Life With Android, 1 Year Later

A little over a year ago I turned off my iPhone 3 and fired up a new HTC Evo Android handset, the initial experience I wrote about here. I recently upgraded my handset from the Evo to the just released Samsung Epic Touch and wanted to share some thoughts about Android after having lived with it for a full year.

As you might surmise given that I just upgraded my handset, I’m pretty happy with Android but first let’s get some of the negative comments out of the way. Power management is a huge issue with all of these handsets, especially the ones with 4.3″ displays and lot’s of network options. Apple has done a remarkably good job of reconciling hardware and software power issues, Google needs to do better on power management in the platform and providing reference material to hardware providers in order to maximize the consumer experience in this area.

The Android UI is one which only an engineer can truly love… lot’s of icons, buttons, menus, and gestures. I know that this has been an area of focus for the Android team and they have brought on board some significant talent to lead the way to a new and improved user experience. While the current UX is not bad or in any way impairs my usage, improvements can’t come fast enough.

The Android marketplace is very noisy, a function of the explosion of applications that have become available but also a result of an interaction model that favors the carrier’s desire to feature apps of their choosing. It’s time to revamp the Android market(s) by moving away from the category navigation model to a strong search function where someone can use the search facility to find apps by stacking up metadata strings (e.g. category, keyword, rating, free/paid, etc.).

That’s really the sum total of complaints and shortcomings I would point out. Android is, today, a remarkably mature mobile platform and ecosystem and benefits greatly from hardware innovation and a highly extensible core operating system. The HTC Evo I had was one of the best phones I have ever owned and the Samsung Epic Touch is quickly proving itself as one of the best handsets on the market.

Despite being really large the handset is also very thin and light, which is probably a function of the highly evolved AMOLED display which fuses the glass and the display components together in a compact package. It’s also worth pointing out that the display is manufactured by Samsung so they clearly benefit from having a degree of verticalization in their design and manufacturing operations, something few other hardware manufacturers could boast of.

Battery life on the Epic Touch is far better than the Evo, even when the bluetooth, GPS, and wifi networks are spun up. This is a large battery at 1800 mAh, which gives a reported 10 hours of talk time, but time will tell because new batteries always perform admirably… it’s when you have been using it for 6 months that a true representation of battery life emerges.

The display quality is nothing short of fantastic, and when coupled with a very crisp 8 megapixel camera makes for pleasing experiences while taking images and video. I also noticed that the camera is very speedy in terms of reducing latency and lag, a welcome addition.

I could go on about the hardware but this isn’t intended to be a hardware review so let me close by simply saying that the Epic Touch is a significant achievement in hardware design. One of the reasons why I went with Android in the first place is that I didn’t want to be limited exclusively to what Apple decided I should have for hardware and software… Google has done a commendable job of recruiting great hardware partners and the array of handsets that are available meet a wide range of consumer requirements.

On the software side the portfolio of Android apps is deep and broad, the only application that I would like to have which is not available is Instagram. I like the ability to have additional items in my share menu, which was always a pain point for me on the iPhone and the integration of Google Apps is rich, as would be expected.

All things considered, I am glad I switched over to Android and look forward to getting a tablet later in the year when new devices are expected.

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Life with Evo

2 weeks ago I wrote about switching camps from iPhone to Android, and with the news today that Android is now outselling iPhone I figured I could either take credit for the shift or do something far more useful and write a short post about my experiences so far.

To recap, I dumped iPhone/AT&T for an HTC Evo/Sprint, leaving the iPhone for a couple of reasons but mostly because I am resenting Apple’s obsession with controlling the hardware and what software I run on it, and AT&T’s unwillingness to do anything interesting, like tethering. I pretty much knew I would end up with an Android because as much as I like the utility of a Blackberry I wasn’t going to invest in that platform with the paltry 3rd party app support they have and that crappy web browser they have kicked the can down the road on for years.

After looking at a range of Android devices I thought the Incredible would appeal to me but Verizon’s actual pricing when you add everything up and their only-slightly-better-than-AT&Ts approach to the market turned me off. That left Sprint… the company that has to try even harder than #2, which in itself was a cause for concern but after talking with some friends who use Sprint in my area I was satisfied that I would get good coverage and Sprint has the Evo, which is a really impressive piece of hardware.

