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In a Nutshell, The Android Problem: Totally Forked

By - November 20, 2012

(image) I’m a fan of “open.” Anyone who knows me, knows this about me.

But I’m also a fan of “easy.” And of “good design.” So, for the past couple of years, I’ve been an iPhone user, mainly because it was easy, and had better design than any alternative. Also, my company supported the iPhone, even though it was terrible for calendar, contacts, email, you know, pretty much everything that mattered to me.

But because I’m no longer day to day at my company, I’ve been eager to move away from the iPhone, for many reasons, including the extraordinarily awful experience I recently had, chronicled here.  And I really like the philosophy of Android. It’s open, it’s hackable, it’s generative in all the right ways.

However, it’s also a utterly confusing mess. Alas, this seems to be the price of “open” – chaos.

There are something like 800 versions of Android, a developer who I was interviewing for my book told me today. EIGHT HUNDRED! And every one of them might change at any time. There’s versions modified by all the carriers around the world (stuffed with crapware, bloatware, portalware). Versions modified by all the handset makers – one for each phone, sometimes (same crap). Versions for televisions (I hear the new Samsung TVs are utterly borked with unchangeable bullsh*t). Versions that are specific to Google’s “own” products. And versions that have been so forked as to be spoons, like what Amazon’s done with Kindle.

This is not a new complaint. To those of you out there who are sophisticated, it’s terribly naive. You’ve spent your 72 hours deciding which one to buy, setting it up, working out the kinks, and now it works great for you (or maybe your IT department did that work for you). Congratulations. I wish I had the time. But if that’s what it takes to make a damn smart phone “smart”, I want something better.

I’m not afraid to admit it: I want an Android phone, I’m willing to spend lavishly to get the best one, but after hours of research, I’m utterly f*cking confused about which product to buy. One thing I do know – once I buy it, I don’t want to spend three days figuring out how to make it work.

Is anyone else having this issue? Any suggestions?

Meanwhile, I recall that one of my predictions for last year was this: “Google will focus on providing a clear, consistent experience through Android for tablets and mobile, but it will take a third party to unify the experience. I don’t see that happening this year.”

Yeah, it didn’t happen in 2011. And it’s not happening this year, though I can *feel* the pain at Google HQ as the folks there watch Android splinter into a million hamfisted pieces of forkin’ crap. Is this why they bought Motorola? One wonders.

Can Google put all the pieces together again? I certainly hope so. But there has to be a better way. Do you remember the Blackberry? Remember how magical that was? God, I sound old. And yes, I hear the Windows phone is really cool. But I’ve only heard that once.

Meanwhile, which phone should I buy? I mean, really, which one? HTC? Nexus 4? Galaxy S3?  Motorola Razr (holy shit, really!???!) Help!

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52 thoughts on “In a Nutshell, The Android Problem: Totally Forked

  1. Tim Bray says:

    Those are all pretty good. I’d think a geek with an eye for ecosystems like you might be happiest in Nexus territory. But that HTC is a damn beautiful phone.

    • johnbattelle says:

      It is SO damn frustrating. I cannot determine what to buy. Nexus, sure, but it’s super high maintenance, I hear. HTC, sure but I hear it’s limited in various ways. I guess I have to just jump in and see. A lot of money to “just see”.

      • Facebook User says:

        If you want prompt system updates – and you do – your only real option is a Nexus. Having bought Samsung in the past and been burned by having to wait almost a year for an update (which was itself out of date when released!) I’d never spend my own money on anything other than a Nexus.

      • Steve Shaffer says:

        Not sure how Nexus could be considered high maintenance. I consider it zero maintenance. Especially if you use gmail, etc. Everything just hooks itself up.

        The battery life is atrocious though. But I think they have upgrades.

        • johnbattelle says:

          Steve when you say upgrades, what do you mean?

          • Ido2 says:

            I think he means new versions of android. All android phones have been notoriously bad at getting upgrades. The other worry I have for Nexus is it doesn’t have LTE, if that matters to you.

