Redmond Diary

By Andrew J. Brust

Blog archive

My Week With Droid

A week ago I got a new phone. This was planned, and yet not planned. Getting a new phone working is disruptive and I didn't want that disruption on Thanksgiving week. However, Verizon somehow de-provisioned my old phone from its data network and told me it would take 5 days to fix the problem. That meant being without mobile email access, likely for a week, so I reasoned that getting a new phone would be actually less disruptive than fixing the old one. So I deactivated my Moto Q9m Windows Mobile 6.0 (Standard Edition) handset and replaced it with a spanking new Motorola Droid.

The Droid is my first SmartPhone that's not running Windows Mobile, and I really wasn't sure what to expect. On the one hand, I assumed the phone would be less clunky than WinMo has become, relative to other devices. I expected a more graceful UI, and a far better Web experience than the Q9m provided. I also expected worse Exchange integration. As for keyboard entry, I assumed the on-screen keyboard would be a terrible match for my big thumbs, but that the slide-out keyboard would keep me sane. And, finally, I hoped for some genuinely interesting and impressive software (sorry, I just can't bring myself to say "apps" since Apple commandeered the term).

How is the Droid in general? Did I get what I expected? Is it fun to use? Is it productive? The answer to each of these questions is "it's a mixed bag." Allow me to elaborate, or even ramble. But hold on until the end of this post for some thoughts on how Android and Windows Mobile compare (an especially interesting question given that the WinMo Q9m and Droid are both Motorola phones).

That Which Disappoints
I'll deliver the bad news first: the Droid hardware, other than the big, bright and beautiful screen, and the convenience of a 3.5mm earbud jack, is terrible. The power button is impossible to find by feel. The volume up down buttons are also hard to grope for and don't "rock" or "toggle" easily. The camera button is almost as bad. The slide out keyboard has buttons that aren't raised, and sit in a perfect rectangular matrix, without any curvature whatsoever. This makes it incredibly easy to press two keys at once and very hard to type without looking at the keys. To top it off (literally) the upper row of letter keys abuts the bottom of the screen so closely that it becomes impossible to get your thumb squarely on any of them.

I hate on-screen keyboards, but the Droid's is better than its physical one. However, unless you use it in landscape mode, the on-screen keys are cramped together so tightly that typing inaccuracy is almost guaranteed. And then there's the lack of cursor control, other than the backspace key (compared to the physical keyboard's 5-way joystick-style navigation); this forces you to try and tap the screen to get to the desired cursor position and the precision required to do so is only attainable on a random basis. So typing is frustrating, but it gets worse. The phone weighs a ton, due mostly to its battery and keyboard. Meanwhile, the former barely lasts one day and the latter, as I've said, is just an investment with no useful return.

The "hard-coded" touch keys at the bottom of the screen for Back/Esc, Options Menu, Home and Search provide haptic feedback, which is nice. But sometimes they just don't respond, and that is mean. The drag gesture necessary to reveal the full applications menu and the notifications list is equally capricious. It makes me say "Grrrr..." a lot.

As I knew before I got the phone, the Exchange integration is limited. There's no support for notes (which is typical of most phones) nor tasks (which is crazy) and appointment requests come through on the phone as if they're standard email messages, with no way to accept or decline, much less detect schedule conflicts.

Even the WiFi and cellualr radios seem a little flakey to me.

That Which Pleases
The issues I've enumerated above are really unacceptable, so why should you keep reading this post, and why do I keep using the phone? I guess my years with Windows Mobile have made me patient, and boundlessly optimistic. I'd like to believe that resilience in the face of bugs and clumsy interfaces might yield rewards in the form of cool features. (And I can't get an iPhone because AT&T's network is simply not an option for me).

So what's good about the Android? To start with, the browser is fantastic. It's fast, it works with both mobile and standard desktop HTML-formatted sites and the zoom in and out is very fluid and intuitive. What I lose in email productivity due to slow typing and poor Exchange integration, I make up for in my ability to branch out to the Web, get answers and achieve results, on my phone, rather than waiting until I am back at a PC.

And then there's search. You'd hope Google would do this well, of course. But they far exceeded my expectations. Search is everywhere and it, rather seamlessly, integrates data on the device and on the Web in a single result set from a single inquiry. If I hit the dedicated haptic search key and then type my friend and co-author Stephen Forte's name, for example, I get his contact record and a link to his blog's Google entry, presented in a single, cohesive response from the phone. I may have had to enter twice as many keystrokes as there are letters in his name, to correct my typos and get the search done, but the results are so useful and immediate that, in the end, I almost forget the initial frustration.

