Last week was my upgrade birthday. Having spent a year on the iPhone 4 I thought I'd try Android for a while, and ordered a Samsung Galaxy S2 from Orange.
The device lacks the heft and solidity of an iPhone and feels quite plasticky. Not having tried to smash it yet, I'm not sure how resilient it is, but it gives the impression of being a little fragile. The large screen is bright and clear. I think it's the main reason text entry on the device is better than on any other Android phone I've used: the keys are a little larger.
The software I'm less keen on, and I think the root cause here is the ease which which OEMs and operators can customise Android. It seems to allow the mobile industry to more easily commit the same crimes which left room for iPhone to succeed: exposing internal politics as end-user choices, bundling unnecessary or unreliable products, and reskinning the product to follow brand guidelines at the expense of usability.
- On first start I was asked which home screen I want to use - Samsung or Orange? At this point I had no idea what the trade-offs were; it's instant unnecessary confusion, spraying the internal politics of the mobile industry into my eager eyes.
- Once I'd chosen Orange, I couldn't add a home screen calendar widget. I had to switch to the Samsung home screen to do this. Instant disappointment: Orange had removed a feature I had used elsewhere, wanted and loved.
- The themed icons were either clear but ugly (in the case of Samsung) or unclear but visually appealing (in the case of Orange). I'd like to have seen handset themes implemented as on Symbian Series 60: enabled by default, but easily (and completely) removable by the user.
- Neither icon set was consistent with my experience of Android on other devices. Android isn't new any more, and it's advertised as a feature in its own right for handsets sold on the Orange shop. If Orange customers are buying Android phones because they're familiar with it, changing the top level of the UI (where most of this familiarity resides) is unhelpful and confusing.
- The device came bundled with a huge number of apps (about 40), many of which I'd no desire for (Social Hub, Music Hub, Readers Hub, Games Hub, AllShare, Kies air). I'm prevented from uninstalling these apps, perhaps in the hope that their constant presence on my phone will force me to begrudgingly use and then love them.
- There were at least three app stores on the device: the Android Marketplace, Orange App Shop, and Samsung Apps. The Orange App Shop refused to start until I disabled Wi-fi; I would imagine this will leave some customers suspicious about data charges.
- I never managed to get the Orange Maps app to work; it crashed every time I launched it - a massive failure of QA. I'm also deeply sceptical that it'd be better than Google Maps. If it isn't, bundling it has been a waste of Orange's effort and my attention.
More positively, I thought the Orange Wednesdays app (not one of ours, I hasten to add) was excellent, tying into a wonderful long-running campaign and genuinely useful. Orange aren't short on other such products and campaigns.
Music syncing seemed to work OK once I'd downloaded DoubleTwist. I was pleasantly surprised to see 1Password available for Android too - it's one of my frequently used iPhone apps. At the same time, OmniFocus is sadly lacking - and this alone may be what prevents my moving from Apple in the near future. Where's the equivalent for Android? Where are the apps which are both unique to the platform and so strong you don't want to leave?
So, thoughts on how devices like this should be customised:
- Ensure any theming can be disabled and bundled applications removed or hidden;
- Ensure any bundled apps work well - there's no excuse for first-run crashes;
- Decide whether the device will be OEM-branded or operator-branded and stick with it - don't try to do both;
- Don't go to the expense of bundling apps which duplicate functionality available elsewhere (email, maps, search, app stores);
- Do bundle apps which you can do better than anyone else, and support your activities elsewhere (e.g. Orange Wednesdays);
- Look to useful platform- or network-specific apps for locking customers in;