Culture Shock: iPhone to Android and Back Again

Given my wife’s recent guest post, I thought I’d weigh in with my own response, based on some up-close and personal time spent with an Android phone after four years of living and playing with various models of iPhone. On the recommendation of my coworkers, I got a Nexus 4 – it wasn’t as new and sparkly as the Samsung S4, but I wanted a purer experience, and of course I hate bloatware (except when it’s the app my amazing team created, in which case it’s AWESOME).

Please note that in this comparison I’ll be referring to “the Android phone” simply as “[the] Android” in order to simplify the writing. I realize that this is technically incorrect, as “Android” is an operating system used on a wide variety of devices, not one device or device classification, but “aPhone” sounded vaguely scatalogical, and geez, why are we even arguing about this? You’re a big kid, you can handle it.


The first unmistakeable advantage of the Android over the iPhone was its screen real estate. I loved looking at the huge screen, games felt more engaging, and the keypad was easier to use. The suggestions bar when typing felt much less hacked-on than the iPhone suggestions feature, and I found myself using it a fair amount in the beginning (though this trailed off as I eventually found it faster to type the whole word instead of checking to see if it had guessed correctly). Unfortunately, screen size was also a disadvantage. The Android was hard to use one-handed, and was more of a pain to carry in a belt holster.

Advantage: both, or neither

Lock Screen

So, this is curious. I’d never thought about the lock screen as being an important part of my phone-using experience. But the Android was so different from the iPhone in this respect that I was forced to re-evaluate. Widgets are cool! I liked having access to my calendar and the weather report without having to unlock my Android. The problem was notifications – my Android would ping, and I’d know that something requiring my attention had occurred… But have no idea what. I’d have to scroll through the calendar and messages to find what had happened. If SMS, I’d generally have to unlock my phone to see the whole message, because I’d only be able to see the first 50 characters in the lock screen widget. This was unbelievably frustrating.

The iPhone, by contrast, gives you the camera/video, the time, notifications, and music – no widgets, no opportunities for customization (beyond wallpaper), but what’s there is highly optimized for the most common use case. Like, um, people wanting to know what notification just caused their phone to buzz. This is 80/20 land – sure, you may occasionally care about the other stuff, but you really don’t want to have to unlock your phone to figure out what just happened – you should be able to glance down at your phone, read the message, and get on with your life.

So, while lock screen widgets are exciting in principle, the actual implementation is aggravating.

Advantage: iPhone


Though part of this is no doubt a matter of what I’m used to, the default apps on the iPhone seem significantly better than those on the Android. First, is it possible that there’s no default note-taking app on Android? The stock price app, contacts, camera, weather, even the phone – all just seem… Clunky. This is a common theme – it’s a well-known design principle that users tend to believe that prettier designs are easier to use, and you just don’t get the sense that appearance was a high priority on the Android team (who knows? I might come back on my hands and knees after switching to iOS 7). It’s also clear why Apple cares so much about the rubber-banding patent – bizarrely, it makes a huge difference in the way the app feels.

Also, though this isn’t an Android problem per se, some apps I use a lot just weren’t available. E.g., a really solid Japanese/English dictionary. On iPhone I use the Wisdom Japanese/English dictionary a fair amount, but there wasn’t anything comparable on Android. I didn’t like Robin as much as Netbot. Twitter was basically identical. It was nice being able to use Flash, but you don’t really miss it on iPhone because everyone’s created special apps (e.g., Amazon Instant Video). When looking at apps in the Google Play store, I had to make a calculation about whether they might install malware, whereas no such problem exists on iPhone.

Advantage: iPhone


One big win for Android: payments through apps. Apple wants to take their cut, so only allows apps to charge if done through their proprietary payment scheme. What this means in practice is that I can’t buy audio books through Audible, movies through Amazon Instant Video, books through Kindle, etc. One can, of course, make payments through the browser, but this is a royal pain. Bravo, Android!

Advantage: Android


I’m one of those strange people who still uses my “phone” for making calls. It’s hard to handle the Android one-handed (too big), and the options I care about seem hidden. Chalk this one up to being used to something different.

