Journeying across mobile borders

My first mobile phone was the humble Nokia 3530, running Nokias proprietary OS. It served me well through a couple years of under-grad school, playing Nibbles mostly. After its buttons became unresponsive, I switched over to a Sony-Ericsson K508i. Running Sonys’ Symbian UIQ OS, it was beautiful – a lot of quick animations, never sluggish, support for theming – and it some rudimentary apps courtesy Java ME. I bought a Nokia 6600 after about 2 years of using the Sony, unfortunately it was stolen before I got a chance to play around with it much. So back I went to my trusty K508i. Soon, I moved over to a Nokia N81 – my first high-end phone, running the Symbian OS. While the OS wouldn’t win any prizes for its looks, it was feature packed. The phone itself had a high resolution(240×320) colour display, with oodles of space(8GB) and some great games. It was the first phone I owned which had a decent camera which gave me usable photos.

Around mid-2009 the iPhone 3GS had just been announced and smartphones were the in thing. With the 3GS taking its time to reach Indian shores(and frankly being way out of my reach budgetwise) I bought a ASUS P565 to get a taste of Windows Mobile 6.1. It served me well. WinMo was terrible in usability but sated the geek in me – loads of customizability, the Windows TaskManager gave unlimited power over processes – it was literally like running a desktop in the palm of my hand.

After about a year, the Android bug bit me and I bought a shiny new Samsung Galaxy S. The phone came loaded with Eclair(version 2.1). Soon after I bought it, Google released Froyo(version 2.2). This new version brought a much needed performance boost, a slight respite from the jitters and lags inherent in the UI at the time. Samsung tooks its sweet time to deliver the update. The same story repeated itself, when Android Gingerbread(version 2.3) was launched. This time, instead of waiting for the official update, I dived into the somewhat murky waters of custom ROMs. I suppose I had gotten more confident of my geek abilities by then. It was like opening Pandoras Box – I sacrificed stability, some essential features and a great camera app for speed. A few months But I have to admit, the original Galaxy S was the real deal – high-end hardware, unbrickable and great support on XDA meant countless hours spent playing around with different ROMs. It was a phone for a geek…well, maybe Android had something to do with it too.

By now, I had settled into a roughly new-phone-every-12-15-months cycle when Apple launched the iPhone 4S. I had been using an iPod Touch for a while and loved the fluidity of iOS, so it was an easy decision to switch to the 4S when it was offered in India very soon after launch. Unlike Android, iOS expects you to adapt to it by imposing restrictions – it does few things but does them exceptionally well; besides iOS 4 was far better in looks, UI consistency than Gingerbread ever was. And I was tired of trawling through XDA trying to look for workarounds to get basic functionality working on different ROMs. The iOS app ecosystem too was(and still is) better by a long shot than the Android ecosystem – it wasn’t just the number of apps(the Play store now leads) but the quality and polish of apps that stood out. I took to iOS like a fish to water.

While Apple and Google were waging their war, Microsoft was undergoing a radical transition. When the iPhone launched in mid-2007, it had been caught on the wrong foot with Windows Mobile 6. Microsoft attempted a comeback with Windows Mobile 6.1 and then again with Windows Mobile 6.5 before finally starting afresh, the Windows Phone 7 in October 2010. By then, Apple had enjoyed a little over 3 years of headstart and Google a bit over 2 years.

Sitting on the sidelines, I had been impressed by Windows Phone. It was a fresh take on mobile UIs, with flat textures and minimal skeuomorphism. The core OS was fluid, never stuttered and far more cohesive than Android, very iOS like. Windows Phones live tiles were a stroke of genius for glanceable updates – more information dense than Androids widgets and in a different league from iOS’ notification badges. It featured hubs and panoramas, neither of which had equivalents in both iOS and Android. Windows Phone 8 followed in the footsteps of its predecessor but was built on newer foundations and promised more, much more. So when the Nokia Lumia 920 launched in India, I queued up to get one. Like I noted, it was a thing of beauty but there were some quirks in the OS that needed to be worked out. But then there was the terrible app ecosystem which always meant I’d end up waiting for an app to come out which had been on iOS or Android for ages. Sometimes I’d wait for ages and have a 3rd party app come out instead.