The first couple of weeks with any new gadget are going to be good but I’m at the point now where I know what I like and what I don’t like about Android, and on balance there is far more I like than dislike. If I could roll back the clock I would make the exact same purchase decision.

Despite it’s physical size the Evo is surprisingly easy to hold and carry, with the contours on the case fitting my hand just right and even when it’s in my pocket I don’t really feel it. i was concerned that this thing would just be too big but so far this has not been an issue… and even if it were the size of the screen would more than compensate for it. Speaking of the screen, this is a gorgeous piece of display hardware, even with the brightness turned down to conserve power it puts out a really impressively high quality image.

Let’s talk about power as this is the one area that the Evo could be criticized on, simply put the battery life does suck. One adjustment I have had to make is actively managing the power consumption of the device by turning on/off features throughout the day based on my needs. The GPS, bluetooth, and wifi will suck the battery dry in hours if left on all the time so I have a couple of handy shortcut widgets on my screen that with a simple click will turn them on/off. That, along with turning down the screen brightness, really helps extend the battery life and when I need location capabilities I turn it back on and I’m good to go. Actively managing power consumption is a lot different than the iPhone but it’s not a major inconvenience.

On the plus side, I did buy a couple of extra batteries for $20 because they are replaceable… unlike the iPhone. This isn’t ideal tho because Android takes a really long time to boot up, I haven’t timed it but I’d bet it is 4 minutes if not more.

All of my favorite iPhone apps are available as Android apps but not all of them are as good, for example the Facebook Android app is quite a bit less polished than it’s iPhone sibling. The Android marketplace that Sprint provides access to is well filled out and I can install apps from other marketplaces or websites, but the thing that concerns me with some of the apps is the reputability of the publishers so rather than Apple policing their developers I have to take more responsibility for that myself.

Speaking of apps, why is their no Google Reader app for Android? I’ve looked at a bunch of the Google Reader apps from 3rd parties and find them lacking, plus I’m not willing to plug in my Google credentials to a 3rd party application… Google really needs to fill this gap in their mobile strategy.

The Android user experience is appealing to me because I am a geek at heart and love all the UI artifacts that I can sprinkle around. I appreciate the streamlined iPhone UI but like the configurability of the Andriod UI and the shortcuts and widgets can be both useful and real timesavers. I don’t much like the keyboard and at times really struggle with it but a lot of that is just getting used to it and training the autocorrect function.

I appreciate the Google apps (gmail, contacts, and calendar) integration but also find that it is cumbersome at times, in particular on the address book. I also don’t like the way that the address book is integrated with the phone function, but insofar as being a phone the Evo really excels with no dropped calls and very good sound quality as well as a mic that doesn’t pick up a lot of background noise.

I still have some adjusting to do but all-in-all I am really pleased with the Evo and Android, and can hardly wait until an Android powered tablet hits the market.

Leaving iPhone for Android

This week I picked up an HTC Evo to replace my trusty iPhone 3G. My reason for doing this is twofold, featuring a technical and a philosophical reason.

I should also take a paragraph to explain that this post isn’t about what device is better because better is an entirely subjective quality but more significantly the reality is that the delta between the devices coming out of Apple, HTC, Motorola, and Samsung is so narrow that it is of limited value to determine that one device edges out another. The meaningful difference between Apple and everyone else is that Apple alone decides what, when and how you can use your phone and that is the major reason why I am leaving Apple (I also have no love for AT&T and find Verizon to be expensive when all the extras are added in).

The iPhone 4 is a really impressive device, probably best in class, but the incremental advantages it offers over the Evo simply can’t overcome the the complexity of Apple’s relationship with me as a consumer, whether it be their iron grip on the app marketplace or restriction of features at the behest of their carriers, like tethering. I’ll still buy Apple’s computers as long as they exist today, multi-use pieces of hardware free of unreasonable restrictions on usage but when it comes to Apple’s mobile devices I am done with them.

One of the most subtle of shifts in how Android is different than the iPhone is the relationship the device has with my laptop computer, which is to say none at all. In order for an iPhone (and by extension iPad) to be truly useful it has to be synced with a computer at some point, whether for syncing contacts and address book or more significantly the ability iTunes provides to manage apps.

