The Great Google Phone Brain Dump: Part Two

Greetings from New York City. I can confirm that the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down; the Mayor says that his “strike zone” counter-drug program is dworking but the signs of amphetamine and barbiturate use in the local populace are impossible to miss.

Yup, yesterday was a travel day. I arrived in the city on just 90 minutes of sleep. Suffice to say that I could have used trip to the Bronx and Part 2 of the Great Google Phone Brain Dump had to wait.

So let’s continue with the Google Phone Brain Dump. The first topic in today’s installment is so important that I’m going to do a solo:

The Touch Interface Versus The Clickbutton Interface

Or:

The G1 Is Not An iPhone…And That’s Not A Complaint

The big gotcha of a job like mine is that I have to bury my prejudices and preconceptions when I try out something new. Because though there are retreads and ripoffs in every product category — and the iPhone spawned more bad sequels than “Rocky” and “Saw” combined — it’s entirely possible that something new is, indeed, Something New.

During my first day with the G1, I grumbled and I groused. I clucked and I tut-tutted. The pitching coach picked up the bullpen phone and messaged that it was time to warm up the standard “Yet Another Damned iPhone Ripoff” commentary.

On the plus side, the G1’s touchscreen is terrific from a hardware perspective. It’s a flat glass panel that responds to finger contact, not a mushy piece of plastic that needs to be pressed, like the worst of the iPhone influencees.

I did encounter curious moments in which an onscreen button refused to respond to the edge of my thumb (as when you’re holding the phone in your left and) and instead demanded a rather explicit fingertip (which I was more than willing to give it, after three failed buttonpresses). But that’s probably a software problem and not a hardware one.

Good, good. But the G1’s touch-interface experience is incomplete and unfulfilling. On the iPhone, the touch interface is gravity, oxygen. Every action and activity is influenced by it. On the G1, the touch interface is just a feature. Even after a week with the G1, it’s hard to detect any real commitment to touch on the part of Android’s developers.

When you’re using the G1’s touchscreen you’re forced to change mindsets often. Sometimes the interface is up there on the screen. Sometimes, it’s down there among the mechanical buttons.

I’m in the browser, just messing around. I tap on a picture and a dialog box pops up. Would I like to Save this picture? Open it in a new window? View it?

Hey, cool. Thank you, Android; that’s a good feature in a mobile browser. But actually, for the moment I’d just like to Cancel. I’ll just tap the “Cancel” button…

Oh. No “Cancel” button.

After I moment’s confusion, I realize that I have to press the clicky “Back” button underneath the screen. The Back button is a consistent part of the user interface (it always takes you one step back away from wherever you are) but shouldn’t there be a Cancel button right in the onscreen dialog box?

The browser, in fact, is the best illustration of the problem. I’m astonished that Android doesn’t have a virtual keyboard.

“Hold the phone!” you’re saying. I’m about to make a joke about how I am in fact holding an actual phone but you wisely don’t pause long enough to let me draw my gun. “That’s my big complaint about the iPhone! Being forced to write emails on a ‘fake’ keyboard instead of the cushy comfort of the Blackberry keyboard!”

Yes, and we’ll be getting to the G1’s keyboard in a moment.

But a phone that claims to be usable in both portrait and landscape modes needs an onscreen keyboard.

Viz: I want to see if my friends have posted new photos to Flickr. I press the mechanical “Menu” button and then I tap the onscreen “Open URL” button. That’s a major modal disconnection but I’ve already complained about that so let’s move on:

I need to type in “m.flickr.com.” Which means I have to turn the phone on its side and slide open the keyboard.

I’m a big dumb Human, so when I type the URL and hit “Return” I close the keyboard and return the G1 to its original position while the page loads. Damn. Now I need to log in.

Turn, open, type, close, turn.

I acknowledge that this isn’t a hell of a lot of effort. But web browsing is mostly a passive, non-typey sort of activity. Every now and then you need to type a URL or a password and every time I’m forced to Transformer the device to do this trivial thing, I taste copper.

