Making the leap: From dumbphone to smartphone

Operating System

So you’ve decided which carrier you want to go with.  Congratulations!  Now, comes an equally important consideration: which operating system (OS) do you want to use?  You’ll have three basic choices: an Android phone, the iPhone, or a Windows phone.  This is a big decision: you’re not just deciding on the software you want to use, but also which “ecosystem” you’re going to be joining.  To simply this discussion, I’ll organize these sections into pros and cons for you to read and digest.

Android

Android is Google’s open-sourced OS.  It’s been around since 2008, and has steadily grown in functionality and usability over the years.  It’s now matured into a sophisticated, full-fledged powerhouse OS.  It’s incredibly popular, and has surpassed even the iPhone in U.S. market share.  And it’s supported by Google’s might.

Pros

Android is available on more phones and more carriers than the iPhone.  Whereas the iPhone is manufactured in a single form factor by Apple alone, Android devices come in all shapes and sizes from a variety high-end manufacturers like HTC, Samsung, LG, Motorola, and Sony.  More are on the way as well.  With the plethora of manufacturers putting out Android phones, consumers are truly getting the benefit of innovation in this space.  Android phones are a pleasure to hold and use; they can have big, bright screens for maximum multimedia enjoyment, they incorporate cutting-edge CPU and display technology, they are razor thin and comfortable to hold in your hand, they support emerging wireless technology like NFC, include GPS receivers, and much, much more.  If you crave having the latest cutting-edge technology in your phone, you must, without question, choose Android.

Although the iPhone gained critical mass long before Android was even conceived, now there’s almost nothing you can do on the iPhone that you can’t also on your Android phone.  In some cases, you can do more.  For example, for the last 2.5 years, Android has been doing turn-by-turn voice-navigated GPS; that feature is now rumored, finally, to be included in the next version of the iPhone.  Android is a rich OS that is truly full-featured and full-bodied.

If you consider yourself a “power user,” Android in particular should appeal to you.  You can customize, tweak, and modify many of Android’s default settings in order to get the most from your  phone, and it gives you more power to control aspects of your phone than any other OS.

If you use any of Google’s services  (e.g., gmail, Drive, picasa, etc.) you’re a part of this ecosystem, and your Android phone will help you maximize the use and benefits you get from those services.

Cons

There are some places where Android is a little rough around the edges.  I mean, nothing is perfect, right?

One of Android’s biggest faults is that updates to the OS are haphazardly released to users.  You see, while Google is busy constantly refining, fixing, and releasing updates to Android, by and large those updates ultimately only show up on Android devices when the phone manufacturers and carriers test and ultimately release those updates to users (the one important exception to this statement are Nexus devices). This has lead to a “fragmentation” problem, which basically means that there are many different versions of Android running on countless devices out there, complicating things for developers.  Case in point: Last week, Google unveiled Android 4.1 Jelly bean.  The problem is that about 60% of devices are still running Android 2.3.

To make things worse, when updates do finally get approved by manufacturers for release, they don’t always install problem-free.  In fact, you may not initially get it to install at all.  When Android 2.3 Gingerbread was finally released for me phone (nearly a year after Google announced it) the actual process of updating was littered with hassles and problems for me (and many others).  First, I got an error that my phone didn’t have sufficient memory to install the update.  Okay.  I deleted some apps and tried again, but I had missed my window of opportunity – every time I went to check for system updates, my phone kept telling me it was up to date.  Right.  Finally, after a period of time, the update popped up again.  Great!  Only this time, when I tapped “Restart and install update” my phone just sat there at “Restarting” and never actually rebooted to install the update.

I eventually had to a follow a complicated set of steps (that I learned thanks to various Android user forms on the Internet with members who are far braver at working with the innards of their OS than I am) that involved booting into the system menu, holding down strange combinations of buttons, clearing my system cache, bleh bleh bleh.  Are you kidding me?  It was a disaster.

I think it’s safe to say this: if the iPhone is refined and dignified English society, Android is the wild wild west.  Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but it conveys a basic truth about Android. There are simply some things about Android that are not ideal user experiences, and if you’re going to join this ecosystem, you may have to get your hand dirty from time to time.

iPhone

There’s not much more I can say about the iPhone that hasn’t already been said.  It’s the iPhone.  It’s probably the best turnkey smartphone solution on the market.  It works, and it works well.  It’s generally hassle free, intuitive, and has a substantial app ecosystem.

I’m serious about this.  Although I am an Android fanboy through and through, I have no qualms recommending an iPhone to people who care less about having the latest and greatest and cust0mizing their phone to their heart’s content, and more about just having a phone that works relatively hassle free.  If you’re the type of person who wants something to work right out of the box with minimum hassle, minimum setup, and minimum learning curve, the iPhone is your best bet.

Of course, you are sacrificing a great deal as well.  The iPhone is not nearly as customizable as Android.  For example, if you’re not happy with the default keyboard on Android, you can change it!  If you’re not happy with the keyboard on the iPhone, well, tough luck.  That’s the  trade off.

Also, you might want to consider the fact that if you get an iPhone, you’re not only committing yourself to their app ecosystem, you’re also subjecting yourself to Apple’s software philosophy: control, control, control.  What does that mean?  Here’s an example I experienced recently.  My fiance has an iPad that I wanted to load some files onto.  After I plugged it into my computer, I wasn’t able to access any of the files on the iPad, and certainly couldn’t copy any files onto it.  It turns out you can only interact with the filesystem on an iPad if you use iTunes.  Well, that’s not cool – I don’t use iTunes and don’t want to install it on my computer.  Even worse, had I went ahead and installed iTunes, it would’ve told me that the iPad wasn’t “synced” or whatever with my iTunes library; it was synced with finance’s, which would entail additional asinine steps to get the iPad to work nicely with my computer.  This example happens to involve an iPad, but it would’ve played out exactly the same had it been an iPhone.  In contrast to all of that, I can plug my Android smartphone into my computer and happily move files back and forth as much as I want, without limitation.

Now, I don’t purport to be an iOS expert.  It’s entirely possible there’s a way to bypass all of that rather easily and make for a smoother process.  But, my point is the same: when you buy into Apple, you’re stepping into a much more restrictive philosophy of how you will interact with your hardware and software.  It’s just not for me.  Never has been, never will be.

Windows Phone

Windows Phone is Microsoft’s answer to Android and the iPhone.  As it was in Internet search, Microsoft got into this game a bit late, and has been trying to play catchup in this space for a while.

Most people agree that Windows Phone has some compelling features to it and is inventive in its own right.  It sports an innovative and refreshing user interface (called “Metro”) that will be the basis for the next version of Windows.  If you’re a true Windows junkie, this may have some appeal to you.  While it’s app ecosystem is not nearly as developed as Android’s or Apple’s, you will likely be able to find the “major apps.”  Also, in terms of customization and user experience, many have pointed out that Windows Phone occupies a comfortable middle ground between iPhone’s restrictive walled-off garden, and the wild wild west of Android.  It’s not an open-source platform like Android, but, unlike Apple, Microsoft does allow access to certain parts of the OS to developers to enhance user experience.  Actually, all things equal, I might even prefer Microsoft’s balanced approach here to Android’s free for all.

Having said all of that, my sense is that Windows Phone is still largely a third-wheel in this game at the moment.  Its market share lags significantly to Android’s and Apples, and it’s just not punching in the same weight class yet.  Still, the Windows faithful will be quick to point out that the sky’s the limit here.  The mobile space is white hot, and it’s tough to know where the dust will eventualyl settle – who knows what the Redmond software giant has in store for us in the future?  Okay, this is a clue.

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