Jan. 12th, 2011

The two leaders in the smartphone platform race right now are Android and iOS. With Android, each hardware vendor can do whatever they like with the OS. Overlays, custom apps, skinning, completely replacing parts of the system, even things like Market. Each device can be completely different, even when made by the same company, and carriers can do further customisation. The temptation to force end-users to use the carrier-specific app market has got to be pretty huge for them. They (and OEMs) can also block software updates.

The up-side is that you'll find devices with all sorts of hardware characteristics. Want a keyboard? Not a problem. Want a larger screen? You're covered. Want a smaller phone? Easy. The hardware specs are pretty broad, and from a UX perspective all you have to provide are the four buttons on the front and some sort of navigation doover -- trackball, optical sensor, d-pad, whatever.

With iOS, there are a small number of devices available, all from a single supplier. Every iPhone will behave just like every other iPhone. The UX is nailed down tight. You get consistency and only the tiniest possibility for carrier customisation -- carrier-specifics apps are all they can do. Updates completely bypass carriers, and while Apple will choose to drop support for older models as time goes by, it's a pretty reasonable deal for the end-user. Apple really pushed the mobile market along wonderfully.

But what if you want a bigger screen? A hardware keyboard? Hell, a physical camera shutter button? Bad luck. If Apple doesn't see a need for a hardware feature, you aren't going to get it, and they have a fair bit invested in keeping their product lines relatively simple.

What Microsoft is up to, it seems, is trying to grab the middle ground. The software UX is nailed down. Like Apple, Microsoft claim that the end-user is their real customer, not the networks, and not the OEMs. One Windows Phone will behave more or less like any other. But because they're leaving the hardware to others there's scope for some differentiation, even if the minimum specs are pretty aggressive. We've already seen smaller and larger screens, QWERTY keyboards, different-spec cameras, even Xenon flashes.

How well they'll do is uncertain. It's early days, the platform is immature, and it's not exactly getting a lot of push from carriers. Take a look at pretty much any mobile phone carrier website and you'll see them pushing Android and iPhones most heavily. How much of that is because they can't customise the hell out of the devices and load them up with crapware, and how much is because there simply isn't the same level of customer demand, that's hard to say.

But one thing you can say for Microsoft is that they've got deep pockets and are generally willing to play a long game.
This afternoon I installed Oxygen on my Desire. To quote from that page:

"Oxygen ROM is an AOSP source built ROM (ie. not a mod of any sense based ROM), it's minimal, it's superfast and mostly bugfree."

So far, so good. Gingerbread doesn't seem any less snappy than FroYo was, possibly more. It has a bunch of little interface tweaks and small bits of polish -- various widgets look a little different, there are some extra animation effects, and so on.

This particular ROM comes with a different launcher, a thing called "Zeam". The dock is a little different to the standard one, and there are some handy gesture shortcuts, for example if you swipe down anywhere on the home screen it'll bring up the application menu. The dock icons are more colourful than is usually the case with LauncherPro or ADW.

I've also re-installed Beautiful Widgets -- which I had previously misidentified as a performance killer -- and a new (to me) calendar widget: Agenda Widget. This has the customisability I'd been wanting, and which is completely lacking in most of the calendar/agenda widgets I've seen, including those from HTC and LauncherPro.

It is so far satisfactory. The medium-term tests will be battery use and whether the Exchange sync falls over. Those will probably take a few days to clarify.


Abort, Rephrase, Ignore?

October 2011

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