I dumped my iPhone 4 for the Android Galaxy Nexus

Don't blame the iPhone; it's Apple's closed ecosystem that's trouble

I like a lot of things about my iPhone 4. For starters, the whole "antennagate" thing was overblown. Lots of phones drop bars if you grip them a certain way while in a weak signal area. (My new Galaxy Nexus does.) And although I live in a dead zone for both AT&T and Verizon, right out of the box my AT&T iPhone 4 got noticeably better reception than my original iPhone. A simple iPhone 4 case prevented any loss of signal reception due to hand shielding.

I've always felt that the iPhone 4's screen is too small, and the virtual keyboard is all but unusable to me. Even so, it wasn't the iPhone's fault that I decided to shelve it in favor of a Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Most of my frustration comes directly from Apple. After a long period of glasnost, Apple seems to be closing its ecosystem again.

CalDAV, really?

For example, after years of offering its SyncServices for calendar and contact syncing, Apple abruptly switched away from that service on the eve of the launches of both iCloud and Office 2011, falling back to CalDAV for calendar scheduling and syncing. The fact that Outlook 2011 for the Mac doesn't appear to support CalDAV is Microsoft's bad. Outlook 2011 does have support for Apple's abandoned SyncServices (go figure). The problem for me is that to sync with your Macs, iOS devices and iCloud, your calendar data must reside in iCloud (not on your computer where you can back it up). And iCloud's rendition of CalDAV isn't "compatible" with third-party CalDAV implementations. As a result -- shocker -- iCloud can't fully sync with Google's CalDAV setup for Google Calendar.

To get Google Calendar and iCal to fully sync, I had pull down my data from iCloud to my computer and purchase a third-party utility called Spanning Sync , which costs $25 a year. It really irks me when end-users are forced to pay the price because companies are locked in mortal combat. Customer first. Apple apparently doesn't care about that.

More surprises

Only a couple months later, my second Apple surprise occurred when I decided to migrate Apple Mail to Outlook 2011. That's when I discovered that OS X Lion users are locked into Apple Mail for all intents and purposes. When you upgrade to Lion, you're also upgrading Apple Mail's mailbox format. Apple decided to quietly abandon its support for the .mbox standard used by a wide variety of email applications. Beginning with Lion, Apple Mail now uses its own proprietary mailbox structure. Guess what? Outlook's email importer no longer works with Lion's version of Apple Mail. And Apple doesn't offer an exporter. Once again I'm stymied and stuck with Apple's ecosystem because of careless or planned Apple lock-in.

There have been other points of frustration, too. I've grown weary of Apple's self-serving app censorship policies. I've never been a fan of the fact that iOS tries to hide the file system from you. And even though I understand why Apple chose not to support Adobe Flash on the iPhone and iPad, most other mobile devices do support it for the time being. Their makers haven't made a conscious decision to short-change their customers on an increasingly meaningful part of the Internet experience. The world is moving to HTML5, and that's a good thing - or will be when it has finally taken place. But I have this problem: I'm trying to watch video on the Internet now.

I still love my Macs but I realized that I've been unconsciously making excuses for a subpar iOS user experience. That was the moment I began paying closer attention to Android.

The Samsung Galaxy Nexus

Most of my problems with Android devices were wiped out by the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and Android 4. Better known as Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), Android 4 reunites the tablet and smartphone versions of the operating system. It also no longer requires hardware buttons to control the OS because Google added default software-based button functions. The Galaxy Nexus was the first product to ship with Android 4 pre-installed.

I also like the design of Samsung's Galaxy Nexus . I wanted a mobile phone with the biggest screen that could fit comfortably in my hand, while still being lightweight and as thin as the iPhone. I wanted a Super AMOLED 1280x720 HD display. I never liked Apple's use of glass on the back of the iPhone 4. Yes that lends a quality feel. But it's over-engineered at the expense of weight. I vastly prefer a device that has a removable battery as does the Galaxy Nexus. I wanted Verizon 4G LTE. The Galaxy Nexus lives up to all these standards.

Last but not least, I wanted a Verizon phone that didn't cost $300 with a two-year contract. I paid $150 (with a contract) just before the holidays and you can get one now for $100 at AmazonWireless.com .

