Now, I realise that in the first part of this series of posts, I completely ignored Blackberry, the past kings of productivity and smartphones. There’s a good reason for that: I hate them. I generally have an open mind with technology, but for Blackberry, it was shut when I tried them at a Vodafone store. The old trackball interface was badly tuned and frustrating to use because its tactility was just crap. At least for me it was. Now I know plenty of people will probably shout me down for that, but I didn’t like it at all. Add to the fact that more recent versions have a completely unintuitive interface, it just leaves it playing catch up to every other system out there. That said, I haven’t had a chance to play with the new BB10 devices which do appear to have interesting features. I might revisit them one day.
Now, our family has nearly the full gamut of products in use today. We have iOS devices, Android and Windows Phone as well just to throw the technology mix in perspective. In this part, my focus will be on putting words to the choices – conscious or otherwise – we have made in the devices we rely on and use on a daily basis and the reasons behind them.
Apple – OSX and iOS
In the beginning of the current smartphone era, Apple was unchallenged in its hardware and software superiority. Its interface was simple, intuitive and accessible. Its industrial design philosophy was ergonomic (iPhone 1, 3G and 3GS) and comfortable to hold. It allowed people to customize what they saw to an extent that was enough to keep them interested. The iPhone was the first true gesture based smartphone and it was just so easy to pick up and use. It made sense to almost all humans out there immediately and that’s why it was and remains popular today. Expansion into bigger screens allowed Apple to tap into the “I want a sort of laptop market” with iPads. This of course has led to tourists all over the world holding up the world’s largest flat camera and taking rubbish pictures with them. Then they’d Instagram them because the world doesn’t have enough sepia images.
But, since 2007, the look and feel of iOS hasn’t changed. Sure, you can change your wallpaper and yes, you can put things in folders. They even added a notification centre with scrolling tickers and everything. But the underlying interface, the home screen is still the static rows of icons that started it all. There’s just no way to change it. Even with the iPhone 5, the only change is that there’s an extra row (wow!) of icons. This doesn’t really add much to the usability of the operating system.
My main frustration with it is that since iOS is basically a really tiny desktop, you would start to lose track of all the apps that you install on it no matter what you do. You could do folders, but there are limits to the number of apps you can add per folder. The Boss has eight screens on her iPhone. I topped out at three because I couldn’t fathom having to organise and reorganise every single icon on every single page. As the version numbers came and went, the other issue with iOS is that it felt fragmented and apps had no real ability to talk to each other. Even sharing things became a limited choice of social media feeds, but you couldn’t necessarily do it immediately.
There are other gripes I have with iPhone. The square edged design philosophy introduced in the iPhone 4/4S and continued today looks great, but it is just not comfortable in the hand. The previous chassis was a joy to hold. It molded to the fingers because of the curves and it felt comfortable and secure. This new design language just feel stiff and unwieldy. This is contrary to my understanding of what Apple stood for. Finally, the screen size is just ultimately too small now. I wish I had slender fingers like a supermodel, but typing on the small screen became a chore rather than just another thing you did. The screen problem is fixed by both Android and Windows Phone with…a larger, wider screen.
When it comes to laptops, I must profess to admitting that OSX is probably the best designed operating system. After purchasing a MacBook Pro, it was a revelation in usability for laptops. It was better to use and get things done on than the equivalent Windows laptop. The main reason for this is the machine interface. I’m not talking about the keyboard, which I think is just OK, but lacking in feedback and tactility. The buttons feel mushy and are silent where I prefer a bit of bite and noise. I’m talking about the trackpad. As many would know, using a Windows laptop without a scroll wheel equipped mouse was an exercise in frustration. There are no trackpad gestures ala OSX and some trackpads were just woeful in response to input. Now, of course, Windows 8 has come and given the Windows side a bit of a leg up with touchscreen computers. This may be the thing that’s required to get usability way up on these things.
Google – Androids are not what I’m looking for
What could possibly be so bad about an operating where different versions are named after desserts you ask? The issue is that it’s a desert that’s not just Neopolitan, but more rainbow like in nature. I’m talking about the two vastly different versions of its user interface of course. Android is powerful. It’s adaptive, open and endlessly customisable with widgets and services, almost like you computer at home. It would be great fun to poke around in the system, make changes and tweaks so it looks and runs the specific way you want it to. Only…it’s a smartphone and I don’t want to endlessly tinker with it. The phone I carry with me every day that I depend on shouldn’t have to be endlessly tweaked in my spare time to be optimised. This is something that the OEM should do properly out of the box. The counter to this is that the system then becomes more controlled and less open.
Realistically, Android is an immensely powerful operating system, but its main issue in my eyes is that the user must choose the compromises in its interface. While some of us know exactly what we want, others might have an idea but are genuinely technically incapable of performing the task properly. Ultimately, the another problem with Android is that as you install things, the operating system becomes cluttered and jerky, much like an old install of Windows. The family Samsung Galaxy S3 that has not seen past its first birthday is not slow and slightly unresponsive on what was then the most powerful mobile computing hardware. Even the comparatively slow Apple hardware doesn’t feel like this after two or three years.
I just can’t really say I would be proud of buying a Droid until the interface is more intuitive than what’s out there. Until then, there’s always…
Windows and Windows Phone – Big bad Microsoft
Finally, we have Microsoft, late to the game and playing to win. I think most will agree at the outset that Windows Mobile as it was known previously was crap. It was slow, clunky and ugly. This was mainly down to hardware limitations in my mind, but probably also because Microsoft wanted to push a single user interface throughout its operating systems. It just didn’t work that well, but it was also about the only legitimate choice until Blackberry came along.
Well, Windows Phone 7 and 8 are the antithesis of that. At first glance, the interface is stark and barren. Really stark. Just like Ned below.
It’s only got simple single coloured square tiles of varying sizes. But then the squares change and update live. Even if nothing’s happening, they can flit between things that may be of interest to you. Scrolling updates about news and current affairs or your favourite pictures. Hell, when playing music, your whole device becomes a slideshow of the artist in question. Each square acts like a widget in Android and…er the little red number that appears above an icon in iOS (which is not all that useful). The good thing is that the entire front screen of Windows Phone is changeable and acts like a list of all your favourite people and apps. For all the stuff that’s useful but not often brought out, there’s an alphabetical list (you know, it’s so simple and logical) of everything in your phone. OK, so there are still some bugs and missing features on the platform. But I find it ideal because all the things important to me are right there on the front. I don’t need a notification centre because whole thing is the notification centre.
The most useful thing about Windows Phone is its deep integration of lots of social media feeds and services into the main applications of the operating system. These feeds are then unified into one single feed where all updates, comments and related happenings are shown. It is something that iOS does very poorly given each and every app needs to be opened to see its individual feed. The notification centre does help a little, but you would still need to go to the singular app to check each category.
Much like Apple of course, Nokia chose to make a statement with its own industrial design theme. The Lumia 920, my current go to device is big and chunky, reminiscent of the Nokia 3310. But it also feels natural in the hand, round and smooth. It feels like a much bigger, tougher version of the iPhone 3GS and this is definitely something I find to be a big plus.
Those are the reasons
So, in the end, a lot of the reasons for the choice of device aren’t driven by brand loyalty or killer features. A lot comes down to aesthetics, ergonomic and interface issues and how we as people like to interact with devices on the go in the modern world. We are blessed, however that there is something out there for all of us that can help us stay connected to the people we care about and, on the side, do something productive!