August 3, 2009

Leaving the iPhone behind: Google Android, Palm WebOS

Posted in Smartphone at 4:16 pm by gloriouscomputing

I’ve heard quite whispers for a while now that new cool smartphones were on their way to popularity in the United States (I can’t speak for other markets, which have been light years ahead of the US phone market, from what I gather). None of them really caught my attention, since I’ve been an enthusiastic Apple iPhone user since the first iPhone came out.

At the time, I upgraded from a Motorola Razr, which, just like the iPhone after it, was the phone that everyone had by default. Personally, I didn’t see the hype behind that phone. It just came with my contract, and I didn’t know anything about mobile phones at the time, nor did I have any interest in them. They were low-power proprietary devices that you had to pay huge fees for to enable you to make calls while on the go. I always hated SMS (~0.25 cents to sent and then again to receive a little bit of usually garbled text?). Sure, the Razr had Java support, as well as what could be considered a web browser. The browser was slow, the fees to use it high, and the experience terrible. Not something  you would use for anything but novelty. I also bought a Java game on the Razr: a breakout clone that had random RPG-like dialogue texts popping up after each game, in which you would give gifts to random girls, selflessly and fruitlessly. The game was amazing: It may have taken about 30 seconds to boot up, but it was still a good choice for killing 10 minutes while waiting on a real date to arrive. A downside was that it would get you in the mindset that girls were to just be given flowers and chocolate, and then abandoned: Something you’d have to shake off once the real date arrived. The cost of the game was $5, I believe. It was worth it to have something on my phone to waste my time, but too much for me to consider have two things on my phone to waste my time.

The Razr was a good phone, but virtually nothing else. So when I received my iPhone 1G 1.0, I was blown away. Productivity is a word often ill-used when speaking of smart phones. Productive is about the opposite of what smartphones make you, but that’s besides the point. With my first smart phone, I could check my email from anywhere. That was very neat! The idea of spending time punching in a resume or a lengthy email of any sort on a smartphone is laughable, of course. If you aren’t using a full-sized keyboard, as least bigger than both of your hands combined, you are losing productivity. You are typing slower than you could be. But the ability to quickly reply a sentence to a little email from the girlfriend while out and about was neat, even if not realized as much as she’d like. 😉

iPhone’s Visual Voicemail was a revolution in itself. It’s the difference between checking an answering machine from the last decade and an email-style list of all voicemails. Furthering this revolution is Google Voice. Now you don’t just get a Visual List of Voicemails, you also get their voice transcribed as text. GV’s Voicemail virtually IS email. Google Voice also works from a web browser (ie. everywhere).

Apple really started the smartphone revolution in US, at last, even if the initial iPhone offering was rather limited. iPhone brought a smart phone with a good GUI, and people loved it. I had seen a Blackberry before this. For reasons I admit I can’t pinpoint directly, other than a confusing GUI, I was not impressed, despite it also being presented to me as a phone you could use to check/write email.

It is good that Apple understood that having a few default applications on the phone was not enough, for now their App Store is their biggest asset. Unfortunately, it is also their biggest flaw. The list of applications is huge, many of them irrelevant, but many of them amazing. In fact, when someone considers switching to another phone, one generally has to start with one question: Can this new phone do everything I am able to do with my iPhone thanks to applications from the App Store?

If you missed it, all this talk about switching from the iPhone to other phones that came about recently resulted from the following: Thanks to Apple, consumers expect better smartphones. However, thanks to Google, consumers expect more customizable phones, without restrictions on which applications can be run. It has never been as clear as now that Apple’s approval process is not only hurting developers, but also users. If only developers hated Apple before, now everyone does.

Google Voice is the latest in the evolution of phones. By blocking applications which make the service easier to use, Apple has shown that they are yesterday’s phone. The boat is sinking for us non-apple fanboys who were previously self-described “Apple-haters who love the iPhone”. The lifeboat that is Jailbreaking certainly works. In fact, you can download GV Mobile, an application to use Google Voice right now from Cydia for free. Jailbreaking is a second-class citizen however, with many users refusing to jailbreak for various reasons. Certainly, it takes work, work that you shouldn’t have to do. You shouldn’t have to go to the blackmarket to get Google software for your iPhone. The FCC agrees, it seems.

After the iPhone’s 2.0 upgrade, Apple has really been playing feature catch-up. With 3.0, the iPhone finally got copy/paste, but there is still no way to run multiple applications. If you love SIP/Skype software, that’s a big concern. The only way to be reachable on SIP/Skype with your iPhone is to stare the application down. Don’t dare check your email, or you go offline. Again, the lifeboat comes to the rescue with Backgrounder, but using it is hackish and unreliable.

Where to go from here, is the question. The problem is that there isn’t an alternative phone right now that is unquestionable an upgrade in every way. In my search for tomorrow’s phone, I first looked at Android.

