Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The New Windows?

A while ago I saw an article online titled "Is Android the New Windows?"  At the time I didn't feel the comparison was fair, but it did raise some good points. Android was definitely surging toward the kind of market dominance that Windows has maintained. At one time Microsoft dominated 98% of the world's desktop PCs, and Android is already at around 80% of tablets and phones, depending on which set of statistics you care to adopt.

That success becomes a target on the back, inviting the global hacker community to invest heavily in attacking the dominant ecosystem. Rafts of malware and the need to run antiviral software are the result. In spite of its "sandboxing" features, Android devices have proved to be vulnerable.

But Android was an underdog, and who doesn't love those? It started out yapping around the heels of Apple's iPhone/iPad juggernaut and ended up as top dog. It ran on Linux at its core, sharing a code base with everything else in the world from set-top boxes and routers up to the fastest supercomputers -- even the Large Hadron Collider. And Android itself was at least sorta/kinda open source, with a vibrantly free marketplace for apps.

But recent experience has left me -- even as a fan -- with a discouraged feeling. I'm on my second Android phone, and I've previously raved about how much better it is than the first one. But it's end-of-contract time now, and the HTC Vivid is showing its age.

My first phone never had an Android upgrade at all, due to the rediculously convoluted steps required back then. (Download an installer program -- Windows only -- then connect your phone to the PC and use the software to push the update onto it, hoping not to brick it in the process.) It just wasn't worth it.

In contrast, the Vivid started out with an instant over-the-air upgrade to 4.0 that was painless and darn near automatic. But it turns out that was the last one it ever received. The next update never ran to completion, with the result that it has a permanent "Continue Update" link when you check the software status, but clicking the link does nothing.

Tech support? Start by resetting your phone to factory defaults. This is like the cure-all for Windows woes: wipe your hard drive, reinstall the OS, reinstall your apps, reinstall your data (you did back it up, right?). Leaving software updates in the hands of the carriers (AKA "the phone company") is like contracting with Radio Shack to do your Windows migrations for you. They are just not the right folks for the job.

So, OK, no more upgrades until I get a new phone. Not a problem, right? I can still run all the apps I like and update them due to a pretty good level of backward compatibility. But earlier versions of Android contained a nagging flaw that gets progressively worse over time. The flash memory in which the OS and all its apps and data live becomes ever more fragmented, producing sluggish performance.

How annoying is it? A widget that used to turn wifi on and off with a tap becomes unresponsive. You tap again, then find it just responded to the first tap, so you've now reversed what you wanted to do. Click the phone icon and wait, and wait for it to open. Tap a contact and wait to see if it will dial. Sometimes it won't! This is a phone, right? And so on.

If any of this sounds familiar then you may have had the experience of living with a Windows XP or even Windows 98 box with its frequent disk-thrashing and need to be "defragged." I find my phone issues are lessened if I simply reboot from time to time. Deja vu all over again. And due to the failed update, it insists on "optimizing" my 112 apps every time it starts up. 1, 2, 3 ... 112.

So is there any hope for us, or are we poor downtrodden consumers doomed to be stuck with inferior software support? Well, thankfully, software evolves. The newer versions of Android claim to have mitigated the fragmentation issue and to focus more on smooth user interaction. I know it's true because I also use a Nexus 7 tablet running version 4.3. If only my phone had been able to go along for the ride.

And of course there's always the hope that comes in the unopened box of a new device. This year's latest model, bigger, better, faster, smoother than ever before! Oh, and more secure, too. Talk about deja vu ...

[Next time ... In the sweet spot.]