Android in 2011: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

Android in 2011: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

You would think that with close to 50% of the smartphone world now using an Android phone, looking back at 2011 would be a uniformly positive experience. Yet it is not – in fact, it is easier for me to draw up a list of very negative things than an equally list of positives. Of course, some will say ‘that is because you hate Google and Samsung and Android and never say anything nice about them’. Am I critical? Certainly … but I believe I am just pointing out things too many folks gloss over – ironically the same folks who get enraged about folks glossing over Apple’s many flaws (which I have been happy to point out as well).

Bottom line for me: I entered 2011 using my 2nd Android smartphone, leave it using my 3rd, and hope to soon be on my 4th which will last me into 2012. In other words, I am a loyal Android user – I have a Windows Phone 7.5 Mango phone (HTC 7 Pro) and know that OS won’t be my ‘daily driver’ anytime soon; I have loads of Apple products I use regularly but no interest in an iPhone right now because it doesn’t meet my personal needs the way Android does right now. But that loyalty doesn’t blind me to the issues the platform faces … in fact, it makes me astonished at the extent to which otherwise intelligent people choose to ignore the same things they criticized on other platforms.

But rather than delve too deeply into these issues, I am just going to give a quick set of 5 positive and negative things about Android in 2011, one bonus entry that is a bit of both … and my hopes for 2012!

Positive:

  • Market Growth: I am talking here about not just the market SHARE growth, but the way that ubiquitous and cheap Android phones have enabled just about anyone to get in on the smartphone fun. Also, in 2011 more than ever, a crop of high-end super-phones have broadened appeal to even more tech geeks than ever before to jump from certain platforms (RIM, Windows Mobile and Symbian).
  • Samsung Galaxy Nexus: Let’s be honest, in 2010 and through the middle of 2011 the stuff Samsung was putting out looked like the iPhone, to the extent of being widely determined to legally infringe on the Apple design. So it is a great thing to be able to see Samsung actually do some original design work, and come up with a great centerpiece phone. It is far from perfect, but it is a great device and one of the best phones of 2011.
  • Ice Cream Sandwich: After the embarrassment of Vista Honeycomb, Google needed a win, and got it with the release of Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0. Designed to fuse phone and tablet platforms, and to eliminate much of the cobbled-together feel of Gingerbread, ICS seems like a great step in the right direction.
  • Choices for everyone: If you are a fan of huge screens, small phones, thin phones, Blackberry-likes, QWERTY sliders or just about anything else, there is an Android phone for you. With 93 Android phones released in the US market, if you can’t find a 2011 phone … chances are you don’t want an Android phone!
  • Making 7″ tablets viable (albeit only for Amazon): Steve Jobs famously called 7″ tablets ‘Dead on Arrival”. And until November 15th he was 100% right – then came Amazon with the Kindle Fire. The usability ratings were poor, reviews were mediocre, return rate is reportedly higher than the already high rate for Android devices – but MILLIONS were sold, and many folks are like me: they love them. I have found it hits a sweet spot in media consumption, allowing adequate storage combined with excellent streaming, making a solid device.

Negative:

