I was given the chance to order a new work phone recently and whilst I could’ve upgraded from the iPhone 3GS to the iPhone 4 I decided to make the jump to Android with a shiny new Samsung Galaxy S2, I’ve still got the iPhone for testing though so I’ll be jumping from one to the other. Having been a long term iPhone user it does feel somewhat like a switch to the dark side but if I’m going to design Android apps I’m going to have to understand the good and the bad parts of both platforms.
One of the most important considerations when designing mobile apps is the user’s expectations and that varies considerably from one platform to the next and despite their differences iOS and Android are comparable platforms, much more so then Windows Phone 7 or Blackberry. Both Apple and Google have created thriving downloadable app ecosystems that together are fast becoming the platform of choice for the modern smartphone, I’m confident Windows Phone 7 will become a major player in the space but there’s a long way to go before it gets there – as for Blackberry and HP/Palm – who knows?
So now to the results of my little experiment, in this post I’ll focus on the features and capabilities that I like about Android and whilst I will cover the things I don’t like, this is not a rant for or against either platform, it is intended to be as Bill O’Reilly beautifully puts it without a hint of irony: “fair and balanced”.
The best features…
The “back” button – at first it seems redundant to have a hardware based button for just one purpose but once you get used to it you realise how handy it really is. Every time I go back to the iPhone I end up in a situation where I find myself bailing out of an app when all I really meant to do is back up a step, everyone that owned a Sony Playstation or PS2 will know how natural it felt to always use the triangle button to go backwards and I really do find I miss it when I’m on the iPhone.
The pull-down notifications bar – this may well be more of a Samsung customisation but the top status bar can be pulled down like a roller blind to reveal some quick key settings (turn on/off bluetooth, Wifi, GPS) as well as showing notifications such as apps needing updates, new emails, push messages, etc. It’s a brilliant way of accessing those features without compromising on screen real-estate.
Swype – if you’ve not come across Swype already you have to give it a try, it is an alternative keyboard where you type words not by tapping each letter but by drawing lines between them. This might sound a bit odd and it is at first but once you get up to speed it really is a delight to use. The main issue I have is that whist you’re in the middle of a sentence and you’re flowing nicely from word to word if you suddenly hit a word that Swype doesn’t recognise or isn’t in the dictionary your entire flow is broken and a hole is punched straight through the fourth wall of user experience. As soon as you have to start thinking about what you’re doing it’s game over in UX terms, something Apple have turned into an art form and most find hard to emulate.
‘Front Screen’ and ‘Back Screen’ applications – the iPhone has a ‘desktop’ and you’re stuck with it, sure you can have folders but even they’re a little limiting and I find myself completely unable to organise my apps in a way that makes sense. Android on the other hand has a distinct separation between the ‘desktop’ where you can have both apps and widgets (time, calendar, twitter, etc.) and the full list of apps, this makes it easy to de-clutter the main screens of your phone but you’re only ever one click away from your entire app library.
The bad parts…
Massively modal menus – I really, really, really don’t like the way that most of what you might call ‘right-click’ actions bring up giant, screen-filling menus from which to choose options. For example, if I’ve opened an email and I want to mark it as unread I have to come back up to the inbox, hold my finger on the email for a second or so then the screen is filled by a giant ugly menu (with plenty of dead-space) from which I can choose to mark the email as unread. On the iPhone if I’m reading an email I’d just press the “Mark Unread” button. No really, that’s it.
General flakiness – it’s hard to qualify this exactly but I’m referring to the many times where I’ve tried to do something and received some weird obscure error message and thought “oh well, that didn’t work then” without knowing why or what to do instead. As an example when I first started playing with the phone I bounded like an excited puppy towards the Android Market, I signed up for an account and picked up a few freebie apps before deciding I really had to have Nmap so I clicked to buy and got the message: “A server error has occurred”. After a little Googling around I finally determined that the cryptic “server error” was just because I didn’t have my card registered in Google Checkout – why couldn’t it have just told me that in the first place? Issues like this really make me think that Google just doesn’t “get it”, at least not yet.
