My First Android Experience: intriguing, extremely encouraging but a bit disappointing

I recently got my hands on a Nexus One, which believe it or not is my first Android-based phone. I’ve been trying to acquire an N1 for quite some time now, so after finally tracking an AT&T version down it quite simply couldn’t ship fast enough. By the time it finally arrived I was champing at the bit. I’ve had the Android SDK on my Ubuntu desktop for quite a while now, so I was ready to go as soon as the phone came in. I decided to keep stock Froyo on the phone for a couple days, just to get a feel for what the intended Google experience was like. Here comes my first disappointment: with a non-modified froyo install on a Google branded Nexus One, I was getting a fair amount of force closes. Mobile phones are tough (specifically, memory-challenged) environments so in some cases I can understand, and am fairly tolerant of, some minor issues. The force closes here were in the most basic of apps, however: namely the dialer and most often the messaging app.

I’ve been using Linux long enough that a few force closes aren’t really going to deter me from using what should prove to be the most significant Linux-based entry into the mobile market. So, now it’s time to start moving things over from my previous phone. Unfortunately, said phone does not store its contacts on the SIM card and has no built in export (unsurprisingly, it has an import). No problem I’m thinking; I’ve actually been meaning to tinker with funambol for a while now, and this is the perfect excuse to do so. My first market download goes smoothly, and aside from the brain-dead decision on gmail’s side to try to import every person I’ve ever emailed as a contact, everything imports smoothly (as an aside, funambol is a great product that I definitely recommend having now used it). Here comes the first weirdness, due to a bug in the way Android handles contacts. You can’t actually edit imported contacts with the default editor and the will not sync with Gmail, meaning the built in backup mechanism won’t see them. While this is really frustrating, the workaround (export the contacts while funambol is installed, uninstall funambol and the then import as native contacts) is easy enough that I wasn’t too worked up about it. While on the topic of backups, I’d say android has some pros (the cloud-based contacts sync is fantastic) when compared to the iPhone, but the overall backup/restore process on the iPhone is still unparalleled.

With a couple free apps downloaded, I decided to purchase a few apps. Next disappointment; if the Google account you use on the phone is a Google apps account, you can’t actually purchase anything from the market. So, basically, I’m paying Google for an apps account and then using a phone OS made by Google, but I have to create a new free Google account to actually buy anything from the android market. It’s almost like they don’t actually want you to use Google-related services on your Google phone. Which brings me to this entry in the Android issue tracker. How is it possible that there’s no Google Docs app for android??

With those frustrations and disappointments out of the way, let me say that the rest of the android experience has been very positive and that even with the significant time lead that Apple had, android is either ahead or rapidly catching up in almost every single aspect. In my opinion, the iPhone wasn’t nearly that good until OS 3. I anticipate version 3 of android being very similar in this regard. That android has come this far in a version 2.2 is truly impressive. Many of the issues I have with the iPhone are related to the closed nature of the platform and android has the potential to completely alleviate that. Whether the carriers with intercede and ruin this potential for their own gain remains to be seen, however.

Now, as nice as this thing is from a user perspective, from a Linux user’s perspective it’s absolutely phenomenal. Being able to quickly rsync my music collection to the phone is really refreshing. Being able to simply ‘adb push $foo’ to get files/apps/whatever onto the phone is equally refreshing. That’s just the beginning though. Being able to download entirely new android-based ROM’s such as Cyanogen makes me excited about a phone in a way that the iPhone never did or could.

So, what does the future of android hold? That’s a more difficult question to answer. First, you have some deeply entrenched competitors in place who have a lot to lose. Next, you have some patent FUD and multiple lawsuits already in the works. You then have the aforementioned carriers who may see the freedom that android offers as a threat, but one they’re able to remove due to the Open Source nature of of android. It’s also clear that at some point android will have to deal with a fragmentation issue that no other mobile OS has had to content with on this level. Even with all those issues, however, I think it would be *very* difficult to bet against android at this point. There’s simply too much going for it and it’s only going to improve from here. After using my Nexus One for a couple of weeks I can honestly say that I don’t miss the iPhone one bit, and I think that’s saying a lot.

–jeremy

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