My view of the mobile landscape – 2011.07

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I’m a systems guy at Queen’s University’s School of Computing, and a budding entrepreneur with a small web development business with an eye on mobile development. (What better way to keep my skill set current? Then there’s the fact that my partner in both life and business happens to be the best programmer I know.)

Given that we are clearly in a shift away from desktop computing to truly personal mobile computing, I’ve been soaking it all up and taking everything in. As such, I have a device from each of the major platforms. Here are the devices:

  • Android: Motorola Cliq 2 (2.2), Asus Eee Pad Transformer (3.1), Archos Internet Tablet 70 (2.2)
  • iOS: iPhone 3GS, iPad 1
  • BlackBerry: Torch 9800 (BB6), PlayBook (Tablet OS 1.0.6)
  • WebOS: Palm Pre 2 (WebOS 2.1), HP TouchPad (WebOS 3.0)

I have strong opinions on what I like and don’t like, but have no particular interest in any of these platforms. I don’t own shares, though I own and have owned many HP and Apple products over the years. My first cell phone was a BlackBerry Curve 8320 with Bell. I never really warmed up to it and had a rather pessimistic view of RIM until the PlayBook. The PlayBook lead me to picking up the Torch, which I use about as often as my beloved but frustrating Palm Pre 2. Of the above, these are my two preferred devices and platforms. I consider myself to be a strong supporter of Open Source software, yet despite this, I have a general disdain for Android. I find it inexcusably rough, overly complex, buggy, and garish.

I understand Apple’s success and generally recommend an iPad for most users and iPhones when someone asks me to recommend a smartphone that they won’t mind being stuck with for three years. However, I don’t really like use iOS and am a bit worried about Apple’s clout in the market. With that out of the way, here is my detailed take on the view of the mobile world.

Day-to-day use (Smartphones)

Day-to-day, I find webOS the nicest to use. However, the Pre2 reboots randomly, and I get fairly constant Google authentication errors. At the moment, with respect to smartphones, I split my time fairly evenly between the Pre2 and my BlackBerry Torch. The Torch isn’t as slick to use but the hardware is much better, the battery life is fantastic, and my core day-to-day requirements are met better by the Torch than by any other smartphone. It’s not as pleasurable to use but is functionally superior for my needs. Plus, I love the way it pairs with the PlayBook, more below.

The Pre2, Torch, and the iPhone 3GS all have the same screen resolution. The Pre2 is a 2.9″ screen, the Torch and iPhone are 3.2ish and are nicer to read for an extended period of time.

I find the Pre2’s calendar and email programs to be vastly superior to the other smartphone platforms. I find the Pre2 and 3GS to have comparable cameras that are better than the Torch or Android phones.

On the topic of the Cliq2, I find the Android 2.2 device’s apps to be buggy and inferior to the other platforms, the hardware to be shoddier than the Torch, and the screen, despite a higher resolution, to be unusable in the sun, low-quality, and the wide-screen ratio to be less useful day-to-day. On top of this, battery life is quite poor, certainly not lasting a day.

The app situation is, of course, best on the iPhone and close on Android with lower-quality and cheaper apps. webOS (used by the Pre2) has some real gems but also has gaping holes in the store. The lack of a Remember The Milk client in particular frustrates me. The game situation on webOS is surprisingly good. The numbers are lower than iOS or Android, but the quality and variety are great. The BlackBerry Torch has very few fun apps. The game selection in particular is abysmal. However, it has a good Dropbox client, excellent GTalk integration, top-notch PIM apps, and a good RTM client.

Day-to-day use (Tablets)

I haven’t found many ways to integrate tablets into my daily work life. I find 10″ tablets to be about as heavy and large as my 11″ MacBook Air, which is an absolutely fabulous productivity machine. That said, I find myself taking the PlayBook with me rather than a laptop when I go to a client or to help someone at work in a lab. The 7″ screen makes it about the size of a 6×9 pad of paper, so it’s easy to keep out of the way.

iPad As far as tablets go, I purchased a refurbished iPad for testing. I rarely use it except for testing but the battery life is great. Of course, the app selection is also second-to-none. The screen is gorgeous, the resolution is nice. The iPad has great media apps, including Netflix and access to the vast iTunes library. However, the speaker is very quiet and is quite low-quality. Perhaps this is something Apple improved with the iPad2.

