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One fine day in January of this year, I simply stopped loving my phone the way I used to. My sleek, sexy iPhone 4 was no longer doing it for me. Gone were the glory days of reveling in its retina display, of longing stares at its Leica-like design, of loving iOS as a whole. But I couldn’t jump ship, could I? I had bought into Apple’s App ecosystem, I had drank the Kool-Aid, worn the sneakers even. Still, I was determined to have it all – a device that could truly be the end-all, be-all of my tech dreams. A phone that could double as a portable computer for everywhere I went, that simply worked. But when did I start wanting more out of my phone? Well, to talk about that, we have to go back some time, to November, when I bought a Nook Color.
November of 2010 was a memorable month if only for the fact that I was getting ready to make an extended trip back to the land of my birth, Brazil. I figured I could use as much gadgetry as I could get my hands on because, for those of you who don’t know, Brazil is known for charging insane prices for things we’ve had for several years now (case in point, a single router down there is several times more expensive than the exact same model here). To that end, I knew I didn’t want to take my laptop, I wanted something more versatile that could be pick-up and go, and I started reading up on how to root and modify the Nook Color to exceed the limited potential B&N had in mind for it. This is when I started my brief love affair with Android.
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One thing eventually led to another and my infatuation grew to such a level that I decided it was time to abandon AT&T and their medieval data capping practices. I had run out my contract already, so I sold my iPhone 4 to my father (who instantly loved it), and jumped ship without so much as a life preserver. I walked into Sprint that same day, pointed at a data plan and an EVO 4G and demanded that they “shut up and take my money”. I always love walking out of stores with new gadgets, but that day was particularly different – this phone represented things, metaphorical things of importance about how I was going to be changing the role that smartphones played in my life.
I took it home, booted it up and gave the appropriate “oohs” and “aahs” as I let the 4 inch LCD screen wash over me. Like all quick romances, the first few weeks were beautiful. After a considerable amount of tinkering, I was running CyanogenMod 7, a popular Android build that is known for preserving a more Google Phone experience on the phones by other manufacturers. I was swimming in a sea of custom kernels, even experimental ones that would allow me to use the 4G antenna in my stock build. The notifications system was a breath of fresh air, and since battery wasn’t a concern (more on that later), push notifications could finally realize their full potential. I had wanted freedom from Apple and their limitations, and at this point I felt like Winston in 1984, realizing that there was a resistance out there, and that I didn’t have to take it anymore.
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Too bad the honeymoon period was over just as quickly as in that novel. I remember when I started to become disillusioned with my utopic smartphone future. It was the first time the EVO’s battery ran out. “Hmm,” I thought, “my iPhone never needed to charge this much, that thing could run for a solid day, sometimes two without a charge”. This thing needed to be charged regularly every 4-5 hours. But that was fine, so long as the 4G was still working and I was still in love with all things Android, everything was copacetic. But like all things founded in infatuation and ephemeral beauty, that too would come to leave me and present me with the brutally honest truth of the entire experience.
The reality was, that after a month of tweaking, updating, incessantly rebooting, and reinstalling kernels, of constantly searching the XDA forums for further revisions, the phone was no better than my iPhone, and that was on a good day. A lot of the issue could be attributed to HTC, who decided that people who use EVOs will not need Bluetooth because they encoded the Bluetooth bitpool rate at the equivalent of a YouTube video’s sound, which in layman’s terms means that Bluetooth audio on the phone sounded more like a victrola playing a bad vinyl recording than it did a full 320 Kbps MP3. The sad part was thinking of all the non-tech-literate people who would buy this phone and then spend their time wondering why their Bluetooth audio sounded so terrible -- because the only way to fix this issue was to update to a non-HTC-Sense build of Android.
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Even the barebones, stock features of Android disappointed as well -- a marketplace that might as well have had tumbleweeds blowing through it, a lackluster and disappointingly outdated Facebook app, and an overall GUI that still looked ugly even after I tweaked it with EVERYTHING at my disposal. I saw my perfect world crumbling around me, saw behind the curtain of Android and found myself back at square one. There were things I loved about it, the notifications, the perfect Google integration; even YouTube was more usable on the device. But these small beacons of hope weren’t enough to win me over and in the end I realized what a horrible mistake I had made, which made me go crawling back to AT&T and the iPhone 4 in defeat.
This whole experience taught me a lot about what we as a society should demand out of our smartphones. While I admire Google’s fervor in promoting their brand, the mobile market has become saturated with Android devices of varying levels of quality. While an EVO could only barely keep up with my iPhone, friends of mine who have old, <600 MHz phones running Android are left even farther back. Fragmentation is killing the brand and these phones, and it’s not just at the hardware level. Apple does this to some extent with iOS, but they do it to kill old phones and promote “the new”, and while we can argue all day as to whether or not this is right or wrong, they have a unified GUI and OS vision, one that is entirely about a consistent experience.
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Why I Learned to Love the Phone
Fundamentally, it’s not about the right or wrong approach, but the approach that actually works. Even with a jailbroken iPhone, I don’t pick it up and wonder if pressing the power button is going to make it work, it simply works. Unlike my PCs, which I love to build and customize until I can’t anymore, phones need to work the way servers do, all the time, 24/7 (same thing goes for tablet devices). We’re now at an age where having the Internet at our fingertips seems more and more like a right than it does a luxury, and our phones should reflect this level of sophistication.
The open source OS idea by Google is brilliant in its own right, but it needs severe refinements before it’ll work with this current generation of phones. The reason the iPhone is so beloved by its users and by critics alike isn’t because we’re all being paid off by Apple, but because for those of us that don’t mind having a closed ecosystem, the experience is consistently good throughout. Of course, nothing is set in stone, Google still has time to refine, and they’re taking cues from their competitors in a more consistent experience, something which may cause more developers to flock to their cause, something they’re in dire need of. These arguments are not about fanboys on either side fervently arguing with no logic, it’s about personal preference, and while I am not yet convinced that Android is a legitimate competitor to the smartphone throne, I recall a time where I believed the iPad would fail miserably, and I now own one.
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More to Enjoy
If you enjoyed reading my complete turn around on the iPhone, you might also enjoy reading through these articles:
Development Concerns over the App Store or the Android Market - Talking about which OS's apps reign supreme.
Counterpoint: Buy an Android over an iPhone - Talks about why you should consider an Android phone over the iPhone.
The Mobile Platform Wars: The Inevitability of a Winner - Discussion on which platform will win out.