iOS and Android for Photographers

August 13, 2011: I picked up a used iPhone 3GS while I wait for the iPhone 5 (or 4S, whatever it’ll be called).  I’m not abandoning the idea of Android just yet, but with Ice Cream Sandwich and the iPhone 5 just around the corner, now is a very poor time to buy a new phone.  Although I am getting frustrated with Apple’s release timeline (whenever that is), at least the excellent Samsung Galaxy S II will be released on the US shores by month’s end!
 
July 12, 2011: There is now a Starbucks app for Android. That makes one less reason to abandon the platform.

A Bit of History

I started my smartphone years with an HTC Windows Mobile 6 phone: an easily configurable but hamstrung open platform, and a BlackBerry 8700c: a static, limited, closed platform.  After wearing out the key labels on the HTC’s slide out keyboard, becoming increasing frustrated with the lackluster screens, and the inane limitations of BlackBerry (at the time), I eagerly awaited the release of the first iPhone in June 2007.  Until that time there wasn’t anything that really compared to the iOS platform: Windows was an also-ran even then and Blackberry had yet to break into the consumer market on any significant level.

The iPhone did not bring bleeding edge hardware to the mobile platform (HTC had already claimed that crown, although Apple’s touchscreen was [and is] the best available), nor was it sufficient to break into the business market (it lacked the security and centralized IT control that the BlackBerry had).  What the iPhone did was show people that their cell phones could be used for more than just phone calls and email.  Apple brought a device and an operating system that was (relatively) open and encouraged developers to bring new, creative functionality to their burgeoning environment.  The business plan worked and the first generation iPhone became one of the biggest cell phone success stories we have ever experienced (until the second and third generation iPhone’s).

Android came along about a year after the initial release of the iPhone, in October 2008.  Promising a transparent platform, open to any and all companies and developers, the idea of Android was inviting and hard not to like (just like the idea of Communism).  At the time I was utterly focused on my iPhone and gave the Android devices little play in my imagination: such is the curse of two-year contracts and the appstores that keep you to one device.  When both my nerd and tech-phobic friends began to get Android phones I convinced myself that the platform was ill focused and too pedestrian, then those same friends began buying iPhone’s and I was brought down from that high horse fairly quickly.

Over those first two years I became heavily invested in the iPhone through both iTunes and the App Store.  The phone grew to be more than just that, it was such a part of my daily life that the thought of change gave me quite a bit of stress.  Any discussions with my friends involving the benefits of Android, new Android phones, new updates of Android, were met with either stubborn indifference or ignorant derision (clearly they were the delusional ones).  The iPhone had the best apps: Camera+ was powerful and easy, the Flickr app was simple and focused, the Twitter and Facebook app’s were first on iOS, and the experience came across as smooth and cohesive.  I could not imagine why people would want an Android device, never mind become a devotee.

Jumping forward a bit to last month (May 2011): On my last day in Hungary, the last few minutes in fact, my iPhone 3GS was stolen.  I had my entire digital life housed in that device, and while it was backed up at my house on my PC, two weeks of images, videos, and notes would have been gone if it wasn’t for my judicious use of Dropbox.  All of my personal information was stored on that little device and even though I had the ability to wipe it remotely, it was on Airplane mode, so there was no way to connect to it.  Thankfully I had locked it with a passcode and set it to wipe after too many guesses, but if I hadn’t it would have been a much bigger problem than losing my wallet.  Since it is such a horrible time to buy an iPhone (a point I will come to later), I decided to give Android a spin.  HTC’s Sense UI and Samsung’s phones have been looking better over the past year and hardware wise the only benefit the iPhone had anymore was the Retina Display (and the exactness of the touchscreen).

Now, to business, if you are a photographer (or just a media savvy nerd like myself), should you buy an iPhone or an Android device?

