Why I've walked away from Apple

Yesterday, a friend made the mistake of asking me why I switched from iPhone to Android, on an afternoon when I had some time to kill at the airport. His response to my long e-mail was that I should publish it on a blog somewhere. I've polished it up somewhat and added a few things, and the following is where I stand on the topic of device/OS choice.

Why Android?

For me, Android was an easy choice, simply on the merits of the device. It's just-- I think fairly objectively-- better. I wrote and e-mailed this on my laptop, while wirelessly tethered to my Evo 4G-- using a free app, rather than the extra-charge Sprint plan. On the bus, I was playing one of my favorite childhood video game, using a SNES emulator that would never make it into the iTunes store.

I have full root access. I can change the frequency of the processor to save battery life. I can flash new ROMs if I want; I'll likely be installing Froyo, the new OS, well sooner than the phone manufacturer will make it available. I'm particularly looking forward to streaming music from my home machine without having it directly on the device, and Flash 10.1 support-- two new Froyo features. Speaking of Flash, I enjoy being able to look at restaurant websites, a great many of which are Flash-based.

My Android happily ingests and displays video formats that would cause the iPhone to choke. I can transfer those videos, and any other media, to and from the device like a normal hard drive. It comes with free, built-in turn-by-turn navigation. I can fully customize the UI-- themes, widgets, skins, multi-screen wallpapers. My Evo 4G has an 8 megapixel camera, and a 4.3" display.

I personally think the hardware is better-designed, too: I picked up my old iPhone for the first time in a month today, and tried to figure out how the hell to do anything without the built-in "back" and "menu" buttons. No wonder Apple has such rigid design specifications in terms of how menus can be laid out and such: they've got to make up for their hardware sho‌rtcomings.

I can now get calls in my apartment-- and pretty much anywhere else I've been in the last month-- through Sprint. And their 4G in much of Chicago is better than my home DSL.

The iPhone 4? None of the above. I think the case for Android is an open-and-shut one.

Walking away from Apple

Less obvious, and less clear-cut, is my decision to eschew Apple in my personal life. It's an unusual position to take, given the role that Apple plays in my work life. Everyone with a laptop in my group has a Mac. The computers in our mini "lab" for faculty are Macs. One of my people has been developing software for the Mac (and, more recently, iOS) since before I was born. I'll be managing an adoption project for Project Bamboo that involves using scholarly servies via an iPad app, and one of our ongoing projects is investigating interesting scholarly applications for the iPad. I recently had lunch with the university's Apple reps to talk about their role on campus, and what they can do to whip up some excitement about developing for the iOS platform.

The easiest and most natural thing would be to let Apple permeate my personal technological life as well. I already have access to some of their best, most "magical" products as part of my work. And I used them for quite some time, since I started my job, three years ago yesterday.

I haven't thrown out the cobbled-together old PowerPC Franken-towers I inherited over the years (that would just be stupid-- we use them as a TV replacement), but my husband and I are pretty committed to never purchasing another device from Apple. (As it happens, the only ones I've ever purchased myself have been two iPods and the iPhone in 2008.)

Other than when I end my day far away from my office, I leave my Macbook Pro at work. I have a laptop running Ubuntu, with a big Ubuntu sticker (and a smaller Tux sticker) on the lid-- that's my primary machine outside of work. I find it a little distasteful going out in public with my work Macbook; I do not want to be part of the walking ad campaign for Apple. A remark made at the most recent Bamboo workshop, about almost all the laptops in the room being silver Macs, made me wince.

Why, you may ask?

I've never been thrilled with Apple's tight-- and at times, seemingly arbitrary-- grip over the iTunes store. I'm not a fan of their continued use of DRM on videos that people purchase. Or their inclination to restrict what people do with their hardware, like their efforts to brick jailbroken iPhones, or claim that jailbreaking a device is illegal. I was even less thrilled with their abuse of the patent system (yeah, I know everyone does it), applying for unreasonably broad patents and filing suit against HTC.

But frankly, the final straw for me was their change in developer policy for iPhone apps. To a certain extent, if you buy into the Apple world, that comes with restrictions. It's a decision, it has consequences for the buyer, fine. But banning cross-compilers has an effect on the entire mobile ecosystem. Telling developers they have to choose-- iPhone, the biggest platform, or other devices-- will probably have a chilling effect on what's available on all platforms. It penalizes people who haven't made the choice to opt into the Apple world. A couple days after I heard about that announcement, when I'd had a chance to give it some serious thought, I sat down and bought a reasonably priced laptop that I could install Ubuntu on. And I've had no regrets.

This, though, I will say: Apple strikes me as a legitimate option. Ubuntu is getting much, much better than even a year ago, in terms of ease of use, working out-of-the-box, and not making people go to the "scary" command line to fix things. But when things don't work, there's still the need to do some troubleshooting in ways that most people aren't used to, and I can understand why people who want nothing to do with tweaking any settings, who want something that other people will know and recognize and can help with, who aren't "computer people" or willing to stick a toe into that world-- I can see why they might want to go the Mac route. Windows, I don't understand, other than as a side option for people who have to use Windows-only applications that can't run on Wine. Why on earth would you choose both "proprietary" and "sucks"? The relative cost compared to a Mac is the only factor I can think of, though when my husband found himself in that situation a little over a year ago-- needed a new laptop, couldn't stomach Windows, couldn't afford a Mac-- it compelled him to try Ubuntu. He's not the biggest techie by nature, but it only took him a week or two to become a huge fan of Ubuntu.

I'm not in that position, though. I'm a-okay with fiddling with things-- hell, I even enjoy it sometimes! Freedom (as in speech) and openness are very important to me; I can't really write code, but I license everything I do using Creative Commons. I'm not a fanatic-- when there are applications I really need where the open source equivalents are simply not up to par, and if I have to choose between not getting the results I want and using proprietary software, I'll go with the proprietary software. (I'm sorry, PicSay Pro on my Android has better brightness and contrast than GIMP. The ability to run Photoshop on Wine was non-negotiable for me when setting up my Ubuntu system.)

Why I support open source: an anecdote

Every now and again, something happens to remind me of the value of the open source community, rather than a tight-lipped corporation calling all the shots. I think it's fair to say that the Mac developer in my group is one of the world's Xcode experts. He's even written two books on the topic.

But right after his last book went to press-- when it was too late to make revisions-- Apple announced development for the iPhone. Since his book didn't cover iPhone development, this sudden and badly-timed news from Apple cut the book off from a large potential audience. And just a few weeks ago, as he was finishing up a new edition-- 350 pages, ready to go-- Apple announced Xcode 4 at WWDC. He has to start over.

Banning cross-compiling for iOS applications, keeping major changes under wraps and springing them on developers without giving them a heads-up that would allow them to make more informed choices, an iron fist of control over the only legit channel for obtaining applications, and an inclination to change the TOS for that channel to suit their own purposes-- leaving people no real recourse if they don't like those changes. Given all this, I cannot support Apple.

Thanks to Steve for prodding me to publish this, Google for releasing their Android logo under a Creative Commons Attribution license, Ben Bois for submitting an iPhone to OpenClipArt, and Randall Munroe for licensing xkcd under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

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