Integration with Google Maps is excellent as well. Even if calendar integration with Exchange is kind of goofy, any street address entered in the location or notes field of an appointment becomes a clickable link that produces a street/satellite hybrid map in one tap. If I'm willing to tap a few more times, I can enter my origin, and then get not just driving directions, but also a public transit route or walking directions, both of which are incredibly useful in New York City, where I live. A few more taps gets me Google Street View, and suddenly I'm getting a photographic preview of what my walk to the restaurant for my dinner appointment will look like.

I imagine the integration with Gmail, Google Calendar and other Google cloud services is tight and elegant as well, but I don't use those services nor do I need to. The phone comes with a Google Voice client, for which I have high hopes, but I have not yet set up an account on that service, and so have not tested its support on the phone.

Applications for the Droid seem pretty good. Seesmic just came out with a very nice Twitter client; TripIt has an excellent rich front-end to its travel planning service, the Weather Channel has an attractive and GPS-enabled UI for its current conditions and forecast data, eBuddy has a nice multi-platform IM client, that works fine with Windows Live Messenger's protocols and Documents to Go offers their capable replacement for Microsoft's Office Mobile, making opening Word and Excel email attachments a snap. The phone comes with good Amazon and FaceBook applications, and the Android Market offers easy access to lots more.

And although the Exchange integration is feature-poor, I will say that getting basic sync connectivity working on the Droid was actually much easier than on the two Exchange Push-enabled Windows Mobile phones I've owned.

See? The Droid offers not just bitter, but sweet as well.

Irony, Mobile Edition
Android has its rough spots, but Google has the power to address many of them through system updates, and the platform has great potential. Motorola did Google a service by creating an Android device with such a nice screen and at least offering the illusion of comfortable physical QWERTY text entry. The Droid hardware is an abomination. But I bet Droid 2 will be far better.

Will I keep this phone? Verizon says I have 30 days to decide; but I'm tempted to keep it. My only real debate is whether to lock in to two years of this phone's downsides or wait several months for a better Android 2.x iteration from Motorola or someone else. As I said before, years of using WinMo phones have made me tolerant and patient, with a tendency to focus on the positive, and the Droid has much of that.

That WinMo comparison (as well as a lack of comparison with iPhone) is significant. This morning I tweeted: "It's uncanny to me how much #Android seems to be the successful realization of Windows Mobile's original vision" and, subsequently: "Customizable, runs on a variety of hardware from multiple vendors and carriers, and lots of applications (no, that wasn't Apple's idea)."

In the case of Droid, Google's OS suffers from the same OEM foibles as does Microsoft's and, also in common with WinMo, suffers from Google's lack of Apple-like control over the platform. But it benefits in similar ways too: a multitude of OEMs, many of them Microsoft's current partners in the mobile space, the PC industry or both, like the Android platform, enjoy the degree to which they can customize and private label it and find it generally compatible with their business models.

So why is Google achieving this, and why has Microsoft not achieved it, when, as I said in this post, this successful strategy was Microsoft's to begin with?

I can cite many individual reasons and factors which have given rise to this situation. But the general answer to the question of why Microsoft has forfeited this victory, and allowed its most fierce competitor to embrace and extend its own game plan, is really this: "I don't know."

There's nothing in Android that Microsoft couldn't build. Windows 7 and Zune HD prove it can create a user experience of similar or better quality. Windows Desktop Search (and Vista/Windows 7 search), Bing's Web search and Bing Maps could bring about nearly identical device/Web search integration. There have been enough WinMo hardware blunders that Microsoft could easily work with Toshiba, Motorola, HTC or Samsung to produce better form factor, better ergonomics, and even a better screen than Droid offers. Microsoft's been burned often by lousy OEM hardware execution, and it now knows how to advise its hardware partners to generate better results.

The real problem to me seems to be managerial and structural, and it's very depressing to see. I think many of WinMo's ills are comparable to those that plagued Vista, both in terms of product quality, PR and the product team's management. The good news is that the WinMo/Vista parallels are more encouraging than the WinMo/Google ones. Because we know, in Windows 7, that Microsoft solved their Vista problem, which means they can solve their WinMo problem too.

Will version 7 be the lucky release on the mobile side, as it was on the PC? I am not certain. But I do think the problem will be solved, and I even think that Android may provide the encouragement needed to get to the solution. It may just take a while. But, as I said, when it comes to mobile devices, I am a patient man.

Posted by Andrew J. Brust on 12/01/2009

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