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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Android makes me cry

I have been using Nokia N900 as a primary mobile phone for nearly a year now and I am quite happy with it. However, quite recently I've also bought the best value-for-money Android 2.1 device you can currenly get, which is Orange San Francisco aka ZTE Blade. I won't go in too much details about the phone itself, as anyone could easily look it up, but if you're after joining Android world cheaply, yet without much (any?) compromise in hardware area, then ZTE Blade is definitely way to go. Anyway, I have never intended new phone to replace my N900 because of lack of hardware qwerty keyboard which I'm very addicted to, nonetheless I gave it a shot and put my main SIM card into it for few days. That experience made me cry and I'm just about to tell you why...

Just before I start, I need to note that some time ago I've been lucky to win an HTC Magic phone and I already conducted similar "experiment" of using Android device as primary device for few days (I was using Nokia E71 normally at the time) and I've even written down my thoughts on this. However, HTC Magic wasn't as powerful as Blade is and it was running Android 1.6, not 2.1 as Blade, which does make a difference.

So, why exactly few days of playing with Android made me cry? Simply because it opened my eyes on how good it is and how much Nokia is lacking with Maemo. Well, OK, let's be fair - comparing Maemo with Android isn't exactly accurate, yet having upcoming MeeGo/Harmattan in mind, in some way it is. I basically found Android as a good benchmark of what Nokia needs to create (at least) to catch up and regain competitiveness on the market eaten by Android, Apple and such likes already.

Anyway, while having Android-powered device as my main workhorse for few days, I've been struck by that "wow!" feeling many times, yet I'd like to highlight some of them in particular.

UI

I always liked Android's UI - simple, consistent, user-friendly, intuitive and responsive, with excellent notification system. Although not perfect - homescreen contents arrangement or multi-tasking features are a bit dull, yet generally look'n'feel of Android is just great. Maemo's UI isn't bad, but is definitely less "sexy" and lesson definitely should be learned from Android's beautiful notification system.

Then it's about responsiveness. Althought ZTE Blade isn't exactly the most powerful device around and there definitely were moments where device was "thinking" just a bit too long while flicking through UI, yet overall experience while using it was just great. Almost every UI action is pretty much instant - opening apps, navigating through menus, flicking homescreens etc.. Tap on icon and presto - there it is, at my service, just like that. Doh! Why oh why I very rarely get that feeling on my N900 and most actions I do are preceded with that swirly icon flashing at me for couple of seconds, even when I want to open something as simple as Settings menu?

Apps

3rd party apps ecosystem is key to the success (or lack of thereof) of given platform, no doubts about that. Android Market is pretty mature already but most importantly - installing apps is easy-peasy. You can install one or more apps at once within seconds, literally, with each app being quietly installed in the background (with unobtrusive notification once it's done) while I browse for more. Simple as that.

Installing apps in Maemo is one, big, fucking pain. Sorry for the language. Ovi Store takes ages to load, requires me to sign in regardless of checking "remember me" tickbox at earlier occasion and once I'm finally ready to install an application (not to mention that choice of apps for Maemo is, well, poor), Famously Slow App Manager kicks in and I must wait another 1-2 minutes (sic!) for the app to be finally installed. One. Big. Fucking. Pain. Sorry. For. The. Language. Again.

Of course, there are community-driven repositories full of interesting apps, and that's great... for geeks. I love the idea, because I am a geek and I don't mind adding external repos, installing experimental apps or even fiddling with apt-get if that's needed. However, mass market user doesn't know what extras, extras-testing, or - oh Lord, save me - extras-devel is. Plus, there are masses of good apps trapped in -devel for some reason, which makes things even worse. Mass market user wants a single source full of useful apps with hassle-free installation process. Maemo community will hate me now, but let's face it - for MeeGo/Harmattan to become successful and competitive platform, working as a magnet for developers, community-driven repositories and App Manager as we know it must be gone and there should be only one, consistent point where users would install apps. Let it be Ovi Store, but on the other hand Nokia somehow has to persuade community developers to push their precious apps to Ovi rather than extras. I am sure geeks and platform hackers will still be able to work around that and use own software sources, but hey - we're talking about mass market success here, remember?

