Three Years with an iPhone

Three years ago, I started using an iPhone 5 as my mobile phone, my first smartphone. I remember drooling for hours over the leaks in the year before it released, then reading each review with my undivided attention, and re-watching the iPhone 5 launch event with a wide grin on my face, each time. I waited for it, for a long, long time.

Today, three years later, it still is among my most favorite pieces of technology.

It is not the fastest phone with the best camera (hey, iPhone 6S Plus and LG V10) anymore. It is not pristine but scuffed (I’m never forgiving you for this, mom) and scratched. The battery runs out after 5-6 hours of usage, even in low battery mode. It freezes at least once a day and has a hard time keeping up with the way I’ve gotten accustomed to using it. But, despite it all, I love it the way I loved it when it first landed in my hands and I shivered to hold it. Oh, I do.

There have have been fewer gadgets I’ve been so proud and happy to own. And, there have been even fewer that I’ve wanted a new version of. Least of it is because I am so invested in the iOS ecosystem. Sometime before I made the final decision to actually purchase it, I was in double minds if I should switch and purchase an HTC 8X, the Windows Phone 8 flagship from HTC, instead. I never considered Android for I think it is too complicated for the user and for simple tasks (not to forget the shoddy cameras they have had, until recently) and I find the OEM skins too gaudy to use. And not for a single day have I regretted my decision to go with the iPhone instead.

The joy of using an iPhone is in the little things, like not having to press a button when you’ve entered your 4-digit passcode, the way the speaker and earphones volumes always is controlled separately, the way you see the brightness slider slides subtly to low or high when the light in the room changes. The small ways in which when you use it, you know someone at Apple has spent their time making it just right. You can’t always put your finger on it, but you realize you’re accustomed to that care, so much that may be even pampered, even when you  temporarily use someone else’s phone.

I had once read somewhere that you don’t know what using an Apple device is like until you use it as your own device. Not a parents’ or siblings’ device, not a demo device in a store, not a review device you’ve received on a loaner; a device you own and use, every single day. And 7 years of Apple products later, I thoroughly concur. I have a first generation iPod Touch that I rarely use anymore. Using that first gadget convinced me to buy the iPhone 5, a few years later, and today, I know that I want my next laptop to be a MacBook and my next phone to be another iPhone.

This is a heartfelt, personal ode to my experience of using my iPhone, my first iPhone, my primary computer for the last three years and counting…

Nexus 5: Impressions.

Google’s Nexus program is where it showcases what Android phones should be like, and not what manufacturers and carriers make it. That’s why, enthusiasts and geeks over the world freak out every time a Nexus phone is announced. I joined that herd this time around. What followed is a crazy wait for the Nexus 5 to arrive, and spending all the time I could get with it after it arrived, even if it was until the wee hours of the morning.

This isn’t a review. This is what I’ve felt while using the flagship Android phone, over the course of the weekend.

Hardware:

  1. The Nexus 5 is beautiful. The unassuming, calm matte of the phone is a joy to hold. It’s not the brushed aluminium that the iPhones are, or the HTC One is, but it’s not the trash-y plastic of the S4, either. It is a perfect midpoint of the two.
  2. The position of the micro-USB port at the bottom of the device is reverse. That’s weird because every charger and every USB cable I’ve got (Nokia, Sony, Palm, etc.) seem to have agreed on which side is top and which is the bottom. With this, LG and Google just reversed it. It’s confusing at first (I’m still in that phase) because the side you’re used to inserting on top is now the bottom.
  3. The screen is gorgeous. I was prepared to be amazed by the 1080p IPS display, but this is even better than what I expected. And surely beats the crap out of the over-saturated screens found on the Samsung phones.
  4. Rest, it’s a vanilla device. There’s nothing much to say except that the job of the design here is to get out of the way enough to let the user enjoy the software they way the engineers at Google intended it to be.

