Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Failed Android Experiment


4 years ago, when the iPhone 3G first arrived in Canada, I bought it. I was all over it. I bought the visual voicemail package from Rogers for $1,500/month and I was happy. But within 9 months iOS 3 had officially driven me bonkers. The draconian notification system that steals your focus. The inability to jump between apps without routing everything through the home screen. The sheer amount of "clicking" I had to perform to navigate around the system. Having to sync my contacts and photos to my laptop via USB. I was going bonkers, but there weren't any real alternatives available.

In May of 2009 I was one of the lucky 3,000 people attending Google I/O, where I received a brand new HTC Magic, running the latest stock version of Android (I believe it was 1.5 at the time). I gleefully took it out of the box and started playing with it. Within minutes the phone had synced my contacts, calendars, and email over the air. The notification system was out of the way and effective. I could easily bounce between applications by long pressing the home button. The tip of the iceberg of what Android could do, and where it could go, struck me in the heart like cupid. I was giddy. I just got a free phone from Google and it solves all my annoyances. My iPhone promptly hit kijiji and craigslist as soon as I got home.

For 3 years I didn't look back. The hardware of the HTC Nexus, then the Samsung Nexus S, and subsequently the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, were each a beautiful evolution of the handset. Android was getting better and better; seamless integration into Picasa for photo synchronization; improved email and maps applications; a robust market place where I could find any application I wanted. Not only was there an ever expanding plethora of applications, as a result of Android's public API's and supporting technologies (such as background processing) the applications were more interesting as well. I wasn't merely content in my switch, I was becoming a fan boy. "It's open source!" I would extol to anybody within ear shot. "It has background processing!" I would denote to any haters. "Look at how I get text messages! And I can factory reset it whenever I want and not lose any information because it's in the cloud!" I was a Born Again Googler. Convert, or perish forever in the totalitarian depths of Apple's walled garden.

However, after 3 years, I am convinced Google's experiment of pumping out an open source operating system for handsets is on its way to failure, if it hasn't failed already, for several reasons.


As Android continued to evolve, so did it's ever increasing bug list. Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), while launching the OS into the next level of UI/UX, was also one of the buggiest releases of the OS. In my own experience, there was first the volume bug (everything was super quiet). Then there was the random rebooting. Then there was the random death of the 3G/HSPA radios wherein I'd have to toggle airplane mode to resolve and, if that didn't work, reboot my phone. These issues were not once in a blue moon - they were several times a day. And these were just core operating system problems... they had nothing to do with the apps.


It does not matter what Android supporters argue - the operating system is fragmented beyond belief. According to this likely inaccurate comment There are now over 400 different phones and tablets, each running 1 of the 10 different versions of Android. Even outside of the 10 different stock versions of Android, the problem is further exacerbated by the fact that every single manufacturer customizes the operating system, adding not only their own applications, but their own UI tweaks, work flows, and OS changes. This is a serious problem for developers and application stability. Speaking as a developer of 12 years, without a predictable, consistent foundation upon which I can build my house, I cannot guarantee the stability, performance, or an enjoyable user experience. 

The current state of fragmentation is bad for the end user. Full stop. Manufacturers get the source, make their own modifications, and control the deployment to their own handsets. If you buy a phone from Samsung, you fall outside the stock Android ecosystem. As a result, when updates are issued, you won't get them until Samsung says so. It's for this reason why over 55% of Android devices are still running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) - despite it being over 18 months old. Security patches, functional improvements, bug fixes - all out of the user control, unless they want to flash their phone to apply the fix themselves (unlikely).

People will make the Windows/PC to Android/Handset comparison to argue there's no fragmentation proble, however there's a noteable difference. When I buy a computer running Windows, the manufacturers (Dell, Asus, Lenovo) aren't making changes to how the interface renders, or other operational functionality. I have a consistent platform against which I can write my applications.


As the plethora of Android devices become more ubiquitous, so does the malware. As my good friend and colleague Dale Zak points out, the number of Android focused malware applications jumped from 500 in 2011, to over 6,000 in 2012; an increase of 1200%. While, admittedly, the majority of malware is installed from "untrusted" sources, there have been incidents of malware invading the official Google Market. Malware is becoming problematic enough to warrant its own genome project. While users have to explicitly grant permissions to the application their installing, in my experience (and I'm assuming the experience of 99.9% of other users), rarely is the permission approval process heeded any attention other than a blind mashing of the thumb to approve. It is the proverbial rubber stamp allowing a trojan horse into one of your most personal assets.

Sub-par Terrible Cameras

Sure, having more computing power in my pocket than I had in a laptop 5 years ago sounds like a great thing, but at the end of the day all I care about is how good of a picture it can take. If there's a single, massive gripe that I have with Android and every single one of its phones, it's how shitty the camera is. Considering I have a nephew who just turned 1, and I now live a mere 7 minute bike ride away from him, I'm taking a lot of pictures. A lot. And never have I had a camera on an Android device that's anything more than disappointing. And if you don't think having a great camera on a phone is a big deal, I'll remind you that as of January of 2011 Facebook was receiving over 200,000,000 photo uploads a day. That was 18 months ago, and there's little doubt that rate's higher today. Facebook has over 900,000,000 users, and an estimated 50% are mobile. Your phone's camera matters.

If You're Not In The U.S. Half The Awesome Features Don't Work

Canadians have been up in arms about Siri's location services not working in Canada. The fact is, however, I can still use Siri and have a natural way of scheduling appointments, texting and calling friends, and checking the weather. On Android, I can't use Google Music (without spoofing my IP), use Google Voice, or even buy music. Canadians are left in the dust. And while it's easy to argue that this is not the fault of Google (because of copyright holders or the CRTC), I could simply argue that Google doesn't know how to negotiate. If Apple was able to do it years ago with a fraction of the market share they have now, then surely Google - with an even bigger distribution of devices - could wrangle a deal in Canada. Apparently not.

