Rob ‘CmdrTaco’ Malda
Chief Strategist and Editor-at-Large, WaPo Labs

Of Androids and Apples

It has been awhile since I spent some quality time in Android. While I was away, it appears we have both changed. First of all, Jelly Bean still feels less polished than the iOS devices that I spend the majority of my time with. But the gap has narrowed substantially. Significant technical shortcomings have mostly balanced out, and now the difference often is a matter of personal taste.

Apple is comfortable giving you a device that unapologetically says, “No, you can’t do that,” and then tries to make you feel guilty for desiring that thing — whatever it is — in the first place. Then, perhaps, a future version of Apple hardware or software will offer it. The company did this with the App store, even allowing Facebook on 3G. Indeed, each new version has a handful of features that you knew you needed a year ago. You just had to wait.

Rob ‘CmdrTaco’ Malda

Rob Malda is the chief strategist and editor-at-large for the Washington Post’s WaPo Labs team.  Prior to that, under the pseudonym "CmdrTaco," Rob created the popular “news for nerds” Web site Slashdot.org, which he ran for 14 years. He periodically offers opinion and analysis on a range of topics, including media, technology and innovation.

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Android works the other way. It says “yes” to everything, but rare is the app that shows the polish of the best-in-breed iOS app. Out of the box, my Android had two e-mail clients: one e-mail client and a Gmail client. But neither works as nicely as their iOS doppelganger. I get a back arrow on the bottom edge of my machine (a lovely consideration not available in iOS), but most apps provide a somewhat redundant step-back user interface element in the upper left corner. It’s inconsistent and clumsy. It seems crazy to me that, on the iPhone, I get a physical “home” button that does different things depending on the context, while on Android I get a virtual button that does the same thing even when that same thing means doing nothing at all.

In the last year, however, the apps have changed the most. And, in this case, I can definitely say it’s not you; it’s me. I’m not a big app buyer. My iPad has probably $30-$40 worth of random games, almost entirely purchased on a whim to entertain my kid. In some cases, a $3 app has resulted in dozens of hours of pleasure for him, for me, and best of all, for us together.

Almost every one of those games is also available on Google Play (the Android equivalent to the Apple App Store). But I already bought these games once, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to actually buy them again. The tablets and phones that I touch for hours every day cost hundreds of dollars, but I’m locked in not to the object, but to the proportionately insignificant investment in apps.

I see a couple of possibilities: Give cross-platform app users a free code to transfer from one platform to “all.” My iPhone apps were universalized so that they could be used on iPads. I’m not sure how much revenue would be lost by App makers in this process. Although, clearly, the biggest winner in this scenario would be Google.

The decision to migrate from one platform to another might not simply be a large volume of apps, or even the financial investment in them. Some apps just don’t have a counterpart. The iOS-only Google Reader front end Byline is one such case. The app is very nearly perfect. Universal and usable on all sizes of iOS device, it allows me to breeze through hundreds of RSS news items per day in a way that no other client I’ve tried can touch. It only lacks one thing: a better “share” function that includes Google+ and lets me broadcast to Twitter at the same time.

Byline costs $2.99, but I use it more than any other app on my phone. So far the best Android competitor I’ve found is gReader, but it simply isn’t as refined. This is likely just a matter of maturity. On iOS, there is a plethora of apps with consistent user interfaces. A developer has had more time to fine-tune their product, and there is a general body of work to serve as a benchmark.

Android simply feels inconsistent by comparison. Icons seem oddly sized. Labels are inconsistently applied. These subtle changes start at the core operating system and extend out to the app ecosystem. I expect, in a few years, we’ll see things reigned in a little more.

The question is, by that time, will I have accumulated another couple hundred bucks worth of iTunes App Store purchases, further locking me into their far more closed option? For now, I think I’ll be sticking with my iPad and iPhone. But I no longer can blindly make that recommendation to family members considering a purchase.

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