Posts tagged Android

iPhone OS 4.0 – How close was I?

A few months ago, I made a post about what changes I would love to see in iPhone OS 4.0 when it rolled around, if it ever rolled around. Flash forward to today, where iPhone OS 4.0 is an officially announced, almost ready for release platform update. In the spirit of conclusion, let’s see how much I wanted that actually made it into the update:

1 – Google Voice Integration: No Go

This still remains a no-show. Apple and Google relations have only continued to sour, despite the Steve-Eric coffee shop PR stunt meeting that was hugely popularized a few weeks ago. In fact, because Apple has repeatedly demonstrated no motivation to popularize any Google services anymore, it’ll likely never happen. This is yet another unfortunate artifact of the ongoing Google and Apple divorce process, and it just ends up stifling innovation. Apple and Google both give end-user focused experience an awful lot of lip service, up to the point where they have to integrate with other competitors offerings.

Google Voice is just one such example, but there are others. Mail on the iPhone still lacks support for Google’s unique organizational methods, and for the same token, Google refuses to this day to make their own iPhone OS gmail client. It works both ways, and both are equally guilty.

Back to that lip service I was talking about, you can really see just how far that philosophy goes from both companies actions – they still speak louder than words. As an end user, I don’t care about corporate bickering or what the political reasons are for Google not making a Gmail app for the iPhone, or Apple not integrating Google Voice – I just want the best experience.

2 – Google Latitude: Maybe

I’m not sure how to mark this one down. On one hand, there is indeed multitasking present in the operating system, as well as the ability to have certain applications periodically get location through location services. Thus, it’s finally possible for some enterprising third party developer to make their own google latitude updater, or for Google themselves to do it. We’ll probably see the former much earlier than the latter for the reasons I mentioned in part 1.

Of course, the software to do continual scheduled Google latitude position updating already exists through the Cydia store. It’s called Longitude, and it work fabulously. I’m relatively puzzled by Apple’s claims that getting a full GPS fix requires too much battery, since I already run Longitude on a 15 minute update interval and have experienced negligible battery degradation. In fact, even with updating set on a 10 minute schedule, there was no perceptable difference in battery life.

Longitude - You know, opposite of Latitude

Longitude - You know, opposite of Latitude

I really have to wonder whether location services through Skyhook without using AGPS (eg only WiFi triliteration augmented with cellular positioning data) will be accurate enough for services like Foursquare. Time will tell, and arguably GPS won’t solve everything since users that are already inside those locations can’t get a GPS fix anyways.

3 – Better Gmail Integration: Sort of

So the Mail application is getting a definite overhaul in this new revision of iPhone OS – more than one exchange account, faster switching between each inbox, unified inbox, and support for threaded conversations. These are long overdue features that the competition has had almost forever. WebOS has had it, BlackBerry is famous for it, Android has it alongside even a Gmail-specific version, and even Windows Mobile had multiple exchange account and fast switching integration.

So it’s nice to see everything finally getting revamped. Apple’s interface still is minimalist though; there’s no font settings or style options to be found.

4 – Notification Overhaul: Nope

This is probably the most sorely lacking area, and simultaneously the most inexplicably neglected. Every single other mobile platform has better notifications than iPhone OS. Every one of them, even old and exiled Windows Mobile. In fact, during the Stevenote today Apple showed off some local application notifications (from applications running in the background) that still resulted in annoying centered blue bubbles – and touted them as being a good thing!

I don’t know what more there is to say here other than that with a more robust multitasking framework needs to come a better notification framework. The two go hand in hand completely: if you lack the screen real estate to show more than one thing at a time, but can still run it on the hardware, get information to the user effectively. That shouldn’t still equate to pausing and interrupting the current interaction with a gigantic blue popup that needs to be dismissed before interaction can continue.

5- Background apps done right: Yes

Apple needed to nail this one, and they did. There’s no arguing that the multitasking framework they’ve demoed is the way things should be. I’ve argued a few times with developers that the best way to deliver multitasking without sacrificing performance is to open APIs for the most common use scenarios. Apple enumerated all of them: music in the background, task completion, location-specific scenarios (turn by turn GPS, Google Latitude, e.t.c.), and a few others. This is effectively what I’ve heard described as a secondary “lite” binary running the core services in the background, using fewer resources and a few background specific APIs the OS can manage. That way, the background experience is consistent across use scenarios.

I think that this will work really well in the long run. In fact, Apple really did have little choice but to adapt a scheme employing lite binaries; they’re limited to 256 MB of RAM on the 3GS and iPad. Steve Jobs gets it – giving the user a task manager might appeal in the short term for how much control it offers, but it’s just too much. If the user is honestly expected to micromanage application launches and closes, they’ll eventually forget and nuke the battery. It just happens.

