I’ve never liked Android. It’s an opinion born out of ignorance and bias: The iPhone is the only smartphone I’ve ever owned. I love it, and I think Android is generally an inferior mess. I’m OK with that. But wow, Jelly Bean: the greatest version of Android ever, cold-blooded Apple-killer. Thousands upon thousands of man-hours from one of the largest collections of smart people on the planet, explicitly devoted to winning over jerks like me. Shouldn’t that be enough? I gave Jelly Bean an open channel into my heart, using it as my only phone for nearly a month. How’d it do?
Android 4.1, otherwise known as Jelly Bean, is meant to (finally) sweeten Google’s mobile software so that it better resembles the grace of iOS. Better resembles, and maybe even beats entirely. The update’s two most important features — Project Butter and Google Now — overhaul the way you talk to and feel your Android. They’re clear attempts to slay Siri and play catch up with the absolutely flawless touchscreen fluidity of an iPhone. And that’s perfect, on paper, because the two worst things about Android are its relative sloppiness and the expertise needed to use it. It’s been a first versus third world divide.
As much as Android diehards are loathe to admit it, superficial matters. Superficial is what you’re looking at, with your eyes, almost every single day of your life. Superficial is what’s going to stimulate the important sensitive zapping parts of your brain. Superficial is why Apple put so much weight in something called Retina Display. Looks matter when you’re constantly looking, and Android’s ugly duckling software has been a fundamental hindrance since its inception. Superficial is why the iPhone feels more enjoyable to me, on a both a gut-level and the more cerebral planes. It’s been a sad gap for Google.
Not anymore. For years now, Android phones and tablets have tended toward being jittery, laggy, and jumbled. Swiping between cluttered screens earned you stutters and slips; even the simplest Google Map pinch made many phones cough. This was awful, and given the state of the art, bizarre. From its birth, the iPhone was able to slide things around on its screen like butter. It required of Google an entire aesthetic Manhattan Project, Project Butter, to get Android to where the iPhone has been all along. Google engineers labored to put a phone’s guts in perfect sync with its screen, and ramp up the way a handset’s processors render the menus we finger.
The bottom line is this: I can say, for the first time in my life, Android isn’t ugly. In fact, it’s rather pretty. Android is smooth — incredibly smooth. As smooth as, yes, my iPhone. The work Google has put into unclogging the interfaces and making pixels move at the exact same rate you touch them — a perfect 60 frames per second — is profound. It’s as if there are actual little rainbow gems and buttons under your fingertips.
This is a superficial boost, but it’s not cosmetic. Building a phone that responds the instant you touch it makes it exponentially more functional — it makes you want to use it. And given that our phones are tiny pedestrian pocket computer tools, being happy while we use them is a great thing. Tools shouldn’t feel like tools. With Jelly Bean and Project Butter, Android feels less like a wrench and more like a conductor’s wand.
Making everything buttery and luscious pays off, because Android has never given you so many worthwhile things to prod and rub. The beautification efforts that started with Ice Cream Sandwich are consummated with Jelly Bean — Android’s base no longer looks like the drunken hookup impregnation of Geocities and Tron, but has taken on an aesthetic of panels, lights, and three dimensionality that’s almost as uniquely Google as Metro is Microsoft’s and iOS is Apple’s. Almost: There’s still a whiff of generic computing as you poke around — particularly when it comes to 3rd party apps, which still tend to be ugly thanks to Google’s lax software policies. It’s jarring when you’re used to Apple’s fascistically enforced aesthetics. If you are acclimated to an iPhone, apps for Android can still make your head feel like splitting. But the daily grind is at long last more than palatable.
Within the OS itself, Android makes clear functional leaps. Pull-down notifications are more informative than ever before, giving you an instant look at which apps have updated, how far along your Facebook photo uploads are, and that your GPS is currently looking for a satellite lock. Each notification can be swiped away easily to make room for what you’d like to hold onto. My iPhone’s notification pane seems bare by comparison, merely a list. But touches like new notifications are a garnish. Google Now is the most philosophically important shift in the history of Android.
On the face of it, Google wants to make Siri out to be a plain Jane. Google Now whirls natural language speech queries and general search into one beautifully designed, ostensibly powerful hub — and it is beautiful, the perfect exemplar of Jelly Bean chic. Instead of a series of searches — thai food menu, dark knight tickets, etc — resulting in a big text vomit, you get wonderfully graphic, highly readable, thoroughly helpful cards, which pull together your location and habits. It thinks for you, providing information cues even when you haven’t ask for them. Google Now is supposed to be as smart as you — maybe even smarter. This isn’t search, it’s tell.
