Anybody got any crow?

Back in February, I wrote this blog post talking about how I was basically transitioning from being an entrenched Apple user to being firmly in the Google orbit. At the time, I'd just received a CR-48 from Google and was fairly well enraptured with how well it fit my needs. I was using an Android phone, the Droid X from Motorola, and managing my contacts, email and telephony through Google Contacts, Gmail and Google Voice, respectively. Google was making my life better, Apple was yesterday's news, and I was feeling pretty smug about having moved on to another phase of my digital life.

Well, today I'm using an iPhone 4, getting more use out of my iMac, preparing to buy a MacBook Air for my wife, and thinking seriously about an iPad as a laptop replacement. What happened?

It is, as they say, complicated, but things started to go south for me in the Googleverse about a month and a half ago. Back in June, I received an over-the-air update from Verizon that upgraded my Droid X from Android 2.2 "Froyo" to Android 2.3 "Gingerbread." At first, I was happy.

A few days into it, though, some odd things started happening to my phone that hadn't happened before. Random reboots. loss of signal, decreased battery life, and what I referred to here as The Problem. Simply put, The Problem was that my phone would immediately hang up after I placed a call. What the…?

Shortly after I figured out that The Problem was recurring, I started digging around online to see if anyone else was experiencing it. What I found was disturbing. It appeared that Motorola had pushed out an incredibly defective update to the OS. Further investigation led me to the Motorola owners' support forum, where I confirmed that the problems I was experiencing were not unique to me. I also discovered that people had been screaming about problems ever since the update, and Motorola was not being particularly responsive, with no timeframe for when a bugfix might be pushed out. Not even an indication that a bugfix would _ever_ be pushed out. Silence. Not cool.

Around this time, I got wind of Verizon's plan to discontinue unlimited data plans in favor of tiered pricing. Since my wife was showing interest in the iPhone, I decided that the time was ripe to get her one while I could still get her grandfathered into unlimited data. Then the wheels started turning…if I get one for her, I really should get familiar with the iPhone myself since I'll be the primary tech support. And we did have cross-upgrades available from two of the other lines on our family plan…hmmm….

After putting two and two together and finding that it did indeed add up to four, things moved pretty quickly. A quick trip to the local Apple Store to play with the hardware, a visit to the Verizon website, and in a couple of days there were two nice, shiny, 32 GB white iPhones in the house. I found out that iOS really _is_ much smoother than Android (at least on the DX), and while the screen was smaller it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. There's no non-removable carrier-installed crapware to clutter it up. And in true, Jobsian Apple fashion, the bloody things really do _just work_. End of my Android experiment. Gazelle.com will even give me a hundred bucks or so for the Droid X, which makes the switch a bit less expensive, and I can use the Droid X power cord to recharge my Kindle, so it's not a total loss.

And, just for the record, here in the first week of August, Motorola _still_ hasn't pushed out a patch. The people on the Motorola forum are still grasping at straws, with lots of vague talk about a patch that will go out in September. Or maybe October. Even if they do manage to push out a fix then, users will have gone through a third of the year without a properly functioning phone. Even _Wired_ reported on the whole debacle. Noting that you can't just roll back the previous version easily, and that Motorola was being noncommittal about pushing out a fix, they ended their report with this:

So unfortunately for frustrated Droid X owners, they’ll have to play the waiting game with Verizon and Motorola until a fix is released — or shell out the cash for a new phone. Was that the plan all along?


Some of you might be wondering why I didn't just get a different Android phone instead of jumping to the iPhone. Apart from wanting to gain some iOS experience so I could be the tech support guy for my wife, it's simply because I have come to believe that Android's success carries within it a fatal weakness, and there is no guarantee that my Droid X experience wouldn't be replicated with my next phone. You see, a few hardy souls have managed to get stock Android 2.3 running on the same hardware, and those phones work fine. The difference between those phones and my Droid X? Motorola's proprietary "Motoblur" interface, and the crapware that Verizon installs on the phone, some of which cannot be removed.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that the problems I and others have experienced are somehow related to the modifications made to the operating system by Motorola and Verizon. Otherwise, phones running stock Android would be having the same problems, which they aren't. And here lies the fatal flaw of Android, in my opinion.

It has been observed that the Android vs. iOS contest, is a replay of Windows vs. Mac, and while it's not an exact parallel, it's close enough. Like Mac vs. Windows, it's a bit of a religious war. With iOS, Apple has replicated its business model with the Mac--producing both the hardware and software, and keeping tight control of each in order to guarantee a consistent user experience. With Android, Google has taken the Windows model of allowing anyone to use it on their hardware, and then gone one better by permitting manufacturers to modify the OS as they see fit. This is why no two Android phones have identical user interfaces. HTC adds the Sense UI, Motorola adds Motoblur, Samsung does something else entirely, and if you want the "Pure Google" experience, you either have to get a Nexus S (which until recently was only sold through T-Mobile) or root your phone. Even the hardware buttons vary from device to device.

This ability to modify the hardware and the OS is a big reason why so many phone manufacturers have embraced Android. It's a ready-made OS that they can then modify to suit themselves, and there's no persnickety Steve Jobs to tell the carriers that they can't install six tons of crap on the phone. This has encouraged both growth and fragmentation; there are lots of Android phones out there, with significant market share, but not all running the same version of the OS, and the differences between a high-end 4G phone like the Thunderbolt and a low-end phone running 2.1 are profound.

Meanwhile, the same things that make Android attractive to carriers and manufacturers hold pitfalls for the consumer. With an Apple device, you only have to wait for Apple to push out an update. With Android, you are at the mercy of the carrier and the manufacturer, who in turn have to wait for Google to release the stock version that they base their variations on. And, as I found, they are somewhat less obsessed with perfection than the boys and girls in Cupertino. It makes upgrading a bit of a crapshoot.

It boils down to what you want. Do you want something you can play with and modify? Do you require an extra-large screen? Are you willing, or eager, to get under the hood and tinker? Then you might like Android. Do you want something smooth, something refined, something that just works? Do you want an ecosystem that is so well developed that you can buy accessories from vending machines at the airport? You'll be happier with an iPhone.

A few years ago, in another place, I wrote the following about Linux, on which Android is loosely based:

It's kind of like driving an Alfa Romeo with twin carburetors: you can tinker with it to your heart's content, it makes you feel good and look cool, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you've gone your own way, but you better know how to get under the hood and fix it, because it's likely to give you the opportunity to do so at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes, you just want to get to work, and at those times you'll be a whole lot happier in a Nissan 350Z, particularly if it's 34 degrees F and it's raining and you're running late. God bless the man who invented fuel injection.

I could say much the same thing about Android. You can customize it, you can tinker with it, you can have the satisfaction of knowing you're doing it your way, not Steve Jobs' way, but someday AT&T-Mobile/Verizon will push out a half-baked update that messes with your carburetors, and you'll be on your own. As for me, I'll take the fuel injection, and that is why I switched to the iPhone, and I'm never going back.

(To be continued…)