Although Android is the most popular smartphone or tablet operating system, it’s the least useful and is an inferior experience to iOS or Windows.
I’ve written or said these words or similar a number of times. Some readers and New Zealand Tech Podcast listeners think I overdo the Android criticism. Android isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s not the right choice for most people. Here I explain why.
Only Apple makes iOS devices. You can’t buy them from a third-party. There are no jarring glitches where one company’s responsibility stops and another’s starts. The company gets to control every step of the experience from the moment you open the product box.
The hardware and software are tightly coupled and the whole is seamless and fully integrated. Apple kit is often physically beautiful, the beauty isn’t just skin deep it goes all the way through.
Although Microsoft licences its software, the company is the main hardware maker for Windows-based tablets. It has yet to complete acquisition of parts of Nokia’s business. When it does, Microsoft be the main Windows Phone hardware company too.
Windows-based phones and tablets are almost as tightly controlled as Apple’s devices. Microsoft has strict design guidelines leaving little room for the kind of innovation that can jar. The result is another fully integrated and, mainly, seamless experience.
It’s not just about hardware integrating with the operating system. Apple and Microsoft offer integrated productivity apps and cloud services – each has a complete technology stack. Sure, neither is perfect, but they are consistent and coherent.
Nothing in the Android world equals any of this. Samsung is most popular maker of Android hardware. It speaks volumes that the company choose to hide Android behind its own software overlay. So does HTC and Sony.
You can buy Google branded phones with vanilla Android versions – these are much better integrated and smooth than the phones with overlays. Yet, overall, Android is not as tightly integrated. This leads to an inconsistent user experience.
Move from an Apple iPad Air to an iPhone and things work much the same. It’s always not ideal, but third-party apps tend to be consistent across the iOS range. Controls are consistent. Things act in the same, predictable way wherever you are. Someone who uses an early iPhone should be able to move to the latest one with little difficulty.
Windows gadgets are much the same. There’s a minor hiccup between Windows 8.1 RT version on the Surface 2 and the full version on the Surface Pro. On the other hand, moving from a Windows desktop to a Windows device is a breeze. With the exception of the Office apps needing to use the Windows desktop on the Surface 2 – which is admittedly jarring – the result is a consistent user interface across a wide range of devices.
Android just doesn’t get there. It doesn’t even come close. I can hop on someone else’s Surface or Lumia smartphone and instantly be productive. Same goes for iPhones and iPads. This just isn’t the case in the Android world – there are at least three or four current versions of the OS at any given moment on different devices. And those software overlays confuse things further. Many apps only run on a limited subset of Android devices. That’s because Android is fragmented.
When Apple introduces a new version of iOS, most users upgrade within days. In June Apple released figures showing 93 percent of users where on iOS 6. In comparison Android users were split roughly evenly between the last versions. I can’t give similar figures for Windows devices – there was no upgrade path from Windows Phone 7 to Windows Phone 8. Even so, at a guess I’d say Windows Phone fragmentation is worse than Apple, better than Android, probably closer to Apple than Android.
Fragmentation has a lot to do with the way Android upgrades are rolled out. Each phone maker has to rebuild Android and any overlays for each model. In some cases local carriers have to sign-off their customisations as well. It means a much slower process. In many cases it doesn’t happen. I have an 18 month old Android phone that has only ever seen one OS update – it is now three versions behind the current Android and can only run a fraction of today’s available apps.
Another downside of fragmentation is that it makes life hard for app developers. They tend to write software for the most popular targets, that can be hard when every group of Android users is a minority.
Apple’s business model is about selling hardware. Its operating systems are geared to that end. Microsoft’s business model is changing to what it calls ‘devices and services’. For now it is still mainly a software company. Its operating systems are designed to keep people in the Microsoft camp and for those people to buy other Microsoft products that live in the same technology stack.
Google’s business model is to sell advertising. It’s phone operating system is largely about collecting data so it can sell more ads to you. The company doesn’t even sell its software to phone makers. They get it free.
Now you might be cool with that. You may think owning an Android phone means you’ll see better targeted advertising. And it is fair to say data collection goes on with iOS and Windows devices. But there’s a difference between that being a byproduct and that being the main reason Android exists. It even shapes how Google views you as a customer.
For me the problem is that when Apple or Microsoft engineers have to make a choice about how something works, their first point of reference is how do we make this experience better. Google engineers will also ask themselves the same question, but they’ll also have to think about opportunities to collect more information for the company’s big data engines.
Android not all bad
Despite all the words I’ve written above, Android is not a bad phone OS. Yet compared with iOS and Windows Phone 8, the Android world feels messy and disorganised. That’s not entirely negative. Some geeks like to tinker with their phones – that’s easier in the Android world. For some the freedom to tinker is more important than being productive or efficient. For others it’s a path to productivity and efficiency.
Android has its charms. Apart from anything else, there wouldn’t be affordable smartphones without Google’s mobile operating system. Not everybody can afford to pay Apple’s premium prices. Not everybody wants to pay a premium. Android means you can get a basic smartphone for a few hundred dollars instead of the $1000 plus for premium phones.
And let’s not forget Android allowed Samsung, HTC, Huawei and others to get traction in the smartphone market. It made competition possible. For that Google deserves everyone’s thanks.
I look forward to seeing how Android develops, but for now, the OS, when evaluated in isolation from other considerations, comes third on the list.