This isn’t the ‘droid you’re looking for

By | 2014/11/22

I carry two phones – the phone I use for work, and the phone I use for everything else. That’s for two key reasons: when I’m taking time out, I can leave my work phone on silent and not worry about it, and so that any Exchange admin who wants to wipe my phone can go nuts and I don’t have to worry about losing any personal data that hasn’t yet been synced to a cloud.

Since the iPhone 3G launched in Australia, I’ve been an iPhone user, and my personal phone has always been an iPhone. But just under two years ago I decided to run another OS as my work phone. Initially, that was the Nokia Lumia 920 Windows Phone. I thought it was great to start with, but month by month the interface wore on me, until it was wholly without merit. At that point, I had to switch to an Android phone. I stand behind what I said at the time about tiles as a SmartPhone interface:

1. A home-screen that features continuous scroll rather than pages denies you absolute positions of icons, except for those icons at the top and bottom of the home-screen. For all other icons, the position will be relative to the amount you’ve scrolled up and down the page;

2. With smaller tiles inheriting exactly the same background and foreground colours, they lose 1 of the 2 visual queues we normally associate with icons. (Colour and pictographic representation.) Indeed, the pictographic representation itself becomes difficult to differentiate given the conformity of the colours, too.

For this reason alone, the chance of me ever going back to a Windows phone is non-existent. For a while, I thought I’d found a viable alternative with Android though.

I started with an LG Optimus G, which unfortunately turned out to have a Telstra-branded ROM, and Telstra didn’t give a rats arse about updating the LG from Android 4.2. After a few months of being stuck on an older version of Android, I gave in and bought the Nexus 5, and for a while, running Android 4.4, it was a significantly nicer experience.

Despite that experience, I couldn’t help but constantly remember a post I’d made a few years ago, The Walled Garden vs The Overrun Garden, where I’d said:

These days my attitude is that for a consumer device or computer, I want things to work – I don’t want to have to make them work. That’s not a cop-out, that’s a legitimate decision about what I consider to be productive activity.

Android, in the end, proved to me to be about the same consumer experience as all those years I ran Linux as a desktop operating system – all fiddle. I probably tried out a dozen or more alternate launchers on Android. This one had great graphics but was as slow as a wet week. That one was fast and responsive but looked like it had been hit with an ugly stick. And that other one was brilliant but sucked the battery faster than a Prius towing a Winnebago.

Don’t even get me started on needing to run a virus scanner on your mobile phone.

Compromise, compromise, compromise. Android is all about compromise. People tell me that with iOS you’re compromised by the inability to substantially modify your UI experience or install any software you want on the device. That turned out to be the lesser of two compromises. The greater compromise, to me, was the lack of coherent integration. Too many options hide the function.

I’m not a consumer user of IT. I’m an enterprise consultant, focusing in data protection – backup and recovery, storage and availability. I’m also just as happy diving into a tricky problem that lets me program my way out of it. Despite not being a consumer user, I expect systems to be designed well, and there’s critical areas of usability for me that Android failed on.

First, let’s consider Lollipop, AKA Android 5.0. The process around the release of that was as vague as a nanna with Alzheimers trying to tell you what she had for dinner last week. October, maybe. Well, maybe late October. Hmmm, maybe early November. Ah, what the hell, let’s make it mid November. And rolling upgrades. None of that stupid stuff that Apple does where they announce the iOS release date and everyone can update on the same day. Sure, it’s like a stampede through a department store on Boxing Day, but eventually the queue un-jams and everyone gets through.

With Android it’s just day after day of checking for updates only to be told you’re running the latest system.

Liar.

The breathtaking hypocrisy of so-called ‘tech journalism’ on this front astounds me. If Apple ever handled a release as ineptly as Google does for every release, you’d never hear the end of the bad press. But because everyone’s grown accustomed to the insipid release process offered by Google and sometimes offered by the handset manufacturers, it gets ignored. I’m willing to bet the majority of people don’t actually update as much as replace their phones with ones that run a newer operating system.

But there’s something even worse about Android, something that really rankles me. First and foremost, I’m concerned with data protection. Really concerned: it’s what I write about. I live, eat and breathe data protection with everything I do.

Google doesn’t have anything approaching an appropriate data protection attitude for a consumer level device.

Apple does. They have it in spades. I’ve had the iPad, the iPad Mini and the iPad Air. Each time switching from one to the other has been a case of plugging in the new device and choosing the option in iTunes to restore from the last backup of the previous device. It’s the same with the iPhone. I’ve had the iPhone 3G, the iPhone 4, the iPhone 5 and now the iPhone 6+. In fact, for each of the 3G, 4 and 5 I encountered a scenario where I had to get it replaced. So that’s effectively 7 iPhones so far – and each time replacing one with the next has been as simple as plugging it in and restoring from the backup of the previous device.

Sure, it takes a while to do a restore, but when it’s done, I unplug the device and walk away. The hardware has changed in every case, but it’s still my iPhone. Or my iPad. This, to me, is the monumental failure of Android.

Over the course of the 12+ months I had Android, 3 times I had to do a restore process on my phone (whichever it was, or even switching between), and all three times it meant getting all my apps downloaded from the Play Store, but having to re-do everything else. Google related data was the only thing preserved – Gmail, Contacts. All SMSs wiped. All other email clients wiped. All app layouts wiped. All customisation wiped.

That’s not a consumer process. Not one iota. When I mentioned it on Facebook, I was told that it didn’t have to be so hard:

Android Backups

Well, not so hard. So long as you pick a phone that has a replaceable SD card in it. And flash the ROM with a custom one. And install third party backup and recovery tools. It’s like every person who wrote Android has either never read, or never cared about Eric Raymond’s The Luxury of Ignorance. That should have become the bible to the open source community, and to Linux in particular. Instead, everyone seems to think it doesn’t apply to them.

Aunt Tillie with an Android? She’d burst into flames.

Years ago, I remember a boss describing his sports car as having character. My boyfriend simply whispered to me, that means he has to repair it every weekend. And it was true – without fail, every Monday my boss would regale us at work with some piece of tinkering he did on his car every weekend. Meanwhile, every day we’d get in our Toyotas, turn the key and start driving. But his car had character.

Android has character too.

But it’s not the ‘droid I’m looking for. Despite my best endeavours, I don’t think it ever was.

(My work phone is now an iPhone 5c. I turn it on, and it works, and I work while using it. No fiddle, just function.)