From Windows Mobile 6.1 through Androids Eclair, Froyo, Gingerbread, then iOS followed by Windows Phone 8, 8.1 and now finally Androids KitKat, Lolipop, the Lumia with Windows Phone 8 was probably the best experience of the lot. Killer hardware with a killer OS.

For a technology enthusiast like me, all three big players in the rise of personal technology have great OSes now, nee platforms. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.

iOS has the best apps and the best hardware(in finish and polish) in the business. If you have a Mac, then prodcutivity-wise the iPhone is a no-brainer iOS 8 and Mac OS X Yosemite have an unmatched level of integration with each other. One of its biggest cons is that it is not very customizable and honestly quite drab looking. The ‘radical’ new UI of iOS 7 wasn’t really new.

Android is the most flexible mobile OS around. If you are using Googles’ services – Gmail, Calendar, Maps – then Android has the best apps for them all. Android also has the best notifications amongst the three – not just in actionability, but in reliability too. Google Play Store has an app for everything. And Google Now. On the negative front, Android has a lot to work on – fragmentation, UI inconsistencies, delayed updates and more. However high end your phone, Android will make your phone sluggish by the end of the year.

Windows Phone is the probably the most stable of the lot, in almost 2 years of using my Lumia I can hardly recall having to restart my phone. Third-party apps were a different matter though. Also, to my eyes, it has the best UI of the lot – colourful live tiles, beautiful animations peppered throughout the OS, great typography, a fluid UI – everything just works. Windows Phones biggest drawbacks are the apps ecosystem and delayed updates. While the former can be attributed to a smaller marketshare(which in turn discourages potential developers, a vicious cycle if there ever was one), the latter is truly inexplicable. Even in countries like India where there are no carrier contracts or the like, not having timely updates from Microsoft(and now Nokia for firmware) is inexcusable.

Smartphones are such a huge market, all players want to lock in customers into their platform. For the three – Apple, Google & Microsoft – I’m the worst kind of customer, continually hopping about, not committing to a platform. But over time, I’ve found it become increasingly difficult to keep switching between platforms.

It all started with the Galaxy S. I bought some apps on the then Android Market, so there was the obvious inclination to stay on Android to avoid ponying up by changing platforms. Google hadn’t yet brought about a tight level of integration between its services, so it wasn’t too bad when I switched.

On the iPhone, it got worse. I stayed with Gmail as my primary email but started to  use my Apple ID for calendar, messaging and iCloud. I especially relied on iCloud to sync my reminders and notes between the iPhone and my Macbook. A much better app ecosystem meant I spent more money buying quality apps – Tweetbot, Omnifocus, I’m looking at you. Some apps, like Omnifocus for instance, have only a Mac counterpart, no PC/Android app. Steeped into the Apple ecosystem, I was already finding it difficult to manage some of my data across my iPhone, Macbook and PC.

When I jumped platforms again to the Lumia 920, I had to make a clean break from Apple. For every awesome app I depended upon in iOS, I had to sieve through a tens of apps on the Windows Phone Store to often find a mediocre replacement. Gmail(to an extent), Hangouts and iMessage took a back seat. I started to use Outlook.com, Skype and integrated Facebook chat.

During my travails through Apple and Microsoft, Google had leapfrogged ahead in terms of integration – Google Now was(and is) a brilliant service which pulls information from Gmail, Google Search and Calendar to present you with updates and the right information when you need it. So when I recently came back to Android, there was yet another significant migration to undertake. There and back again to Gmail and Google Calendar.

I’m sure my journey through different mobile platforms isn’t likely to end soon, so it makes sense for me to I’m look increasingly for services which are as cross platform as possible, which allow me to jump platforms as painlessly as possible. The irony is that Microsoft, which has the smallest market share of the lot, is the one which is most platform agnostic with its services. If you are entrenched into, say Microsoft Office, you get a better experience using it from iOS and Android. Similarly, Outlook.com apps for iOS and for Android are just as good as their Windows Phone counterpart. Microsoft, which arguably has the most to lose with a platform-agnostic strategy, is the best at it. I dont expect either Apple or Google to get better at this, but I hope third-party developers see this as an opening and release apps which are on an equal footing across all platforms.

The journey continues…