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

Google Android outsells Apple iPhone in Q1 of 2010

From the article:

Smartphones based on Google’s Android mobile operating system have outsold Apple’s iPhone in the U.S. during the first quarter of 2010, according to a report by research firm The NPD Group. The data places Android, with 28 percent of the smartphone market, in second place behind RIM’s Blackberry smartphone market share of 36 percent. Apple now sits in third place with 21 percent.

NPD points to a Verizon buy-one-get-one-free promotion for all of its smartphones as a major factor in the first quarter numbers. Verizon saw strong sales for the Motorola Droid and Droid Eris Android phones, as well as the Blackberry Curve, thanks to its promotional offer. Verizon launched a $100 million marketing campaign for the Droid when it hit the market in November 2009, which likely attributed to strong sales in the first quarter as well.

While these numbers do not take into account the Droid Incredible (which looks to be the nicest Android-based handset yet), you should also keep in mind that they don’t account for the many people likely holding out on buying an iPhone now due to the almost certain release of the next iteration which will be available some time this quarter. I think even with the new iPhone, however, we’ll continue to see Android gaining market share… and the reason is fairly simple: If you want an iPhone you can get one made by exactly one vendor, and then use it only on mobile carriers blessed by that one vendor (yes, you can jailbreak your phone, but that’s far outside the technical knowhow of the average user and still doesn’t give you carte blanche in choosing a carrier). With Android, on the other hand, you have an Open mobile OS that any handset manufacturer is welcome to use and any carrier is welcome to support. You can buy an unsubsidized phone right from Google, or choose a subsidized option via the carrier of your choice (and I’m not aware of a major mobile carrier that doesn’t have some kind of Android option at this point). You can even buy myriad Android devices that are not mobile phones, from tablets and set-top boxes to cars and home appliances. As time goes on, it’s very difficult to imagine that this openness and product lineup replete with options will not become an even larger advantage, despite the very polished product that Apple is putting out. I’d like to think Apple has learned the repercussions of being too closed, but it seems they may be doomed to repeat the mistakes they made in the late 80’s.

Does that mean Android will blow past Apple in overall market share? Nope; whether that will happen remains to be seen. How the myriad versions and releases of Android play out over the next 24 months or so is going to have a huge impact on its long term success. I’m already seeing reports of some incompatibility issues and if that passes a certain threshold, many app developers will simply stop making Android apps (or will relegate them to second tier releases) which have a huge negative impact on the Android ecosystem and the mobile carriers willingness to support Android. I think Google understands this, but whether or not they’re able to avoid it is a question only time will answer.

Additional Reading:
* NPD Press Release
* Is Android Really Outselling Apple?
* Android market share over iPhone not as impressive as it looks
* Is Android the new Microsoft for Apple?

–jeremy

Apple iPhone 2.0 Upgrade == FAIL

A note to Apple. I find it astonishing that you have created an upgrade procedure that can fail in a way that leaves the phone useless. You had 6+ months to prepare for this, so error messages like this are just inexcusable. Google, please hurry up with Android ;)

–jeremy

Opening up Symbian – Good or Bad for Linux?

That’s the question raised by this recent Nokia press release:

Espoo, Finland – Nokia today announced it has launched a cash offer to acquire all of the shares of Symbian Limited that Nokia does not already own, at a price of EUR 3.647 per share. The net cash outlay from Nokia to purchase the approximately 52% of Symbian Limited shares it does not already own will be approximately EUR 264 million.

The acquisition is a fundamental step in the establishment of the Symbian Foundation, announced today by Nokia, together with AT&T, LG Electronics, Motorola, NTT DOCOMO, Samsung, Sony Ericsson, STMicroelectronics, Texas Instruments and Vodafone. More information about the planned foundation can be found at http://www.symbianfoundation.org.

From the Symbian Foundation site:

The Symbian Foundation platform will be available to members under a royalty-free license from this non-profit foundation. The Symbian Foundation will provide, manage and unify the platform for its members. Also, it will commit to moving the platform to open source during the next two years, with the intent to use the Eclipse Public License. This will make the platform code available to all for free, bringing additional innovation to the platform and engaging even a broader community in future developments.

