Okay so the deal is that I bought an iPhone 3GS last year after wanting it for a long time and then I registered for Google I/O and I got a free Droid (couldn’t actually make it to the conference because of a computer science final… so I didn’t get the free HTC Evo) and then now I ordered and got an iPhone 4 so that’s how I have three phones. I’m going to be selling my 3GS in a few days time and I use my iPhone 4 primarily (seeing as I don’t have service on my Droid). But I wanted to give my impression of them all since I’ve had a chance to play with all three. More importantly, I’ve had a chance to interact with both iOS 4 and Android 2.1 (and hopefully soon 2.2…) and want to give my impressions on that too.
To put it very plainly, iPhone 4 currently is the winner in my opinion. There are a lot of reasons for this but I don’t believe that’s any longer impossibly far ahead of Android. With the announcement of Froyo at this year’s I/O, I expect that the coming months will bring about some changes to the mobile landscape. Already, there is talk and rumors about Gingerbread, the next version of Android, so it is comforting to know that this is not something that’s going to die away soon. But there are certainly some issues across various levels of the Android experience that are potentially fatal.
In its current state, 2.1 Android is not too shabby. The Droid is the first Android device I’ve owned and I can easily tell that it is far better than the first iteration of devices both from a hardware and software perspective. As expected, it takes a few cycles for any upcoming competitor to catch up to speed, but it is important to know when to actually stop giving this benefit of the doubt. And I believe that time is now.
We’ve been through a few software releases and with Froyo and onwards, Android needs to start looking more like a comprehensive mobile operating system for a variety of users (not just us geeks who can forgive the occasional mishaps and difficulties) that can stand on its own. It is one thing to gain the interest of the hacker community and quite another to gain the interest of the most average user.
To be short, Android needs more polish in this respect. I know that the developers are working particularly on UX for Gingerbread but I still think that’s a bit late. To be clear, 2.1 isn’t ugly on the whole and is definitely useable, but the differences are more apparent when compared with iOS 3.x or 4.
At this point, the glaring omissions have mostly been taken care of and the more stubtle points need some attention. For one, I just recently discovered that the Droid has no spellcheck for the hardware keyboard. While this may be a conscious decision, I can’t say I agree with it at all. The truth is that sticking firmly to philosophies may work great if you’re writing the Linux kernel, but maybe not so for a front-end feature. Our phones should fit our needs and expectations, which are neither simple nor static. If users are familiar with and expect spellcheck for hardware keyboards, it better be there. I believe the success of an end-user product is inversely proportional to the thickness of the User Manual. In the same vein, Android must recognize that users have already picked up certain behaviors from using competitors’ product – that’s a “skill” that should be taken advantage of. In this respect, I like that Android has kept with many of the sweeping unofficial standards. This gives it an edge over competitors who aim to reteach user interaction.
Being a Linux user, I guess I have a natural tendency to like Android. After all, its guts are very much Linux and you can see the characteristics of Linux in a lot of places. I love the true multitasking and the approach that notifications have taken. I like that my homescreen is almost desktop-like and can provide me with customizable and dynamic information, aka widgets. But the UI needs some help. Consistency is important and in some ways Android currently fails that.
The Market is one place that needs the most help. The bag icon to get to the homepage of the Market is completely unintuitive. The loading bars for app updates are jerky and inconsistent. The color scheme is quite ugly too. Most icons are very blurry even when their actual icons when installed are sharp. Not all apps have screenshots. Perhaps most discouraging is that there are all kinds of apps that have copyrighted icons or content.
This last point is important because it represents a larger issue that needs to be handled. I’m just as much in support of “free as in freedom” as the next FOSS guy, but something needs to be done about the quality of apps and the content of apps that break federal copyright laws. For the first point, it is again a consistency issue. There’s a reason iOS 4 looks so good – the apps are clean and in tune with the design principles laid down by the OS. In Android, many apps outside the ones by large organizations honestly look quite bad. Misaligned text boxes and ill-placed dropdowns and radio buttons evoke a particularly strong GeoCities-esque feel. The objective of a drag-and-drop UI should be to not betray that it is so. Again, the user should never need to learn how to use an app. And this is of particular importance because individual developers are of great value in this open system. We need to make sure all apps make our OS look good. And for the second issue, I’m starting to wonder if some sort of approval process might be a good idea – if at least to keep out the malicious and illegal content. Surely Google can do this – Apple has done so for every one of its apps and there are twice as many of those. There needs to be more accountability in this respect and more incentive to stick to the design principles. Perhaps a section specficially to highlight great interfaces. The point is that we can’t make this a functional collaborative system unless we actually collaborate.
The next issue is fragmentation. This is well-known and progress has already made on this front. I support the regular updates but delivery needs to be sped up (Google, us Droid owners want Froyo already!). For this aspect, Android’s greatest strength is its weakness. The fact that the theme can be so customized causes huge delays for phones with Sense, Blur, etc. That process needs to be streamlined. Further, new versions need to stop making so many older phones obselete! This of course is not just Google’s responsibility. Hopefully these issues will get ironed out with the next release.
I know that’s a lot of criticism, but it is just that I’ve skipped over all the good stuff, which greatly exceeds the length of this list. I really like Android and want more than anything to see it do great. And I think it will.