A lot has been written about Android since its introduction by Google, both good and bad. It’s been praised as an open model that led to the creation of the Open Handset Alliance. It’s been criticized for being fragmented as a platform and for the rapid pace of new releases, which has made it hard for both users and vendors to keep up.
Of course, it has also sparked a new set of technology “religious wars” between Android aficionados, iOS advocates, RIM lovers and Windows Phone fans. That’s not new in tech—hey, there are still some pretty vocal Amiga advocates out there. In truth, there’s no such a thing as a perfect platform that is going to satisfy everyone. For myself, the value of a platform is always going to derive from what it can help me do better, how it can entertain me in new ways and how it can make my life easier.
That said, here are five things I either really like or really dislike about Android devices that tend to differentiate them from others on the market. As in any tech discussion, your mileage will vary; that’s why we call this “personal technology.”
Widgets. I love Android widgets. These mini applications live on the home screen and can deliver everything from the time and weather and stock updates to social network status and command and control of settings and services. Sure, other platforms have things that are similar, such as Windows Phone’s Live Tiles, but nothing else provides quite the depth of personal customization as the Android platform. This flexibility allows me to create the user interface I want to see, with the information I need always glanceable and accessible.
Side-loading applications. I also love not being tied to a single store or marketplace. Thanks to Amazon’s generosity, for example, I get a free Android app of some value every day. I can easily work with developers to test new applications. Is there a dark side? Sure; there’s a lot of malicious stuff out there; you have to know what you’re installing and where it came from. A curated marketplace can be great if it roots out the harmful stuff, but I find that the benefits of Android’s side-loading flexibility outweigh the risks. Frustratingly, some vendors’ Android devices lock users out of this feature.
Huge phones. This is not one of the things I love about Android. For me, a phone with a really large screen compromises the phone experience and falls short of the tablet experience. But while I would never want to use a phone that’s bigger than my pocket, you can’t call this a real failing of Android. That’s because I’m not everyone; some people are going to love those big screens (and maybe they have bigger pockets than I do). And it’s also because huge phones aren’t the whole Android story; Android devices come in a variety of sizes, and as I discuss below, some are small enough to be wearable.
Keyboards and pens as input devices. I don’t want a pen as a primary input device, though it could be handy for taking notes. I also prefer touch-screen keyboards to tiny physical keyboards. But again, I’m not everyone, and some people are very much committed to having a keyboard on their phone. All in all, it’s good to see a thriving ecosystem that’s pushing the envelope. Whether it’s keyboard-based devices from Motorola or pen-integrated 5-inch devices from Samsung, there’s likely to be an Android form factor that’s right for your particular needs.
Geeky options. You can do some pretty wild things with Android, like hack a new version of the operating system onto your device even if your carrier or vendor doesn’t support it. And vendors have done some wacky things with Android too. (In true Android spirit, the Honeycomb tablet version of Android has already been ported to it.) You can buy a wristband accessory for the MotoActv, but the WIMM One from WIMM Labs is specifically meant to take Android to your wrist as an über-connected watch that begins to fulfill the promise of wearable computing. Then there’s the Kindle Fire from Amazon, which may well become the most popular Android device of all, even though its users probably have no idea it’s an Android device at all. All of this suggests a basic ingrained geekiness that I like and that could open the door over the next year to a lot of devices that simply could not exist without Android.
Android isn’t perfect. It doesn’t handle external storage in a proper unified manner, Microsoft Exchange support is flaky, and there are huge issues with platform fragmentation that means not all applications and services will run on a given device. That said, Android has filled an important part of post-PC life, delivering an experience that Linux tried and failed to achieve in the days when the PC defined personal computing.
[Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.]