How Android disappoints

Although Android is the most popular smartphone or tablet operating system, it is the least useful and an inferior experience to iOS or Windows. 

I’ve written or said these words or similar several times. Some readers and New Zealand Tech Podcast listeners think I overdo the Android criticism. Android isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t the right choice for most people. Here I explain why.

Integration

Only Apple makes iOS devices. You can’t buy them from a third-party. There are no jarring glitches where one company’s responsibility stops and another’s starts. The company gets to control every step from the moment you open the product box.

The hardware and software are tightly coupled and the experience is seamless and fully integrated. Apple kit is often physically beautiful, the beauty isn’t just skin deep it goes all the way through.

Although Microsoft licences its software, the company is the main hardware maker for Windows-based tablets. It has yet to complete acquisition of parts of Nokia’s business. When it does, Microsoft be the main Windows Phone hardware company too.

Windows-based phones and tablets are almost as tightly controlled as Apple’s devices. Microsoft has strict design guidelines leaving little room for the kind of innovation that can jar. The result is another fully integrated and, mainly, seamless experience.

This is not just about hardware integrating with the operating system. Apple and Microsoft offer integrated productivity apps and cloud services – each has a complete technology stack. Sure, neither is perfect, but they are consistent and coherent.

Nothing in the Android world equals any of this. Samsung is most popular maker of Android hardware. It speaks volumes that the company choose to hide Android behind its own software overlay. So does HTC and Sony.

You can buy Google branded phones with vanilla Android versions – these are better integrated and smooth than the phones with overlays. Yet, overall, Android is not as tightly integrated. This leads to an inconsistent user experience.

Consistency

Move from an Apple iPad Air to an iPhone and things work much the same. This is not always ideal, but third-party apps are largely consistent across the iOS range. Controls are consistent. Things act in the same, predictable way wherever you are. Someone who uses an early iPhone can move to the latest one with little difficulty.

Windows devices are similar. There’s a minor hiccup between Windows 8.1 RT version on the Surface 2 and the full version on the Surface Pro. On the other hand, moving from a Windows desktop to a Windows device is a breeze. With the exception of the Office apps needing to use the Windows desktop on the Surface 2 – which is admittedly jarring – the result is a consistent user interface across a range of devices.

Android just doesn’t get there. It doesn’t even come close. I can hop on someone else’s Surface or Lumia smartphone and instantly be productive. Same goes for iPhones and iPads. This just isn’t the case in the Android world – there are at least three or four current versions of the OS at any given moment on different devices. And those software overlays confuse things further. Many apps only run on a limited subset of Android devices. That’s because Android is fragmented.

Fragmentation

When Apple introduces a new version of iOS, most users upgrade within days. In June Apple released figures showing 93 percent of users where on iOS 6. In comparison Android users were split roughly evenly between the last versions. I can’t give similar figures for Windows devices – there was no upgrade path from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8. Even so, at a guess I’d say Windows Phone fragmentation is worse than Apple, better than Android, probably closer to Apple than Android.

Fragmentation has a lot to do with the way Google rolls out Android upgrades. Each phone maker has to rebuild Android and any overlays for each model. In some cases local carriers have to sign-off their customisations as well. It means a much slower process. In many cases it doesn’t happen. I have an 18 month old Android phone that has only ever seen one OS update – it is now three versions behind the current Android and can only run a fraction of today’s available apps.

Another downside of fragmentation is that it makes life hard for app developers. They tend to write software for the most popular targets, that can be hard when every group of Android users is a minority.

Sometimes free is too high a price

Apple’s business model is about selling hardware. The company’s operating systems are geared to that end. Microsoft’s business model is changing to what it calls ‘devices and services’. For now it is still mainly a software company. Microsoft’s operating systems keep people in the Microsoft camp and for those people to buy other Microsoft products that live in the same technology stack.

Google’s business model is to sell advertising. Android is largely about collecting data so it can sell more ads to you. Google doesn’t even sell its software to phone makers. They get it free.

Now you might be cool with that. You may think owning an Android phone means you’ll see better targeted advertising. And it is fair to say data collection goes on with iOS and Windows devices. But there’s a difference between that being a byproduct and that being the main reason Android exists. It even shapes how Google views you as a customer.

