Quality, functionality and openness

Posted on May 10, 2010


It is against an increasingly bitter backdrop of argument between Apple and Adobe (Flash! No Flash! HTML 5! Openness! Closedness! etc…) that I found myself a week ago with a damaged iPhone. An accidental dropping incident from Son1 added a seemingly minor dent just next to the power button, and hey presto – a device I can’t turn off manually.

The poor, bashed-about phone I dropped was a Gen 1 iPhone: almost a retro device by some accounts. Nonetheless, I’ve stuck with it, and life now without an internet-ready mobile is simply not an option for me. It was therefore a rather lucky twist of fate that found a generous friend offering me his brand new Android phone to use for a while.

So I find myself with the latest and greatest Android handset: an HTC Desire. A ten zigabit processor, a gwillion megapixel camera, a ten billion pixel screen, infinite memory. Something like that, anyway. It’s slick, beautiful, thin, light. It has a bright, hi-res screen, a wonderful camera. It is rammed to the hilt with functionality. I’m blown away by having real location capability (remember, my Gen 1 could only find me using cell stuff rather than GPS); I’ve experienced using Layar, Google Sky Maps, other LBS services – properly – for the first time. That openness, that speed, that power. Awesome.

The first night I got back with the Desire, I found myself sitting on the sofa, flicking my way through the Android store, checking Twidroid, browsing the news. And a weird thing happened, something I wasn’t expecting. Like an almost intangible movement in my peripheral vision, I realised that something wasn’t quite right. I was a bit on edge, trying a bit hard, having to think. Night One, I said to myself. Night One with a new and unfamiliar device. No wonder. It’ll be ok tomorrow.

The thing is: the uneasy thought didn’t get better the next day, or the next night, or the night after that.

After a week of using the latest and greatest Android phone, I find myself sitting down on the sofa in the evening and the thing is sitting unused on the top of the piano. Instead I’m – get this – back using the 1st generation iPhone. It’s SIM-less (useless as a phone, but still ok as a device on the WIFI), battered, slow as buggery, and I can’t turn it off, but hey – I’m back.

Now’s the point in time I should make something very clear: I’m not an Apple fanboy. I have a Macbook at home but I spend most of my working life on PC’s. In my past I’ve used both, enjoyed both, had different experiences of both. I’m also pretty conflicted about some of the recent moves by Apple. I personally think that the whole anti-Flash thing is a major mistake, in the same way that I think the anti-Flash zealots are making some pretty bold assumptions in saying that HTML5 can replace Flash at this point in time. Frankly, that’s bullshit. I also dislike the pro-app, anti-web thing that they appear to have going on. The web wins: it always will. Apple say they get this but do a bunch of stuff which implies otherwise.

I wanted to love Android. I wanted to embrace openness, turn my back on Apple’s rejection of free markets, join the crowd of developers shouting about this new paradigm.

I can’t.

I’ve tried very hard to articulate to myself why this is the case. It is – certainly – something about usability. To take one of many examples: on Android you apparently have one paradigm for copy and paste in one application, and another in another: in the browser you get a reasonable Apple-like magnifier; in Twidroid (for example), you don’t. This to me just simply isn’t acceptable. Copy and paste is ubiquitous, end of. Stuff like global Google Search is good – very good – but when every move is hampered by subtle but vital compromises in usability, the overall experience becomes stressful, not playful.

The Android store is also, frankly, embarrassing. I tried very hard to find any kind of game or app that came close to the beautiful stuff you see on even the worst of the Apple store. Nothing. The UI of many apps is just terrible, the graphics all a bit 1995. Crashes are frequent, and when they do happen they are peppered with developer-like comments about code and runtimes.

It’s hard – store aside – to fault the Android device from a functionality perspective, and I’ve tried very hard to find ways that I can articulate what exactly is wrong. It is something about playfulness, about the fun of the technology. There is also something about quality. Robert Pirsig says this:

“…the result is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable…”

I don’t want to get all metaphysical about Apple products: enough people do this already, but the iPhone experience – in a week of living with Android – is much, much closer to the invisible technology that makes for a better and more natural user experience. That’s what has me reaching for an old, broken, semi-retired phone rather than the faster, slicker, by-all-accounts-better model.

Apple stuff comes with a compromise – and make no mistake, I’m as conflicted as the rest of the world about this: the restricted UI, the closed and editorially controlled store, the limits placed by Apple on the devices their OS will run on – these are not “good” things – but they appear, at least in this instance, to be necessary for quality. When Android is forking its way off into infinite loops of differentness, each with pluses and minuses, Apple stays the course – a slow, chugging, proprietary, known experience. It doesn’t feel right, and yet it absolutely does.

When I think about what this means, I worry. As technology people, we should all be concerned about the approaches that Facebook, Google and Apple are taking, and we all know that openness is – or should be – key. But – and I’ve written about this a bit before – usability and ubiquity are the definers for normal, non-geeky people, not openness or functionality. And we need to focus on this and think about what it means when usability comes into conflict with openness, as I believe it does with Android.

So that’s me. I tried. Circumstance mean I’ll be using Android for the next few weeks either way, and I may change my mind. I may find myself on the sofa using the Ferrari of phones rather than the Morris Minor. But somehow, I doubt it.

Posted in: mobile, usability