Software:

  1. Boy, this phone boots up fast!
  2. Much is said about providing the users with ‘stock Android’ experience when it comes to the devices of the ‘Nexus’ program. And the first thing you notice, right from the moment you boot up the phone and unlock to the home screen, is that this isn’t the stock Android they talk about. This is Google’s version of Android. There are Samsung’s, Sony’s, HTC’s, LG’s, Amazon’s, and-everyone-who-has-the-guts-to-design-their-own-software’s versions of Android, and the one that comes with the Nexus 5, is Google’s take on all of them. Google throws its own layer and skin atop stock Android making it not-so-stock anymore.
  3. Over the course of evolution of Android, Google has been abandoning the Android Open Source Project (referred now onwards as AOSP) to create proprietary, closed versions of its own apps to replace the native ones. As you open the ‘App Drawer’ for the first time, it’s tough to ignore this glaring duplication. There is an ‘Email’ app, and a ‘Gmail’ app. There is a ‘Settings’ app, and a ‘Google Settings’ app. There is a ‘Gallery’ app, and a ‘Photos’ app. And I can’t begin to wonder what happens when manufacturers and telecom carriers start adding their custom versions of apps, to the already present ones, complicating things further. Needless to say, this sucks, massively.
  4. I downloaded a whole bunch of apps on the first night (most of which I use on my primary phone, the iPhone 5, regularly). Of the first things I noticed was the lack of a common design language for apps. There’s very little similar between 2 apps (unless they’re from the same developer, of course), and each app is a learning curve. You’ve to spend some time figuring out what are the buttons you need to hit to accomplish a specific task. And more often than not, you will have to retry.
  5. It was only in my third attempt to change the wallpaper (one of the first things I believe anyone with a new phone would do) that I figured it wasn’t changing because I didn’t hit a faint tick symbol on the top of the screen.
  6. How does such a popular operating system, in its mature stage, not have a default ‘Lock Orientation’ quick toggle, leaves me dumbfounded.
  7. You can’t re-arrange apps in your ‘App Drawer’ based on your requirement. Android sorts it alphabetically, and that’s the only way. From what I understand, other launchers let you re-arrange them and add them to folders, etc., but shouldn’t I be able to do it by default too?
  8. Changing the ‘Font Size’ in the ‘Display Settings’ doesn’t seem to change it within apps. You’ve to manually change the ‘Font Size’ settings for every app.
  9. It’s nice how each app can talk to the other, and how most apps try to associate their login credentials to my registered Gmail address. Makes the set-up process faster and easier.
  10. The 3 dot target next to an app/content on the Play Store is a tough to hit target.
  11. There isn’t a universal go-to-the-top-of-the-screen button. With iOS, hitting the clock in the top bar, takes you to the top of the page. I find myself using that often, and trying to replicate the same on the Nexus 5.
  12. The function of the ‘Back’ button is a mystery to me. Hitting the on-screen ‘Back’ button in such apps usually throws me out of the app onto the home screen; while in other apps, I end up on the previous page of the app.
  13. Handling multiple notifications is a breeze. I can act on them together or ditch them all at once. It’s so much more useful, no wonder notification management on iOS is frowned upon.
  14. It’s insanely tough to find good, quality, original apps on the Play Store. You never know which app you downloaded includes malware or is just a phony duplicate which does nothing or an unstable version which will probably crash my phone. Makes me certain that sandboxing apps and making sure only quality, stable apps end up on the store is a better solution.
  15. Most of the apps are ugly iOS ports, and you know that by just how they look. That sucks because the 2 are such varied OSes that on Android, the apps don’t look native at all. And their icons look really bad.
  16. Google Now didn’t search through my list of apps until I went into the Google Now settings and unchecked and checked the setting for ‘Apps’ again. Some minor bug, I guess.
  17. It’s safe to say that 90% of 4.5+ inch phones are Android phones. Honestly, I think Google hasn’t thought or considered how tough it is to use the OS at such a huge screen size, without using both your hands. It’s tough to hit the back button on the top left of the phone within apps. What makes it worse that there aren’t any gestures that I can use, either. Sure, there must be some app which’d let me do that, but by default, I want to be able to swipe right from the left edge to open the left menu or to go back. It’s a very simple implementation, and would solve many problems.
  18. Multi-tasking leaves much to be desired. I can’t see much of the app, and neither do the apps update themselves in the background. The multi-tasking menu is far from aesthetically pleasing.
  19. KitKat seems far from complete. There are parts of the OS which use the darker colours, the original Android shades of black and blue, and there are parts which have been re-painted to white. The lack of uniformity is daunting.
  20. Google’s voice search is fantastic. It’s accurate and provides quick answers. Shows the world that Google isn’t letting its mastery slip by.
  21. There should be a way to manage which notification appears where on the notification screen, based on app, not the time of the notification. And if there is a way, I still haven’t been able to find it (Note: I haven’t Googled for it yet, either.)