6- Better App organization: Yes

Thank goodness this is finally being addressed. I’ve almost reached the 180 application limit for the iPhone 3.x’s page specific interaction schema, and getting to applications on pages at the very end is as frustrating as it is time consuming. Finally getting some high level organization in the picture, even if it isn’t forward thinking, revolutionary, or something new, still is valuable.

Folders - Kind of ad-hoc, but better than nothing

7- Better power management: Nope

Definite no, in fact, we’ll probably never see this, at least on the iPhone OS. This particular platform is all about lowest common denominator usability – it’s simultaneously what makes the platform so alluring and magical, and the subject of so much griping. You can’t build something a baby can use, and then expect them to understand how to manage their power.

At the same time however, the option should be there for those of us that are knowledgeable about it. I realize I’m asking too much, but it’d be amazingly cool to see hardware reports on projected battery longevity, current draw from individual hardware components, and a trend of power use.

Conclusions: 4/7 ~ 57% Nailed

So Apple implemented 4 out of the 7 things I outlined, if we’re pretty generous about our criteria. You know, on the whole, 57% isn’t bad, but it simultaneously isn’t a slam dunk on my part.

In fact, that’s what makes this industry so interesting. Unlike the desktop, we haven’t yet settled on a paradigm user interaction model – each major platform is actively innovating and evolving, and it’s happening rapidly. Even in the last two years, we’ve seen Android go from being an iPhone OS wannabe to a seriously polished, worthy competitor. We’ve seen that cross carrier availability is hugely important for success (people just don’t want to switch, and they’ll convince themselves that their network is best). We’ve seen that none of the platforms have it all worked out. Apple’s iPhone OS platform is too closed, while Android’s might be just too open (a-la Windows Mobile). It’s a rapidly evolving market out there folks; I’m enjoying scrutinizing every bit of it.

7 Wishes for iPhone OS 4.0

Tomorrow’s big unveiling will likely be focused around the much-hyped, illusory tablet (whose name nobody even knows), but a large part of its launch will be iPhone OS 4.0.

Much debate has taken place regarding whether the tablet will run OS X, iPhone OS, or something in-between. Thanks in large part to an errant comment by the McGraw Hill CEO on MSNBC, I think it’s safe to assume that iPhone OS was the right guess all along.

Or was it? It’s likely that instead of releasing the tablet running the 3.x line OS, apple will launch a 4.x fork to bridge the handheld iPhone/iPod Touch experience with that of the tablet, and in so doing bring the mobile OS closer to its desktop counterpart. It makes sense considering keeping two disparate app stores running could cause a colossal flustercuck.

Since its launch in March of 2009, OS 3.x has begun showing some signs of age, especially compared Android 2.x. Here’s a list of what I think OS 4.0 needs to really keep the platform competitive:

1- Google Voice integration

Although Google just launched an HTML5 version of the google voice interface (no doubt specifically targeted at the iPhone and WebOS platforms), it still pales in comparison with how seamless Google Voice integration is on Android. Users of that platform can completely transition to their new number.

Plus, let’s be honest, using a web based version is just hackety compared to being able to use a much more responsive app without having to jailbreak. Until the day comes, I’ll stick with using the still-banned GV Mobile.

2- Google Latitude integration

This is the one that actually started the whole Google – Apple divorce, in case you have forgotten. It’d be amazing to finally see latitude integrated into the maps app the way it should have been the same month latitude launched.

Even better, the maps application (maintained by google) on BlackBerry OS and Android allows for seamless background position updating. As it is right now, iPhone OS users have to go to an HTML5-based version of the same application to update their position. Or jailbreak and use a solution like longitude (some screenshots/info here) and have it done on a schedule by a persistent background process. This is the solution I ultimately decided on

Perhaps this functionality isn’t allowed because of “duplication of functionality” with Mobile Me? Whatever.

3- Better gmail integration in the mail app

Let’s just come out and say it, the mail app on the iPhone is extremely barebones. Coming from Windows Mobile, I was kind of shocked at how barebones, in fact. No ability to change font, underline, bold, italicize, or do anything regarding formatting. As it is right now, the best you can do is some copy paste.

ArsTechnica really did a good job highlighting a number of subtleties that I’ve noticed in their article here. The most annoying of which is that folders aren’t fully synchronized until you go into them. For example, opening a sent folder will cause all the sent emails to load chronologically. This can get frustrating if you’ve sent a lot and just want to look at one; instead, you’ll have to wait for all of them to load. I can do without a unified inbox or unified messaging app, because honestly I view that as a more of a nightmare to be avoided than a feature.

