The Curious Case of Competition among Androids

Source: Apple

Each year, your smartphone is getting better and better. It might not be a significant leap from the last year model, but still it is getting better. And most people probably wouldn’t notice a leap of innovation until they compared the latest greatest current flagship model of the phone against its first premier model. We need a guy in a suit, standing in a stage with a huge line chart on a huge screen behind showing year over year improvements of the device on logarithmic rate chart, and preferably the guy even need a help to be elevated so he can point to the top of the tip on the growth chart à la Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”.

It’s true that you won’t see where it’s heading until you find a reference point you can compare. With the launches of iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, Apple has shown the world a near desktop performance of smartphone. It has a fast dual-core processors and a super fast storage access. It has even more buttery smooth OS experience. Even more remarkable, to put the whole sum into the fact that it has the computing power similar or even faster than a Macbook Air 2013.

Gruber — in his article “The iPhone 6S” — wrote that Apple’s A9 chip used in iPhone 6S is still a dual-core chip. Instead of adding more cores, iPhone 6S improves the speed gain on each of its only two cores. He even highlighted that not a single one of Android devices produced this year can beat the latest Apple’s A9 chip in terms of single core processing speed. They can’t even beat yesteryear model of iPhone 6. I wasn’t quite convinced yet with gruber’s argument until this rant — The [Sad] State of Javascript on Android in 2015 — from Jeff atwood. He wrote about the stark contrast between the improvement on iPhones vs the slow catching up from Android devices. Here is another interesting tidbit, iPhone 6S managed to score higher than most of the Android phones in terms of raw single core processing power even on low power mode.

I remember back in Google I/O 2010 presentation, where I saw the best moment of Android uprising to up the game against the big Apple. There is this guy with a demo of Android Froyo showing a huge improvement ahead of what iPad can do. See the demo at 17:38 minute of the Google I/O presentation video. That moment was amazing. I felt that Android was catching up or even made a leapfrog beyond Apple’s innovation. I felt that Android really cares to better the user experience by enhancing devices’ performance. I felt there wasn’t only Apple that focus on pushing the boundary and thinking of what’s the best to offer to users.

But then as years went on. More and more manufacturers jumped ship into Android. The competition is getting tougher. That was the beginning of Android wars among themselves. The race to the bottom, the race to show big numbers in specs in order to seemingly remain at the top of the game. The endless moves to unnecessarily and often useless specs bumps. This is when we realize Android is no longer there to serve the best interest for the user. Instead it is the competition first it has to answer to. What has Android’s competition been doing us good? What has gotten us to what Android is today. To sum a few, here are some evidences the mindless race Android’s competition has brought to date:

  1. The Pixel cram, a.k.a screen resolution bigger than your HDTV. Ever since the launch of iPhone 4 retina display, Android didn’t just stand silent. The game is up now. The more pixels you can cram into the same screen size, the better the device is. We started with 300+ ppi, to 400+ ppi and now 500+ ppi. To the point where no naked eyes can tell the difference between 400+ ppi device (e.g. Samsung Galaxy S5) and 500+ ppi device like the latest Samsung Galaxy S6. And worst, at the lower end, some Android devices trying to play catch up offering denser display that’s not quite there causing an awkward non-pixel-perfect scaling. Recall first gen Android Nexus 7 with 1.3x device pixel ratio. We have to counter that by developing a technique called AdaptiveDPI for our app capable web pages. You probably had bumped into web pages like mobile.nytimes.com, where a web page doesn’t get zoomed out to show everything. Instead the browser has its content fit nicely to a scaled viewport such that texts are immediately readable without your sleight of hand to zoom in. Talking about this viewport, this is where it gets funny. Despite Android phones are getting denser screen, the viewport width remains mostly at 360px (Except probably Nexus 6 with 410px). While iPhone 6 has 375px and iPhone 6 Plus has 414px. They have wider viewports than most Android phones have.
  2. The Megapixels race. Higher megapixels count doesn’t directly translate to a better picture. There are a lot of things involved to produce a better picture. The fast autofocus, sensor size, white balance, and the internal image raw processing. Read this — “Why Android Camera Phones Still Suck”.
  3. Bigger battery. Yay! The obvious thing to do when you have bigger Android devices is to stuff in more battery. But then comes the battery draining background processes. When will it be big enough for my Android device not to die mid-day of use. Plus, some irks I heard from Android users regarding the battery, they are the disappearance of the removable battery and wireless charging from the top line of Android smartphones. Ouch. Well, some company used to mock iPhone for the lack of irreplaceable battery.
  4. CPU Core counts. It seems like the direction now is to have more slow cores in a chip than having lesser but faster core. When you have more cores, you can’t have them all turned on and ran fast without facing the issue of overheating. Hence slower cores. It’s too bad that most apps don’t directly take advantage of multi-cores. It looks good on multi-cores benchmark score, so yeah. There are some attempts to improve this situation for example Big.Little architecture. But well, let’s see.
  5. More RAM. More battery drains. Only add more memory when you can fully utilize them. As the case of Android devices, most of them are not.