If you love SIP VoIP, and who wouldn’t with the ability to make free calls from your smartphone while on WiFi, Android seems to blow away the competition. Android phones have an application, SIPdroid, which allows you to both make and receive calls via SIP automatically whenever you are on WiFi. This goes beyond just running in the background. It actually integrates with the OS, so when you click on a Contact as usual, you can actually call them over SIP right there. Once set up, your phone will know to use SIP automatically when you have WiFi, and to use your phone network otherwise. So whenever you are WiFi, calls are free both ways. Combining Google Voice, Gizmo5, Android, and SIPdroid is so powerful, it blows my mind. Getting the same user experience on the iPhone is impossible.

Yes, using multiple applications, running them one at a time, I can use my iPhone to call over the normal cell phone network, and over SIP. If I’m expecting a call (ala Google Voice), I can run the SIP application ahead of time, stare it down, and answer. I better not dare do anything else with my iPhone though, or the ability to receive SIP calls is gone. If well-integrated SIP support was my only concern, I’d have bought an Android instantly; without looking back.

The Android has a little GUI problem. In some ways, it’s better than the iPhone’s (The slide-down list of notifications makes the iPhone look like Windows 95). If you compare it to the Palm WebOS, the Android GUI could be better. I’ve never played with an actual Android. I’ve seen videos, and I’ve played with Android on an emulator.

An issue I see is that the people trying to improve the Android GUI:
1)
are phone carriers, meaning that you can’t just choose to get an Android phone with hardware X, but you also have to decide to get Android flavor Y. If they actually did improve the GUI, only some would benefit from it. If another company improved the GUI in another way, the two camps would be mutually exclusive. It’s a bad state of affairs, and gives me as a consumer too many choices that I don’t want. If I choose Android, I should be able to get all the software benefits from any flavor of Android.
2) are thinking along the lines of Compiz, Widgets, and multiple Desktops. If you look at the HTC Hero and the Rachael Android flavors, neither of them seems to improve the GUI that much. It’s mostly just 3D effects. Some aspects are actually a step back in terms of usability. By that, I mean Widgets. Widgets were a terrible idea on PCs: They are less productive version of a normal app. I don’t need less productivity: I’m already using a tiny phone, with a tiny screen, and a tiny keyboard. Making an Email program that only allows me to use half of my screen real-estate is ludicrous (I’m looking at you, HTC). The Contacts list on the Raechel is equally horrible. The whole screen only fits about 5 contacts at a time, because each are surrounded in big borders, which are then rotated and sized randomly around the screen with special effects randomly applied. It’s a horrible unusable mess. I didn’t go to my contact list because I wanted to see text being spun around and popping in and out of the screen, while being covered in raindrops.

My conclusion on the Android GUI as-is is that it is fine. It’s minimal, but usable. I’m not as excited to switch as I could be though. I don’t like the fact that it has a Desktop, and requires me to drag up the equivalent of the start menu to get to all applications, but I guess it’s something I can deal with. I do like that you can type on the list of applications and have it find the application you seek right away. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to do this with the on-screen keyboard. If this is the case, then it’s absolutely essential for me to get a phone with a physical keyboard should I decide on an Android phone.

The problem with a Desktop is that users HATE to organize things. I have enough work to organize my physical room, I don’t want to have to organize my computer more than the bare minimum. I don’t want to set up this “special” area with applications I like especially. I don’t want to clutter it with useless per-site RSS reader widgets. Apple had this one right. The Home screen is not a desktop. It is a list of applications. If you like some especially and don’t want to have to search for them, you can drag them to the first screen of the list of applications. This is the only way a Mobile phone is different than a PC. With a PC, I don’t need to ever click on an application, I can just type to find it. With a Phone, getting the keyboard out is more work than clicking, so clicking should be possible too. I certainly don’t need more than one desktop. HTC is going the wrong direction with letting users have 7 arbitrary desktops, which they can stumble through in an attempt to find widget X. On a good day, I can maybe justify having one screen with many widgets, but if your poor users have to use more than one screen of widgets, what they really wanted to true Application Switching with Applications, not Widgets.

But again, having one extra, pointless step to go through every time I want to launch an application is something I can live with. Universal search isn’t there yet, but it probably will get there eventually. With local search everywhere, it’s something I can deal with: Type in home screen to find Contacts, type in Apps List screen to find Apps. Not as nice as on the iPhone, but again, it’s doable, as long as I can do with it the on-screen keyboard and not just a physical keyboard that I may not have. Multitouch is something I will miss somewhat, but since I often use just one hand to hold my phone, it will be welcome to be able to zoom in without having to change position.

