So Android has been out for around 18 months now and has had 3 major revisions in that time. While many of us are left waiting for 2.0, 2.1 or even 1.6, I've found myself thinking about the next revision Froyo, or indeed Gingerbread. With Froyo expected to land at Google IO on May 19th, I thought I'd explore what's good in Android, what's bad and what needs to happen??
Ive had a G1 for just over a year now and have watched bit by bit as the functionality increased, with each release. Unfortunately the love for the G1 seems to have ended with 1.6 (Donut) So unfortunately I haven't went hands on with Eclair yet. With that said most of my complaints with Android are still present in 2.1 so I will soldier on regardless.
When Android first landed in October 2008 it promised to be an 'open' solution to the closed iPhone, with the might of Google integration available on a wide variety of handsets. However, only in recent months has this felt true, particularly on the Hardware front. The software also is only now starting to feel mature both from an OS and app perspective.
So what are Android's strengths?
Yes Android has yet to get anywhere near the number of apps available as itunes, however there are now enough handsets out there, enough platform growth and enough apps that the main ones you really want are available. More developers are starting to port iPhone apps, dual launch or even release on Android first. The real plus point for the Android Market however is the lack of an insane approval process.
For example I have an app on my G1 that allows me to control my torrents remotely (torrent-fu) and will even let me scan a barcode of a product that will automatically tell my computer at home to start downloading said product. Of course this app can be used to infringe on copyright so Apple will never let it on itunes and people don't play any illegally obtained music on itunes anyway right?
The amazing torrent-fuThere are also lots of customization apps that let you create your own style of homescreen, File manager applications, Porn apps (shock horror) and in fact any functionality missing from the core OS can be supplemented on the Market. Applications like Fennec (Firefox Mobile) will be available on Android as the Market is all about choice and user defined experience.
With that said the less adventurous users are also treated to excellent Google apps like, Gmail, Calendar, Google Voice, Google Navigation (more on that in a later post) and Google Earth.
Up to 5 homescreens on standard Eclair Android (3 on 1.6, 7 on 2.1 Sense) , with the app launcher only a click away and allows lots of use of widgets to dynamically pull in data allowing users to get information at a glance. Folders available to organise popular apps and full wallpaper customisation. Nothing truly groundbreaking, but continues the theme of choice.
Android's implementation of this is particularly good, using the 'window shade' pull down with a list of any notifications, needing only a click to address them or 'clear' to dismiss. It is far less intrusive as the iPhone OS pop-up implementation but not quite as slick as Web OS.
Not a lot needed to be said about this, if you use Google for Gmail, Calendar etc there is no better platform integration than Android, but what were you expecting?
There are definitely other aspects of Android I could praise, but hey it's more fun to pick on the things that drive me nuts!
So where is Android weak?
Despite listing it as a Strength, there are still too many apps missing from the Marketplace and in some cases functionality missing. Facebook for example has way too many basic features missing from the Android client like
It's just not easy enough to navigate. I regularly discover apps on tech blogs or forums that have made a top ten list that I didn't even know existed. The sub categories are not specific enough and it's generally too difficult to find a hidden gem.
I also think there should be some middle ground on app approval. Something like 2 Marketplace sections, one where anything can be uploaded (like now) and another 'Certified by Google' or something that would imply a higher standard of app and would be the only area where paid apps were available.
On a rooted Android handset there are options to store applications to the SD card, so surely Google can work something out??
Updating apps is also a total bastard. Why the hell there isn't an 'update all' option i do not know! It seems like every day there are at least 6 updates taunting me from the notifications bar, promising me 20mins of boredom in return for the latest version that fixes a bug on a handset I don't have. There are rumours however that Froyo will bring along an 'Automatic Update' option on an app to app basis, which would help with the more trustworthy sources.
This is a biggie to which my Hero toting friends will testify. There are too many versions of Android in circulation at the moment. While I can understand that if a company like HTC is going to put a skin on top of Android that there will be a delay on tweaking it to fit the newest OS, or that some handsets (read G1) simply don't have the horsepower to handle the new OS, however what on earth is the excuse for the likes of the Samsung Galaxy that bought today brand new, running stock Android is stuck on a two generations old OS (1.5) This isn't just a bells and whistles update either. Without 1.6 (were on 2.1 remember) you can't use the new version of the market, you couldn't (at first) use Buzz, Google Navigation won't run and many other 3rd party apps out there are requiring 1.6 minimum.
