‘The Gadget Disappears’

As I tweeted earlier, that’s the most succinct, elegant description of the difference between the iPhone OS and Android. It goes beyond that, though.

Before I go further in my review of the Droid, here’s what you need to know about me. I’ve been using computers for a quarter of a century. I’m not a designer, or a computer engineer. I am, however, a demanding power user, who’s willing to put up with some degree of difficulty in order to use the right tool for the job.

I’ve been using smartphones since 2002 – I’ve used Windows Mobile devices, BlackBerries, Androids, iPhones, and Symbian devices. In other words, when it comes to smartphones, I’ve been there, done that, and I have both the decorative shot glass collection and the rare set of beer steins, as well as a random t-shirt.

If you’re one of my followers on Twitter, you’re familiar with my periodic blowups at my Android phone. By now, I’ve had three Android phones:

  • the G1
  • the MyTouch
  • and my current phone, the Droid.

Despite the fact that I’ve seen Android progress from its initial 1.0 deployment in the G1 to its current 2.0.1 incarnation in the Droid, I remain frustrated, even angry with it.

Here’s the thing: Android, and its raft of devices, are phenomenal. From a hardware perspective, the Motorola Droid is a great piece of machinery. While the keyboard is a bit fiddly¹, the phone as a whole is solidly built.

If I didn’t know any better, I would have no hesitation in saying that this is the pinnacle of mobile phone computing, and be eager to see what was coming down the pike.

Here’s the thing: I know better. We all do. We’ve known better since June 29, 2007. I mention that date because that’s when the iPhone was released.

In the time that I’ve used my three Android phones, I’ve used three iPhones as well, and continue to use my iPod Touch (which runs the same OS). I’ve had an original iPhone (which was a gift), I’ve bought an iPhone and was given the successor 3G iPhone as a work phone.

I’ve used an iPhone and an Android phone at the same time. I’ll be blunt: there’s no contest. Absolutely none. The iPhone beats any Android device to a bloody pulp. It’s like watching Mike Tyson in his prime savage Michael Spinks in 91 seconds².

Why? Because the gadget disappears, as Paul Carr put it so aptly. You pick up an iPhone, and you do what you need to do, whether that’s emailing, surfing the web, Twittering, looking for a restaurant – you name it. As Carr put it:

One thing you have to understand about this gadget is that the gadget disappears pretty quickly. You’re looking into pure software.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t do those things on an Android phone: you absolutely can. But in every instance, save, perhaps, for using Gmail and other Google services, the experience is much less elegant and much more fiddly.

Force Close = PC LOAD LETTER

Let me share my experience. I’ve had the phone for about two-and-a-half weeks, now. That’s a reasonable amount of time to have spent before reviewing a device. Before buying the Droid, I did plenty of research, combined with my past usage of Android devices. I knew that the keyboard was mediocre at best. Ironically, the keyboard has been the least of my worries.

All my frustration is on the software side. There is, however, one hardware niggle that I’d like to illustrate. Look at the picture of the Droid in portrait mode, where you’re most likely to use it as a phone:

(image courtesy of homebiss.blogspot.com)

Can you see what’s missing? Look closer.

You have four softkeys across the bottom: Back, Menu, Home and Search. You have room for a search key – one that connects to a search widget that you can stick on the homescreen, incidentally – but no room for a dedicated phone key? I’ll grant you that search is a nice function to have readily available, but what would be more useful on a phone – a search key or a call key? Really, think about it.

Hell, I’ll even give you the point that the iPhone only has the Home button – but you’ll then have to admit that Apple doesn’t futz it up by adding a menu key, let alone a search key!

But as bad as that design decision is, it’s nothing compared to the software.

Oh, lord, the software.

In my seventeen days with the Droid, I’ve had to factory reset the device nine times. I regularly get “Force Close” errors. In case you were wondering, “Force Close” on Android is the equivalent of the “PC LOAD LETTER” error in Office Space: utterly inscrutable and infinitely maddening, striking mercilessly and without warning.

(image courtesy of namran.net)

What happens, near as I understand it, is that the phone gets stuck in a loop. You can’t trouble shoot the loop; it only gives you the option to force close the application, hence the name.

What makes the errors so infuriating is that they strike out of nowhere. There’s no telling when an app will develop a force close loop. My guess is that it happens when you’re running too many applications at once, but hell if I know; for all I know, it could be happening because I haven’t sacrificed enough cute, small woodland creatures to Gozer the Gozerian.

What’s more, I don’t get those errors with third-party software. Oh, no. I get those errors with the core software package: with the Gmail application. With the browser. With the Market application. With the Messaging application.

Oh, and on Friday, with the Home application. Yes. The home application: as in the core, base desktop. If you’re getting a force close error there, of all places, the phone is useless.

