10 Days with the Google Nexus One

On Tuesday January 5 Google announced the Nexus One smart phone. On Thursday January 7, my Nexus One arrived.

For context, I’ve historically been a BlackBerry user, but have been steadily driven away by the browser experience. My wife was a zero-day iPhone adopter, and I’ve spent a lot of time using an iPhone. I also own an iPod Touch which I carry every day and use regularly as a gaming/apps/media platform.

I’ve had the Nexus One for ten days, and here are my thoughts after that period:

The Negative

Less Polished than iPhone – The first and most noticable negative thing about the Nexus One is that the hardware and software are not as polished as the iPhone. It often takes two or three tries to unlock the screen, which uses a similar-to-iPhone slide-to-unlock interface. I’m not sure what is wrong with me or it, but the iPhone doesn’t have this problem.

Many of the core apps suffer from questionable UI as well. The Email and Gmail applications, for example, are very different. Not just their color scheme, but also different placement of reply/reply all, delete buttons, next/prev message, and other things. The Gmail application strangely puts delete front and center, despite delete not being a major part of Gmail usage.

Scratched Screen – Speaking of polish, after 10 days in my left pocket, side by side with my iPod Touch, the Nexus One screen has 3 small scratches. The iPod has been in that pocket 5 months, and has no scratches. Previously it was carried next to a BlackBerry Bold. I think it is a safe conclusion that the N1 screen is more scratch-prone, which is sad. I may have to look into screen protectors.

App Store is Seedier – One of the best things about Android is that the app store is much more open. As I understand it, apps are permitted by default, and have to be explicitly removed due to complaints. The result is a lot of apps that look like they are just waiting to be removed for copyright violations and similar problems. The standards for apps are overall pretty low, with many of them barely working or with reviews that complain about crashes. By contrast, most things I’ve downloaded from the Apple App Store have been reasonably functional.

Wrong Number of Buttons – The phone includes 4 buttons below the screen, a standard for Android. They are Back, Menu, Home, and Search. Unfortunately, Back and Search are often problematic for usability. This is probably the biggest usability problem on the phone, and will be difficult to remedy in future versions due to backwards compatibility concerns.

The Back button has the same problem that the Escape button did on the Blackberry: It’s unclear what kind of “back” or “undo” operation it is going to do at any time. Sometimes it returns to the home screen. Sometimes it just makes the on screen keyboard hide. Sometimes it moves backwards in the application. Sometimes moving backwards means going up a hierarchy level (like in mail), sometimes it means changing things (like in the browser). The back button is under the control of the app, if the developer takes the time to implement it. But if they do not, or if they make bad choices, then it will do something unexpected. And this leads to users, myself included, being reluctant to use the back button except when there is no other choice. This slows down the learning curve on new applications. Onscreen back buttons, like the iPhone, mean that developers have to get them right, and that users are more likely to know what is going on. Most important, it means there isn’t a back button when there is nothing to go back to.

The Search button suffers from a similar challenge. Some apps override it, others do not. Some apps contribute content to global search, others do not. A lot of this is probably due to lax standards or poor user interface guidelines. A friend who has done some development for the platform says the guidelines are somewhat lacking. On the iPhone, of course, applications would not have a search button unless they implemented a search feature.

Customer Support is Challenging – As has been reported elsewhere Google didn’t really build out a true customer support function to support the Nexus One launch. I’ve personally run into that, because I incorrectly ordered the “locked” T-mobile phone rather than the unlocked phone I should have ordered. (For your information, the phone is not locked, I’ve used it with an AT&T SIM.) T-mobile staff have been very courteous and helpful, but the current state of things is that I need to pay Google a $350 fee to make up the difference in phone price. That’s not a problem, except I can’t contact anyone at Google who can deal with this issue. Compared to T-mobile phone support, they leave a lot to be desired. A phone number to call would be a good start, rather than all communication going through form-emails.

The Positive

Search Works Better – The search functionality, unsurprisingly, is quite well integrated with the phone. Global search has the DTRT nature. Not only does it automatically search many kinds of content on the phone, but it seemlessly goes out to google to fetch additional content. And because the phone knows your geographic location, the results are informed not just by your search terms but also by your location. The result has been a series of pleasant surprises.

Open Platform – The Nexus One is a fairly open platform. I haven’t rooted my phone yet, but even without that I’m able to install a terminal emulator and get a shell on the phone. I can also ssh elsewhere from that shell. The high resolution display makes the terminal fonts quite readable.

Developer Tools – The iPhone is programmed in Objective-C using proprietary Apple development tools. Much as I like Objective-C, I think it is fair to say it’s a dated language at this point. On Android, I get to use Java, Eclipse, and an android simulator that integrates with the Eclipse debugger and other tools. Unlike the iPhone these are modern tools, and the way they are put together is not unfamiliar.

Free Software Culture – The final positive comment I want to make is about free software culture. Android does a great job demonstrating the value of a platform like Android and how free software or open source software can contribute to that value. The open source culture is pervasive, from the core product to many of the apps. Open source apps are nearly unheard of on the iPhone. Not only is the source available for Android, but so is documentation on building and maintaining the software. And it goes further, to public bug tracking and patch submission processes that allow you to participate from anywhere in the world.

Conclusion

I have basically drunk the Android koolaid. I find the platform easier to develop for, and like having a platform that is more open to development. The iPhone is a challenging environment to write software for, and a challenging business model to bet on. On the other hand, the heterogenous hardware and loose control that Google/Android have established deliver an inferior user experience, at least for now.

It is my hope that the free software option, Android, will eventually catch up to traditional commercial development. The Nexus One is a good phone, but it hasn’t caught up to the iPhone yet. Since I like the platform, and there is already an iPhone in the house and a Touch in my pocket, I’m comfortable sticking with it. I hope we see more progress in the next few years, both on the core software and also on the code and culture of the apps store.

1 Comment »

 
  1. Mike says:

    I’m using the Nexus 1 on T-Mo right now and I’m talking and surfing at the same time. It’s a great feature of GSM that CDMA does not have. I’m coming from the iPhone 2G and then 3GS (before that I had the Bold and BB 8700g)…Android definitely needs a little work, but the openness is fantastic if you’re a geek (I am at least)