Text selection – again it’s hard to describe but in a nutshell – it’s horrible, I almost never end up putting the cursor in the correct spot and about a third of the time I end up opening a modal menu where you can copy and paste (it works but it’s clunky not very intuitive).
Security – I’ll start by saying that I’ve not personally had a bad experience of security on Android but I know there are plenty of known instances and I can’t help feeling a little ‘ooky’ about download strange and unheard-of apps knowing that anyone could have put them into the Android Market and they didn’t have to go through any approval process.
It’s always a risk upgrading to a brand new operating system and clearly so on the day of release so why have I done it? Because I’m insane? Because I’m an Apple fanboy? Not really (though maybe a little bit of both), I’ve only upgraded my laptop which isn’t really used for anything overly critical so I’m free to have a play and chase down the gremlins before upgrading the development boxes and production hardware.
So, on to the meat and potatoes of the post – is it any good?
The Good Bits
- File Vault 2 – now with whole disk encryption, a must for road warriors and anyone whose laptop is regularly out of the house and clearly missing from previous versions.
- Mail – I’m loving the favourites bar in the new mail app and the conversation style view is pretty slick without being annoying – a UI that adds to but doesn’t dominate the user’s attention.
- Dashboard – I couldn’t say quite why but I used to find the old dashboard irritating, the new one seems better but only time will tell if I actually use it.
- Calendar – oooh it’s pretty. That’s not a reason to love it but it is pretty, it may sound kinda wooly and like one of those things that PC users hate but it just feels nicer.
- Full Screen Apps – I was skeptical and to some degree I am still but when you go full-screen the apps really do look nicer and it’s especially handy for reading PDFs in Preview.
- Quicktime - exporting the audio portion of a video is a great feature and something I’ve often needed to do. The ability to make screencast recordings is brilliant, coupled with the trim feature and instant sharing to YouTube and Vimeo just makes it so easy to produce quick tutorial videos.
- Electronic Distribution – you might think this is a lame pick but downloading from the Mac App Store just worked and it’s clear to me that it will be the future of software distribution.
Where I’m Nonplussed
Sure, there’s a whole load of shiny in Lion but there are a couple features that I’m underwhelmed by, namely…
- Launchpad – provides an iOS style application launcher but whilst you can make folders by dragging icons on top of one-another you can’t rename the folder whilst double-clicking and you can’t drag a folder to the dock. It’s one of the few examples of Apple UX design where I’ve found that what feels natural doesn’t work.
- Facetime and iChat – having both never made sense and solidfying this in the new release makes even less.
The Bad Bits
On a new upgrade there will always be a few third-party apps that won’t work and in this Lion is no exception, so far I’ve only had trouble with the LastPass plugin for Safari but the FireFox version works just fine so it’s no biggie – I’ll update the post if I find anything else but you should check out the community compatibility wiki at roaringapps.com.
Overall I will say that the new look and feel is a tad blocky, I suppose I’ll get used to it but it does seem a little bit 1994. The additional UI tweaks also push my old black MacBook a little close to the edge performance wise, the fans seem to be running a little more often than they used to do.
Recently I’ve been working more in the smartphone world than in BI and SQL although for the time being at least I’ll be doing a bit of both so you’ll probably see more mobile app related posts in the feed. In order to provide some degree of separation I’ve created a Mobile User Interface Blog at usabl.net which contains links and screenshots of interesting designs, though any longer more technical articles will still appear here.
If you’re wondering what the crossover is between mobile apps and Business Intelligence it’s all about the user experience, in BI you generally aim to give people the information they need as quickly and efficiently as possible not necessarily in terms of software performance but in report design. I’m not the only one that’s thinking along these lines, Jen Stirrup gave an interesting talk on Data Visualisation at the inaugural SQLHerts meeting and if you’re interested in either topic you’ll most likely be able to catch both of us at the next meeting on July 28th at the University of Hertfordshire (register here).