Monday, January 5, 2009

Treo Versus T-Mobile G1—Software

Walking out of church last night, I was stunned at the sight of Venus in the night sky. Nights when you can really see the stars are rare in a big city like Chicago with its many lights. Being the nerd that I am, I whipped out my T-Mobile G1 and tried to see what I could see. Sky Map is powerful application available for the G1 on the Android Market. It uses the G1's GPS and accelerometer to create a tiny planetarium in your phone. The view changes as you move the phone around providing what is at times a mind-blowing effect. I also used Sky Map a bit during my trip to Texas to watch the night skies in a more rural setting and it was a pretty cool experience.

But Sky Map is slow that Android sometimes thinks that it has stopped responding an offers to force the application to close. I usually just tell Android to wait and Sky Map responds just fine once it has updated all the information that it needs to calculate to show its interactive star map. That's just the price of working with a complicated application right?

Actually I have a similar application installed on my Treo 680, Astro Info. It's a much simpler application which shows a globe with the positions of the stars plotted on it. It takes a lot of work to set up, you have to install the application along with several other databases which contain the stellar data that it needs. Then you have to figure out your geographic coordinates and enter them into the application. While Astro Info does allow you to define several different locations, if you find yourself out on a country road at night and the mood to do some stargazing strikes you better have a map or a compass or you won't be able to get much information out of Astro Info. Sky Map on the other hand, is still good to go.

Still Astro Info is a simple and powerful application once it is properly set up. You still have to know if you are facing north, south, east, or west but if you know that, it's pretty easy to use Astro Info for stargazing. In some ways it's easier than Sky Map because you don't have to wait for it get a GPS fix (actually Sky Map does have a manual mode but I rarely use it). I can usually find any star Astro Info by using the moon as a reference point.

These two applications are a good example of the differences between the Android and Palm OSes. One is extremely modern and can leverage just about every technology you can name to form powerful platform. The other is old and tired but simple and flexible enough that it has allowed many powerful applications to be created despite its limitations. One allows for extremely simple, easy to use applications but all this simplicity is build upon a complex foundation. The other is inherently simple and easy to use but its age has made it increasingly difficult to create easy to use applications since developers must work hard to get around its flaws.

Another good example of the difference between Android and PalmOS can be found in their contact applications. This one area where Palm after all these years is still ahead of most of its competitors. Creating a new contact in Android opens a busy window full of boxes, buttons, and icons which wastes tons of space. The G1's 480x320 screen allows you to enter six pieces of information in your new contact: a picture, full name, cell phone number, e-mail address, ringtone, and a checkbox to tell Android whether or not to send this contact's calls directly to voicemail. Scroll down and you also see a More info button which allows you to enter a wide variety of phone numbers, e-mail addresses, IM addresses, and other information like an organization for the contact or a note.

The Treo 680 by contrast produces a much starker, more elegant, and efficient window. Despite its smaller 320x320 screen, the 680 actually shows more information in the new contact window than the G1 does. It shows eight pieces of information: separate first and last names, a picture, ringtone, company (note that Android buries this option in the More info menu as Organization), title, and work and home phone numbers. Scroll down and you see fields for a cell phone number, e-mail, another phone number, IM address, website, a physical address with separate fields for number, city, state, zip code, and country. Scroll down a little more and you see fields for a birthday, anniversary, and four custom fields which you can define yourself. And Palm also makes good use of its limited screen real estate by putting a category menu (in a tremendous contrast with an Android phone which as far as I know cannot assign a contact to a different group even though Google Contacts does support organizing your contacts into various groups), and icons for creating a note (an option which Android buries at the end of its More info menu), and an icon for adding still more phone numbers, e-mail and IM addresses, physical addresses, and even more custom fields. The Treo's Contacts and other PIM applications really do typify the "Zen of the Palm" the simplicity which once made Palm's PDAs and smartphones so popular.

I could go on comparing the software available for the Android to software available for the Palm. But I think that comparing these two applications make my point. I have two problems with the software on my T-Mobile G1, one which I am confident will be solved with time and another which I fear will never be solved. Android lacks a full suite of applications before it can be a legitimate mobile computing platform, the big one is an office suite. But Dataviz has announced plans to port its excellent Documents to Go application to Android so that problem will be solved soon. Similarly, Android e-book and PDF applications are already in their infancy and will only improve over time. The other problem is less serious but is also less likely to be remedied. Android does not seem to have a design philosophy beyond "make it colorful and pretty." This emphasis on style over substance makes Android applications clunkier and dumber than they should be.

1 comment:

Jon Tayler said...

Hi Bob,
I'm one of the developers of Sky Map. I'm glad you're finding it useful. Regarding the "slowness", we know what's causing it and we have a fix planned which I hope to ship soon. Remember the software is a beta - actually even that is over-stating it. Ordinarily we wouldn't have released it, but felt that even in its current condition people would enjoy it.

Hope that you stick with it until we can get release 1.0 out.

John Taylor