A minor aside: obvious errors like the lack of an onscreen keyboard are what bother me the most about Android. If I make a comparison to a current Presidential campaign I know that certain readers will Hulk Out a little so instead, I ask you to remember how you felt when Mike Dukakis tooled around at a campaign stop in a tank.

Dukakis_tank.jpg

You imagined him making “Vroom! B-Pow! Budda-budda-KRACK-POWWW!!!” noises as he went.

Which is precisely what I would have done in such a situation. Perfectly understandable. No, it isn’t the actual thing itself that caused you to sour on Dukakis. The chill came from the realization that it was such an obvious mistake. The sort of mistake where you wondered exactly where the ceiling was on the man’s mistake-making abilities.

Not all plumbers are kind enough to (for instance) mount your new toilet on the wall instead of the floor. Obvious mistake. You red-flag that one almost immediately and stop payment on the check. You’re almost grateful. Why? Because you could have gotten the sort of plumber who forgot to bring right kind of soil-stack pipe and just substituted whatever he happened to have in the truck.

That’s trouble. you don’t know what sort of trouble you’re in until much later, when there’s this incredible smell coming out of your new bathroom and you discover that a crack in the joint has been slowly filling the wallspace with human waste for the past five weeks. As men in Hazmat suits are ripping out the walls and the flooring, you remember seeing the plumber’s truck as it pulled in and thinking “What kind of a man hangs chrome bull testicles off the back of his car?” and now you know the answer. You wish you’d followed that first pang of doubt to its logical conclusion.

Yeah, yeah. I could have just written “No onscreen keyboard? Really?” but look, the lack of an onscreen keyboard is bloody annoying. Let’s hope that a developer comes up with a third-party solution.

I didn’t appreciate how nice a true multitouch display is until I started using the G1. I just naturally expected to pinch and stretch things. But every time I tried, the G1 reacted only with a polite cough and an arched eyebrow.

Even basic touch actions things like scrolling don’t work as well as I would have hoped. “Very good” isn’t good enough. In a touch interface, either the finger-scrolling is absolutely perfect or it isn’t. Touch-scrolling on an iPhone is absolutely perfect. On the G1, it isn’t. There’s just enough of a lag that you don’t feel an organic connection to the interface.

So: Android touch interface = Disappointing.

I can’t help but write the review in my head as put a new thing through its paces. I imagined a paragraph that began “In fact, eventually I gave up on the touch interface and started using it almost exclusively with the keyboard deployed.”

I intended for this to sting. Surely its developers would throw themselves out of windows when they read that line. Waiters would seat them at the table near the bathroom. Assuming that their spouses ever even made love to them again, their lovemaking technique would be posted and critiqued on eOpinions.com immediately after each session.

(You laugh, but just go to the site and look for content created in the weeks after my Zune 1.0 review was published.)

Imagine! A touch-based phone where you wind up using the keyboard and the microtrackball all the time!

Then I had one of those moments where I suspected, just suspected, mind you, that I might be a moron. It’s okay for the G1 to not be like the iPhone. It just needs to find greatness via the path of its choosing.

I stopped thinking of the G1 as an iPhone-like device and the scales fell from my eyes almost immediately. I started to see that the G1 is really quite awesome.

Truly. The G1 isn’t a touch phone. It’s a clickybutton phone. Held like an iPhone, it’s clumsy and awkward. Held on its side…well, damn.

Android’s clickybutton interface is consistent and easy to suss out:

Android Phone - Clickybuttons.jpg

You got your microtrackball: that’s yer pointing and clicking device. North of it is the Back button. Use it to take one step back from wherever you are. The Menu button is to the West. It brings up the application menu of whatever app you’re running. Tap the Home button due south to get to the Home screen, which acts as an application launcher and (as with the iPhone’s Springboard) gives you access to phone settings and other “above the title” functions.

To the East there is a big white house with a boarded front door.

There is a small mailbox here.

>_

(Sorry. Continuing.)

They’re all arranged within casual reach of your right thumb. And remember, the clickybuttonpad is canted up slightly, making the phone very comfortable and grippable.