Keep in mind that while not a huge success in the US, Symbian does still account for about 60% of all smartphones, with the next OS a distant second at about 15%. So, what does this mean for mobile Linux? It’s still unclear to me the direction Nokia will take, so it’s hard to tell. They are all over the place at the moment. The have the GTK based maemo project, have recently acquired TrollTech for QT and now have an Open Source Symbian. Long term, they can’t possibly want to support all three of these. Looking at Symbian specifically, I’m not sure it can compete directly with the likes of the iPhone and Android. The UI looks old and clunky and it doesn’t have a lot of the functionality and polish of the newer mobile offerings. That said, developers know it, it has a huge application catalog and an entrenched base. Whether that will be enough for Symbian to make it out of the Open Source process alive remains to be seen though, and in my opinion it isn’t a certainty. What Nokia does get is 1) options and 2) the perception that they are not sitting on their hands while Android and the iPhone pass it by. Even if Symbian can’t compete feature for feature with something like Android, this announce will serve to remove one of its key advantages. That alone is likely worth the investment to Nokia.

Further Reading:
Linux Foundation
Red Monk
SAI

–jeremy

Apple Support

Did you know that if you walk into an Apple store with a broken iPhone, in this case a roughly one inch horizontal band on the touch screen that doesn’t register anything, they actually tell you to make an appointment and come back another time? I don’t mean walk around the mall and grab something to eat another time, I mean a different day. When I asked the rep if he thought this was good customer service, he just shrugged and said that’s the way it is. As regular readers know, I already wasn’t that happy of an iPhone owner. This just puts me over the top. I’m now counting the days until I can order the OpenMoko Neo1973 GTA02. I was seriously considering getting a new MacBook Pro over the next couple weeks. No way that will happen now. Are my expectations too high?

–jeremy

Apple: "we plan to have an iPhone SDK in developers' hands in February"

Apple has finally officially announced a real SDK for the iPhone. From the Apple announcement:

Third Party Applications on the iPhone

Let me just say it: We want native third party applications on the iPhone, and we plan to have an SDK in developers’ hands in February. We are excited about creating a vibrant third party developer community around the iPhone and enabling hundreds of new applications for our users. With our revolutionary multi-touch interface, powerful hardware and advanced software architecture, we believe we have created the best mobile platform ever for developers.

It will take until February to release an SDK because we’re trying to do two diametrically opposed things at once—provide an advanced and open platform to developers while at the same time protect iPhone users from viruses, malware, privacy attacks, etc. This is no easy task. Some claim that viruses and malware are not a problem on mobile phones—this is simply not true. There have been serious viruses on other mobile phones already, including some that silently spread from phone to phone over the cell network. As our phones become more powerful, these malicious programs will become more dangerous. And since the iPhone is the most advanced phone ever, it will be a highly visible target.

Some companies are already taking action. Nokia, for example, is not allowing any applications to be loaded onto some of their newest phones unless they have a digital signature that can be traced back to a known developer. While this makes such a phone less than “totally open,” we believe it is a step in the right direction. We are working on an advanced system which will offer developers broad access to natively program the iPhone’s amazing software platform while at the same time protecting users from malicious programs.

There’s a lot of speculation about whether or not the dedicated iPhone hackers forced Apples’ hand on this. Looking at the Springboard breakdown, some amount of support for additional apps has been there since the beginning. The latest 1.1.1 release seems to have increased that. The question is: with the PR beating it was taking, why didn’t Apple announce this when the iPhone was initially released, and what took them so long? Only Jobs knows for sure, but announcing it from the very beginning would likely have caused some people to hold off on their purchase. As for what’s taking so long, it could be a variety of things. The latest firmware release clearly shows that the iPhone platform is still a rapidly moving target. Apple may just want things to stabilize a bit before letting others in. It will be interesting to see how Apple rolls this out. Will apps have to be digitally signed by Apple? Will the only installation mechanism be iTunes? We’ll have to wait and see. While I’m glad to see this announcement (although they really didn’t have much of a choice in the end if they wanted a truly successful product long term), it’s probably not enough for me not to switch to an OpenMoko device in December.

