Saturday, June 11, 2011

Why Isn't Android as Polished as the iPhone?


Let's get this out of the way first: Android isn't a phone but an operating system. It's a component, that manufacturers like HTC use to make smartphones. Because of that, the level of fit and finish varies. Why Isn't Android As Polished As The iPhone Is? between Android phones, from HTC's sleek and streamlined HTC Sense to Motorola's iffy-at-best MotoBLUR.

If you've spent awhile using an Android phone and an iPhone, though, it's hard to deny the iPhone just looks more "done" than any given Android phone does. Not so much in hardware design, usually, but in how nice of an experience it and its apps are to use.

So why is that?

Different cultures

I don't just mean something like "Apple's from Venus and Google's from Mars." To see why Apple and Google's products are different, you need to know why they make them. Apple makes shiny things that people want to buy; Google gives stuff away for free and then makes it up on ads. And while manufacturers like HTC are obviously in the "shiny things" business, they're still in the Android ecosystem, and Google's work really affects them.

Basically, when Apple's thinking of what to do for its iPhone, its biggest question is always "How will this affect the user experience?" Meanwhile, Google's biggest question is "How will this help us sell ads?" It's not that Google doesn't care about quality, or that Apple doesn't care about ad revenue (witness iAds). It's that these things are secondary to their main purposes.

How this plays out

A classic example of Apple and Google's different priorities is cut and paste. When Apple debuted the iPhone, other "smartphones" already let you cut and paste text, but the iPhone didn't.

Why? Because Apple won't ship features until they're completely ready. If it hasn't got something nailed, it won't subject you to half-baked attempts. Which is not to say that other phones' attempts were necessarily half-baked, just that Apple needed more time to perfect it. And once it finally got cut and paste down, it created an elegant way of doing it that works seamlessly across apps.

Google put cut and paste into Android early, but seemingly all the apps on my Android phone handle it differently. Some apps make it more annoying than others, and knowing how it works in one app doesn't necessarily prepare me for any others. I can live with the annoyance, but Apple? This kind of stuff is anathema to Cupertino. And that's one reason why people buy Apple products: Because Apple doesn't make you keep learning new ways of doing things, and dealing with unpolished, text-heavy interfaces.

Is Android just hopeless?

I don't think so. The Nook Color shows what can happen when a top-notch design team sets its sights on Android, and uses it to make a world-class tablet. (You know Nooks run Android under the hood, right?) Even Google has its own design sense, that it unleashes in apps like its new music player. It just doesn't want to exclude people from developing for Android, or from making Android phones, who aren't up to the same design standards.

There are classy Android phones out there, and Android apps. It's harder to find them, but in my opinion it's worth it.

Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.

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