Mobile

Dylan’s Desk: Android hates me, and it doesn’t like you much, either

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I’ve come to the conclusion that my Android phone hates me.

It probably hates you, too.

The breaking point came today when I tried to use my phone to Google the word “Edsel.” Instead of delivering the answer, my phone — a cheap LG model from Virgin Mobile — spontaneously rebooted itself.

I wasn’t exactly surprised, since my phone has a tendency to reboot without warning at least once a day. The irony didn’t escape me, however. The Edsel was Ford’s “experimental” car, introduced in 1957 after two years of development. While it had tons of features, such as oil level warning lights and an innovative “Teletouch” shift system, the Edsel was poorly marketed, didn’t have a clear target customer, and was too expensive. It also suffered from reliability problems.

Android phones aren’t exactly Edsels (they don’t have a big front grille that looks like, well, lady parts). But they are similar in a couple ways: Packed with features but also saddled with a dismaying lack of reliability and a lot of stray details that reveal just how little its designers care about you. It’s the ultimate triumph of the lame “good enough” philosophy.

Again and again, I run into little annoying details in the Android interface that reveal how I’m really just an afterthought to Google’s engineers.

Some examples:

  • The built-in onscreen keyboard is so half-assed that there’s a thriving subclass of apps designed to replace it, including Swype and Swiftkey. Fortunately, thanks to Android’s openness, this is actually possible.
  • When you’re adjusting a time or date setting, the finger that you use to adjust the numbers upward obscures your view of the actual number.
  • In the Gmail app, to switch out of your Inbox to a different folder, you press the button labeled “inbox.” This is a perversity comparable to pressing the Start button to shut down your computer.
  • Some apps can be moved to SD card storage. Others, such as the rather large Google Maps app, cannot. It’s not clear why not. It’s also not clear why those apps stuck in the phone’s main storage need to keep updating themselves, so they get larger and larger.
  • When you’re scrolling through a screen, sometimes it jumps halfway down (up?) without warning, leaving you bewildered about where in the page you are.
  • Music playback is constantly getting interrupted by new mail alerts and other sonic warnings. Switching your phone to silent mode helps, but only slightly: The bleeps become tiny quarter-second blips of silence interrupting the music instead.
  • Every single account that I’ve ever added to the phone for syncing information is now requesting to update various apps.
  • Sometimes the search button doesn’t work. (Calendar app, I’m looking at you.)
  • Sometimes the back button takes you to the previous application, and sometimes it takes you to the previous screen in the current app, and it doesn’t seem to matter what you were actually doing before.
  • You still can’t copy and paste text from email messages. Seriously?

Now, I am not using the most recent version of Android. I am using Android 2.2.1 (“Froyo”) on a crummy phone that I bought for $150 at Target because I could get it without a contract, and Virgin Mobile offers unlimited data and all the voice minutes I need for $40 per month.

The fact that this crummy phone exists at all is Android’s great advantage, but it is also its fatal flaw. Unlike more restrictive mobile operating systems, Android offers you the freedom to buy a crap phone that barely works.

That’s why Android is now the most popular smartphone operating system. And, yes, I am grateful for the opportunity to have a cheap phone. I just wish its design didn’t betray such obvious indifference to the people who try to use it.

Photo: Robert Occhialini/Flickr

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