A few years back I invested in my first smartphone: an HTC Magic. At first I loved it, but one event in particular pissed me off beyond all belief, namely when not 3 months after I bought it, Android upgraded to a new iteration and I couldn’t install it on my handset. Nonetheless I did persevere and upgraded a year or so later to an HTC Desire. As a handset that was much better than the Magic – but once again the fragmentation issue raised its head and this time it was the last straw for me: I switched to an iPhone 3S and since then I’ve remained an Apple phone person. Over time I also bought into the Apple ecosystem that bit more: I have an iPad, a jailbroken Apple TV2, and I use a MacBook Air laptop.
When the Nexus 7 tablet arrived though, I figured it was time to revisit Android purely to see what had changed in the years since I’d last used it. I didn’t need this tablet; frankly price was the main factor as it wasn’t a bank-breaking amount to pay for one.
And here’s the thing: over time, I’ve found myself using the N7 more and more. Slowly, little things about it have started really winning me over – to the point where I’m even now sat here contemplating an investment in an Android phone again.
So what’s changed?
For me it has been a combination of two things. On the Apple side, I’ve lost that sense of excitement about what they’re creating and have a general feeling that of late their business hasn’t been so much about innovation as protection of their existing model. In many respects, they’re the new Microsoft. Little things like the Maps fiasco caught me out more than I thought they would (turns out I use Google Maps more than is probably healthy when it comes to finding meeting locations). Other things like the new Lightning connector screamed “expensive lock-in!” to me too, and really got me wondering why exactly I’d want to upgrade from a 4S to the new iPhone 5.
In the meantime though, Android was starting to win small but important battles for me:
Audio: The failure of my iPhone connectors on my home iPod docks got me wondering if proprietary routes really worked for me. Airplay felt like a great option at one point, but its a total lock-in. So, as detailed in a previous post, I invested in a £20 Logitech bluetooth receiver and haven’t looked back. Beyond that though something else I love is that on my N7 I can install shortcuts to control the audio setup. I have tinnitus, so often listen to music when going to sleep just to combat the ringing in my ears. Using the N7 and my Jambox, I can just hit the “Sleeping” preset on my home screen and have the volume set good and low. That way I don’t get any nasty surprises when I hit play on whatever I’m listening to. The shortcuts to Rdio, Spotify and Google Music are cool too – it just means I can flip open the tablet and in two taps have exactly the right volume and music from whichever service I choose.
Keyboard: Until recently the keyboard on the N7 was a total bust for me. It was just awful. However, with the latest Android update (4.2), a new Swype-style keyboard was introduced, and now it beats my iPhone and iPad ones hands-down. By swiping around the keys rather than tapping each letter out, I can get emails done far quicker. Its not perfect: expletives in particular seem to be censored out which doesn’t work for a committed swearer like myself, but hey – I’ll live with it.
Design: Of late, Google has really started upping the ante on its own products. Recent overhauls for Gmail, YouTube and even their Currents app have all raised the bar no end – and mercifully they avoid the skeumorphism of the Apple apps. Finally Android apps are starting to look really, really good. Not all of them – its far from perfect let’s be clear – but slowly and surely, the bar is being raised.
Fun: Its an odd term to throw in here, but somehow my N7 just feels more fun to use. The flexibility to tweak things far more than you can on iOS is a big appeal, such as the shortcuts I mention for my music above. The way Android handles sharing was always something I loved, and that remains the case today. With Android you get contextually-relevant sharing options. So in plain english that means that if you have, say, Pocket installed, you can hit Share and tap the Pocket icon and the web page in question is added. Whilst that’s possible on iOS, the flexibility isn’t there and it can be a real pain sometimes if like me you’re adding things to Pocket, Delicious and a few other services along the way. Beyond that though, Android just feels more flexible. The irony is that a lot of people used to like Apple’s laptops because they combined a user-friendliness (“it just works!” etc) with the power to more developer-level work too. These days it feels more like Android is delivering on this front whilst iOS remains a walled garden…
Of course, its not all rosy. The way in which the N7 handles standby is irritating, as it manages to really drain the battery when it is meant to be doing nothing. On my iPad, standby is as good as “off”; next to no power is consumed and you could come back to it a week later and it would be fine. Not so the N7: you’ll be lucky to get past 3 days of standby based on my experiences.
Beyond that, fragmentation also remains a big concern – perhaps the biggest of them all in fact. Make no mistake: if this N7 is rendered obsolete within months by Yet Another Android Upgrade, I’m going to be pretty pissed off. At this point, fixing that fragmentation should be Google’s #1 concern, no two ways about it.
What I’ve also found telling is the slow turning of the tide among respected tech figures. The largest of those has to be Guy Kawasaki, who was perhaps the original Apple evangelist. He’s now solely on Android, stating that when Apple first ran their big TV ads, the maxim was “Think Different” – and that this phrase should now be applied to Android due to its innovation and flexibility. Watch this interview with him for more on that front. Similarly John Battelle has now switched from iPhone to a Nexus 4, and whilst like me he’s not finding the going 100% smooth, he’s still enjoying the change and the various benefits that come with it – a superior camera and the fun of NFC for two…
Over on AdAge, Simon Dumenco wrote a piece describing Apple as “the most damaged big brand of the year”. As if that wasn’t strong enough, he likened them to Microsoft – surely the final slap in the face for any Apple diehard. Whilst I’m less down on Apple’s fortunes, it does indeed feel like a shift in public perception has occurred and perhaps they’re not as bulletproof as they once were under Steve Jobs. However to cite that as a reason people are switching over to Android is to do Google a disservice. I’d argue the primary reason people are moving is because they’re now seeing the level of quality in the hardware, and an emerging focus on quality interface design in the software too.
So will I be switching over from iPhone too? I won’t rush to, purely because my 4S is doing me perfectly well for now. However when that’s due for an upgrade, I might well be looking at Android handsets. Right now it feels like the innovative stuff is happening over there, and whilst its not 100% perfect, it feels like its getting better and better. Ignore it at your peril.