18 Hours as an iPhone Owner: iYiYi

iPhoned for about 18 hours the other day. iT was iRritating and iHated it, so iReturned it. iWill never do that again.

Some background. Over the Christmas break I lost my iPod Touch, which is more or less an iPhone without the phone. It’s an expensive device and since it can only connect through wi-fi, the “find my iPod” function doesn’t work if it’s not online. So I decided that having a smartphone (my Droid) and another expensive electronic device just for music-playing was overindulgent.

With the iOS 5 update, I figured, can the Droid be that much better than the iPhone? It certainly cannot replace an iPod — the Android music environment is vastly inferior than Apple’s. So I ordered an iPhone 4s. It arrived late Tuesday afternoon and I set it up after dinner. By lunchtime on Wednesday it was back in the box with a return label on it.

Not a Matter Of Taste

It wasn’t just that the iPhone doesn’t suit my taste in devices. Yes, I like having a real keyboard, I like being able to arrange my home screens to my taste, and I have a growing dislike of Apple’s totalitarian approach to software. (Somewhere along the line they went from being the girl in the red shorts with the hammer, to the big dictator on the screen. Admittedly, the dictator is better dressed, and his disciples are hipsters instead of 1984-like drones, but the attitude is exactly the same.) But I could have lived with these differences, although the lack of a keyboard was painful.

After all, the iPhone is better designed than any Android device and iOS is, in my experience, considerably more stable than Android. Apple’s totalitarianism does produce more consistent and reliable devices than Android’s openness. The advantages of open-source software are somewhat reduced when it runs on closed hardware. The integration between a phone and its software is much more complex, and proprietary, than that between the Linux kernel and the machine it runs on. It’s not open if you still have to jailbreak it to have full access to its capabilities.

So maybe I could have lived with the style, but I couldn’t live with having lost basic and important functionality. Not casual sorta cool things or iPhone-style glitz, but basic things that made my use of the device easier every day.

Profiles and Battery Life

The most important is location profiles. When I leave the house, my Droid silences itself, switches off wi-fi and Bluetooth, and sets a screen lock so I need a password to unlock the phone. At home, the phone rings audibly and I can use it without a password. Everywhere else it only vibrates, and is password-protected. I don’t have to remember to do this every time I come home or go out. At night when I put it in the charging cradle, it goes completely silent. When I put it in the car dock, it turns on GPS and Bluetooth, and sets its volume to high so it can be heard over the sound of the engine. Automatically.

None of this is possible with the iPhone. And even changing these settings manually is much harder on the iPhone than on the Droid. My Droid has a strip of icons at the bottom of the home screen that switch wifi, bluetooth, GPS, etc, on and off, with a single tap and they light up to show the status of each service. The closest you can get to this on the iPhone is a set of shortcuts that take you directly to the relevant settings screen where you can make the change. They don’t show status, and only four of them fit at the bottom of the iPhone screen as opposed to five on the Droid.

This is not just irritating. It’s one of the reasons iPhone battery life is so bad. I am never running GPS or wi-fi if I don’t need them. Both of those are battery hogs. The Droid also automatically goes into battery-saving mode when the battery gets low, turning off mobile data updates. If I had to make those changes manually, I wouldn’t always bother or I’d forget. So I’d leave them on most of the time, and therefore kill the battery, or I’d leave them off, and be using my data plan at home or having the phone ring obnoxiously in public places.

You can’t do this on the iPhone because Apple does not allow developers to change phone settings in their software. Android doesn’t do this out of the box either, but Android users can grant applications specific permissions to do things like change settings, and therefore we have applications like Llama and Locale. But because Apple, in its infinite (loop) wisdom, has decided you don’t need these abilities (and that you can’t carry a spare battery), and won’t allow anyone else to build it either, iPhone users are stuck.


Another major irritation with the iPhone was notifications. When my Droid beeps or vibrates, I can usually tell why just by glancing at it. The color-coded LED tells me right away whether I’ve received a text, an instant message, or an email, and even what kind of email. For less important kinds of email it does not alert at all.

Then, even in locked mode, the top bar of my screen tells me more. It shows all current notifications including counts of new mail messages. The current temperature. Whether my IM client is logged in. What profile is active. Again, all of this without unlocking the phone or having to reach for it.

On the iPhone, you have no information about an alert until you pull down the notifications (a feature, by the way, swiped directly from Android). And you have no way at all to tell the status of currently running applications. Trillian, my IM client, can put an icon in the notification bar to let you know it’s signed on. On the iPhone, you have to start the app to see whether or not it is connected. These may sound like small inconveniences if you’re not used to having them, but I am, and having to reach for the phone, unlock it (even at home, where the Droid would have remained unlocked), and then swipe or poke around just to see why it’s beeping, is incredibly irritating.

