Saturday, November 07, 2009

The Motorola Droid is a Turning-point

First, a confession. As a co-author of Android Application Development and Chief Architect of an IP communications platform based on Android, my main fascination with Android was based on the Android platform being the most exciting thing that ever happened to client Java and embedded user interface, and to open mobile communications platforms. The Android platform has that sense of perfect balance that I recall from when I first wrote software for the original Macintosh. I enjoy writing Android software even more than I did writing Mac software, both applications and extensions to the Android system software, and I hope a lot of other people will like it, too, which is why I enjoyed spreading the Android software development word through a book.

Using an Android handset was, however, something I did to get work done. So far, the only new-generation smartphone platform that made me want to use it on my own time was iPhone, or, rather, iPod Touch. iPhone, as a phone, was just not that compelling. This gap between Android technology and desire is echoed in others' opinions in the form of pronouncements that Android is the “cool, but geeky” platform. That gap has now closed.

I just got a Motorola Droid, and, instead of a conventional review, I'm going to address the reasons why Android is ready not only to play a significant role in mobile devices, but to do that at the same level of play as iPhone. The Motorola Droid is the first Android-based product that needs no excuses when compared to an iPhone. This is the result of a lot of effort at Motorola to produce a very polished product, plus the maturing of the Android platform, plus some critical applications.

First, the maturing of the platform: Droid runs Android 2.0. For most applications, this won't make a critical difference, and most applications will be compatible with Droid, even if they have not been updated since Android 1.5. Android 2.0 mostly matures the underlying bits – how Android works as a phone, and how the other built-in applications work. Android is now a great phone. Android always had the better UI infrastructure in the Android framework. Now this superiority shines through in a way that should be obvious to the non-geek user.

Motorola did a great job building a product around Android 2.0. The CDMA radio and phone audio keep calls clear and connected. The TI OMAP 3430 CPU makes Android lag-free with buttery smooth visual effects. The touchscreen is big, sharp, accurate, and responsive. The speaker is clear enough to listen to podcasts without external speakers. The industrial design is better in person than in the pictures: It looks massive and square, but it's only slightly less rounded at the corners than an iPhone. It's iPhone-thin despite being a slider; the “frameless” keyboard is friendly to my large fingers and has good feedback. It comes with a 16 GB memory card.

Integration with your Google account is effortless. 20 paces out of the Verizon store, all the 4000+ contacts in my address book were synced and ready to use. And if you have 40,000, you won't have to wait for them all to sync before using them. Sync is a background task and contacts appear in the UI as soon as they are in the handset's database.

There are plenty of competent platforms and industrial designs out there. If that was all there is to it, Nokia would have no worries. The real news in Android is that Google has made it an object of desire, and applications are a big part of that. The tipping point was Google Map Navigation, which makes in-car navigation a feature of Google Maps, but that's not all: Google Listen is second to none for podcast management – which is a lot of what iTunes gets used for. YouTube is, of course, slick as can be. Facebook comes pre-installed and is also very polished. Google Sky Map is an augmented-reality planetarium in your pocket. And on and on. Now there is an amazing and desirable Android app for that.

Android is a new system and it is maturing and improving at a faster pace than iPhone, Symbian S60, or Windows Mobile. There is no feel of a legacy tail dragging behind Android. Applications are impressive and numerous. The app store is simple, fast, and clear. And, while Android is an even-better platform for application developers with the release of SDK r3, Android is no longer just interesting technology.

I used to work in the games business, and the thing about games as products is that features and technologies don't matter if the game isn't fun. Similarly, all the architectural virtue in Android doesn't amount to more than replacing Windows Mobile in the market unless customer say: “That's what I really want.” Motorola's Droid is the first product that can be put on a table next to an iPhone and win the decision entirely on the basis of what the customer sees and experiences within minutes of using it.

And that is a turning point.


  1. What about N900, QML, QtMobilityAPI and alike? Even now N900 packs Skype native client, GoogleTalk (with voice!), SIP and a hole slew of other things. Android has a head start in APIs but the stuff coming from Nokia seems far more impressive in terms of efficiency.

  2. Anonymous has some good points about N900, and a proper answer would amount to another post to this blog. At the risk of being more blunt than necessary, I'll be brief: Nokia has to put the same level of resources behind Maemo as Apple and Google put behind iPhone and Android. If they do, N900 and it's siblings will be a success. If Nokia holds back to see if people like N900, they will miss the market window while they wait for feedback.