Ah, I vividly remember it. When HTC announced their “Desire HD” and “Desire Z” phones, they also showed off a custom-built offline caching system for the Google Maps application. Surprise surprise, now it’s in the official free Maps release, custom-built by Google. Sort of shows off why it’s a bad idea to replace core Android apps with your own proprietary ones, doesn’t it?
The trickle has become a steady flow of juicy Google stuff. Now Andy Rubin shows off Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” on a prototype Motorola tablet. Nice. Bullet-list thoughts:
- New minimalist lock screen. Nice.
- Having used the iPad, I’m not in the market for an LCD tablet. I want a Pixel Qi (“color e-ink”) tablet.
- The buttons in the bottom left of this image, vaguely resemble “back”, “home”, and “something” buttons. Could that be software button replacements for the notorious Android hardware buttons? If so, cheers all around!
- … if they are indeed software button replacements, what a brilliant place to put them. One problem with the iPad browser is that the back button is the desktop-logical upper-left corner, far away from your fingers.
- What a clean main UI. Through the blur, it looks like the notification tray holds a google search field, voice input field, apps drawer and “configure” dropdown. The main screen looks configurable like Android is as usual — widgets, apps where you want them. The bottommost dock is nowhere to be found, which makes sense for a tablet since that’s not something you have in your pocket, hence not in the need of super duper real estate for the dialer and the browser.
- The fact that the app drawer is intact, hints that the Android “configurable homescreen” paradigm is intact. This is in contrast to the iOS approach, which puts every app you install on your homescreen, and uninstalls every app you remove from your homescreen. The latter makes a lot of sense, but it looks like Google is running and iterating with the former approach.
Next on the Google menu: Google Chrome OS and Chrome Web Apps.
[Update]: The tablet does indeed have software-only system buttons. That’s awesome. Here’s the video.
Googles just-announced Nexus S smartphone does not have an SD card expansion slot, like most other Android phones have. Which is a good thing.
Like I wrote just a few weeks ago, Android has a serious issue with app data storage, which can currently only be stored on internal storage. App data storage means your email, your calendar appointments, thumbnails from your gallery app, cached tweets, browser cache. That adds up. The problem presents itself when the internal storage has been filled up, and you can no longer receive email until you “resolve the situation”. This is especially a problem when you only have 512 mb internal storage, of which half is eaten by the system. Incidentally, that means the Nexus One and my HTC Desire.
By removing the SD Card option and making the internal storage on the Nexus S 16 gb, Google pretty much solves the problem the way Apple has done it: everything is stored on the same space, and there’s no confusion. Sure, they could’ve gone the Galaxy S way and had 16 gb internal storage plus an optional SD card, but as a flag-ship device whose purpose is to raise the bar for other vendors, this sends a clear signal.
Besides, if Google gets their act together and launch Google Music, you’ll probably be wifi syncing & caching your music with no need for more space.
In other news, Google is continuing the Nexus brand and come December 16th, US people can buy an unlocked “Google-experience” phone with “pure” Android — that is, Android without third party vendor skins like HTC Sense. Which means it’s most likely going to be the best Android phone on the market, and certainly the one you should be comparing to the iPhone. It’s all in this motion-pamphlet:
- Check out the Galaxy S like “S” in the Nexus S logo.
- I love that the Nexus brand survived.
- “You’re always going to be getting the latest upgrades, and the latest software”. Sounds like Google is trying to compete with the other Android vendors, which is both good and bad. Good in that the Nexus series is alive for purists like me, bad because it probably means Google won’t be enforcing stricter rules on competing Android distributions.
- So everyone expected this to be the groundbreaking tablet-ready UI. Considering it’s clearly not, I do think there’s a fairly remarkable amount of change going on.
- Black means “elegant”, and it’s elegant for the topmost menubar, especially in its flat form. I’m thinking the previous white one looked like it did, bevel and all, to indicate its drag-down-ability. I think perhaps Google realized that the notification tray is something you simply have to learn, and once you have, you know what to do.
- Another reason black makes a lot of sense, is that on a phone featuring an AMOLED display, black brings better battery life.
- Green makes a lot of sense as an accent color, considering Googles Android logo is green.
- The UI certainly looks a lot more polished when watching this video.