Holding the G1 on its side with its trackball under your thumb has an immediate psychological impact. Yes, the onscreen touch interface is inconsistent and poorly-thought. But you stop even thinking about that interface. The trackball is your connection to this machine, not the tip of your finger.

And then the G1 starts to really sing. “Back” as a “Cancel” button? Makes perfect sense. Specify a URL by bringing up an application menu, instead of just tapping in the browser’ address bar? Sure.

Sickeningly, the G1 starts to feel faster than an iPhone. At least the bit where you translate a thought into a correctly-inputted command. The onscreen buttons are big, fat targets that you can briskly and efficiently trackball into.

One of my top five functions for a smartphone is reading blogs via Bloglines or Google Reader. The G1 reminded me how nice it is to have an explicit “Page Down” button. It’s a particular luxury when I’m Smartphoning with my left hand and Sandwiching with my right. Zap straight to the bottom or the top of something? There are keyboard shortcuts for that, as well.

I even started to get the hang of the thumbboard. And I’ve always hated thumbboards. Although I must cite the fact that I can type way, way faster on the iPhone’s virtual keyboard than I can on any thumbboard (record for typing Robert Frost’s “In Winter In The Woods Alone”: 48 words per minute) I must also report that I didn’t consider the G1’s keyboard to be an annoyance.

I wouldn’t say that the Android clickyinterface is better than the iPhone’s. But it’s different, and I have to insist that a power G1 user will leave an iPhone user in the dust, in certain tasks.

Why? Because there are clickybutton shortcuts for everything.

My favorite reaction when I’m trying a new device is when I discover something about it causes me to find a new disappointment in an old device that I love. Holding down the G1’s “Home” button instantly brings up a launcher containing your six most recently-launched apps. Damn…I wish I could do that on my iPhone. I’m always forced to click the Home button and then scrollscrollSCROLL(dammit)scroll to get to the Camera app…which I use alllll the time.

(Yes, there are four slots on the iPhone springboard where you can keep your favorites. But hello…I have more than four commonly-used apps.)

Buttons do different things when you double-click or click-and-hold. And you can assign a keyboard shortcut to almost anything.

Result: it would be trivially easy to set up a realistic, real-world triathalon of smartphone tasks in which a sophisticated iPhone user would finish in a hopeless (correction: utterly hopeless) second-place to an similarly-experienced G1 user.

Caveats:

  1. You can’t say a line like “Zapping back to the top of the page is as simple as holding down the ALT key and flicking the trackball up” and still believe that the sophistication of user interface design in general is still trending upward.
  2. The power of the clickyinterface, like the true face of God, reveals itself to you in tantalizing sections, and at its own frustratingly-slow pace. You will need to read the manual, and even then you will fail to remember what many of these shortcuts are. Especially when you’re trying to convince an iPhone user that your spiffy new Google Phone is way faster than his.
  3. I’m the sort of person who scoffs and asks a Blackberry power-user “So: you saved yourself a little time by creating a new message to your boss via a hotkey, instead of launching the Mail app and tapping the first couple of letters of her name manually. Tell me, whatever are you going to do with that extra 1.7 seconds of free time you’ve gained?”

Well, there are people who put a real premium on getting from Point A to Point B via the absolute shortest distance possible. That’s their workflow. Suffice to say that these people, baffled by the perceived inefficiency of the iPhone, will love the G1. The G1 serves as an important reminder that “most advanced” is not always synonymous with “most effective.”

That said, I ought to close this section out with an observation: though the clickybutton interface is quite agile and pleasant to use, it has inescapable limitations. Yes, you can easily get through all of the Four Major Food Groups of the smartphone experience (Mailin’, Browsin’, Textin’, and…er, Dairy) without ever reaching for the screen. But the psychological oomph of a clickyinterface is the persistent connection between your fingers and the controls. Every time you need to take your hands off the buttons and interact with the screen, it’s a defeat. You lose time. You also break that mental connection for just a moment.