          • Dan Maher says:

            He means upgraded batteries (though as Ido2 says, there are new android versions too – the beauty of Nexus). I love my Galaxy Nexus and consider it zero maintenance as well. But I have a spare extended battery to compensate for the crappy battery life (4G LTE problem).

            I would trade it in a heartbeat for the Nexus 4 to have an unlocked pure Google phone, but I’m not willing to go without 4G and Verizon’s fantastic network. Despite the fact that I hate Verizon Wireless and hope they fail miserably. Die you cocksuckers, Die.

            The Nexus experience is as close as it comes to what you describe as “a clear, consistent experience through Android”. It’s Android without the carrier BS. Or at least minimal carrier BS, as Verizon still fucks with us by delaying the updates by a few weeks.

            I’m betting that there will be a high-end GoogleRola Nexus in 2013 with 4G LTE and, dare I say it, a SD card… Which, except for all the poor shmucks locked into the iTunes ecosystem due to volume of content owned, would be an outright **iPhone Killer**

            Short answer today – Galaxy Nexus if you want 4G, Nexus 4 if you can live without it.

          • johnbattelle says:

            Thanks. I am going with Nexus 4, will see…I can’t wait to plunge in. It’s coming soon.

      • disqusant says:

        If I didn’t just suggest BB to you a minute ago, I’d also be inclined to wing it on HTC.

  2. WineDavid says:

    I’ve had a Droid X for almost 2 years. I didn’t do much to it to make it work the way I want except to find apps I liked. It has given me far fewer headaches in 2 years than iPhones have given my friends. Sadly, they don’t make it any more and I, like you, am looking around at the available phones and share your frustration. I’ve got it narrowed down to either the Samsung Galaxy S3 or the Motorola Razr. But I’ve not yet made a decision.

    • johnbattelle says:

      So far the S3 seems to be winning

      • disqusant says:

        Feels a lot like the winning is based on Samsung’s brand recognition alone. I haven’t really heard anyone say the Samsung S3 fork is hands down better. If that was the majority view, you wouldn’t have had to write this post.

        • johnbattelle says:

          Grrr. The lack of consensus in the comments is damning in its own right

          • Quicksingle says:

            At least you have choice. I have been using Galaxy s3, a delight. I could never go back to a small screen again. If you want pure Android with instant updates and an insanely good price buy the Nexus.

  3. Brian S Hall says:

    My site is focused on the “smartphone wars”. I prefer iPhone and Nokia and, yes, Blackberry.
    If you must have Android, I would suggest:
    First, decide if you like and can/will use the very large Samsung Galaxy Note, a hybrid phone and tablet. If yes, get that.
    If you are not completely sure, than the Nexus 4 is probably right for you. My personal favorite is the HTC One x.

  4. Dan Maher says:

    One word: Nexus. Galaxy Nexus for 4G is cheap and pure Google goodness.

  5. andybryant says:

    In short Dan Maher nailed it. Nexus solves the fork problem – and it isn’t high maintenance. High maintenance would be buying a non-Nexus phone and then dropping CyanogenMod on it to get the same effect. Buying a Nexus gets you the full OS without carrier or manufacturer crapware with no hassle.

    At some point the phone vendors will realise that with Android crapware doesn’t differentiate their phone in a positive way – just as in PCs. The only thing that matters is the hardware – i.e. the feel of the phone, and possibly the specs that you see in the store or on Amazon.

    I did a review of the key phones a couple of weeks ago.
    http://andy.bryant.name/blog/my-next-phone-will-be-an-android

  6. I’m in a similar situation and it’s very frustrating to me. I care first of all that my technology just work. I became a mac user about a decade ago when it was the simpler choice. The iPhone + macbook combo made sense on a lot of levels. But now I want to replace my iPhone 4. I still have a 15″ unibody MBP and have no real immediate need to upgrade that, especially since I don’t have a tablet yet (which would probably be my next choice over a laptop as I have no desktop and no need for one).

