Android dreams of a Windows sheep (1 of 2) [UPDATED]

I had my iPhone week. Since then, I’ve been carrying two Android phones. Well, one and a half (more on that coming up). (It’s taken me longer to write this up for a number or reasons, so, yeah, this is my obligatory sorry-I-haven’t-written-in-a-while blog post.)

To test out Android, I had a Google/Huawei Nexus 6P on Project Fi; I’ve also been carrying a Samsung Galaxy S6 (using AT&T).

What I liked

Compared to Windows Mobile and iOS, apps can do more on Android because of the technical architecture of the operating system. In a sense, this makes Android more like a desktop operating system such as Windows, Linux, or MacOS than like the other mobile operating systems.

Apple and Microsoft have kept mobile apps on a much shorter leash, which benefits simplicity and, to an extent, security. On Android, the leash is much longer, allowing apps such as LastPass, Facebook Messenger, and Cortana, to do more than they were capable of on iOS or Windows. This does present unique security risks on Android. (UPDATE: more here). Security is always a tradeoff. What do you get for these risks? Here are a few examples.

  • LastPass can intercept and provide usernames and passwords for apps, not just copying-and-pasting them from the LastPass app. (Some security experts prefer the limited mode of operation, arguing that the criticality of a password vault requires minimal integration with other functions, in order to keep those passwords safe. Recent vulnerabilities in LastPass browser extensions would seem to support that argument. There are counter arguments to be made, mainly that using an imperfect password manager–did you actually think it was perfect?–is better than not.)
  • Facebook Messenger can replace your SMS client and work as an overlay to keep all your text (and Messenger) conversations a tap away, regardless of apps you might have open. (All these rich functions seem to have one trade-off or another. The downside here is that Facebook can now see into all your SMS interactions and enhance their core business, advertising (same as Google’s).)
  • Cortana can respond to home-button long presses, largely replacing Google Now, as it (not she–even Apple calls Siri “it”) responds to search-button presses on Windows Mobile. It cannot (yet?) be always on, listening for “Hey Cortana!” as it does on Windows (and Xbox, which is now on Windows 10), but it does a lot more.
Cortana can do more on Android than it can on iOS.

Taking advantage of these capabilities no doubt impacts battery life and could impact system stability. (I was not terribly impressed with the battery life on either Android device.)

Android has a unique multi-user model, something lacking entirely on iOS and only partly implemented on Windows Mobile (in the form of the now defunct Kids Corner and limited Apps Corner). Android has caught up

Given the goal Microsoft has of consolidating all platforms into “one” Windows 10 operating system (regardless of mobile, desktop, Xbox, whatever), it seems likely that this would eventually come to Windows Mobile, too.

The customization options for Android are considerable. For starters, you can download entirely different shells, or launchers. To most users, that means a different operating system interface. Launchers affect how programs are displayed, what happens when you use various system icons, how information is organized and how quickly you can get to it. For example, Microsoft’s Arrow Launcher automatically lists your most frequently used programs and contacts.

In addition to a launcher, you can download icon packs to overhaul application icon graphics, replace the lock screen, and deeply customize application permissions and other parameters. (It should be noted that, unlike the iOS App Store, Google Play and the Microsoft Store both let you know about application permission requirements before you install an app. Two points for Gryffindor.)

What I did not like

Actually using most of these powerful options is beyond the sustained interest and perhaps capabilities of most phone users. Pew’s 2015 analysis of Android apps indicated that Android apps sought 235 different permissions (although the average was five). How in the world are everyday people supposed to make sense of that?

The technical complexity can get out of control. For example, while FB Messenger or LastPass might function in the background at all times, some programs detect that there’s a overlay enabled and won’t start. This technically good security practice on the part of the non-starting apps, but it leaves users out in the cold. And the device won’t tell you which overlay you have to enable to use the program. That’s very frustrating and a poor user experience. By providing strong app isolation, Apple is limiting what apps in iOS can do, but they’re also streamlining the user experience.

Privacy will be a major factor to consider, and I’m going to punt, dealing with it (and security) in a separate post. For now, it’s important to consider that privacy is not a simple binary. Control over settings plays just as much a factor as does data collection. Google is hardly the standard-bearer when it comes to privacy, but they’ve got a much better story when it comes to security.

project20fiGoogle’s Project Fi

Many unique capabilities are on the table when one is evaluating Android. One of these is a cellular service directly from Google, Project Fi. Fi isn’t a traditional service. Instead, Google repackages and consolidates cellular service from a number of providers (namely T-Mobile and Sprint), and uses WiFi for many services. They also greatly simplified the pricing models and did away with domestic and international roaming, “carryover” data, no arbitrary fees for using more data (e.g., tethering), etc.

What you get

You’re getting a radically simplified pricing model. You pay for what you use, and you don’t pay a lot. No contracts, no carrying over data. Calling and texting is unlimited domestically, and texting is unlimited internationally. Overseas data usage costs the same as it does in the USA. And internationally, calls are $0.20/minute, not free, but hardly a price gouge.

One of the things I’ve always found frustrating with AT&T and other carrier plans: Why can’t I get a calling and texting SIM without a data plan? With Fi you can–just don’t use the data, or use a little bit. You’ll only pay for what you use.

The shame here is that this is what all carriers should be doing: Simple, inexpensive, metered service. Highly automated technical services. Easy to reach, competent technical support, no roaming ever, and NO lock-in. You get all that with Fi.

What you lose

Fi has a lot going for it, but it’s important to realize what you’re giving up and what’s in the fine print.

For starters, you’re giving up choice of phones. You must get a Google phone, so either a Pixel or Nexus. That’s three models, four if you count the XL. (Pixels are extremely constrained as of this writing, so that means a Nexus in practice.) You do get more choice if all you need is data. Once you have a Fi account for your Google-sanctioned phone, you can get free additional SIM cards for data use. These work–albeit unsupported–in other devices such as iOS and Windows Mobile. (Both of which I tested and both worked fine.) If you have a teen who only ever uses SnapChat, Messenger, Instagram–never phone or text–this is a good solution.

Project Fi coverage map
AT&T’s coverage map

You’re also giving up top-tier LTE network coverage. While Fi’s coverage is good, it’s basically a stew of several second-tier carriers, and is subject to change (since it’s not Google’s own network). This isn’t AT&T or Verizon Wireless. Fi also uses WiFi wherever possible, although you can force phone calls to use LTE instead of WiFi. (In practice, we found that WiFi call quality was not as good as AT&T’s.) And if you live in Montana (as my sister does), just don’t. (In the video below, the presenter claims that Fi service is better than AT&T in the SF Bay Area. I don’t doubt there are better pockets here and there, but nationally AT&T competes only with Verizon Wireless for coverage. In our usage, my wife said that coverage seemed worse in rural Pennsylvania, but she didn’t have AT&T service for a fair comparison.)

And, of course, there’s privacy. There is a reason Google has made a push into Fiber and Project Fi. With Google as your carrier, they can see virtually everything you do. Google devices with Google Android lets them see a lot, but adding Google as your carrier or ISP means a “full kimono” relationship with the largest digital advertising firm. (Adding Android Pay to that instead of using cash or plastic, and there’s very, very little about you that Google wouldn’t know.)

PART II  coming soon!


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