Why I love Android, or tales from an IOS expatriate. Part 1 – all is fair in love and … modality?

I bought an iPhone after two weeks after the launch – and months after Steve Jobs stood on a stage at Macworld and announced how the phone world was going to change.  Believe it or not, I was hesitant to buy an iPhone.  You’ve got to remember a few things though about this momentous happening called the iPhone.  First, when it launched it was truly revolutionary.  It was the first real completely touchscreen phone with a large bright (at the time) screen. It integrated phone numbers, addresses AND e-mail addresses into a single contact that was stored, sensibly, by a person’s first and last name.  You could have *gasp* multiple e-mail addresses, multiple phone numbers and multiple physical addresses for every person, and you didn’t have to store each with some silly mechanism for the phone to “link” them.  It had a “real” web browser though it lacked much of the “real” web via its exclusion of flash – a malady the platform still has.  It did all these things…

But you also have to remember – there was no app store.  Saint Steve decried the use of user-installable applications, suggesting that they would “crash AT&T’s network” (though it did in major cities later due to the dearth of backhaul bandwidth in AT&T’s data network).  He suggested user-installable applications would be an open door for hackers to get your personal cell phone number.  These were dangerous times, after all.

Of course we all now know how the to-current history of the iPhone went.  Jobs is infamous for decrying a subject only to later embrace it (see: iPhone, iPad, apps).  Where he once slandered subjects, they would later “innovate” by “improving” them.  The uninformed would think, for example, that copy-paste was first only ever REALLY deployed on IOS (then iPhone OS).  Similarly, apps were first only ever REALLY deployed with the launch of the Apple app store July 11, 2008 and iPhone OS 2.0.

Make no doubt about it – Apple certainly was amazing.  It created the multitouch gesture-based genre of modern smartphones.  Every modern smartphone platform owes some design respects to the original iPhone and iPhone OS.  For me, however, the lustre began to wear off on my iPhone 3G right around when the 4G was launched and iOS 4.0 came about.  The upgrade was abysmal.  My phone was nearly unusable for any task.  It was crippled by pervasive latency in every aspect of its use.  Opening music took a siesta.  “BRB – getting coffee” was my mantra when I opened any app whose footprint was larger than say notepad.  It made the ownership miserable.  iOS4’s horrible deployment on the iPhone 3G was not the only reason I began to look for another platform.  The main reason is a programmatic concept familiar to UI designers the world across.

Modality.

A modal window is a window element which REQUIRES the user to interact with it to continue on with the use of the application.  Anyone familiar with using a web browser in the late 90s knows modality well – many of us referred to it as pop-up hell.  Oh yes – modality has been present since the first dialog box prompted “Ok? Cancel?” in some dark corner of a nondescript office building decades ago – probably somewhere in or around Palo Alto, CA.  Outside of necessary uses as UI control elements, most of us are now used to non-modal interactions with a program.  The modern web browser is a marvel of non-modal interaction.  Where there would before be individual modal windows prompting for the location of a website, now we have a non-modal location bar.  Before, you would navigate to a menu to reload a page.  Modality is saved for only the most necessary of programmatic elements – file selection dialogs and properties windows are two common uses for a modal interaction. Yet even as UI design has shied away from modal interactions, those on an iOS device still see them daily – if not hourly or worse constantly.  iOS, for all its innovations, still uses a UI design philosophy that reminds me of pop-up hell for its most common interaction with the user: notifications.

Those who know me well recall my daily complaints.  If you were doing anything and received a text message, it was a modal window.  Open or cancel – there is no try.  Don’t want to deal with the text right now?  Open or cancel.  In the middle of the best youtube video ever?  The video was paused, the modal dialog presented.  Untold relationships may have been harmed by an innocent boyfriend or girlfriend canceling out of an incoming text message only to forget about it and miss that critical, “I love you” for the first time.  Shame, shame Apple. In any other platform, it may even be considered a flaw as it could be used by the ill-intended as a denial of service attack.  Send a poor schlep with an iPhone a text every 10 seconds for a day and see how little they can use their phone.  It was made worse when application notifications were allowed.  Now every tweet, facebook reply and Scrabble word played meant yet another pause of whatever else I was doing.

It was right about this time that the original Motorola Droid was launched on Verizon.  It piqued my interest in Android.  Not only did it solve a problem decidedly not with iOS, namely AT&T’s oversubscribed drop-you-like-you’re-hot network, but it the very first video I watched of an Android phone in action showed me something I had only seen in Palm devices running WebOS.

Non-modal notifications.  Hallelujah!  Not only were Android’s notifications non-modal, they were non-interrupting in their entirety!  Get a text message?  It shows a preview, sounds the tone and / or signals with a few pulses of sweet vibratory goodness, and then leaves a breadcrumb of the most ingenious mechanism.  It leaves an icon.  In the status bar. To remind you.  This relationship-saving design was simple, elegant and I caught myself from my swoon only to discover another robotic dessert – the notification window.  Ingeniously, you grab the status bar at the top with one finger and drag it down as if it were a window shade.  Icons previously showing notifications now turn into tappable links to the applications themselves.  Drag the notification window back, and you’re right back where you were before.  To be fair, most full-screen wanting applications like youtube disable the notification bar during their tenure on the screen, but the important part is an incoming text message does not stop you from doing anything – unless you want it to.

And so on July the 14th, I became a Motorola Droid X owner.

Part two will deal with the programmatic aspects of Android OS that the inner codemonkey in me geeks out about.  I will go over high-level topics talking about application integration, components, and even a little bit of the basis of programming on Android – Java, Dalvik and why I like Android’s approach.  I’m not a seasoned Android coder, but I know Java pretty well and thus can wordsmith some code on Android.