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.

  • Lance o-Rama

    I went the opposite direction, from Android to iPhone, and in general I much prefer the Android for several reasons, but first some comments on your experience.

    I had an HTC Evo on Sprint, and I had visual voicemail, and it was very well designed. I think it’s more a problem with your provider than the Android OS itself, since visual voicemail is really just an app that the provider either does or doesn’t add as part of their integration with the system.

    I miss the Back Button. Sometimes I on the iPhone the app designer adopts some other way of going “back” in the application, and I can’t figure out how to get there. My only option is to kill the app and start over.

    I look at the Music/Google Play Music choice as a plus. I used to open a file browser and if I had downloaded a short audio clip then I’d click on it and just use the simple player. It would play over the top of the file browser, and when it finished I’d just hit the Back Button and go back to browsing again (I just used the player as a utility). When I wanted to list to music I’d use a full-fledged music playing application, with all the benefits that go along with it (album art, repeat/mix, equalizer, etc.)

    I’m not sure why the pinch gesture isn’t working when you look at web pages. It always worked for me. Maybe it’s your browser. Try loading another browser type and play with it.

    How to put music or media on your phone–easy! Just plug it into your computer, open a file browser and navigate to the phone, then navigate to the SDCARD directory (that navigates to the SD card, so you don’t waste precious system memory on your phone) and make a directory called “Music” (if one doesn’t already exist). You can make it any directory you want, or have as many as you want. Then just drop your music into the directory. You can either dump it all in one place, or create various sub-directories based on whatever scheme you want (genre, favorites, etc.) I like the sub-directory method because it keeps things more manageable. Then use a file browser to go to the directory and just click on the songs, or better yet use a more complex music player. In the more complex ones, there is usually a place where you tell it where to find your music files. Some update with new files automatically, others require that you manually click on a Scan button.

    As for headphones, I think the idea is that headphones are a personal choice. When people weren’t listening to music on their phones, and actually had mp3 players, the first thing you’d do when you open the mp3 player package is throw the useless earbuds in a drawer somewhere. Then you’d go out and get a REAL pair of headphones. The manufacturers finally caught on to that fact and stopped wasting money providing something that people immediately threw away.

    And talk about not ringing when you get a call, half the time I don’t hear my iPhone 4 ringing because (once again) I’ve bumped the ring/vibrate selection button. It practically changes position if a breeze blows by it. It’s NEVER in the position I left it in. It’s really aggravating.

    Now my thoughts on my conversion to the Apple iPhone 4. I have always HATED iTunes. Why should I be REQUIRED to put Apple’s software on my PC just to listen to media I buy from them? I MUCH prefer to have my own MP3 files that I don’t need any particular company’s software to listen to, and they play on just about any device just by putting them on it. How do I listen to my iTunes purchased media on my Android phone, or my cheap generic phone, or my MP3 player, or my car, or anything OTHER than an Apple product? That makes buying media from iTunes a waste of money because the media is always under Apple’s thumb. I avoided buying music on iTunes like the plague, and on the few times I had no other choice I would have to convert it to an MP3 file if I wanted to listen to it on anything else.

    I have a LOT of media I have built up over the years, mostly due to an enormous CD and DVD library. It’s much more than iTunes can digest, and it’s already sorted out in just the way that I like it to be. I have never liked the way iTunes manages media, so I guess I’m just jaded against it.

    Now here is the question I pose to you–how do I easily and efficiently move all the media that I desire to my iPhone without using iTunes? On one large server I have, there is considerably more media on it than would ever fit on my phone. So if I want to just move over a specific 35 albums I enjoy to my iPhone, can I just do it in one simple copy and paste action?

    I’ve tried a couple different MP3 playing applications, and they all seem to want to store the MP3’s in their own area. None can see the other’s storage place. What a waste of space!

