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  • Well, There’s No Accounting for Taste

    November 25th, 2010

    So after hearing that smartphones equipped with the Google Android OS are selling at a faster clip than the iPhone, maybe you’ve been tempted to check one out. So you go to your neighborhood wireless handset dealer and ask about an Android phone.

    “A what”?

    Now this doesn’t mean store personnel wouldn’t know, but Google has a branding problem. Yes, there’s a Droid phone of one sort or another, usually from Motorola, which is offered from Verizon Wireless. But that’s about the closest the product name usually gets to Android.

    The flashy ads for Droids often resemble nothing less than a computer game, rather than a productive smartphone that’s suitable for personal or business use. These promotions seldom say anything about the Android OS, or why it makes one of those phones better.

    Of course, the wireless carriers who place those ads aren’t selling Android any more than they’re selling Windows Phone 7, or even the iPhone if they’re lucky enough to carry them. No, they want to sign you up for a two-year postpaid contract (meaning you are billed rather than pay up front). The handset, regardless of maker, is just the icing on the cake, and they don’t care a whit which one you buy. That’s not what they’re selling, so you can even get special discounts or perhaps a two-for-one deal if that’s what needed to get you to sign on the dotted line.

    This pathetic state of affairs works against customers, obviously. Worse, the Android OS, as successful as it’s been, has few distinguishing elements. There are minimal restrictions imposed on manufacturers and carriers by Google. So they are free to configure the open source software as they wish, including dumping bundled apps and replacing them with their own. So Android’s decent camera app may be supplanted by the junkware imposed by your wireless carrier. Even worse, the skin or OS theme can be altered to have it conform with the requirements of maker or carrier.

    In the end, the customer be damned!

    So while switching from one iPhone to another, even next year’s model, will mean some hardware improvements, and there will be new iOS features to add to the mix, the basic interface and usability will be substantially unaltered. Although there are operational differences from the very first iPhone to the iPhone 4, it’ll mostly be in the features added to the iOS. Most of the things I do can be accomplished in essentially the same fashion on both, absent the added capabilities. I could literally have gone to sleep in 2007 with iPhone in hand, and awakened last week to find a new one in its place, and not be utterly confused.

    Moving from one Android device to another, particularly from a different carrier, may be almost akin to learning a totally different interface, from a very different product. You can’t even be assured that they are running the same version of the OS, even if they were built the very same day in the same factory. Each manufacturer or carrier will decide which versions of Android to use, and when and if you deserve to be fed an update. That’s their decision, not yours, although you can go online, get the update, and hack the gadget with the update you want.

    But why?

    Why should you have to hack your smartphone to keep it up to date? Besides, when you get past the standard apps, just what range of software can you get? Well that, my friends, presents an even greater dilemma, because not all Android apps will work on all the hardware. Once the OS differences are considered, the inner workings vary all over the place, as manufacturers install different processors, support chips and even the screens. Resolutions are all over the place, and app developers have to account for such variations, or just devise multiple versions.

    Yes, but isn’t that the price to pay for an open platform?

    The theory goes that Apple is bad, because they want to control the whole widget and ensure that you have a consistent, relatively safe, user experience, and can be assured that virtually all the over 300,000 apps available at the App Store are actually compatible with your smartphone. Most work just fine on an iPad, though you’ll want the version tailored for that device. What a dreadful way to treat paying customers, right? You get something that pretty much just works out of the box — and I can confirm that from every single generation iPhone, since I’ve spent lots of time with all of them. There are software glitches from time to time, but few directly impact the basic functionality of your iPhone. If there’s a serious bug, Apple will fix it and let you download it as soon as it’s available via iTunes on the Mac or Windows. You don’t have to depend on the whims of a carrier or handset maker to push that update to you, even if there’s a critical security problem involved.

    In case you’re wondering about Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7, well AT&T has already put a two-for-one deal in place. You’d hardly expect that, unless they’ve had difficulty moving product. Maybe the handwriting is already on the wall for Microsoft.

    Sure, it’s up to every customer to decide what product is best. In the end, if the carrier you want or prefer doesn’t have an iPhone, you may not have the choice. Then again, the iPhone is expected to arrive at Verizon Wireless and more overseas carriers in the months to come. Then there will be fewer excuses.

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