Android devices exist completely outside of my traditional compute experience, to date I have not needed to connect the device to my laptop for any function. Everything happens over-the-air (OTA) and you don’t appreciate the significance of that shift until you actually live it. There are times when I want to get my files from one device to the other but Dropbox’s service makes that a fairly trivial process.

The Evo comes with an 8gb microSD card, which I am assuming can be replaced with a larger capacity card. I particularly like the microSD card approach because it makes moving photos and media from Adobe Lightroom, my preferred solution, into the device an easy process. The card itself isn’t conveniently located though, it’s under the battery which means you have to turn off the device in order to retrieve the card, but you can also use a standard micro USB cable to connect it to your laptop, mounting it like an external drive, just like the iPhone. It used to be that moving files from devices to your computer was a hassle, but today it’s a a breeze.

Speaking of batteries, the Evo does have crappy battery life however the one thing I can do with Evo that I can’t do with an iPhone is replace the battery and I picked up 2 spares for $12 each which ensures that even on a long flight I will have ample battery life. I’m pretty confident that the battery life will improve once I finish geeking out over my new gadget and use it sporadically throughout the day like I did with my iPhone.

Last year I wrote a Droid review based on a phone my wife came home with, at the time I dinged the Android app marketplace for not having my favorite iPhone apps. What a difference a year makes, and this is perhaps the area where Android is rapidly achieving parity with the iPhone and potentially surpassing Apple… every iPhone app that I relied on is now represented in the Android market and these apps are not quick and dirty knockoffs but fully developed versions that take advantage of the many features that the Android platform provides.

As I look at Android right now I see a portfolio of well engineered devices that are by any measure on the very forward edge of mobile technology, an app marketplace that is equivalent to Apple’s, and most significantly a sense of momentum that is closing the gap with Apple in every possible dimension, and all of these factors make me excited to experience the wave of Android tablet devices that developing.

Traffic or Device Sales, What Matters Most?

James wrote something yesterday that included this graphic:

admob_feb10_US_share.png

What caught my attention, as was the intention of the graphic, was the Android traffic number climbing from effectively zero to more than 40% in just a year and a couple of months. Obviously this was the intention of the graphic (note the green color of the line… designers use green to symbolize wealth) but given that it is published by Admob, which is being acquired by Google, I think you would have to take this chart with a healthy dose of skeptically driven “show me” before you accept it as fact.

The reason I suggest we have some skepticism about this is not because the data is fabricated but because it suggests something very specific that is different from showing Android is beating Blackberry, Windows Mobile, and Palm (although it is believable on the latter) in one statistic that matters, device sales, but rather that application usage on Android is achieving parity with Apple.

I downloaded the Admob Mobile Metrics Report and it is very clear, this chart is derived from an analysis of Admob’s network traffic, not mobile network traffic by device or by carrier. Admob, which serves ads into 15k websites and apps on iPhone and Android, analyzes their traffic and trends it according to the type of OS and type of handset (smartphone or feature phone), but also internet devices like the iPod Touch and the upcoming iPad.

Admob claims 10 billion monthly impressions, which no doubt provides a snapshot of trend data but one subject to a lot of interpretation as it does not include meaningful traffic from Windows Mobile or Blackberry devices as those markets have demonstrated less tendency to browse websites with their devices. Let’s set aside for a moment the strategic implications of this observation by agreeing that Windows Mobile and Blackberry have squandered a big headstart in this market which enabled Apple to brilliantly exploit web browsing as a core competency of the iPhone… and later apps (although as I have pointed out before, Apple was originally hostile to external developers building apps for the iPhone).

This leads me to the main point of this post, which is to ask the question what matters more, how many devices are sold or how consumers use them? There is no denying that the device sales underpin everything for handset manufacturers because that is what carriers respond to and where the handset manufacturers generate revenue, but there is no denying that despite impressive sales numbers by RIM and Microsoft (which isn’t a handset manufacturer but should be considered one for the purpose of this analysis) but at the same time each of these platforms has become less important in the consumer space as the iPhone and Android have dominated the consumer mindset.

