Friday, November 6, 2009

The (R)Evolution of Android

In honor of today being The Day that Android is officially released on the Verizon network, I thought it was fitting that I finally get the blog post that has been churning in my head all week out the door. I'm also very deep in Android programming right now as I'm working to release another Android app for a client of mine, so Android and the future has been on my mind...

If you haven't heard, or haven't been watching TV or listening to the radio, the new "Droid" device, manufactured by Motorola and released on the Verizon wireless network was released today, November 6th, 2009. I was lucky enough to be be invited by Albert Maruggi @AlbertMaruggi to a special Verizon Wireless "pre-release" event last week to get my hands on this new device, give some initial feedback and take it through the paces. I was also able to take the phone home and have 3 days with the device and see how it performed. Finally, we all got Eclairs to take home (which were delicious by the way!) in honor of Android 2.0 being the code named "Eclair" release.

This entry will be some of what the device has done (or hasn't done) for me, but I do have some video that I shot from using the device, (which I need to edit) and will post in a future blog entry. Just as some background, I came into this event and have been using Android since before it was officially released. I was one of the first people in line at the T-Mobile store to get my G1 and have been excited by the evolution of Android and how it was changed over the past year.

Before I start though, as a point of clarity, I don't subscribe to the stories of "Droid is / not an iPhone Killer". In fact, I'm very annoyed by seeing all of the articles with titles like this. The whole idea of one platform as "killing" another, really defeats the purpose of these devices and marginalizes what any device or platform will bring to market. Plain and simple, people who write articles like this and this are idiots. Want proof? Here's an article that agrees with me. In fact, when I was at Google I/O in San Francisco earlier this year I was amazed when talking with a few Google engineers, just how open they were to competition. They really believe that competition and innovation is what is best of the consumer. It was refreshing to hear that they really weren't all about trying to bash or take down the qualities of other devices out there. And therein is the beauty of Android. You have manufactures, focusing on what they do best (make good hardware) and Google focusing on what it does best (make good software and services). And now, you've got the network of Verizon to back this up.

OK, I'll get off my soapbox now. Let's talk about Droid!

First impressions
Inside I believe that someone is either a physical keyboard user or a virtual keyboard user. That's not to say that you can't be trained and go from one to another, but intrinsically, I think a person will gravitate to one out of habit. I am definitely a virtual (soft) keyboard user. I liked my G1 when it had a physical keyboard, but I *REALLY* liked my G1, when we got the 1.5 update that contained the virtual (on-screen) keyboard. I just find it too awkward to have to pop/slide something out to type. Yes, you can leave the keyboard out all of the time, but I find the balance on most devices with the keyboard open to be odd and also, I prefer to view and browse sites in portrait over landscape mode. Plus, the more moving parts... the more parts that are likely to break! Thus, when I started working with Droid, I was not too impressed by the pop-out keyboard. Sure, it has back-lit keys and is OK to the touch, but the G1 keys pop out a little bit more and are actually easier to use in my opinion. The phone itself is a little boxy and I don't understand why the screen doesn't go all the way to the end - it kind of gives it, as Breon called it, the "inverted chin" that you may have seen with other HTC devices. I would have much preferred that the screen just go all the way to the edge. While the screen is absolutely gorgeous and supports thousands more colors than anything else on the market, I'm not sure if I'm really sold on the rectangular shape of the (854×480) shape of the screen. It's too rectangular for me. I think maybe over time I might get used to it, but if they made the screen longer, I would have liked it if they would have bumped the width out a little bit as well. It has a long tight look too it - not my cup of tea, but is just my small nitpicking.

Overall, the phone performed flawlessly. It was by far the fastest phone I have used running Android. Part of that might be related to the speedy processor, and some might be Android 2.0. But I'm very happy to see that now Android is performing much better than the Google ION and G1 that I currently have. However, it is a little disappointing that Motorola couldn't get the new 1Ghz Snapdragon processor in this phone, like you are going see with Sony's X10 Experia Phone. Now, THAT is the phone that I can't wait to try.

Here's some rough hardware specs on the device if you are interested.

I think Motorola made some serious mistakes in the ergonomics of eh device.

  • First, the sleep and power button are on the top. I love my Google ION (HTC Magic), because I can use just one hand to put it to sleep and then press the "menu" button to wake it back up again. Putting the button on the top was just stupid. It then always takes me two hands to pull it out of my pocket and wake it up. And then two hands to put it to sleep. Not easy to use.
  • Second, the volume is on the SAME SIDE as this power/sleep button. I found myself repeatedly adjusting the volume as I was putting the phone to sleep or waking it up. I can see why they had to put the volume button on that side (since the other side is the USB port for the cradle), but it's seems like bad design and something that I know will drive some people crazy.