The iPad is great overall, and, at this point, if someone asks me, I generally recommend an iPad, but I’m just not a fan of iOS’s multi-tasking and I really don’t like the 10″ form-factor. It’s fine around the house but as I mention above, it makes the tablet about as bulky and large as my MacBook Air to take with me, but lacking a keyboard, it’s far less functional. On that note, let’s turn our attention to the Asus EeePad Transformer:

Asus EeePad Transformer I love the 11″ MacBook Air, and have found 10″ tablets an awkward size without a keyboard. Enter the 10″ EeePad Transformer. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the Android tablet to beat. It starts at just $399, making it much cheaper than the iPad, it has a great 1280×800 IPS screen, and up to 16 hours of battery life with the optional keyboard dock. The dock is basically a big battery that transfers charge from the keyboard to the display. On paper, it is a perfect combination of form, function, and price. And yet, I find it utterly frustrating every time I try to actually use it at work or at home. Why? Android 3. To sum it up, Android 3 is incredibly rough. Where Android on a phone is unpleasant to use, I find Android 3 on a tablet to be practically unusable. There is no global Undo, which I didn’t notice until typing and making mistakes in the bundled Mail program repeatedly, the tablet app situation on Android is pathetic, multi-tasking is bizarre, and the entire interface, while clearly designed for a larger screen, is garish and inconsistent. Every time I try to use the Transformer, a device which I would love to love, and with great hardware, the software thwarts me. I’m hoping that Ubuntu 11.10 will work reasonably well on the Transformer. Until then, it mostly sits idle on my desk at work.

Overall, as far as Android tablets go, I actually prefer the older Archos 70 running Android 2.2 on a device with a 7″ screen. Android 3 makes better use of screen real estate but phone apps don’t scale up to the 10″ screen as well as they do to a 7″ screen. Moreover, I find the user interface in stock Android 2.2 to be more pleasing and consistent than Android 3.1 on the Asus EeePad Transformer. This quite surprised me, as I wouldn’t say that I was a fan of Android 2.2.

HP TouchPad On a happier note, we have HP’s new TouchPad. The TouchPad finally brings webOS to a large display. While the device itself feels a bit cheap and the OS could use further optimization, I feel that the TouchPad is a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in an elegant OS made by someone other than Apple. The TouchPad feels like a 10″ iPhone 3GS. It is virtually identical in size, weight and thickness of the iPad1. It has the same 4:3 screen and fits well in most (now discounted) iPad1 cases. The screen, while fine indoors, doesn’t hold a candle to the PlayBook screen, especially outdoors.

The app situation is surprisingly good on the TouchPad. It doesn’t have as many native apps as the iPad, but it has far more tablet-native apps than Android 3. Android 3 can run 2.x’s apps but they don’t scale to the 10″ screen well, and often don’t work well in landscape mode. I have yet to run in to a similar problem with the TouchPad. The TouchPad’s speakers are much better than the iPad’s, though they aren’t as loud as the PlayBook. Again, at 10″ I don’t find the TouchPad to be terribly usable day-to-day at work, but the core PIM apps scale up to the large screen beautifully, so using it is a joy.

If HP releases a 7″ 1024×600 version of the TouchPad, releases their promised OTA update to work out some of the software glitches, and releases updates to the productivity software that allow editing of common office formats, it would be a very compelling work tablet.