So what happens when you want your phone to go beyond the basic expectations of a smartphone?

The iPhone has no buttons (please ignore the big Home button under the screen; it has been placed there by opposition-party operatives who fear my maverick, pro-change agenda). Which means that it can have any buttons. It can have the perfect button controls for a web browser. Or a GPS navigator. Or a music player. Or a plane simulator. Or…or…or.

Whatever the need is, the iPhone immediately reconfigures the interface to meet you. By contrast, when a G1 owner feels the need to go beyond mere utilitarian functions, they’re going to feel like a DOS user in a Mac and Windows world.

The key line in my Sun-Times review was this one: from a user perspective, the G1 is not a revolutionary next-step towards anything. That’s the goal of the iPhone. The goal of the G1 and Android is simply to be a smartphone.

And the G1 is truly a great smartphone. It’s a strong and compelling implementation of the “big screen phone with a flip-out keyboard” concept. Potentially, it’s the best smartphone on the market. If the iPhone didn’t exist, I’d buy a G1 in a heartbeat, forsaking all others.

The G1 versus Symbian, Windows Mobile, and Blackberry

I did intend to just make this a solo piece, but that last line sort of compels me to continue straight on and talk about the G1 in relationship with its competition.

G1 versus iPhone: I don’t see these two phones as being in competition with each other. As with movies, when you judge technology you should consider the maker’s goals and evaluate how successfully those goals were met. Apple didn’t just want to build a smartphone. They wanted to create a whole new computing platform.

The iPhone 3G is as close as we’ve ever come to the ideal of “that one device you carry with you everywhere, that does everything you could ever want a mobile device to do.” And (goddamn it) the iPhone 3G more or less succeeds.

The G1 is an awesome smartphone. But it’s a crappy media player, for example. If you buy a G1 expecting it to be an iPhone, then there will be many, many scenarios in which you will travel with way more devices and chargers than you had hoped.

G1 versus Symbian and Windows Mobile. I see the G1 as having huge advantages over both of these operating systems. It’s not slam-dunk superior, but personally, its fundamental strengths would compel me to take an Android phone over either alternative.

Symbian and WM are venerable institutions with massive software libraries. If you’re in love with a certain Windows Mobile app or apps, that should be your decisionmaker.

But these operating systems are trapped by their history. Their designs go back to the Nineties and at times, this comes through in their products…subtly, from an architecture perspective, and frustratingly from a user-interface perspective.

Whenever I get a new Windows Mobile touchscreen phone to play with, I steel myself. I start to play with the “kewl” iPhone-inspired touch interface but I know that it’ll be minutes before I touch something the wrong way and the Windows Mobile start menu and taskbar will temporarily appear. Inevitably, I’ll be looking at an alert system that was designed back when Clinton was president.

The iPhone and the G1 have great advantages over every other smartphone OS thanks to the simple fact that its designers got to start from scratch in the mid-Aughties. They never considered a world in which screens were small and black-and white. These phones never had to exist in a world without WiFi and mobile broadband.

Yes, I manfully acknowledge the possibility that the designers of the latest edition of Windows Mobile 6 are aware that you can now receive email on the road without having to stick a phone handset into an acoustic coupler. What I’m getting at is that History can often become a terrible liability as 1.o becomes 2.0 and ultimately 6.0 becomes Vista. History becomes Baggage. When Baggage becomes corporate philosophy, the only solution is to nuke the whole compound from space.

You see this sort of thing time and time again. A database program doesn’t support XML, because Version 1.0 was created before the standard became a Big Deal and the schema underpinning the entire system doesn’t provide a simple way to store data that way. That’s mere Baggage. “Why would our users even want to use XML, when we can provide them with a much more sophisticated proprietary package format?” is a sign that the disease and the product have reached the terminal stage. I hear it allll the time.

I have a personal prejudice against Symbian, though I think its a defensible one: it’s woefully out of step with modern mobile computing and every new iteration is just another boob and butt lift on an increasingly frail body. I think it’s coasting by on its enormous international user base and software library.