Most of the software issues boil down to the lack of a common design language. The lack of definition of how an app should behave, and the lack of streamlining, the lack of uniformity. iOS ports don’t work for an OS that doesn’t look or behave like iOS. That’s what devs need to understand and Google needs to push.

At the end of the day, I come out with 2 very simple deductions.

One, Android in its current KitKat form, is a very able, and strong OS. It’s great, leveling, itself with iOS, and in some ways even better (just as it’s worse in some ways, too). It’s advanced, useful, and helps you get the work done.

Two, Android is complicated. It is not for the casual user. I said that a few months ago, and I repeat that again today. It’s not for the masses. I get why it has such a high adoption rate, but I want to see how many actually use it as a smartphone and not a feature phone. I’m sure it’s a much smaller fraction.

With the Nexus 5, Google has shown what the future of Android is. It has shown who is the boss and who controls the OS which earlier was open source. This isn’t the Android that Andy Rubin started out to make. This is the Android that Google needs to ensure that it keeps making money out of every dollar it spends in maintaining and building the OS. That’s Sunder Pichai’s job, and he seems to get that.

While Rubin’s job was to take a budding and developing OS mainstream, Pichai’s is to take a mature and growing OS and turn it into a cash cow. The Nexus 5 sends a strong statement to those who thought Google probably won’t ever make much money with Android (including me).

Here’s hoping Google fixes the discrepancies and issues with Android to make it an even better, friendlier mobile operating system…!

Author’s Note: All these are personal observations, over a 4-day period, on a Nexus 5 running Android KitKat 4.4.2, on Wi-Fi with no cellular connectivity.

They Think I Hate Android.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time, and have been postponing it. But today, one of my friends bought a Samsung phone worth 20,000, going against my advice of buying a better phone from Micromax (similar looking), that was available for around 15,000. And that, was my tipping point. I couldn’t wait any longer to write this post.

Before I start, some things you should know about me. I’m a tech enthusiast, not a journalist. Those who know me, would know that I don’t side with anyone, or any company. Yes, I love Apple but I appreciate only those products that deserve appreciation (I never, for once, felt that the iPhone 4S was a worthy phone to buy, and I did recommend those who came to me, not to buy it). And so, I request you to read this post without keeping any sort of inhibitions in your minds about what side I’m on. Just because I’m not.

Again, before I start, some things you should know about Android. Android is an open-source (in layman terms, free) mobile and tablet operating system (hereon: OS). An operating system is like the skeleton of a human body. Just as the skeleton provides the basic guidelines and structure to the rest of the body, the OS provides the base for software to interact with and make use of the hardware. So, every phone, tablet or computer needs an OS. Most computers surrounding us in India, run different variants of Microsoft’s Windows Operating System. Some may run Windows XP, some others Windows 7, and some others even Windows 8, with 8 being the latest one that has come out. With time, there are new features, faster operations, and the ability to run newer hardware, added to the OS which gets us newer OSes.

Android is developed and maintained by Google (not by Samsung, as most people have been assuming). Samsung, Sony, HTC and others, use this Android, supplied by Google, customize it, and add it to their phones, as the OS. It’s like Lenovo or Dell or HP adding a few of their custom software (battery software, customer care software, etc.)  over your laptop. Similarly, manufacturers of mobiles, have different flavors of skins they add on the stock (pure, as supplied by Google) Android. Sony’s skin is called Timescape, Samsung’s is called TouchWiz, HTC’s Sense, and so forth.

Google itself does make phones and tablets too. They are a part of its Nexus program where manufacturers like Samsung, LG and Asus make devices for Google, and supply it with stock (the purest form) of Android.

I will be comparing Android with iOS (the OS that powers Apple iDevices like the iPhone, iPad, etc.) wherever necessary because it’s the only another mature and mass-adopted OS in the consumer market today.

