With all the public brouhaha going on with star tech bloggers over the Galaxy Nexus and, more generally, Android vs iOS or the world vs Apple, I thought it would be fitting to describe my real-life experience with replacing my iPhone 3GS with a shiny Nexus S, severely regretting it a few days later and deciding to go back to Apple.
One day, a few weeks ago, I was hurriedly running to catch the train. I caught it. When inside I scrambled for my iPhone. It was nowhere to be found. I had lost it. The train kept going.
I had been planning to replace my iPhone 3GS with the new 4S (even before it had been announced!) but the financial crisis surrounding Portugal had made me think twice before making such a large investment. After losing my 3GS I decided that I would try and replace it with an Android phone. A cheaper (than any iPhone), but high quality and modern Android handset that would certainly do everything an iOS device does. And I would be able to customize and program it freely without messy jailbreaks. I would be free and I would save money!
As a disclaimer, I was an Android developer for a year and many times carried an Android with me as a second phone. I was familiar with it. I just hadn’t really used it intensively as my main personal mobile device.
Luckily I found an unlocked, brand new Nexus S selling for €200 (about $275 at the time). I was so excited that before I bought it I ordered a case to make sure it would be protected from the get go.
When it arrived I was impressed by the packaging. It clearly was inspired by Apple but it wasn’t quite on par. Nevertheless it was much better than what you come across from most other consumer electronics brands. The phone itself was very sleek albeit a bit big and bulky for my taste. I was hopeful this relationship was going to work.
I was wrong. Here are 5 reasons.
1. Hardware Fragmentation
Having bought a Google Nexus phone I thought I was clear of all the talked about fragmentation issues. So I bought a Nexus S, right? No! I bought a Nexus S GT-I9023. WTF?! Why do I need to know that? Oh, it’s just the screen that’s an LCD instead of Super AMOLED… Nope. Nexus S models have slight, undocumented size differences. Thus, my cover did not fit and, worst of all, it’s nigh impossible to find a good, fitting case for the GT-I9023.
I am aware that there are two versions of the iPhone 4 (GSM and CDMA) and that must have been a pain to those Verizon clients who had to research which covers fit or not but that seems to have been resolved with the 4S. An iPhone 4S is an iPhone 4S. That remains an issue with the latest Google phone, the Galaxy Nexus.
2. Media and Platform Desintegration
I use a Mac. I use iTunes. I have all my music there and perhaps as importantly I subscribe to all my podcasts in there. It’s not perfect but it works better than anything I have seen out there. It also gives me one place where I can manage all my music and podcasts as well as my Apps. I used to plug my iPhone in and it would all sync perfectly. But it’s not just the music that syncs. It’s all the metadata! If I listen to a song 20 times on my iPhone, when it syncs with my Mac, it increments the play count 20 times in iTunes. Ratings sync! Podcast play positions sync! That is crucial for seamless multimedia management and syncing!
I think this is where the Android ecosystem is weakest — media management and syncing. Maybe with Google Music the panorama will improve and, perhaps, for Spotify users this isn’t an issue nowadays. For me and for many others it is. Specially if you are an avid Audiobook and Podcast listener. Maybe that’s why most of the people I know who have an Android phone tell me they don’t use it as their main portable media player. They have an iPod for that.
The media ecosystem is not the only important environmental component that needs to be tightly integrated with a mobile device. Everything, from documents and email to calendars and appointments should be accessible and manageable from anywhere. And everything should just work. I have a Mac, I have Mac OS X Lion, I have iCloud. I also am an avid Google user. And it all just works. Exchange and Google on Mail.app and iCal just work. And I want the same experience on my phone. That’s what I got with the iPhone and if you have a Mac and iCloud (and even Google) you don’t have to worry about anything. It all just works.
On Android, everything Google works pretty well. Exchange is not as smooth or seamless and many times is a pain to setup and never works perfectly.
Then there is the accessory ecosystem. I recently installed a car stereo which natively supports iPod/iOS. You can control these devices from the stereo head or from the device itself. It’s great to listen to a specific artist, album or podcast. And it just works. Podcasts remember the last playing position. Play counts are updated.
When connecting my Nexus S it worked. Poorly. It exposed my songs like a file browser rather then a music library browser. Furthermore, some tracks were unplayable for some reason. Finding and playing my podcasts was painful. It just wasn’t that smooth experience you require when picking tunes in your car. It sucked.
