I’ve never been an Apple fanboy. As I was growing up, surrounded by computers, I distrusted the Mac Classics I encountered at my first job and occasionally at my friends’ houses. There was something closed about them, as if they were designed by vanguard software designers: people who thought they knew what you wanted to do better than you did. Sure, Dark Castle was kind of alluring, but they didn’t feel like devices I could tinker with.
So it was with cellphones. I was brand loyal to Nokia’s near-unbreakable chocolate bar handsets until one day, in the middle of a communications crisis at Curverider, it became clear that I was going to need a smartphone. I needed to access my email, my websites and my servers when I wasn’t in front of a computer. And so I made what was, at the time, the best choice possible.
If you’ve never used one, let me be clear: Blackberries are a world of induced Pavlovian responses and assumed perma-connectivity. From day one, I was in a love-hate relationship with my little grey friend. On one hand, it gave me the freedom to move around without worrying that something terrible would happen while I was disconnected. On the other, it felt like I could never relax; I was constantly checking for updates, feedback, support requests and messages, and the device was always buzzing with one kind of notification or another. Ubiquitous connectivity was making me a nervous wreck.
So once I made the decision to leave Curverider, I made another kind of jump. Actually enticed by its lack of multitasking and notifications, as well as visual voicemail that would allow me to screen calls and pick up messages on my own terms, I held my nose and bought an iPhone. And never looked back.
If you’ve never used one, particularly for ideological reasons, I think it’s important that you know that the hype is based on fact. The iPhone, while only tenuously being an actual phone, was a transformative device that not only changed what a phone was, but also what it meant to access the Internet. The user experience is slick; applications are generally a joy to use; every aspect of the experience has been carefully thought out on an emotional level. It’s a beautiful device, and one that puts emotional experience rather than technical specifications at its core.
I deliberately didn’t subscribe to MobileMe. Email, Twitter, Facebook and everything else were all on demand – I had to go and ask for them before my phone would download them. (It’s true that you can configure a Blackberry to do this too, but it somehow seems to undermine the point of one.) The web browser is the single best browser on any phone anywhere. And the iPod music player infrastructure is the best of all MP3 players. To re-emphasize, it’s a great device.
But I’m a developer – and, like many people, I started to resent the iTunes App Store infrastructure. For one thing, I wasn’t about to buy a MacBook Pro and pay the subscription fee to join the developer network, but I wanted to play! For another, the price premiums placed on the iPhone 4 by the networks were beginning to look obscene. And finally, while I think Apple showed the way, I don’t think the iPhone is the future of mobile devices. Apple’s closed attitude will, globally speaking, shoot them in the foot. There’s every chance that it will continue to be the device of choice for wealthy, upper-middle-class westerners, but there’s a big, wide, world out there. One that I’d like to build applications for.
So, three weeks ago, I bought an HTC Desire.
Apple have spent a lot of time thinking about the “unboxing” experience: they’ve engineered their products so that the moment you first plug them in is almost magical. Unfortunately, the HTC and Android experiences are both very much back in the “functional computer technology” category. You plug the device in to charge it up; wait before first use; are eventually greeted with some uninspiring setup screens.
Once you’re through all that, what you get is a set of generic, preconfigured screens that didn’t in any way match how I wanted to use the device. A lot has been said about HTC’s Sense software, which sits like a slick coat of paint over the default Android user interface, but the default configuration was poor. I ended up spending an hour deleting widgets, moving applications around and downloading the apps I needed. In particular, the default email and SMS clients were junk.
Android’s openness and flexibility is awesome, but also its biggest user experience flaw. You can replace virtually every aspect of the system, and choose which application (for example) handles your phone calls or your messaging. This would be great if the default apps didn’t have to be replaced because they’re not good enough. The Gmail client was already installed, so it was a quick fix to make that my default email handler. Far trickier was finding something to handle my SMS messages; I went through six applications before a recommendation brought me to Handcent – by far the best Android SMS app, by the way.
Worse still, the initial setup brought me back to the bad old days of my Blackberry Pavlov-a-tron. I had to go through every app and switch off the notifications. Who needs a little buzzy pop-up telling you that someone’s replied to you on Twitter? Most people keep their phones with them most of the time. They don’t want their lives being ruled by a social networking site – or at least, I don’t (as much as I love Twitter).
Present day: bliss, puppies and the occasional Java exception
Three weeks later, and I’ve come to terms with my phone. Sure, it’s a lousy music player (I may yet get an iPod Nano to carry around in my pocket alongside it). It’s also been called a phone for “power users”, which is a euphemism for being complicated to use and aimed at folks who like to tinker. The reasons for using it are also still more ideological than based on user experience. But there are aspects that are touched by genius.
On the iPhone, every application sits in its own box. On Android, apps play together, sometimes seamlessly. On the iPhone, leisure and social media apps are the best of breed. Over on Android, however, the most finely-polished applications are business and productivity titles. (In fact, to be clear, the leisure titles suck.)
Despite all the talk about HD video and the clarity of the screen (which is beautiful, by the way), the HTC Desire isn’t a leisure phone. Its a phone for people who want to get things done, who want a device that plays their way, and which gets out of their way when they need it to. Android is a slow grower, but I’m beginning to fall in love with it.
Update: Steve O’Hear pointed out to me that it’s Apple who’s keeping iPhone prices high, rather than the networks. Also, I somehow forgot to include my dire Windows Mobile experience in this post – it should suffice to say that my Windows Mobile 5 phone felt like its interface had been designed alongside Windows 95. Not recommended, in the same way that chicken pox is not recommended.