Reflections on Android

As I’ve written about plenty of times before, I used a Droid for the better part of 2010.

About 8 weeks ago, I sold my Droid and have been carrying a dumbphone, making my Wi-Fi iPad my only mobile device.

Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Android, and my time with what was (for now) the last completely stock Android handset.[1. Even the Droid 2 and Droid X are running a shitty Moto-built skin on top of Android, with limited hacking options. Even though I asked them to change this.]

There are a lot of things to like about the Droid. The hardware is great, and Verizon’s coverage in the Memphis area is simply stunning. Android itself, however, ended up leaving me a little disappointed. Parts of Android are great. Other parts are seriously lacking.

Apps & Nerdery

Ben Brooks is currently working on his review of the Samsung Galaxy Tab, and asked to me send him a list of apps I enjoyed using on my Droid.

I had to stop and think about it. The list was short, especially in contrast to what apps I use daily on my iPad. Without a doubt, both the quality and quantity of Android apps is inferior to the quality and quantity of iOS apps. While the platform’s gaming is seriously lacking, even staple iOS apps aren’t present in the Android Market. Apps that are on both platforms are usually far less polished on Android. Many apps aren’t just visually polished, but simply don’t work very well.

The biggest thing Android has going for it is its integration with Google’s cloud services.

Even here — on Android’s home turf — there are issues. While Gmail, contacts and calendars work really well, other services, like Google Maps and Google Talk don’t interact well with the cloud. This uneven quality across Google services isn’t anything new, sadly. Coupled with my growing uneasiness over some of Google’s statements, I’ve gone back to MobileMe since ditching the Droid.

For a long time, I forgave Android for these things because of the nerd factor. I loved tinkering with my phone. I not only rooted my phone, but even ran a third-party ROM on it. While fun, this type of nerdy behavior is draining after a while.

A few days ago, in a piece titled “Where Are the Android Killer Apps,” John Gruber likened the iPhone to a game console — a generally closed system with loads of optional, optimized software. Here’s a bit from the article:

Android, perhaps, could be an app console, technically, but it doesn’t seem like that’s how it’s being used in practice. Google doesn’t treat it that way, developers don’t treat it that way, and Android users don’t see it that way. In fact, many of the most popular third-party Android apps are ones which treat Android like a PC rather than a console — background apps, task killers, system home screen replacements, alternative keyboards, and the like.

I think Gruber has said what I’ve been thinking for months, but haven’t been able to nail down. And I think he’s right.

“Open” vs. “Closed” vs. “Integrated”

Longterm, it will be interesting to see how Android does, especially if the iPhone ends up on Verizon — Android’s stronghold in the US. Windows proves that a janky, multi-platform OS can do very, very well. While comparing mobile devices and desktop computers is really tricky, the discussion of “open” vs “closed” is also tricky. Here’s Avi Greengart at SlashGear:

Google argues that consumers want an open OS. Why? The benefits to consumers for Apple’s controlled environment are clear (the iPhone delivers a consistently good user experience), while Android’s openness has been a mixed bag: there is diverse hardware available, but fragmentation has left some phones unable to run the latest apps, and even as that situation improves, carriers have imposed their own restrictions on core elements of the platform. Cellphones are the most personal of personal technology, and there is no reason to think that we will end up with a single platform. Our present state of seven major platforms (iOS, Android, WP7, webOS, Symbian, MeeGo, BlackBerry) is not sustainable, either, but it is definitely not a zero sum game where if Android succeeds, the iPhone fails.

Android is open, but not in the way Google would like people to think. Customers are not the big winners when it comes to Google’s willingness to let — OEMs and carriers are. Companies like HTC, Motorola and Samsung are building huge brands out of their customizations that sit on top of Android.

Yes, users can swap the software that draws their home screens and run custom keyboards. Yes, some devices allow users to side-load apps onto them. But more and more, OEMs and carriers are tightening the noose. As this continues to happen, users will continue to loose the freedom Android fans crave.

Calling the iPhone “closed” isn’t quite right. “Integrated” is a better word. Since Apple has become more transparent when it comes to the App Store, users and developers alike have fewer surprises when it comes to what is available. Much like the Mac, Apple’s hardware and software combination makes for a smoother experience. Yes, swapping out the home screen isn’t possible, but I think most users are willing to trade such flexibility for a more stable experience.

The Future

Right now, Android and iOS are pretty much neck-and-neck for market share. Windows Phone 7, Blackberry, WebOS, Symbian and others are out there too, with their respective strengths and weaknesses.

So, would I purchase another Android device? At this point, probably not. There are too many iOS-only apps that I’ve come to rely on, and using the iPad as my only mobile device has reminded me just how polished and well-rounded Apple’s platform has become. I don’t think Android can catch up unless Google makes some serious changes, not only to the OS, but to what OEMs and carriers can do it.

I’m not saying Android will fail. I don’t think the average user — the people who haven’t bought their first smartphone — don’t care that much platforms. Apple has name recognition with these users, but with Android being on so many carriers, name recognition may not be enough. If my mom, who has been on T-Mobile for a decade, wants a phone that has email on it she is more than likely going to walk into a T-Mobile store and pick up and Android phone, regardless of what apps are available or how polished the UI is.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s enough for Google to keep Apple on its toes.