Biking With the Droid

The weather has mostly been beautiful this week, my schedule has been reasonable (not in that I don’t have a lot of work to do, but it’s mostly development work I do at my own pace whenever I want, rather than meetings), and I haven’t been traveling lately, so I’ve been on the bike every day this week except for yesterday. I biked into work twice and otherwise have been back to doing my regular daily rides in the park.

My work ride is about 20 miles round-trip, and thanks to the wonderful new bike lane along Kent Avenue, mostly pretty relaxed. I have a short stressful ride from the 59th Street Bridge to my office on 52nd Street, but otherwise, I’m mostly away from traffic or on streets with good bike lanes.

The map here was generated automatically by My Tracks, an Android application which I’ve installed on my new Motorola Droid. It uses the phone’s GPS to automatically chart your route and generate statistics on speed, elevation, and so on. When you finish recording a track you click one button and it sends it to Google Maps and to Google Documents, into a spreadsheet you can use to answer questions like “How many miles did I ride this week?” (53.79 miles). As with most GPS applications it pretty much loses its mind in the cliffs of midtown, but otherwise it’s pretty amazingly accurate.

I got the Droid a week or so ago and I’m thrilled with it. If you’ve managed to miss the marketing campaigns, the Droid is a new Verizon phone that runs Android, Google’s mobile-phone operating system. Android has been around for a while, and is quite stable and full-featured. It’s also open-source, which means that if you don’t like something about it, you can probably change it or install a utility to change it.

I was intrigued by the iPhone when it first came out, thanks to its gorgeous screen and user interface. But AT&T’s network is just awful (my friends with iPhones regularly tell me to text them rather than leaving voice mail since their phones often don’t ring, and don’t notify about voice mail; they also seem to constantly be hunting for signal while my Verizon phone has plenty of coverage). And once I got an iPod Touch (basically an iPhone minus the phone), I got to see for myself exactly how bad the iPhone keyboard is. Most people who enthuse over it have never had a smartphone before, so perhaps it’s an improvement over typing on a telephone keypad. But it’s basically useless compared to a real keyboard; if I needed to answer an email I was reading on my iPod, I’d usually dig out my Treo rather than use the stupid on-screen keyboard.

The Droid has an on-screen keyboard, which, like the iPhone’s, is useful for short messages, and unlike the iPhone’s, has an intelligent auto-complete system that you can add words to. But the Droid also has a large slide-out keyboard, which you can really type on, and which leaves the whole screen free for viewing. The worst part of the iPhone is that its beautiful screen is usually half-obstructed by the keyboard; the SSH/telnet clients for the iPhone are laughable in their attempts to let you type and see what you’re doing at the same time.

So basically the Droid is the iPhone done right. It’s got everything I like about the iPhone and none of the things I absolutely hate (no physical keyboard, evil Apple restrictions, no video or flash for the camera, no Google Voice, only runs one application at a time, and worst of all, the dreadful AT&T network). Android is open-source, so while there are fewer applications, they tend to be better (there is no My Tracks for the iPhone because it does not have GPS, there is no Google Voice for the iPhone because Apple won’t allow it) and you are not handcuffed in your choice of applications. By default, the Droid will only download apps from Google’s Android Market, but that’s a preference you can turn off if you wish. And frankly, the vast majority of iPhone apps are juvenile, silly and useless or downright idiotic. (Those three apps are currently the ones promoted on the front page of the iTunes App Store.)

Anyway, time to get back to work. Lots of other things going on, but I’ll tell you about that when I see you.

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