And on the software side:

  1. Software Update. Latest Android M please. Oh wait, it’s not even on Lollipop yet.
  2. Software Upgradability. I must say, Android makers don’t have a good track record for this. Some devices with less than 2 years old can’t get an upgrade to latest OS. While iPhone 4S (4 generations behind / 4 years apart) is able to enjoy latest iOS9.
  3. Default Browser. Is it called “Internet”, “Browser”, “Web” or “Chrome”?

It’s kind of sad what we have gotten today with Android devices. We can’t really blame those manufacturers. But it feels pointless when the fact that Apple took 89% of smartphones revenue, and the rest is left to be divided among the droids. And guess what, there is only one Android manufacturer that made a huge profit out of this. The rests are not doing so well.

Reality ≠ One Man, One Company, One Search Giant’s Vision

Under the best scenario, all the manufacturers will produce variety of hardwares with Google core services prominently displayed and utilized. This would probably be the best reenactment of Windows PC model if that happened. But being an Open platform, everyone is free to modify, add and repurpose Android anyhow they feel like it. This is where it starts to get messy. Manufacturers are pushing their own crapwares into the phone. So do carriers around the world with another set of their own. And not only that, there are layers upon layers of authority who have the say on when the device should get the software updates. This leads to a non-unified Android experience. Steve Jobs liked to call it Android’s fragmentation.

Basically they knew somewhat, somewhere down the line there is this entangled mess created by fragmentation, but nobody knows how to fix it. Not even the creator. Android’s fragmentation is worst than what we have ever seen on the Windows PC. At least on Windows, we got different hardwares but a unified experience of Windows OS.

And worse, some had even gone further to modify Android experience completely into their own realms. FireOS from Amazon doesn’t ship with default Google Apps on it. It has its own Amazon AppStore. Cyanogen mod, an android alter ego, is readily to remove Google influences in the future. And a lot of manufacturers in China have their own customized Androids catered to the local market with Google Services completely disabled. For example MIUI from Xiaomi. Android’s fragmentation is not even Google’s biggest worry. What the search giant feared is its OEM partners’ ditching Google Services.

The Plural is Nexii

Yep, the additional “i” make it sounds sexier. Google Nexus line has been around for years. It is an attempt by Google to show the pure Android experience with top of the line devices and affordable price tags.

I like the nexus phones. It’s a remarkable attempt by Google to show what Android can do. But sadly, it’s not as widely available as other OEM partners manufactured phones. It will probably going to stay this way for a long period of time. Indeed, what most people think they are buying is they are not buying Android phones, but they are buying Samsung, or Sony or LG or Motorola phones. Each manufacturers have their own unique style which I guess that’s the only way to differentiate among themselves in the hope to make some profits.

It made me think whether they should just completely remove the moniker of Android. Instead, just call it a Samsung phone, Sony phone, Xiaomi phone etc. After all that’s what users refer to. Plus, Google can save its effort trying to make people switch to Android. It can pin down all the focus to do one thing and to do it better on the effort to make people switch to Google Services which face more and more competitions from Samsung S Cloud, Amazon’s Prime, Sony Music, Mi Cloud etc.

My Dream Android Phone

I wish to see an Android phone with really good looking hardware. It’s thin. It’s light. It has really great camera. The screen doesn’t have to be huge and dense, in fact a nice 4.7" 720p display is good enough as long as it is paired with top of the line CPU, not mid-range CPU the manufacturer trying to squeeze into the phone in order to push the price further down as mid-range device with crappier screen. If it has the pure Android experience, that will be great otherwise nope. It should have enough memory so I can browse the web smoothly. And much much faster storage and memory.

And of course it will be great if it has shiny Apple logo at the back … well, well, well, I knew where you are coming. You Apple iFanBoy fucktard. Yes iFanBoy with an ‘i’. I just want an iPhone. Leave me alone.

Takeaway

I really like this quote: “The falling trees make more noise than trees that grow”. Has the Android’s competition among themselves prevented them to grow? Has Android fallen that low? Whatever that means. Let’s see.