Those of us following the technology world live in “interesting times.”
Though that’s certainly a blessing in that it provides the fuel for Pocketnow news and editorial content, it’s also, as the famous tale of dubious veracity tells it, a curse. Whether from China or England or somewhere in between, “living in interesting times” has carried a decidedly negative connotation since its inception – that’s kind of the point. And the smartphone world is no exception.
Because, as my colleague Jaime Rivera pointed out in a recent conversation, “smartphones have developed a cult following [unlike any other]. Bikers roll their Harleys with pride, but don’t criticize car enthusiasts, nor airplane modelers … Each has a hobby, and we simply love ours and respect the others for theirs. Smartphones, on the other hand, remind me of the Windows-vs-Apple rivalries of the 80s, where we’re all trying to prove why our equipment is better. In a way, [it's] like the fake rivalries in wrestling, or NASCAR.”
He’s absolutely right. I frequently compare the smartphone and tablet landscape to the car world, a small segment of which is dominated by enthusiasts who mod, trick-out, and otherwise enhance their vehicles for the sake of impressing or out-doing others. The similarity to mobile platforms is strong. Despite their near-ubiquity in developed nations, mobile devices have become the status symbols of the new century, and that truth carries with it all the chest-beating, pompous fanboyism, and other baggage you’d expect.
The thing is, no matter how well-established, reliable, refined, or popular your smartphone or tablet platform is, it’s not perfect. That’s a nearly sacrilegious admission in the eyes of the hardest-core fanboys, all of whom will skip past the meat of this piece and head right to the comments, where all true platform
zealots devotees flourish. But it’s true. Whether you’re talking iOS, Android, or Windows Phone, each operating system has its share of flaws. More specifically, each one has a little helping of boring: some element that’s either stagnant, or clumsily dull, or “too minimalistic.”
Let’s briefly touch on each one, before everyone stampedes to the comments to call one another names.
Do we even need to go over this again?
There are so many Pocketnow pieces referencing the stale state of the iOS user interface that linking to all of them would probably crash the world-wide web (that’s how the internet works, right?). So I’m not going to link to any of them. Except maybe this one, this other one, and … oh very well, that one.
Don’t get me wrong; we don’t hate the OS as a team. Some of us carry the iPhone as a daily driver, and those who don’t, like me, run iOS on other devices, like the iPod Touch or the iPad. The aforementioned Jaime Rivera is our lead iOS enthusiast, as has been mentioned several times during his guest appearances on the Pocketnow Weekly podcast, and he does his part to keep the rest of us running the most current version of the platform, while keeping our heads level.
But even Jaime admits that the OS’s five-year-old UI approach, with its square grid of static app emplacements and layers upon layers of skeuomorphs, is tired to the point of absurdity. There hasn’t been a major iOS UI refresh in … ever. That says a lot about the “world’s most advanced OS,” but I wonder if it says more about smartphone users, and what they demand -or don’t- in a user interface.
There’s a lot to be said for Windows Phone’s UI, with its stark minimalism and digital authenticity so unforgiving that it would make even an IMSAI 8080 proud. Microsoft’s absolute refusal to compromise on what used to be called the “Metro” design aesthetic has resulted in a cohesive, sharp, one-of-a-kind user interface that’s gotten almost universally good reviews across the blogosphere.
But as with all such bold moves, it’s easy to see how some might find the UI limiting. The home screen tiles, color-matched and laid out in a repeating grid of squares, are well-organized but bathed in a sea of same-ness that could be called boring if that’s not your bag. Drilling down further reveals even less flash and flair, as the color evaporates from the UI and is replaced by a heavily text-centric interface. Sure, it’s beautiful text, but sometimes that’s not enough to get folks’ flags waving.
For the record: this minimalism is one of the aspects of Windows Phone I find most appealing, but which my colleague Jaime chafes against the most. I’d venture to say our opposing feelings aren’t unique: Windows Phone is a polarizing UI, a love-it-or-hate-it creation. Which, if you ask me, is a wonderful example of the benefits possible when the idea of compromise is thrown out the window.
Speaking of compromise.
I currently use an Android phone -a Galaxy S III- as my daily driver, and I enjoy it. The OS provides the best mix of utility and aesthetic for me, and it has for almost a year. Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean have brought phenomenal UI improvements over earlier versions, and those enhancements -spearheaded by Matias Duarte of webOS fame- have made Android quite enjoyable to use for me, a former Palm expat. Paired with the existing functionality of widgets, logical notifications, and widespread app support, the OS provides quite a useful environment.
That said, there’s room for improvement here. As a direct result of the cobbling together of influences -original Android UI, ported webOS “cards” multitasking, various UI skins- the Google experience is not at all a consistent one. Visually the platform has grown much more cohesive in the past year, but the tweak-friendly Android is perhaps too eager to allow users to “make the phone their own,” resulting in an environment that’s attractive, useful, and reasonably functional, but which has little real personality (when it’s not busy having more personalities foisted upon it by OEMs).
This has been a post about picking the worst of every platform, and of course, only the most insufferable of pessimists dwell on the negatives to such a degree. That’s not my intent here. Unfortunately, though, it’s been my experience that many smartphone superfans will take quite a high-magnification lens to their opponents’ platforms, picking them apart pixel by pixel to find the flaws, while maintaining stubbornly ignorant of their own preferred OS’ faults. That’s not cool, dudes.
So the next time you criticize someone’s new Android tablet, Windows Phone, or iPad for running an OS you find inferior, outmoded, or dull, remember: every platform has its own share of boring. So don’t be a heel. Sticks and stones may break my face, and people who live in rock houses shouldn’t blow glass. Or whatever.
We’re all living in interesting times together. We might as well be a little more tolerant of other people’s software.
Jaime Rivera contributed to this editorial.