Finally, the conclusion of the Android Challenge! Previous updates here:
- More about the Challenge: gdgt.com/discuss/an-iphone-user-five-years-later-i...
- Update one (days 1 - 3): gdgt.com/discuss/the-android-challenge-update-one-...
- Update two (days 4 - 7): gdgt.com/discuss/the-android-challenge-update-two-...
Android has, as we've all heard, a great deal of apps. Some day soon it may even have more apps than iOS, and for now my basic needs have been more than adequately covered. In fact, most of the services I frequently use (Rdio, Instagram, RunKeeper, Uber, Path, etc.) are represented with not so shabby ports of their iOS counterparts.
It didn't take long for me to learn that, not unlike iOS, app discovery is a real problem for Android. Browsing the Google Play store provided the first hint: just about every hand-curated app collection on the Play home screen featured an normous amount of overlap, highlight the same tired, sundry apps and games over and over. And almost all of those apps were either ports from iOS, or utilities to tweak Android itself¹. (For the purposes of this discussion, I'm not really going to lump tools that tweak Android itself in with apps. See footnote discussion.)
This strong first impression of app homogeneity made me even more curious. What am I missing? The good stuff has to be here somewhere. Fortunately, there's still at least one tried and true way to discover the hidden gems: ask some Android users what their favorite apps are.
So I asked the people most into Android that I know, and without fail every single one had approximately the same reply: check out Swiftkey and Swype, Instagram is good, and make sure you've got Chrome. When I pressed, asking for some of the more interesting, under the radar apps they'd discovered, I got nothing. (Or nothing really worth sharing here, anyway.)
That's when I knew: Mountain View, we have a problem.
It didn't take me long after that to come to the somewhat disconcerting conclusion that Android has very few really good, standout apps apps of any kind, and even fewer still really interesting, unique apps that can't be found anywhere else. Pretty much all of Android's best non-first party apps were released and perfected on iOS first, and then ported.
To be clear, Android's best custom keyboards are pretty interesting; and yes, Instagram is a great port and does Android software proud; Chrome is, without a doubt, the best mobile browser around. But as an iOS user, this is kind of crazy. Most iPhone users I know don't bat an eye when asked to produce page after page of cool iOS-only apps -- it's kind of an embarrassment of riches.
Earlier this week I posted Dark Sky to gdgt's Must-have apps list (gdgt.com/best/apps/weather/). To my surprise, I got a lot of feedback from Android users along the lines of: "Man, I wish we had something like that." Of course I think it's a standout app, but iOS users have dozens, maybe hundreds of apps of this caliber -- large and small, well known and obscure.
With the largest smartphone install base in the world, with as many developers as it has, how is it even possible that no one's innovating consumer software and services on Android?
I'm not going to try to answer that -- at least not today. There are many reasons why this is the case, and they've been widely debated for the last few years. But we can certainly all agree that app discovery is a huge challenge for every platform with more than a handful of developers -- and if there's innovation happening on Android, I simply haven't been able to find it.
From what I can tell, 2012 doesn't look any different from years past: the interesting mobile software still seems to happen almost entirely on the iOS first. Then, later, if there's some traction, maybe Android users will be treated to a port.
If you're an Android user (or thinking of becoming one), maybe this isn't a big deal for you. Maybe having reams of fresh apps isn't of much consequence. (And let's not overstate the case on iOS apps, either, because for as many good ones as there are out there, few are what I'd call game or life-changing.)
The bottom line is this. In terms of the bigger, more popular apps and services, there weren't many I couldn't find an Android version of. You can rest easy, Android more or less has all the basics covered. Just not much else.
Sweating the details
All that said, Android itself still has an enormous amount going for it. Ice Cream Sandwich raised the bar for Google's attentiveness to UI, and Jelly Bean raised it again.
I found it clever how holding the home button from anywhere in the system enabled you to swipe up to get to Google Now. I really like how the Google Play shortcut is always present in the main app menu (because if you can't tell, I like hanging out in app stores). I like how the system settings shortcut is always present in the notification tray. These feel like thoughtful details that make using the phone a little more pleasant without adding much clutter. And there are plenty of these details to go around in Android nowadays. (Apple, by comparison, seems to prefer the utterly brutal reduction of clutter, even at the expense of usefulness.)
I'd forgotten how, when you hold an icon to reposition it, Android projects a little outline of its shape in the background. There are no outlines built into the icon files, the system has to trace the shape -- it's small touch that I'm sure was probably a fair bit of trouble to get right. But someone did it, and people notice these little things. It's this kind of stuff that gives me hope for Android's longer-term future, even if it's far from perfect today.