    I never learned to like Apple’s in-house products for the most part as Office for Mac is still superior. I also am firmly rooted in the Google ecosystem for my calendar, contacts, and email, but my music is organized with iTunes. This isn’t terribly uncommon and was quite fine when Apple and Google played well. Now they don’t, and all it’s making me want to do is completely leave the Apple ecosystem with both the phone and the tablet purchase. Problem is, tablet wise, the iPad is still the better product, but the iPhone is not the better phone for my Google based life. But Google’s laptops/Chomebook isn’t the superior computer and it’s tablet isn’t quite good enough to compete and it’s phones are…a hot wild mess of a platform.

    So Google doesn’t have a strong enough argument to pull users into a laptop/tablet/phone ecosystem which seems to be the holy trinity of device usability. I don’t doubt that they know this and the disengagement with Apple is to undercut them in order to give Google the time to catch up.

    Or maybe just enough time before it launches Google Glass which I’m sure will work much better if you have an Android/Chrome/Google constellation of devices. By 2014, I’m sure this decision will be a lot easier.

    • johnbattelle says:

      Good points all around. I hate that these companies are all vertically integrating and not playing nice with each other.

  7. I have recently changed from an Android (HTC desire) to the iPhone5 and I couldn’t be happier. The android ecosystem is a mess and unless you have a pure Google phone – be prepared to wait long periods for OS updates. Having said that, if I was to get a android phone then I will go with the Galaxy Nexus phone (Google official one). It has excellent specs and benefits from getting the latest OS updates. If you priority is more style and design then the options are more open. I would choose between the top Samsung or HTC phones. I have also heard that the windows phones are cool and the new blackberry 10 phones look very promising

  8. As Dan Maher and AndyBryant said: Nexus is the safe bet. Specs are good, updates are frequent and no crapware.

  9. joey89924 says:

    Nexus. Galaxy Nexus for 4G is cheap.But that HTC is beautiful .
    http://www.hqew.net/product-data/FR107

  10. Android is badly fragmented. Bringing in a third party to sort it all out would be beneficial to Google and the Android enterprise, though it would have to be a reliable and neutral company.

  11. dbv says:

    @johnbattelle:disqus My advice is – don’t do it. Stick with the iPhone as you’re not gaining any advantage by moving to an Android phone even a Nexus. I have a Nexus 3 and will get an iPhone next time.

    As you said, the Android eco-system is a cess-pool of fragmentation. The by-default owner of Android is now Samsung because of its market position and profitability. If anything, the competition is between Samsung vs Google vs Amazon and not Android versus Apple. So far, Samsung is winning with Amazon second.

    Whether Google’s Android strategy was deliberate or made-up as they went along, history will show it as one of the great corporate cock-ups of all time. Linus Torwalds (of Linux fame) may not have made a fortune from Linux (because he wasn’t interested in doing it for the money) but he was smart enough to retain iron-control grip on the open source code and continues to be the chief maintainer.

    Stick with the iPhone – it is more open than Android.

    • johnbattelle says:

      A vote of no confidence in both Samsung AND Google, noted.

      • dbv says:

        Just came across this from Horace Dediu http://www.asymco.com/2012/11/14/google-vs-samsung/.

        Quotes: “The reason I point this out is that Samsung’s success is dependent on having ridden on the back of Android. Samsung’s ascent can be precisely timed to their adoption of Android. The groundbreaking Samsung Galaxy launch was the Galaxy S which shipped in June 2010.

        Meanwhile, indications are that “mobile” is causing a contraction in Google’s margins.

        If nothing else, Android has created a very interesting industry. There are many questions of course: Is Samsung’s trajectory sustainable? Why aren’t there other vendors successful with Android? Why isn’t Google successful with Android? Why isn’t Google’s Motorola successful with Android? What would happen if Samsung soaks up so much profit from mobile that it’s in a position to acquire Google and control the trajectory of their enabling platform?”

  12. disqusant says:

    I’m wary about Googleworld. They’re helping to push the innovation envelope by showing what can be done when you’ve got services talking to each other (think desktop mail and contacts feeding into your phone; when was the last time someone asked you how to get their contacts off the SIM card?).

