May 21, 2010

The Thing With Android

Google Android, in its introduction, was a bold step forward in the smartphone software space. It was an OS that supported multi-touch gestures, unsigned software, and alternative skins. You could tinker with it however you wanted, install whatever you wanted, and styled it in any way you wanted, and if you wanted to install Android into your netbook or smartphone, you could do that, and Google won't charge you a penny.

In theory, it's so much better than the iPhone OS, and HTC is such a great handset maker, but why oh why does it not have the same amount of success the iPhone has?

I can count the ways.

1) It's the GUI.
To say that Android is a big usability nightmare would be a huge lie, but to say that it's as simple to pick up as the iPhone would be an even bigger lie. A bit like Nokia's open-source Mameo, Android is more beloved by the tech-savvy, but as time passes (and unlike Mameo), this concept is quickly changing.

As of now though, the OS involves a bit of getting used to before you can exploit everything it has to offer, but once you do you'll be able to do some pretty cool stuff.

Truly, through every update, the usability of the device improves, but there's just something about the UI that can seem really overwhelming at first glance. I could even go as far as to call it a little excessive. It's cool that Android has widgets, but I'm not quite sure why I don't feel like it's ideal to place them together with the app icons. It's also cool that it has live backgrounds, but how much more eye candy and bells and whistles does a background need? At the end of the day, it's just a background, an animated one yes, but a background.

Also, you're only limited to 5 home screens. If Apple's 10 or so home screens aren't already enough for the normal consumer, what about FIVE? (And yes, I know that some Android phones have about 7 or so, but... SEVEN?)

2) It's the Multitasking.
Normally, multitasking would be a good thing, but when it involves sacrificing a lot of juice, that's when it becomes really bad. Just running a Twitter client in the background would jeopardize the battery life! Truth be told, the iPhone has an incredibly weak battery life with or without multitasking, but when this is the kind of multitasking that Google fans flaunt on Apple fanboys, it gives Darth Jobs even more reason to trumpet his company's version of it (which involves putting apps in suspended animation instead of true-blue multitasking).

Oh, and there's a Task Manager. A computer can have a task manager, but a portable device, hell, a phone, simply cannot. It would be a huge waste of time to deal with a Task Manager on a phone.

3) It's the Android Market.
Android Market is one of the most open markets in any phone ever seen, and it is also one of the largest when it comes to number of apps, only second to the iPhone App Store. But you're not limited to the Android Market, you can also install unsigned software from other sources, and Google wouldn't give a crap. You can do what you want to do (yes, even install a porn marketplace) on an Android phone.

But, taking other opinions of iPhone switchers into consideration, the Android market doesn't seem to have the same polish that other iPhone apps have. Yes, Google will definitely be able to flaunt the now exclusive to Android Simplify Media app, but what happens when you compare Twitter for iPhone against Twitter for Android? Based on reception, there's a huge gap between them in terms of functionality and usability.

On Android, it's true that there's an app for anything, but they tend to not be as polished as the ones on iPhone, at least, that's what they say. I mean, it's not actually Google's fault that this claim exists, it's the developers'. I mean, who can blame them when the cash is in the competition? I'll leave the door open on this though, since I only have a limited amount of quality time with Android phones to begin with.

4) It's the hardware.
The fact that Android is open to any hardware manufacturer is a good thing. Not only is the OS free to distribute and tweak, it can also adapt to any form factor. If it weren't, there wouldn't be any HTC Sense (which is a stunning UI), Timescape (Sony's eye candy), or Motorola's Motoblur.

It's not a question of why Android can't have a uniform form factor, it's a question of release dates. The hardest part of deciding on an Android phone is, ironically, the large variety of phones that are out there and how long it will be able to stay current. The original iPhone took three years before it was considered completely obsolete to support new software updates, while the original Android phone, the HTC Dream, lasted merely a year and a month and it couldn't support Android 2.0.

Still, newer phones do have more allowance for newer Android versions, but the thing is, they won't have the same insane Snapdragon thingamajigs and the 4G connectivity of the most cutting-edge Android phones. You'd think that Moore's law would dictate that to be natural, but who wants to say that it's natural when these new phones release barely a month after the new hottest item?

An example: HTC's Droid Incredible just released with some of the best ratings ever for any smartphone. And then comes the Evo which supports 4-fricking-G, not to mention that it's also made by HTC. Do I buy the Evo now, or should I wait for the next hot Android phone to come along?

5) It's the catching-up.
While Android phones after the HTC Magic are able to upgrade to the newest version, some phones that have custom skins lag behind phones like Google's Nexus One.

Why is that?

The Google phone runs on official software, while the HTC's, the Sony's, the Motorola's and the Samsung's modify the software to match their tastes, so when a new version comes out, all those companies will have to take time to make the new features work with their own flavor of Android before releasing it to the general public. In other cases, they'll just release the new version of their software to new phones and screw all the older ones behind. Seriously, that sucks.

6) It's the Flash.
The new Android 2.2 will support the Flash player. If you don't know what the heck Flash is, you are living under a rock, but for the sake of courtesy, it's basically a browser plug-in that animates shapes, programs free games and plays video on YouTube.

Flash is insanely notorious for being a resource hog, especially in the Mac platform (which is one reason why Apple hates Adobe) and can cause real crashes. However, it is a good thing, in theory, to have Flash on a mobile platform because it's pretty ubiquitous in the internet.

Adobe's tight collaboration with Google could possibly change the landscape of Flash on a touch-based platform, or it could just prove that it will suck terribly. Either way, the two companies have worked on a way to preserve battery life and resources while working almost perfectly.

CNet's demonstration of this feature makes it look like it works well, but it has yet to be known whether Adobe has worked out on a way as to how mouse-overs will work when it comes to Flash ads and some games, because Flash is not only for video, it's also for games and ads.

When they do find a way, then Apple might even have little choice but to jump on the bandwagon and begrudgingly work with Adobe. But even then, I doubt that this collaboration will totally be kink-free.

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