I don’t have hard numbers to back this up but I think anecdotal observation is undeniable, consumers use the iPhones and Android devices in a fundamentally different way than their Blackberries and other smartphones. I do recall a statistic that I read recently which said the average iPhone user has 11 installed applications versus 3.5 for the average Blackberry user, and I suspect the divide is equally stark against Windows Mobile devices, and it’s clear that Android was developed to mimic the iPhone in this regard.

If we accept that the iPhone/Android markets are doing more than just reading their email and making calls, does this reflect better capabilities of the devices or a far more simple process for acquiring and installing apps on the iPhone/Android? The answer is clearly yes because the app marketplaces and extensive third party developer capabilities, as well as the unique aspects of the handsets, have resulted in a massively more extensive and vibrant market for mobile applications than on the Blackberry and Windows Mobile counterparts. No denying this.

Now here is where things get interesting. Carriers price their wireless plans with voice and data components, with data predominately offered as all you can eat pricing so with data consumption growing at over 100% annually the carriers are seeing growth in the one part of their network they can’t monetize while at the same time incurring significant capital expenditures for network build out. That data traffic has been surging creates a range of problems for carriers who by all accounts cannot expand their networks fast enough (or afford to when they can’t charge subscribers $60 or $70 a month for data), including degrading voice capability (which is profitable) to add to data network bandwidth.

The other problem that data presents is that it erodes a business that is super profitable for carriers, SMS which generates about 20% or $200 billion of global telco revenues. As apps increasingly provide notification capability and instant messaging, carriers will be put in a real quandary and I suspect we will see them throttle apps that infringe on their core businesses (like voice and SMS), as well as apps that are bandwidth hogs (like Slingbox for mobile).

There is a fellow by the name of Andrew Odlyzko that you should take the time to read up on if you are interested in these topics. Andrew is a Professor in the School of Mathematics at the University of Minnesota and by all accounts one of the most accomplished researchers who specializes in the economics of network consumption. Odlyzko believes that voice is seriously underrated as a market and carriers are making a strategic error by not improving the quality of voice and seamlessly integrating voice with data, but he also asserts that data traffic rates will fall from their aggressive growth rates to somewhere around 30%.

Where this brings us is full circle, if mobile network traffic does trend down then the lines on the network traffic graph provided by Admob would converge, or put another way, normalize. It’s not to suggest that Admob is wrong, only that you have to look at their data with a complex set of filters that put into perspective the limited solar system they are measuring. The other implication of all this is that all you can eat data is likely a phenomena that consumers will not enjoy in perpetuity, or access to mobile apps will be filtered according to the bandwidth they consume. I think it is also plausible to consider that mobile data pricing plans will be tiered according to the device the consumer is using, as in Blackberry users typically use less data therefore have a cheaper data plan than iPhone users.

Whatever the eventuality, one this is clear and that is the wireless market is getting much more complex.

My Droid Review

My wife came home with a Droid yesterday, which on one hand was pretty cool while on the other very disturbing as she is by no means a geek and not once did she ask for my opinion on this device. I suspect that some kind of counseling may be necessary.

Having had the opportunity to play around with the device I think I’m going to hold on to my iPhone for the time being. The Droid is really nice but it’s simply not appreciably better than the iPhone therefore it’s hard to justify switching.

My first concern, having seen the Droid only in press photos, was that the build quality was suspect but I’m happy to report that those fears are unfounded. The Droid is solid and conveys a sense of quality when held in your hands. The slider is smooth and the touch screen is crisp.

The camera is one area where the Droid excels compared to the iPhone. While it does have some latency that could disrupt your ability to get a shot “in the moment”, the quality of the images more than makes up for this negative. The flash and picture controls, white balance and color effect, are nowhere to be found on the iPhone.

I am not so enthusiastic about the keyboard, for several reasons. First of all, I’m not a big fan of the iPhone virtual keyboard but I do appreciate how it can be reconfigured for the app, such as offering a different layout when in the email address field as opposed to the body text, and when spun in landscape mode the virtual keys are plenty big enough even for folks with big fingers like me. You really do get used to it.