But those aren’t my main gripe, it’s that there isn’t a gmail app (like what Android has) that supports Labels, Stars, or any of the features that make Gmail integration with email clients over IMAP or Exchange difficult. It’s that whole decision they made to not use “folders” and instead use labels that drives me crazy, and to this day, I’m lucky if I can find any sent email in my google apps account.

Forget about background and push, just fix the email client.

4- Notification customizations for SMS, scheduling

Even though the platform has good customization for ringtones, the alert sounds for system events such as email and new SMSes are surprisingly limited. In fact, at first, I assumed I was “doing it wrong” and failing at finding the proper way to load them. Nope, turns out, what you have is what you have, and what you will have forever.

That default “Tri-tone” sound is what everyone uses, and it’s annoying as hell to have it go off in a crowded room and watch 8 people all go for their phones (myself included). Allow some variety, without the need to jailbreak.

A lot of the other platforms also have alert profile scheduling. Namely, you can specify whether you should be alerted audibly, with vibration, or not at all, on a time schedule throughout the day. I’ve defaulted to always leaving my phone on vibrate simply because this is missing.

5- Background apps done right

This is probably everyone’s #1 wish for OS 4.0. Multitasking done right. Sure, you can jailbreak and do it, but it doesn’t lend itself to having a nice task-switcher. Instead, you’re left using what amounts to a task manager, which is completely the wrong way to do it.

Every other platform has it, only one platform (WebOS) has done it right so far. Can you, apple?

6- Better App organization

If you’re like me, you have 9 pages of applications that you’ve tediously organized. But sometimes, categories that are logical don’t come in sets of 16 (how many you can fit on one ‘page’). The real solution is to allow some sort of management. Be that folders, a menu, or something else.

My Layout

Also, there’s no reason that people should be limited to 4 apps on the bottom row just for aesthetics when you have the room for 5. I couldn’t live without having 5 anymore.

7- Better power management – centralized reporting, on/off, scheduling

Something that I think Android really executed properly was the centralized power management screen. HTC has added this to virtually every single device in recent memory as well. That feature is centralized management of radio hardware and other large current draws.

This is something that, if executed properly, could also be a selling point for making hardware “green.” Hell, as a potential EE, I’d be absolutely in love with a screen showing current consumption from all the chipsets in the hardware that report it, plots of use vs. time, and more intelligent prediction of how much life I’ll get out of the device with current use.

But on a more basic level, what we really need is a feature that allows users to schedule the hardware itself. Imagine you’re on a trip without your charger; odds are, you don’t need the radio hardware on while you’re sleeping, but you do need the device on so the alarm works. Allowing users to schedule power events lets you balance use ahead of time.

But a feature I think is really needed is a so-called “last legs” setting. Basically, after the battery has crossed a user-defined threshold (say 15-25%), the software automatically does everything it can to preserve battery life; WiFi is turned off, 3G is turned off in favor of EDGE, screen brightness is reduced to 20%, push services are put on hold, email fetch intervals are doubled or quadrupled, background processes are killed.

The hardware and software essentially would work together to squeeze every last minute of use out of the hardware when battery gets low. This is especially important for when you cross the threshold while the phone is in your pocket, when you probably don’t even know it’s dangerously close to death.

Conclusions

Historically, Apple delivers products that have extremely polished, working features. Essentially, they err on the side of only releasing features that work, always work, and work well, instead of releasing features that don’t always work, or lack polish.

That said, a lot of the market has caught up since 2009. It’s time to address all of those gripes, and I’m hoping OS 4.0 fills some of the glaring holes in the feature set tomorrow. We’ll find out soon.

Google’s Nexus One – Thoughts

Today, Google finally announced the much-hyped, finally-official googlephone at their Mountain View office. Admittedly, there wasn’t much about the actual announcement that wasn’t previously known; specs, photos, and even an entire review had already leaked out before the official announcement. But the announcement marks google’s first real step into distributing google-branded hardware directly to consumers, the entry of another google-blessed flagship for the Android platform, and a different, long-needed business model for selling phones and wireless contracts.

It’s been a year, 2 months, and 14 days since the launch of the T-Mobile G1, and Android has matured into a serious contender since its beginnings as an aspiring platform in a market dominated by Windows Mobile, Symbian, and the iPhone OS. While the G1 seemed awkward in a kind of adolescent manner, it’s chin a strange design ‘feature,’ its storage ultimately limited, and design-by-committee UI/navigation (anyone remember “how many clocks does it take for google engineers to tell time?”)  the Nexus One is finally enough to make it a real iPhone contender alongside the Droid.