- I may be reading too much into this, but it looks as though the shading on the various notification icons is similar to the one on Chrome Web Store icons.
- “The fastest version of Android yet”, is something any OS developer can tout. They’d better mean it — not that Froyo wasn’t fast, but it had still better be noticable.
- “Tools for game development”, that’s nice! Android has needed its own “DirectX” for a while.
- Lots of under the hood improvements. That’s fine. Still no Chrome browser though.
- Ooh! New keyboard! I hope it gets a Danish dictionary.
Gingerbread was rumoured to be the watershed moment for Android. Looks like that’s been postponed to “Honeycomb”, the rumoured next release. Still, it looks like a solid upgrade. I only hope that they’ve actually fixed the problem with data being stored on the ridiculously small amount of internal storage. That, and that the Nexus S. comes to Denmark.
Apparently posted november 23rd, this video demonstrating Google Voice Search in Korean shows the new Android Gingerbread UI. So what’s in store for us? Not much, as it seems. New phone/browser icons, new black menubar, new power icons and slightly tweaked UI widgets. If they fix the app storage problem, it’ll be a nice update. Otherwise, it looks like just another point release.
The Nexus S. Available only at Best Buy this holiday season.
I’m thrilled the Nexus series is alive, they really are the best Androids out there. With an S (for Samsung), it also looks as though Google has elegantly evaded future Blade Runner Nexus Six lawsuits.
[Update]: Looks like Engadget has the first blurry screenshot of Gingerbread, which features a pretty (?) new green browser icon.
Rumour has it we’ll know all about the look and features of the next version of Android, codenamed Gingerbread, as early as next week.
Which makes it time for me to round up what’s good, what’s bad and desperately needs fixing with Android 2.2 (Froyo). Because Android, as much as I completely adore it, has some serious issues which I believe will only get worse unless Google makes some structural, architectural and political changes to the platform. To put it shortly, this android is suffering not only from intricate technical issues (that can not be solved by an oilbath), but a full blown identity crisis.
Did I mention I love Android? I do. I love that it’s so completely easy to set up calendar, email and contacts sync by just signing in. I love that every app on the phone can and will automatically sync in the background. I love that when there are system updates I get a notification, and that I can then go on to update the phone over the air, without ever connecting to a computer.
Mostly, I love the notification system — the ubiquitous bar along the top of the screen which literally serves as a tray for email alerts, calendar appointments and even tells you if Skype is running. Then of course, Google Listen, which automatically downloads my podcasts so that I can listen to a new Macbreak Weekly every wednesday on my way to work. Recently I’ve learned to love the wireless hotspot capabilities, which allows the girlfriend to check her email on her wi-fi iPad, even when there really is no wi-fi nearby.
When Android works for me, it’s blissfully and outrageously delightful.
When Android goes bad on me, it fails to kill rogue apps that reside in the background using power yet providing no clear exit strategy (Skype, for instance). When it’s really bad, it’s so open and liberal that it provides every other app the ability to run at startup, on a change in connectivity, or even after startup, pretty much respawning itself with no lasting way to stop it from running unless you want it1, which is especially annoying when this bad egg of an app is un-uninstallable (more on that later). It quickly becomes a confusing mess.
One thing that is especially stupid, is the limits Android imposes on app data storage. No doubt due to technical reasons, Android only provides an embarrassing 256 mb storage for apps and app data. Things were slightly improved with Froyo which allowed you to move your apps from internal storage to the SD card, but app data is still stuck in those 256 mb. Which quickly fills up, since that space is used by both Gmail, Calendar and every other app you install. Once it’s full, you won’t get any new emails until you “resolve the situation”, which means clear the data from one or more apps — wiping every customization you ever did for that app, or even uninstalling apps2. Yes, this is ridiculously stupid, and no doubt why Google themselves tout that Android is not tablet ready. Amen.
But all of that is fixable. Androids multitasking, while technically impressive from the start, has continually improved — significantly with Froyo, to the point where it’s almost there. The best type of multi-tasking is the one that becomes completely invisible and completely out of mind. Google can get there by iterating. And I believe Google will fix these things. My biggest bet for Gingerbread? A sensible storage solution for Android apps and data.
