An Android Among the Pigeons

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised by the reactions on twitter when I make a statement about any particular platform. Twice in the last few days I’ve been taken to task. First when I said that the iPhone was starting to bore me. Then today when I said:
[quote]I want to love Android, but it really is the Linux of smartphones. Technically great, but oh so broken for regular users. (via Twitter)[/quote]
Took me a while to climb out from beneath the pile of horrified corrections and accusations from many angles, not least El Presidente of the New Zealand Open Source Society.

Look, here’s my point: Android, as Google designed it, makes some assumptions about the way the OS behaves. But because the OS is so open, manufacturers (aka OEMs), are free to run roughshod over those assumptions. I suspect this is a large part of the reason why Google developed the “gold standard” Nexus One – as a way to demonstrate how Android should be implemented. NB: I’m yet to have a hands-on with a Nexus One, so you could say my experience of Android is about on-par with most “regular” users.

So instead, you have a phone like the Samsung Galaxy S, which takes the normal Android assumption of a central homescreen (out of a possible seven), and instead decides to use the left-most homescreen as the default.

I have to ignore my own personal experience on this phone, because it’s an un-reviewable “pre-production” model (despite being out in other markets for a couple of months – as is the usual crap we deal with in New Zealand), and show you some other reviews:

Exhibit A:
[quote]”The main homescreen is split into 7 pages but the main difference with the Galaxy S is that the main page is page one right on the left hand side where as on other devices the middle page is the main one and you can swipe left or right to get too the extra pages.  Nothing major but something to get used too if you are already used to Android.”[/quote]
Exhibit B:
[quote]The Galaxy S has seven homescreen panes with the default “home” pane on the far left; the Android OS is more used to the “home” pane being central, and so if you choose Google Maps as your Live Wallpaper – which normally uses GPS to center the map on your current location – the maps are offset since the center point is on homescreen four. Nit-picking, yes, but it’s the sort of poor polish that undermine a successful UI.[/quote]
Exhibit C:
[quote]The HTC Desire’s main Homescreen starts from the middle with 3 more Homescreens on the left and on the righ. The main Homescreens for Samsung Galaxy S starts from the far left with subsequent Homescreens scrolling in from the right.[/quote]
Exhibit D:
[quote]The phone’s software can support up to seven homescreens, and there is a reminder at the top of every homescreen showing which one you are on. Selecting a specific homescreen directs you to it. Unfortunately, the main homescreen is always the left-most screen, even if you try to add screens to the left. I would prefer if the main homescreen was always in the middle.[/quote]
I’m not going to say much more here. It’s my opinion that the way Android allows different OEMs to fuck around with the core experience of the phone is detrimental to the platform as whole, and users in general.

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32 Comments

  1. I will make a footnote, because I’m bound to be accused of favouritism, despite a history of independence.

    Yes, I’ve developed iPhone and Windows Phone 7 applications. No I haven’t developed Android applications. This is irrelevant from and end-user perspective.

    Yes I’ve tweeted a shitload about WP7, because I think it’s interesting and innovative. It is demonstrably more responsive to touch input than any Android I’ve used. I’m genuinely interested by Microsoft’s approach of a middle-ground between iPhone and Android (many OEMs, but with heavy restrictions on customisations). I want there to be more competition in the smartphone space.

    I like Android. But I’m a geek.

  2. I totally agree with you Ben, which probably puts me in the minority.

    I’ve had my Android phone for a week now (Xperia X10) and I think it’s great. But at the same time I think an average user (my wife or parents for example) would find the iPhone much more intuitive and easy to use.

    As a techie, I love the flexibility Android has to offer.

    One interesting point: Android advocates always point out that you can do “anything” with your phone. This is only true if you “root” the device. But it’s also true of the iPhone, if you jailbreak it.

    There is _more_ you can do on an Android without this extra step, because Google doesn’t moderate the Android Marketplace as strongly as Apple does the App Store, but you still can’t do “anything”.

    Also worthy of note, there are still a very limited number of countries from which developers can have PAID apps in the Marketplace. Developers down here in Australia and NZ can’t sell apps through the marketplace yet.

  3. You know what’s worse than letting OEMs fuck around with the device? Letting carriers fuck around with the device.

    Funny coincidence that you’re talking about these puppies today, I was just looking at phones yesterday and this made my shortlist – until I discovered the problem many users are having with GPS and compass. (i.e. they’re stuffed.)