Accessory Ecosystem

It sucks. Have you tried finding a place that actually sells the desktop dock for the Google Nexus? I have. Phone's been out for 7 months and I still can't find it in Future Shop, Best Buy, Bell, Rogers, or The Source. There is no debate about how shitty the accessories are for Android.

Enough was Enough

After having to reset my phone for the umpteenth time because my radio decided to turn off and not turn back on, I'd decided that Steve Jobs' totalitarian regime over software and the hardware it ran on was actually a good thing. As a developer I have a consistent and predictable environment upon which I can create my applications. I have only a few devices, as opposed to several dozen, that I have to worry about supporting and testing. As a user I have a consistent and predictable user experience and upgrade cycle. As an uncle I have a camera that doesn't make you look like you have liver failure unless you're outside on a clear day in the high noon sun. 

My original gripes with iOS have been fixed. The notification system isn't a soul crushing dialogue box demanding my attention. I can now easily transition from app to app. I have a consistent user experience and I know approximately when the next version of iOS is coming out. I have voice command that actually works (comparatively speaking), a malware free ecosystem, and a suite of applications I can actually use in Canada. 

Apple's tightly controlled walled garden is a good thing. As a developer and a user, all I want is one thing: for shit to work. The less variables there are, the higher chance shit will work. A walled garden produces shit that works, and frankly, I'm okay with that.


  1. Thanks Ryan! This was so timely it's spooky. I was about to buy a galaxy in the next 2 days, and be haunted by steve forever. It's so great to read the opinions of someone who knows technical aspects of stuff, and more importantly, how to communicate them. The price of the iphone is still an issue for me, but i think you've steered me away from a frustrating purchase.

    1. Anytime Trevor! Honestly, like I said in a reply to ScrewLoose - Android is still a great OS, and it definitely has some great things that iOS doesn't (and vice versa). For me, however, after 3+ years of Android ecosystem, it was an accumulation of the little things that drove me to drink. Your mileage may vary, but if you're going to throw down a few hundred bucks on a phone and want to minimize risk, then by all means, stick with iPhone.

  2. Good commentary on both companies devices. I have been on both sides and agree with most of it. The difference I have is that I'm sticking with Android for 2 reasons,

    1) The customizability - as you pointed out above its a double edged sword but I hate being stuck with what one particular corporate overlord has shafted me with (Apple/Microsoft). Sometimes when a phone function pisses you off enough its nice to be able to swap the software without having to switch phones.

    2) Itunes... it crushes my soul and makes me miserable. Managing my music and phone through its idiotic interface drives me up the wall. I'm not going to go into details on all my complaints as that could take all day. My main computer is a Macbook Pro and I find it necessary to run a Windows VM so I can manage my music through MediaMonkey which exposes so much functionality that is lost when you are stuck in Apple's walled garden.

    1. ScrewLoose - those are excellent points. I will admit, however, that overall I'm not much for configuration of anything. I'm a pretty "vanilla" kinda guy. That being said, something I always customized in Android was the keyboard. I really miss that with iOS, as the stock iOS keyboard is dated and, frankly, could be better.

      As for iTunes (and the overall argument of ecosystem) - I hear ya. I hate iTunes. It's way too bloated, slow, buggy, and frustrating. That being said, with iCloud and iTunes Match, I've found that I rarely use it except to import and organize (which is, in the scheme of things, not very often). Even then, I'm wondering if I can use an Automator script to import and organize without ever opening iTunes. If so - then hey, I'm good to go.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion! This is definitely not a black and white issue. Android is, at the end of the day, a great OS.... but right now it's a bit of a drunkard, and I've no time for that.

  3. Great article. I just purchased the Samsung Galaxy S3 and dropped my iPhone 3GS.

    The camera on this beast is much better, and way faster "to shoot". The pictures coming out of my 3GS seemed worse than my fiancee's Samsung Galaxy S1. It was brutal.

    I totally agree on the fragmentation aspect. It's hella annoying that I have to wait until Samsung provides and update. Luckily I'm tech savvy enough to load up something like if it comes down to it.

    I don't use cases or screen protectors (never did with my iPhone). However I'll be looking for a dock for this. I'll let you know how that goes.

    My tablet was running froyo, and then gingerbread (cyanogenmod). And didn't have any stability issues, however I must admit I'm not a tablet power user (just internet and e-reading).

    The amount of customization that I can do with ICS is just mind boggling. I love it. I love to tweak everything until I get it "just right".

    One thing I'll agree with you on is the amount of spam/malware. I tried getting a game like bejewelled and ran into 4-5 "apps" that just loaded webpages and tried a bunch of skeezy things to get me to sign up.

    No iTunes is amazing (as someone said above). I ended up using some 3rd party software because it was so annoying.

    The Samsung built in motion "moves" and "tectiles" are a really nice touch also.

    I'm not sure where I'm going with this :), but I don't think I'll see myself going back to iOS any time soon.

    1. Awesome reply, Ryan. I appreciate it. I will say that Android is a great platform, but it's kind of the Wild West. Each platform has its pros and cons, and after 3+ years of Android I'd grown tired of the increasing cons. Being back in iOS land feels great in the sense of I know what to expect, the predictability is there, and all that jazz about the pros of Walled Gardens I'd mentioned previously.

      Ultimately, it's to each their own, which is gravy. I just hope Google is able to reign in the fragmentation bits, but at this point I think the horse is out of the barn.