Other iRritations

And then there’s the long list of applications that don’t work as well on the iPhone. Map directions are much less usable. Google Voice is a separate application instead of being seamlessly integrated into the phone. The New York Times app is the stupid Newsstand version, which is pretty good on the iPad but much harder to use on a phone-sized screen than the Android app. The calendar doesn’t have a week view. The email client doesn’t color-code messages, offers no control over display and notifications, and is generally lousy compared to the client I use on the Droid. You must delete messages one-by-one. The Gmail client doesn’t support multiple accounts. No widgets, so I can’t display anything other than icons on the home screen, and Apple won’t even really let me arrange those. (On a less-than-full screen, for instance, you can’t have a row of icons at the top and another at the bottom. They all group together at the top.) Instead of the instant-upload feature of Google+, which sends every photo I take with my phone to a private Picasa gallery that I can manage as I wish, the iPhone has the photo stream, which I cannot edit to delete old or lousy photos.

Typing and Text

I was even disappointed in one iOS feature that the Droid doesn’t have — text shortcuts. Finally, in iOS 5, Apple deigned to allow users to define their own text shortcuts. So you can have the iPhone expand, say, “cp” into your full cell-phone number. My Blackberry in the 1990s had this feature, and it saved enormous amounts of time and typing. It’s not possible on the Droid, so I was looking forward to having it on the iPhone. But it’s nowhere near as good as it was on the Blackberry 15 years ago. Expansions can’t include line breaks, so you cannot create shortcuts for, say, the sign-off on an email. There’s also no way to delete the space before the expanded text, so the shortcuts I used to use on the Blackberry (ss to add ’s to the end of a word, for instance) don’t work either.

These crippled shortcuts do not make up for the poorer text-completion abilities of the iPhone. The Droid offers a range of selections to complete what you’re typing, not just one. And those selections are instantly restored if you backspace, rather than the unpredictable way iOS shows and hides completions. When you space after a word, it offers you the common punctuation marks. The Droid is explicit about adding new words to its completion dictionary, and you can edit it to remove words you don’t want.

The iPhone’s deficiencies and inconveniences, combined with Apple’s seeming deliberate intention to be evil, made it impossible for me to live with it. Oh and it was much more expensive than the Droid 4 that comes out next week.

What Makes Me So Special?

Is everyone else crazy, then? This is the most popular smartphone in the world and I found it more or less unusable. What makes me so different? I think there are two main answers.

First, this was not my first smartphone. That was a Palm (or, then, Handspring) Treo, more than ten years ago. And long before that I was using network-connected handheld devices like the Blackberry and the Palm VII. The iPhone is a lot better than typing on a numeric keypad, but inferior to every other device I’ve used, except perhaps the Palm with the stylus. Of course, I also write differently than most iPhone users. I spell words right. I use punctuation and capital letters. I know that “ur” is supposed to be capitalized since it is the name of an ancient city. I want my emails to look and read professionally even if I’m writing on my phone.

The other big difference is my choice of ecosystem. Except for music, I find Apple’s ecosystem poorly designed and too often driven by Apple’s greed and arrogance, rather than by usability. Apple makes great devices. I love my iPad and I use Macs almost exclusively (although to be fair, that’s only because the Mac is a Unix machine at heart). But for the environment surrounding those devices, I vastly prefer the Google ecosystem. Apple is now on their third attempt at building a suite of cloud services (.Mac, MobileMe, and now iCloud), and they’re as bad at building them as they are at naming them. Their mail is inferior to every other major free mail service. The “idisk” cloud storage feature was unbelievably bad; I pay for Dropbox and ignore the storage that’s included in my iCloud account. The calendar stinks and so do contacts.

Meanwhile, I keep a large part of my personal and professional life in Gmail, Google Calendar, and the rest of their cloud. Their applications are smart, usable and well-designed, and their system is open. They don’t do stupid and evil things as often as Apple does, and when they do, you can often work around them. And if you don’t like a Google service, it’s usually painless to integrate someone else into the mix — Dropbox, Soundcloud, etc. Every time I use a non-Apple service on an Apple system, someone in Cupertino is working to prevent me from doing it again. (This is, by the way, why the Unix basis of OSX is so important, even if you’re not a geek. Users or developers can work around Apple’s idiocies and limitations at the Unix level.)

So given that I prefer Google’s ecosystem, it’s not surprising that I also prefer their mobile OS. Not only does it integrate better with their own cloud, it reflects their design philosophies and their technical competence, which at this point are either superior to Apple’s, or less often diverted by anti-user considerations.

Never Again

For the moment I am using an old iPod. And listening to music from FAWM on my Droid, which would not be possible on an iPhone because Apple has decided I shouldn’t use Adobe Flash. I’m not a fan of Flash either, but I’d like to make that choice myself.

I’ll also take a harder look at using the Droid as a music player. Apple deliberately cripples the interaction of other devices with iTunes, so it’s a chore to use any device other than an iPod with it. I’ll look again into alternatives to iTunes but so far I haven’t found anything anywhere near as useful or usable as the iTunes and iPod combination for music. But hey, Android is open-source so theoretically I could write one…

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