Thursday, September 25, 2008

How Many Google Phone Engineers Does It Take to Tell the Time? [Android Interface Mess]


So here I was, all excited about Android. Not because the G1's physical design is specially attractive. In fact, it's a gray design with no soul. Not because of the user interface, which at first glance reminded me of a mash-up between the Nintendo DS and a '90s Windows desktop manager. No, I was excited because this is the first post-iPhone smartphone that could be a serious challenger to Apple's mounting dominance. Then I looked closely at this image and realized the G1 will not pose a threat to Apple at all.

The problem in this promotional mock-up image is obvious: The analog clock says it's 9:10 but the digital clock says it's 2:47.

I know. It seems like a dumb problem. But it is an obvious one. This is one of their main promotional images—which incidentally shows a T-Mobile G1 with a screen that seems to be broken, something which is bad enough on its own—and they failed to get it right. The problem with the clocks would have never escaped Apple's ferocious attention to detail, but it is not the image itself that's so troubling. It is what it symbolizes, what is missing at Android's most fundamental level: Attention to detail.

If you compare these images or look at the walkthrough video, you will see what I'm talking about: Each of them seem taken from a completely different device.

Typefaces boldly change from place to place, giving a sense of randomness to the whole interface. The same thing happens with color schemes—going from color over white, to color over black, to browns combined with greens and b! lues, to green over white—and the way the graphic elements are treated—with solid colors or with gradients. Even the shape of the widgets and sizes look arbitrary. Finally, the icons themselves—which get different treatment from flat to fake 3D—add to the overall confusion.

Perhaps the explanation for this apparent lack of overall coherence is Android's Design by Committee nature, something that seems to plague many of Google's applications and most open-source projects. Hence the question: How many Google engineers does it take to tell the time?

Besides adding confusion, the UI problems make the whole experience ugly. A gray phone with an ugly interface with no attention to detail is not going to win over the consumers' eyes and hearts—no matter how cool Android Market or how open Android platform could be.

Whether we like it or not, the cellphone is now such a personal part of our lives that the emotional connection between a piece of plastic and the owner plays a huge part in the purchase decision process. Enough to make people camp out for days in front of a store to get a product. The proof is that the iPhone still lacks several things that consumers want—in theory—but they can live without them because of how polished Apple's cellphone is, because the attention to all those details, from packaging to user interface.

Would normal consumers buy into the lack of details and the apparently incoherent mess of Android's user interface? Or would they pass and continue to be dazzled by devices like the iPhone, which provide with most of the features they need in a tight, very attractive package? At the end, the fact is that this attention to detail is precisely what separates the awesome from the hhhhmmm-hookai products. I hope that the community of talented developers and designers makes some kick ass skins for this phone. But for me right now, Android is an absolute no-no.