Android versus IOs

IOs vs. Android

The heydays of the personal computer are over. The fastest growth is not in the traditional PC segment any longer, but in tablet computers and mobile devices. The technological advances in this field have been phenomenal during the past few years. When I attempted an outlook into the mobile future four years ago in this blog entry, I had a time frame of ten years in mind. But it seems that the technology enabling the described functionality is already available.

I got my last mobile gadget in 2008 which -being based on Windows Mobile 6- was outdated only a year later. Though I was determined to keep the phone as long as possible, it gave up its ghost last month, after little more than three years. First, the power button stopped working and then the audio failed. Multiple organ failure, so to speak. The time for an upgrade had come. Since I promised my wife an iPad for her birthday, I got to buy two gadgets at the same time, an IOs-based IPad 2 tablet and an Android-based Samsung Galaxy S2 smartphone. Of course, these are not mere consumer items for me, but I am interested in studying and evaluating the available software development tools.

At this time, app development for either platform does not look like a lucrative proposition per se, unless one has access to marketing channels that enable economy of scales. However, it may be worthwhile to acquire the technical know-how nevertheless. For me, mobile app development is interesting, because it can be used to leverage existing web services and server applications. People want to use web-based services on the go with their mobile devices. The demand in this area is growing rapidly and it's probably just a question of time until proprietary corporate applications go in the same direction.

I have to admit that I am more drawn towards the Android platform, not just because the SDK is Java-based, but because it is an open platform. Apple currently has a unique position in the market as innovator and technology leader, but I doubt that the company can sustain its dominance in the long run. Aggressive vendor-lock might have worked for Microsoft in the nineties, but Apple's exclusionist strategies are more likely to annoy people. They definitely annoyed me. While I consider the absence of a file manager and Flash support a minor disadvantage on the iPad, the big pain points are iTunes and the lack of seamless data exchange.

I can connect my Android phone to my PC and fill it with music, video clips, photos, or whatever I desire using a simple USB file-level utility. On the iPad, I am forced to use a synchronization process controlled by iTunes, and since the iTunes software is not available for Linux, I have to shovel my data to a Windows PC first, just like in the bad old days of Microsoft ActiveSync. In addition, iTunes dictates what formats it is willing to accept. The height of my vexation, however, was reached when I found that I cannot register with the Apple store unless I submit my credit card data, even though I did not intend to buy anything at the time. Since the iPad is totally dependent on the app store for software updates, I grudgingly complied, but it definitely left the unpleasant impression that Apple is grabbing for my purse prematurely.

Fortunately, the iPad is such a great piece of hardware, that it stands to reason people are putting up with Apples's snappishness for now. It's still one of the best, if not the best tablet PC in the market. To be fair, one must also mention that iTunes has some good points, particularly the iTunes U area, which is a part of the iTunes store where education institutions publish free audio and video lectures. You could probably get a lifetime worth of high quality lectures out of iTunes U, if life were indeed long enough to learn about every imaginable topic.

For precisely this reason, because time is a limited resource, I have decided to take a closer look at Android, before I dabble in any other mobile OS, unless someone convinces me otherwise. As the market for smartphones and tablet OS is still dynamic and continues to evolve, it would be too early to draw final conclusions.

The mighty paper UI

Supermarket

I went shopping last weekend, and since my capacity for remembering things is slowly degrading (sigh) I often make a shopping list when I have to buy more than 500 items. Okay, maybe that's a bit exaggerated. I mean 50 items. Alright, alright, still exaggerated. I begin to consider a shopping list when I have more than 5 items to buy and I definitely make one if there are more than 10. So, I'm on my way with my shopping list, which -befitting my rank as a software engineer- was stored on my smart phone. Just a few years ago, this might have been considered geeky or eccentric, but nowadays smart phones are so common that it hardly catches anyone's eye. I frequently take notes on my phone, for the simple reason that I have it always with me, and it's often closer than a notepad or a diary.

So there I was in the supermarket, having to check the contents of the shopping cart against my list. No problem, of course. Take phone out pocket and switch the display on to show the main screen (2 sec). Tap on main screen to show launcher window (1 sec). Drag launcher window contents with finger to scroll to memo pad application (1 sec). Open memo pad application (1 sec). Locate shopping list on application menu and tap on it (1 sec). Mind you, that's an optimistic estimation, because something might run more sluggishly than usual. For example, the phone might have discovered a Wifi hotspot and thinks it's a great idea to tell me about it. But I don't want Wifi. Now, six seconds doesn't sound too bad, until I noticed the guy next to me. He had a shopping list, too, one written on paper. He took it out of his shirt pocket in less than a second. Swish. Just like that. Han Dynasty technology beating the smart phone.

That's when I realised, there are situations when you can't trump a paper based UI.