Fifteen Days in the Wilderness (Experiments with Android and Windows Phone)

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I’ve recently had the opportunity to carry a second phone (a while with Android, awhile with Windows Phone) in addition to my trusty and increasingly busted 3GS (missing volume buttons, broken lock button). I say “opportunity” largely because I’m kind of annoyed that I didn’t buy an iPhone 4 when I had the chance, and now it’s looking like the fall before I’ll get to upgrade to an iPhone 5 or whatever Apple chooses to call it. This makes now an ideal time to take a close look at what the competition is up to. The worst kind of fan is the unthinking, in my view, so I jumped at the chance to know whether my iOS admiration was warranted, and, if not, actually get to preview a handset I could contemplate switching to at some point (for obvious reasons, I would not run the same experiment with other tablets. The iPad really is the only game in town).

Join me, then, for the Apple maniac’s up-close tour of the distinguished competition, through peril, triumph, and confusion, as I take a long, hard look at life with a Nexus S 4G and an HTC HD7, representatives of the very mature Android (Nexus) and the practically beta Windows Phone 7.

Nothing’s a replacement for an iPhone

Let’s get this out of the way as quickly as possible: if you’re looking for the iOS experience, but on a handset made by another manufacturer, you will be disappointed with the current market. There are many solid smartphones out there, but none will deliver an experience anywhere near as well thought-out or curated as the iPhone 4. It isn’t the most powerful phone on the planet by any stretch, but the software is tightly coupled in a way that makes it feel better than anything else. Moreover, Apple has done such a good job embedding the iOS UI standards in the brains of developers the world over to the point that it’s quite easy to find an app for any task you choose that works how you would like it to. Apple also has a full-fledged ecosystem behind its platform, which no one else can claim yet.

Experience: Android is a worthy opponent for the tech set

That said, there are other perfectly good reasons for choosing an Android phone, most of them to do with choice in industrial design and tinkering. On the latter point, I must admit, there was something delightful about installing the Swype keyboard over stock Android Gingerbread and gaining the ability to type in an entirely new way. The notification system is also much better than iOS, which shouldn’t surprise anyone (at least until 5). It’s an alien feel, to be sure, but I can understand why someone would really like it, even if it’s not for me. The vast array of soft buttons, however, is inexplicable, as is guessing what developers will decide is worthy of appearing on-screen and what should be hidden in a retractable menu.

Experience: Windows Phone 7 is pretty but lacks substance

I have less positive to say about Windows Phone, which, despite its efforts to create a fundamentally new approach to multitouch UI, is a shallow experience. The fussy Metro UI is a true example of style over substance. The system is built around a group of “tiles” which purport to be hubs of activity, where various apps can dwell. In practice, each hub is largely restricted to a single function, and any additional third-party installations exist outside of them. This absurdity is highlighted in the People Hub, a misguided combination of an address book and a Facebook client that fails at both. Too actually post anything to Facebook, you need to download an additional app that gets its own tile. The experience of any particular app is indistinguishable from the next — it’s got a large headline spanning several screens, a slightly smaller text size for subheads, and very small body copy. If there are any icons in the app, they’re confusing and difficult to tell apart. It’s quite possibly the least visual computing since DOS.

Ecosystem: Android has many apps, limited content, and a lot of confusion

As we all know, the App Store reigns supreme. If you can think of something to do with an iPhone (and Apple doesn’t hate that something), there’s an app for that. Android is in second place in this race, though, and the Android Market does have a vast selection of applications, including such key services as HBO Go and Hulu Plus. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, however, you don’t have much of a prayer of finding it. The organization of Marketplace is convoluted and strange. I really don’t know what they were going for in that regard. The situation is even worse on the content front. Though there are lots of places where it’s possible to get music and videos for Android, there isn’t a clear central access point to do so. There’s cloud access for music through Google Music Beta, but where you might get it in the first place is less certain.

Ecosystem: Windows Phone 7 has music. Lots and lots of music

Largely as a vestige of the failed Zune initiative, the one piece of the Windows Phone ecosystem that isn’t premature is its music store, which has nearly as solid a selection as iTunes. And for anyone interested in paying for a monthly music subscription, the Zune Pass system does work well. Similarly, the Xbox heritage means that Windows Phone has a small but high-quality selection of Xbox Live-enabled games that run very well. My praise for the Windows Marketplace ends there, however. Its app selection is small and has few distinguishing characteristics — it’s virtually all just clients for the most popular internet services, many of them mediocre. Worse, Microsoft inexplicably decided to make its search function for the Marketplace look for all content simultaneously (apps, music, and video), which means that it can be hard to find an app in the midst of a long list of songs. Apparently, the designers didn’t consider that someone looking for FourSquare might be looking for a client for the check-in service as opposed to the oeuvre of the Bad Taste Records artists. Seriously.

Final Verdict: Android is competition. Windows Phone is a hobby.

Way back in the day, Chuck Klosterman proposed a rating system called the Jack Factor, which was the amount of money you would need to pay him to stop listening to a particular heavy metal album. This ranged from a couple of bucks for your average Winger joint to several thousand dollars for G’n’R’s Appetite for Destruction. This is actually a highly useful system — applying cash value to the loss of something you appreciate can really force you to evaluate just how much you actually care. The question then, is how much money I would take to switch to Windows Phone and Android from iOS. For a top of the line Android like the Nexus S? $2,000. I could do it. I wouldn’t be happy about it, but I could get by. For Windows Phone 7? $200,000, at least in its current form. After flirting with the competition as a second choice, it’s just made my love of iOS that much stronger. Competition is healthy — many of the improvements of iOS 5 show just what it can bring — but I’m far happier benefiting from it, not participating in it.