Tuesday, December 30, 2014

On iOS vs Android

This post will be a mere shadow of what I at one time intended it to be, but have delayed writing for a while now.  It concerns the two dominant mobile platforms, iOS and Android, and why I'm not in the iOS camp (and hopefully will still not be in 10 years).

This was mostly motivated by the releases of the iPhones 6 and iOS 8.  With these releases, Apple addressed a couple of the major gripes I had with their mobile phones and OS: screen size and extendability.  After a couple of years of marketing that 4 inches is the best screen size, Apple admitted that consumers demand bigger (but don't get me started on their hyperbolic and hypocritical marketing).  I fall in that bigger screen camp, though I do think some of the phablets are a little too big for me.  On the software side, Apple added the ability for apps to better interact with each other and added support for third party keyboards.  These are of course gross oversimplifications of what their fall releases brought to the table (and you can find a lot more detailed info with a simple web search), but those were two key points.

So after September I considered that an iPhone 6 might actually be a "usable" device for me (quotes because it's ridiculous to think that I couldn't use or even be mostly satisfied with previous iPhones).  So much so that I pondered testing one out for a week to see how I liked it, especially compared with the (then) upcoming release of Android 5.0 Lollipop.  Well, I never did the test drive.  And I don't really have much motivation to.  I'm still quite pleased with my two year old Nexus 4, and don't see much reason to upgrade to anything newer on either the Android or iOS side (let alone any of the other mobile platforms).  It got the Lollipop upgrade relatively quickly, it's still pretty responsive, and has the hardware to support just about all current features that I care to have in a smartphone.

This doesn't mean that I'm not open to trying out an iPhone sometime in the near future, especially if T-Mobile updates their test drive program to use the newer phone.  But I did have a conversation last night (at dinner with a couple of Claire's friends who were visiting) that reminded me of one of the issues that I would expect to infuriate me about using an iPhone: the forbidding of third party default actions.  One example that was mentioned (in addition to Safari) was how selecting an address link would open up the location in Apple Maps, and this behavior cannot be changed.  This sounds like a pretty "awful" user experience, given how terrible Apple Maps seems to be in comparison to Google Maps (and I also got first hand testimonial to this effect last night).  Obviously this is not the worst thing in the world - you an always simply copy and paste into Google Maps.  But it speaks to the general "closedness" of the iOS/Apple ecosystem, and I'm not a fan of that.  The other issues that I expected to have with using iOS generally involved extensibility of apps (e.g., getting a reliable scrobbler for Last.fm, and an automation equivalent of Tasker), but in the end they're not really world-changing features.  And that's why I think most people could be reasonably satisfied with either platform at this point, despite the fanboy flame wars.

I should also point out that Android is not without its faults.  One glaring area in which I think it is lacking is that of app permissions.  On Android, you basically must give an app all the permissions it lists in order to run it; and that list can get really long; plus it's hard to even understand why some of them are being included.  Google tried to help the situation a bit by categorizing the permissions so that once you install a version of the app that gives it a permission in a category, you don't have to re-approve updates with new permissions in the same category.  I'm not really sure if this made things better or worse.  On one hand, I get fewer requests to manually approve updates due to minor changes in permissions.  But on the other hand, the automatic updates are gaining new permissions without my knowledge (yes, I know I can turn off automatic updates altogether, but that's another hassle).  And the new categorizations make it harder to tell what specific permissions an app is listed as using, and what has changed between versions.  In contrast, iOS has much fewer permissions which each have to be specifically granted by the user for each app.  This means that iOS apps need to be written in a way that they sorta function (or at least don't crash) if they are not granted permissions.  If Google allowed revocation of individual permissions right now, Android apps would be crashing left and right.  I'm not sure what the solution for Android is at this point, but I would like to see a move toward revocable permissions (perhaps with stubbed content to help mitigate crashes if a permission is revoked).

I'm pretty sure I could come up with more areas where I would prefer the iOS implementation over the Android one (or lack thereof).  But in the end there's little doubt for me that right now I'd be happier with an Android device than an iOS one.  And I'll be sure to post some updated thoughts if I do give that test drive a try.

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