If you don’t like personal stories about infidelity, please read no further. After being in love with my iPhone for several years now, my attentions are increasingly being pulled elsewhere — and I’m not fighting it. I’ve been an iPhone fan ever since I first got my hands on one: it instantly made my BlackBerry feel like an ugly brick that was designed by orangutans. All I wanted to do was hold it forever, and that’s almost exactly what I’ve done since I first got one — until, that is, I switched to using an Android phone over the holidays.
I didn’t decide to try an Android phone because I was dissatisfied with Apple or the iPhone — in fact, I still think the iPhone is one of the best-designed and most appealing products of any kind that I’ve ever used. I have a MacBook Air and an iPad that I also love using, and I recommend them whenever I get the chance. But I will confess that I have been looking enviously at Android phones for a little while, after seeing friends like my GigaOM colleague Kevin Tofel using them and then borrowing one last fall for a trip to Amsterdam for our Structure: Europe conference.
Part of what I was interested by was the larger screens on the Nexus and other phones — I like to read webpages and other documents and look at photos on my phone, so more screen real estate was appealing. But I was also interested in the openness of the Android ecosystem, and whether that would be a benefit compared to the walled garden that Apple runs for iOS.
Apple’s garden is beautiful — but the walls aren’t
There’s no question that Apple’s garden is beautiful, as walled gardens go, and it is extremely well-maintained; nasty or disturbing apps are kept out, and everything is checked to make sure it works properly, and that is definitely a big benefit. In other words, the bars are hard to see behind all those beautiful flowers. But in some cases, useful things are kept out as well, whether it’s content or applications — or ways of integrating with other networks and services that maybe don’t meet Apple’s standards (or aren’t willing to pay Apple for the privilege).
Here’s one anecdote that sums up the differences between the two platforms for me: when I took a photo with the Android phone (a Motorola Razr HD), it suddenly occurred to me that maybe I could beam it to my TV somehow — I have a media hub from Western Digital that has all my photos on it, and usually I have to copy the pictures from the iPhone to a computer with iTunes and then share them with the WD hub. But I figured maybe I could beam them from the Android because the hub is a DLNA device (DLNA is kind of the open version of Apple’s AirPlay standard for wireless networking). Within five minutes, I had downloaded an app that beamed my photo to the WD hub, and we were looking at it on the TV. I did the same thing with a YouTube video.
Another light-bulb moment happened when I went to share a webpage from the Motorola: when you do this on the iPhone, you get to choose between Twitter, Facebook, email and printing — but on the Android, the sharing menu is longer than the screen. You can share just about anything with just about anything else, whether it’s a web service or an app, and for me that’s kind of a metaphor for the two platforms.
It’s probably possible to beam your photos to your television with an iPhone or iPad, but to do that you would need an Apple TV and AirPlay and to be hooked into other parts of the Apple ecosystem (like iTunes, which I confess I have always loathed using). If you have a motley crew of non-Apple technology the way I do — like the Western Digital hub and my desktop that runs Ubuntu — then you are a second-class citizen in some ways, since Apple often doesn’t play well with others.
Choice and openness or a nice garden?
For awhile now, I’ve also noticed the same thing I’ve seen others like Liz Gannes at All Things Digital mention: namely, that I’ve gradually been replacing many of Apple’s services and default applications with Google ones — like Maps, and Mail — or those made by others. The iPhone itself, the hardware, is still incredibly appealing because it is so well made and appealing to hold, but for services, Apple has never really been the best, and you can see that in things like iCloud.
There are things I miss about the iPhone: like Ralf Rottman, who has written a great post about making a similar switch, I miss iMessage, because a lot of friends and family have iPhones. I also miss Photostream, which was a great way to have pictures I took automatically show up on my iPad and MacBook Air — but I have replicated much of that by using auto-upload with both Google and Facebook, as well as an open-source photo hosting service called OpenPhoto that uses Amazon’s S3 for hosting.
When I try to describe the difference between the two platforms to friends, I put it this way: with iOS, if you want to do something, there are may be one or two apps that will let you, and they work pretty well — but if you want a feature they don’t have, you are out of luck. With Android, if you want to do something with the phone, there are 15 or 20 apps that will help you, and many of them are free — but most of them won’t do everything you want, and only a couple will actually work the way you want them to.
For me it comes down to this: Apple has great design, but it restricts your choice in all kinds of ways. And I have been seeing those restrictive bars more and more, despite all the beautiful flowers. Android offers a kind of “tyranny of choice” — but in the end I think choice and openness are better, even if they seem less attractive at first glance. And that’s why I’m thinking of making the switch permanent. Forgive me, Steve.