Mobility

Android's apps are comparatively ugly: Is Linux to blame?

Donovan Colbert didn't realize how nice WP7 was until he had to go back to the Android platform. He predicts that Microsoft will come from behind to steal Android's thunder if Google fails to make huge improvements.

I like Android devices, and I appreciate that their arrival on the market shook up a market segment that had become almost entirely dominated by Apple — but in the long run, Android is half baked. Unless Google makes huge improvements, I predict that Microsoft will come from behind to steal Android's thunder.

What really drove this point home for me was my recent review of Verizon's HTC Trophy WP7, which is a slick, polished, and smooth device that makes my Droid 2 look like a wood club by comparison. Everything is fluid and responsive, and the OS and apps are so finely tuned that you can't really help but notice how far behind Android and even iOS are in this regard. Most importantly, this is an example of Microsoft's freshman effort at a modern mobile OS. If MS came off the starting block this strong, what happens when they find their stride?

In so many ways, the WP7 platform delivers a far more consumer-oriented experience. They've leveraged beautiful features to add significant enhancements to the platform and apps in an intuitive and innovative way. As I said in my review, the WP7 e-mail client is where I really noticed the detail that Microsoft has put into delivering a world-class experience to end users. The stock Android and iOS e-mail clients don't provide very meaningful search and sort functions, but the WP7 platform allows you to view all messages, only unread messages, or to sort by a variety of other criteria with a simple flick to the left or the right. It isn't just pretty — it's an elegant way to achieve results in the limited environment of a mobile device.

Honestly, I didn't realize how nice WP7 was until I had to go back to the Android platform. I always knew the stock Android e-mail client disappointed me, and I wished it had better sorting features, but I had learned to live with the disappointing functions and ugly interface. After using the WP7 client, I had to find something better.

Now, one of the advantages of Android is that you don't have to be content with the stock applications, and the open market means that anyone who has a better idea can write an app and publish it. Because of this, there are several pretty nice alternative e-mail clients available for the Android platform. Many of these offer advanced sorting and other features that even go beyond what the WP7 client offers. I can't really complain about this aspect. I wanted alternatives, and I quickly found a half-dozen possibilities.

But I discovered something else in my search for a more robust e-mail client. I'm not sure what the reason is, but all of the e-mail clients seem to build on adding features to the general design aesthetic of the stock client. There's no radical departure from the basic presentation. In much the same way that Eudora, Outlook, and Thunderbird all follow a basic template for how a desktop e-mail client should look and feel, the Android e-mail clients all look and act pretty much the same, with small distinctions in feature-set being the primary differences.

I've been playing around with computing devices for a very long time. I've always felt that the basic hardware platform and core kernel of any electronic device seems to determine a great deal about the look and feel of everything else that grows from that device. For example, I believe that a studied eye can generally tell the difference between an app designed on an 8-bit Atari versus an 8-bit Apple, or one designed to run on OS X versus Windows or Linux. The base platform sets the templates and framework on which almost everything built on it operates. There are exceptions, of course. A full-screen game like Call Of Duty will most likely look the same on OS X as on Windows. In general though, I think the majority of apps reflect the OS they were designed for and the tools they were created with.

I've also argued that Linux is ugly. I'm not a developer, so I don't know what the reason is, but Linux apps always seem less polished, less attractive, and a little under-produced compared to similar apps available for closed-source platforms. Maybe it's just the aesthetic eye of the developers who write apps for Linux, but all you have to do is open up GIMP next to Photoshop, and I think the superficial facade of one is clearly more pleasant than the other. I'm not talking about the tangible experience. GIMP is a powerful tool that may match or exceed the capabilities of Photoshop, and it does so for free — but it just doesn't look as good doing it.

I wonder if the fact that Android is built on a foundation of Linux code might be reflected in the e-mail client apps that are available for this OS platform. Perhaps the majority of these developers are Linux developers who migrated to Android app development — or it could be that there's something in the foundation of Android itself that results in less visually-appealing apps. Does Linux make Android apps ugly, or do Linux developers write ugly apps?

If someone wanted to, they could code a clone of the WP7 e-mail client. It might work functionally identical to the WP7 client, but my guess is that many of the features that make the WP7 client look so visually stunning are APIs and classes built right into the base OS itself. It would probably take a lot more work, be a lot more complex, and have a measurable impact on the speed and reliability of the app to achieve the same results.

Sure, Linux-based platforms are capable of stunning feats of impressive graphics. The Compiz Cube remains one of the most impressive examples of OS eye candy available on any platform. But once you get past the Cube, everything else on most Linux distros is pretty ugly compared to the competition.

Many FOSS advocates claim to prefer the simple, spartan, and utilitarian interfaces of Linux apps that are free of much of the fluff and bloat associated with the more mainstream commercial platforms. However, these users are in the minority. Android, more than any other Linux-based variant, is designed to compete for the majority consumer mind share against those fluffy, bloated closed-source counterparts. The truth is that mainstream consumers expect those features. They result in a positive perception of quality, because users equate highly polished apps with a more finished platform.

We all know that iOS has a prettier e-mail client, a superior soft keyboard, and other features that simply shame their Android counterparts. We also know that the open market encourages developers to address these shortcomings. However, enough time has passed that two things seem evident:

  1. Android developers either aren't or can't match the level of polish seen on competitor's offerings. I don't think that it's because developers fear patent lawsuits — we see enough skins and desktop replacements that attempt to make Android look more like iOS to know this. Stealing look and feel isn't the problem.
  2. Where alternatives exist, it's a bummer to have to pay extra for features that are part of the bundled base OS with the competition.

Ultimately, I like Android, and the benefits of the open architecture and philosophy of the Android platform are still far more compelling than what I give up by not having an iOS or WP7 device. But I'm a gadget geek willing to put up with more and to be more forgiving than the average consumer, especially when the trade off is a more empowering experience that allows me more control over how I use my device.

Google needs to acknowledge that, in the long run, satisfying users like me won't allow them to remain competitive when Apple and Microsoft are courting a much broader consumer market. Android developers need to pay attention to what Apple and MS app developers are doing and make sure that their apps compete effectively with the apps available for other devices. Microsoft may not be on the radar of the Android community now, but unless the Android ecosystem really starts delivering the same kind of experience, they may soon find themselves wondering how they ended up playing catch up with a vendor they thought they had buried in the sands of time.

Do you think the inherent advantages of Android are enough to keep these devices in the game? Let us hear your opinion in the discussion thread below.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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