Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Android, and Why I Won't Just Shut Up About It Already

If you follow my Twitter account (Statistically, a highly unlikely probability, but still) you are already aware of the fact that I am a huge fan of Android. I'm always posting news and opinions on stuff happening in the Android community, always tweeting about neat things I can do with my phone that no one cares about but me. Why? Why such devotion to a mobile platform? Well, I've been thinking about this very thing for a little while now, and I think I'm ready to render an answer.

Android is, in itself, only a platform. Obviously. It is a framework that Google has released into the world at large, mostly for free, for people to put on the phones and tablets they so choose, in the way that they so choose. This is the first thing that makes Android exciting as a platform. A few years back, Apple rocked the mobile world at large with the release of the iPhone; An all-touchscreen interface, and eventually the App Store, would make some serious waves in the market. After its release, we began to see an awful lot of copycats. Everybody and their grandma opened an App Store of their very own and begged developers, "Please, come make us as rich as Apple." We started to see more and more phones with shoddily-implemented touchscreen interfaces and sparse App ecosystems, but none of them really stuck until Android came into the fray. Android was the first mobile OS since (what is now called) iOS to offer something really new: An OS available across carriers and manufacturers that would have a communal Application Market is an exciting enough idea on its own, but combine that with the fact that applications developed for Android could, at their very core, do so much more than on iOS, and suddenly there's a true contender to the throne.

A heavily contributing factor to Android's success is the way in which applications are implemented. On iOS, applications were mostly self-contained. You could only run one at a time, and there was limited interaction between applications. The homescreen always looked the same, with static design guidelines for application icons, and a homescreen that would (eventually) offer the re-ordering of icons, but little else. On Android, an application is free to do whatever you give it permission to do. For example, it is possible to have an application running which automatically detects where you are and can toggle your phone's Silent Mode accordingly. You could, if you wish, get an entirely new keyboard, with features all its own. Widgets exist which add information display and interaction through the homescreen. And this openness is what truly makes Android the best mobile OS for me. At first, it may not seem like a game-changer, but it is. It so is.

The big three mobile OSes right now, from left to right: Windows Phone 7, iOS, Android

Because anyone can develop and publish an Android application for free, and Android applications can do whatever they damned well please, an interesting situation arises. Google, still developing and releasing content and updates for the core Android OS, is forced to compete with its own developers. Far from the draconian world of the iOS App Store, where applications that do a better job than Apple are rejected on a regular basis, Google opens itself up to perhaps be worse than its own ecosystem. And this is an incredibly good thing. As the consumers, we are the clear winners here. Because of this competition, the quality of applications increases at an astonishing rate, and developers and Google are forced to truly innovate to get ahead. In a world where the only limit on what an application can do is your imagination, crazy new stuff happens all the time! And what's even better is that for the most part, if there's a functionality that you desperately want, or a problem with Android that an application could fix, odds are someone has already thought of it, and the solution is immediately available. And if not, well, just make it yourself and pick up some extra pocket money from ad revenue!

Let me give you an example of some neat things my phone does right now. My phone woke me this morning by slowly fading the alarm in, such that I wake up when I am in the lightest possible phase of sleep, meaning I wake up as refreshed as possible. I hit the switch to let my phone know I'm awake, and another application records how much I slept last night, adding it to a graph that tracks how much 'Sleep Debt' I've accrued, and how much more sleeping I should do to bring my body to optimum efficiency. I connected my phone to my home's Wifi, and an application called Tasker recognized the SSID as my home's wifi, so it automagically utilized another application to set my IP to Static. As I left the house, my phone disconnected from the Wifi and automatically switched back to DHCP in preperation for the school's network. Throughout the day, my phone remains disconnected from data networks and wifi except for once every fifteen minutes to sync messages and what have you, and when my screen is on or certain applications need to run. This dramatically extends my battery life. My phone recognized me as being at the campus, so when I turned on the screen to surf a bit before class, it automatically turned on my Wifi and connected to the network. From here, I checked my torrents at home, noticed I wasn't seeding, so I started them on doing so. If I were in a video store or what have you, I could utilize a feature by which I hop into another application for a moment and scan a barcode on a dvd, bring that barcode back to the torrent program, and start torrenting that movie for when I get home! Also I checked up on my Minecraft SMP server running at home, changed the Message of the Day, checked if anyone was logged in at the time, and reloaded the server. While sitting here typing on my laptop, I quickly hopped over to http://market.android.com, found an application I wanted, and started it installing on my phone by just clicking a link on the page. No cords, no hassle. I could have done it if my phone weren't even here.

This is why I can't shut up about Android. It can do whatever you want it to, and it frequently does. What's more, it's growing. It's growing at an astonishing rate. In fact, it has already surpassed iOS in global market share and ad revenue. It's fully customizable, and even more so if you're moderately tech-minded.
All in all, Android delivers an incredible amount of functionality for the geek in me, while remaining polished enough to be intuitive and pretty. And it's always, always getting better. It's always changing, and it's always growing.

I'm not saying that another OS will not one day steal my heart. iOS is stepping its game up lately (mostly trying to catch up with competent competition, a hurdle they did not seem prepared for in this arena), and Windows Phone 7 has an awful lot of money behind it, and could be promising. But for now, Android is by far the coolest kid on the block, and it looks like that might be the case for a while to come.

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