Some drawbacks

In fact, the only major disadvantage of the Galaxy Nexus is its lack of a microSD card slot. For my purposes, 32GB is plenty of memory. By the time I outgrow that limitation, I'll be into a new phone anyway. The Android LTE smartphone also chews through battery life, but that's true of all current LTE smartphones. If you want, you can get the Galaxy Nexus battery upgrade kit (look around for a cheaper price). It comes with a new back cover, which adds just a smidge of thickness to the phone. As others have noted, you're not going to notice the difference. I certainly don't. And you can use the original, slightly smaller battery with the new back cover. There is also always the option to turn off 4G, limiting service to 3G.

But don't do that. As implemented by Verizon, 4G is a game changer. I hadn't fully realized how much the performance of 3G kept me from surfing the Web on my iPhone. I just don't have the patience for it. But that's changed with Verizon's 4G LTE. It's fast; easily competitive with the average Wi-Fi hotspot when serving Web pages. Combine that speed with the larger screen of the Galaxy Nexus and you'll find that the way you use your phone changes.

I'm still frustrated by the fact that the mobile rendition of the Web is merely a shoehorned version of the desktop Web. Man, does that have to change, and fast. But the experience is passable now. I reach for my Galaxy Nexus far more often to look up information on the Internet than I ever did with my iPhone 4. Surely, the next major release of the iPhone will deliver 4G speeds. But there are many Android phones that offer that advantage right away. It's one of two or three big reasons I made the move to Android.

The Android difference

There is an advantage to the Android platform and its community that I wasn't fully sure of before I made the switch. It has to do with the apps.

What most people do is count applications and decide the iPhone App Store is much better than the Android Market. What I have found, however, is that Android apps are less shielded from the hardware and the operating system, meaning that they may be able to do more powerful things (perhaps at the expense of security).

Adding to the difference is the fact that the iPhone App Store is closely guarded by Apple. Part of what Apple is guarding against is allowing apps that do things that might impinge upon the revenue streams of Apple and its partners. The Android Market is managed in a more open and freewheeling manner by Google. As a result, some Android apps are more user focused than iPhone apps. There is very little that's off limits.

Android Market freedom

There are many examples of this but I'll give you two to illustrate my point. The first involves mobile tethering. Apple has relentlessly weeded out all utilities that allow you to connect your cell phone to a desktop or notebook PC by USB cable and share your phone's 3G or 4G Internet access. The Android Market offers literally scores of tethering apps. In my neck of the woods, tethering apps won't help you. At least not on Verizon. The large wireless carrier detects tethering and shuts down all 4G access to anyone who tries it. Tethering is also against the user licenses of most wireless carriers, so I'm not recommending that you try it. The point is that Google isn't going to get in your way. It's not setting itself up as an arbiter.

The second example is more complex. It deals with corporate policies on protecting company data and BYOD. A friend of mine bought an Android device with his own money and he's paying the monthly charges himself. He wanted to get company mail on his mobile. While his company supports that, their policies require specific security requirements and full hard drive encryption. Those changes are initiated by the creation of an Exchange account on the device. On the Android, hard drive encryption also allows companies to set additional configuration policies that can't be turned off without wiping the phone's memory. It also allows the policy setter to remotely wipe everything on the phone in the event that the device is lost or stolen, which for some users is overkill. Bottom line: there were so many strictures on the use of the phone that it became unusable to him and he decided to back out of Exchange support on his Android device.

The removal of the Exchange account did not return his Android device to normal. To do that he had to wipe the memory, eliminating the encryption, and then restore the device to its original state. That turned out to be a fairly simple process on many Android devices. Verizon offers step-by-step instructions for performing a hard reset on its website.

When everything was back to normal, my friend decided to look around for alternate Exchange client solutions. In short order, he discovered NitroDesk's TouchDown for Android. The powerful, highly configurable Exchange-based email/calendaring/contacts client can be used with ActiveSync to reach company servers without triggering overbearing policies. It also supports many Exchange security policies . That means it can remotely wipe all TouchDown email and message attachments. My friend doesn't have corporate data anywhere but in his TouchDown email, so this is a sound alternative.

IT managers might have a heated debate about the value of such an application, and none want their security policies circumvented. But there are worse alternatives from a security perspective. Back to my main point, I haven't been able to find anything close to TouchDown in the iPhone App Store.

I'm sure that whenever Apple gets around to releasing the iPhone 5 (or whatever it might officially be called), I will desire that slick new phone. But Apple's our-way-or-the-highway approach to everything it does only works when it's not placing restraints on what I want my mobile phone to be able to do. The sense I get with Android is that whatever I may want the Galaxy Nexus to do in the future, there will be a way to get there.

Read more about smartphones in Computerworld's Smartphones Topic Center.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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