For me the problem is that when Apple or Microsoft engineers have to make a choice about how something works, their first point of reference is how do we make this experience better. Google engineers will also ask themselves the same question, but they’ll also have to think about opportunities to collect more information for the company’s big data engines.

Android not all bad

Despite all the words I’ve written above, Android is not a bad phone OS. Yet compared with iOS and Windows Phone 8, the Android world feels messy and disorganised. That’s not entirely negative. Some geeks like to tinker with their phones – that’s easier in the Android world. For some the freedom to tinker is more important than being productive or efficient. For others freedom is a path to productivity and efficiency.

Android has its charms. Apart from anything else, there wouldn’t be affordable smartphones without Google’s mobile operating system. Not everybody can afford to pay Apple’s premium prices. Not everybody wants to pay a premium. Android means you can get a basic smartphone for a few hundred dollars instead of the $1000 plus for premium phones.

And let’s not forget Android allowed Samsung, HTC, Huawei and others to get traction in the smartphone market. It made competition possible. For that Google deserves everyone’s thanks.

I look forward to seeing how Android develops, but for now, the OS, when evaluated in isolation from other considerations, comes third on the list.

 

13 thoughts on “How Android disappoints

  1. I welcome valid criticisms on Android, but to me these things you speak of are mainly by design. Google started with an open and free mentality and they’ve tried to stick with that. To some the pros far out weigh the cons. These cons are not something that can be fixed, if they are fixed you move across the continuum towards less open and free, which Google is doing. Subsequently I am moving away from Android.
    To people who follow Android and know Android everything that happens is completely understandable from OEM bloatware to carrier upgrade delays. The problem is, these shouldn’t be Android’s problem (except OEM bloatware kinda is); they made a product and set it free, it’s not God’s fault Adam and Eve ate the apple.

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    • Understood. There’s clearly a part of the Android audience that understands all this and is comfortable with it. But for the majority of people with Android phones, they are increasingly barriers to productivity, efficiency or even just having fun.

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      • Then I would say it is a weakness of Windows Phone (one I think I’ve heard they are trying to rectify) that the only option is Android. Also another one to put on OEMs looking for a fast buck over brand rep and customer satisfaction.

        I think a big thing is that the name Android has become synonymous with the Ecosystem of phones and other devices running something built on Android. The Android OS is such a small part of what is on your phone, but it’s all been branded as Android to make it easier for marketers. So I can agree the Android ecosystem is in a sorry state but getting better, but Android itself was good and is getting worse at it’s initial ideas.

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      • Google could rescue this by reclaiming Android – to a degree it does this with Nexus hardware. I prefer the ‘pure’ Android experience to the overlayed experience, even if some of the features in the overlays are, in themselves, neat.

        I wonder how far it can go down this path without creating a walled garden.

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      • Google is definitely ‘reclaiming’ Android (I don’t think they ever claimed it, really). That is what they have been doing app by app by decoupling every part of Android and removing it from the open source code and putting it into their proprietary Google Play Services umbrella. That is why things like the keyboard have appeared in the Play store and now with Hangouts taking over duties from Google+ Messenger, GTalk, Google Voice, Messenger…

        What I think is happening though isn’t that they’re stopping the OEMs/carriers customising the experience they’re just giving the customer the ability to install ‘pure’ Android apps over top of them. It would be nice to have an openSUSE-type 1-Click where you can go to a webpage push a button and it will install the Google apps bundle (keyboard, dialer, Hangouts, etc).

        I can’t be mad at Android but I can’t support them anymore in this. The thing that hit me the hardest is the closing of their messaging protocol so that no third parties can take advantage of it. So where I used to be able to do Google+ Messaging, GTalk, MSN Messenger and facebook chat all from one desktop program, well all I can do now is facebook chat. To me Google has already become too walled.

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      • I’ve only ever had pure or almost pure Android, starting with a Huawei phone, and now with a Nexus 4 phone and Nexus 7 tablet. I get a little confused when I play with other Android phones with unnecessary overlays, but I suspect I’d get used to them pretty fast if I owned them. But to suggest that companies have added overlays because pure Android is too hard just doesn’t stack up with me.

