What's Wrong With Android
If Google fixes one simple thing, its operating system will surpass the iPhone's.
This problem is not confined to the calendar app—it's everywhere on Android, in Google's built-in apps as well as third-party programs you download from the app store. To search for an address in the iPhone's map program, you click the search bar at the top of your screen; to do the same thing in Android's map program, you hit Menu first, then Search. To load a bookmarked Web page in the iPhone's browser, you hit the bookmark icon. To do so in Android, you've got to—you guessed it—hit Menu first, then Bookmark.
Android partisans might counter that you need to learn only one thing to use the phone: When in doubt, hit Menu and everything will be revealed. That's true; after using the Nexus One for some time, I eventually learned to click this universal button when an option wasn't immediately visible. But the constant menu hunting isn't ideal. First, it's a hurdle to new users—it's not obvious that you've got to keep clicking this button to look for features that ought to be highlighted on a single screen. What's more, the hidden menus slow you down. The whole point of loading up the maps program is to look up an address; why would you hide that option under a menu bar?
I think the answer comes down to a philosophical difference between the Apple and Google user interface teams. With the iPhone, Apple is clearly trying to make a complete break with desktop operating systems. The iPhone's Human Interface Guidelines—Apple's instructions for developers creating iPhone apps—are clear on this point, stressing that every iPhone app should highlight its main functions on its main screen, using icons that are easy to understand. "Make it obvious," the guidelines chide developers: "You can't assume that users have the time (or can spare the attention) to figure out how your application works. Therefore, you should strive to make your application instantly understandable to users."
The Android platform is much looser in this regard. Its interface guidelines don't discourage hidden menus: "All but the simplest applications have menus," the interface guide tells developers. In other words, under Android's design philosophy, menus are a natural consequence of complexity—and the more powerful a program, the more likely it is to be stuffed with hidden menus. That's a familiar view of computing, one deeply tied to the interface on the standard PC—after all, every program on your laptop or desktop hides much of its functionality under menus, too.
But that philosophy feels outmoded. We're increasingly abandoning desktop programs for most of our computing needs, and we're replacing them with Web apps or mobile apps that are much more straightforward to use. I rarely reach for menu bars anymore; the programs I use most often these days—Chrome, Gmail, Google Maps, Microsoft Office 2007, and nearly everything on my iPhone—present most of their functions on the main screen.
So come on, Android team— join the menu-free bandwagon! You've got a great OS—with a little work, it could be the best mobile operating system on the market. Wouldn't that be more obvious if you didn't keep everything hidden?
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Correction, Feb. 9, 2010: Due to an editing error, this article originally misidentified images of the iPhone's and Nexus One's calendar applications. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Nexus One by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.