I am taking the plunge and moving from an iPhone to an Android device. I’ve been waiting a long time for Android to get to the point that it was fast and responsive enough, with a big enough application warehouse, wide enough support, and a smooth enough experience, to support me. Android is maturing with a consistent, system-wide look-and-feel, almost every major service now has an Android app as the counterpart to its iOS-first experience, and has a bright future with wearables, home automation, and more.
I certainly won’t be the first person to change ecosystems entirely. Several have done it before, some looking for change or claim freedom, some aiming to save money, some because someone prompted them, some think they may be conforming by going with the ever-stylish Apple. I am doing it for this reason: for me, Android is now a better platform than iOS.
Before we get started, some ground rules:
- I’m not trying to convince you to switch. iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and BB10 all have area of strength and some unique angle. All would make a suitable enough platform for 99% of users. And all have areas of weakness.
- Secondly, some qualifications: I got my first iPhone about 60 days after release. I’ve owned every model since, thanks to a crafty staggered upgrade plan with my wife, who each year generously permits me to outfit her with the prior year’s flagship device. I’ve been an avid iOS user since the iPhoneOS 1.0 days. I followed the 40+ step jailbreak process for 1.0, experienced AppSnap, JailbreakMe, and several flavors of ra1n.
- I first used OS X at 10.0 when my longtime Mac neighbors installed it, I first really got into the Mac in 2002 when I somehow convinced Apple to send me a PowerMac for review, and switched to Mac full time with Tiger in 2004. My house is decorated with Apple gear: iMac, Macbook Pro, Macbook, AppleTV, Airport Extreme Base Station, Airport Express, iPod, iPhone, iPad…I’m predisposed to loving Apple.
- Fourth, I read most Apple and premier technology websites, so I’m immersed in this regularly and no decision is without some substance.
- I started writing this article before WWDC ’14, and have revisited it. Many of my “complaints” about iOS are addressed in iOS 8. I’ve tried to weigh that appropriately.
- Last, I’ve tried to be original in my nitpicks and stick to technology, rather than re-hashing the same debates about things like Apple politics or behaviors (e.g. iMessage de-registration).
Okay, are you ready? Let’s go. Let’s start with my original 11 reasons for switching away from iOS. For ease, I’ve lumped all of my concerns into the following buckets:
- iOS UI/UX inconsistencies
- The Keyboard/Auto-Correct
- Integration Degradation
- Lack of interactivity
- Lack of system control
- Inter-app communication
- Privacy controls
- Central account registration
iOS UI/UX Inconsistencies
iOS is beautiful. The system and the app ecosystem are unmatched in their style. At least that’s what everyone seems to repeat, and I convinced myself to be true, for a long time.
However, my experience is that most users are oblivious to just how messy iOS really is. Let’s start with this: the creation of cross-platform toolkits, particularly the HTML5 and Flash ones, have lead to an enormous amount of applications that look and act nothing like iOS. The iOS experience can be incredibly confusing with all sort of metaphors, graphical elements, depths and layers, and experience tricks. Surely you’d agree that Apple can’t be held responsible for crappy copycat games churned out in an Asian development factory, so let’s just set that on the side for now. But let’s also recognize that when Apple talks about 1 million apps in the App Store, it’s really far fewer. If there are (an arbitrary) one-tenth of that really stand out, I’d be surprised. I wouldn’t be surprised if the number is actually lower than that.
As techies and developers, we recognize that APIs change and developers need time to adjust, update, and recompile their apps for new versions of iOS and new capabilities. But as a user, the iOS experience is often a confusing mish-mash of inconsistencies. So let’s give the third-party app scene a pass, let’s just talk about Apple’s iOS, the one created and maintained by Apple. iOS 7, the “leap ahead” in design language, is a huge turn off for me. I generally reserve the term “Fisher Price” for Windows XP, but iOS 7 can’t make its mind what it wants to be.