What desperately needs fixing before it’s too late
The preceding pros and cons all sidestep the real issues Android faces. The fact is that Android is up against some pretty good competitors (and has been from the start). A large group of people swear by Apples iOS devices for their polished and coherent UIs and much prefer that they just work over Androids growing feature-set. On the horizon, Windows Phone 7 is set to bring a new, pretty and unified looking UI experience which may or may not work in day to day life. Common to both iOS and Windows Phone 7 is a much larger chunk of control on part of the software vendors. Apple controls operating system and devices, and while it’s a lot longer between releases compared to Android, when an iOS release is let into the wild, it’s up to each user individually to upgrade — not carriers and hardware vendors. Windows Phone 7 comes with a bunch of requirements that ensure something similar is possible on that platform. Neither of those platforms is likely to suffer from Androids fragmentation issues — the fact that some devices still run Android 1.5.
Why is this the case with Android? This is rooted deeply in the gamble on “open”. Which means Android is open source. Which means if you’re a carrier, you can take Android, pre-install a Nascar app, remove wifi tethering, and sell it to a willing mob of morons clearly unwilling to speak with their wallets. It also means you can tweak Android and install it on a television, a GPS device, a music player, a car, a fridge, a toilet or a dog collar. Which someone is likely to do. So on the one hand, by letting go of control of the Android experience, Google has instead gained a freight-train of momentum for a platform which has now grown so large that it’s impossible to ignore.
How could this possible go wrong in a marketshare sense? Actually, all Google has to do for this freight-train to derail into a flaming catastrophe is — nothing. That’s what we’ve learned from every huge company, colonial country or historical empire. Having used Android for almost a year now, I’ll peg these issues to be the biggest threats to Androids future:
- deeply rooted vendor skins and core app replacements
- no readily available driver framework such as DirectX for Android
Which I’ll go over now.
The skin thing
I’ve talked about this before, and every time HTC fans have asked me what my beef is with Android skins. Since it’s apparently not obvious, I’ve thought long and hard about it, in order to be as succinct in my explanation as possible. Here’s my attempt:
The problem with Android skins is that they extend their tendrils deeply into the operating system, making it difficult and slow for vendors to get with Googles frantic update pace. It gets worse when vendors like HTC replace core Google apps with their own branded versions. The lateness of system updates and fundamental UI difference between phone experiences, dilutes and confusing the definition of an Android phone, and slows down platform as a whole.
So to sum things up:
- I don’t mind the visuals of HTC Sense.
- I don’t mind a black menu bar.
- the lateness of updates
- the inability to choose NOT to use the vendor skin
- the replacement Browser
- the replacement Gmail
- the replacement Calendar
- the replacement Phone app
- the replacement Contacts app
- any other core app replacements
- the inability to replace these apps with their core counterparts
The essential smartphone experience is one where the core experience has to work. The core experience is about making phone calls, browsing webpages, dealing with notifications and managing contacts. Google has convinced me they can get this experience right; make it accessible. HTC hasn’t.
The next big Android release is just around the corner, symbolized by the arrival of a giant gingerbread man on the Google campus. It’ll be interesting to see what the update brings phones, and it’ll be even more interesting to see how vendors react to it. Google’s not stupid, so I would be betting on the fact that they might de-couple core apps from their system (as we’ve already seen with Gmail), and maybe even build the core UI experience into the OS, making it impossible for vendors to actually remove. I firmly also believe the app storage situation will be resolved — Google simply has to do that in order to make a tablet.
Android is in trouble, and its openness is part of it. But Google has a single ace up their sleeve, one which might let them have the best of the open and closed worlds. They control access to the official Android Market, and unless your Android phone is up to snuff, you might not get access. Since consumers are unwilling to punish Samsung, HTC and Motorola, perhaps it’s time Google does.
- While this has actually been the case for a while, it’s become especially evident after Google killed task-killers with Froyo — yep, the infamous task-killers no longer work — which means an autostarting app is going to bug you incessantly. Already there are apps such as Autostarts which help you disable these “self-healing” apps, but these apps require “root” access, making it inaccessible for the 99%. [↩]
- For a taster of this stupidity, please peruse Lifehackers article on how to clear space. [↩]
Engadget purports to have photos of The PlayStation Phone:
It’s hard to believe that what we’re looking at is real — but we assure you, the picture above is in fact the PlayStation Phone you’ve long been waiting for. As we reported back in August, the device you see is headed into the market soon, likely boasting Android 3.0 (aka Gingerbread), along with a custom Sony Marketplace which will allow you to purchase and download games designed for the new platform.
