Samsung

High-end Android Phones Serve Everyone But the User


Yesterday, I headed to my local Verizon Wireless store to try out the Galaxy Nexus, the latest designed-by-Google phone from Samsung. While I was there, I also tested the current top-of-the-line LTE phones from HTC (the Rezound) and Motorola (the DROID RAZR). I’ve written my impressions of each below, but in testing all three, I noticed something telling about the overall current state of high-end Android phones.

Despite the fact that the Android operating system is by far the best fit for my needs, I can’t say I’d recommend any of the current high-end Android phones over an iPhone. Even the best Android phones seem to be unbalanced attempts to serve the various agendas of the OS vendor (Google), the designer/manufacturer, and the wireless carrier. It feels like these organizations are too focused on their own priorities to harmoniously collaborate in the design of a product which is great for the user. Google seems happy to focus on doing the bare minimum to get their Nexus “proof-of-concept” phones shipped, and leave innovative hardware design to other folks (who install crappy software.)

This disconcerted effort of unaligned agendas recreates the market conditions which allowed Apple to disrupt the smartphone market in 2007 by refusing to cede any control of the customer experience or business relationship to another company. Apple’s integration of software and hardware, coupled with their power to keep carriers subservient, allows them to focus on their own goals, a large part of which is the user’s experience. They also support their old devices better and longer.

I want to be clear: I’m not saying the iPhone is better than Android. Everyone has different priorities in picking the best fit for their smartphone. I am saying that on average, the iPhone is usually the best match for someone who wants equally good software, hardware, and customer support. But doesn’t mean much in reality, as buyer’s desires are as diverse as the selection of phones available to them. Personally, I care a whole lot less about build quality than I do about software stability, reliability, and geek-friendliness, so I’d probably still buy a phone with “pure Google” software if it were installed on a hardened turd with an LTE antenna.

Overall, I think the reinvented smartphone industry is now quite mature, and every device out there basically does the same thing. There are so many choices out there, but I’d really like to see more folks than just Apple focusing on delivering excellent products and service to the end user. I feel like HTC is almost doing that with its Android phones, but needs to release fewer devices and support them better, and that Google needs to give manufacturers better access to prerelease builds so non-Nexus phones don’t lag the rest of the industry by 6-12 months.

Galaxy Nexus (designed by Google in collaboration with Samsung)

Pro:

  • It’s a “pure Google” device. This means it’s the first to get updates, and Google controls them. This means it will probably be more stable, secure, and up-to-date than any other Android phone (until Google releases another one.)
  • The camera’s shutter and between-shot delay is FAST. So fast that what I thought was a delay for focusing was actually the picture being taken.
  • The Galaxy Nexus recreates the Nexus S’s beautiful “blank black” face, and improves upon it by moving menu buttons onto the screen in a dynamic fashion.

Con:

  • The quality of materials and industrial design is nowhere near competitive with phones even half its price. Google says it’s got a metal frame inside which many phones lack, but the plastic is cheaper feeling than everything sold for $199 since the iPhone 3G/3GS. I don’t know what happened here, since Samsung did a pretty great job with the previous Nexus S.
  • The speaker really sucks, which is a shame since the screen could be really great for multimedia.
  • Matters of my own personal preference: I don’t like the headphone jack’s location on the bottom, the not-quite-gigantic 4.65″ screen (though nice for typing), or the exposed dock connection pins.
  • For some reason, the AMOLED screen is worse than the one Samsung uses on its own Galaxy S II phones, and its PenTile layout reduces the effective pixels-per-inch relative to the competition. At this price point, I don’t understand the cost cutting. (The screen still looked pretty darn good, but the bar is set high.)

HTC Rezound:

Pro:

  • As always for HTC, this phone has excellent industrial design. Despite my dislike of phone screens above 4 inches, the fit in my hand was nice, the soft touch of the back casing eliminates any “slippery” feeling, and overall it felt solid.
  • This phone has an LCD display, unlike the Nexus and RAZR’s AMOLED variants. I thought this display was by far the best in the group.
  • HTC’s Sense UI is “love-it-or-hate-it,” but I’ve always fallen in the “love it” category. Sense 3.5 is smooth and takes awesome advantage of the high-specced hardware. I particularly liked how functional and usable HTC’s camera UI is in Sense 3.5.