Take, for example, the iOS 7 icons. First, we have Phone, Mail, Music, and Messages, 4 of the most used icons on the iPhone. These apps have shed their skeuomorphic appearance for a “flat-like” look. There is no depth to the icon. The apps still have their “composition,” which includes rounded corners, drop shadows, a gradient, and a reflective sheen. This implies a consistent light source, which implies some height/depth. Now look at Game Center, Weather, Photos, and Newsstand. Icon subjects overlap one another. This type of half-commitment to “flat” UI is evident throughout iOS 7. There will be people on the internet already formulating their attack-like response, but when Apple makes such a big deal out of design, they should be held to the high standards they have set. The icon super-ellipse shape “feels” wrong to me. And the argument iOS 7 icons are “wrong” has already been made better than I can make it. So the icons, the very core of the OS in that it’s your “home,” is flawed.
Now picture yourself playing a game. Some sort of button sits in the top menu bar, generally on the right, and maybe it’s a “Save” or “Restart” or “Next” button. Now pretend someone texts you, mentions you in a tweet, or replies to your Facebook status. For some period of time, if configured in a non-modal way, for maybe 2 seconds, a banner drops down, obscuring widgets, information, or merely creating some brief lag (damn you, Flappy Bird!). Contrast this with Android, which only overlaps the status bar, blocking only the clock and other notifications, but never part of an app. This is often frustrating, but is at least odd language. Your core interaction with the OS is obscured by some other event, and it actually steals active screen real estate.
Ultimately, Apple was historically the company with unmatched attention to detail. Sadly, iOS 7 doesn’t support that. iOS 7, for me, is just not a fully-formed vision.
So, how about iOS 8? Surely these concerns are addressed a year later? Sadly, not one of them is.
The iOS keyboard/text input
My biggest single gripe with iOS is the keyboard. The featureless, dumb all-capital-letter all-the-time keyboard. Most ICS-and-newer stock Android keyboards support some smart features. Most support swipe-input, for example. Many after-market keyboard support social integration, in that they can log in to Twitter and Facebook and Gmail and “learn” how and what you type so they can be smarter in correction and prediction. But iOS still can’t learn basic words, and as a result, iPhone users everywhere are sick of their ducking keyboard.
What color, I sometimes ask my friends, is the iOS keyboard?
As I mentioned, not only is the iOS keyboard forsaking function for form in using capital letters when you’re typing lowercase, it’s also confusing for users to tell if the caps lock/shift key is depressed or not. Sure, it’s not difficult to learn, but the fact is that I regularly come across users who are stumped until they begin typing. And there’s a reason for that: because it’s not immediately evident, because the keyboard appears to have been designed by a designer, not a user. I don’t know how this made it past the quality testing phase.
But truly, it’s the lack of prediction and the lack of rapid swipe input that makes the iOS keyboard a loser. If it were system-wide replaceable, this wouldn’t be an issue. In fact, it might be a strength: a simple system keyboard for those who don’t want a faster or more powerful input source, but for the shift/caps lock issue. Instead, it’s a weak point on the OS.
Now, iOS 8 supports replacing the keyboard system-wide. I’ve been using iOS 8 since the day it was released, and while no new-function keyboard is available yet, you can test how this might work with other languages. It’s easy enough – better than Android, arguably, given the switch button is on the keyboard. But that comes with a few notes: the keyboards can’t type into “secure input” fields. Not sure what that means. I was able to test that iOS 8 does, in fact, support keyboard replacement even in older apps still using the gray/pinstripe keyboard. So this is very promising.
Let’s move on to Auto-Correct. Not much to say here other than the fact that the Auto-Correct on the iPhone is terrible. How many of you have typed the word “for” and realized it was “got”? How many have typed an iMessage, and upon hitting “Send”, Auto-Correct changes the final word, without a visible warning or chance to decline? This happens to me all the time. Not only that, it’s common for iOS to replace words with strange suggestions. “Leeting,” for example, the L being close the M for “meeting”, suggests “leering,” and there is no second-guess. Now “Quick Type” in iOS 8 evidently addresses this, but I haven’t been able to get Quick Type to work on my iOS 8 beta yet, so I can’t confirm it’s any better or worse.
I can already hear responses from the crowd shouting “Just disable Auto-Correct!” But I don’t want to! I want Auto-Correct, I just don’t want it to change the words to the wrong words! Honestly, if Android keyboards and Blackberry’s cool swipe-up prediction can get soft keyboards so right, why does Apple get it so wrong?