The Droid keyboard will no doubt please many and also be subject to the “you’ll get used to it” clause, but there are several design elements I just don’t like. The keys are flat, reminiscent of the laser etched keys on the old Razr handset, and while they do offer some tactile feedback (and in all fairness the iPhone keyboard offers no tactile feedback) it still isn’t enough to comfortably type without looking at where your fingers are going. The spacebar key is too small, which makes no sense because there are two unused key positions on the lower right and lower left of the keyboard; certainly they could have made that space bar larger by moving the ALT key left and right (there are 2 ALT keys, one on each side).

I found the keyboard keys to be really small for my fingers, and ironically I discovered that my typing speed and accuracy were greatly improved using the Droid virtual keyboard. This may be a simple transition issue for me, coming off an iPhone, that my wife who uses a Blackberry and never got used to the iPhone keyboard doesn’t experience.

The Google App Market needs some work, and this is probably the single dominant reason why I would not switch off the iPhone just yet. My favorite apps (e.g. Evernote and Tweetie) were not available and while promised I have long ago learned to judge application offerings on what is available rather than what is promised to be delivered.

I also found it interesting that many of the featured apps in the Market were priced in € and UK£. This is probably not a big deal from the standpoint on handling the transaction but is it really too much to ask that the storefront merchandizes every app in USD$ for customers who are clearly entering it through a U.S. carrier?

Aside from a couple of annoying usability issues (I still can’t figure out how to wake the device without opening the slider) the Droid is nicely designed and well appointed. The build quality is impressive and it feels substantial, and perhaps most importantly my first impression of it as an actual phone are pretty good although I would have to use it for a couple of weeks to really get the gist of integration of phone features in the apps (e.g. click on a phone number in an email to make a call).

In the final equation, the Droid is impressive for a v1 handset but it’s not enough to make me switch… yet. The openness of the Android platform is a big strategic advantage for Google and handset partners, providing they don’t allow the carriers to dictate what the handset can and can’t do from an app standpoint, but if allowed to develop momentum I could see this putting real pressure on Apple even among the hardcore user base.

Cloud Computing and the Morning After

I just read a very interesting op-ed about the opportunities and hazards of cloud computing and it resonated with me on several levels.

Some are in plain view. If you entrust your data to others, they can let you down or outright betray you. For example, if your favorite music is rented or authorized from an online subscription service rather than freely in your custody as a compact disc or an MP3 file on your hard drive, you can lose your music if you fall behind on your payments — or if the vendor goes bankrupt or loses interest in the service. Last week Amazon apparently conveyed a publisher’s change-of-heart to owners of its Kindle e-book reader: some purchasers of Orwell’s “1984” found it removed from their devices, with nothing to show for their purchase other than a refund. (Orwell would be amused.)

Worse, data stored online has less privacy protection both in practice and under the law. A hacker recently guessed the password to the personal e-mail account of a Twitter employee, and was thus able to extract the employee’s Google password. That in turn compromised a trove of Twitter’s corporate documents stored too conveniently in the cloud. Before, the bad guys usually needed to get their hands on people’s computers to see their secrets; in today’s cloud all you need is a password.

Thanks in part to the Patriot Act, the federal government has been able to demand some details of your online activities from service providers — and not to tell you about it. There have been thousands of such requests lodged since the law was passed, and the F.B.I.’s own audits have shown that there can be plenty of overreach — perhaps wholly inadvertent — in requests like these.

[From Op-Ed Contributor – Lost in the Cloud – NYTimes.com]

In recent weeks we have seen the downside of relying on third party hosted application services and having devices tethered to a remote service provider, but these recent incidents are really nothing new. Apple has over the years faced some pretty intense criticism for the control they exert over iTunes and the lengths to which they will go to restrict access by third parties, whether it be the restrictive DRM on iTunes content or their continued skirmishes with iPhone jailbreakers.

The recent case of Amazon deleting books their customers purchased that they were not authorized to sell is particularly egregious and despite their mea culpa and promise to never do it again, consumers are right to be concerned about intrusions onto their personal property by remote service providers. It is something I am increasingly concerned about, not because of bad intentions but simply because this new frontier is increasingly hostile to something that forms the very foundation of the American way of life, property rights.