The Problem with iOS

(The announcement of iOS5 has addressed some of these points, but the close-mindedness behind them is still quite valid)

The biggest problem with the iPhone is also its biggest strength: there’s only four kinds of iPhones… period.  While this may be frustrating to the hardened nerds out there who have quarterly gadget lust, the limited options for iPhone’s are a blessing for developers and users (on the whole) as it tends to provide for a much more stable operating environment and user experience.  The problem, however, is glaring: the iPhone is slow to react to change and has a built in, predictable lifecycle.  While Android devices have been getting larger screens, bigger cameras (a debatable benefit), faster processors, cool technology like NFC, and seemingly constant software-centric feature upgrades, the iPhone is relatively stolid.  As an American who is required to sign a two-year contract, you will also need to buy a new iPhone at the end of each contract, as Apple only supports the two most recent generations of their products.  The days of having a phone for more than 3 years are gone.

The iPhone business model has often been referred to as a “walled garden“, an environment that caters to itself, as long as you stay within its confines.  Developers only have to focus on a single platform for which to write their programs, and users do not have to decipher wildly different interfaces with every app they download.  Developers TapTapTap, makers of the awesome Camera+ app, had a very interesting experience with Apple’s walled garden:

Version 1 of Camera+ (in 2010) had an awesome feature that utilized the volume buttons on the iPhone as a shutter, Apple quickly banned the application for using an “undocumented feature” (in layman terms) and forced TapTapTap to take the feature out.  In 2011, when Apple announced iOS5, they made the volume-button-as-shutter a standard feature, (probably) calling it “amazing”, or “incredible”, or “game changing”.

It is this mindset towards developers that leaves a sour taste in the mouth of those of us who pay attention to it.  Instead of acting in the best interest of their users or developers, Apple habitually culls new features until they use it themselves (and subsequently take credit for it).  However, the fruit is extremely sweet in Apple’s garden, and developers have grown fat in the environment.

The Problem with Android

Interestingly, and somewhat predictably, Android’s problems are basically the inverse of iOS’s.  While Apple developers have a solid ground from which to develop, the open nature of Android has created a business environment that promotes releasing devices on the bleeding edge.  The capabilities of phones are in constant flux which forces developers to make programs that either work on a large number of broadly used (older) phones and don’t take advantage of the new technology, or a small subset of phones that can do a hell of a lot but aren’t very popular (or profitable).  Even large companies like Netflix do not have an app that is compatible with all Android phones, yet their iOS app works with even the original iPhone.

Google let the companies which produce the phones alter the user experience to suit different business models.  The direct harm this causes to the user is hard to miss: HTC phones work different out of the box than Samsung phones, or LG phones, et al.  There are also many App Stores, one for each company that makes Android devices a move so stupid it is hard to fathom any reasonable rationale in favor of it.  Apple’s method of controlling their product from the moment you get it at least gives a coherent user experience no matter what iPhone, iPad, or iPod you use (we are ignoring the doomed iPod Classic, of course).

While Android devices tend to get the newest, fastest, and biggest technology bumps on the market, that technology is more often than not rushed into the market in an effort to cull a few more unit sales from a competitor.  There is very little sense that the phone’s designers had a thought to how people would actually use the device.  In the Android world acronyms and numbers rule the day: 18mpx cameras and 21mbps HSUPA+ are what sell devices to nerds, while $50 phones are what sell to people who don’t know they care about the capabilities of their phone.  iPhone’s sell because they are iPhone’s, not because they have a processor that works 5% faster than the competing Android device.

The worst thing about the Android platform is the fragmentation: both real and perceived.  I meant to buy the Samsung Infuse 4G, but initially bought a HTC Inspire 4G because I asked for “the one that just came out” and even the AT&T salesman didn’t realize the Infuse 4G came out in May while the Inspire 4G (very different phones) came out in February — confused yet?  A platform cannot possibly gain a loyal following if the consumer (or in this case, the sales person) is perplexed.  One example is in Europe the Samsung Galaxy S II is known by exactly that name, in the US it is coming out on three carriers with three different names: AT&T Attain, Verizon Function, and Sprint Within.  None of those monikers means anything, and that is ultimately the face of Android.  A prime example is this list of Android devices from 2009.