Speaking of “get it so wrong”, Siri is one of the least used features on my phone. Or rather, would be, but for the fact that it’s constantly deploying in meetings when the system hangs for a few microseconds. But I rarely use voice dictation. Why? Do this experiment: first, open an app and use the dictation feature. Notice the spinner. About 40-60% of the time, the spinner will spin for at least 3 seconds. In many cases, it will spin and eventually simply time out, failing to deliver any response at all.
Now try this: hit your dictation button, then talk for a few seconds, then hit “Done,” then hit Backspace cancel it. Wait 2-3 seconds. Dictate something else. Then watch your original sentence populate the text box.
When Siri does work, for me, it’s right less than 50% of the time. Let’s be clear: more often than not, I’m changing the text anyway. I’m usually editing what was said and dealing with the impossibly frustrating magnification loop, which seems hell-bent on refusing to move to the exact spot I want. Sometimes, there’s a blue line under a word, but no amount of tapping brings up a suggestion. Sometimes, there’s letter that’s wrong, but it won’t let me select the letter or move the loop there, my only option is deleting the whole word. No matter how much you love Apple, surely you’ve seen this too.
Ultimately, Siri is not a tool I rely on for anything other than emergency texts while driving. An informal poll of my iPhone carrying friends shows just one person who uses it daily, and literally zero people who report it being accurate “most of the time.” We joke about having to over-annunciate everything you say, and then I show them Google Search for iPhone, with Google Now’s voice recognition. Your experience may be different, but this is real world data.
We were an AppleTV family. We bought the first 160GB AppleTV, and we own a third gen AppleTV. But I bought a Roku for testing and now we’re a Roku family. Why? Largely because converting and importing all of my media into iTunes made life frustrating. Don’t get me started on iTunes. But suffice it to say that we have one last AppleTV in use, and I hope to replace it with a Roku Streaming Stick soon. Why does this matter? Because when the AppleTVs went away, so did a piece of the integration.
The only thing I can “download” on iOS is a photo. And it’s jammed into “Camera Roll.” Every time I grab an image, or take a screenshot, Apple wants it to go into the same photo repository and then into my Photo Stream and then into iTunes. I want the photo of my kid, but I don’t want the Game of Thrones meme I downloaded just so I could send it via text. In fact, I had to disable photo stream, because it mostly grabbed garbage: wallpapers, funny downloads, screenshots… all muddling up my otherwise curated iPhoto collection.
I’m still waiting for a convenient, friction-less way to share media. There’s Bluetooth, there’s NFC, there’s ad-hoc Wifi…none are truly without challenge. When I try to share a photo with an iPhone user, AirDrop is still several steps and a few steps of waiting. In my mind, Apple should be way ahead of the curve here, we should’ve been able to share photos with our Macs and other phones wirelessly years ago. But I’m still connecting my iPhone with a lightning cord to get photos or emailing them to myself.
Enter iOS 8 to solve much of this with the new AirDrop, and it’s ad-hoc, which means it doesn’t even require you being on the same wifi network! Presumably, this is some of the power of Bluetooth LE coming to the surface. The Mac/iPhone integration will improve considerably with iOS 8 and Yosemite. But today, the integration is a missed opportunity.
Lack of Interactivity
iOS 7, when not running an app, is cold, immobile, uncommunicative, and passionless. Take a look at my homescreen. There’s nothing going on. Right now, there’s a single badge, telling me something is up, but it’s just telling me about unread email. Nothing gives iOS 7 any personality unless there’s an app running, save for the parallax effect, which I readily disabled, solely to get rid of folder zoom. Contrast this with my computer, which has browser tabs refreshing under active windows, next to widgets in the menu bar and bouncing Dock icons. iOS 7 is always static by default and just… boring.
On the HTC One I’ve got, my homescreens are filled with useful widgets. I have the weather for the next few hours; headlines via the New York Times; my calendar; system controls for wifi, rotation lock, volume, brightness, and bluetooth; buttons to quickly post a status or a photo to Facebook; and a Twitter panel for mentions and notifications. My Android home screens feels warm an inviting, displaying useful information even before I’ve opened an app.