Web browsing and cloud integration

Some people say Nokia N900 has one of the best mobile web browsers on the market. Well, in some way it is very good, indeed. In most cases it renders websites exactly the same way as your desktop Firefox does. That's great when you think about this, but not so great when you're actually using it. Firstly, it's quite slow, especially the first fire up. Right, Browser UI will turn up quickly, but no URL will start loading until tablet-browser-daemon service will actually start running in the background, which puts extra 10-30 seconds delay before first URL gets loaded! Btw, I've learned about background browser daemon from Bugzilla - try telling this to mass market user... Next big issue is proper text zooming. You can zoom the *page* (ie. viewport) but you can't easily zoom *text* (ie. increase font size) and it won't nicely realign within zoomed viewport. Then there's link tapping accurracy. I often find myself tapping same link many times to actually get it to work. Annoying. Finally, famous Flash support. Watching YouTube videos directly within a webpage is very cool feature indeed, but whole charm disappears when playback gets choppy and quite unpleasant to watch & hear overall, because OS cannot catch-up with the load such playback generates somehow. You can reduce this effect by closing down all other apps, all browser instances (so tablet-browser-daemon will restart, adding extra ~30 seconds to the process, remember), load given URL again and only start YouTube playback without touching anything else. Doh!

Android browser, on the other hand, wasn't that good when I reviewed HTC Magic about a year ago, but it has undergone a vast improvement since then, so browsing web with Android 2.x browser is a breeze. Super fast, simple, intuitive, accurate, responsive with no extra hassles attached. Zooming text with multitouch works just great and text paragraphs will always realign to the current viewport width. There's no inline Flash support for some reason, yet there's dedicated YouTube player app which instantly opens up whenever I tap on any YouTube link and video just starts playing, with no performance issues whatsoever. It just works. There is also a nice and easy multi-window management, there are great sharing features, well... the whole browsing experience is simply excellent.

But it's not just about browsing the web. It's generally about cloud integration as a whole. One day a friend of mine called me asking to quickly find out address of particular shopping centre he was intending to drive to. So I fired up Google Maps, typed in shopping centre name, got result, tapped through Share -> Messaging and presto - requested address details were sent via text message within less than a minute and few taps on the screen!

Integration with Google services is quite obvious with Google-sourced OS platform. While I don't like native Calendar app in Android at all, I like the fact I don't have to worry about sync with my online Google Calendar. Same goes with Contacts, GMail or even my Picasa web albums. Whole Web 2.0 cloud is in my pocket, at my fingertips. Twitter, Facebook, Dropbox... these guys are all there already, with their official and quite good Android apps. I wonder how long would it take for them to consider MeeGo as a platform worth investing their money and effort in?

What's next, Nokia?

As I said in the beginning, intention of this article was not to compare Android and Maemo directly, as that would be a bit pointless, yet I have had an opportunity to discover myself how modern mobile OS platform is supposed to work from end-user perspective. What I've seen and experienced in Android 2.1 over past few days, I expect to see and experience in MeeGoo/Harmattan/Maemo6/whatever you call it, Nokia. And I expect it to run on my N900 as well. And it's bare minimum, really. Absolute minimum I personally require, as mass market will definitely require something more for this to become huge success like Android or iPhone.

All in all, it makes me cry, indeed, because as much as I love Nokia and their products, I know they were (still are?) surprisingly good in wasting excellent opportunities, hence loosing more and more market share and loyal users patience. Time will tell, yet even more delays with MeeGo release put even more tears in my eyes.

Is that all?

All of this sounds like I've just started loving Android and hating Maemo/Nokia altogether. Well, not exactly. While Android definitely got my heart, exposed all those cool things I was missing and even made me quietly think to make a switch indeed, not everything in Android is that perfect as it seems and Nokia N900 is still much better device for me, I mean geek, in many areas (in fact, I wrote most of this aricle on N900 directly :). For time being I will keep using N900 as my primary mobile, patiently wait for MeeGo/Harmattan to appear and install it on my N900 as soon as it would become possible. This should tell me whether Nokia got really serious in catching up with current market trends and whether I should start gathering funds for Nokia N9 or perhaps... HTC Desire Z.

10 comments:

  1. I'm also a n900 user, and Android also makes me cry. How can they call it "open"? Unless you know how to compile and hack it (against your vendor attempts to keep your hands out of *your* device), you can do just what the vendor wanted you to do with it, which I think is to be quiet and buy apps. Which lends me to installing software...

    Installing software in the n900 is a bless. I never went to that OVI store thing anyway, because Maemo is basically Debian which means you have apt-get and a good selection of packages -leaving alone extra repositories. And if those are not enough, you can just install Debian in a chroot, and then you can install any of the several thousand of packages available in that system, which are free software. Who wants non-free OVI crap? Do you like to have code running on your phone that you can't tell what is doing?

    Maemo is far from being perfect, it contains some non-free pieces that shouldn't be there, and many practical things can be improved, but with it the n900 is the smallest laptop you can buy, while Android would make it just a phone.

