Expect the Unexpected

Let me start at the end: Android is finally good. Now allow me to take you on a short journey, lest, after listening to Ira Glass and the latest This American Life episode you think I might be high.

It begins when Shifty Jelly first starting dabbling in Android development. A HTC Desire turned up in the mail from an Android fan who was trying to convince us to develop for his platform of choice. In Australia at the time Androids were a rare sight indeed. We didn’t have the initial marketing push that countries like the US enjoyed in the early days, so it was predominantly iPhone, iPhone, iPhone and more iPhone. I’ve always been naturally curious, so I played with the HTC phone for a few hours, and I have to be honest, I hated it. There was hardly any storage, it was slow, the scrolling often lagged and the app selection was woeful. To top it off the plasticky design and the inclusion of a joystick just made for a phone that was easy to laugh at. No real surprise then that I opted to keep my iPhone.

Every year or so as Android phones grew in popularity I tend to revisit Android as a platform for me, and every year I dismiss it. It gets closer every year. Every year the handsets improve, Android improves, and the apps improve. But inevitably, every year it falls short of my personal expectations as an iPhone user. So for a while it seemed that Android was doomed to play second fiddle in my life, being the platform I help develop apps for, not the platform I personally use.

Fast forward if you will, to the year 2o14. Flying cars are still not here and while working on my giant placard for the annual Where is my Flying Car Rally, I was yet again lured by the latest Android handset to cross my desk, the Moto X. For me it’s the perfect size to hold, the screen at 4.7″ feels just right. Android 4.4 is finally a mature, consistent, fast operating system that rivals iOS in many ways, even occasionally exceeding it. For the first time this felt like I’d found a phone I could actually use. “But Russell, you know the apps are going to suck” was the nagging doubt at the back of my mind. Still, science is science, so I put a sim card in the phone and started my journey through the Google Play Store. What followed as I started installing apps for services I use day to day surprised even me:

  • Flow for Reddit turns out to be a really good Reddit client. Edit: turns out that Reddit Sync is even better.
  • Press is a great RSS reader that integrates with Feedbin, my RSS service of choice.
  • Slack the group chat and collaboration tool we use has a great Android client.
  • 1Password Beta v4 is finally a version of 1Password that works just like the iOS one.
  • The default Twitter app is no longer offensively bad, and I think I might actually like it.
  • Hangouts works really well, and like Messages.app from Apple integrates your SMS and chat conversations in the one app.
  • Pocket Casts of course gives me my podcasting fix, and I love the new user interface we developed as part of v4.5.

Not to mention the nifty OS level features I found:

  • I can dismiss all my notifications by tapping just one button…I can’t believe Apple doesn’t have this.
  • Not having to unlock my phone or even touch it to set reminders is nice. “Ok Google Now, remind me at 8am tomorrow to pack my volleyball gear”. It’s also nice to have a phone that understands my accent, because while it’s funny the first time Siri offers to remind you to pack your “wally bear kid”, it gets old after a while.
  • I mostly still find widgets annoying, but I have to say having your calendar and weather right there on the home screen is great.
  • The Google Keyboard with it’s swipe input method seemed like a gimmick at first, but after a few minutes with it I’m hooked. It’s a huge time saver.
  • Switching from using iCloud contacts to Gmail ones was surprisingly pain free.
  • Being able to set your default mail client and browser is great.
  • You can turn on one setting to back up every photo you’ve ever taken to Google+. It sits there in a private folder and you never have to try and figure out if that photo you want was more than 1000 photos or 3 months ago like with Photostream.
  • Being able to change your entire lock screen and launcher experience (Springboard in the iOS world) is nifty, though I’m sticking with the Google one for now.
  • Google Now, which I dismissed a day into using this phone turns out to be amazing. When I was going on holidays it knew about my flight, told me when I should leave and even directed me to the right gate at the airport. On arriving at my destination it knew where I was staying and helpfully gave me the local weather and the time back home. While doing the usual touristy things it suggested local attractions and restaurants, and in short, was insanely useful. Now that I’m home it tells me when there’s congestion on the route I might take home, and suggests alternatives.

In short I was shocked that after years of people telling me ‘try again, it really has improved’ that Android finally did. It now meets my expectations of a phone I’d actually want to use. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect (where the hell is my unread view in Gmail, Google?) but for the first time since I’ve been messing around with Android I find myself not missing my iPhone one little bit.

Will I actually switch? In some ways I already have. The not so surprising part of using your phone as everything but a phone is that you can try things out with another sim card for a while. I’m not one for taking sides, and I’m not here to tell you which phone you should be using either. It’s as simple as this: for now there are two phones in my pocket, and I’m in no rush to part with either of them.