Also on Android, notifications are actionable. This means that I can “Like” or “Reply” to a Facebook notice from my notifications. Different apps have different actions associated with them. One of the most compelling abilities in other mobile OSes, for me, is this ability to interact with another app without a hard stop in my workflow.
iOS 8 supports actionable notifications, hallelujah! The notifications are still intrusive, but they seem to be much nicer and I can’t wait to see how they shape the future of iOS apps.
It frustrates me that I can’t check a text message while streaming YouTube. Background-running is still a funky subject with iOS. Some functions can, some cannot. On my Android device, when I connect to a certain wifi network, it disables Bluetooth to save battery. When I get in my car and connect to Bluetooth, it turns off wifi. Apps like Tasker and Trigger are very powerful in what they can do to manage your Android experience. iOS has no equivalent because the system doesn’t allow that type of access. For some, this provides security and peace of mind. For some, like me, it just means I can’t use the power of the device to its fullest.
Lack of system control
Put simply: iOS makes you use iOS the way iOS was intended. If I prefer Mailbox as my mail client, I can use it, but I can’t make it the default. I can’t choose my browser, I can’t choose my calendar, my text app, my music player, camera, etc. The fact is, I don’t like using Calendar as my default calendar, because it’s so limited. The Camera isn’t the best app for taking photos. iOS 8 supports Extensions, which we’ll address below, but it’s not far enough. I want to use the apps I want, and I don’t want the less powerful Apple apps to force themselves into my workflow. I want custom defaults. I want my own maps, my own email client, my own browser, and my own text app.
iOS 8 will introduce Extensions. Finally, iOS apps will be able to talk with, and inject features into, one another. This is critical. But until iOS 8, and with the current generation iOS 7.1.x, this isn’t possible. That means we need duplicate apps and we need to constantly open and close apps. Take this common workflow: I take a picture with my iOS camera, then I open another app to edit it. In fact, it’s common for me personally to open a few different apps for editing certain pictures. Some have great filters, others have better retouch tools, still others share it on a certain social network.
One small footnote to extensions is that you can’t just write an extension for iOS, you have to write an app. In other words, you can’t just have a keyboard, or a filter, or something simple, there has to be an app. I would expect it to be commonplace for useful extensions to be bundled with mostly useless applications, but it’s a restriction that I’m sure is based in some technical challenge I don’t understand. Just interesting to note that extensions can only come from applications, so you should expect your custom keyboards to be mashed into an app of some sort.
The way the iOS SDK approaches interapp communication is very interesting. It will be fun to watch, over the next year or two, how developers extend iOS to become a much more powerful tool. But today, on iOS 7, we’re still living in tight sandboxes.
iOS presents me with far too many dialog boxes. I want a single page, a la Android or even Facebook or Google+’s OAuth web interceptors, that shows me all of the permissions an application wants: location, contacts, photos, etc should all be asked in one page, and I should have toggles for each. Otherwise, app makers have taken to popping up dialogs to explain the forthcoming system dialogs. It’s chaos.
If I want to manage an application’s permissions, I can’t see all the permissions it’s been granted in one place. I have to visit each piece individually – first contacts, then calendar, etc. There’s no simple way to see all of an app’s permissions. Now I can hear the response already, if it were organized by app, you’d complain that you can’t see everything using Location Services or Photos!. That’s true, we have to pick one way. But which do you think makes more sense, grouping privacy controls by function… or by app? I’ve never said “Which apps can access my photos?” but I’ve certainly thought, “I wonder what permissions I’ve granted app X.“
Apps get access to plenty of data, but a single, unified sheet, recognizable throughout the OS, would do wonders for managing privacy.
It’s not uncommon for a calendaring app to want access to contacts, location data, reminders, photos, and in some cases, Facebook. That’s a lot of dialogs that, if not authorized, will certainly water down the experience considerably.
Central Account Registration
Why can’t systems like Reddit or even OSNews register logins centrally and allow apps to access those credentials? For some reason, iOS has decided that a few blessed services (Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, Flickr, Vimeo) may register credentials centrally. But on my Android phone, I currently see Amazon, BaconReader, Dropbox, Engadget, Exchange, Facebook, Google, GroupMe, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Outlook.com, and more. When apps want my credentials, they ask for permission to access the stored keys, not require a new, repeated login. As I grew more familiar with my Android phone, I appreciated it more as I tested several apps, but didn’t have to keep entering my logins and password.