That said, the platform does still suffer from a number of notable shortcomings:

  • Application storage limited to 512 MB partition
    • (Which google says it will fix by allowing applications to reside on an encrypted partition on removable storage, soon)
  • No multitouch within official applications
    • (This strange choice likely stems from legal and patent concerns between Google using Apple IP/prior artwork. Google likely doesn’t want the whole board-member-sharing fiasco to undergo any more scrutiny than it already has)
  • Slower web browsing
    • (Flash? more on that in a second)
  • No support for CDMA (Verizon) until spring, AT&T 3G band support unclear
    • (Rumors abound that Google is working on an AT&T version, but only a “dozen or so employees have access to this hardware”)

I’m going to expand on numbers 2 and 3, since personally I find these the most interesting immediately.

Mobile Flash

Engadget did a rather thorough of the Nexus One, pre-empting it’s announcement (karma for the same way Google tried to pre-empt CES?), and notably included a quick and dirty comparison of the loading speed of browsers on the iPhone 3GS, Nexus One, and Droid. Qualitatively, the winners and losers are painfully obvious from the video, but I took down some times and came up with the following:

  1. iPhone 3GS – 17 seconds
  2. Nexus One – 71 seconds
  3. Motorola Droid – 82 seconds

What immediately sticks out is that it took both of the Android 2.x platforms roughly 4 times longer to load the same website as it did the 3GS.

Initially, this doesn’t make sense. The 3GS is sporting a relatively recent ARM Cortex A8 underclocked from 800 MHz to 600 MHz, while the Nexus One is running the latest (also much-hyped) Qualcomm Snapdragon SoC running at 1GHz (Qualcomm QSD 8250 according to Google). The Snapdragon SoC is extremely similar architecturally to the Cortex A8, so comparing clock speeds is roughly applicable. Then, why the heck is a newer, faster generation chipset clocked 66% faster 4 times slower? Heck, the Android browser even runs lean and mean WebKit at its core, same as Mobile Safari on the iPhone, and Chrome and Safari on the desktop. Why then is it so much slower?

My theory? Flash.

The same multimedia platform hogging resources on the desktop is now hogging resources and slowing down browsing on mobile devices. Excellent. Sure, there’s a lot of content out there that’s driven by Flash that’s useful: videos, games, navigation, photo websites, fancy UI. But what’s the biggest reason? Advertising. Adobe knows it, I mean, just watch their video on mobile flash and notice what they highlight. Advertising.

Up until now, browsing just about everything on all the modern smartphone browsers I’ve used (mobile safari, opera mobile, opera mini, IE mobile) has been usable without adblock primarily because they didn’t have support for flash. Unless mobile browsers begin allowing plugins such as adblock or similar (similar to how mobile firefox, aka Fennec has begun doing), Flash is something I’d rather see disabled than enabled. How much of a feature is it to waste not just performance, but ever-critical battery on a mobile device primarily to show animated and intrusive advertising?

No AT&T 3G, Just T-Mobile

A lot of what Google was really trying to do with the Open Handset Alliance, launching a phone that customers can buy almost directly from HTC (the Nexus One OEM) and introducing essentially a new mobile business model at the same time was abstracting the carrier away from the device.

That is, handsets are increasingly moving towards being carrier-agnostic. In reality, this is the way it was intended to be (and moreover, should have been, at least in GSM-land). In fact, while this business model is entirely new to the US, the portability of handsets using SIMs is nothing new to customers in Europe, who frequently purchase handsets unlocked and bring plans (and SIMs) with them. (As an aside, much of the reason CDMA became dominant in the US was because this same flexibility wasn’t part of the specification; the unique identifier is built into the phone itself in the form of an ESN/MEID.)

It follows, then, that if Google truly wanted to create a splash in the industry and achieve its goal of creating and directly selling the ultimate flagship device that’s totally carrier agnostic, they would have made absolutely certain that HTC built in either multiple radios for UMTS and CDMA, or some modern, hybrid UMTS/CDMA chipset similar to the Qualcomm MSM6200 (PDF link) rumored to be at the core of the next-gen iPhone.

Whatever the case, the decision to launch hardware that at present restricts it to T-Mobile for 3G, EDGE on AT&T, and no CDMA functionality at all, extremely limits the device and ultimate impact. Moreover, it means that HTC and Google are going to have to support 3 sets of unique hardware for the “Nexus One” name. One with a CDMA-stack version for Verizon/Sprint, the current incarnation for T-Mobile, and a final version supporting AT&T’s 3G frequencies. Perhaps even more if they eventually move to support additional carriers in Europe and Asia.

Personally, I find it heartily ironic that rumors abound Apple is using a hybrid UMTS/CDMA chipset in the next gen iPhone. If so, that would make the same iPhone so many complain about because of its exclusivity with AT&T, the most open.

More open, in fact, than the Nexus One.