What's wrong with Google's Nexus One phone and Android operating system.

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Feb. 9 2010 5:48 PM

What's Wrong With Android

If Google fixes one simple thing, its operating system will surpass the iPhone's.

Nexus One. Click image to expand.
Nexus One

When Google launched the Nexus One in January, the company hit on an odd bit of marketing to distinguish the new phone from its rivals. This was a "superphone," Google said—every other cellular device on the market was merely "smart." The designation didn't make much sense—despite what Google would have you believe, the Nexus One doesn't have any major features that set it apart from other top-of-the-line phones. It makes calls, does e-mail, and browses the Web; so do the iPhone, the Palm Pre, various BlackBerrys, and every other Android phone. All top-end smartphones have Wi-Fi, 3G, and GPS. They've all got app stores that can give you access to a wide variety of third-party programs. And though smartphones come in two distinct hardware flavors—either with or without a physical keyboard—they are all very pretty to look at.

If you're looking to buy a new smartphone, then, the most important thing to ask isn't "What does it do?" Instead, it's "How does it do it?" Phones that seem identical on paper turn out to be wildly different once you turn them on. The most important feature on any phone is one rarely mentioned in a spec list: the operating system. If the OS is clunky and overstuffed, like what you'll find on the BlackBerry, you'll have a devil of a time doing everything on your device. If it's stylish and intuitive, like the iPhone's, you'll find your phone a pleasure.

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So where does the Nexus One fall in that range? Right near the top. I've been using Google's new phone for a month, more or less as a replacement for my own phone, the iPhone 3GS. Google has described the Nexus One as a kind of concept car for its open-source Android platform—the company designed the phone from top-to-bottom in order to show off how awesome an Android phone can really be. To that end, the Nexus One succeeds. If I were forced to give up my iPhone, I'd replace it with a Nexus One.

But I hope that doesn't come to pass. I like the Nexus One, I really do—but it has a long way to go to catch up with Apple's device.

The essential problem is that Android's interface is much less intuitive than the iPhone's. Much of the OS's functionality is hidden—Android can do a lot, but unlike the iPhone it keeps many of its options stuffed in menu bars. As a result, the Nexus One asks new users to climb a steeper learning curve. You've got to poke around every program to find out how to do its most basic tasks. Even once you've learned the easy stuff, the OS is still a struggle—it takes several steps to do something on Android that you can do in one step on the iPhone.

To illustrate my point, look at both phones' calendar programs. Here are shots of each phone's "month view"—the Nexus One is on the left, and the iPhone on the right: *

Comparison

As you can see, the Nexus One's screen offers a bit more detail than the iPhone's. It gives you a little indicator bar next to each day of the month to show how much of the day has been booked up, while the iPhone adds only a small bold dot on any day with an appointment—which doesn't tell you much in a quick glance.

But say you want to change your calendar—if you need to add an appointment or switch to a daily view, for instance. Even if you've never used one before, it's obvious how you'd do so on the iPhone—every button is right on the screen. To add an appointment, just click the plus sign in the top right corner. To switch to a daily view, hit "Day." To look at another calendar, tap the "Calendars" button.

Doing those same things on the Nexus One isn't as obvious, because many of its functions are hidden in a list of options that require you to hit an additional button first—the phone's universal Menu button, which is not on the screen but under it, one of four built-in buttons below the screen. To add an appointment, you've got to hit Menu first, then click the Plus icon. To switch to the weekly view, do the same thing—first hit Menu, then choose the weekly option. But that's not all: There's another menu button hidden under this menu. When you hit this menu-within-menu, you'll get another list of options, including one to adjust which of your calendars is displayed—an option that, on the iPhone, is presented on the calendar's main screen.

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 a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.