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I’m : a web and mobile developer based in the Manning Valley, Australia.


Google Android - A few thoughts

Andrew on Friday received his brand new shiny HTC Hero (well T-Mobile G2 Touch) and after a weekend of him playing with it I've jotted down my thoughts on Android in general. I'll say up front that I am an Apple iPhone 3GS user but have had a string of Nokia and Windows Mobile phones.

Out of the box experience

Nothing very wrong here, but it's just not amazing. The phone comes in a T-Mobile branded box and is extremely small, much smaller than I would have expected. Sliding out the carton presents the phone itself in a flimsy holder with the necessary bits tucked away in other containers. There's a manual (which the iPhone lacks, but do users still prefer to get given a little something?), USB sync cable, charger which has uber cheap due to it having interchangable parts to support different plugs, and headset.

It's not a bad experience but after opening Apple products you feel excited as you (easily) move through the layers to get to the good stuff.

Initial setup

Once you've slotted in the SIM card and battery the setup begins as soon as the phone is powered on. A T-Mobile startup screen is followed by a HTC logo whereupon you're thrust into the setup wizard. You're warned that you need a Google account to use the phone, enter in your username and password and you're done. The next option seems to be HTC specific (because they've written their own mail client, see further down) but Exchange is another sync option.

A similar setup where you enter your email address and it heads off trying to auto configure some settings. If that fails (which it expectadly did for us) then enter in the usual details and once you're authenticated you can select what you'd like to sync. Supported items include mail, calender and contacts.

With the data bits out of the way you're offered a tutorial after which the device is yours.

Exchange support

Microsoft Exchange is the defacto standard when it comes to corporate mail, and for good reason. It has seemless integration between mail, contacts and calendar and offers syncing like no other. ActiveSync must have been one of Microsoft's greatest inventions. Google Android itself does not come with Exchange support thus limiting you to gmail and IMAP/POP3. HTC has (kindly and thankfully) written their own mail client which is provided in addition to the Android one and this fully supports Microsoft Exchange.

Once you've completed the simple account setup your email, contacts and calendar items just appear on your phone and are kept constantly updated. Full push support is available or you can configure a pull schedule if you prefer. I'd say that this is on par with the offering of the iPhone. While this level of support is corporate friendly there does seem to be lack of the Exchange security policy. When doing the same setup on the iPhone a security policy was pushed down asking us to setup a passphrase on the phone (as opposed to the usual pincode). Nothing like that would seem to be supported on HTC Android combination and we'd expected that there is no remote wipe option either.

If I were to put on my security hat then I'd say that this is a definite weakness on the HTC/Android combination and recommend the iPhone. This is no doubt something that will be addressed in future versions though. Ideally Android itself will become Exchange friendly (heck Google even offer ActiveSync sync for contacts/calendar) so this must be on the cards.

Syncing

Flawless, with Google and Exchange (mail, contacts, calendar) floating down from the cloud.

Media player

Music is catered for and you're able to "sync" from within Windows Media Player (which is what Andy uses since he was on a Creative Zen before) but the nice bits such as star ratings, listen count, playlists don't make it across. Interestingly Windows Media Player does stick an xml file on the phone which looks to contain such data which could indicate hope for others to work with this. It would have been nice for the media player to consume this.

Of course the video player is another story with the only view mode showing thumbnails of the video files. No filename, title or anything like that - you're limited to wild guess work to try and figure of if that thumbnail is for Hero's episode 1 or 5. How is anyone meant to be able to use this? As a workaround Andy is now using the file browser to locate the video to watch which then opens it up in the media player. But why have to go through hoops like this, surely HTC/Google actually try and use their devices before unleashing it?

Configuration

You've got access to lots of options here, in fact there are options upon options in order to get the phone customised to the way you like it. Except when you can't. Odd things like under calendar notification there is no option to select silent/none for the audio notification. You have to either switch notifications off or select from one of the included sounds.

Whilst it's dead simple to set a currently playing mp3 as a ringtone (menu -> set as ringtone) there is nothing like that for system notification sounds. Googling a bit found a few tips saying that you needed to create SDCard:\media\audio\notifications and place your files in there. No luck, the phone would not see it. Now this might be a general Android issue or a HTC/T-Mobile branding one but your notification file has to have the word 'Notification' in it. Yeah...

The nice thing about Android is that you can set notification/alert sounds separately per email or calendar account. Nice way to separate the work/personal aspect of your phone.

The Marketplace (Bazaar)

The Android Marketplace is quite good with a large selection of software and a very active community. Applications have many user comments with items even from the previous day. The community definitely seem to enjoy giving useful feedback which is great. But one thing I did not quite get was the 'warning' that's shown when installing items. You're given lots of information about what the application can do such such as 'full network access' to 'location information'. But this is a bit scary and feels way too technical for most users.

An informed user is a happy user - except when it's information overload. Almost every application needs internet access these days so do we really need to list that. This notification smacks of the Windows Vista / 7 User Access Control system and and it's only going to result in users not reading it and clicking install. Perhaps this level of detail is needed because there is no equivelent of the Apple AppStore review process but I can't see exactly how this benefits the user and can see them turning to comments on the application to decide how to proceed.

Actual installation of free applications is quite easy (we've not tried purchased ones yet) but I do wonder what happens if you need to restore your phone. Since you're not backing it up as you would with the iPhone and iTunes what happens if your phone needs to be replaced? How do you get access to your purchased apps etc?

Widgets / home screen

Apple, listen up. Android blows the iPhone out of the water with it's use of the home screen and widgets. It's simply amazing being able to have a OS X type Dashboard on your phone. At the moment Andy has the a digital clock with weather, email with unread count and a few other links. You're offered a total of 7 of these screens where you can link to almost anything. Brilliantly done and really makes the phone more useful by having a at-a-glance look at the things that are important (and personal) to you.

Consistency

Or the lack thereof with an odd focus on pushing people to the hardware buttons on the device and not encouring use of the touchscreen. When I say not encouring the use of the touchscreen I mean not coding in support to go back a 'screen' (as on the iPhone when navigation a UINavigationController) or, as is a classic example, of not being able to show the URL bar in the built in browser. No it's not like the iPhone where scrolling to the top of the page will show it. You've got to press the hardware 'search' button. Obviously?!

And it goes further with many applications only offering extra functionality (i.e add/remove items, etc) when you press the hardware 'menu' button. Unlike the iPhone you're never sure how to access certain functionality. Is it going to be something that I can touch to access or will it be via the hardware key? When users don't immediately know how to get a simple action done then something has been incorrectly designed. Is it a phone with a touchscreen or is it a touchscreen phone? Hardware keys are nice to have but touch needs to be the main focus here.

The future

Android is filled with potential and hopefully a 2.0 release of the OS will bring that out. Google need to include built-in Exchange support even if it means doing a deal and getting the HTC mail application bundled. Android is infinitely better than Symbian but has a way to go to get the polish that the iPhone offers. Attention to detail and usability is paramount to it's success. Get a bunch of users together and get them to use the device to perform certain tasks.