        I’ve never owned an iPhone, but I do own an iPad. Going from the iPad to my Huawei, with its old Android 2.2, was a piece of cake. It was _not_ hard, though it would have been even easier to move to the current versions of Android.

        And incidentally, I simply don’t believe that because you have an older version of Android, you can only use a ‘fraction’ of current apps. That’s nonsense. Sure you can’t use some, but then my older iPad can’t run lots of the newer apps either.

        Reviews I’ve read since Android Jellybean was released, over a year ago, take a very different view from you on Android’s useability. Most – and this includes people coming from the iOS side of things – are now saying Android’s useability is on par with iOS. They sometimes say iOS has better apps, but that no longer applies to the great majority of mainstream apps. More important to me has been the joys of easy linking my Android devices with the outside world through simple sharing, rather than being confined to iOS’s velvet prison unless I do all kinds of elaborate workarounds. And don’t get me started on how much easier drag and drop is than loathsome iTunes.

        I now only use my iPad for one particular specialist music app. The Nexus 7 runs rings round it for everything else I want to do – which is mostly reading in one form or another – email, websites, news apps and the like. Incidentally the Android OS generally does a better job than iOS in making text readable on a small screen. You can get there in the end in iOS, but it’s more fiddly.

        I suggest you stop viewing Android from the perspective of an older phone with an overlay and try out the new generation Nexus 5 or Nexus 7.

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      • The way I see it, Android didn’t start it’s life at Google explicitly for them to gain as much info on you as possible, but to make sure the market was open enough they could reliably compete in any space they wanted to (browser, services like maps). Yes, Google gets its money from advertising, but that doesn’t mean every engineer wakes up in the morning trying to sell ads. Having their services as available as possibile was their goal I believe.
        Google saw the non-capability of Nokia and possibilities in what would come with Apple and realised another player was needed. Apple’s modus operandi is far too hostile to other companies and doesn’t leave much faith that you can act in your own interest rather than just Apple’s interest. So they bought up the Android Project (They could have been made aware of the project which started the thinking about Apple it could’ve happened either way).
        The goal of Android was to create an open source mobile OS implementation for free; this way OEMs would be enticed to use it (free!) and not their own proprietary OSes which would’ve looked at lot more like Nokia than Android. By making sure a decent chunk of the market was using Android they knew they would have the freedom to offer apps for these phones without jumping through someone else’s hoops who view you more as a competitor and detractor than partner.
        I think Android like most revolutionary advances goes beyond the scope of the original creators and this success bought in the ire of many against updates and bloatware and other things like performance. This meant Google’s approach to the Android project has changed and we’ve seen that in their actions through Honeycomb, the Nexus device line and now the proprietisation of base apps on the Android platform. They no longer need to worry about just having a platform for Google apps, they have 81% marketshare, they are the behemoth they thought they would have to fight off. Now that the original goal of Android is reached and doesn’t look like they have to fight hard (or at all) for their dominance, and that certain things have been instilled in the consumer’s mind of what is needed in a mobile OS (basically Google apps and a modicum of freedom of choice in what they use) they have moved their target. Chrome OS is a prime example of how long it would take or even the possibility of Android dominance; if they’d known this now they wouldn’t have Chrome OS and would have worked on getting Android ready for the laptop paradigm as well as the tablet and phone (and tv, and glasses, and watch and car…)
        So I think Google hasn’t lost sight of their original goal; to organise the world’s data, but I do think Android’s original goal has been waylaid to better appease the revenue streams needed to make things like Glass and whatever may come possible.

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  2. “Yet, overall, Android is not as tightly integrated. This leads to an inconsistent user experience.” – having had to set-up an iPad for my Daughter (she deserves the capitalisation!) recently I found it totally suck-worthy having to type in her Google a/c details over and over and over again. Yes it’s “integrated” with Apple. Android is integrated with Google – and for us in the Google world that totally works

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  3. That’s a fair point. Android is integrated with the Google software world and thankfully the phone makers don’t attempt to overlay Gmail.

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    • They do try to overlay in the fact that they ship with alternate email clients. In the contract to use the Play Store they have to have Google’s apps loaded too which means you will always find Maps, GMail, etc even if they barely work on your $80 phone.

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