We were at the doctor’s office for a checkup on our little girl late last week, and I have a Greek class coming up – a tough class for which I figured I’d spend some time studying and preparing while waiting for the doctor. Unfortunately, I just discovered yet another of the thousand little details Google doesn’t think matter. I can’t study Greek on my phone here because Google refuses to ship (or allow users to install) a typeface that includes the polytonic Greek character set on Android. The default system font, Roboto (a poor clone of Helvetica), has accents but no breathing marks. This means that at least half the words in classical and Koine Greek are simply missing letters on any web page, and for that matter any app that doesn’t embed its own fonts.
This is not a make or break issue with the phone, but as my primary tool for mobile work in situations like this, it is quite frustrating. What is more frustrating is Google’s absolute unresponsiveness about this. There are many ways the issue could be fixed, none of them particularly complex or time-consuming (unless the folks working on android have made some really silly decisions and coupled the font deeply in the OS, which I don’t believe for a second). No, by all appearances the explanation for the still-open ticket is quite simple: Google doesn’t care.
Google doesn’t care, because Google isn’t selling Android. In fact, they’re doubly not selling Android. They don’t sell the OS or any of the applications that come with it; they give Android away for free. The Nexus program not withstanding, they don’t sell phones (or tablets); the Nexus devices are priced as break-even models.1 Google is selling something else entirely: user data.
Put another way, the reason Google doesn’t care about fixing user issues like this is because Google isn’t selling a product to those users; it is selling the users themselves. The niche concerns of a small group of people who care about typography and digital humanities aren’t a large enough blip on their data-collecting radar to begin to matter. I have no doubt there are conscientious engineers at Google who would love to fix these kinds of issues, but the entity as a whole doesn’t care about them, because I’m not their customer. Android doesn’t have to delight anyone (much less niche users like me); it just has to be cheap enough and good enough for lots of people to use it and therefore for Google to have lots of data points with which it can drive its advertising machine.
While there are companies that are selling phones running Android – most notably, Samsung – none of them appeal to me. I’ve had (and won’t have again) both HTC and Motorola now; LG perennially puts out stinkers; Samsung handsets simply don’t appeal to me. Moreover, all of them insist on burdening the Android experience with their own layers of garbage – layers that slow down and clutter an interface that is too often laggy and cluttered as it is. (I have yet to run an Android phone for more than three or four months before it becomes increasingly laggy and buggy. This is annoying, to say the least.) The manufacturers are making the problem worse, not better.
The obvious alternative, an iPhone, is probably the direction I’ll jump come my next upgrade. Windows Phone looks pretty solid in a lot of areas, but its application ecosystem makes the Play Market look like a thriving jungle of quality and innovation. The same is largely true of BlackBerry. (Both are better choices than Android in at least one way: the companies behind them are selling you a product, not selling you.) Things may change between now and next summer, but the smooth path between my Mac and the iPhone just makes that look much more sensible anyway. Toss in a company that, though it makes its missteps, cares enormously about design and getting the little details right – little details like full support for polytonic Greek characters from the very first release of the iPhone back in 2007 – and an iPhone suddenly looks very appealing indeed.
And so, while this one more annoyance isn’t in and of itself a make-or-break issue with the phone, it is the tipping point for me. It hasn’t been any one thing, and in fact there are still a number of things that I think Android does that I wish iOS did, at least in principle: widgets, for example. But then, I look at my home screen, and I have some apps there and a clock widget… nothing I’ll miss when I switch. As it turns out, that summarizes my feelings toward Android perfectly: there is nothing I’ll miss when I switch, and a lot that I will be happy to bid farewell. Especially: the cheap ripoff of Helvetica as a system font, the lack of really high-quality apps, the lousy hardware quality and cheap cameras, the steady and predictable degradation of OS and app performance over time, the lack of software updates, and (most of all) being the product instead of the customer.
And I’ll be able to review my Greek vocabulary on the go.
Yes, Google owns Motorola Mobility, so in one sense Google does sell phones. However, as anyone who owns a Motorola Android handset from the last couple years knows, the fact that the company is now owned by Google has made zero difference in the either the products Motorola is selling or their attitude toward OS upgrades. Google may own Motorola Mobility, but as far as its core business is concerned, it’s largely irrelevant. That purchase, as was obvious at the time and is far more so now that everyone sees what Google has done with the company, had everything to do with patent litigation defense and nothing with interest in building a vertically integrated phone or tablet stack. That’s fine; it’s Google’s call. But Google isn’t selling phones.
The lack of OS upgrades remains one of the perenially frustrating issues with Android for me: there is no manufacturer on whom one can rely to consistently provide OS upgrades. To wit: my wife and I are both running “Droid Razr” variants (from Motorola, the company Google owns!), and neither of them is running 4.2 Jelly Bean yet. Hers (a “Razr M”) may get it sometime this year; I doubt mine ever will. To the oft-repeated refrain, “Buy Nexus,” I simply point to the Nexus 4, with its absurd lack of 4G support. That’s simply not a purchase I was interested in come late 2012, and it certainly looks no more appealing today. Moreover, neither Google nor any Android manufacturer has the leverage to force carriers to allow upgrades, even on Nexus devices. See the fiasco with delayed updates to Nexus phones on Verizon, for example. ↩