Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

I’ve recently come to an odd conclusion. After leaving iOS and spending more than a year and a half using Android phones and tablets, I’ve decided that my next phone (in August when my contract runs out) will likely be an iOS device, and that I’m heading back to iOS in the tablet world. Here’s why:

  • Most of the key advantages that Android phones had have been borrowed/stolen into iOS. The iPhone 5 now has larger screen, Siri competes with Android’s voice recognition, Apple shamelessly stole the Android notification interface, and now, the iPhone 5 has LTE.

  • Many of the key advantages that Android had have now disappeared from the Nexus line of devices (which, because of the software openness, are the only ones I’d buy). In the most recent Nexus 4, they’ve done away with replaceable/upgradeable batteries, SD cards (allowing storage upgrades), USB mass storage mode (since Android 3.0), and even LTE is gone.

  • DRM measures are increasingly implemented which tie programs, games, etc to single accounts, meaning that to pass on apps (say, when you give a phone to a family member), you have to give somebody your whole account, leaving you back in the same trap iOS puts you in.

  • The Android phone ecosystem is becoming more closed, not more open. Newer phones have longer and longer delays between software versions, slower source releases, and locked bootloaders, preventing the installation of 3rd party software even on an “open source” device.

This last bit is the part that hurts most. I moved to Android because I believe in open source software. Unfortuantely, manufacturers of Android devices don’t share that belief, and many are actively trying to keep their devices closed, even while they’re technically open. This phenomenon is discussed quite astutely in this post on the Techcraft blog. With the openness closing and the phone hardware nearly matched, Android loses in one key arena: Software and User Experience (UX) design.

Don’t get me wrong, Android 4.X is beautiful. The designers at Google have put a great deal of effort in, and it shows. When you’re working on a stock, un-skinned phone (a Nexus), and are using the built-in Apps, Android is gorgeous, and it does still have advantages. The sharing system is wonderful, still. The ability to choose different keyboards is great, as is the update interface. But that’s all built-in, Google work. 3rd party apps are a different story.

3rd party apps, even those for basic functions (non-Gmail IMAP) are seldom well-designed, and although many apps are unquestionably powerful, many have obviously been designed with little eye to form or UX. Android, much like linux, is a hacker’s OS. It’s an exploration of what is possible, and in my experience, most programs are primarily focused on functionality. The very best Android programs, the ones that I couldn’t live without, tend to be the most powerful, written by the nerdiest. Design, where applied, tends to be range from Spartan to afterthought, and the best designed apps are often by large companies porting from iOS. This will, I hope, change with time, as many developers haven’t yet updated their apps using the new design guidelines introduced with 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”), but compared with the iOS world, where good typography and UX design are the norm, the bar for Android is set far lower than it needs to be.

Poor aesthetics aside, there are still other fundamental failings. To backup the settings and data for applications on your phone, you need to first root the phone, then install software to do it (Titanium Backup, usually). This copies the data into a user-accessible folder, which you can then (sometimes) copy down using MTP. If you get a new phone, you need to root it, install Titanium backup, copy those files over, and then restore. Compare this to iOS, where you just plug the phone in to sync and backup, and if you plug a new phone in, it’ll restore.

This is just one example, but it’s telling. The reason an iPhone (or a Mac, for that matter) costs so damned much is that Apple spent weeks fixing it for you before you noticed it’s broken. With Android, you have the power to fix it yourself. This is the fundamental tradeoff: Android lets you do nearly anything you want, Apple makes sure that everything you can do works, and blocks the rest.

At some level, I don’t miss iOS. I don’t miss the lock-in, the clunky settings interface, and the relatively un-customizable and boring home screen. I don’t miss opaque settings, lack of access to the file system, and the inability to open an attachment from an email in different program. I dislike needing iTunes and a laptop to add a ringtone, dislike the inability to block ads, and dislike the fact that the OS is a black box. iOS does what it does, well, and stops you from doing anything else.

Ultimately, the freedom of Android is like the like the freedom of moving to a cabin in Alaska 50 miles from your closest neighbor. You can do anything you’d like. You can build a cabin where you want, scream at the top of your lungs every night from 1-2am, walk around naked, and go/drive wherever you need. This freedom to do what you will is exhilirating at first. But ultimately, you’re still in the middle of Alaska, so there’s not all that much you can do, and if something goes wrong, you’re largely on your own.

The problem is that this freedom is largely symbolic. Given all that freedom, once my initial tweaking and ROM-flashing experiments subsided, all I really wanted was to be productive and to do the same things I used to do on my 1st Gen iPad. Ultimately, I realized that, more than a year in, nearly everything I was doing on my Android devices was permitted in iOS, many functions and apps that I had in iOS simply weren’t available in Android, and I was paying (with stability issues and poor software choices) for freedom that I simply didn’t need.

I went to Android to have the power to be able to make my phone be whatever I want it to be. Unfortunately, due to a combination of poor software design, poor hardware design, and poor choices by manufacturers, the only thing that I can’t make my phone be is reliable, functional, and boring1.

And I think that, after all this, that’s really what I want.

Edit: I’ve revised this post with some further thoughts, and to reflect my further consideration that it’s not just the iPhone, but iOS devices in general, to which I’m switching back.

  1. For a wonderful essay on the virtues of “boring”, see this wonderful post by Minimal Mac


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