Articles

Breaking the Android UX,
one device at a time

5th November, 2012

I consider myself a tech savvy guy, and never liked taking sides on OS flavours.
This article though, asserts my opinion on the current state of mobile OS’s based on my experience from a user point of view and well — maybe partly a rant.

Looking back in time.

When I was 11 (back in 1994), got my first PC (with an Intel486 CPU!) running Windows 3.11. The years went by and I kept getting other PCs, hardware upgrades and subsequent Windows OS versions (98, 2000 and XP).

Only in 2003 I got my first introduction to other GUI-enabled OS: the Mac OS Panther (10.3). This grew my interest in alternative solutions to Windows, and led me to using Ubuntu from 2004 as my main OS for both personal and work use.

This move felt short when, in 2007, I started working full-time as a Flash Developer and Flash IDE was only available in Windows or Mac flavours.

Like many others, I was never convinced with Windows Vista being a worthy upgrade, so I switched to Mac OS for both personal and work use.

After enjoying the Mac OS experience for two years, in 2008, I also switched from my old Nokia 6230 to an iPhone 3GS, as soon as it was launched in Portugal.

Again, years went by, multiple iOS upgrades happened and the device started feeling slower with nearly every new iOS iteration.
Luckily, in 2011, I was given an iPhone 4 as a work phone, and could again get the iOS experience without sluggishness.

Although I was using the work phone for both personal and work related tasks, I really had no mobile phone of my own for over a year, so being (self-restrained) gadget hungry as I am, I had to start looking for solutions.

Not 2007 anymore.

Being a happy iPhone and Mac user for a few years, the next iPhone generation seemed the most logical option.

This was September 2012, and both iPhone 5 and iOS 6 had been released in the wild. And albeit on the hardware side it’s a solid and tuned package, the software had a very unfortunate misturn, breaking basic smartphone functionalities that left too many users in the dark. A mess much comparable to the one Microsoft did with Windows Vista.

Since this whole situation got me thinking, and questioning whether it was really worth getting the new iPhone, I started digging in the internet and looking for reviews on the current mobile panorama.

Both Microsoft and Google had their mobile phone trial and errors and were finally catching up with their own innovative mobile solutions.

The Metro interface used in Windows Phones teased me for a while, but since I use a lot of Google products, and Galaxy Nexus was no longer the flagship Android phone, I decided to give the Galaxy S3 a run for its money.

The (almost) Android experience.

At start, the Galaxy S3 seems very similar in performance and functionality to the latest iPhone generations.

But after the first experience, I started noticing some inconsistencies across apps in both visuals and interactions. Things like gestures not triggering the same expected action or simply poorly designed interfaces. In comparison, I must confess, the iOS UX might have spoilt me.

This didn’t hold me back. Again, I googled and found that my device was still not running the latest OS version, even though it had been released about 3 months before.

After some research I confirmed what I had long forgotten from my Windows experience: hardware vendors tend to run their own customised versions of the OS.

Unfortunately, the same happens with Android.

Google releases the new OS, and then every manufacturer / operator will add their own layer of software, replacing or just removing the original functionalities. Only then (months later; and even later, if the device is unlocked!) the users are able to update their devices to the latest OS release.

Now, if only the customisation was a real improvement on the original Android experience, AND delivered on time (say… up to a month later?) it would still be worth waiting for it. But no. The added apps are mostly crapware, and the replaced ones even downgrade the original UX. Waiting almost 4 months for this? I don’t think so.

A bit more of research revealed an even harsher truth, by-product of this “customisation”: over 50% of Android devices in use, are running still Gingerbread, a nearly 2 years old OS version, with the latest OS version (Jelly Bean) running in less than 3% of devices. (official Android statistics). Where as in iOS devices over 50% are already running the latest iOS 6. (there’s no official up-to-date statistics on this, but latest unofficial statistics point to 60% of devices running iOS 6).

Back to iPhone?

Nop. At least not yet. Sure, my first Android experience is not being as good as expected but, since a few days ago, there’s another alternative.
The new Android phone from Google: the Nexus 4.

With a tight connection between software and hardware, this should allow Google to continue delivering an experience closer to what Apple got their iPhone users familiar with. Including updates delivered on time.

If according to Matias Duarte (Director of Android UX at Google), it’s only a third of the way to where he wants the Android experience to be, I will be very happy with my next Android phone.

Hopefully, it will be the Android experience I was expecting in the first place.
And probably the phone I should have waited for, before jumping the gun and buying one dependent on a third-party.

Otherwise is just as good as a Blackberry.

Thanks for reading through!