    1. Morgan, if I had to choose from the phones in my bag right this second (Samsung Galaxy S, Milestone, some LG thing, iPhone 3GS, and WP7 Samsung prototype), I’d choose the Galaxy S.

      Having said that: I’m unaware of the GPS and compass issues you mention, so I’d probably hate myself after choosing?

      1. I found the first mention here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samsung_i9000_Galaxy_S#GPS_and_compass_problems

        It could be one of those ‘we’ve sold over a million, 500 people had a problem, every one of them blogged about it, now it looks like a big deal’ things. I hope so, it was way up my shortlist, my only hesitation was that I don’t know that Samsung have quite the same record as HTC, and I’ve heard that TouchWiz isn’t as good as Sense (so not enough to stop me buying one, given how good many of the reviews seem to be, but if the GPS or compass stopped working I’d be ropeable).

  4. One interesting point: Android advocates always point out that you can do “anything” with your phone. This is only true if you “root” the device. But it’s also true of the iPhone, if you jailbreak it.

    Granted. You can even run Android on a jailbroken iPhhone. 🙂

    There is _more_ you can do on an Android without this extra step, because Google doesn’t moderate the Android Marketplace as strongly as Apple does the App Store, but you still can’t do “anything”.

    Market moderation (or not) has nothing to do with it.

    Application developers can do more on an android phone because the platform allows access to large chiunks of the hardware functions that are roped off in other platforms.

    1. Really? Any specifics? I haven’t done much iPhone dev recently, but I thought iOS developers had access to GPS, accelerometer (and gyro), camera stream, etc. What’s missing in terms of hardware access? Input ports I guess?

      1. At the WP7 day you spoke at I met a couple of ex-colleagues who complained about WP7 and iOS because their company’s app couldn’t be ported onto them. Basically it’s a commercial conference call app so they wanted to take over things like receiving calls. I assume this would be possible on Android.

  5. Also worthy of note, there are still a very limited number of countries from which developers can have PAID apps in the Marketplace. Developers down here in Australia and NZ can’t sell apps through the marketplace yet.

    Yes, and no one seems to know exactly why this is, apart from vague mutterings about taxation laws.

    However there is nothing to stop you registering a US or European address and publishing paid apps that way, or publishing them on alternative markets like SlideMe or Handago.

    Or on your own site with Paypal or whatever.

    Or post a free trial version on the Market and link to your own site for a paid unlock key.

  6. From what I understand iPhone Dev’s can’t access any meaningful info about the wireless or cellular radio. This is useful for all sorts of apps, that can track your coverage profile, map wifi hotspots etc. Would have been pretty useful to actually provide some real quantitative data on the iP4 antenna issues anyway.

    Also, I gather you can’t mess with or replace any of the default media apps on iphone.

    Yeah, I know, why would you want to? Probaly wouldn’t, but there is a nice range of options on Android to cater for a variety of tastes.

  7. Also, not to be a dick (oh who am I kidding, this is a total dick move), where were you FOSS fanboys when I asked about Android tablets for the disabled?
    http://www.ben.geek.nz/2010/08/adaptive-and-assistive-technology-help/

    The problem is that those android tablets that were rushed to market as a ‘me too’ around ipad launch time are generally pretty sub par in terms of features and performance.

    The Archos ones and Dell Streak are quite nice but fairly pricy.

    The most promising looking to me is the Indian Notion Ink Adam

    http://www.notionink.in/

    But it isn’t available yet.

  8. There is _more_ you can do on an Android without this extra step, because Google doesn’t moderate the Android Marketplace as strongly as Apple does the App Store, but you still can’t do “anything”.

    More on this; A non-root user on Android has a lot of customisation options that you simply don’t have (and to be fair, may not want) on an iPhone, including Live Wallpaper, alternative keyboards, themed desktop replacements, alternative media players, alternative browsers..etc

    Granted your Xperia is stuck on 1.6, wich has less to offer than 2.1 or 2.2, but I think when making comparisons you need to look at what an Android user who has had the phone for a while would do. By this I don’t necessarily mean a geek, I mean somone who bought the thing for a more personalised experience.

