12 Jul 2009

Android, and its hardware

For those who don’t know, Android is an operating system developed by Google for mobile phones.

I’ve fiddled with Android (and coded a couple of things with the SDK) for a while. I have always been extremely impressed with the software. Google did a lot of very impressive things.

Unfortunately, there are a few reasons that are currently affecting Android’s success:

  • The hardware sucks.
  • It’s currently only available for T-Mobile, which has a terrible 3G network.

So, perhaps I should explain myself. I’ll try to be more clear. The hardware sucks.

The cause?

Google rushed to meet a deadline.Here’s a brief history lesson on Android: Andy Rubin worked at Apple, then co-founded Danger (creators of the T-Mobile Sidekick), and then created Android (with a few others), which was bought out by Google. Android is an open source Operating System created for mobile phones. It runs a Linux kernel, with a sort of mashed up java stack (and VM). It’s fairly obvious that it has taken cues from the iPhone OS. Unfortunately, they didn’t take many hardware cues. The obvious cue they did take was the screen resolution, and web browser, both done for the same reason: Compatibility with websites already designed for the iPhone.

There is one minor problem with the software. Google rushed our the SDK (and APIs). The problem with this is that when Google released Android 1.5 (codename: Cupcake) they broke a lot of applications. What they really need is to have a way to filter through apps that have been tested on the newer SDK. Right now, older apps crash.

The main problem with Android, however, is the lack of good hardware. The first Android phone was the HTC G1. At the time it had a decent-ish 528Mhz Qualcomm (ARM11) chip, but it had a below average amount of RAM (192MB), and a pathetic amount of ROM (256MB). The reason for the lame hardware is, of course, because the G1 was in development for a long time (a time when those specs were slightly more impressive).

Still, it’s not entirely fair to judge a product that was released in October of last year by today’s standards. So how about we judge Android by an as of yet unreleased handset. Surely that would be a big improvement, right?

Wrong. HTC’s most hyped Android phone, the HTC Hero has 512MB of ROM, which while an improvement, hardly compares to the 32GB available on the iPhone. (Although, I do like the flexibility of having a micro SD slot). It has more RAM upped to 288MB, but it has the same screen resolution, and the same (by today’s standards, really slow) 528Mhz Qualcomm.

One of the problems with rushing the Android platform is that it is not yet ready for be run on varied hardware. Of all of the phones released running on Android (HTC Dream, Sapphire, Hero and the Samsung Galaxy) they all run on basically the same CPU. A Qualcomm 720x 528Mhz. Coincidence? I highly doubt it. More than likely the drivers for other hardware aren’t mature enough. There’s an interesting article at [Anandtech][] about mobile CPU hardware which states:

Let me take this opportunity to also chastise HTC for using the Qualcomm MSM7200A in the new Hero smartphone. Here we have yet another Android OS phone using a horrendously old ARM11 based CPU, it’s just unacceptable.

I could not agree more. HTC has done some great things in the last year. Unfortunately, they’ve been focusing so much on software (HTC TouchFlo and HTC Sense) that they seem to have forgotten the hardware completely.

The main competitors with Android devices are obvious: The iPhone, and the Palm Pre. (and don’t make me laugh by saying Windows Mobile or Blackberry!)

Both have a CPU that is significantly faster. Both now have about the same amount of RAM (256 vs 288) and both the Pre and iPhone have a ROM that’s orders of magnitude bigger than HTC. The additional problem is that since Google initially decided to not allow native apps (the SDK is Java, though this has sort of changed), apps run a lot slower on Android than they would if written in native code. Overall, it could possibly mean a missed opportunity. Despite these mistakes, Android will not fail. First, it’s made by Google. Second, the code is open and free, which means there will be dozens of handsets available in the coming months and years (Andy Rubin predicts about 18 by the end of 2009).

To the right is the new interface used on the HTC Hero, dubbed HTC Sense. It’s a nice improvement over the default Android interface, but, being closed source, it will only appear (at least officially) on new HTC branded Android devices. But, for a device to be really great, both the hardware and software need to be great.

Now, as most of you know, I’m not really an Apple fan. They make mostly fantastic products, but Apple are so arrogant that it annoys me. To pretend that one device is better than all competitors in every area is just ridiculous. To restrict choice (i.e. not selling an iPhone with a hardware keyboard) is also arrogant. Apple basically their customers what type of device they should own, and then their loyal followers just go out and buy it. Android will be successful for many of the reasons that Windows as been successful: Choice. While Apple is restricting themselves to just 1 piece of hardware (and ridiculously, 1 awful network provider, Android will appear on handsets from HTC, Samsung, LG, Sony Ericsson, Motorola etc.. on all providers. If a person wants a thin device with no keyboard, they can get one. If they want a keyboard, they can get one. If they’re on Sprint, they can get one. The list goes on. The only thing Apple has is hype.

I recently jailbroke (hacked) my brothers old iPhone to work on T-Mobile’s network, and switched the SIM card from my Android phone into it. The iPhone has some amazing features. It is not the be all end all device however. Apple’s resistance to enabling multi-tasking is proof that people actually believe Steve’s rants.

Steve says that the iPhone can’t do multi-tasking, and makes up some stupid reasons, and people actually buy it. Android, Windows Mobile and WebOS all do multi-tasking, and all of them have batteries that last at least as long as the iPhone.

Here is my prediction: In about a year, Steve Jobs will announce that the iPhone OS 4.0 does multi-tasking. He will talk about how revolutionary it is, and how Apple is ahead of everyone.

Please……..(The funny thing is that Apple fanboys will actually believe it!)