Where the iPhone gets it Right

There are tangible benefits to Apple’s business model, photography apps alone are evidence of this.  We can safely assume that you, the reader, in the Facebook/Twitter age has seen an image taken with Instagram, or Hipstamatic, or Camera+.  There are simply an insane number of photography apps for the iPhone, ranging from factory user guides for specific cameras, exposure meters, to timelapse apps and those who recreate the usefulness of a fully featured DSLR.

In the end I really only used one app on my iPhone, Camera+.  Although I had Hipstamatic, ShakeItPhoto, Adobe Photoshop, DSLR Camera Remote, and several other applications installed, TapTapTap’s program was so well built that it’s all I needed.

With the forthcoming release of iOS5, things are about to get even better for photographers.  With iCloud all of your images will be streamed to all of your Apple devices.  Granted you can do this with Dropbox but I’ll give it to Apple, they’ve just done it better.  You also will soon be able to put a Camera button right on the lock screen, drastically cutting the time needed to take a picture.  Now, knowing Apple, I would be surprised (but very pleased) if you could configure the button to launch any app instead of just the standard Camera app, but we’ll see when it’s released.

Conversely on Android it took me a full week of casual searching to find an photography app that was well made.  I have ended up using Vignette, which is as close to Camera+ as I could come to, and FxCamera, as a counterpart to ShakeItPhoto and that all-too-popular Polaroid-look.  No matter how good my camera is on this Infuse 4G, I would give up it’s extra 5mpx (than the 3GS) for Camera+ in a heartbeat.  There simply isn’t a comparable stable of photography apps for Android that the iPhone App Store enjoys.  Even though there is loads of crap and redundant applications for the iPhone, there are at least the select percentage that feel as well designed as the phone itself.

Also, there is no official Starbucks app for Android.  What the hell is that about?!

Where Android Excels

One word: integration.  On the iPhone, applications run on top of iOS, using it as a foundation.  On Android, apps can integrate themselves into the experience, becoming a part of the operating system.  This is extremely useful when it comes to actually communicating with people, whether it be through Facebook, Twitter, or any other social network I can think of.  It is extremely difficult to overstate how great it is to have Google Voice built right into the phone itself, or how the Gmail application works perfectly and mimics the desktop version, or how Maps has built-in navigation.

iOS5 has taken one amazing feature from Android: wireless syncing.  Where the iPhone used to be PC centric, it has now gone fully to the ‘cloud’, which is awesome.  This does not excuse Apple, however, for coming out with a feature almost two years after its competition and selling the feature like it was previously unheard of.  The best part of my Infuse 4G was the ability to buy/install app’s from my computer and watch them get pushed down to the phone, or to navigate the gorgeous (but massive) 4.5″ AMOLED+ screen, or exercising my ability to control even the smallest of behaviors of the phone (an easy thing to screw up).  I’m happy for iPhone and iPad users that this same functionality is finally coming to their devices.

Conclusion

I still have two weeks to decide if I want to return my Infuse 4G.  This is one of the few decisions that I’ve ever been genuinely split on.  There can be no doubt that the iPhone is the king of media: playing music and making images is just easier on the iPhone (this is one of the few places iTunes is actually a benefit).  There can also be no doubt that ultimately the Android platform will be more useful most of the time.

That said, if you find yourself using your mobile device as a camera more so than a phone, the iPhone (whatever version) is going to be a better fit for you.  It is an overall better product with a lower barrier to entry and (more importantly) a much stronger developer base for these kinds of apps.  Oh, and if you’re in the market, the correct answer is always: “just wait, the new one is coming out soon”.

Editorial Tangent: There seems to be a distinct lack of grey area in the minds of modern society.  Whether it be politics, religion, or technology (weird how that last one gets grouped in), it is either one way or the highway.  It is imperative that we, as a people, break out of that mindset for the greater good.  Even though it may seem ridiculous to apply this to technology, both consumers and producers need to find a way to work together for the betterment of the consumers.  Fragmentation of the marketplace will be ultimately counterproductive.

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