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



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.

  • Chris Brunner

    There are a few features that I’d like to see make their way to iOS such as “Reject with Text” which allows you to reject a phone call and sends the caller a predefined text message.


  • gareth edwards

    well it’s a long article and I learnt about the “Jack Factor”, everything else appears to be as I expected.

  • Milo Thurston

    Did you happen to note the version of the WP7 OS you were using? The earlier ones did have the marketplace search problem (mixing apps and music) but that was fixed earlier this year. 

  • Barton Lynch

    i really don’t get the appeal of this feature

  • bplano

    Can’t say I agree with the points on WP7… Android, sure, but WP7 is a cool, unique platform.

    I feel this guy gushed about iOS a little too much… each OS has pros and cons.

  • Max Ellis

    Having the latest version is not something average users should have to worry about, but Android and WP7 suffer greatly from vendor-induced fragmentation. From handsets that are discontinued months after release, to carriers who simply will not allow OS updates, I feel bad for Android and WP7 users to the extent that they chose that path.

  • Enoch Cincotta

    I’m an Apple fanatic, and got blown away by Android recently. iOs has a lot to learn if they want to be the best.

  • WVMikeP

    Best for whom?  Geeks or mortals?  Personally, I think iOS is best for mortals while Android may have an edge for geeks.

  • Alfiejr

    for “ecosystem,” all the article compares is apps. but that is really far too small a definition. Google/Android’s strong point is the many Google cloud services, which together provide the best communication/information ecosystem of any. this is the main reason for Android’s market success.

    Apple’s ecosystem is much more content/hardware focused, but a lot more than iTunes. iLIfe, AirPlay, etc. for smartphones content is a secondary factor, but for tablets it is the most important, which is which iPad is dominant and Android can’t break through.

    MS has all kinds of bits and pieces for a big ecosystem, but after years they are still not seamlessly integrated. and you need an XBox to get started really – and use it – which pretty much leaves out anyone over 30.

  • Chris Hill

    Besides being condecending to Android and WP7 users, you show shortsightedness in your knowlege.

    Android – you have a somewhat valid point, although this is improving and not as clearcut as you makeout. Handsets may be discontinued after less than a year but software support isn’t;

    WP7 – you couldn’t be more wrong. Microsoft purposefully set it’s goal to deliver updates to all WP7 handsets in a timely manner and provided you’re not tied to a carrier you get them as soon as they’re available via a notification from the Zune application – the same way a certain other OS gets updates. If you are tied to a carrier, you have a short wait. ALL WP7 handets are getting Mango with 100% of the features when it’s released. No fragmentation. Baseline hardware requirements.

    Why do I care? I’m currently running Symbian on a Nokia so will be embracing one of the 3 major ‘ecosystems’ sooner rather than later. I don’t want any sympathy if I choose the wrong path.

  • Anthony IamTiger Lee

    What a dumb-ass article.. And a dumb-ass writer.. lol