Freedom-hating Apple fanboy

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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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»


«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.

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