–jeremy

New iPods reengineered to block synching with Linux II

A quick follow up to this post. Well, it didn’t take long. I didn’t expect that it would. While the instructions are still a bit convoluted, I’m sure that will change soon enough as well. I just wish companies would stop making it difficult for people to use the hardware they purchase with their OS of choice. Something tells me it’s still going to be a while.

–jeremy

New iPods reengineered to block synching with Linux

While the title of this Boing Boing article is a little sensationalistic (the move was almost certainly aimed at iTunes lockin, with Linux being collateral damage) it’s not too far off the mark:

The latest iPods have a cryptographic “checksum” in their song databases that prevents third-party applications from synching with the portable music players. This means that iPods can no longer be used with operating systems where iTunes doesn’t exist — like Linux, where gtkpod and Amarok are common free tools used by iPod owners to load their players.

Notice that this has nothing to do with piracy — this is about Apple limiting the choices available to people who buy their iPod hardware. I kept my iPod when I switched to Ubuntu Linux a year ago, and I’ve been using it happily with my machine ever since (though it took me a solid week to get all my DRMed Audible audiobooks out of iTunes — I had to run two machines 24/7, playing hundreds of hours of audio through a program called AudioHijack, to remove the DRM from my collection, which had cost me thousands of dollars to build). I’d considered buying another iPod when this one started to show its age — it’s a perfectly nice player to use, provided you stay away from the DRM.

The new hardware limits the number of potential customers for Apple’s products, adding engineering cost to a device in order to reduce its functionality. It’s hard to understand why Apple would do this, but the most likely explanations are that Apple wants to be sure that competitors can’t build their own players to load up iPods — now that half of the major labels have gone DRM free, it’s conceivable that we’d get a Rhapsody or Amazon player that automatically loaded the non-DRM tracks they sold you on your iPod (again, note that this has nothing to do with preventing piracy — this is about preventing competition with the iTunes Store).

The truth is, however, that Apple seems to be getting more and more closed. The iPhone is a great example of this. It has so much potential it’s not funny. I’ve found the lockin limits that potential so much that I’ll almost certainly be getting rid of it when the OpenMoko ships. The web experience on the iPhone really is tremendous. Industry changing in fact. The lack of third party applications is just the beginning of why the device will never be what it could have been, however. Apple makes great products, there’s no doubt about it. You just have to use everything exactly the way they want you to. That’s not for me. As Apple products gain in popularity, I have to wonder how many others will get frustrated to the point that they’ll switch.

–jeremy

OpenMoko

While the iPhone has been getting all the press, something seriously interesting has been happening in the Open Source mobile space. OpenMoko devices are becoming available. From a Wired Blog:

After seemingly endless delays, the OpenMoko phone is here. The first version of the NEO 1973 mobile phone, which carries the Linux kernel inside and is not locked to a specific network, is available for purchase from OpenMoko.com. It’s not as jaw-droppingly pretty as the iPhone, but it shares a design philosophy — no buttons, just a screen — and it’s ready to be loaded with any number of open-source software applications. (Though, according to Gadget Lab, so is the iPhone).

The base version of the NEO sells for $300. It has a 2.8″ VGA touch screen, a micro SD card slot, a USB port and 2.5G GSM quad band capability.

Keep in mind that this unit (the GTA01) was pushed out early so developers could begin writing device drivers, custom GUIs and some cool apps for the phone. The next revision (GTA02), which will be available starting at $450 in October, will be ready for the mass market. It will have wi-fi, 3-D motion sensors and added graphics accelerators. So this phone isn’t exactly an iPhone killer — the next one will be a contender. AptUsTech has a nice comparison of the NEO 1973 and the iPhone.

I’m going to try to hold out for the GTA02, but we’ll see if I make it. Bottom line is, I am getting one of these. I’ll probably keep the iPhone also, even if it’s just as a wi-fi enabled iPod. Which phone I’ll use on a day to day basis remains to be seen, but the more I use the iPhone the more its closed architecture is a limiting factor. If rumors of a pending firmware upgrade prove true and it does in fact allow real 3rd party apps things could change quickly. In that case I may just carry around two phones :) If you’re interested in the GTA01 you can find more details here.

–jeremy

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