“Show me JetBlue flight 892″
“What’s the weather in Kazakhstan?”
But in practice it just doesn’t work out. Google Now trumps Siri in terms of speech recognition and presentation, sure, but that’s not much of a fight: Siri is shit. Google Now is shit with a ribbon. When Google Now works — Who’s the President of Israel?, followed by a voice answer and portrait with more information — it’s truly impressive. But aside from these unlikely test scenarios, these fun demos, Now never shines as a life-changer. Where’s all the creepy-smart magic Google showed off this summer? Google promised that Now would give you “just the right information at just the right time, and all of it happens automatically.” Ambitious. But absent.
At very, very few points did my Galaxy Nexus perk up of its own volition and tell me to avoid traffic. At no point did it show me the menu of a restaurant I searched for. At no point did it ever warn me it was going to rain, or prompt me with better directions to a meeting. It never felt smarter than me, better than me, or in any way intelligent. It just doesn’t do anything as advertised, and unless you’re a daily jetsetter with a sports score addiction, you probably won’t know it’s there. That’s either broken or deceptive on Google’s part, depending which way your sympathy swings. The search results are more beautiful than ever, sure, in terms of formatting. But asking the names of presidents and canyon depth with my voice and getting a formatted card in return isn’t significantly better than just looking the damn stuff up with any number of better-designed iPhone apps.
And so Android, despite its newest polish, is profoundly confused. Google poured money and effort into matching the iPhone’s grace and surpassing its intelligence, but it still feeds into the same dubious Android ethos of the past half-decade: your phone should be messed around with. And that’s still a giant appy pain in the ass: Why, in the name of Sergey Brin’s cyborg face, does Android not give you a screen alert when you receive a text? And what is the solution to this gaping functional crevasse? Downloading a third-party app. How could that possibly be construed as better than a phone working well out of the box? Android zealots beam about not being spoon-fed tech like iPhone holders; they cherish the ability to tinker with their phones, to swap ROMs, to splatter apps and widgets. And with Jelly Bean, they’ll be able to do it better than they ever have before. They’ll be able to do it with the software responsiveness and an attention to design detail everyone deserves. But Jelly Bean is a simultaneous declaration that users don’t know best, and that a top-down makeover and information IV is a good thing. Project Butter intervened to make Android look and feel good. Google Now serves you data about your life without you asking for it. Jelly Bean tacitly admits you should be fed a diet of technology.
“Give me directions to Mexico City.”
The entire conceit of Jelly Bean is a phone that’s better without you messing with it. And this is dead on, aligned with an iPhone. A phone should be beautiful when you turn it on for the first time. A phone shouldn’t just be intuitive on its own, it should have intuition of its own — it should know what’s best and right for you without you having to decide. This is antithetical to the DIY/hacker/dimly-lit workbench mentality Android has used to attract tech’s most virulent nerds, who think the solution to bad software is using more software. Jelly Bean steers toward an awkward and tenuous inbetween, and if Google’s going to slowly shift toward a Phone-Knows-Best attitude, I’ll continue to reside in the iPhone’s topiary-filled dictatorship. Because my phone should know best. It should be a tool that makes me smarter than I could ever be on my own, not some pixel erector set. Apple demands this, Google laments it.
And that’s just not enough to jump ship if you’ve been spoiled by Apple. Jelly Bean applied a powder coat of loveliness, overdue speed, and helpful tech mothering to the user experience, but doesn’t change it fundamentally. The sprawl of unruly widgets, of over-information, of inexplicably absent features — that’s all there. It just looks nice and moves better. Google Now is a quiet failure, Project Butter is a lush success, and so Jelly Bean is a strained schizoid: Google knows Apple’s spoon-fed model is virtuous. Jelly Bean didn’t make it work yet. The iPhone’s been boasting it since 2007. And so Google is posing a massive dilemma to both itself and its zealots: will Android be the rough platform of free-thinking hackers and customisation hawks, or a verdant valley of other people’s good idea? It can’t be both, and harms itself in the process. Jelly Bean, the best Android ever, is still an operating system in crisis.