    My teenage daughter would fall into this category (well ok, she has her geek moments!) 🙂

    My Android Mantra is ‘Make it your own’! If you don’t like it, make it the way you do like it. Geekiness of the first order not required. Just a paradigm shift.

    So individual quirks of Manfacturers UI’s customisations don’t really bug me because if they weren’t useful I wouldn’t use them.

    Frankly within ten minutes of getting the thing I’d be on the market and downloading ADW.launcher (free), Smart Keyboard (basic version free) and Smartbar (also free).

    So any Android phone I own, (assuming a given operating system level of at least 2.x) from whatever vendor, will look and behave the same.

    I can completely understand why you review the basic out of the box experience, but can I suggest you add a standardised test regime based on something like the above?

    It might reduce the frustration somewhat.

    1. Non-rooted Android does allow more access to some system functions than non-jailbroken iPhone, which does allow for some very cool stuff on the phones.

      I have installed ADW.Launcher, multiple custom keyboards, and various other applications, and I really like the extent to which you can customise the phones. However, one of the things I wanted most in Android was wifi-hotspot functionality.

      I gather tethering is included by default in Froyo, (and in 2.1 the Galaxy S), but in order to get my X10 to do this I needed to root it. Not a painful process, but it did show me that Android is not as open as a lot of supporters would lead you to believe.

      And Google has removed the EasyRoot application from the marketplace too, which shows that they are much like Apple in not wanting people to do unlock their phones entirely.

      I agree with Ben’s suggestion that it’s the OEMs and Carriers that make Android less appealing. Sony Ericcson has a 2.1 update scheduled for later this year, with 2.2 currently not on the cards. If it wasn’t for all their customisations (which are apparently time-consuming for them to do, and mostly things I wouldn’t want anyway), I think they could already have 2.2 on the X10 family of phones.

  9. I’ve had an Android phone for about a week. There are some things I like and some things I don’t like.

    I do think the iPhone is just a bit further ahead in terms of interface. I also think it’ll probably remain that way. I hate to admit it but Ben is probably right about it being the linux of mobile phones… I use linux at home so it does have some appeal to me. I also use a Mac as well… and a phone is a bit more personal to me, so I’m not sure if I’ll be interested in tinkering with the phone long term.

    The Android Market is not very good to me. I hate the fact that the pricing is all in different currencies. WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT ABOUT? I don’t want to convert NZD to other currents to identify how much an app will cost.

    I’ve really bought the device to try it out – long term, I am not sure if I’ll keep it. Hardware wise, it’s an awesome piece of kit (Samsung Galaxy S).

  10. I agree with Ben. My thoughts concerning Android is that we’re already starting to see the ‘splintering’ affect that many people claim was the downfall of Windows Mobile. In fact I think it’s worse – Windows Mobile suffered from HW and UI customisation splintering, but underneath it was still the same OS. Android doesn’t even have this.

    Calling Andoid the Linux of smartphones seems correct – a technically competent user will be able to work around most issues, and may even prefer the freedom it gives them, but an average user will have trouble.

    Will WP7 challenge the iPhone? Who knows – it wouldn’t be the first time Microsoft pours time and money into something then completely screws the pooch on release. But just think back 9 years to when everyone thought of Apple as a home computer company who’d lost out to Microsoft, and then they released the iPod.

    1. Absolutely, and this is one of the reasons that I’m hesitant to use the Android platform AS A DEVELOPER.

      I think it’s great for users to have so much choice, but much more painful for developers to support all the different combinations of hardware capabilities.

      Of course, having made their choice, I wish those users would stop complaining about it. Read some Xperia X10 forums if you don’t know what I mean.

      1. I do wonder how many people would think to ask “is this phone upgradeable?” at point of sale though. I think there’s one LG that Telecom are selling (or were recently selling) that runs Android 1.5 with no upgrade path.

        I wonder if Google have the ability to stop some OEM’s from using the “Android” brand name – that could really fix all these problems. Maybe with 3.0 they could come out with a new brand (Cyborg?) which would only apply to phones of a certain capability, with a mandated maximum lag between version release and OTA upgrade.

        So if you buy a “Cyborg” phone, you know what you’re getting, and you know what to expect. Any non-“Cyborg” phones that happen to be running Android 3.0 aren’t allowed to advertise themselves as such.

  11. Even something like “Pure Android” to let consumers know that all the OEM has done is create a boot loader to get Android running, but haven’t changed anything about the OS at all.

