I have defended Android for years. I own a Nexus One, which I still consider to be one of the best Android phones made. I also strongly believe it does not hold a candle to anything past the first generation iPhone. Much to my dismay, my phone attracts conversations about why don’t have an iPhone. Before a week or so ago, I could speak in theory and philosophy, but now I have a concrete answer.
To preface, I think iOS leads the pack in UX. That said, I still maintain my long standing opinion that Android is the most important ongoing project for mobile. Android, from my knowledge, represents the first successful consumer-level open source operating system in history. This fact has allowed me to look past its shortcomings to this day.
That view became shaky after seeing mediocre or downright poor implementations of Android on various phones and tablets. Seeing carriers hack Android to pull out useful features made me doubt if an open source operating system could work with such harmful or uninspired derivatives being produced. Seeing the Amazon Fire reaffirmed my viewpoint. If you have not read about the Fire, what makes it especially interesting is that Amazon forked Android to make their own special version of the operating system for their device. The interface looks and works quite differently from the Android we are all familiar with. From the reviews coming in, the Fire is a good (not great) tablet that is different in focus from any other tablet on the market. It has a unique software experience from any other device in its category and it does not come from a traditional consumer electronics organization. You could argue that Amazon had been moving in this direction for years with the Kindle. However, the leap in effort required by Amazon to develop the Fire with its custom-tailored interface from scratch would have been risky and outside of their current skill set. This does not happen without Android, period.
For years, we have had confidence that Apple will provide a top-level user experience with their products, especially with iOS. While that is reassuring, I have been hoping to see the same diversity of thinking about design that we saw in the forming years of the Internet. We saw the explosion of design for the web for two main reasons: there was a lot of money to be made and the barrier of entry was relatively low. Few would argue that mobile is currently the prime market for software, but the financial barrier of entry is tremendously high. Similar to desktop computing, many companies have decided to focus on either hardware or software rather than take on the whole piece due to its tremendous costs. However, with Android, there exists a real and practical opportunity for organizations to control the entire experience of a mobile device without incurring the gargantuan overhead of developing an OS from scratch.
To be clear, the Amazon Fire in and of itself is relatively unimportant. However, the device symbolizes what is possible with a functional and established open source mobile operating system. This is has always been the promise of open source. We have seen this promise deliver in small ways through the years, but it continues to be my hope that Android provides that possibility in the mobile space. I am still waiting to see a startup that decides to design a new and different way to interact with mobile devices. I think that is truly possible with an open source Android. I am waiting to see operating systems in our homes, our appliances, our clothes. I think Android provides the best opportunity for that to happen.
Do I think any current Android smartphones are comparatively better than the iPhone? Frankly, no. However, my argument is that while Android continues to be open source, it does not need to be superior in order to prove its worth. It’s worth lies not in what we have come to expect from it, but what comes out of nowhere.
Update: Another great example of this can be seen in the OUYA Kickstarter project—a $99 console that will be running Android 4.0.