Going from iPhone to Android – Part 3: Back in the comfort of the walled garden

I had written a huge and rambling follow-up to Part 2 of this increasingly wayward series, but while I was adding some thoughts to it from the Draft app on Android (note that this is not Drafts on iOS) it suddenly went haywire and most of the text disappeared. I could not retrieve it for love or money, and so all my undoubtedly valuable and not at all meandering observations are now lost to posterity.

That was about a month ago – I found it difficult to get myself to write it all up again, and just left the whole ‘migration to Android’ thing in the heap while more important things like video games and cat gifs received my attention instead. In that time, however, something happened that was just as impulsive and unexpected as my initial defection to Android: I switched back to iOS.

O, fickle and foolish are the hearts of men! I cried suddenly to startled co-workers, as I received my gold iPhone 5s with a mixture of shame and relief. Mostly relief. Why did I change my mind in less than 4 months? I have come to the belated realisation, after all the expense and the phone calls and the legwork, that ultimately smartphones, like all other consumer electronics, are about tradeoffs, about balancing compromises. Simply put, I would give up less of the things I need by using iPhones than I would with Android. The transition to Nexus 5 as described in the previous two posts was really about the struggle to make Android behave more like iPhone, while still holding onto the advantages offered by Google. But the struggle eventually outweighed the benefits. An example: syncing music was a constant struggle. I hate drag and drop as a principle, because once you go above a few gigs of MP3 files you really need a dedicated music program on the PC side to effectively manage tags, preferences, playlists and new additions. Google doesn’t provide a music management program, and LG’s PC Suite is predictably desultory and Windows-only. I tried DoubleTwist, a decent pastiche of iTunes, but it only supports wireless sync and that’s after buying an app for it. Another solution is iSyncr, which installs a client on the Mac and lets you sync iTunes itself with the Android phone. I found this to be the cleverest and most reliable, but the application on the phone is a design abomination, and again it’s wireless-only and necessitates buying the app. More than that, all of these are just ways to get Android to play nice with iTunes, rather than establishing a contents management service on the computer as a genuine alternative. I never really got to grips with iSyncr. It works, there’s no question, but it doesn’t feel quite right. The app isn’t intuitive and looks like a dodgy underground effort that isn’t satisfying to use on a daily basis, even though it’s a paid app that is vouched for by many users.
There was a more fundamental issue that bugged me, and that was apps. My favourite apps on iPhone were those exceptionally polished writing and productivity apps, which had corresponding desktop apps, like Things, Omnifocus, Byword, Fantastical, etc. On iPhone it’s quite common to see developers moving apps across to the Mac, and allow users to sync data over iCloud or Dropbox, or move old Mac apps the other way. The experience is superlative and unmatched by other platforms. Android does have some very useful counterparts, like Any.do, Todoist and Google’s own Keep. But with the exception of the last, they’re not Android exclusive, and more importantly they don’t have actual desktop apps. Any.do and Keep (and countless others) rely on the Chrome app ecosystem for a presence on the PC/Mac, and so offer less refined and direct experiences. (And Todoist’s desktop app is basically a glorified browser application.)

iOS’s ability to offer you app experiences that are consistent between the mobile device and the home computer (well, the Mac) is what I missed the most, and what I think separates Apple’s offerings from their competitors, albeit for a smaller and more limited section of the overall userbase. Take Things, my main TODO solution. It’s not just the fact that there’s an app on iPhone as well as the Mac, or even that they both sync over the cloud. It’s also that on the Mac you can use a keyboard shortcut from anywhere to put in something that comes to your mind, and see that TODO item come up automatically on the mobile side. Conversely, you can use Drafts or Scratch to send an item very quickly and intuitively to Things, which will show up on the Mac. Same goes for Fantastical and Omnifocus and many others. Even better, there are literally a dozen top quality writing apps on iOS which also do this. I was rather surprised that Android lacks good writing apps: the aforementioned Draft is probably the only one I would say is worth its salt for medium/long form writing, and outside of Evernote and Keep (and even they’re a stretch because of their more short form nature) there really aren’t any good solutions to keep your notes and articles synced.

The switch back to iPhone does cause me pangs of regret. Nexus 5 really is a fine device, and at the price it’s being sold on the Play Store, it’s an absolute steal. I enjoyed the bigger screen and wouldn’t mind the iPhone being a little larger. Nexus 5 is blisteringly fast, and in terms of the snappiness of operation the user feels on a daily basis, I would confidently put it ahead of the currently bloated iOS 7. I’m going to miss the custom keyboards with gestures and swipes. I’m really going to miss the widgets that give you information without having to tap into apps. But what I’m not going to miss is the paucity of great apps, or the horrible design of apps that do provide useful functionality. Outside of Google’s own efforts and multi-platform apps, there’s surprisingly little on Android that can rival the diversity and beauty of the apps you can regularly find on Apple’s App Store. Ultimately, as companies like Apple, Samsung, LG and Sony become less able to differentiate on hardware specifications, OS strengths and app availability will become more important than ever, and during the past few months with G2 and Nexus 5 I wasn’t able to find enough evidence to suggest that Android has or will obtain a compelling advantage over iOS in this regard.

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