Tuesday, 15 November 2011

This is not the Droid we are looking for!

My previous post indicated that I had frustrations with Android.
I will tell you why.

But first of all let me congratulate Steve Jobs & co for raising our expectations so high! The iPhone really is a product that deserves its place in the history books of technological advancement. It really does deliver exceptionally well on all fronts - including its excellent embedded browser. It is a shining example of standards support and best-in-class implementation. Steve Jobs had a theory that user experience should drive your business. With the iPhone he realized his vision and exceeded my expectations.

Back to Android. Android is assumed to be a direct competitor to the iPhone and somewhat on par with it. At least it's marketed that way, and I would say perceived that way, by many.
The reality is a very different story. The difference is that where iPhone controls the hardware of their platform and is therefore working from a common hardware base, Android is an open architecture. The Android software is available for all the wannabe hardware manufacturers to base their software build on. Each manufacturer puts a different hardware configuration together and tweaks the basic software to work with their hardware. For competitive advantage, some manufacturers will also tweak the browser software and other components to their own whim. So when a phone says it is Android 2.2, it will not necessarily work the same as another 2.2 phone. There will be differences. Not all 'droids are created equal.
To compound the problem, the carriers will also want specifics for their own purposes. For example, custom apps bundled in to the base build to be pre-installed on the phone.
Furthermore, where it falls apart is in the software landscape. How do you get a software update for your phone? From the provider. Who releases the build? The manufacturer through the provider. So now the manufacturer is a software development house. They have branched the code for all their devices, and are stuck with supporting them. They not only have specific builds for each of their hardware configurations, but also have to customize that build to satisfy the demands of the network providers. And it's not in their best interests to be caught in a support cycle. There's no revenue in that - the phone has already been sold. They are interested in getting the next product out the door before their competitors do. And as we've seen, getting updates for Android has proven extremely frustrating for end users. Think of all the effort required to put the next great Android release from Google onto an already released phone. Chances are that the effort will be put into the next phone to be bought, not the one that has already been sold.

So how does all this affect the developer?
Well, to deliver on Android we have to contend with many, many different devices, many of which have different software configurations and patches on them. And this assumes that there are no hardware glitches or known issues - a very naive assumption when you realize that most of these products have been rushed into a highly competitive market.

Steve Jobs actually addressed this situation in what is called his 'Google rant'. I just think he was trying to expose the truth and help Google to see that they were going down a path that would induce pain on all fronts. You could see this as an arrogant 'told you so' rant, but I see it as a fair warning and glad you told us.

So taking all this into consideration, as a software architect you might look for ways to alleviate the pain. No development shop wants to manage any more code branches than they have to.
As an architect, you would not be at all blamed for following this line of thought: Android is not really a standard, but a myriad of very similar, but significantly different products. I need a common platform to deliver on. Is there an alternative?
Hang on, isn't that excellent HTML5 compliant iPhone browser based on webkit? Yeah - it's actually called Mobile Safari. Isn't Google Chrome based on webkit too? That browser on the Android phone is also webkit-based and HTML5 compliant. It must be Mobile Chrome. Why don't we build our apps to web standards instead? I've heard you can do some really nifty animation effects with CSS3... this could be just what I'm looking for, and it actually might be a lot of fun!

Time for a reality check (or two)! (Remember that I'm biased towards creating cross-platform HTML5 mobile apps, so I'll talk a lot about the browser.)
  • Reality check #1: The current Android browser is not Mobile Chrome. Remember - Google bought Android, they didn't make it. It may pass the HTML5 compliance tests, but that does not mean to say it does it well. My experience with the Android browser is that it's glitchy, inconsistent across devices and rough around the edges. For example, its rendering of CSS3 rounded corners is noticeably jaggy, and positioning of elements is often off by a pixel creating gaps where there should be none. (My suspicion is that Google are frantically re-implementing the Android browser to become the Mobile Chrome many think it is.)
  • Reality check #2: All Androids (and their browsers) are NOT created equal. Manufacturers tweak the browser code too for their own purposes.
  • Reality check #3: There are also certain commercial, political and legal reasons why things are different on different Android devices. Don't believe me? Load up Google maps in the Android browser and try doing pinch to zoom on a 2.x HTC phone. Now try the same on a Samsung phone. The difference? HTC does not want to impinge on multi-touch patents, hence no pinch to zoom in the browser. (Samsung supports pinch-to-zoom. But they had to withdraw some devices in some countries because of patent infringement. Could there be a link?)
  • Reality check #4: Just because it's got it, doesn't mean to say it flaunts it. Android devices have some of the most impressive hardware specs around. Multi-core processors, GPUs & gobs of memory. However, try panning Bing Map in the Android browser. Then try it on an iPhone. The difference: Android does not implement hardware acceleration in the browser rendering of elements, and it shows.
  • Reality check #5: Even though it's in the best interests of Google to improve Android fast (to live up to the expectations of its customers and become a truly viable competitor), this does nothing to rectify the myriad of broken/deficient devices that are already out there. And even when they do fix the Android reference build, how will they enforce standards on an 'open' community who will continue to tweak the core to meet their own agendas?
In short, if you were expecting Android to be a platform you could deliver on, be ready for a reality check. You might have been looking to extend your application to other devices, and assumed that Android was a platform just like iOS. However: "This is not the Droid we were looking for!"
Welcome to the minefield that is Android. To mis-quote a biblical verse: "I am Android, for we are many."

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