Now that I’ve gotten the task of explaining the tech terms out of the way, I can go ahead with the real post.

In the recent years, the trend of touch-screen phones started with the crazy and innovative introduction of the iPhone, back in 2007, at the hands of Steve Jobs. That, was where it all started. Google started building and testing Android in 2005. Although, Android didn’t come to consumers until September, 2008. After that, it has seen any real sale till late-2009 when Android 1.6, Donut, came out. And it was only after the release of Froyo (Android 2.2) in mid-2010 that the major spurt in consumer adoption started.

Since then, there has been no looking back for Android and it’s commendable.

But, like there’s good about it, there’s enough bad to keep me from spending my money on one. At least as yet.

1) Lack of consistency

As Android started gaining popularity, manufacturers started picking up Android, and they started putting Android in phones of all shapes and sizes and screen resolutions [screen resolution is the maximum pixels a given screen can display clearly (the more the better)]. Why? Because Google never really placed a requirement on what kind of hardware would be ‘optimal’ to run Android (except that there should be 4 buttons). As a result, we have different CPUs, RAMs, screen sizes, and practically everything else you can imagine as a mobile spec, available in the market.

And that leaves the developers (people who make the applications you run) nuts. What should they develop for? Just as there can’t be the same medicine for every illness, the same app can’t work for every screen size and resolution. And thus, more often than you’d like (especially if you picked up a sub-10k Android phone), most apps won’t download, run, or run correctly as the developer intended, for you phone.

Comparing that to other OSes, Microsoft clearly stated the basic CPU, RAM and screen resolution needs for the WP8; BlackBerry has specified its resolutions; Apple has changed the resolution of iOS devices only twice since 2007, quadrupling it the first time (with the iPhone 4), and elongating it the other (in 2012, for the iPhone 5), neither of which affected any of the already developed apps and still runs them perfectly.

Don’t you think this pisses the developers who make apps for you? Having to customize each app they make, for a million (I know I’m exaggerating) different screen sizes? Doesn’t that change the experience of the app they can provide? I think it does, big time.

2) Apps are all about the quality

It’s proven, by surveys and users, that the quality and simplicity of use, of iOS apps is just so much better than their Android counterparts, made by the same developer. Why? Consistency. In 95% of the apps for the iOS, the upper right corner has a ‘Back’ icon, that takes you back to the previous screen. With Android, that’s absent. The back button does a million different things, in different apps.

3) Lack of upgrades

Android has to be customized for your phone so that it can run on the specifications of your phone. And while the newer versions of Android keep coming, manufacturers are more busy in customizing the newer versions to suit their swanky, new phones, than to care about a customer who has already made a purchase. Thus, before they customize the upgrade for you and forward it to you, Google releases the next version of Android, and the next.

As I write this today, Android 4.2 (Jelly Bean) has been out for 4 months. And yet, more than 56% of Android users are using Android 2.3 and below [current stats from Google (they may have changed by slight margins by the time you read it)]. Leave alone that, I know of people who’ve just spent a heavy sum anywhere between 15,000-25,000 on their phones, only to be served with an out-dated Android 2.3 OS. To me, it’s like buying an expired food item. Shouldn’t that customer feel cheated?

That’s not the case with Nexus phones and tablets, though. They have the standard configuration that Google has specified for itself, and thus they are upgraded on the day the OS releases, just as iOS devices. (As far as I know, the Android 4.2 usage you see, is all because of these Nexus devices. I don’t know of any phone or tablet being given a 4.2 upgrade yet.)

4) Security

Android, the way it is today, is much less secure than iOS. There have been consistent talks about malware, spyware and virus attacks, apps leaking information, memory leaks, etc. It is just not secure. The fact that you need to be protected from viruses, with an anti-virus software, on an OS is disturbing enough for me. More so, when I can’t trust a phone with my data and contact details, unless I’m guaranteed that it’s safe. I really, really can’t. (There are too many links that I’d be directing you to if I were to point out some of these, and so I won’t point to any.)

With every version, Google does address security issues, but as aforementioned, when you get the update matters, not when Google addresses it.

5) It’s really not about being able to share stuff over Bluetooth

Everytime, everytime someone tells me Android is a better OS than iOS because the prior lets you share stuff over Bluetooth, it boils my blood.

