My mobile device State of the Union

Monday was day 1 of Apple's WWDC, and I find myself thinking about mobile devices again.Ladies and gentlemen, the State of the Union for mobile is a veritable minefield of less-than-optimal choices. Let's look at the major players.

Windows Phone/Mobile

I've been a reasonably satisfied user of the mostly ignored Windows Phone operating system for a couple of years now, but I've been thinking that I'll probably switch to either iPhone or Android when my current phone (a Nokia Lumia 1520) is paid off, based on Microsoft's apparent total disinterest in serving the high end of the market, and the diminishing number of apps available for Windows Phone. Let me be clear—I like the OS, but I'm starting to feel the pinch of apps that either don't get updated or are pulled from the Marketplace. Microsoft's answer is to make it possible to run Android and iOS apps on Windows Phone, which unfortunately eliminates any incentive that might exist for building native Windows Phone apps.

Then there's the decidedly iffy build quality of my Lumia 1520, a device which was supposed to be the flagship of the line. I expected more. I don't expect miracles, but when I'm getting bright spots on my screen just a few months after purchase, there's a problem.

Then there's the fact that Windows Phone as we know it is on the way out. Come this fall, the unification of the phone OS with Windows 10 means that we're looking at a somewhat uncertain future. It could be great. It could be a disaster. Either way, it'll be different. And as for tablets, Microsoft's insistence that 8-inch tablets will receive the full, desktop-oriented version of Windows 10 makes NO F*****G SENSE AT ALL. Dear Satya: That ain't what I want on my 8-inch Asus tablet.

The main argument for staying with Windows Phone is that I like and use Microsoft services, and they're well-integrated into the Windows Phone OS. But Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, has made those services also available through well-designed apps on iOS and Android, so that pretty much wipes out that advantage.

So I'm looking at Android and iPhone, and the jury is still out on which way I'll go.

Android

Android is famously "open," but that doesn't mean much to the average user. If you want stock Android, there's exactly one choice: the Nexus 6\. Take it or leave it.Every other Android phone on the market will have additional OEM cruft added to the OS: UI overlays, non-removable apps, etc. Sure, you can root the device and flash a new Cyanogen ROM, but that's way more geekiness than I want to get involved with on a device I rely on every day. Plus, why should I have to do that, anyway? Then there's the matter of updates being controlled by the OEM and the wireless provider. I've been bitten by that before, with my first smartphone, the Droid X; I don't want to be in that situation again.

The upside to Android, as with Windows Phone, is choice and price. There are a lot of devices out there, many of them quite affordable. You can get an unlocked device for less than $200 in many cases, which is a fantastic deal. And if you're willing to take a shot at a new OEM with uncertain support, you can get the OnePlus One, which is a flagship device, runs the Cyanogen variant and is available for only $299 unlocked for the 64 GB version. Sadly, the Nexus 6 is not the screaming deal that the Nexus 5 was (or the OnePlus One is), and it will set you back about as much as a comparable iPhone.

iPhone

As for the iPhone, it's still the gold standard for many people, for obvious reasons. The build quality tends to be superb, and iOS has the most apps available. If you have a problem, the solution is as close as the Genius Bar of your nearest Apple Store. Updates come straight from Apple with no carrier interference, and the customer service experience for your device is as good as it gets, especially if you pop for AppleCare. There's also a wide variety of cases and accessories available for whichever iPhone you buy. Bottom line: It's the Toyota Camry of smartphones (or, given the price tag, maybe the Lexus ES300).

The trade-off for these advantages is threefold:

  1. First, you'll do things Apple's way, or you won't do them at all (and I don't particularly _like_ doing things Apple's way). While the iPhone is a bit more open than previously—you can finally replace the godawful iPhone keyboard with a third-party option—it's still very locked down compared to the competition.
  2. Second, most all of the Apple apps will lock you into their walled garden—iMessages, Pages, etc. It's like a pitcher plant—easy to get into, but hard to get out of. And from comments I'm seeing online from dedicated Apple fans, Apple's software quality ain't what it used to be, plus their UI design is stagnant—the upcoming iOS 9 isn't all that different from the first iPhone OS (which they claimed was OS X—remember?), except for being flatter. And don't even get me started on the mess that is iCloud. Or Apple Maps. Fortunately, as stated previously, you can use Microsoft apps (or Google apps) instead.
  3. Third, you'll pay the famous Apple Tax. Want a 64 GB iPhone 6 Plus with a case and Apple Care? That'll be about $1000, please. You can get three OnePlus Ones for that.

(Before anyone gets started, yes, that's the price of the unlocked SIM-free version. Yes, if you're American or Canadian, they have payment plans and contract prices with carriers. Do the math, and once you factor in the hidden costs, you eventually end up paying about the same either way over a 2-year period.)

Conclusion

So there you have it. Windows Phone was a breath of fresh air, but it's gone nowhere fast and faces an uncertain future. Android has many things to like, but Google has never been able to prevent the OEMs from screwing it up. And Apple makes great devices, but they seem to be a bit sloppier with their software quality than they used to be, and it's not like they're innovating with their UI any more, either. And God knows their web services are a mess.

So where will I end up?

Good question. Not Windows Phone, probably—the cost/benefit ratio doesn't make sense to me anymore. Sad, but that's reality. Windows 10 will also mark the third time in the past ten years that Microsoft has introduced a completely new and incompatible operating system (Windows Mobile > Windows Phone 7 > Windows Phone 8 > Windows 10 Mobile). I'm not sure I trust that Microsoft is really committed in this segment, for obvious reasons.

Android? Maybe. I like Android. My first smartphone was Android. I understand Android. I just hate the broken upgrade process and the stupid, annoying OEM crapware that almost all Android phones have. But when the time comes, if my budget dictates that price is an overwhelming consideration, I'll reluctantly make my peace with that.

iPhone? Probably. It's not my favorite operating system, and it's not my favorite price tag. But when you get down to it, Apple has won the mobile race.

I look at it this way: I'm a fan of sports cars, but I drive a four-door sedan with an automatic because it makes the most sense for my daily driving. I used to use a radar detector, but I gave up when I realized the war was over and the other side won. I spent most of my college years using OpenOffice, but Microsoft Office is the gold standard for business and it's what most everyone uses, so I use it now too, because I'm tired of the effort it takes to use something else.

You gotta know when you're beaten, and you gotta know when to move on. I've liked Windows Phone, but the rest of the world doesn't care, and apparently neither does Microsoft. I've liked Android in the past, but every time I pick up the Samsung tablet at work, the garish UI overlay drives me nuts, and I still don't trust Google. That leaves Apple, who arguably invented the modern smartphone as we know it today, and who have consistently dominated the market. They deserve kudos for that.

I'm still not buying an Apple Watch, though.