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The Little Things: Why I’m Done With Android

We were at the doctor’s office for a checkup on our little girl late last week, and I have a Greek class coming up – a tough class for which I figured I’d spend some time studying and preparing while waiting for the doctor. Unfortunately, I just discovered yet another of the thousand little details Google doesn’t think matter. I can’t study Greek on my phone here because Google refuses to ship (or allow users to install) a typeface that includes the polytonic Greek character set on Android. The default system font, Roboto (a poor clone of Helvetica), has accents but no breathing marks. This means that at least half the words in classical and Koine Greek are simply missing letters on any web page, and for that matter any app that doesn’t embed its own fonts.

This is not a make or break issue with the phone, but as my primary tool for mobile work in situations like this, it is quite frustrating. What is more frustrating is Google’s absolute unresponsiveness about this. There are many ways the issue could be fixed, none of them particularly complex or time-consuming (unless the folks working on android have made some really silly decisions and coupled the font deeply in the OS, which I don’t believe for a second). No, by all appearances the explanation for the still-open ticket is quite simple: Google doesn’t care.

Google doesn’t care, because Google isn’t selling Android. In fact, they’re doubly not selling Android. They don’t sell the OS or any of the applications that come with it; they give Android away for free. The Nexus program not withstanding, they don’t sell phones (or tablets); the Nexus devices are priced as break-even models.1 Google is selling something else entirely: user data.

Put another way, the reason Google doesn’t care about fixing user issues like this is because Google isn’t selling a product to those users; it is selling the users themselves. The niche concerns of a small group of people who care about typography and digital humanities aren’t a large enough blip on their data-collecting radar to begin to matter. I have no doubt there are conscientious engineers at Google who would love to fix these kinds of issues, but the entity as a whole doesn’t care about them, because I’m not their customer. Android doesn’t have to delight anyone (much less niche users like me); it just has to be cheap enough and good enough for lots of people to use it and therefore for Google to have lots of data points with which it can drive its advertising machine.

While there are companies that are selling phones running Android – most notably, Samsung – none of them appeal to me. I’ve had (and won’t have again) both HTC and Motorola now; LG perennially puts out stinkers; Samsung handsets simply don’t appeal to me. Moreover, all of them insist on burdening the Android experience with their own layers of garbage – layers that slow down and clutter an interface that is too often laggy and cluttered as it is. (I have yet to run an Android phone for more than three or four months before it becomes increasingly laggy and buggy. This is annoying, to say the least.) The manufacturers are making the problem worse, not better.

The obvious alternative, an iPhone, is probably the direction I’ll jump come my next upgrade. Windows Phone looks pretty solid in a lot of areas, but its application ecosystem makes the Play Market look like a thriving jungle of quality and innovation. The same is largely true of BlackBerry. (Both are better choices than Android in at least one way: the companies behind them are selling you a product, not selling you.) Things may change between now and next summer, but the smooth path between my Mac and the iPhone just makes that look much more sensible anyway. Toss in a company that, though it makes its missteps, cares enormously about design and getting the little details right – little details like full support for polytonic Greek characters from the very first release of the iPhone back in 2007 – and an iPhone suddenly looks very appealing indeed.

And so, while this one more annoyance isn’t in and of itself a make-or-break issue with the phone, it is the tipping point for me. It hasn’t been any one thing, and in fact there are still a number of things that I think Android does that I wish iOS did, at least in principle: widgets, for example. But then, I look at my home screen, and I have some apps there and a clock widget… nothing I’ll miss when I switch. As it turns out, that summarizes my feelings toward Android perfectly: there is nothing I’ll miss when I switch, and a lot that I will be happy to bid farewell. Especially: the cheap ripoff of Helvetica as a system font, the lack of really high-quality apps, the lousy hardware quality and cheap cameras, the steady and predictable degradation of OS and app performance over time, the lack of software updates, and (most of all) being the product instead of the customer.

And I’ll be able to review my Greek vocabulary on the go.