The Palm Pre WebOS is an iPhone 1.0 killer. The features blow the iPhone 1.0 out of the water. Multitouch is there, and the web browser is just like the iPhone’s. There is an Application Download Place…or what-not they decided to call it, but it only does Web-based applications, which is basically the same policy that Apple tried to convince users was good enough with the iPhone 1.0: You don’t need hardware access. The very interesting up-point here though is that the blackmarket/homebrew scene is just as active as it was for the iPhone 1.0. Unlike Apple, the Palm has consensually handed users full access to the device on a silver platter, allowing anyone to enter the Konomi code (I’m serious) to get what Android users would call “root” access. It’s hard to say if this will last, but so far the company has reportedly been helpful to their homebrew scene.

The question then is: why is Palm Pre officially limiting their App Store-equivalent to basic web scripts, and then letting advanced users “jailbreak” the device with an officially sanctioned cheat code? Why are normal users not allowed to see the amazing fruits of labor that the homebrew scene has developed in Palm’s official Application Market? The device has not been out for long, but it seems that the company’s strategy is to reproduce the iPhone’s evolution step-by-step, slightly improving on every step of the way. If your budget is modest, this backward+forward thinking plan certainly is an option, but consumers want a phone that beats today’s iPhone, not the iPhone 1.0. The only way to accomplish this is to go the way of Google, and allow virtually all applications in your App Market, giving each application full access, only limited to user’s choice, just like the Android.

Android is a very open platform, but it ships without “root” access. This is upsetting many users on principle, since if a phone is called open, you should be able to do literally everything possible. However, in practice, this restriction does preciously little to effect users, in complete contrast to Jailbreaking on the iPhone, without which advanced iPhone users would have started using the device as a paper weight. Again, I only have an iPhone, so all I know about the other phones I’ve been speaking off is through research online, but it seems that the only thing you can do with a “rooted” Android is to use blocked console commands, which apparently haven’t led the way to any applications a normal user would benefit from. Also, with a Rooted Android, you can copy paid applications (aka. “Protected” applications), although I hear that once retrieved, even a user without a Rooted phone can install pirated applications. I’m not sure on this last point, but it may be the case that to install custom ROMs of the Android OS, you may require root access. These are the sort of features even a jailbroken iPhone users wouldn’t dream of, so to me it would be acceptable to not have these features by default. Of course, if you give me a mic and some beer, I’d preach about how root access should either by on by default or accessible with … the Konami Code… just like the rest of the linux people. 🙂

Quick conclusion time: If I didn’t have a smartphone right now, and I needed to buy right away, I’d go with the Android Samsung Galaxy: Great hardware, no/little stupid proprietary GUI.

The Palm Pre is great for anyone who was thinking about buying an iPhone, and mostly wants to do web stuff on their first smartphone. If you love Email/IM/Twitter/Facebook, you don’t care for VoIP, and you are not a huge geek, go for the Palm Pre. For me to go with the Palm WebOS, the Market Place needs to be able to feature software that is as hardware-enabled and well-OS-integrated as the SIPdroid software on Android. In fact, a direct port of that software with the same features, available on their App Market tomorrow would be a huge plus for me. I love doing crazy stuff with my phone. The Palm Pre has the hardware to run Playstation 1 ISOs in a homebrew emulator. That’s respectable! However, without further OS integration, I can’t justify not getting my personal number one killer feature for a smartphone: SIP integration, which is auto-switching to the normal cell phone network when required. It is seems that only Android will have this in the foreseeable future.

I don’t need to buy a new phone right now, but I anticipate buying one next year. I can’t imagine Apple doing a complete 180, and suddenly supporting: simultaneous multiple applications, a completely open App Store, a Window Shade (notification bar) clone, and tight OS-integration of applications with the OS. Without these features, Apple has lost me.

Speaking of “bad” Apple, one of the worst parts of using the iPhone is Music/Video for me. This is commonly seen as their number one selling point. For me, it’s one of the iPhone’s biggest flaws. Apple has gone out of their way to prevent users from using anything but iTunes to put Music and Video on their iPhones. This is unacceptable to me. Not just principle, but because I hate iTunes. I only reluctantly install it to upgrade my firmware, and then uninstall it. I won’t justify my hate for iTunes here, but because of my preference to not use this software, I have to find homebrew iPhone software that can just play music/video from the iPhone’s storage, without using the proprietary Apple database file. There used to be an App called Pwnplayer, but its development has ceased, and it no longer works. I’ve since had to go with dTunes, but the interface is horrible. Not to blame the unpaid developers for their effect; I really appreciate that I can listen to music on my iPhone at all. However, it’s not a great experience, and I can’t wait to get on board with a Phone that laughs at the idea of requiring iTunes. Imagine how shocked I was when I heard a rumor that the Palm Pre currently requires iTunes as well (despite Apple quickly hitting the kill Switch).

So it seems that while the Palm WebOS might be my phone of 5 years from now, my phone of next year will have to be an Android. Now I only need amazing phone hardware to come out by next year. Please?

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