BlackBerry PlayBook I’ve already written quite a bit about the PlayBook. In short, in daily use it’s by far the best tablet I’ve used. The more time I spend with it, the more I find ways of integrating it into daily use. RIM bucked the trend of copying Apple with a 10″ screen. Instead, they went with a very high-quality 1024×600 7″ IPS screen that is very bright both indoors and outside. They then coupled the display with the best speakers I’ve heard in a tablet. The sound is loud and clear enough for me to use in the kitchen, a computer lab, and in my office. They aren’t as nice to listen to as a full set of speakers, but they’re close.

On release, the PlayBook took great criticism for the lack of native apps. Reviewers, however, seemed to mostly ignore just how well the PlayBook works in tandem with a BlackBerry phone using Bridge. I was not a BlackBerry fan but decided to pick up an inexpensive Torch just to test out Bridge. The implementation completely convinced me that, in some situations, this is a better approach than native apps for quick on-the-go access to PIM data.

The browser that ships with the PlayBook is absolutely top-notch. The interface allows for full-screen viewing or fluid tabs. The browser UI is the best that I’ve seen in a tablet. The entire OS feels and works much like webOS, though it is much faster and more fluid. The bundled Kobo app works well for eReading, as does the size and weight of the PlayBook.

As far as apps go, the situation is pretty terrible. Things start off well with a great browser, a decent Podcast and audio player, a way to read eBooks, Flash support, the ability to edit MS Office files, and Need For Speed to show that the hardware is there to make this a good gaming platform, but then that’s about it. The app selection is, frankly, pathetic. RIM gave away tablets to anyone willing to make apps. This sounds good on paper but resulted in thousands of poorly-tested, rushed-to-market, low-quality apps that clearly took less than $500 of developer time. The situation is slowly improving, but the TouchPad on day one had a far better app selection that the PlayBook does now, three months after release, and is still missing core-functionality such as a working IM program. That said, it’s still by far my favourite tablet option. The QNX OS is fantastic, Bridge works well, and the size of the device fits very well with my current needs. With better apps, the PlayBook would be brilliant. For now, I would only recommend the PlayBook to existing BlackBerry smartphone users, or to people who are content with the (excellent) out-of-the-box functionality.

Development and testing using an emulator

I may have one device per-platform but have tested using emulators for most of platforms. Here are my findings:

iPhone emulators are Mac-onlIy but work well. Before I had an iPhone 3GS, I briefly use the emulator to test websites. It was fine. Not pleasant, but usable.

I haven’t used RIM’s emulators. They tend to be Windows-only.

Android emulators are, frankly, terrible. They integrate well into Eclipse, but it is a chore to set this up. Things get worse quickly, as trying to use the emulator is terribly slow and not at all like actually using an Android phone. I suppose it is useful for making sure your app doesn’t crash, but I find Andorid emulators useless for web testing.

Palm’s webOS emulators, by contrast, are the best. They use VirtualBox VMs. webOS is a Linux-based OS, so VirtualBox was a natural. Both the phone and tablet emulators are fast and fluid. The command-line Palm tools work with either the emulators or the devices, if plugged in and in development mode. Being VirtualBox-based, the VMs work on Mac, Linux, and Windows.

Development tools

I haven’t developed for all of the above platforms, unless you count mobile-optimized websites. That said, I have played with or configured development environments for iOS, Android, and webOS.

iOS, of course, integrates brilliantly with Apple’s Xcode. I have used it a bit and was quite impressed. If you aren’t a Mac user, I suppose you could use Adobe Flash CS5 to create iPhone apps. I hate Flash, so I haven’t gone down this route. Knowing what I do about Apple’s development process and tight-control over the store and over just accessing iOS devices, I would guess that even using Flash, you would need a Mac a some point to get your code onto a device. Certainly the emulators are Mac-only. You’ve got to pay if you want to play.

Android integrates reasonably well into Eclipse and ships with an SDK that provides command-line tools for Mac/Linux/Windows. I haven’t used the IDE extensively but have configured the environment for the undergrads at work. It wasn’t super-slick but Google provides good documentation.