  1. Yes, Google owns Motorola Mobility, so in one sense Google does sell phones. However, as anyone who owns a Motorola Android handset from the last couple years knows, the fact that the company is now owned by Google has made zero difference in the either the products Motorola is selling or their attitude toward OS upgrades. Google may own Motorola Mobility, but as far as its core business is concerned, it’s largely irrelevant. That purchase, as was obvious at the time and is far more so now that everyone sees what Google has done with the company, had everything to do with patent litigation defense and nothing with interest in building a vertically integrated phone or tablet stack. That’s fine; it’s Google’s call. But Google isn’t selling phones.

    The lack of OS upgrades remains one of the perenially frustrating issues with Android for me: there is no manufacturer on whom one can rely to consistently provide OS upgrades. To wit: my wife and I are both running “Droid Razr” variants (from Motorola, the company Google owns!), and neither of them is running 4.2 Jelly Bean yet. Hers (a “Razr M”) may get it sometime this year; I doubt mine ever will. To the oft-repeated refrain, “Buy Nexus,” I simply point to the Nexus 4, with its absurd lack of 4G support. That’s simply not a purchase I was interested in come late 2012, and it certainly looks no more appealing today. Moreover, neither Google nor any Android manufacturer has the leverage to force carriers to allow upgrades, even on Nexus devices. See the fiasco with delayed updates to Nexus phones on Verizon, for example. 


  • Ahmed Fasih thought to say:

    “Android doesn’t have to delight anyone; it just has to be cheap enough and good enough for lots of people to use it.” In other words, ‘worse is better’ (see R. Gabriel, ‘The Rise of ‘Worse is Better’”, from 1991!).

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Great connection. And there are certainly a lot of areas of life for which I don’t even mind that. Unfortunately for Android, the device with which I interact second most (after my laptop, which I use constantly courtesy of my line of work) doesn’t fit in that category for me.

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • George (NYC) thought to say:

    Could not have said it better myself Chris. And now that Google broke their Navigator app (as far as I am concerned), getting an iPhone now makes way more sense to sync with my Mac than ever before. Will miss Swype and widgets among other things, but since Apple always adds features rather than takes them away —as Google is prone to do of late— it won’t be too long before all those goodies get added to iOS. And the icing on the cake will be getting the most up to date iOS version when it becomes available. No more relying on hardware manufacturers who deem the plethora of countless devices they hastily shove out their doors to no longer be worthy of wasting any more of their time or resources. So Ciao Android, it’s been real.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • George,

      1. Good!
      2. In what context? If it’s on web pages (as is suggested by your reference to Firefox), then it already does that just fine if the site is supplying its own typeface, as I do on this site. I use polytonic Greek in a number of my theology papers, and that works just fine, because the typeface is embedded. My guess is that’s the same thing going on with you, but please do let me know.
      3. Unfortunately, even if Google fixed the situation in 4.3, per one of my other points, that actually doesn’t change my situation. I’d still have to buy a new phone to get those results, since there is no chance whatsoever that my phone will ever get that update. (Not even, sad to say, by root-and-ROM, as my model never got a lot of support from that community.)
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    • Bob Almond thought to say:

      Not fixed in 4.3 for anything other than embedded fonts, as Chris says. My Nexus 7 won’t display Greek properly, and the Bible app I use doesn’t embed a font (can’t for the life of me understand why!) so Koine Greek is unreadable in any of the NT texts.

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      • Thanks for confirming that, Bob.

        I recommend taking a look at the free Logos app, which does embed its fonts—and while they’re not particularly elegant (I’ve seen much better) they at least get the job done. Unfortunately, they don’t have the Nestle-Aland text, but they do have the SBL text (which will do in a pinch, even if it has some issues).

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    • George, again, that’s only going to be when the typeface in question has support for it—and again, that hasn’t changed; it’s been true for many versions of Android, as it’s functionality specific to the app, and not to the OS. (People still running 2.3 will see the same thing.) The problem is top-level support in the typeface for the OS.

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  • Rick Morgan thought to say:

    This is my major complaint with Android as well. I use OliveTree bible software and it displays polytonic Greek just fine. When I try to read my koine Greek bible in Kindle, I see almost as many little boxes as I do actual Greek characters! Using a flash card maker gives the same frustrating results. Sad to say, I Stuff seems the only way to go to solve this problem.

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