I really like Android's app switcher -- definitely more so than Apple's tray. We navigate our mobile devices visually, and the more rich and obvious the visual cues, the easier it is to use. It's hard to dispute that a scaled down window preview is a better reminder of an app -- and, more importantly, the state in which you left it -- than a thin row of icons.
Of course, some stuff remains less unrefined. Text field behavior (especially when switching to horizontal orientation), for example, is occasionally baffling. But I don't think Android nits need more picking, the macro point here is that Jelly Bean finally feels worthy of Android's enormous user base. I just wish it didn't take Google 1-2 years to get its releases out to the majority of its users (and usually through upgrade attrition, not through updates of existing products).
I think my biggest long term Android issue came from the top down: Google hasn't done enough to demand consistency in basic usability from the Android ecosystem. I've talked about this before with regard to the back button, but I feel it's worth addressing in a broader sense.
Newer Android apps tend to work well and look nice, but they all seem to do common things differently, and with unnecessarily differentiated basic UI conventions. Apps that haven't been updated in a while still have the look and feel of early Android, which is really jarring. And don't get me started on the crazy things Android does to phone apps running on a tablet.
The interface guidelines Google introduced with Ice Cream Sandwich (developer.android.com/design/index.html) have helped set the tone and do a pretty good job at demonstrating how to solve some of the basic UI problems inherent in a platform with hundreds of permutations in resolution and screen size. But there's still zero consequence for doing things entirely your own way, and experiences are still scattershot even among the Google's own first party apps.
Jelly Bean proves Android no longer needs to scramble to catch up on mobile interface conventions. Former webOS design lead Matias Duarte has helped the platform find a direction and style, and it's actually pretty good, even if Android doesn't always lead by example.
Now what Android desperately needs is to demand much, much more of its ecosystem. Right now. I suspect this won't happen, though, at least not any time soon.
When I started using Android full time for this experiment, I'd hoped it wouldn't take long to catch myself up. I hadn't really gone deep on Android since Honeycomb, and as I've mentioned in the past, I've never used it full time, exclusively.
But knowing a smartphone device well enough to let the muscle memory kick in? That's what I was aiming for. That took about a week.
Figuring out all the must-have apps? That was maybe eight, ten days tops.
Then, a few weeks in, it kind of hit me: I'd gotten settled in. I hadn't really thought about my iPhone in well over a week. I'd adapted. I was totally comfortable, and I'd made Android my own.
Not surprisingly, that felt like a pretty strong signal to end the experiment. It was time to make a decision: should I stay or should I go?
I found it more than a little surprising that I wasn't really pining to go back to iOS by this point. But I didn't have any strong feelings about staying on Android, either, so I decided to try going back. I was glad to be reunited with some of my favorite iOS apps (like Sparrow and TweetBot), but after weeks away, carrying an iPhone felt foreign, just as carrying a Galaxy Nexus had.
I suppose in the end, staying or going just didn't feel like a very big deal. Using the iPhone didn't feel like some huge homecoming. It was just moving from one comfortable environment to another.
I didn't really think a ton about it. Perhaps because for all their particularities, once you get to know them both well, iOS and Android just aren't so different. At least not in the ways that seem to matter the most.
If I had to pick only one reason for switching back to iOS, I'd say it's probably the apps. But there isn't just one reason for picking iOS or Android over the other, certainly not for me.
¹ On utilities: why they're great, but they're not Apps (with a capital A). Swiftkey and Swype and other platform utilities are definitely apps in the strict sense of the word -- you know, installable software written for a specific platform. I really like Switfkey, and without question Android's architecture affords the most robust ecosystem of system utilities in the mobile space.
In the same vein, I use and love myriad system utilities on the Mac (like Moom, TextExpander, etc.). I can't live without them. There's absolutely nothing wrong with software whose sole purpose is to improve your user experience. But I don't think a platform's ecosystem can or should be defined by this kind of software, and that's what I've seen happen with Android.
System utilities rarely (if ever) fundamentally change the way we use our devices. They certainly don't change the way we experience the world. Utilities address deficiencies. iOS has plenty of deficiencies, too, and as any jailbreaker will tell you, there exists an an enormous number of system utilities to make up for them.
But it's a mistake and a trap to judge the robustness of a platform's ecosystem by its ability to run (and quantiy of) software whose sole purpose is to make using other apps, or the system, a little better. I'd strongly encourage Android users to look beyond these kinds of tools, however great they may be, when judging an app ecosystem, be it Android's, iOS's, or any other.