FSM Newsletter 6 May 2009

FSM Newsletter 6 May 2009


What's in a look? Before Apple started making immensely slick, sexy hardware, the main issues were always "specs", "graphic cards", "memory". Then, the game changed. People started buying Apple computers because they looked good -- inside and out. Their computers (and gadgets) are immensely appealing. Their operating system, OS X, is a pleasure to look at. When the iPhone was announced, I knew it was going to be the equivalent of Naomi Campbell in the cell phone world. And I was right.

Are iPhones just too sexy to compete against them?

At the moment, the computing industry and the phone industry are merging -- fast. This is a prediction that many of us technical writers made a long time ago: computers would eventually be as small (and as light) as phones and they would be able to make phone calls. Phones would become more and more complete, and would eventually become computers. Everybody could see that the discrepancies between the two would become less and less marked -- and they did.

I was waiting for a killer landmark product that would show the inevitability of this convergence. I was disappointed when a proprietary product like the iPhone became that landmark. I saw the rise of the iPhone, while free software projects and phone stacks had immense difficulties coming to life. The most prominent ones were OpenMoko, Maemo, QTopia -- none of them were there just yet. Nokia missed the boat with the N800. Then Google saved the game with Android. The rest is history -- history that is being written right now.

How far will Android go?

Java: a choice to respect

I am not sure I am able to forgive Google for picking Java as the only possible language to write applications for Android. I strongly dislike Java as a language -- and I am not alone. However, it was their project, and as much as I wished I could write Android applications in Ruby... well, I realise that I need to respect their choice, since they are the ones who worked on it. So, kudos to Google!

The problem with Android

Android at this point is the only serious threat the iPhone faces. Forget about Nokia, that was smart enough to create something very close to the iPhone way before the iPhone itself was conceived (the N770 and N800), and "forgot" to put a GSM card in it... and then bought Trolltech (creator of QTopia) while maintaining the GTK-based Maemo at the same time -- and finally came up with the N95, a symbian-based "iPhone killer" that has a long, long way to go. Android is the only possible iPhone killer.

But, is it?

The trouble is, Android is not a phone. It's a platform -- a set of interacting software components. Any phone maker can build a phone that uses Android as its main operating system, without paying a single cent for it.

The first Android phone that came out, the G1 (or HTC Dream), is a remarkable device. In many, many ways it is better than the iPhone. Even its interface is more usable, especially because it's more focused around the device being a phone.

But it's not sexy.

That's right, unless you are a hardware engineer, the HTC Dream/G1's hardware is not sexy. It doesn't have the iPhone's curves, it's chunkier, and it just doesn't feel as appealing. Even the way its fantastic integrated keyboard slides out... makes it look like an engineering miracle, rather than a mouth watering gadget.

The same can be said about Android's interface. It's fantastic. It's functional. But when you see it, you don't think "curves". You think "squares". In some ways it's more functional than the iPhone's GUI. But it just doesn't look quite as good.

Mind you, this is just me saying it. I am sure there are plenty of people who would disagree with me. But, forget for a second the beauty of free software, forget that you can download and use Android and even change it and redistribute, etc. Out in your hands an iPhone and a G1/HTC Dream, and play with them briefly, simultaneously. Then, tell me.

Is this going to change?

Is this ever going to change? I don't know. The issue is twofold: hardware and software.

Talking about the hardware, at the moment, the only real phone out there that uses Android is the G1/HTC Dream. Android is a new platform, and designing/building phones takes time. This is probably why Android phones are not popping up like mushrooms just yet. It was fortunate that HTC was involved in creating the first Android phone, because they really know what they are doing. You can pick on the lack of sexiness in the G1/HTC Dream, but it is still a fantastic piece of hardware. Others will follow. The hope is that at least one of them will realise that it is important to create a phone that appeals to gadget lovers. But, it's only a hope. When the Macbooks came out, I hoped that other laptop makers would wake up and finally create sexier laptops... but that wasn't quite the case. Most (all?) laptop makers are still stuck to the case design from the middle ages. So, we shall see.

Talking about the software, again, Android is new. It was created in a remarkably short amount of time, and the results are impressive. It will definitely improve with time -- in fact, it already has. However, it still looks quite "square-ish", and I do wonder if there is any desire, at Google, to make it any different. Maybe that's one way to differentiate the iPhone software from Android. Or maybe I belong to a minority, and most people actually prefer the look of Android compared to the iPhone's. Who knows? I guess I will find out when I read the (probably harsh) comments to this article.

Maybe creating a simil-iPhone, with its curvy hardware and curvy user interface, would be just an attempt to catch up that wouldn't stand a chance... and a better route would be to look for the next cool thing. Before Apple. Before anybody else.

Anyone up for the challenge?

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Comments

uslacker's picture
Submitted by uslacker on

I saw this statement in your op-ed:
"Android at this point is the only serious threat the iPhone faces"
and I have to wonder if you don't look at the numbers. Does not Blackberry deserve a mention here? In Q1, the Blackberry Curve was the top-selling smartphone. Almost as importantly, two other Blackberry's were in the top 5.

So while the G1's entry into that top 5 list is notable, I challenge your assertion that it is the "only serious threat"

I appreciate your unflinching support of open source software but isn't it risky to avoid facts while trying to carry that standard? Don't you risk journalistic integrity?

\\uSlacker

admin's picture
Submitted by admin on

Hi,

Hummmm I should have probably added "in the long run".

I think you have a point, but... let's talk in say 12 or 24 months, on this thread, and let's see how wrong, or how right, I was :D

Merc.

Fastred's picture
Submitted by Fastred on

Its not that Apple's products "look" good - its that they *work* well; they are designed with a focus on the user, rather than the interests of the developers.

A key challenge for free software development is that it is generally driven by the interest of the developer - this is hardly surprising; but it means that the developer's focus isn't on user needs but on other matters.

For free software projects to succeed in the way Apple has, they need to have a strong vision of a set of users, their needs and design and develop for that.

If "looking nice" is part of usability (and yes, it actually often *is* - something that is pleasurable to use is more *useful* than something that is a struggle to use or irritating to use), then design-led approaches will incorporate "look" - but not for its own sake.

Jeremy

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Tony Mobily's picture

Biography

Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine