over the place. With tools that get in the way of getting things done, there is little point in having tools in the first place. From this perspective freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

Topics: 

Comments

Finally got a chance to read the entire post/review. That was pretty rough, but all good points. Full disclosure, I'm another iPhone fanboy.  ;-)