Quality, functionality and openness

May 10, 2010

It is against an increasingly bitter backdrop of argument between Apple and Adobe (Flash! No Flash! HTML 5! Openness! Closedness! etc…) that I found myself a week ago with a damaged iPhone. An accidental dropping incident from Son1 added a seemingly minor dent just next to the power button, and hey presto – a device I can’t turn off manually.

The poor, bashed-about phone I dropped was a Gen 1 iPhone: almost a retro device by some accounts. Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it, and life now without an internet-ready mobile is simply not an option for me. It was therefore a rather lucky twist of fate that found a generous friend offering me his brand new Android phone to use for a while.

So I find myself with the latest and greatest Android handset: an HTC Desire. A ten zigabit processor, a gwillion megapixel camera, a ten billion pixel screen, infinite memory. Something like that, anyway. It’s slick, beautiful, thin, light. It has a bright, hi-res screen, a wonderful camera. It is rammed to the hilt with functionality. I’m blown away by having real location capability (remember, my Gen 1 could only find me using cell stuff rather than GPS); I’ve experienced using Layar, Google Sky Maps, other LBS services – properly – for the first time. That openness, that speed, that power. Awesome.

The first night I got back with the Desire, I found myself sitting on the sofa, flicking my way through the Android store, checking Twidroid, browsing the news. And a weird thing happened, something I wasn’t expecting. Like an almost intangible movement in my peripheral vision, I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was a bit on edge, trying a bit hard, having to think. Night One, I said to myself. Night One with a new and unfamiliar device. No wonder. It’ll be ok tomorrow.

The thing is: the uneasy thought didn’t get better the next day, or the next night, or the night after that.

After a week of using the latest and greatest Android phone, I find myself sitting down on the sofa in the evening and the thing is sitting unused on the top of the piano. Instead I’m – get this – back using the 1st generation iPhone. It’s SIM-less (useless as a phone, but still ok as a device on the WIFI), battered, slow as buggery, and I can’t turn it off, but hey – I’m back.

Now’s the point in time I should make something very clear: I’m not an Apple fanboy. I have a Macbook at home but I spend most of my working life on PC’s. In my past I’ve used both, enjoyed both, had different experiences of both. I’m also pretty conflicted about some of the recent moves by Apple. I personally think that the whole anti-Flash thing is a major mistake, in the same way that I think the anti-Flash zealots are making some pretty bold assumptions in saying that HTML5 can replace Flash at this point in time. Frankly, that’s bullshit. I also dislike the pro-app, anti-web thing that they appear to have going on. The web wins: it always will. Apple say they get this but do a bunch of stuff which implies otherwise.

I wanted to love Android. I wanted to embrace openness, turn my back on Apple’s rejection of free markets, join the crowd of developers shouting about this new paradigm.

I can’t.

I’ve tried very hard to articulate to myself why this is the case. It is – certainly – something about usability. To take one of many examples: on Android you apparently have one paradigm for copy and paste in one application, and another in another: in the browser you get a reasonable Apple-like magnifier; in Twidroid (for example), you don’t. This to me just simply isn’t acceptable. Copy and paste is ubiquitous, end of. Stuff like global Google Search is good – very good – but when every move is hampered by subtle but vital compromises in usability, the overall experience becomes stressful, not playful.

The Android store is also, frankly, embarrassing. I tried very hard to find any kind of game or app that came close to the beautiful stuff you see on even the worst of the Apple store. Nothing. The UI of many apps is just terrible, the graphics all a bit 1995. Crashes are frequent, and when they do happen they are peppered with developer-like comments about code and runtimes.

It’s hard – store aside – to fault the Android device from a functionality perspective, and I’ve tried very hard to find ways that I can articulate what exactly is wrong. It is something about playfulness, about the fun of the technology. There is also something about quality. Robert Pirsig says this:

“…the result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable…”

I don’t want to get all metaphysical about Apple products: enough people do this already, but the iPhone experience – in a week of living with Android – is much, much closer to the invisible technology that makes for a better and more natural user experience. That’s what has me reaching for an old, broken, semi-retired phone rather than the faster, slicker, by-all-accounts-better model.

Apple stuff comes with a compromise – and make no mistake, I’m as conflicted as the rest of the world about this: the restricted UI, the closed and editorially controlled store, the limits placed by Apple on the devices their OS will run on – these are not “good” things – but they appear, at least in this instance, to be necessary for quality. When Android is forking its way off into infinite loops of differentness, each with pluses and minuses, Apple stays the course – a slow, chugging, proprietary, known experience. It doesn’t feel right, and yet it absolutely does.

When I think about what this means, I worry. As technology people, we should all be concerned about the approaches that Facebook, Google and Apple are taking, and we all know that openness is – or should be – key. But – and I’ve written about this a bit before – usability and ubiquity are the definers for normal, non-geeky people, not openness or functionality. And we need to focus on this and think about what it means when usability comes into conflict with openness, as I believe it does with Android.