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  2. I know what you are talking about.
    I developed some nice apps for maemo out there - u know some - and
    I am one of the top developers in maemo garage.
    I owned EVERY maemo device until now. But its just frustating when u compare it with android.
    So, i left the community heavy hearted and now i just satiesfied in my new - not that open - world.
    But that seems to be less important to me now, because its much more simple to do things on android. It is just more easy going ... not that kind of complicated stuff anymore.
    As it seems, sometimes it is not just about openess, its about building a good end-user ready, simple product everbody can deal with.

    cheers,
    lk

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  3. Exactly my very (geeky) feelings.

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  4. Thank you for the post Evad, particularly your comments about things that worked well on Android. I hope none of my points will be construed as objections to those raised in the article.

    To a car geek, a vehicle is not just loved for its looks, comfort and performance but also design, execution, quality. If your flashy jaguar requires removal of the overhead lifter cams with every spark-plug change, that's ... ick.

    One thing that grates like that with android is that google didn't just put their stupid "app sandbox" in user-space ontop of a regular linux (like maemo). Given appropriate execution environment, those apps could use google's 'lightweight' APIs to display 3D graphics, capture /dev/video, write to audio devices etc. It is galling that Android apps don't run in userspace under MeeGo or Ubuntu or any number of other host OS's.

    Having spent some weeks in Finland, I found it "gets" linux, like no other country. To a person who is really 'into computers', the N900 is like a fine wine is to a connoisseur. The things he or she appreciates (and will happily pay a premium for) tend to be unappreciated by less knowledgeable consumers. To have a phone that is so deeply hackable, using the same operating system tools as I do on my desktop, is just incomparable.

    But If I'm going to spend 700 euro for my next pocketable computer-with-phone I would like to receive in return both a flourishing application market as well as the power of a real linux OS.

    What is the way to get both?

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  5. Thanks to all of you for valuable input. Fact that N900 is really a small Linux-box with phone app added as a feature is main reason why I still like it and use it. I shouldn't say I love to hack things in it, but having that flexibility is something I really like. On the other hand, *using* it as a primary mobile phone, PIM, messaging, email, web etc etc device is a bit of pain, especially when I tasted Android already.

    I think it shouldn't take a lot of effort for Nokia to create a platform that would bring the best of both worlds - where mainstream, non-techie user will find easy, intuitive and compelling UI, while geeks will still be able to dig deep under the hood. This is what I hope MeeGo is going to be at the end, but... time will tell.

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  6. OK, so based on your blog post I just tried a friend's Android phone.
    You're completely right. It smokes my N900 regarding reactivity, and web browsing. The only downside is that it misses the integrated SMS/chat/adressbook the N900 has, otherwise it's better in all points.
    I wish NITdroid was functional on my N900, because hardware-wise it's obviously better.

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  7. with regard to wasting opportunities, i always thought a trick was missed when the n900 was launched *without* skype video calling. that would have been a big wow-factor to the masses and it certainly impresses me whenever i use it.

    whatever views on the OS are, the hardware of the n900 is fantastic. a choice of OSes is only going to make it more appealing to me as time goes on.

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  8. Capt'n Corrupt23 October 2010 20:24

    Excellent writeup.

    It should be noted that Debian can be installed in Android as well, and currently, can be connected to X via local VNC. This is not perfect, but it works for many great apps that simply aren't available on Android. If nothing else, it provides

    I hear that there's chatter for the development of a android X client which would be great for a number of reasons most of which revolve around performance. With devices like the 7" Galaxy Tab that feature a high resolution 1024x600 display, having desktop linux with a mouse and keyboard would function identical to a laptop with excellent battery life and 3G connectivity out of the box. Plus, optimized android apps (browser, video player, etc) can be used in place of slower desktop counter parts.

    In other words, I'm looking forward to Android, Debian, Ubuntu, Maemo, MeeGo moving closer together with OSS projects that bridge the divide. They all run practically the same kernel anyway, right? ;)

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  9. I own a N900 and an android video player (from archos). Android is easy to use and quite fast (althouth on the device, the useless phone apps keep respawning after being killed.. and it's still 1.6).

    However I wouldn't feel comfortable with google in my phone. In previous posts I read concerns about not open apps in maemo, but has anyone checked that google is not referencing the contents of android devices?
    At first I liked their mail system, but when ads appeared I felt less comfortable. Won't they do the same with android, and inject targeted ads onto your screen? I guess they didn't make a phone OS just for the fun of pissing off Steve Jobs?

    I do hope my concerns are wrong but as long as my n900 works, I won't change to android.

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