Thursday, 19 September 2013

Top 5: Things I dislike about Android

Image: Team-Android
I've been very critical of Apple in my blog. It started out when I shared the reasons why I fell out of love with the iPhone and iOS. I then followed that up with my thoughts on how WWDC 2013 was more of the same, vindicating my decision to leave the platform. I then wrote what was to be my most popular and most +1'd post, which highlighted the reasons why I think Apple are one of the most hated tech companies in the world. On the other hand, I've written nothing but positive articles when it comes to Android. Like my favourite announcements from I/O 2013, and the top 5 things I love about Android. So to prove that I am not a blind fandroid, and I am indeed aware of the shortcomings and weaknesses of my favourite platform, this post will be about the top 5 things I dislike about the best mobile platform in the world. Yes, this will be difficult to write.

5. OEM spec wars
I've touched on this issue before, and while competition is definitely needed to push the industry forward and break barriers, I sometimes feel like Android OEM's are slowly running out of innovative ideas. Most new smartphones follow the same upgrade trends - faster processor, more RAM, better camera, a slimmer and lighter body, a more pixel-packed display (often times larger too), and some proprietary software additions. It's almost as if the only way a phone can get better, is to ensure every hardware component is the best of the best. While this may be true to a certain extent, once we pass a threshold, any additional improvements on paper will not translate to any real-world benefit. I'm happy our phones now come with beautiful 1080p displays so we no longer have to live with WVGA (800 x 480) displays, but a Quad-HD display (2560 x 1440) in a smartphone will not make any difference, other than sucking more battery by demanding more processing power. More OEMs should do what Motorola are doing - optimise hardware to get a unique user experience. The Moto X may only have a 720p screen, but that is less demanding on the processor which helps improve battery life. Speaking of the processor, it may only be a dual-core processor from 2012 (technically), but it is modified in such a way that enables the Moto X to perform two tasks better than any other quad-core or octa-core processor - always-on voice detection and contextual awareness. I hope more OEMs adopt a more "fight smart" attitude in the spec wars, rather than a "fight hard" approach, and with HTC's front-facing BoomSound speakers, and Oppo's rear touch panel on the upcoming N1, we might just get that.

4. An inconsistent experience across Android
Variety is the spice of life, right? But when you add several spices together into one dish, you need to make sure they compliment each other and not end up ruining the overall taste of the dish. This is something I feel like is happening between Android OEMs. They do need to differentiate themselves from one another. They may be Android partners sure but they are still competing with one another, and being able to stand-out in a sea of Android devices is important. Otherwise, you may end up "living in the shadows of giants". But one thing this desire to be different unfortunately leads to, is inconsistency within the Android kingdom. One example which I personally find annoying is the different navigation key layouts between different OEMs. I'm not talking about hardware, capacitive or on-screen buttons, I'm talking about the layout. The way Google do it in stock Android is my personal favourite, back - home - recent apps. But for some reason, almost every OEM thinks, "Screw it! Let's change it just for fun!". Samsung not only have the back key on the right of the home button, they also replaced the recent apps button with a menu button! That is completely unnecessary as apps will display an action overflow button (the three vertical dots) if there are more options within the app. Task switching is accomplished either by double-pressing or long-pressing home I'm not sure, but it's not as smooth an experience as just having a dedicated recent apps button. One of Google's strengths is after all multi-tasking. LG are guilty of the same crime, and HTC took it one step further by only having two buttons on the HTC One! The home button is on the right which is bad in itself, but it also serves three functions! Home, launch Google Now and launch recent apps. WTH HTC!! OEM skins are also a sore point, which deserves its own section.
Y U NO SAME?!

3. Poor OEM skins
Image: Google+
OEM skins are a polarising issue in the Android community - you either love 'em or hate 'em. If done well, they can really be an improvement over stock Android, adding useful features on top of Android while still keeping the elegant look and feel and without compromising the experience. Unfortunately many OEMs don't do it well. It's a necessary evil if you ask me - stock Android may be dull to many people outside of the tech crowd, which is why OEM skins, in all their gimmick feature-rich glory are so important. Being the double-edged sword that OEM skins are however, any problems people encounter with the software of their device will most times be attributed to "Android", and not the OEM. Lag on a Galaxy S4? Android. Slow updates on your HTC One X? Android. Overcrowded notification shade on your LG G2? Android. Many of us do indeed know the difference between Android and OEM skins, but I've personally had to explain to a few friends who asked "What's the difference between HTC and Samsung phones? Aren't they both Android?". Poorly made OEM skins tarnish Android's reputation, because those skins are the only version of Android general consumers see. They don't see Android as it was meant to be like on a Nexus. Any negative impressions about Android that arise from an inability to differentiate between Android and a skin is further compounded by a lack of awareness of Android's rather confusing version history.

2. Lack of awareness and confusing Android version history
Ask any Apple user what version of iOS their device is running, and you'll get an immediate answer. They even know when their device will be updated to the latest version of iOS. Ask any Android user what version of Android they are using, and what do you get? "Uhhh..Ice Cream Jelly??". This problem stems from my previous point - most people don't know what Android really is. All they know is the skin the manufacturer put on the device. The confusing way Google update Android certainly doesn't help either. Sometimes, we get a major update, like from Honeycomb (3.0) to Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0). Other times, we get minor updates like Jelly Bean (4.1, and 4.2, and 4.3) Sometimes it's a minor update, but with a new codename, like the upcoming KitKat (4.4) update. Sure the way Google update Android may be more representative of how much actually changes in the platform, as opposed to how Apple do it - every update is a major update, regardless of how much actually changes from one version to the next. But Google's method is just too inconsistent for the majority of Android users to understand. The KitKat deal might actually aim to address this issue - use a popular, well-known brand name to raise awareness of the Android version a device is running. It doesn't matter if the masses don't know the version number, the codename is good enough. If Android keep using brand names for upcoming versions, this lack of awareness may well be taken care of.
Note the phrase "available for everybody". Image: The Verge

1. Low-end phones give Android a bad name
Android phones dominate the smartphone market. There's no two-ways about it. But how much of that market share is dominated by cheap, low-end Android phones? One of the downsides of being a free open-sourced software, is that anyone can put Android on anything. Even microwaves. So while there may be many flagships in the market like the Note 3, Z1, One and G2, there are probably 10 low-end phones for every high-end flagship. People who can't afford premium devices but want a smartphone, will probably get an Android. And when they buy cheap, low quality phones and have a bad experience with it, who gets the blame? Android. When they do eventually manage to buy a flagship, they'll go for an iPhone because it "just works". It's one of the most unfair comparisons in any industry - low-end Android phones against the premium iPhones. Android is now on version 4.3, with most mid-range phones at least on 4.0. It really hurts Android's image when people use a cheap phone with Android 2.3 on it. It would help if OEMs stopped producing phones with crappy hardware too. Hopefully more "mini" phones will help improve Android's mid-range portfolio and put an end to the era of poor Android 2.3 phones. 

Do I think Android is the best mobile platform in the market? Yes I do. Is it without faults? No. Just like everything else in this life, Android isn't perfect. There are things that are inherently broken being open-sourced, like the lack of a central quality control system (which leads to poorly optimised OEM skins), but Google are doing their best to regain control of the platform. If you noticed, I didn't mention fragmentation in my list, which I bet many people were expecting. While it was a huge problem in the past, I no longer think it's a serious issue. Like I said, Google are regaining control of Android, and they do it by updating Android without updating Android. It's a brilliant move and one that not many people outside of tech circles probably know about, yet. Android may have it's own set of problems but in my eyes, it's still the best mobile platform out there.