    But I’m not entirely convinced about forking roots and frankly, I like my contact data where I can see it (like in a CSV file). So I’m going to take a flyer and see if Blackberry can convince me to stay on board with BB10. (They pissed me off by dropping the ASCII Import/Export tool when the Desktop Manager was updated but fortunately I found the previous version and rolled back).

    Hang ten for 2 months and throw BB10 into your pot of options.

  13. I think android is good but ICS performance greatly depend on devices too.

  14. meliorist says:

    From a user’s point of view, there is no “fork problem” in Android. Just buy the phone that has the size, price, features, form factor and style that you like. It shouldn’t matter a jot to you as a user that someone else’s phone is different from yours. Their phone is their choice. Your phone is your choice. It’s live and let live. Choice implies variety.

    For an app developer, it’s a different matter. There aren’t really 800 versions of Android (in fact, there are about a dozen), but there are over 800 different phones that run Android, and developers have to understand the art of writing software that will run well on a wide variety of devices, so they don’t needlessly deprive themselves of market opportunities. It’s not a dark art though; it’s actually quite well documented.

  15. george says:

    I purchased the new iPhone 5 and its a wonderful device. BTW, you can sync up your outlook calendar through iCloud it works beautifully now. Sharing several calendars and no more problems with appointment related issues.

    Hard to scale with splintering issues, when more and more of the user experience requires clean integration.

    Happy hunting!

  16. Shan Shah says:

    Just buy a Nexus. google.com/nexus

  17. Drew says:

    In same boat. Want ‘open’, but wary of its functionality as I’m not all that tech savvy. Ventured into HTC last year, and when someone stole, it I wasn’t all that sad. Went back to iPhone, which is where I sit now waiting for something that is going to work. Like you, I’m not interested in spending hours getting it functional, and probably lack the knowledge in how to get the most out of it. But I remain ever hopeful that at some point someone in freeware is going to get their act together.

  18. Duarte Molha says:

    800 versions of android?? Are you on drugs or something???!!! There are on 3 maybe 4 main Stock versions of android mostly prevalent on the maket Froyo, HoneyComb, ICS and jelly bean…

    OEMs then can put on skins on top of the android software but that does not break compatibility of the apps.

    Android SDK provides you with an hardware abstraction layer so it does not matter the variations on screen size and CPU/GPU each different phone has. In fact the large majority of apps are cross-compatible between different versions.

    Please lean a little bit more about the topic you are going to talk about because you just end up looking foolish.

    • johnbattelle says:

      Yes, I was repeating an exaggeration, however, there are so many devices, and so many crufty OSes on top of those devices, that in fact there are hundreds of flavors, and if you really want your service/app to shine, you have to concern yourself with tailoring it to many of them, is the point made to me by a developer who decided to not make his app for Android (yet)

      • Duarte Molha says:

        Again …wrong… It is not only a huge exaggeration it is simply wrong!
        Are you going to say there are 500 linux OS’s because there are 500 distributions out there?
        There are 4 Android OS version on the market. OEM’s and Phone companies make changes to the look and feel of the OS and many unfortunately add crappware that nobody wants to their phones … but that does not constitute a different OS.

        App developers do not need to concern themselves with the different OEM skins… all they have to do is develop for the target SDK.

        As for the android phone… it is very simple in my view. Stick with Vanila Android (any nexus phone)…. or depending on your willingness to modify your phone, choose a phone with a unlocked bootloader and install Cyanogenmod.

        It will add years of upgradability to your phone.

        • johnbattelle says:

          “choose a phone with a unlocked bootloader and install Cyanogenmod”

          Dude, wtf is a developer to do when they have to expect their base to do THAT?! That’s utterly foreign to mere mortals.

          • Duarte Molha says:

            This is not regarding developers… it is regarding your choice of phone. That is what your post was about wasn’t it??!
            Developers can still develop using the sdk targeting the normal Android… it does not make a difference if you are running Sense, Touchwise, Motorola Blur, cyanogenmod or plain vanila Android…

          • johnbattelle says:

            OK, mixing my metaphors here.

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