Every company has a policy, and Apple’s (like Microsoft’s) is to curb piracy. As all of you will agree, the only reason we’ve been known to use Bluetooth, out here in India, is to share music files. And Apple simply doesn’t want you to do that. You want a song? Buy it on the Apple store.

Thinking about it beyond what we want, it makes sense. I write as a hobby, and I will most probably have a book published some day in the future. When it comes out, it’d kill me that pirated copies of my book are being circulated around. It’d kill my livelihood, it’d kill my desire to write further because I don’t get the monetary appreciation I deserve, for my work. How would a worker feel if he isn’t paid for the work he has done, or how would a student feel if he gets less marks than what he really deserves? That’s how people feel when you pirate their work. Enough said.

6) It doesn’t ‘Just work’

In my experience with phones (and from first-hand accounts), an Android phone user always takes more time to get used to and get acquainted to a new phone than an iOS user.

‘It just works’ is a phrase that Steve Jobs said during the first iPhone keynote speeches. Since then, it has been used widely by various people for their products, to show how simple they are to use. But, with Android, I find a new user, more confused about where to and how to start, than with iOS.

7) Usage

There appears to be a common consensus that a phone that has a touchscreen and lets you play Fruit Ninja or Temple Run or Angry Birds (whichever you prefer), chat with everyone on WhatsApp for free, listen to music, and watch videos on a big screen is a smartphone.

To burst the bubble, it’s not. A phone that connects to the internet and lets you be connected to the world, is. But, how many of the Android users actually utilize their phones for the reasons it’s a smartphone? A really tiny fraction. And that’s exactly what saddens me.

On the contrary, iOS users do more with their iPhones than what Android phones do. What does smartphone and Android sales depict in numbers? Considering that Android today has almost 65% of the market share and iOS 30%, what do Android users use their phones for, if 67% of mobile web traffic comes from iOS users, and 33% from Android users? What happens to all those ‘smart’phones that are sold?

8) Quality of the device

This pointer has more to do with the quality of phones made by Samsung than any other manufacturer. (Sony has made some really amazing phones and they have felt nothing less than pearls; similar for HTC.)

I saw this video a while ago, from an Android website, that clearly stated the 42k Samsung Galaxy SIII back as ‘It’s just cheap plastic anyway.‘ That guy hated the iPhone 5. And in a drop-test comparison, he referred to the SIII as cheap plastic. It is pretty amusing to me that someone would spend 42k on a phone, that’s cheap plastic. I am left speechless. Whatever happened to expecting a quality finish?

Similar is the case with lower-end phones from other indie and Chinese manufacturers. The lack of perfection observed with devices from Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry just seems to be absent when it comes to Android, for some reason.

———————–

Don’t get me wrong. I think Android is a great project. It’s a great OS. And it has amazing features. But, I just don’t think it’s for the end-user. It feels more hack-y to me. In my opinion, it’s a nerd’s OS. It doesn’t simplify the life of the user. I hate what companies (even Sony, which I admire immensely otherwise) does to Android. They spoil stock Android. I also hate that better phones from Sony, HTC and others, get overlooked for not-so-good alternatives from Samsung, just because it’s Samsung.

Honestly, I don’t have an answer for anyone who asks me why a 50k iPhone is better than any random 10k Android phone. Because the fact that someone is asking me such a question talks about the lack of awareness. It’s the difference in 2 different platforms, 2 OSes, 2 companies, and 2 users. And that’s what I hope to have explained over the course of this blogpost.

The scenario in the smartphone market today is not about what a phone does, or what it doesn’t. Lets face it, every phone does everything. It’s about how it does it, and I think that’s all that should matter.

Until the next post…

Update (08.02.2013 : 13:37): While going through my RSS feed today, I just came across this article in the Washington Post about the lack of security in Android, and its widespread-ness. In case you thought I didn’t have enough proof for it, here’s one.

Also, a dear friend and reader, just made the above analogy of the OS and hardware better. He says, assume the hardware as the skeleton, the OS as the muscles and tissues that hold it together, and the skin (the default supplied by Google, or that added by manufacturers) as the well, the skin!