Imagine the consequences if Best Buy broke into your home to search for pirated DVDs that you were playing on a device you purchased from them, these consequences would be criminal and beyond debate. Now imagine what would happen if Amazon deleted ebooks that were not authorized for digital distribution and hacked onto a Kindle (because you can’t get Kindle content legitimately anywhere but Amazon, indeed their DRM scheme is proprietary) or Apple deleted songs that were not downloaded from iTunes or Google cancelled your Gmail account because of a terms of service violation and didn’t give you your email? What would happen… bubkus because the only consequence would be public outcry and some bad PR.

Meanwhile, the Federal government wants to be a repository for my personal medical records, while also aspiring to be my insurance providers, several states are considering a vehicle tax tied to actual mileage that would be recorded through an in-vehicle transmitter, California is pushing to mandate pay-as-you-go insurance and registration fees which would again rely on forced transmitting of miles driven, and utilities are mandating smart-grid meters for electricity and gas usage that monitor in real time what you are consuming.

All of this is more than a little unsettling and while we are seeing tremendous innovations I can’t help but feel that we are getting ahead of our ability to adjust our regulatory and law enforcement framework to deal with the universal issue of my data, who can see it, and under what protocols. The privacy pendulum has in recent years swung wide in one direction as consumers increasingly express little concern about companies having our data and accessing our devices, the question remains whether that pendulum will swing back violently in the other direction or simply adjust periodically.

If the Shoe Fits…

When I saw this on Drudge I thought the picture was related to the story, when in fact it was attached to a story about North Korea. There is something Orwellian about any mobile service that enables detailed information sharing with advertisers.. if a carrier wants to offer a free version of their service that linked to advertisers and behavior tracking, great but the fact remains that I pay a monthly service fee for my mobile phone service and I should not have to be subjected to intrusive behavior tracking.

The story is very clear that the tracking is related to web browsing and installed apps, so in many ways it is like what happens with cookies on the desktop web and there isn’t much of controversy about cookies anymore. The critical difference is that cookies don’t also report back what files I open or who I email, or at least it would be considered a gross violation of accepted practices to do so. What handset manufacturers and carriers are enabling is precisely such a violation by allowing apps to report to advertisers, for example, GPS coordinates.

This has the potential to be very troubling, but like many privacy issues I will reserve final judgement based on actual implementation details.

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IPhone touch screen unfriendly to women’s nails

Gloves are a problem as well. I was in NYC last week and found myself increasingly annoyed that I had to take off a glove in order to use my iPhone.

San Francisco attorney Claire Choo wouldn’t trade her iPhone 3G for anything.

But she’ll be the first to tell you the phone’s touch screen has presented a challenge for her and many others like her. No, not lawyers – women with long nails.

[From IPhone touch screen unfriendly to women’s nails]

Writin Dem iPhone Apps is Hard

Interested in a unique insight on why writing iPhone apps isn’t for the faint of heart or the novice? Brent Simmons is one of the most respected developers in this space for good reason, he knows his stuff and continually one ups what others are doing.

I’ve been working heavily and steadily on iPhone code lately, and it occurs to me that writing iPhone apps is like writing poetry while writing desktop apps is like writing prose.

I’m sure it’s been said before, but the point is still good: in an iPhone app, everything counts so much — every design choice, every line of code, everything left in and everything left out.

[From Polish polish polish!]

Satellites

Phoneflix has completely changed my interactions with Netflix. Now, wherever I am I can open it on my iPhone and manage my Netflix queue. It’s as random as while watching television or at the car wash or even sitting is a movie theatre watching previews.

TweetDeck (and Thwirl before it) accelerated my twitter usage. Yammer’s desktop AIR client is universally regarded as compelling within our company, contributing to our usage rates.

The Evernote iPhone app is not only handy for putting my notes on my mobile device, but it also serves as notetaker itself when nothing else is available. My connection to Evernote is stronger than just with web and desktop experiences.

For all of the benefits that web-based applications provide, user experience alone is generally not one of them. Small, high performance, persistent desktop apps can intensify usage which can then lead to broader adoption and with mobile apps, specifically the iPhone but eventually more mobile platforms, this goes to a whole new level.

When I talk with companies, big and small, I am struck by the “we’ll do that eventually” attitude that the majority have. The view that these satellite interfaces are somehow optional or just extra is a miscalculation.

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