I Tried Android and Went Back to iOS

A story of two operating systems from a developer’s perspective

It was May 2018. I’ve always had an appetite for change, and had been in the Apple ecosystem for most of my modern mobile phone life. You know that stuff just works (disclaimer: this was the Jobs era). I cheated for one re-contract period with a Windows phone (still the best OS to me, but it’s sadly gone for good), but I used iOS for everything else.

During my deep relationship with iOS, Android had advanced to a point I thought I might give it a try. Since I was being nudged to switch from OS X to Ubuntu by forces that be, I decided to go for an all-out change out of the Apple ecosystem and got my Ubuntu laptop together with my — as my programmer type friends would have it — “first real phone”: a Google Pixel 2XL with stock Android.

The Appeal of Android

Prior to the point of no return at my service provider’s outlet, I had been following up on Android news and there were some interesting things which changed my mind about the Android ecosystem. Some of the appeals of Android were:

  1. It’s not Apple — there’s some strange kinda stigma of being of the technical type and being an Apple fanboy. You know, the specs of iPhones were achieved by Android a decade ago, you can’t customise much, you’re living within Apple’s illusion of choice, all your information is with Apple (how can you trust them?!), et cetera.
  2. MAC address randomisation — this prevents WiFi networks from collaborating to know where you are. Think: you’re at Starbucks X and you connect to their WiFi, they know your MAC address. When you visit a mall whose router happens to be provided by the same vendor and connect to their WiFi, they know that same MAC address. Put this data together and by induction, assuming they were all in cahoots, “they” would know where exactly you go, your shopping/dining habits et cetera. Sinister stuff. But I could be paranoid.
  3. Android user market is huge, 85% huge — I develop apps occasionally for fun and profit, and not having an Android was preventing me from accessing that market. I could use an emulator, but nothing beats dogfooding on the real device.
  4. Configurability of Android — I have an infatuation with configuration. I hate defaults. And Android seemed to offer me endless possibilities to customise my phone to what I wanted. Sounded nice at that point in time (more on this later).
  5. Widgets — if there’s one thing I really miss about Windows Phone, it’s that you could have live displays of information (tiles they called it in WP) from your home screen. Android had support for this, and I did enjoy this while on that ecosystem.
  6. Glamour and glory — the iPhone’s camera is decent enough. Then there’s the Google Pixel 2XL camera which at that time, blew everything else away. I’m the technical type, yes, but I̶ ̶s̶t̶i̶l̶l̶ ̶w̶a̶n̶n̶a̶ ̶l̶o̶o̶k̶ ̶g̶o̶o̶d̶ ̶I still appreciate great photos from a device I carry with me everywhere.

The Journey Begins

Sounds exciting, but it wasn’t. My 3rd day with my shiny (actually, matte black) new Google Pixel 2XL was spent on a plane to China. And you know what happens in China with Google.

I couldn’t buy MacDonalds. That was sad. I had always wanted to try their pork burgers, and there it was on the menu at Fuzhou airport and I had to queue up in a physical queue and dish out cash in a country already deeply embedded in cashless payments. There were frowns.

My partner on the other hand, took out her iPhone and all was well.

I should have run then.

But China wasn’t a place I’d visit often. And I’m susceptible to the fallacy of change requiring some downhill time before things go back up. So I trudged along.

The Journey Continues

But I guess downhill time never really took a break.

Notifications (Part I)— UX Issues

This one’s subjective. Most of my Android wielding peers have no issue with this, but since the moment I used Android, there was a sharp decline in my response times. I noticed it, my colleagues noticed it, I missed a friends outing, even my parents complained.

In iOS, notifications are also grouped by chats, so one can have multiple notification blocks from one app, each notification with it’s own agenda and intention. In Android, that’s not the case. It’s one block for each app, disregarding the context of each individual chat. I was in a constant battle attempting to set the correct priorities to chats — family, to work, to friends, back to family — to no avail.

Notifications (Part II) — UI Issues

Then there’s the other issue of how the UI works. In iOS, one simply taps on a group of collapsed notifications to expose all related messages. To see the full contents, one just swipes on a single notification block. It’s made for lazy people and I’m probably in the 99th percentile of any list of such beings.

In Android, one has to do an inverse pinch to reveal details of a message. Not optimal for finger-lazy people given that most Android phones these days can’t be used effectively with one hand.

App Quality

Android admittedly has tens (maybe hundreds) of thousands more apps than iOS. You could say this is because of Apple’s relentless willingness to vet apps. It’s frustrating from a developer’s perspective when you have to wait for 3 weeks for your app to get into the App Store, but as a consumer, I really appreciate it. Now at least.

Quantity doesn’t correlate with quality and despite having hopes of being able to have lots of different apps to automate my digital life (see my dreams and hopes of configurability above), I didn’t. Reason?

App Permissions (Part I) — Scary Scary Permissions

When I was on iOS, I was pretty trigger happy with downloading apps. That’s what Apple obviously wants, and it’s what I happily give in to. Why? Because App Store, unlike the Play Store, doesn’t have apps from some random developer requesting me to pass them all of my phone’s permissions and life’s data before I can use a torchlight (figuratively speaking).

App Permissions (Part II) — Background Processes

If providing all of my data before even using an app isn’t enough, apps are allowed to run indefinitely in the background. Disabling Background Check via the developer menu and limiting the number of process threads wasn’t an option to have a usable phone for the majority of the other legitimate apps.