3. No Polish = No Passion
All the polish that goes into iOS and its fully integrated nature with the Apple hardware and media ecosystem makes it a joy to use. It is a delightful experience. You get immersed in it because everything is polished and fluid. There is nothing pulling you from the experience into the hard cold reality that you are just manipulating a machine. That leads to developing a relationship with your device. iPhone owners don’t say “My Phone”. They say “My iPhone”. You create a bond with your handset because it feels like an extension of you that does not resist, it flows. It responds to your commands.
It is hard to come back from that. The UX in Android is everything but polished and fluid. Simple things like multitouch and scrolling is sluggish even in top Apps. I hated using the Twitter app (which I loved on the iPhone): the Droid font sucks – it is too narrow and the timeline stutters when scrolling. And this is on modern hardware! No excuse.
4. App Quantity over Quality
Yes, there are equivalent Apps for almost anything you could have on the iPhone but they are just crappy. They all feel alien. They all use the menu key differently. There’s that fragmentation and lack of polish Android seems to proudly carry like a badge.
Android also carries the badge of variety and choice. That is a good thing but it seems to have lead to default pre-installed Apps that are very basic and only meant for light usage. If you want a great Calendar App or a great mail App you’ll need to get a third party one. I wanted the best Apps in each category so I had to research and decide which one would be perfect. That leads to a huge time investment and, worst of all, to choice paralysis. That is something users should not have to worry about. The default basic smartphone functionality should just work and be good enough for me not to think about improving it as soon as I started using the Nexus S.
To add insult to injury, App discovery is a nightmare in the Android Market. There are a lot of really crappy apps and finding the cream of the crop is an act of time-consuming Googling.
5. Ring Tones that Nobody Likes
What’s with the ringtones Google provides? What. The. Hell?! I’m a geek who doesn’t consider himself a nerd so maybe I don’t get it. But seriously, couldn’t you choose some friendly, generally acceptable samples? They are all robotic and sci-fi and weird sounding. I doubt even a tenth of Android users find those sounds enjoyable. They suck, end of story.
I had to settle on the standard old phone ring. Mind that I would still be using those old monotone ring tones if I could. To me, polyphonic tones just ruined it. But something I do not get is why many phones have loads of really crappy ring tones that no one would ever use. This is something everyone should get right.
I know you can add your own samples and make a ring tone from any song in your library but, again, this is a terrible out of the box experience.
Extra: Huge Best of Breed Handsets
This isn’t an issue with the Android platform but with the current offering of Android phones. Why the hell are all the best devices so large? I can’t find a good, modern phone with a reasonably sized screen! It makes me so mad!
What about Ice Cream Sandwich?
I have already had go at ICS and I have to say I was happy to find the default experience feels much more polished and fluid. The transitions are swift and perfect. Nevertheless, the Apps are still sluggish and foreign looking; even moreso now. The new Roboto font is a giant leap forward and makes it all much more clean and professional. However, I am not fond of the inherited Honeycomb look. All that black and white. I believe most users will not find it neither welcoming or friendly.
Android 4.0 might make some of the things I ranted about much better, specially when it comes to platform polish, but the fact of the matter is most people won’t get access to this in the next year. Vendor specific changes will make sure current Android users won’t have access to it and those that do probably will lose some Google spit and shine from those custom shell additions vendors like to use to differentiate themselves (e.g. Samsung TouchWiz, HTC Sense).
Furthermore, hardware fragmentation continues to be a real problem. Even if you have a Google phone, the overall experience will remain lackluster because developers have to target the Lowest Common Denominator. The lowest common denominator is a crappy chinese phone stuck in Android 1.5 and this is a real impediment for a platform that just works wonderfully.
I don’t know if MG Siegler is a classist or not – maybe I am – but I greatly identify with his description of how you cannot describe to a non-Apple user why iPhone is so great, better than any other Android phone! I should say that I am a big snob so maybe Topolsky was right to point this is a elitist view on the matter. Maybe it is, but I feel strongly it is not.
It’s like going from the DVD to the VHS. It’s like going from the CD to the K7. It’s like Tabbed browsing and IE6. You know the difference and you can’t go back to a worse experience.
So, some days after I bought the Nexus S I decided to give it to my sister on her birthday and buy an iPhone. I’m eagerly waiting for my iPhone 4S. Waiting to feel joy when using it. Eager for my Music and Podcasts to just work and just sync. Waiting to check out my Twitter feed when bored, anywhere, without any sluggishness when scrolling through it. You may call me an elitist prick, a snobbish bastard, an incorrigible fanboy, a sellout, but, man, does the iPhone just make connecting to the Matrix a pleasure.