I thought Windows Mobile was the greatest mobile OS out there, before the iPhone was released. And I still think it’s terrific. But Microsoft is going to need to make that “MacOS 9 to Mac OS X” transition sometime soon. You know what I mean: the gutsy moment when they decide to throw out every scrap of code and start all over again. Not because what they have now is garbage…because the world has changed around it and its current architecture is going to find it hard to keep up.

(My hometown tore down its high school recently for much the same reason. The building itself was in fine shape, but it had been built at a time when weatherstripping, network infrastructure, and controlling access to school property weren’t on anybody’s radar.)

The big caveat about the G1 — more about Android, actually — is that it is indeed a 1.0 OS. But cripes, it’s a free OS, and the whole world is welcome to enhance it. Symbian is royalty-free these days, true, but it’s like General Motors. Symbian feels like an organization that would rather walk to the guillotine than whistle the songs of the revolutionaries.

Give it a year and Android going to become a serious challenger for anybody trying to make a smartphone OS.

G1 versus Palm. Bit of a toss-up. Palm is old-fashioned and you’re sort of embarrassed to still be using one, but it’s just so convenient, you know? My iPhone battery started to die yesterday so of course I looked up the address where I was meeting a friend and wrote it on the palm of my hand so I wouldn’t lose it. Top that for convenience.

Huh?

Palm OS, you say?

“Spock, what does the ship’s computer have to say about this ‘Palm OS’?”

“Accessing, sir…details are sketchy but the library claims that Palm Oil Spray was a consumer brand of aerosol food-preparation lubricant sold in the late Twentieth to early Twenty-First century. It was taken off the market when it was determined that prolonged exposure led to increasingly-erratic behavior, such as wearing trousers with words printed across the seat in large letters adorned with light-refracting crystals.”

“Set phasers on ‘Stun,’ Mister Chekov. Fire at will.”

G1 versus Blackberry. I keep trying the new Blackberries as they come out and I keep coming to the same conclusion: the Blackberry is an email device “with benefits.” Every app I use has to be described as “a spreadsheet you can use on your Blackberry” or somesuch, instead of being praisable as a destination of its own.

Which isn’t a slam against the whole platform. It’s just that a Blackberry an office chair. Your first day in a new job, you’re issued this thing. It’s perfectly comfortable and you take absolutely no notice of it until it breaks, and then someone from Maintenance comes by and fixes it or gives you a new one.

There are chairs which are designed to get you excited about sitting in them. But the only office where you’ll find such a thing is the offices and studio of the Howard Stern Show. And it appears that they’re only issued to female employees.

A Blackberry would be the very last thing you’d buy for yourself. Well, maybe if you’re going to a Halloween dressed as a Hollywood douchebag.

Okay. The City awaits. Tomorrow, let’s talk about apps and the G1’s camera.

6 thoughts on “The Great Google Phone Brain Dump: Part Two”

  1. I’m a bona fide “trailing edge technology” kinda guy. Mainly because I’m not a celebrated and beloved tech pundit like yourself so I have to buy stuff out of my pitiful budget, but also because I’ve been burnt several times by “the latest and greatest” when I really should have waited until at least the first update.

    So just recently I was gifted a box of assorted electronic/computerish stuff and amongst it was a Palm III and its cradle. 10 years old and still works like a champ.

    Once I get Evolution and Google Calendar to exchange info in both directions I’ll be setting the Palm up from my Linux box. And I’ll use it with no embarrassment whatsoever.

    But I have to admit, the Google Phone does sound like a major piece of spif toy.

  2. Andy:

    Where’s the next article? I just got my G1 on Friday — switched from Sprint after 10+ years with them. I love the G1, though the voice calls aren’t nearly as good as any phone I’ve ever had with Sprint.

  3. Andy, that was a great presentation at the Washington Apple Pi . I was the winner in the lottery of your “iPhone fullyLoaded” book.
    I have not received it as yet. If you mislaid my address it is: Francis Manion, 1705 Evelyn Drive, Rockville, MD 20852.
    Please send it I am anxious. Frank

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