The iOS Report: There’s Something to be Said for Predictability

March 11th, 2011

As the iPad 2 becomes available, there’s little doubt plenty will be sold. Since so many more dealers have them, you may be able to buy one without waiting a few hours on a line snaking around the block, or the other side of the shopping mall. Or just order online and be done with it.

That said, one thing is sure about the iPad 2, and that is if you used an original iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, you’ll find a friendly and relatively simple and predictable user interface. If you use one of these gadgets, you can move on to the other without undergoing a retraining period, or having to confront loads of carrier-installed junkware.

Indeed, when those first iPad TV spots appeared, featuring the voice of actor Peter Coyote, a telltale sentence said it all: “You already know how to use it.”

Even though Apple has added loads of new features to the iOS, the fundamentals that you mastered with the very first iPhone in 2007 remain largely intact. Apple refines, but rarely changes things outright unless there’s a good reason to do so. I dare say that Mac OS X Lion, though it sports a fair number of interface and usability enhancements, shouldn’t confuse long-time Mac users, based on early published reports at least.

This is where Apple holds a huge advantage over Microsoft, which has consistently tampered with things in different versions of Windows, although I grant the basic interface remains pretty similar.

But where things really go awry is with the Android OS, which, as customers of products with that OS realize, isn’t necessarily consistent. The new 3.0 version for tablets, code-named Honeycomb, will really present problems as it diverges from the smartphone version. Now maybe Google feels that having two forks in the road is a good idea, although it can only confuse the larger number of potential customers who aren’t power users.

Unfortunately, there’s no indication that early adopters of the original 7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab will be afforded the chance of getting the latest and greatest from Google. This model comes equipped with a version of Android that was never certified for tablets, and the going has been mighty clumsy. Worse, there are evidently very few apps that even work well on an Android tablet, which may explain those initial reports — since denied — of high return rates. The situation will only grow worse as more and more developers move to an OS that Galaxy Tab customers will never be able to adopt, unless, of course, it’s possible to hack the device to download Honeycomb and its successors.

But fragmentation has always been a serious problem for the Android OS. Google may have reference releases, but carriers and manufacturers are free to tamper with it, since it is, after all, open source. They might graft a custom theme, install their own apps and — the unkindest cut of all to Google — opt to use a different default search engine. So Verizon Wireless offers some Android smartphones that use Microsoft Bing, thus depriving Google of lots of traffic for their targeted ads.

That takes us to the Motorola Xoom, a highly-touted Android 3.0 tablet, which got some good reviews. But now we are starting to learn more and more about its potentially serious defects. Take the recent article that appeared in Laptop magazine. Now Laptop is not a publication that is Mac-focused, although Apple products get a decent amount of coverage. My dealings with the magazine, in the form of our regular tech show guest, Avram Piltch, the Online Editorial Director, shows a publication that is fair, responsible, and isn’t afraid to criticize when it’s necessary.

So you see the Xoom, priced higher than the iPad, being dinged for such problems as “Narrow viewing angles,” and, worst of all, “Buggy software.” Indeed, application crashes and the lack of decent numbers of apps don’t auger well for a product that hopes to gain serious traction against the iPad. It’s bad enough that Google has made tablet-specific OS changes that might require a little relearning. But they also need to make a good first impression, and if Xoom was supposed to present evidence of the advancements in Android technology, it is poised to become a monumental failure.

After all, manufacturers already have the iPad as the benchmark. Apple raised the bar with the iPad 2, yet kept the price the same. It makes no sense to sell a competing product for more, particularly with serious bugs, and a display that is of inferior quality. And that’s what a narrower viewing angle means. No doubt Motorola got it for less, but what were they thinking?

This is not the time where a company can offer a 75% solution and hope to compete with the market leader, especially when the selling price is higher.

I suppose people who prefer Android will buy the Xoom. But if Google, Motorola and other hardware companies can’t produce a relatively reliable user experience — and deliver a decent number of compelling apps — this product and others are fated to be stillborn in the marketplace.

Some people might fret over the way Apple curates its App Store and user interface. But there’s a lot to be said for predictability and reliability, particularly when it comes at a lower price.

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One Response to “The iOS Report: There’s Something to be Said for Predictability”

  1. tom b says:

    On the Xoom: what more would one expect from a company spun-off from the bad parts of Motorola? MOT’s biggest claim to fame is that they made some really superior chips for about decade in the 1990’s and this fact was entirely lost on the Schaumburg management team; they were 100 times more interested in their awful cell phones and let the chip division slowly twist in the wind until they spun it off as Freescale. If you don’t understand your OWN strengths and weaknesses, how can you succeed as a business? I feel no pity.

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