iPhone Newbie

An Android user who just switched to iPhone

Jacob Robbins

I am an open-source software enthusiast. When touchscreen smartphones became popular, I naturally got an Android since it’s based on Linux. However, at the beginning of 2014 I acquired an iPhone 5S and experienced iOS for the first time. What follows are my reflections as an #iPhoneNewbie.

Luxury Object

When I purchased the phone at the Apple store the salesperson had me take it out of the box to activate it. I felt like I was holding a piece of silver jewelry; shiny polished metal with intricate detail work.

At home that evening, I was immediately impressed by the quality of the screen. I validated the screen’s appeal by playing a high-def video on the 5S and a Nexus 7 tablet (link). I watched this video with my girlfriend and we switched back and forth between the two devices a few times during the performance. We could easily see which screen we preferred to watch. Although the screen on the Nexus 7 is much larger, the 5S has deeper color saturation, sharper resolution and displays movements more smoothly (a result of the dedicated video acceleration chip) so that it is clearly preferable to watch the video on it.

Holding an iPhone sideways in your hand while watching a high-def video feels like watching a gigantic rear-projection TV while reclining on a L-shaped sofa circa 1993; it’s an opulent and indulgent American consumer experience.

The Pains of Switching Are Overrated

The iPhone operating system is substantially different than what I was used to and many features did not function initially for me as a result. However I was surprised that the pains of switching did not dominate my life. I realized that switching mobile phone operating systems is not really a big deal.

Most of what I’ve read comparing various computer platforms goes into great detail highlighting the differences in an adversarial context despite the fact that these platforms tend to have more in similar than different. I think this is misleading for the average user.

Changing operating systems may be a pain, but it’s something anyone could do if they had to. First world problems are easy to overcome. People like to pick one particular feature that’s different or missing and make it seem like a big deal. Usually this just means that they’ve recently learned about that feature and are overly focused on it. It’s rarely the case that it’s a critically important feature in a software ecosystem made up of hundreds of features. “But this feature is critical to my workflow” — so explain to me again how pathetic and barren your existence was before you discovered that feature. The point is that people are adaptable, Charles Darwin says that’s why we’re here.

The Roots of iOS — a Personal Digital Assistant

The roots of the iPhone go back to Apple’s Newton line of personal digital assistants from the 1990's. As a result, iOS feels like a personal assistant vs Android which feels like a general-purpose personal computer in your pocket.

This difference of overall purpose was not apparent at first, I just felt that some design decisions were “weird”. Especially awkward was the view that you swipe down from the top of the screen which holds today’s events, and your recent messages. I wanted this to act as a status-bar that highlights the state of the computer in a quick, unobtrusive manner. Instead this view unrolls down over the entire screen like a medieval scroll. It starts reading out what the computer thinks I should be aware of. Even though it’s an amazing personal computer, it’s not very good at determining what is important to me. This status view is awkward and doesn’t add a lot of value for me but reflects the fact that the iPhone was conceived of as a personal digital assistant, so it’s focused on conveying what info it has prioritized for you, not info about what it is doing.

Once I understood that personal assistant metaphor the rest of the interface made more sense. That said, I personally prefer the general-purpose computer metaphor and don’t think of my touch-screen phone as a personal assistant, more as “my computer” in my pocket.

That Amazing Rocker Switch On The Side

The feature that actually caused me delight, and still does, is the “do not disturb” rocker switch on the side of the device. Flipping this switch causes cascading changes to settings throughout the device. Neither the ‘on’ nor ‘off’ state matches any ideal state of notifications I would choose personally. However the discovery that there was a second mode which vastly decreased the intrusion of notifications opened up an emotional reaction in me. It also makes listening to the music on the iPhone about 100x more enjoyable as well.

It is important to note that when people credit Apple products with causing “delight” this is not the same as pure functionally. In fact a product can succeed even if the results it causes are not always positive; the “do not disturb” rocker can cause you to miss your alarm and be late for work (NB: I think this has changed). But the net result of alarm-missing in the population at large is not a functional failure from Apple’s perspective. After all, people often sleep through their alarms and show up late for work anyway. The delight comes from integrating the product into this human duality (late vs on time) instead of bringing the product’s world (always on time) into the human realm.

Android’s Fast Follower Advantage — Notifications

As a software project iOS is older than Android. This has given Android the ability to pick up on some shortcomings which iOS is now tied to since it was the first one in the pool.

Android’s big fast follower advantage is in notifications. Notifications were not recognized as a core feature back when the category of touchscreen smartphones was opened up by the first generation iPhone. The badges on iOS app tiles are clear but the top bar holding notifications on Android is a much better way to keep track of notifications and that’s an issue for iOS. I often find myself wondering what just happened after I hear a notification from the iPhone.

Ordered App Ranking

The ordering system used in the arrangement of app launcher tiles on iOS makes the app ecosystem inherently ranked. As a result the iPhone app ecosystem is more competitive than Android’s.

Tiles are ordered: On iOS app tiles are always arranged in a particular order: they start in the upper left, go to the right, then wrap to the next line like lines of text. On Android you can place app launcher tiles anywhere on the screen that you would like. They are slotted into the nearest space on a grid.

Pages are ordered: On iOS when you press the home button it takes you to the leftmost page of app tiles. You can only add more pages of app tiles to the right of the home page. On Android you can swipe to the left or right from your home page and add more pages of app tiles to either side.

The result is that apps are implicitly ranked against each other on iOS in a way that Android does not enforce. This is not such a big deal for users, but is very much worth noting for app developers.

The Reason I Paid $815 for an iPhone

The platform advantage is clearly huge here. The flow of new, innovative apps developed for the iPhone is a very big reason to get one over an Android device. Even Facebook, with a ton of developer resources, released their experimental app Paper on iOS only. Having access to apps like this on it’s own was worth the 815 dollars I paid to buy an iPhone 5S.

You can think about the lock-in effect that this platform advantage creates as being similar to cable TV. Do you want to get the most recent apps from these “app channels”? Then purchase the platform they are delivered on. One iPhone purchase will likely last longer than a year of cable and I use apps a lot more than I watch the Home Shopping Network or ESPN. The kicker for me is that I work in software development, so 815 dollars to get access to the top apps was worth it to me.

Note that being a customer of one these channels is not exclusive. I acquired a Nexus 7 tablet around the same time I got an iPhone and have downloaded a lot of Android apps onto that device. As a consumer this was not a big deal to me. To Apple and Google it is a bigger deal.

Follow me on Twitter: @jacobrobbins

    Jacob Robbins

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