I’m just going to start this by saying something which might surprise: I like neither iOS nor Android.
I first owned a mobile phone when I started college as my parents wanted me to have one so I could be contacted while away from home. I didn’t ever use it much. It was a Nokia phone like most phones were back then with a monochrome LCD screen reminiscent of the original Nintendo Game Boy. I could call people with it, and it stored their numbers. I didn’t even send text messages. I would most of the time just leave it in my truck while I was in class either intentionally or accidentally — much to the chagrin of my parents as they paid for it. These feature phones simply didn’t feel as if they were a part of me, a part of my life. They weren’t something I would feel naked or lost if I didn’t have one on me at all times. That changed after I got my first iPhone.
I was an early adopter of the iPhone. I bought my first iPhone at the Houston Galleria Apple Store a few months after it was released. The first thing I did with the phone was send a text message to my sister. It was my first ever text message, and it said “oil”. I tried typing “ook”, but the autocorrect software changed it. So fitting, right? It became something I would want to have on me as it replaced my phone, my camera (for everyday use), and my iPod. No offense to my previous employer and the incredibly useful Opera Mini, but it was nice seeing a full-fledged web browser on a phone rather than one designed to give a smaller version of the Web on old feature phones. I’ve since upgraded my phone three times, and it has always been an iPhone so far. I don’t rush out to buy the new one every time it comes out, and in fact I haven’t upgraded in a few years now.
I grew up with computers around me. When I was around four years old my father bought a Macintosh II which had a graphical interface and could do 24-bit color in an era when the competition had a blinking cursor on a black screen and could barely do 16 colors. I could and did transfer my love of art to that computer by first using Aldus Freehand and later Adobe Photoshop. My father nurtured my interest in computers and got me subscriptions to several magazines on the topic. I even learned to repair the computer, and in the first grade my mother checked me out of school so I could take apart the floppy drive to remove a jammed disk. I was six. While I learned how they worked my interest in computers has always centered around my ability to use them to make stuff. In that lies my problem with iOS and Android: the ability to use them in a creative manner is extremely limited, especially on iOS. Pretty much everything I enjoy about computers is nonexistent on mobile devices.
Yes, I know there are art applications for tablets. People do some wonderful work in them, but I’ve yet to justify their existence. Due to hardware constraints and screen real estate constraints working in large canvas sizes are out of the question; neither platform has color calibration either, so what these devices become are several-hundred-dollar sketchbooks. I have a $20 sketchbook for that already, and my money would be better spent on something that’s more productive.
I am not saying I don’t find my phone useful. Far from it. It is my alarm clock, and it is what I use to check email, news, et cetera every morning. I get messages on it from my friends and family along with the occasional phone call. I listen to music, audiobooks, and podcasts with it when I am out and about. I have only one page of apps on my phone. I very rarely download any applications, and for the most part I dislike using them over the web browser unless the application is for a task that is ill-suited for the browser. A notable exception would be Twitter, and rants about that service could fill numerous posts. Few things annoy me more than visiting a website only to be inundated with banners asking me to download that website’s app. I wouldn’t be visiting their webpage if I wanted to download their application, but even if I did most of these applications are just app versions of their website. They’re pointless.
I haven’t upgraded in a while, and I have no plans currently to upgrade. This is mostly because of financial reasons, but current hardware is also a factor. I don’t understand this infatuation with gigantic phones. We spent a better part of two decades trying to make phones smaller, and we now make them bigger? It makes no sense to me. The form factor of the original iPhone is in my opinion the perfect size for a phone; it easily fits in my pocket, and I can use it with one hand. I currently use an iPhone 5S, and I don’t like the new iPhones because of their size and construction. They’re difficult to hold on to without installing a case. If you must use an attachment to make an object you hold in your hand secure in your hand then the object is badly designed. Form still follows function even when designing mobile phone hardware. Apple doesn’t understand this anymore, and most Android devices follow Apple’s lead in hardware design creating slippery phones that break easily. Android even began the giant phone craze. The larger screen started as a selling point to cover up inadequacies at power management compared to Apple’s devices.
