Last year, while I was on a business trip, my wife surprised me during a phone call by telling me that she was going to finally enter the smartphone age and purchase a Motorola Droid. This was surprising on a number of levels. She's notoriously tight-fisted with money for starters. (Is there a nice way to say that?) So, she isn't the type of person to jump at the chance to toss $80 a month into the wind. She's notably ambivalent about technology, too, which might be a shocker to some given to whom she's married. To her, computers are a tool, and years of Mac usage did nothing to indoctrinate her into the Apple cult. (In fact, she chose to use a Windows 7-based Dell laptop last year.) And then there's the Droid itself. This is a decidedly masculine smartphone—the antidote to Apple's namby-pamby iPhone—and it was marketed then (as now) in a very aggressive fashion.
"You're getting ... a Droid?" I could hardly believe it.
But she did it. And for the past year, she's been quite happy with her choice. She's a Gmail and Google Calendar user, so the Android OS makes sense for her. And watching her latch onto things like Facebook has been both fascinating and disturbing.
But I'm not here to write about that. No, this is about something even more disturbing than my wife posting to Facebook. Last week, after a flurry of sudden work-related activity, I found myself the somewhat bewildered recipient of my own Android-based smartphone, in this case a Droid X. The reasons for this are complex, but basically I'm now an employee of Penton, the owner of this newsletter and my site, and I'm expected to meet certain corporate expectations. I held out as long as I could.
So, unlike much of the world, I'm not "switching" to Android. In fact, I'll be buying a Windows Phone-based smartphone as soon as I can. Over the past several months, I've been using a developer-oriented prototype device as my primary phone so I could write a book about Windows Phone 7 titled Windows Phone 7 Secrets. What I discovered, to my delight if not surprise, is that I truly love this smartphone OS. As far as I'm concerned, Windows Phone is the way to go.
But for now I have this Droid X. And I have to say, suddenly, I get it. I understand why this thing is surpassing the iPhone as we speak. Aside from one killer mistake—a mistake that would be oh so easy to fix—this phone is hands-down superior to anything designed in Cupertino.
First, the screen. While some will be turned off by its palatial dimensions, others will swoon with delight. I fall into the latter category. The Droid X screen is a whopping 4.3 inches diagonally, dramatically bigger than the screen on any iPhone or, for that matter, my wife's first generation Droid. It runs at a stunning 854 x 480 and is simply gorgeous to look at.
The other hardware is stellar, too. The Droid X is lightning fast, with a 1 GHz processor and a powerful GPU, and I've never noticed any pauses or waiting times. It plays games and movies full-screen, full-speed, and can handle virtually anything you throw at it. (Assuming you can figure out how to get that content on the device; more on that in a moment.) The camera is a whopping 8 megapixels and is quite decent—the first smartphone camera I've seen that could possibly replace a point and click. It takes 1280 x 720 (720p) video at up to 24 FPS. We're in a different world, people.
From a software perspective, the Android OS hits all the high points. It supports customizable home screens, has a wealth of high-quality applications, and the important apps—Gmail, Calendar, and so on—all work exactly right. This is an email triaging machine.
Where the Droid X—Android, really—falls apart is on the services side. As with Apple and soon Microsoft, Google supports Android with an online marketplace, in this case the Android Market. It's horrible. And I don't just mean it's lacking in some vague way, I mean that it's an absolute disgrace. For all the criticism Apple has received for its heavily curated App Store, Google should be held accountable for the unprofessional, low-quality Android Market, which features an unbelievable amount of borderline illegal content that rips off intellectual property in obvious and egregious ways. For example, there are dozens of "The Simpsons" rip-offs, with obvious and purposefully misspelled names. It's just shameful.
In the Android Market, the fears of Google are realized: This is a company that simply doesn't care about protecting the rights of other companies. I'm honestly shocked at how bad this is. Just finding the content you want in the store is difficult, because it's not laid out in any logical fashion. I searched for—and found—most of my favorite iPhone apps in Android versions. But if I didn't know they existed, I'd never know what to search for, and the Android market does nothing to promote decent apps. It's just a terrible experience, worse still because it's something Google could easily fix.
This is perhaps less dramatic, but because Google doesn't (yet) have an online store to match Apple's iTunes Store, the Android experience for loading, syncing, finding, and playing media (music, movies, and other content) is truly second rate and, I suspect, must vary from phone to phone. I was able to cobble together a rough iTunes equivalent with a terrible bit of software called DoubleTwist, but as had been the case previously with my wife's phone, it took over an hour to get it to work at all, and then the actual content syncing occurred at glacial speeds. If this is the state of the art for Android content sync, it's time to start over.
Aside from the abysmal online store experiences, however, Android and the Droid X are first rate. And looking ahead, I'll be comparing this system to the upcoming first generation Windows Phone 7 devices and to Apple's latest iPhone to see where these systems fall. For now, however, Android and the Droid X are, warts and all, already neck and neck with the iPhone 4. It's scary to think how one-sided this would be if Google just put a handful of UI experts on the marketplace. Game over, Apple. Game over.