App Permissions (Part III) — Allow/Don’t Allow

And if that wasn’t a deal breaker, apps running in the background are allowed two options with regards to permissions: Allow/Don’t Allow. This means that any app can choose to run indefinitely in the background at the developer’s whim with access to your location. Oh, and your files too. Oh, and your microphone too. Oh, and your camera too. Oh, and, yeah. You get the idea. With iOS, there’s a 3rd option called “While using the app” which I now appreciate more than ever after returning to iOS.

App Permissions (Part IV) — Device Administrator Access

I have multiple mail accounts with different service providers. For one of them, attempting to sync up via an Exchange Account protocol required me to allow device administration permissions for that service provider. Seriously, it’s just email. Why? I’ve used the same service provider on iOS and it didn’t require this level of access to my phone.

It could however be just the service provider, but hey, compatibility is a reasonable consideration when it comes to a device one uses every day.

Google Pay

I never had any issues with Apple Pay, so I assumed Google with it’s expertise in convincing people to use Android would have sorted out any kinks by now. Well, this wasn’t the case. Things were fine at the start when I was using a Visa card. When my card expired and I received a Mastercard replacement because of reasons, my world came crashing down.

Apparently Google Pay has a stricter whitelist of banks/cards it accepts and Mastercard is not one of them. After getting so used to using my phone to pay for things, my world came crashing down. Even though things got resolved after I switched back to a Visa card, it left a bitter taste in my mouth — “stop expecting everything to just work, you’re on Android”.

Lack of Default Apps

I tinker around with music making and production in my free time, and some of that involves recording melodies that randomly pop into my head. iOS was admittedly made for creative types and stands strong there by having a decent voice memo by default, a music memo app by Apple, and even a DAW — GarageBand — that’s usable on mobile.

Sadly, there’s no such thing in Android, and like I mentioned above, I don’t find the prospect of downloading a random app by a random developer and giving them permissions to my microphone when their app runs indefinitely in the background, particularly attractive.

Tinfoil Hats On!

Previously when I was on iOS, I never ran into the issue of talking about product X and having product X show up in my newsfeeds and search results though I had friends which did. After switching over to Android, well, this happened.

Could be purely coincidence. Could be an oversight on the privacy settings of apps on my side, but I can’t help but wonder why that is so. I’m usually pretty tight on my security settings and I review every single app that I download. With iOS, blocking off permissions seemed to work. With Android however.

Consider also that Android is by Google and Google’s primary revenue model is advertising. Also, Pixel is owned by Google (my bad, I suppose). Possibilities, possibilities…

The Final Straw

So finally, the breaking point came. Night Sight was out and like any Android user clamouring for the latest consumer tech, I downloaded the updated camera app.

And the camera broke.

As in, system hardware reset broke.

I couldn’t get the camera to turn on even after reverting the camera back to stock. It was at this point when I finally appreciated having a working camera (nevermind the bokehs) on a phone:

  • I could no longer pay by scanning a QR code
  • I could no longer access someone’s presentation slides through a QR code
  • I could no longer unlock a shared bicycle
  • I couldn’t capture a picture of a rainbow that was gone by the time the bug resolved

I’m sure it’s just a hardware issue with my device, but all the points above have been eating away at me for awhile, and I decided to reverse my decision to use Android as my personal assistant. After all, I could still keep my phone as a development toy and reap the benefits of owning an Android device.

So it’s the closing of 2018

So some nice words are due. Android is still not as human-friendly as I thought/hoped it would be. I appreciate the experience of using Android, but it’s not for me.

However, there were some things I liked about Android which I will miss:

  1. A proper navigable file system — still my biggest gripe in iOS about it’s lack thereof.
  2. Widgets — I still like them on my home screen. With the latest iOS, it’s available after swiping left on the home screen, but it’s not the same as having it on your default home screen.
  3. Device network support for VPNs — I liked that Android has a network killswitch independent of the VPN provider. Unlike iOS, Android’s network killswitch works at the hardware level and actually blocks all network connections. With iOS, even if my VPN killswitch is on, iOS uses my mobile network to retrieve notifications from Apple’s servers, mitigating the nice things about having a VPN.
  4. Ambient display — When with other humans, I prefer to put aside my phone. However, my phone is also how I keep contactable to opportunities and disasters, and also to keep track of time. The ambient display on Android is perfect for me since it displays the time without me having to interact with it. Incoming notifications also don’t make the screen light up like fireworks in a night sky.
  5. MAC address randomisation — My only realised dream and hope from using Android (anyone from Apple, if you’re reading this…)

And it’s the closing of this #rant

Switching to Android for six months has taught me what I really wanted in a personal device, and in the process, reinforced some life lessons:

  1. Outsource non-specialities — While I thought I would love the level of customisation, it ended up being a bane. Possibly UX related, but I realised that my love of customisation does not extend to things I depend on on a daily basis. I love things that just work. It’s like wanting to set up and manage my own Kubernetes cluster but after doing so, I realised I’d rather deploy my apps on a managed Kubernetes.
  2. Proprietary profit-driven software can be good — One appeal of Android is that it (some parts) is open-sourced. It’s free, it’s community reviewed. Sounds good and it actually is good most of the time, but with a personal device, I’d opt for something profit-driven and proprietary. If something is worth paying for, why would you give it away? I’d rather transact in currency than personal data anyway.
  3. Sometimes, you need to choose a poison — It’s either Apple or Google. Choose one, dedicate your life’s data to them and you won’t have to worry about the other getting in the way of your life.

Till next time!


Article image by Pathum Danthanarayana on Unsplash