The fiddle factor

By | 2013/10/29

Fiddle FactorI’ve now been using an Android phone as my work phone for a couple of months.

My personal phone is still an iPhone, and that’s not going to change. I had been trying to make Windows Phone 8 (Nokia Lumia 920) my work phone, but the deficiencies were too great – particularly when it came to internet tethering. From a business perspective, that was completely unacceptable.

So, still determined to try using another SmartPhone OS, I gave in and bought myself an Android phone – the LG Optimus G 975K (a Telstra ‘special’ edition).

Because it is for work, I refrained from changing my mobile email signature to “Autobots, roll out!” – and I promise that’ll be my last Transformers joke.

Almost immediately, I preferred Android over Windows Phone. I’d been increasingly frustrated by the Tiles interface experience (and still think it’s a flawed direction, even more so under Windows 8 Desktop), so the multi-screen icon arrangement on Android suited me for exactly the reasons Windows Tiles don’t, viz.:

  • Icons are always precisely placed;
  • Icons are sufficiently different from one another.

So having used Android for a couple of months, what do I think of it?

The answer as you might guess, is in the blog title. Android is a mess of compromises. Don’t get me wrong – I find it easier and more intuitive than Windows Phone, and a telling factor in that is I’m far more inclined to carry my work phone around on weekends, interchanging use between iOS and Android somewhat randomly.

But it’s all about making compromises, and it’s all about being fiddly.

Don’t get me wrong – iOS is about compromises too, but the nature of the compromise between the two operating systems could not be more bipolar:

  • iOS compromises the user’s ability to completely customise the interface in return for a highly integrated and reliable user experience.
  • Android delivers a highly customisable user interface, but in doing so compromises the overall reliability of the experience.

Take launchers, for instance. On iOS, certainly for non-gaolbroken phones, you get one and only one launcher interface option – SpringBoard. If you want a new launcher, you effectively have to look outside of iOS.

Android? Not a problem. Want a new launcher – there’s dozens of them, and they all offer different features and options, pros and cons, and you can install them even on a non-gaolbroken phone with little or no fuss.

But, what was that? You want your widgets to properly update under a different launcher? Hmm. And notification badges too? Are you crazy? Why would you want them?

If you don’t want the default keyboard interface mechanism in iOS, you’re out of luck. Android? Go crazy! There’s dozens of alternative keyboard options out there, and many of them have their pros and cons. I’m even running one – SwiftKey. I installed it because the default onscreen keyboard that came with the LG would occasionally suffer a stuck backspace key and wipe out all the text I’d entered. (!!) Bliss, SwiftKey works like a charm … unless when I’m composing an email I forget that it doesn’t work if I jump back to a previous part of the email and start trying to enter new text. Then it seizes up unless I do some more jiggery pokery and…

You get the picture.

Android is fabulous as a replacement to the feature phone, and it’s equally great for people who are willing to either put up with good enough, or people who are happy tinkering.

Android represents every reason why I turned my back on Linux as a desktop operating system in disgust almost a decade ago.

“Don’t like it? Change it!” That can sound like a cry of freedom – but it equally rewards lazy, inconsiderate and lax programmers, which is what Linux as a user interface is full to overflowing with. Sure, such programmers aren’t limited to Linux, but the fundamental difference is the entire Linux application experience seems geared to a tacit acceptance of that fact, rather than a desire to make software work seamlessly. I’m reminded constantly of Eric Raymond’s rant post, The Luxury of Ignorance, where he described getting CUPS working from the perspective of a fictional aunt:

If Aunt Tillie were still along for the ride, she would be using some unladylike language right about now. And with good reason, because this is a crash landing, an unmitigated disaster. To understand why, you have to stop thinking like a hacker for a few moments. Cram your mind, if you can, back into the mindset of a clueless user. Somebody who not only doesn’t know what a string like “/printers/queue1” might mean, but doesn’t want to know, and doesn’t think he or she ought to have to learn.

A lot of people rave about Eric Raymond’s “The Cathedral and the Bazarre” essay as the summation of his most important contribution to computing, but personally, I think “The Luxury of Ignorance” was the most important message he’s made, and the one which is still being ignored in the overall Linux community.

Now I can’t say there’s any parts of Android so far that have been as painful as CUPS, but there’s a fundamental free-for-all laziness that leads to user compromise as a regular usage function. Even those users who don’t make any modifications to their Android phones will likely be making compromises.

Of course, all this is before I get to that SmartPhone nightmare – OS updates. I’m on Android 4.1.2. Despite being a ‘Telstra exclusive’ in Australia, the Optimus isn’t getting any attention for OS updates. I could try to root the phone to upgrade it, but that voids the warranty and the phone is in some sort of production mode which prevents rooting by conventional methods anyway.

Which is why I’m stuck with these godawful font selections:

LG FontsOne of the most hilarious complaints I’ve heard from Android users over the last few years is how Apple is a walled garden. That iOS doesn’t have sufficient freedom.

That’s the single biggest delusion of the entire Android experience. When Apple releases a new version of iOS, major or minor, the worst wait I have to experience to update my phone to it is the half day or so of Apple’s update servers being swamped. Apple supplies the updates, and the telcos don’t block them. Walled Garden? That’s Android – beholden to hacking skills and/or telco controls.

Ultimately Android appeals to a particular set of users – and I’ll admit, the geek side of me still falls into that category, barely. I want my computing devices to work with minimum fuss. It’s why I switched from Linux to the Mac, and it’s why iOS has been a consistently above-average experience at all times for me.

I’ve seen various rumours that Google wants to “take Android back” from the vendors, and assert a user’s right to have a default experience. That’s all well and good, of course, but assuming that does happen, it’ll rely on vendors actually moving to that version of Android. For many of us on existing handsets, it won’t make a lick of difference.

Meanwhile, one way or another, we’ll be fiddling with our Androids.