What isn’t simply a difference in point of view is the problem of not getting messages because the Android notifications are difficult to hear/feel. When the iPhone vibrates, you can hear it, and (as mentioned above) see the notification in full on the lock screen. On Android I frequently missed SMS messages, and ultimately had to turn the volume up to the maximum to feel confident that I’d know the phone was ringing. As I re-read this, I guess I feel a little like my grandmother, having a hard time with technology. But then I think about The Design of Everyday Things, and think, screw that, if it isn’t obvious, it’s a broken design.

Advantage: iPhone

Culture Shock

When I lived in Japan, I missed good Italian food. I missed American TV and English language bookstores. I missed no smoking signs (oh, how I missed no smoking signs!). I missed supermarkets that covered a city block and had aisles and aisles of familiar brands. This is not to say that there were no good Italian restaurants, that it was impossible to find American culture, that smokers were impossible to avoid, or that the country was completely devoid of (for instance) peanut butter. But each of these was, in its own way, difficult to find, or unwelcome when one did (e.g., I feel simultaneously nostalgic and a little ashamed when considering Johnny Rockets in Roppongi).

The thing is, there were a lot of things Japan did better than home – it was incredibly safe, and there was amazing public transportation. People were incredibly friendly, genuinely cared about providing good service, and were frequently especially excited to meet an American (well, a Japanese-speaking American, anyway). The food was amazing, if expensive, and there was incredible variety. I lived in Tokyo for a while, and for a major urban area, it was clean. It felt like there were bookstores on every block, and there were amazing areas like Tsukiji (fish market), Jimbocho (books), and Akihabara (electronics).

But, like someone who didn’t appreciate being well until he became sick, it was the stuff that was easy at home, but hard in Japan, that I noticed. I was already used to all the things that were annoying in the States – I’d grown up with them, I didn’t mind them much anymore, and while having those pain points removed was appreciated, it wasn’t emotionally compelling. It was the stuff I was used to – mostly silly stuff that you wouldn’t normally think about – good pizza, clothing that fit in styles I recognized – that was hard to bear when gone.

Which is a long way of saying that I know that some of my annoyance at Android comes down to familiarity, not objective inferiority. And that’s fine. But it also isn’t the whole story. There’s something about Android that feels technically accomplished, but poorly designed. As if an alien were given specifications to build a four-legged object with a flat surface made of wood, padding and a back, followed the requirements to the letter, but missed some ineffable quality of chairness. It’s the hardware equivalent of programmer art. Or the uncanny valley.

When I was in the video game industry, we used to talk about games “with soul”. Games you could tell that someone loved, like Ico or The Neverhood. Games that maybe weren’t as commercially successful, but that had a beautiful vision, as opposed to the soulless products of a publisher grinding a team to continue a franchise, or to push out a me-too product.

iPhone has it. I don’t think that Android does. It feels technically accomplished, but a little dull and utilitarian.

4 thoughts on “Culture Shock: iPhone to Android and Back Again

  1. “Lock Screen: my Android would ping, and I’d know that something requiring my attention had occurred… But have no idea what.”

    Just slide the lock-screen down away from the notifications bar. “Et voila!”

  2. The thing about android is that if you don’t like what you see on the lock screen, you can change it. Or replace it. Or turn it off. If you don’t like the default music app you can replace it.

    It sounds as though you maybe missed the point of android a little – you are *encouraged* to make it your own, and do things your way!

    For what it’s worth I’ve found stock android to be great on the Nexus 7, and my HTC One is my all time favourite phone, but I must admit I hated the Galaxy S3. My wife made the switch to iPhone and hasn’t looked back.

    Each to their own!

    • The problem isn’t that the flexibility of the system, but rather the widgets available for the default apps. If the messaging app’s lock-screen widget doesn’t work the way I want, is there, in fact, a replacement?

      I like having a highly configurable computer, and spend a lot of my time on the command line at home. But for me, the phone is an appliance. And this is what makes me more of an iPhone person than an Android person. I just want the damn thing to work, I don’t want to have to spend a lot of time fiddling with it.

      • I don’t know about replacement widgets for the default apps, but I know that custom apps often come with their own lock screen widgets. Having said that you can’t mix & match as far as I’m aware.
        For all my talk I tend to use my phone as an appliance most of the time anyway once it’s set up, so I get where you’re coming from. I just like to know I can tweak if I want to :)

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