So that’s me. I tried. Circumstance mean I’ll be using Android for the next few weeks either way, and I may change my mind. I may find myself on the sofa using the Ferrari of phones rather than the Morris Minor. But somehow, I doubt it.

16 thoughts on “Quality, functionality and openness

  1. I haven’t had the opportunity to compare an Android device to iPhone – I use the latter.

    I regard my phone as ‘consumer electronics’ – although powerful, it isn’t a ‘PC’ (in the broadest sense). I want it to ‘just work’ and I want it to do this in the nicest possible way (an aside, this is how I’d regard an iPad as well were I to buy one)

    Although I can see some issues with Apple dictating what is ‘good design’ and exercising such tight control over design aesthetics – overall I think this is what it takes to deliver a high quality experience on this type of platform. If Apple were in a more dominant market position (and I realise this may happen), then I would be more worried – but we shouldn’t forget that most platforms have at the least ‘good practice’ guidelines for interface design and the predominant aesthetics for computer interaction are driven by the design of Windows.

    I don’t really have very strong views on Flash – I tend to agree that the arguments against it don’t stack up that well, and I’d like to see it working on the iPhone – but then I couldn’t believe it when Mac discontinued the floppy disk drive, so what do I know?

    However, what concerns me much more is the approach Apple is taking to approving (or not approving) apps based on content.

    This is censorship, plain and simple (I wonder if we will see First Amendment challenges to this in the US?). Not only that it is censorship applied on a odd an inconsistent basis. We’ve seen a twitter app censored for containing inappropriate language – when this was actually in a tweet that could have appeared in any twitter app. We’ve seen a dictionary censored for the same reason. We’ve see a swimwear catalogue taken down, while Sports Illustrated remains available. We’ve seen apps containing political satire rejected.

    This isn’t just censorship – it is ill-thought through and incompetent! I’m worried that if this isn’t dealt with soon we will see it insiduously creep into other areas of the platform – is this the start of age ratings on books via the iBooks app? Or will some books be ‘banned’ by non-inclusion?

    In the end if anything drives me to use a less polished, less well designed, less usable, product, it will be Apple’s seeming wish to control what I read – not how I read it.

  2. @Owen – thanks for commenting, and a great – and really important point. You’re absolutely right: technology censorship is one thing, content censorship is another thing entirely, and indeed something which would make me (and probably others) start to take different decisions – albeit ones that might compromise on usability.

    One of the things that I think these issues start to raise are about the point in time when beliefs and ideals start to cross over into actual responses. For me personally: I will compromise on notions of “openness” as far as technology is concerned in order to get a better user experience; but like you, would very much start to twitch if censorship became more of an issue. How *much* more I guess remains to be seen. The reflection of this onto the general populous (how much of a crap people give about the Facebook TOS for example..) is where stuff gets really interesting…

  3. I remember coming home with my iphone. As someone who had always gone for the cheapest phone contract known to man, this was a big investment. It was a different type of phone (though as noted, more ‘gadget which so happens to have phone functionality’). I had a new sim (my previous one was too old). That old sim had always made transferring numbers easy. I was ready to spend much of that Saturday setting up numbers and so forth.

    But it didn’t happen.

    Instead what happened is this. I turned on iphone. Connected it to itunes as directed. It went chug chug chug. And then I set to work only to find it had happily sync’d my numbers with Address Book on the Mac. And there was a ‘Sussex IMAP’ email account ready to be checked (not a straight forward thing to setup), all ready, I guess it got the settings from Mail.app. And so it went on. Seamless, and from then on perfect syncs.

    …And when I destroyed my iphone and had to get a replacement, I swapped the sim, plugged in the new phone, and itunes said “hello would you like to make THIS iphone the Chris Keene iphone?” and I said yes please, and then 5 mins later it was identical to the one I destroyed.

    So while, like you, I try to avoid fanboy-ness. I am stunned when people say ‘but phone X has a better spec’. The iphone *so* just works. Amazingly so.

    I agree with Owen, the stupidity of some of their app approval decisions is very frustrating. And it grates. And I imagine Steve Jobs will always be someone who never gets the point of humour. But anything other than a iphone (for the foreseeable future) will be just that. Not an iphone.

    Chris

  4. A long winded way of saying the Android phone felt like it’d been designed by a search engine company rather than one that’d spent the better part of 30 years making desirable, innovative consumer electronics and software?

    How much time do users actually spend in official applications created by Apple/Android(Google) rather than third-party appstore bought ones? Is it purely a quality issue and Android not being nearly fussy enough about what’s compliant/acceptable? If anyones pushed apps through various appstores what kind of rejections did you initially have to work through? usability objections? too rubbish icons? It feels wrong?

    If we think about the developers for a moment. When you’re developing for the iPhone you’ve got a much larger potential sales base, not to mention the UX expectation bar has already been set high. This means you can spend a lot more on development. I’m guessing the same isn’t true on Android just yet and to some extent their store has to take whatsoevers going to appear competitive. Taking about openness if Apple & co. where all more open and it was easier for developers to port apps across platforms. They could then spread some of those hefty development overheads around and the spread of quality apps a bit more even? Not something Apple as the current king-of-the-castle probably want to see happening.