It’s hard to believe indeed, it’s really not a thing of beauty. Not that PSPs have ever been, but they’ve been prettier than this. Still, the build quality does lend a certain realism to the device. It’ll be interesting to see whether PSP Phone games are actual Android games, or whether this thing can actually run PSP games.
A new rom has been developed by the chinese. It’s called “Miui” and it’s Android based. Be careful, unless you like 80ies power-ballads, you may want to turn down the volume:
Since I’ve been very harsh to HTC Sense and Android skins in general, I’ve been politely asked my thoughts on this one. And while I’m still preparing a larger rant on the skin situation, I’d like to give a few quick notes on what I think about this particular flavor.
— I love that it’s possible. I love that because of Android being open source, such an OS image can be put together.
— I like the lock screen, insofar as you can open the phone, messages or the device in general by swiping three different icons. I’m less thrilled that the direction to swipe/unlock is vertical. Which doesn’t work so well for HTC Sense.
— The homescreen / launcher seems as uninventive as every other homescreen out there (save for Windows Phone 7 which looks to bring something new to the table), but it’s a formula that works reasonably well. There’s a customizable dock for those shortcuts you use all the time, and there’s the rest of the screen for littering with various apps you use.
— In the spirit of Samsung TouchWiz (ugh), every icon gets an iOS-like rounded-corner box. Which does bring a grid-like look to the apps, but feels dated. Also, since the icons weren’t designed to be shown in such boxes (unlike iOS icons), I doubt the viability of this framing of all icons.
— Android has numerous ways to quickly toggle GPS, Bluetooth, Wifi and other “quick settings”, and it’s an interesting approach for MIUI to place these in the notification drawer. But like task-killers, some of these features really shouldn’t be “quick toggles”, but rather completely automatic and built in such a way that they don’t kill your battery. Like Android 2.2 killed task killers1, I’m hoping future Android releases will better manage these settings for me.
— The ability to quickly rearrange the sequence of homescreens is nice, if one likes the way Android homescreens work. I’m not convinced. On the one hand, I love the completely sandbox-esque feel of being able to tweak every homescreen and their widget and app layouts. On the other hand, I like iOS completely automatic and fascist homescreen regime wherein the leftmost homescreen is the search screen, and homescreens are simply added to the right when you need them. In the case of iOS, however, the otherwise brilliantly unified “there are no app shortcuts” metaphor lends itself to what I like to call the “stocks-app homescreen syndrome”, which refers to right-most iOS homescreen which is usually the debris garden for unwanted yet un-uninstallable apps.
— The app/widget trash can that has gotten prime real estate right at the top of the screen is rather silly. Sure it makes it easy when you need to move apps from one homescreen to the other, but in the ongoing crusade against the filesystem, the trash can will be first against the wall. And so it’s a UI metaphor that we should start to shy away from, no matter the kooky and fun way we decide to use it. The trash can is broken goods.
— In the folders vs. stacks fight that goes on, I’m actually in the stacks side of the arena, even if I think the stacks implementation of “max. 12 apps per stack” on iOS is dumb. This MIUI implementation of having folders that just look like stacks but behave like folders, is unimpressive.
— Most central in my argument against skins is that there are some aspects that are fair game, and some that you just don’t mess with. With HTC Sense, it’s primarily the bundled apps. Overall, I think it’ll be the same with MIUI, whose contact list is so stupid. How stupid is it? It’s so stupid, it copied Apples patently stupid interface mechanism where if you swipe right on a contact, it reveals a delete button (see the video, 3 minutes in exactly). Which, if it isn’t clear, is such a vicious example of mystery meat navigation that only bad bicyclists can get my blood to boil more.
