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.
Just a short post to say that Veggie Phrases is now available on the Android Marketplace, you can read the details on AppBrain - if you’ve not seen the app before it’s a handy pocket phrasebook to help travelling vegetarians and vegans communicate their dining preferences when overseas and best of all it’s completely free!
I’ll follow up when I get the chance with a brief description of the process I followed but for now, please grab your phone and give it a try. Let me know if you have an issues, I only had a chance to test it briefly since I’m an iPhone user!