One Day With Android

The Android vs iPhone battles have raged for a few years now, and it’s likely that they won’t subside anytime soon. While both sides seem to battle back and forth claiming that they have a larger percentage of the mobile market, the general consensus is that at the current moment Apple offers developers a larger opportunity to monetize through the app store and their integrated payments platform (though their lead may be shrinking), but the Android install base seems to be growing at a faster clip. It’s hard to ignore the Android trend.

Though it may be hard to decide which platform to bet on for the long term, it is clear that right now, if you want to conceptualize and develop products that reach the majority of the mobile market, you need to understand both environments well. There are inherent differences in the interactions, design constraints, and underlying behaviors of the OS. Android can’t be this great unknown that you read about occasionally and pretend to understand. ¬†For me it was an unknown, so I decided that it was time to pick up an Android device and live within it for awhile.

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Yesterday I went to AT&T and purchased an HTC One X+ and added it to my existing plan on a second number. I shared the number with a few people who I interact with frequently and asked them to use it as my primary number for the time being so that I can get the experience of using it naturally as a first resort. Twenty four hours later, I want to share some of my initial impressions around being an Android user for the first time after years of using an iPhone.

Immediately I was humbled by being uncomfortable in a new experience. I took for granted the fact that over the last four years I’ve used an iPhone every day as an intricate part of my daily interaction with the world around me. I knew every setting on that thing, every customization, and had followed the announcements of every new feature the week that they were announced and made available. That level of time commitment and use created a high level of comfort. In a new Android environment, it was very clearly apparent, that 4+ years of innovation, new features, customization options, had rolled on without the slightest bit of attention paid, and as such, jumping in at this point left me with quite a bit of uncertainty about what to do.

That being said, initial discomfort or uncertainty does not mean that my experience has been negative. On the contrary, I’m enjoying many things about the device, and am getting used to things very quickly. The large screen, the informational widgets, the nice Google service integrations, and the Play store have all been major positives. I’ll share some of my initial thoughts in bulleted form, with the disclaimer that I’ll likely discover solutions to some of the negative issues (if they are not in fact real weaknesses of Android) as I get more familiar with the ecosystem – in the meantime this only serves to notify people of some things they’ll notice early on transitioning from iOS to Android.

  • No visual voicemail – back to dialing your voicemail number and listening to terrible prompts.
  • Informational widgets (weather, sports, stocks, foursquare, etc) give you zero click access to valuable information that you’d otherwise have to launch an app for in iOS.
  • Google Now has done a nice job of anticipating what information I’m interested in. For example I learned that The OKC Thunder are playing in town tomorrow against the Warriors and I’d consider buying tickets.
  • Notification overload – I am the guy who can’t have a single outstanding badged icon on iOS indicating an unread message, must be at inbox-zero at all times, and hates thinking that there’s information out there that he has missed. Well, Android seems to bombard you with notifications in the header that you need to swipe to clear, and for me that’s just another chore that I don’t need. I should probably figure out how to tune these via settings.
  • The back button is a completely different nav paradigm than exists in iOS. It frees up in-app real estate for the developer, but creates a more clunky hardware interface for the user than iOS’ one home button. I’ll have to weigh in later on whether I appreciate the tradeoff.
  • Users have the option to choose which service/app they’d like to use to accomplish a specific function. This was very annoying to me when I was just trying to listen to an audio note and had to select whether I wanted to use “Music” or “Google Play Music” to play the sound. I don’t know – just play the darned 20 second sound clip. I assume this may come in handy in other circumstances though.
  • It feels like I don’t have to type in my password nearly as often as I do in iOS. The Play store seems to trust you that you actually want to install what you say you want to install.
  • Push notifications temporarily turning on the screen in iOS is nice so you can quickly glance at your phone to see if you’re interested. On the Android you hear a buzz, but don’t know what’s up unless you unlock the phone. This may be a setting, but if so I haven’t found how to override it.
  • No badges on icons mean you have to dig into your notifications screen to find out what’s up.
  • Web and email don’t seem to quite snap to your screen size the same way they do on iOS. I’m constantly scrolling around horizontally to read all the content, and there doesn’t seem to be a pinch gesture to resize what you’re looking at. Or am I just missing it?
  • Nice job of setting up your contacts from Google + Facebook + other services when you first set up your phone.
  • It’s completely unclear to me how I go about putting music or media onto the massive 64GB of storage that come with the phone by default. It’s probably not hard, but there’s no seamless iTunes integration like with iOS.
  • Phone didn’t even come with headphones, and at first impression it doesn’t seem like the iPhone headphones+microphone work incredibly well with the device.
  • In just playing with and testing the phone, it didn’t ring when I called it half the time, going to voicemail after a couple rings when it displayed full service on AT&T 4G LTE. One call was garbled and the recipient couldn’t hear me. This may be an AT&T issue and not an Android or phone specific issue, but it’s not a good sign when you’re only about 50% success rate on a limited sample.
  • Tethering is huge! In fact, it was not that much more expensive to add an Android to my plan than it would be to get a MiFi or another mobile hotspot. Instead of shelling out $40+ a month for said base station, just add an Android and tether. A base station with functionality!

That’s all for now. I’m looking forward to begin hacking on Android development a bit, and learning what it’s like to really build for one of these things.