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I got my last mobile gadget in 2008 which -being based on Windows Mobile 6- was outdated only a year later.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.

Durable Devices

ThinkpadWhile recently perusing a brochure from a local IT mall, I was simultaneously amused and impressed to see that Lenovo Thinkpad computers are now being advertised as "military grade" laptops. Apparently this goes back to a recent press release by Lenovo announcing that its laptops have met military specs for semi-rugged computing. Having owned a Thinkpad for five years, I think I understand, because we have sort of "semi-rugged" computing conditions in our family, kindly provided by our two children, two dogs, and my wife. The Thinkpad runs almost 24/7, playing cartoons for the kids, functioning as a mobile office for my wife, and serving me on occasional field trips, demos, and network tests, while it is downloading files at night time. It has been shoved and pushed, stepped on, licked by the doggies (they do love Thinkpads) and various liquids were spilled on it in the course of its life. After five years, I have just replaced the batteries and the hard disk and I expect it to go another few years. You could say, I am quite happy with Thinkpad performance.

Another class of devices that qualifies for rugged deployment are Nokia phones. The picture on the left probably speaks for itself. My wife just replaced this phone after three years of tough service during which the phone spent most time skidding around the dashboard of her car. In addition, it has survived several falls from considerable hight, including a spectacular one at the Mae Sa waterfall in Chiang Mai, and the usual wet conditions during the rainy season in Thailand. Finally, Pioneer has my admiration for its exceptionally long-lived optical drives. I recently replaced my Pioneer DVD/CD Player after ten years of service without failure or repair. Of course, I bought a new Pioneer player.

iPhony

One doesn't need to be a top-class industry analyst to notice that the sales of smart phones is currently exploding. These devices are simply everywhere. Shops are plastered with iPhones and Android phones. The word is that suppliers and manufacturers have difficulties coping with demand. Good times for smartphone makers, I suppose…

Although I guess that Android will grab the larger market share in the long run, the Apple iPhone has presently the edge. Apple is clearly the leader, not only in sales, but more importantly in design and technology, as well as in being the most expensive. And what do the other competitors do? Follow the leader, of course.

As a consequence, one can find a growing number of "i-phony" applications that make your device look like an iPhone. The must have ingredients are: 1) jewel case look – shiny multi-coloured icons on a matt black background, 2) finger-tip sized GUI elements (retire your stylus), and 3) sliding dynamics that allow users to pan and scroll virtual sceens across the display without scroll bars.

The old adage says: "If you can't make it, fake it." If you happen to own a device with an aging operating system, such as Symbian or Windows Mobile, there are ways to jazz up your phone without shelling out half a month's salary for a new smart phone. SPB's Mobile Shell 3.5, for example, will give your Pocket PC or phone a new coat of paint. It can't magically transform your device into an iPhone, but it's as "i-phony" as it gets without actually copying the Apple look.
 

Pocket PCs Suck!

Pocket PCs suck! Well, they do at least suck when they don’t work as they are supposed to. …which is pretty often in my experience. To be fair, I must say that Pocket PCs are great as long as they do work. Since a Pocket PC is like a miniature computer, it offers a functional range and programmability that surpasses almost any other mobile device. Unfortunately, this leads to complexity, and complexity leads to bugs which in turn leads to malfunctioning devices. I’ve been using Pocket PCs for two years now and have developed sort of a love-hate relationship. Probably the culprit is the Windows Mobile operating system. Windows Mobile, although already in version 6, evokes bad memories of the buggy Microsoft operating systems of the nineties. Only that this isn’t the nineties. After ten or fifteen years of consumer mobile phones, we have come to expect mobile devices to work flawlessly. In fact, I am relying on my Pocket PC for many day-today tasks. I use it as a phone, alarm clock, notepad, camera, phone book, and mp3 player and more. My HP iPaq Business Navigator also has an assisted GPS, but I came to see the latter as a toy function. Due to usability issues I hardly bother to fiddle with it.

However, the question I am asking myself now is – isn’t this device just an expensive toy? Where is the robustness that should come with a “business” device . I have put in a good deal of time just to keep my pocket PC working. My HP PPC has seen the service shop twice, once because of a faulty memory chip, and another time because it didn’t boot anymore until the shop installed a firmware upgrade. In addition to that, I have spent a fair number of hours with configuration and trouble-shooting because one or another function was broken. Once I get a working configuration with all the software installed, I use Spb Backup to create a complete backup of the system. Spb Backup is a real life-saver. It backs up all configuration data, user data, applications and system data. Should the device give up its ghost or display odd behaviour (believe me, every Pocket PC will do that at some point), I can perform a factory reset and restore the backup to recreate the former status of the device easily. But even with this tool, the amount of maintenance required seems a little excessive. A gadget that carries the name “Business Navigator” should be expected to work like a business device, namely reliably. Unfortunately, I can’t say that for the HP iPaq and neither for the other Pocket PCs I’ve owned and used. As previously mentioned, I am not blaming the hardware manufacturers. The OS seems to be the crux.

Real business users would probably be better off with a smartphone that requires less messing around. A Pocket PC is more suited to -shall I put it this way- the technically inclined person.