So I recently spent a week using a Nexus 4, a smartphone that Google built with LG to demonstrate the ideal mobile computing experience.
The experience ended up being significantly less than ideal.
Around the same time I had the opportunity to lay my hands on a convertible Windows 8 device made by Samsung. By “convertible” I mean it was a laptop with a screen that could be lifted off and used as a tablet.
It was an epiphany.
First, about that Nexus 4.
I had high hopes for this device.
It’s widely touted as the “pure” Android experience, where Android is Google’s “operating system” for mobile phones and tablets.
You know, like Microsoft makes Windows, Google makes Android.
But there’s something different about Android.
Whereas Microsoft charges for the use of Windows and doesn’t permit its modification, Google gives Android away and lets other companies do whatever they want with it.
For the most part, companies like Samsung and HTC just heavily customize the look and feel of Android for their smartphones.
However, a few companies lobotomize Android, which can leave it being nigh-unrecognizable on devices like Amazon’s Kindle Fire.
So the Nexus 4 features a pristine version of Android straight out of the Google lab, completely unmodified.
In a sense, it’s the search giant’s most direct response to Apple’s iPhone, its gPhone.
So I was surprised by how unimpressive the device was. In fact, it was cludgy, buggy and downright frustrating to use.
At its core Android is a less-than-intuitive operating system.
Like, at any given time it displays two “back” buttons, one at the top right of the screen, another at the bottom.
It’s never clear what either of these buttons does. The behaviour of both is completely unpredictable.
If that weren’t bad enough, the Android operating system is incessantly buggy.
Like the “Gallery” app for viewing photos regularly crashes. And the camera app won’t take pictures if there’s more than one person in the shot.
And Android doesn’t update its clock automatically as you move to new time zones, even though its configured to do so.
The Nexus 4, Google’s determined shot at the perfect phone behaved more like a crude proof of concept. An idea. A half-baked pie in the sky.
More to the point, though, it felt like a poor man’s iPhone.
Which is the same feeling I used to get from Windows back in the 90s.
Just as the Windows operating systems of the day were shameless rip-offs of Apple’s Macintosh operating system, so is Android a rip off of the operating system in Apple’s iPhone, iOS.
And like the Windows of yore, Android is a sight uglier, harder to use, and more prone to failure than its source of inspiration.
In no way is it any better than iOS. In most ways it’s identical. In many ways it’s worse.
In playing a constant game of catch up with Apple, Google seems to have forgotten that innovation is what truly advances technology companies.
Which is where my disappointment lies. Based on the accolades that the Android geeks are heaping on the Nexus 4, I expected it to be an iPhone killer. Instead, I learned it’s just a wanna-be.
If Android is the new Windows and just rips off iOS, then there’s irony in the innovation that Microsoft is demonstrating in the new Windows.
I’ve already written at length about the mobile version of Windows that’s on smartphones like the Nokia 920.
But I was genuinely surprised by how impressed I was by the new Windows 8 operating system, which can be installed on desktop computers and tablets.
Like Android, it’s far from perfect.
In fact, the way its new, colourful tile-based user interface has been haphazardly duct-taped on to the old Windows desktop, which itself is balanced precariously atop the ancient DOS platform defies logic.
From a technical standpoint, Windows 8 is a real dogs breakfast of software leftovers.
But at the same time it offers the only source of fresh ideas these days.
The big, bold live tiles of the Windows 8 interface are a tremendous source of easy intelligence when using a computer.
But I was completely struck by Microsoft’s ingenuity when I had the time to examine a Samsung notebook computer that could have its screen lifted off to be used as a tablet.
The device could instantly adapt itself to those two states – tablet and notebook – for optimal use without any effort on my part.
Somehow the device was smart enough to sense its state of being and alter the way I interacted with it on the fly.
It was the first revelatory experience I’ve had with a computing device in a very long time.
Overall I think Windows 8 has a lot of problems, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone upgrade to it from an older version of Windows.
It’s just too different and too buggy right now.
But this one minor experience demonstrated to me that Microsoft is really the only technology company demonstrating a fresh, new vision of computing these days.
It’s brave on their part, some might argue stupidly so, to be so different from competitors.
After all, ripping Apple off in the 90s worked out so gloriously well, why let Google own that business model in the new millennium?
It’s incredibly risky, and it’s in risk that technology makes advances.
So no matter the wrinkles in their products, Microsoft has my heart these days, if not my money.
I’d love to see that company work out the wrinkles in its various products, stabilize its platform, and deliver a solid new, unique experience to us.
And I think it’s well on its way to doing so.
Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, February 1, 2013.