    Then there is the iPhone charger/USB adapter. Apple is always changing the adapter so they can sell you more and more Apple-authorized (ie. piece of the action) adapters. The one from my iPod from a couple years back doesn’t work on my iPhone 4. If a company was REALLY worried about the planet, then why would they create so much JUNK by REQUIRING people to buy a new adapter every year? I have a USB charger in my car that has worked for many years as the ONLY adapter required to charge every other device I’ve used in it. From phone to GPS. Then again, the company I bought my GPS from didn’t get any money from requiring me to buy their own personal style of wire to move electrons to it’s battery.

    Then there is the problem of memory expansion. On the iPhone you get what you get. If your iPhone breaks, then whatever you had on it is gone forever. Good luck trying to remove it’s brain and put it in any other device.

    Another thing that bugs the heck out of me is that I’m basically a hacker at heart, and I want to know how things work. Sure, simplicity is fine, but what if I want to know more? How, for example, can I just browse the file system on an iPhone if I want to? What if I LIKE issuing text commands in a terminal window? I know Unix/Linux already, so just give me a terminal window and let me go at it, old-school style. How do I do that on the iPhone? I can do both on the Android. Everything seems to be hidden and mysterious in the Apple world. You can see what they want you to see, and you are never allowed to look behind the curtain and see the wizard who is running the show. And I truly hate that. It only makes me want to do it all the more, that’s my nature.

    I loved the “hackibility” of the Android system. You see it all over the application store. Odd little apps created by people interested in the same techie, geeky things I’m interested in. Want to build an Arduino device and control it with your Android? No problem. The biggest hurdle only happens if you don’t want to write your own code. If you look for an application then you’ll likely have to sort through dozens of choices. Not a bad “problem” to have. I don’t see that at all on the iPhone.

    I actually like the application on my Android that shows me what GPS satellites I’m getting signals from, where they are, and exactly what they are saying. I’ve looked high and low for something like that on the iPhone and there isn’t hardly anything to choose from. Nor are there any good Wi-Fi utilities, like “wardriving” apps, or apps that just show you what channels are busy from your position.

    And let me carry that idea just a bit further. This leads to one other thing that really bugs me. On the Android free apps truly exist. They are often apps that come from this line of thinking: “I know, I went through the same problem trying to get my phone to do X, but here’s what I’ve come up with so far, and you are welcome to it.”, or “Hey! Look what I can do! Here, try it yourself!”. On the iPhone the development philosophy seems to be this: “I bet I could market a product that is similar to what this other successful company is doing, and make a fortune on it. I’ll lure some poor saps into buying it buy just giving them a taste of it and either charging for the app itself or just charging for the functionality that lured them into it in the first place.” The least little tool costs between $1 and $5, with some costing a fortune for a one-off app that you’ll never be able to use for any reasonable length of time. A few years down the road it won’t even run on anything, or it will, but you have to BUY the one that runs on THIS iteration of the system.

    Between the initial cost of the hardware, the cost of the accessories, the cost of the multimedia (purchased on iTunes), and the cost of all the applications, you’ll spend a fortune. And that’s just the way they want it to be. But they throw in a pair of headphones so you won’t feel like you’re being cheated. It seems like every little thing that Apple adds to a product that makes the product something that a person my actually be tempted to buy, is some special treat that only a company like Apple will give to their customers. But in the rest of the world it’s just that companies build products with features that will drive customers to buy them. Apple gives you the shaft in so many ways, but then throws in a pair of headphones that has a microphone on it so you can answer the phone while listening to music. Isn’t that GREAT? Who else treats you like that? And that’s supposed to make you forget that you are being shafted in the process.

    And Apple is going to do the same thing all over to you again next year when it launches a new product that everyone will just HAVE to buy and get screwed on all over again.

    I fully admit it, I don’t like the whole Apple business philosophy. It seems too much like the social transaction that takes place between a pusher and an addict. They do everything they can to get people coming back to them, even while they are ruining them financially. But hey, that’s just my philosophy on it.

    I don’t know that the Android is the end-all, be-all of phones. But I do like that it’s at least open enough that you can monkey around with it and get it to do some interesting things.

    • Sandra Wade

      Wow. I’ve always said I would only use an Android phone. Looks like I made the right decision.