  • Third, holding and scrolling with my left hand caused some very odd behavior on the phone. It might be tough to explain and took me while to figure out what was going on, but at the bottom of the phone there are the 4 signature Android buttons - Back, Menu, Home and Search. Many of the other Android phones have these and this is no different on Droid. The problem is that they are capacitive buttons, which mean that it's really easy to tap them by accident. When trying to scroll on webpages or in emails as I hold the phone and scroll with my thumb, the screen kept shooting back up to the top of the page! After playing around for a long time and talking with a friend about it, we came to the conclusion that it was my palm touching the far left button ("Back Button") as I was scrolling. This causes the app to auto scroll to the top of the page. So much for walking to the bus stop in the morning and reading my emails and surfing with one hand. This by far was the worse user experience on the device.
With my 3 complaints aside, overall, the phone performs well and for most people that use two hands when using their phone, none of these issues will be a big deal. Just watch out for those capacitive buttons.

I installed a number of the apps from the market and everything I tried ran fine in Android 2.0 with the larger screen. I must applaud other Android developers for getting new versions of their apps out into the market so quickly and supporting Android 2.0. Besides Droid, there aren't any other devices running Android 2.0, but I think that will changing in the next month or so, as I bet most all phone will be upgraded to Android 2.0 by the end of the year. Word on street currently, is that Google will have Android 2.1 out by the end of the year. Their development speed is really picking up! Verizon does have their own "tab" on the Android market, which I find is interesting, however, they have only developed 1 App for Android! That's pretty lame guys. I applaud you for finally carrying the Droid, but now let's see you develop some applications that use it as well. Their application is a visual voicemail application, that runs pretty good. It basically takes voicemails and converts them to text. Google voice does this already, so really there aren't any unique apps by Verizon on the market. Would like to see them become more involved. Speaking of which... is Verizon even a member of the OHA?

Android 2.0
I didn't get a chance to really work through all of the specifics of Android 2.0, but a few high points that I saw as I was playing with the device.
  • A setting that allowed you to share files via bluetooth - very cool.

  • Cleaner and more crisp icons.

  • Soft Keyboard MUCH easier to use.

  • Auto brightness adjust based on ambient light - worked OK, but sometimes would change for no reason.

  • Google Navigator - Very sweet! I have a video demo of this, working on getting it edited though. Will be in my next post.
  • Google Services - This isn't really an Android 2.0 thing, but I will reiterate that having all of your data "in the cloud" is super cool. I would have both the Droid and my Google ION on and all of the contacts, calendars, email, meetings, etc. were shared between the two since they both were accessing my same Google account! It just kind of brought it all home when I realized that I there was ZERO migration (besides apps), if I were to decide to move to another Android smartphone in the future. Very cool.


Over the past week, a number of people have asked me what I think about Droid. Would I be willing changing to Verizon for this device? Is it an iPhone killer? (I won't answer that last question) ;)

Well, here's what I CAN say. I think Droid is a good device for someone out there, however that someone is not me. It's not the fault of Android and it's not the fault of Verizon or Motorola. It's just that I'm very happy with my small compact Google ION (ie. myTouch) and there isn't enough new on Droid to make me switch. In fact, there isn't any other device (iPhone, Blackberry, Palm included) that makes me want to switch. My current Android phone from HTC is like little tank that keep on running. I have dropped it, kicked it, scratched it and it still keeps running. It's small, very light, compact, can fit easily in my pocket and I can quickly pull it out and use it with one hand to get done what I need to get done. And I don't have to baby it. The Droid is none of that for me, but it probably will be the right device for a number of other people out there. In reality, I see the Droid competing much more with Blackberry and Windows Mobile users. It's those kind of users that I think will enjoy this device. Droid is just another option on the Verizon network for people that want a cutting edge, fast, large screen, multimedia capable smartphone backed by and integrated with all of their Google service.

Now, as some of you know, Verizon is releasing another droid phone called "Eris" today as well. Has anyone heard of that? Did people even know that "Droid" is more of a collection of phones than just 1 phone? It was pretty dumb move I think to market everything as "Droid", but then say that you have a "HTC Droid Eris" and "Motorola Droid". Plan on people being very confused at their local Verizon store today when they start checking out the new phone(s). However, as long as they buy one or the other and enjoy the Android experience, no one is the wiser. Android will continue to grow and developers like myself will continue to build apps. Speaking of apps... time to get back to that app. Time to run for now. Look for some videos that I shot on Droid shortly!

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