  • The Obvious DOS/Windows/Windows Mobile Link: I have said it repeatedly: Android is like DOS with all of the storage limits and tricks and utilities to get around them. Every time I use App2SD I know I am doing the 2011 version of the Autoexec/Config dance. It was crap design then, it is crap design now. But there is more – the lack of a unified abstraction model that allows seamless gaming across devices and hardware reminds me of … Windows 95/98, before DirectX came to town. Windows gaming was a mess then, just like Android gaming is a mess now. However, back then our only choice was playing older DOS games, now we can just stick with inherently superior iOS gaming. Finally, EVERYTHING about Android in 2011 is just like Windows Mobile several years ago – finger pointing from OS to hardware to carrier, slow if ever updates, fragmentation, and on and on. It didn’t end well for Microsoft, and that worries me since we seem to be doing the same thing and expecting different results (which is the ‘definition of insanity’).
  • Tablets / Honeycomb: Again, let’s be real – Honeycomb is an embarrassment, and the ‘Vista’ of the mobile world. Like Vista, it drove manufacturers to use an older OS, and like Vista it was widely panned as ‘half-baked’ on release. It is slow and bloated and poorly designed … and the sooner it is gone the better.
  • Fragmentation: Recently Gameloft had a sale, and with one game NONE of the 12 devices linked to my Android Market account were compatible. We’re talking all name brand devices, most with 1GHZ or better dual core processors, some with Tegra 2 chipsets, and so on. 2011 was supposed to be the year fragmentation went away … well, it didn’t.
  • Non-Focus on the Customer (OS updates): Last week we learned via The Verge and The Next Web that neither the Samsung Galaxy S nor Galaxy Tab will be getting upgraded to ‘Ice Cream Sandwich’. Both The Verge and The Next Web have interesting articles about this, but let me sum it up for you: If you own the one of the best selling Android phones or Android tablets, devices that were essentially flagships of the brand during much of 2011 … your device is almost certainly under contract, but you can forget about getting an OS update. So … WHO is fighting for the consumer? Google really doesn’t seem to care, Samsung makes money on hardware, so only the carriers benefit by keeping you tied to your account without having to subsidize a new phone.
  • Non-Focus on the Customer (Obsolescence): As noted, there were 93 Android phones released in the US in 2011. Guess how many are NOT obsolete? 2 – the Droid RAZR and Galaxy Nexus. There are plenty of good phones in that bunch, but with a 6 month overlapping product lifecycle, that means that about every three months your phone will be superseded by something better on the same carrier by the same manufacturer. Which in turn brings us back to not getting updates, lack of customer support, and so on.

Bonus Entry:

  • LTE/4G : this is both good AND bad. If you have seen the network speeds for anyone with a VZW Galaxy Nexus or (like me) played with one in a store, you know that it is FAST. Non-Verizon 4G solutions are also fast, just not quite as insane. And everyone is expanding their networks at a frantic pace, so before long most of the country will have these speeds. There were a ton of Android 4G devices last year, so there were plenty of choices. Of course, there is a huge downside – battery life is drastically lower. Also, sensitivity to low signal is worse than ever, meaning that a couple of hours in a ‘dead zone’ will be enough to kill your phone’s battery.

My Hopes for Android in 2012:

  • Consolidate the user experience: We just heard about the Holo system interface elements being required for Google Market devices, but Google needs to go further. Allowing physical buttons in different locations, myriad ‘default’ themes, and so on simply confuse and alienate the customer.
  • Focus on THE CUSTOMER: Google has to remember that Samsung isn’t the customer and Verizon isn’t the customer … WE are the customer. Keeping their supply chain happy is critical, but ultimately users pay the bills.
  • Guaranteed updates Here is my suggestion – if anyone buys a phone within 6 months of introduction by a carrier, they are guaranteed all x.x updates released within 18 months of purchase (2 years from launch), or Google mandates that the customer is given a replacement phone running the current OS.
  • Provide a unified gaming library: saying that iOS provides a uniformly superior gaming experience compared to Android is like saying the sky is blue. But there is no reason, just as there was no reason that Mac gaming lagged so terribly behind on similarly powerful hardware just a few years ago. Actually there is one reason: OS support for gaming. Google needs to do SOMETHING so that Android gaming stops sucking.
  • Yeah, that Fragmentation thing again This year saw huge moves to Gingerbread for phones, and hopefully by the end of 2012 50% of phones will be on Ice Cream Sandwich. Tablets are a disaster and will remain that way, but even a 50/50 split over a year just isn’t enough. When iOS 5 launched the shift of the population was so fast you could feel the tides shift in your coffee cup! Another proposal – for every ICS update for a phone released on OS 2.x, the handset maker gets one new license for Google stuff on a phone. THAT would change stuff up pretty fast!

What about you? What are your thoughts about Android in 2011 and 2012?

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About the Author

Michael Anderson
I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!