  5. @Richard –

    “A long winded way of saying the Android phone felt like it’d been designed by a search engine company rather than one that’d spent the better part of 30 years making desirable, innovative consumer electronics and software?”

    > ha, yes I guess so….

    I think you’re right about the app store(s): there is certainly a chicken and egg thing that will probably improve (or at least, change) over time. The rejections question is also interesting – runs into Owen’s point about content / technology. It isn’t clear cut how “quality” is defined. At the moment we have this polar OPEN vs MODERATED environment which is probably not nearly as subtle as it ultimately needs to be…

  6. I’ve seen Jonathan Ive speak about designing Apple products. And, OK, I have worshipped him a little myself.

    It is really interesting to me that the interface designers at Apple don’t get a look in amongst all that publicity. Yet they are the people making Apple what it is. If there is a slight clunkiness to the iPhone it is in it’s size, the placement of the camera..physical flaws. The software is almost flawless in terms of usability, thoughtfulness and interaction. Apple products like this don’t have to be learnt, they almost just are.

    And I do sound a bit fan-girl now, I admit it.

  7. Full disclosure: I’ve never used an iPhone (well, not for more than 5 minutes), but I do generally love Apple stuff (got 5 macs about the house).

    I have been an Android user for about 18 months now. I started on a G1 and now I have a Motorola Milestone. For me the Milestone is the best phone I’ve ever used, just as the G1 was 18 months ago. But then a very large percentage of me is pure geek. I love features like the proper keyboards that the G1 and Milestone have, the ability to do command line stuff, run ssh clients and other geeky endeavours.

    Having said that my other half is not even remotely geek and she gets on with it fine too. Maybe if she’d had an iPhone in the past she’d be looking at her android phone now thinking the UI wasn’t slick enough, but really it’s perfectly usable to her.

    As an open source advocate censorship is important to me, and I don’t make the distinction between what I run on my phone and content I might view with my phone. Apple made the right move many years ago to switch their Mac operating system to an open source base, and allowing the user to have full access it. It means that people like me can easily build open source applications on OSX. They seem to have taken the opposite approach with the iPhone and tried to close it down as much as possible and censor the apps available to the user.

    This is what stops me even wanting to try an iPhone – supposing I loved it, I might then want to use something that subscribes me to a more closed approach to the world. Bit of a dilemma there.

    But I think there’s good news for both camps here. Mobile phone technology is very new, Android has improved a lot over the last 18 months (if you want proof then really you should try firmware 1.0 if you can even get hold of it it – it really *really* sucked). In the longer term things move closer to each other as ideas cross-fertilise, so Android is good for iPhone and vice versa.

  8. @fourcheeze – thanks for commenting, and great to get an Android-lovers perspective too.

    I think you’re absolutely right (and several people said the same thing): if I’d never known the iPhone, I’d never be wanting for an iPhone.

    I’ve always thought that Android stands a chance of being the primary mobile OS, maybe in the next couple of years. My experiences has made me think a bit harder about this, though: I don’t think Android is as good as I maybe thought it would be. I’m sure you’re absolutely right about the rate of improvement, though, and also the fact that each approach will bolster the other.

    What is also interesting is that we all assume (well, I do, anyway) that there will be “a winner” somehow. Then I got talking to a bunch of mobile gurus who were saying that they thought that there wouldn’t *be* a primary mobile OS; that we’d always have a mobile market with a huge fragmentation. Which makes things difficult / interesting for developers…

  9. The other issue you’re not mentioning is price. The Android approach is always going to end up cheaper than the Apple one. For many people this is going to be what matters. You can now get an Android phone for £100 without subsidy (like this one). I suspect that Android is going to end up the Ford Focus of phones with Apple's offerings the BMW.

    • @Joe – absolutely right, and I like the Android = Ford Focus analogy. Maybe I’d put Apple more into Audi territory than BMW, thou…

  10. “A long winded way of saying the Android phone felt like it’d been designed by a search engine company rather than one that’d spent the better part of 30 years making desirable, innovative consumer electronics and software?”

    No. the UI on the Desire (Sense UI) is written by HTC, it just runs on top of the Android operating system. Everything from the on-screen keyboard to the way you copy and paste in different apps has been modified by HTC.

    Large parts of it are still Google’s, but you have to be careful when making blanket statements about Google’s OS when large parts of the bits you use aren’t theirs. Obviously this is ignoring the app store, although on that note…

    “I tried very hard to find any kind of game or app that came close to the beautiful stuff you see on even the worst of the Apple store”

    I would happily invite you to compare the fart sound applications from either store.

  11. @Phil – what you say may (or may not – I have no idea) be true. The fact of the matter is that no-one apart from a niche bunch of geeks actually cares about that kind of detail. Most people are just looking for a device and an experience that is easy.

    (Checking out fart apps immediately after I finish typing this…)

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