HP/Palm’s developer tools are great. You install the SDK and VirtualBox, and you’re done. They provide packages for Mac/Linux/Windows and provide excellent documentation for using their development tools and PhoneGap, a cross-platform HTML/CSS/JavaScript package for developing native webOS/iOS/Android/BlackBerry apps using web technologies. the webOS SDK itself is largely this, as apps other than games are generally written in HTML/CSS/JavaScript using either Mojo or Enyo, HP/Palm’s developer frameworks. You can use Eclipse to develop webOS apps, though I tend to stick to Palm’s excellent command-line tools combined with my favourite text editor. I find this development model to by quite flexible. I even wrote an app that I use quite often.

I haven’t used RIM’s developer tools. They seem to largely be Windows-centric, though I gather they can be shoehorned in to working on Mac. RIM’s WebWorks SDK is of interest to me, though I haven’t tested it.

Developer relations

Here, again, HP/Palm to me are the people to beat. HP is aggressively courting all kinds of developers. Palm has a strong history with the Homebrew community, a group of tinkerers and hackers that extend webOS in unexpected and interesting ways. HP appears to be actively encouraging this group, which is a great sign.

In start contrast to Apple, RIM, and even Google, there is no such thing as a locked-down webOS device. There is no need to root or jailbreak your device. All shipping webOS devices can easily be put into Developer mode, which encourages casual development. Despite Android being Open Source (mostly), webOS is a far more open environment to both use and develop for.

I haven’t used RIM’s development tools and haven’t tried working with them. Certainly their devices are locked down and they don’t have a great reputation for developer relations, especially with small developers. The PlayBook device promotion was an interesting attempt to change this, but based on the quality of available apps, I don’t think this could be called a successful experiment.

Apple allows all iOS devices to be used for development, but you have to pay to have apps signed, and iOS won’t run unsigned code. This results in jailbreaking for those who want to Think Different and use their devices in a way that is unsanctioned by Apple. I understand the advantages of this approack, and there is certainly no arguing with Apple’s success. Still, I don’t have to like it, and I don’t have to participate.

Google, with Android, has quite an odd approach. The software is Open Source, allowing for all kinds of weird and wonderful devices to float around, but how locked-down a device is depends on who makes it. Moreover, with the rapid growth and talk of fragmentation, Google appears to be locking the development process down, favouring larger device manufacturers, and providing them with early access to new versions of Android. Android source code may be Open Source, but the process is far from open, and Google seems to be far more concerned about market share than making sure that device owners can do what they would like with their devices.

Wrapping Up

And that’s my view of things as of July 2011. If you’ve made it this far, please let me know what you think. iOS is clearly the platform to beat, but things can change quickly. Just think: Apple wasn’t in this space before 2007. Personally, despite the allure of Open Source, I just can’t warm up to Android. Are you a fan? What makes it compelling to you? Have you had a chance to use a PlayBook or TouchPad? What do you think of them? Am I the only one out that that thinks BlackBerry Bridge is a good idea?

Me, I find that I like a 7″ tablet but that clearly they all need more work. If the PlayBook had the TouchPad’s app selection, or if the TouchBook was in the PlayBook’s body, that would be a compelling device. As far as phones go, I’m more excited about what RIM has in store for BlackBerry than what the iPhone 5 might be. Of course, I have my fingers crossed that HP’s Pre 3 will finally give webOS the hardware to match the great software.

Mostly, I find this an interesting time. Whether it’s Apple, Google, HP, or RIM, we are clearly moving post-PC. There are teething pains, for sure, and it will take us years before desktops and laptops are displaced. (And really, when is a technology ever truly displaced.) I hope that all four of these platforms continue to improve and remain viable over time. Choice is good. The PC era began to wither when choice dwindled. All of these competing platforms may be a pain for developers, web and otherwise, but it keeps us all thinking and allows for new ideas to bubble up to the surface.

These are exciting times to be a systems person, developer, or end-user. It’s even better being all three.

GoSaBe Blog - Jul 25, 2011 | Web Development, Web Standards