    The issue would of course then come down to hardware capacity to run updates. I am lead to believe that Android 3.0 (Gingerbread) has minimum memory requirements, which will prevent it from ever running on quite a few of the current breed of phones.

  12. I wonder if Google have the ability to stop some OEM’s from using the “Android” brand name – that could really fix all these problems. Maybe with 3.0 they could come out with a new brand (Cyborg?) which would only apply to phones of a certain capability, with a mandated maximum lag between version release and OTA upgrade.

    As I recall there are 3 licences, Google Branded, ‘With Google’, and open source.

    The Google branded are things like the VF/TMobile Magic and the Nexus One, apart from a VF Live icon, they’re pretty much as the Gods of Google intended.

    ‘With Google’ devices come with the Google apps and Market place and presumably some licence obligations. Most major vendors seem to have taken this middle road, (because it would be phenomonally stupid to leave out the Market)

    The cheapo knockoffs (mostly 1.5) are the open source licence I presume.

  13. I have installed ADW.Launcher, multiple custom keyboards, and various other applications, and I really like the extent to which you can customise the phones. However, one of the things I wanted most in Android was wifi-hotspot functionality.

    I gather tethering is included by default in Froyo, (and in 2.1 the Galaxy S), but in order to get my X10 to do this I needed to root it. Not a painful process, but it did show me that Android is not as open as a lot of supporters would lead you to believe.

    Rooting not required for USB tether, even on 1.6. PDAnet works fine.

    Wifi, Bluetooth and USB Tether native in 2.1. Again no root required.

    Look don’t judge the platform by 1.6. This version was very much still a work in progress and Sony certainly did not do tehmselves any favours by dropping the X10 with it on 6 months after most other major competitors were on 2.x.

    1. Since you can still buy phones with 1.6, it is relevant, and needs to be considered in the discussion.

      You can’t assume that everyone can/will update to 2.x. As a relevant example, I can’t update right now, so 1.6 is what I have to work with. I am willing to concede that 2.x is better, but it’s not the whole of the Android platform.

      And it looks like Dell is releasing the Streak shortly on Android 1.6. I don’t think it’s a smart move, just as I think Sony Ericcson isn’t being smart in taking so long to get the 2.1 update out, but they’re doing it.

      And I did say I wanted wifi-hotspot functionality, not USB tethering. So I needed to root my 1.6 device.

      Further, I understood that all the tethering options were native in 2.2, but Samsung ported them into 2.1 for the Galaxy S.

  14. I agree with Ben. My thoughts concerning Android is that we’re already starting to see the ‘splintering’ affect that many people claim was the downfall of Windows Mobile. In fact I think it’s worse – Windows Mobile suffered from HW and UI customisation splintering, but underneath it was still the same OS. Android doesn’t even have this.

    Calling Andoid the Linux of smartphones seems correct – a technically competent user will be able to work around most issues, and may even prefer the freedom it gives them, but an average user will have trouble.

    Well Motorola have dropped Motoblur for the Droid X and Droid 2 so at least one oem seems to be coming around.

    And I beg to differ on the ‘Linux of smartphones’ moniker. (Not that I don’t think it’s flattering) 🙂

    Linux as a desktop OS has yet to make much headway, it languishes in the single figures because, yes it does seem difficult for the novice brought up in the Wintel world.

    Android on the other hand has grown at a staggering rate. The activation rate worldwide surpasses the iPhone only a month or two after the launch of a new iPhone. By what metric is that a failure?

    A better comparison might be that Android could be considered the Windows desktop of phones. You get a whole bunch of different vendor drivers and bundled software and so on, but underneath it’s just Windows.

    And believe me, when you look at the system apps on every Android phone I’ve seen, the system libraries for the most part are just Android.

    The problem you have with comparing the X10 to virtually every other flagship Android phone is that it is stuck on an old version.

    Motorola, HTC and Samsung are teh 3 biggest players and the majority of their current fleet are on at least 2.1.

  15. Absolutely, and this is one of the reasons that I’m hesitant to use the Android platform AS A DEVELOPER.

    I think it’s great for users to have so much choice, but much more painful for developers to support all the different combinations of hardware capabilities

    I can see that as a problem if you want to support 1.5 and 1.6 as well.

