These Aren't The DROIDS You're Looking For

You know that catchy little metallic "Droid" voice that emanates from the new Verizon/Motorola/Android device released last weekend? Guess when it stops being cute? About an hour into a traffic jam on I-95, while in a Mini Cooper with two women who have to pee.

"Oh my god, Dad, make it stop!" my daughter whined from the back seat. We took the DROID on a road trip from Wilmington, Del. to Baltimore to test its various geo-location features, including the turn-by-turn navigation system baked into the device.

This nav system is a smart value-add for this model. As I argued when the G1 appeared, the Android OS offers a wholly credible alternative to the iPhone for those who eschew Apple or AT&T's network. The Verizon launch now gives people like my daughter, who is bolted to her mother's account and Verizon loyalties, a smartphone experience that approximates the iPhone's. And she actually glommed onto this phone when it came into the house and continued to hint, hint, hint, "This is a good one" for days. That is, she liked it until the DROID proved both useless and downright irritating when northbound I-95 shut down Sunday night, and we had to find an alternate route through the boonies of Maryland. And did I mention two of the three of us had to pee?

"Agh! It keeps leading us back to 95," my daughter yelled at the phone. "Take left at..." the tinny voice advised. "Shut up!" she yelled back. I passed the other smartphone in the car, my iPhone, to my partner in the passenger seat while my daughter went into her cone of silence (her iPod). It turns out that a little thing like multi-touch, which the DROID does not have currently in the U.S., is a big deal when you are scouring a map for alternate routes. Ultimately, the iPhone's maps got us onto a parallel route.

At the end of a three-hour trek that should have taken one hour, as we approach home base back in Delaware, guess what wakes from a slumber it had enjoyed through all of this. "Turn right on ..." the DROID said. Huh? Apparently the DROID and its nav device had been on all this time but waited until the final half mile of the journey to tell me how to navigate my own neighborhood.

"I hope you're going to write about this," both ladies blurted as they dashed to the bathrooms.

To be fair, the nav system generally worked fine, especially considering the cost of a dedicated device or one of the pricey iPhone downloads. At some point, however, it got befuddled when we had to go off course. DROID only found its bearings blocks from my house. Nothing is quite as funny as a dysfunctional robot trying to sound helpful and knowing.

The DROID is a fine hunk of hardware -- and it is a hunk. Chunkier and heavier than the iPhone, it has a pop-out keyboard with key faces that are so flat and flush and error-prone that it will push you back to the virtual keyboard soon enough. The display is truly gorgeous, with a longer profile and sharper detail than the iPhone. And the marketing selling points Verizon is trying to hit with this phone (better camera, removable battery, keyboard, etc.) are all true. Personally, I find them all unconvincing because none of the purported weaknesses of the iPhone strike me as deal-makers or killers. The network coverage is likely the best offense Verizon has.

I look forward to more aggressive Android development from sophisticated sources, because the current market continues to strike me as a mosh pit of open source types with way too many soundboards aimed at geeky tastes.

But it is this robot metaphor that I continue to find a bit irritating about the Android OS itself. As developers embrace the OS, which I think they will, the platforms will even out. If there is one glaring stylistic difference right now between the two app platforms, it is that Apple succeeded in humanizing the phone, while Google characteristically decided to geekify it. The Android interface is very functional. The version 2.0 interface and Market are more stylized than the first iterations, to be sure.

It still feels cold and robotic to me, not cuddly and R2D2 cute. The screens still have a bit of a jerkiness and a desktop look and feel that struggle to extend the metaphors of the last computing platform rather than imagine a new one. The drop-down and fold-up menus and windows are so PC-like I am fully expecting Apple to extend its famous ad campaign to this market any day now. "Hi, I'm an iPhone." "And I'm Android."

Google almost seems to be asking for it. In many ways the Palm Pre's OS (and even its creepy, New Age salesladies) are more approachable. I don't think this is a small thing when we are talking about a highly personal device. There are only so many Trekkies out there who think that DROID voice is cool even after the tenth utterance.

If, as Mary Meeker suggested last month, mobile represents the next great computing platform, then we have to reimagine it. The PC got its metaphors mainly from business, and the Internet was ultimately driven by Google and task-driven search.

I think the phone should go beyond both platforms and finally get human. For most of us who can't name the inventor of ArpaNet or ID Mr. Spock's parents, a phone shouldn't be a droid, even though it can unwittingly effect the comic stylings of Rosie from "The Jetsons." Most of us are ready for a valet, a concierge or a traveling companion. Preferably one that doesn't have to pee in the middle of a traffic jam on I-95.

3 comments about "These Aren't The DROIDS You're Looking For".
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  1. Matt Ellsworth from FLMSC Inc., November 12, 2009 at 6 p.m.

    well on that note, i'll keep the tom tom in the car for a little while. granted the tom tom historically gives some of the worst directions I have ever seen.

    I've had some issues with the droid finding where you are as well.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, November 12, 2009 at 6:10 p.m.

    Initially the DROID located my house about a half mile from its actual location, but it seemed to locate fine once we had a clear GPS signal.

  3. Kristin Thompson from RedShift, November 17, 2009 at 9:57 a.m.

    I am another one of those recent grads whose cell phone plan is bolted to my parents still. We are fairly verizon loyal. Never really had any problems. I was looking forward to get the droid and continuing to let dear ol' mom and pop pay for my service, but maybe its a good idea to look into making the big switch to at&t just for the iphone.

    thanks for the advice.

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