— So you don’t mess with core apps is my mantra. Browser, calendar, mail, contacts, phone … those are off limits. Do not touch. What’s left in MIUI? Well there’s the lock screen, the homescreen (with custom icons and widgets), the app drawer and the notification drawer. Did you know that all those aspects of the Android interface, can be replaced by Android apps? In fact, MIUI could’ve been simply an Android app instead of a fullblown rom.
Did I mention I love open source? My friendly criticism aside, I love that MIUI exists. I may even try it, and I will no doubt like it more than HTC Sense. But it all boils down to the fact that we’re still dealing with a phone, which needs to be stable, easy to update with security patches. And the core experience — phone, browser, contacts, email — needs to be razor sharp. With that in mind, I think it’s a real pity that MIUI isn’t just an Android Market app that replaced my homescreen, lock screen, app drawer and notification bar. After all, that’s not only entirely possible, but it’s likely I’d pay for it. I could say the same for HTC Sense.
- Yes, really! Task killers no longer work in Android 2.2, and you don’t need them either. [↩]
The Desire is HTCs current european flagship Android phone. Its hardware specs are pretty much the same as those of the Google Nexus One phone, except it’s got physical Android buttons and an optical trackpad. In addition to this, the Desire has HTCs “Sense” UI, a skin that lies on top of the Android operating system.
I’m not going to lie, I loathe HTC Sense. These days, Android is riding a rocket to stardom, soon surpassing iPhone as the number one smartphone platform. A rising number of people are going to want an “Android phone”. Unfortunately, they can’t have it, because custom Android experiences like HTC Sense exist1. Sense brings you a black Android interface that features a flipping number clock up front, and a number of “social” widgets, such as “Friendstream”. If only it stopped there, I believe I could deal with it, after all, Android users can replace their entire homescreen interface with alternatives like ADW Launcher, available from the Android Market. The problem with Sense is that it doesn’t stop there, and I will go in to more detail in a different essay, suffice to say, Sense replaces core apps with HTC specific ones, replaces your lock screen with one that unlocks in your pocket … it sinks its teeth so deep in to Android that the overall experience is diluted and diminished.
As for the hardware, while on principle I’m against the amount of buttons present, I do appreciate that they’re physical. To be fair, they’re also quite handy once you get used to them.. I find myself missing the back button on the iPad. When I want to call someone, I find it nice and quick to press the search button, type in the first letter of my contact, and then press call. Even so, I’m still opposed to their existance, as they encourage lazy app design. Another boon of having only one a home button is that hardware vendors don’t get to screw around with the order of the buttons (“Back” and “Home” have switched places, compared to the Milestone).
In more comparisons to the Milestone / DROID, the speaker really isn’t that good. It’s not as loud, nor as clear, and the sound is almost scratchy in comparison. I suppose, on the flipside, that the Desire speaker is normal, whilst the Milestone/DROID speaker is phenomenal. Even so, now that I’ve experienced how good a phone speaker can be (my usecase was listening to podcasts in my kitchen, phone in pocket), the lack of a similarly excellent speaker in the Desire detracts from the rating.
The weight and grip of the device is just right, and you’re unlikely to get scratches on this thing. Overall the hardware is very nice.
So, should you get one? To answer this, you have to ask yourself: are you going to root this phone and install a vanilla version of Android on it? If you can answer yes, well then the HTC Desire may be your dream phone! It’s easily jailbroken using Unrevoked, and easily re-flashed using Rom Manager. You’ll get your phone just like you want it!
Did that last sentence make you throw up in your mouth a little? Well in that case, you don’t want to get the HTC Desire. If you want an Android phone and you don’t want to jump through flaming hoops to get one, I’m so sorry to say that you have only three choices at the moment:
- US Motorola DROID (not Milestone or any other Droid)
- Google Nexus One
- The soon to come T-Mobile G2.
In a summary of this odd device, you get two ratings:
- If you are a nerd and you’re going to the lenghts to “fix” this phone, this is the phone you’re looking for, especially if you’re stuck in Europe. [rating=5]
- If you just wanted an Android phone or a phone that works, I can’t recommend the Desire, and unless you’re able to get your hands on a Droid, a Nexus One or a G2, I recommend you buy an iPhone. [rating=2]
- This is not HTCs fault entirely, I also blame Samsung, Motorola and all the other “skin” vendors. [↩]