iOS is an extremely hamstrung operating system. It runs on hardware capable of doing far more than what the OS will allow it to do. Apple prohibits all sorts of things from being run on iOS that otherwise would be possible on their Macintosh computers, Windows and Unix PCs, or even Android. These severe limitations along with the race-to-the-bottom pricing structure on its App Store have created a depressing array of software. There’s a choice between beautiful, yet shallow games which take advantage of the hardware but provide little gaming value because of the lack of buttons; social media applications which collect your private information and use it to deliver you ads; chat applications which run only on their servers and try to sell you emoticons; applications which try and fail to replicate the usefulness of comparable desktop applications; and lastly hordes of applications which are pointless application versions of websites. Apple’s tight-fisted control over iOS has squashed a lot of free software that has especially florished on macOS. It’s a clear advantage Android has. Apple’s first party applications on iOS have languished with recent updates to iOS. Music gets worse with every version because they cram more into it. Today there is an internal struggle within the application as to whether it wants to be a streaming music application or a traditional music application; it cannot be both and today does neither well at all. With iOS 10 Apple added extra features into Messages that it is obviously trying to promote at the detriment of what you usually want to use the application for: to send text and images. The text input box is tiny and difficult to tap without also tapping on the audio message button. When taking a photo to send the viewfinder is tiny in the bottom left corner of the screen. We spent years looking at tiny screens on handheld cameras to only return to it on our mobile phones? The way to get the actual viewfinder every other single application on the platform uses is to swipe right. Oh, that’s obvious. Many times the input is judged incorrectly and causes a picture to be taken. I could write much more on this subject, but anyone reading this should get the point with the two examples. It’s a trend in Apple’s application design, and it is also a trend as a whole: superficial instead of practical choices in user interfaces. Designers try to be clever and cute with their design choices which are flashy and look cool but aren’t to the benefit of the user in any way and in many cases detrimental especially to those with disabilities.
With every version of Android — or rather vanilla Android — the interface becomes more consistent. Google’s default applications are getting better and in many cases exceed their comparable offerings on iOS. The devices are getting more capable and outstrip capabilities of iOS in mostly everything. The OS is still inefficient, however. Flagship Android phones have more powerful hardware than anything Apple provides, but they regularly get smoked on benchmark tests. I’m not particularly enamored with having to hack the bootloader to get rid of preinstalled malware that either is put there from the factory or from the carrier. Software updates are also a pain on Android as they are mostly controlled by the carrier and are nonexistent for most phones. Hacking the phone is necessary to make the phone worth its cost both in removing carrier malware or to just update the phone. Even gaming consoles have software updates. Android allows much greater freedom than iOS, but with this freedom brings malware that permeates the Google Play store that Google has done a poor job at taking a proactive role in protecting its users from.
My sentiments on this subject have been relayed to people from time to time, and I have been told that I am being shortsighted when it comes to mobile operating systems; new capabilities are always on the horizon. My reply to that is to compare the past 10 years of mobile development to the 10 years between 1988 and 1998. Hardware improved dramatically in both periods, but software hasn’t in the past 10 years. In 1988 we saw a world before Photoshop where most computers were prompt-based to 1998 with Photoshop’s being a mature application and most computers’ being GUI-based. There is nothing to compare to that software wise on mobile devices — none. We forget just how Photoshop changed things because it is now ubiquitous. Some would argue that Siri, Google Now, etc. are the software improvement equivalent. Perhaps, but even if one is successful in getting these “digital assistants” to understand them in the first place, nothing can be created with them. Instead, we get incremental improvements in APIs, mostly getting features which have existed in personal computers for twenty years often badly reimagined for devices with a touch-based input method.
In my opinion both iOS and Android will remain operating systems for toys until the best way to develop and create for them is on the platform itself. That doesn’t seem to be coming anytime soon. To create for iOS or Android you need a personal computer. All of these “innovative” applications and games people use for either platform were created on PCs. There’s nothing different between them and gaming consoles. What mobile devices have done instead is make technology more social. We have a rudimentary computer in our pockets that can connect to the internet, take photos, and film video. Today, we see videos and photographs of events in near real time. We can now complete transactions with our phones, too; it is truly amazing. The generations younger than I have taken to these devices as their primary computing device because of this. The tinkering aspect of computing is largely lost on them, though.
I haven’t mentioned Windows here yet. I believe Microsoft’s thinking is correct in that touch should just be another possible input method. Our computers shouldn’t be separated between touch devices and PCs. I think Microsoft is making some mistakes in that their Metro/Modern UI/whatever design language is neither optimized for touch nor mouse. Perhaps the interface should switch based upon desired use? It wouldn’t be strictly based on input method but based upon use at that particular moment. That would be an interesting design challenge to tackle. Let’s just say I have zero interest in an iPad, but Surfaces intrigue me especially as an artist. Unfortunately they have a glaring issue in my opinion: they run on Windows and therefore possess all the numerous problems therein. I still watch what Microsoft does very closely; what they are working on lately is far more interesting to me than what Apple is doing.
With all that said I’m not awfully sure if the problems I find with mobile platforms can be fixed. Apple isn’t going to relinquish absolute dictatorial control over iOS. Google is adding new features to Android but making them exclusive to only their devices, and carrier control over OS updates and pre-installed malware on Android doesn’t seem like it is going away. I’ve accepted that I like neither OS and that I’m not as enamored with the devices as much of the public appears to be. I am a computer user who requires more usefulness out of his devices, and most of the public doesn’t. An iPad is perfect replacement for a PC for the majority of the public. However, I wonder what that means for the future of personal computing. Some people say that PCs become “trucks”, the realm of the power user. PC OSes will have to cater. While I greatly prefer my desktop computer there are things about it which annoy me as well. Maybe that will be a topic for further discussion.