Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Android Design - Part One

Android it appears is gaining market share. Or at least that's what the experts think will happen soon. So I've started taking a serious look at Android.

The first impressions...
Let's start with the purchase experience. Having been a part of the purchase of both the Droid from Verizon and the HTC Hero from Sprint, the process is the same for both. First thing, a store employee opens my phone and plays with it first, getting their fingerprints all over the screen. That bugs me. I want to play with my device first! But that aside, let's continue.

After some computer work, the carrier employee hands me the device and asks me to enter a Gmail account. Yes, I'm serious. I cannot complete the purchase and setup of an Android device without "branding" the phone with a Gmail account. This is strange, to say the least, so let me restate. I cannot purchase nor even use the device until I have branded the phone with a valid Gmail account. I may create one, on the device, if I do not have one already (or one that I care to use for the phone). And that process is fairly easy to complete. However, I MUST use Gmail. Period. If I don't use Gmail? Doesn't matter, one has to with Android devices. Unless you want to pay a lot of money to only be able to make an emergency call. Now interestingly, this weirdness and annoyance does have a benefit - my Mail is already setup for Gmail and all my Gmail contacts are downloaded and populated in the contacts app (called "People" on some Android devices).

After getting over the weird purchase process, I started playing (a new toy!) First, it's amazing how different it is from both the iPhone and the Palm PRE. It definitely looks like an OS created by engineers. On all but the HTC devices, it's clunky, at times unclear what is selectable, confusing to execute on input data, and just overall lacking the polish that both the iPhone and even the PRE have. There is no multi-touch. I expect it's coming, but iPhone users take note: even though it looks like you can pinch to zoom, you can't, it only makes the map do weird things as it tries to interpret what all the touching means. That said, they did have a great system font created for the device and it is an interesting mashup of both iPhone ideas and WinMo concepts (today screen meets iphone home screen).

Where things get more interesting is with the HTC devices, such as the Droid Eris at Verizon and the HTC Hero at Sprint. At first glance and touch, the HTC devices instantly stand out from the rest of the 'droid pack. They're PRETTY! They've chosen an aesthetically pleasing standard background, unlike Motorola with that brick of a device, the Droid. They've added additional home screens, upping the number from 3 standard on all other Android devices to a whopping 7. And to go with those additional home screens are "HTC Widgets" (yes, that's the label in the UI). These are well designed, pretty even, widgets for such things as Twitter and "Footprints". Add to that the other additions and changes that are part of HTC's Sense UI and I must say the HTC Android devices are a nice user experience. Not quite up to par with the iPhone, but enough that if you can't use ATT wireless, then the HTC Android devices are still better user experiences than other smartphones (ie Blackberry) available. The one possible exception being the PRE on Sprint.

The PRE versus HTC Hero...
This is a toughie. The PRE has a better user experience than Android. It's clear what apps are running in the background (not clear at all on Android). The integrated contacts are still better than Android's way of forcing me to use a gmail account. And the PRE is smaller with a keyboard (although I don't see the PRE's keyboard as much of an advantage.) The HTC Hero however has a much louder ringer. Yes, that's important. The interface is a little prettier thanks to the Sense UI additions. More importantly, the Android Market will have many more apps than the PRE will. Android appeals to the techy crowd that is much more likely to create apps and there will be many more Android devices than PRE soon if the experts are correct.

Android is going to make the smartphone scene very interesting. It has a number of UI flaws, some very serious such as the lack of a "Go" or "Done" button or similar. There's no multi-touch, yet. However browsing is quite nice. The ringer is nice and loud. There will be a good number of apps most likely. But it's no iPhone. It's not as easy to use and it's certainly not meant for first-time smartphone users unless they are smart and willing enough to figure it out. For those people, I still suggest the iPhone, with the PRE as a distant second.