    Given that as of about a month ago, more than half the Androids registered Worldwide were on 2.1 or higher, and the 2.1 rollout to the older HTC Hero models (which were very successful in Europe) had just started, I think as a dev you’d be pretty safe developing for 2.1.

    Your app will run fine on 2.2 unless you want it to be movable to the SD card in which case you’d just recompile and post that version.

    The SDK supports 3 basic screen res, so again, it’s just a switch in the compiler and you can preview in the emulator.

    I don’t know about HW keyboards tho. Whether its a native plug ‘n play api or not.

  16. And Google has removed the EasyRoot application from the marketplace too, which shows that they are much like Apple in not wanting people to do unlock their phones entirely.

    LOL! No, I think it’s about liability .

    I’m with Google on this one, it’s a really bad idea to leave an app there that a non-techie user could use to void their warranty or potentially brick their phone with one click.

    The app is still available from the developer, but I think this is one you SHOULD have to go loking for, as it implies you are aware of what you are taking on.

  17. Calling Andoid the Linux of smartphones seems correct – a technically competent user will be able to work around most issues, and may even prefer the freedom it gives them, but an average user will have trouble.

    Well, it kinda depends on the ‘average user’

    I reckon the average Gen (insert wahtever the current crop of 14 to 20 somethings are called now) who is used to customising virtuallly everything about their online prescence from their windows desktop to facebook will have absolutely no trouble with an Android phone, without delving into any geekiness such as rooting or custom roms.

    Yeah, my mother wouldn’t be able to work it. But she has trouble with hotmail and SKY remotes, let alone programming a DVR.

    Certainly within 15 minutes of getting my Magic last year my two were all over it and my daughter had set up my wallpaper and arreanged my home screens and downloaded a couple of games.

  18. Rob, you seem to be confusing the comments somewhat. Yes, I am using an X10, but Ben and others commenting here are not – and are using 2.x devices. You shouldn’t assume that all the comments are coming from my point of view.

    And I know that I’m using 1.6, and that 2.x offers a lot more – I said as much with the tethering point. I consider myself an educated user, but my intent as a developer is to target 1.6 if I can – I’m always about getting as wide an audience as possible, and “more than half” is not as good as “almost all”.

    But my points are still valid. If you buy a new iPhone today, you will be getting iOS 4.0.1. If you buy a new Android phone, you could be getting anything from 1.6 up to 2.2. It’s very difficult for the average person to tell the difference, and to know if an update is, or will be available for the phone they buy.

    A lot of people will be buying Android because they’ve been told it can “do anything”. But what the phone they buy can do “out of the box” may actually be very different from what they want (or expect) depending on the OEM, the carrier and the country they live in. Most users won’t want to do anything other than install apps, so rooting must be ignored here.

    Today I learnt that while paid Marketplace apps (note qualifier there, I’m talking Marketplace only) can only be sold by developers from 9 countries, users can only BUY apps if they are in one of 13 countries (of which NZ is one). Free apps are available to be bought and sold in a lot more countries.

    Honestly, the feeling I get from Google is that they want to make the OS, but they don’t want to support it. This shows in the short time that Google sold the Nexus One directly, the apparently lack of interest they have in the marketplace (from a worldwide point of view and compared to the iTunes App Store), and the fact that they let the OEMs and carriers change the OS so much for each device, and then don’t require an upgrade path from them.

    Note this is my opinion. I’m sure yours will differ.

  19. @Tarlen, yeah sorry, wasn’t differentiating my comments re your posts and Ben et al.

    I do think you will find though that within 3 months time a significant proportion of android devices will be on 2.x.

    I agree regarding Google and support, across their whole portfolio (not just Android), they are just really immature and amateur.

    They rely on forums and enthusiasts to provide support for Android OS itself, and I can sort of understand that.

    But the Market is supposed to be a professional service and it gets absolutely no user support. The forum is inundated with variations on the “When can I buy /sell apps from my country?” topic but there are never any official responses from the moderators, not even to explain the process.

    You ask the carriers and they will say, “Go ask Google”. I suspect if a major carrier partner in the OHA, like Vodafone Corporate leaned on them then they would make an effort to add another country to the ‘buy paid apps’ list (which may be why NZ and OZ got it)

    Really the whole relationship between Google and the market and carriers and who approves OTA updates is pretty murky. And our fine friends at VFNZ certainly don’t understand it.

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