Many users will just be ignorant to this, however it is very confusing to an average punter that something as simple as your friends Nexus One will run Google Navigation but your Hero won't. Try explaining about Skinned OS's or variation of handsets and you will quickly have a dissatisfied customer.
Android fragmentation April 2010
The frustrating thing about all of this is that Google is doing a great job at advancing the platform and adding new features, features which most users can't get access to. The HTC Hero was recently delayed the update to 2.1 'Sense' UI (the same version of sense that is available in the HTC Legend which is in shops now btw) until June. It is highly probable that by the time this lands, 1 month after Google IO, that 2.2 will have been announced and the waiting game will commence all over again.
Admittedly most of my concerns over speed could be directly related to the limitations of the G1, however there can be no doubt that the OS could make better use of the hardware. There are several rooted options out there significantly boost the speed without sacrificing battery life. In the video below you can see how long it takes just to navigate between apps and how painfully slow it is navigating to the homescreen. Yes this is old hardware, however it is worth noting that the G1 is still sold today by T-Mobile (i know right?!?) and this alone should be a reason to feel shortchanged by the experience. Even when I clear the browser cache, delete some apps and remove the widgets, it is still a slow OS and the fact is, I shouldn't have to anyway.
Even on newer hardware like the X10 and Nexus One reviewers have noticed slowdown in places. It seems any slick Android handsets, are so, because of the fast processors and are so, in spite of the OS.
So what need's to happen in the next release ofAndroid, not only to tackle some of these weakness, but to elevate strengths?
Some elements of the UI just seem a little dated. In 2.1 the 'Gallery' got a GUI overhaul, where as things like the calendar still look very OS 1. I'd like to see the entire OS have a consistency of flare, from the dialer, to switching apps. Application switching in particular could be nicer, presently holding the home button displays recent applications, however I would love to see a Web OS 'cards' style interface previewing what is happening in each app.
Palm's Web OS 'Card' system
The one great thing about the iPhone is the responsiveness of the device. Even on my friends original iPhone the responsiveness is fantastic. A quick look at the iPad videos out there and you can see that the OS is crazy fast. While there is no doubt advantages when you only have one piece of hardware for the iPhone/iPad, I am sure Google can spend a little time on optimising the OS and making the most of whatever hardware it lands on.
Cloud based Application Management:
Some kind of iTunes style management of what lives on your phone. Google has a ridiculous presence online, so it just seems to make sense that they have a virtual phone manager in the cloud. I'd actually prefer a browser based manager than a desktop client, one that would allow you to browse application from your (or any) desktop and install and remotely manage your phone. Add in some backup functionality and timeline viewing of SMS, Calls, Emails and pictures (similar to that announced by Microsoft last week for the Kin ) and it would truly enrich the experience.
Apps stored on the SD card: a no brainer, do it!
Not an easy one to fix given the open door policy of what Google allows Android to run on (anything)
However there are rumblings that Google will address this by allowing core functionality to updated through the marketplace, in essence skipping the OEM partners entirely.
Where on earth is Chrome at? Sure the Android browser is based on the same Webkit core as Chrome and some websites refer to it as Chrome lite, but be under no illusion this is not Chrome. In fact despite the native browser being completely sufficient, it is exactly that, sufficient. It doesn't have the same polish or speed as mobile Safari, the UI or functionality of Opera mini or anywhere near the flare and customisation of the soon to be arriving Fennec (Firefox mobile). So what gives?
The fact that Google don't even call the browser 'Chrome' speaks volumes about the confidence they have in the Android browser and potentially damaging the Chrome brand.
Almost as much as any feature, I want to see Chrome on Android, setting the benchmark in mobile browsing as they have on the desktop, with speed, customisation (through extensions) and allow complete synchronisation between desktop and mobile. Until this happens i will very much be moving across to Fennec when it arrives.
Android is definitely a platform gaining traction, with the amount of handsets already announced this year, 2010 is finally looking like the year of the Android. However as you can see above the platform is far from perfect and with the iPhone 4G dropping soon , Blackberry OS 6 looming and the impressive Windows Phone 7 slated for a late 2010 launch, Google cannot afford to become complacent. Hopefully on May 19th at Google IO, we will have the answers to these issues, however one thing is for sure, from a consumers perspective , it is an excellent time to be buying a smartphone.