Android isn’t the awkward teenager it once was

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I remember sitting on my bed watching one of the first hands-on videos of the HTC Hero and dying to get my hands on one. It was just days from release, and the Hero on Sprint would be my first experience with Android … ever.

What I got when I ripped the Hero out of the box wasn’t quite what I was expecting, though. I spent hours that night, setting up the seven home screens, rearranging widgets, trying on new wallpapers, and digging through apps and games – something I was only sort of used to doing on my horde of prior BlackBerrys.

It only took a few days for the newness to wear away, though. Bugs, glitches, lag, and one of the most inconsistent experiences I had ever had quickly turned me off. And battery life was easily at the top of the list of reasons I returned it. I had calibrated it, gone through several full charge cycles, and did everything under the sun to try to preserve the tiniest bits of juice. Still, I would pull the Hero off the charger at 7:00 AM and, on a good day, I could hope to be sitting at roughly 40% by noon.

htc-hero-pictures-15After 13 days, I returned the Hero and picked up another new smartphone, running even newer software: the webOS-powered Palm Pre.

If I hadn’t taken the Hero experience in stride, I probably never would have gone back to Android, and I certainly wouldn’t have given the similar DROID ERIS on Verizon a shot. The experience with the ERIS, however, was even worse. So I quickly traded it for a Motorola DROID, followed by the DROID Incredible, DROID X, and a half dozen other Android devices in 2010.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in a never-ending search for a better user experience from Android. I thought better specifications would ultimately deliver that. Yet weeks – and sometimes mere days – after getting my hands on a new phone, I was always ready for a software update or something totally new. I tried dozens of custom ROMs and devices, yet I was never fully satisfied.

I still liked Android, but had I not had impeccable patience and been in this industry, I probably would have dropped Android for iOS indefinitely. And I can see why so many people, even today, are skeptical of Android.

Last week while recording the Untethered Podcast with my friend Dustin Earley and our own Michael Fisher, the topic of fanboyism briefly came up, which led to a discussion about my roommate, a self-proclaimed Apple fanyboy. Being the lover of many platforms I am, I’ve tried to convince him to at least try Android. He’s a developer, so I’ve attempted to get him to try a Nexus 7.

motorola-droid-2-globalWe’ve had the discussion countless times, and every time we do, one fact comes up. He says, “I’ve already tried Android. I don’t like it.” The bit of info he fails to mention is how long it’s been since he’s actually tried Android. I don’t recall exactly which device it was, but I know it was in 2010 or 2011.

Just thinking about Android in 2010 and 2011 makes a chill run down my spine. I would have been more surprised if my phones hadn’t lagged, and the actual UI – modified or not – was pretty hideous.

Honestly, I don’t care whether my roommate ever tries Android again or not. He just one guy who admits to being a fanboy. If he’s okay with it, I’m okay with it.

That said, I can’t help but think about all the people who had a terrible first experience with Android and what they might think if they were to try it again. My mom, for instance, loves the consistency of her iPhone and iPads. The last Android phone she and my stepfather used were HTC ThunderBolts.

I have no trouble understanding why they would never want to try Android again. I bought a ThunderBolt on day one, and I tried my very best to deal with its … idiosyncrasies (I’m being nice) for months before simply giving up. Owning the first LTE smartphone was not nearly worth all the baggage that came with it.

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gingerbread_screenshotBut look at the past two and a half years of Android and how dramatically everything has changed. It’s matured a considerable amount – the biggest jump being the update from Gingerbread to Ice Cream Sandwich. ICS to Jelly Bean was a major improvement, too, thanks to Project Butter. And Jelly Bean to KitKat was the icing on the cake, providing a smooth, polished experience comparable to the renowned consistency and performance of iOS and Windows Phone.

If you’ve ever tried to explain this to a former Android user who suffered through what we called a “dark time” on the podcast, you know they’re about as excited to hear about how much better Android is now as they are to hear their credit score dropped 100 points in the last month.

The thing is, friends and family members ask me for phone recommendations almost on a daily basis. But I learned long ago that they usually don’t actually want my advice, but instead want me to corroborate their own idea – that they should get an iPhone. I know this because I’m recommending the iPhone less these days, since Apple has failed to actually improve and build onto the OS, and has only made it prettier. And Windows Phone still needs to mature before I recommend it to the majority of my friends and family. However, when I recommend practically anything other than the iPhone, the typical response is almost identical to my roommate’s reasoning: “I’ve tried Android before. I didn’t like it.”

Some are okay with hearing the word “Galaxy” in my recommendation, likely because they’ve heard decent things specifically about the Galaxy S III, S 4 and Note series. But I’ve recommended the One, Moto X, and several other Android phones countless times to the same response.

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Things are notably better on the Android front these days, even on cheap phones.

The question is: how does Google fix this? Better yet, should it or OEMs even care?

The problem may be isolated to a small group of people. But there is no doubt a poor user experience has a lasting effect – much more so than a positive user experience. Had I not been in the position I was in at the time, I probably would have given Android up. And I may have been hesitant to try it again, even today.

Frankly, I don’t care so much about people passing up Android (or not giving it a second chance) as I do the dated information that gets passed around. There are more than enough Android users in the world, and I’d rather see more diversity as it is. And, yes, some people genuinely don’t like the Android software, regardless of performance or other issues. But I know for a fact there are thousands of people out there who were burned by an early model Android phone and will never willingly try it again without a fuss.

But Android isn’t that awkward, high school kid anymore with acne, braces, and a goofy grin. And it’s not the annoying kid who wouldn’t stop yanking your hair or poking your sides during math class. At the same time, it isn’t a totally boring, middle-aged prick. It’s a nice balance of a mature, sophisticated operating system and a fun, polished user experience.

It’s a shame it was such an ugly duckling while growing up, but puberty was kind to Android. You’ll see what the fuss is about at the reunion … if you ever decide to go.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+