After over an hour of sheer, hair-pulling frustration, frantic Twitter consultations with friends, and delving into the Google swamps, I finally had to put the Droid into flash mode and then doing my ninth factory reset.

Seriously: I had to reboot the phone while holding down the X key on my Droid’s keyboard, then press the volume up and camera keys simultaneously.

Now, if you were a marginally less resourceful user, would you have even known to do that? I didn’t, and I’ve used every smartphone OS out there.

Lest you think I’m some cursed exception, you should take a stroll through Google’s own search results. They’re rife with people describing situations similar to mine. One result has 31 forum pages – 31! And they’re not done yet!

My step-dad has a Ph.D from Cal, a masters from Harvard, and graduated with three bachelor’s degrees (in sociology, psychology and architecture – don’t ask). This is the man who introduced me to computers. He was initially befuddled by his iPhone – for about 3 minutes, before he started using it. He still uses the command line in Windows, and showed me how to program using BASIC.

I wouldn’t dare give him an Android phone.

I wouldn’t give him one because the gadget doesn’t disappear.

Me, my dad, and millions of other people use computers in order to get our work done. Nowadays, that also includes smartphones. But in order for us to get our work done, the gadget must disappear.

I don’t want to fiddle about with options, or spend time tweaking infinite settings. I just want to write, or browse the Web, or tweet.

I’ve had three iPhones and an iPod Touch. I’ve never had a force close loop in any app, let alone a core system app. The gadget disappears.

Live Wallpapers on a Dead Phone

So, given all this, why did I choose to buy a Droid? Three reasons, mostly:

  • I use Google apps, notably Google Voice, therefore I need a phone that runs them. The iPhone notoriously doesn’t use Google Voice, and hacking it to do so is a sub-optimal solution.
  • Verizon’s network is the best in the country. I hate to say it, but it is.
  • Whenever possible, I like using open-source software. I’ve used Linux in the past, and I like the notion of open-source as a whole.

Nevertheless, my experience with Android has caused me to curse the notion of open-source software, repeatedly.

Android 2.1 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary release. There’s only one phone running it: Google’s Nexus One. The Droid should be receiving that update fairly soon, though if you want, you can hack it onto the phone.

One of the features of Android 2.1, if you can even call it that, is something called “live wallpapers”. Basically, these are wallpapers that move and react to your touch. It’s a nifty engineering trick, sort of a “look at this puppy can do, eh?” kind of thing. Pretty, sure, but essentially useless.

You know what else is notable about the Nexus One? It’s signal inability to hold on to a 3G signal. The phone constantly bounces between 3G and 2G signals, which in turn hammers the phone’s battery to a pulp, rendering it essentially useless as a mobile device.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but I’m guessing they still haven’t fixed the force close loop error, either.

But, hey: LIVE WALLPAPERS!

Control Versus Creation

That’s the kind of thing that just infuriates me. It angers me because it’s an obvious sign that Google just doesn’t give a damn. Android is full of potential, but it’s going to go unrealized because the Android team is more interested in showing off with live wallpapers than it is with actually making a phone that works – that is, a gadget that disappears.

It doesn’t help that much of the user base is willing to let them slide on this. You get more people pining for live wallpapers than for usability, though this is changing; Google’s getting slagged for the Nexus One’s connectivity issues.

I suspect, however, that the reason for this sad state of affairs is that the majority of Android users are unlike me: they don’t want a gadget that disappears. On the contrary, they’re consumed with tricking out the gadget to the nth degree, even if it renders it unusable. And I suspect that the Android team is composed, by and large, of people like this. That’s why you have live wallpapers, even as the rest of the phone is a usability nightmare.

To them, a gadget that disappears is a nightmare of control, in that users have little to no control in how they can tweak the gadget. It’s an illusion, though, because having that much control and spending that much time on it detracts from actually accomplishing anything with the device – which was the whole point of getting it in the first place!

I have no solutions for this state of affairs. I wish I did, but you’ve got two ideologies working at cross purposes here: those who want the gadget to disappear in order to do things and create stuff, and those who value the illusion of control as a substitute for accomplishment and creation.

Until Google decides to make the gadget disappear, they’re going to continue making a useless gadget. And that breaks my heart.

¹ Yes, the keyboard is fiddly, though I’d make the argument that any keyboard in a phone’s form factor is less-than-good. You’re not going to type out War and Peace on it, after all. That guy may have written a book on his phone, but the fact that you know it as that and not as a book should tell you all you need to know about it.

² That was an epic demolition, punctuated by Spinks talking trash about Tyson prior to the fight. Tyson kept quiet, and then annihilated Spinks in 91 seconds. Watch the fight here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aD44ZPFHLfg. That was the height of Tyson’s power as a boxer.

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