Con:

  • This phone adds “Beats by Dre” branding to the already packed company of Sense, HTC, Verizon, and Google. Other reviews say the first-party music app uses audio “enhancement” which doesn’t extend to the rest of the OS.
  • The phone is great right now, but its software is already old. HTC releases quality software updates, but it takes them 6-9 months after Google’s release to prepare them.
  • This phone’s bootloader is locked (by Verizon’s choice), making it much harder to install custom Android distributions like Cyanogenmod, which have been instrumental to me in compensating for HTC’s slowness to update their operating systems. Since I want Ice Cream Sandwich, this is a potential deal breaker for me.
  • HTC pretty much doesn’t update Sense features after a phone’s release. They’re a selling point, not a supported and modernized part.

Motorola DROID RAZR

Pro

  • Design and build quality. I didn’t expect this (I returned two original Droids which couldn’t stand the test of basic wear and tear), but I was quite impressed by the fit and finish on this thing. The expensive Kevlar backing is kind of a confusing touch, but it’s good for RF transparency.
  • The super AMOLED display looked great and fared quite well in bright sunlight.

Con

  • Verizon is quite clearly using its DROID brand to aggressively assert its own campaigns. I had really weird stuff going on, like Verizon logos in the camera app with a “You don’t have geolocation turned on, go turn it on, there’s no reason you wouldn’t want that!” nag.
  • Motorola’s custom UI isn’t intrusive, but it is butt-ugly. I have no clue what these folks are thinking, and Verizon’s locked bootloader makes installation of a vanilla Android less attractive. Hopefully Google’s acquisition of Motorola will stop this.

So what am I gonna do?

I don’t know. These phones all feel like they’ve been designed as the best solution to one of the companies’ goals, instead of the best fit for me. The Galaxy Nexus realizes Google’s vision for Android 4.0, but fails to make an attractive consumer product. The HTC phone is excellent for right now, but will feel really outdated in just a year. The DROID product line just feels like Verizon’s attempt to bake in as many upsells and in-house branding spots as possible. I really wish I could take the HTC Rezound, but get the support of a “pure Google” phone. (That was the excellent Nexus One of two generations ago, before Google switched to Samsung as a launch partner.)

Who knows, I might decide once again that “It’s the software, stupid!” and just buy the Galaxy Nexus. At this point, it feels like I’d be happiest either doing that or going back to the iPhone.

City ID software soliciting a paid subscription

My Solution for the Android Bloatware Problem

City ID software soliciting a paid subscription

City ID, a non-removable app preinstalled on my HTC Incredible by Verizon to get more money from me. They even start off with an unannounced trial of the functionality and hold it hostage 2 weeks later unless you pay up.

Note: Skimmers should definitely skip my overtures and get straight to my recommendations at the bottom of this post.

A lot of concern has cropped up regarding “bloatware” in the most recent batch of smartphones running Android. There are really two sources of complaints in this area:

  1. Custom User Interface skins put on top of the stock Android OS by the manufacturer.
    These skins take a generic, manufacturer-agnostic OS and create an experience unique to an individual manufacturer’s devices. Manufacturers seem to experiment endlessly with these custom UIs, often revising them with each new generation of device. They vary a lot in quality, but in turn also create more options for customers to choose the device best tailored to fit their own personal preferences. (Some will decry the existence of any custom UI, but I am in love with the time-tested HTC Sense UI, and moreover think that an “open” platform should allow for such innovations.) But it’s now impossible to buy a high-end Android phone in the United States without one of these custom UIs. With Google’s removal of their Nexus One phone from the consumer market, there are few examples of phones offering the pure “Google experience.”
  2. Additional “bloatware” programs pre-loaded onto phones by carriers to make a quick buck.
    Just like many new Windows PCs, carriers now compensate for their ever-decreasing margins on device sales by loading programs onto their phones for the purpose of generating more revenue, often without regard for the quality of the customer’s experience with the end product. One phone comes with a non-removable copy of Avatar; another has the search set to Bing by default and doesn’t allow owners to change to another service; AT&T doesn’t allow the loading of programs outside the Android Marketplace; and yet others build basic caller ID or visual voicemail apps and tack disproportionate monthly fees onto the bill for their use.