Maybe I’ve got a bum 5s. It’s possible. But I have issues most days. Let me go into detail. When iOS 7 was released, a newly 64-bit OS on a newly 64-bit chip, my Springboard would crash 3-5 times a day, minimum. This has been mostly rectified with iOS 7.1. I say mostly because I still experience several crashes a week. Usually, I can tell it’s happening as an application becomes unresponsive for several seconds and then I’m just waiting for the inevitable black-Apple-on-white-background to indicate the Springboard respawn.
While writing this (so this would be June 9), on iOS-current 7.1.1, I experienced several crashes, both occurred mid-rotation! Literally, as the screen was shifting from portrait-to-landscape or vice versa, it got stuck. Sadly, though I attempted screenshots, they didn’t work.
When I launch my camera from the lock screen, there’s about a 10% chance the button that takes the photo will simply crash the app. This happens with some frequency.
I find my phone, far too often, refuses to wake up with either the home button or the power button, and it’s always a gamble if it will wake up eventually or simply restart.
Apps historically stable for me, such as Feedly, Mail, Facebook, and the App Store have all experienced random crashes.
I can’t tolerate the spinning beach ball on OS X, and Springboard crashes are the mobile equivalent. iOS is far less stable, in my experience, than it was back in the iOS 4 and 5 days. Maybe that’s my memory playing tricks on me, but my phone is less reliable than ever.
Perhaps the mother of all peeves, Apple’s iTunes application is the gateway for all things iPhone and iPad. All loaded media must pass through iTunes, unless it gets creative (e.g. VLC, which loads data over wifi, albeit excruciatingly slowly, even over 802.11ac). My daughter has an old, deactivated Blackberry Z10 that she uses as a little handheld. When she wants music and video, I connect it to my Mac via USB and drag the media, in virtually any format, in the appropriate folder (i.e. Music, Videos, Documents, etc) and it’s ready to go. While the BB application will launch, the Mac still thinks it’s just a mass storage device, it mounts like any other removable media.
My son plays with an old iPhone 4. Everything he wants first has to be converted into a format that is compatible, then it has to be imported into my iTunes library, where it must sit forevermore, otherwise, when I next sync, it will be deleted. Want to add an MP3? Must be in iTunes. As such, my iTunes library is now littered with the Tangled, Frozen, and Brave soundtracks. I can’t do it another way short of creating a second iTunes library and toggle-launching.
An article discussing just how terrible the Swiss Army Knife of iTunes is could be a length piece in its own right, and I’m not the first to decry it. But ultimately, iTunes should probably be busted up into multiple apps, amongst them a system service to handle syncing iDevices separate from the music app, the video app, and the photos app.
It looks like iOS 8 is going to address a lot of my concerns with the iPhone. I am now firmly in the camp that is hoping for a 4.7″ phone (5″ is too big for one handed use, 4″ is just ridiculously small in 2014), and I expect that to be addressed with the iPhone 6 this Fall. It seems that iOS 8 and iPhone 6 will be a pretty awesome combo, especially alongside a modern Mac running Yosemite.
But I’m still jumping to Android. Why? Is it the power, the control, or the freedom from annual device hopping in favor of “when I’m ready or need it” upgrading? Those things play a small role, sure. I think, for me, it’s the fact that at the end of the day, iOS is still just a bunch of dead pixels staring back at me. There’s no life to the system outside of the parallax wallpaper effect, there are no widgets, no possibilities outside of what Apple has allowed. It still takes me 10 clicks to start my day as I check emails and several apps, whereas, with Android, most of my critical info is either on my launcher’s home screen or in my notification tray.
I think iOS as a whole is getting a little stale. There needs to be more than a redesign, there needs to be an entirely new Springboard. I can’t help but think that iOS feels lifeless unless you actively DO something. Maybe iOS 8 is really the first step towards that expansion; I’ll admit the feature list blew me away. I certainly didn’t see the replaceable keyboard or app extensions as possibilities. Maybe we’re making the right strides in the right timeline.
But all of these features… well, they exist on Android already, and they’re getting better fast. So it’s time for me to try something new. Maybe I’ll be back by iOS 9. Maybe even sooner! But for now, here’s looking forward to “Lollipop”!
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