I’m not surprised or discouraged to see this come up as an issue as the Android OS matures. In fact, Android works this way by design. Android would not have existed as a product if it weren’t for the support of the Open Handset Alliance, a huge consortium of carriers, manufacturers and developers who stood to benefit from such an open platform. Back in 2007, the iPhone turned the smartphone status quo upside down, and did so by taking almost all the power away from the carrier with a vertically integrated product of uniform hardware and software. Any company wishing to make money in Apple’s new market, they had to first cede the final say on all matters to Apple, who in turn prioritized the quality of the user experience above all else. In many ways, Android only became successful because it gave carriers the opportunity to re-prioritize profits over quality products and services.

This isn’t to say that Android is doomed to a future of bloatware and terrible UX. Indeed, we’re seeing rather textbook examples of differentiation in a free market. Android is the best platform for differentiating devices for different preferences and price points. And anyone who oversteps the bounds of what a customer is willing to buy, they won’t succeed. And on top of these economic norms, Android’s open nature and fast release cycle makes it the most accessible mobile OS for innovators throughout the platform, from app developers, to service providers, to device manufacturers.

But at the same time, it’s clear that no American carrier sees economic benefit in selling a “pure” Android phone. Manufacturer-controlled phones from RIM and Apple are seamless integrations of hardware and software, and even Microsoft is asserting more control over the process with Windows Phone 7. With rumors of an imminent end to the iPhone’s exclusivity, it’s possible that carriers could just see Android as a good lower-end option below “premium” offerings on other OSes.

But I think this can be easily changed to keep Android’s momentum working in a positive direction without making sacrifices to openness, profits, or much else. Here’s how:

  1. Change the “Google logo” terms to put the customer’s needs first again.
    Android itself is totally open source and free, but you have to follow some extra rules to get the “with Google” logo and access to Google’s apps, including the Android Marketplace app store. Right now those rules aren’t very demanding, but Google could definitely insist that extra OEM/Carrier things on top of stock Android be removable by the end user. (They could even go as far as to ban custom UIs or bloatware, but I think it wouldn’t fit Android’s open nature, and would be a losing move towards competing with Apple’s business model.) “But what about the lost carrier revenue?” That’s where step #2 comes in:
  2. Give carriers a share of Google’s 30% cut on app sales.
    This gives them an incentive to make more pure “Google logo” devices over crippled alternatives. As carriers worry more and more about becoming generic service providers of wholesale data bits, this gives them a significant new revenue stream that actually rewards them for making the devices their customers really want. “But the Android Marketplace is mostly free apps, this isn’t Apple’s app store…” That’s true, but sacrifices don’t need to be made there, either:
  3. Charge developers an annual fee for the Android Marketplace to encourage paid apps, but protect developers’ existing freedoms
    Apple charges each developer $99 per year to develop and sell their applications in their store, and the only alternative is through jailbreaking. Android’s Marketplace is more financially accessible, and has a lot more free apps. To convince carriers that a Marketplace revenue share is attractive, they would need to change the Marketplace’s composure to a more revenue-driven approach. But the existing community of free app developers should also be accommodated for – I envision creating even more freedom for developers to use alternative distribution methods, first by forbidding AT&T-like restrictions on outside applications, and even – this is probably too optimistic – making root/super user access an easy opt-in setting on every phone for geeks who know what they’re doing.

I have no experience in the telecom industry, and I bet the folks in charge of Android at Google know a lot better than I, but I think something like this would be a logical direction to take as Android moves to new heights of popularity. I wonder especially about revenue sharing in the Marketplace when the carriers are going to the lengths of crippling their own devices in order to compensate for diminishing margins on unit sales.