iOS to Android and back again

Apr 18, 2022

I recently bought an iPhone 13 Mini, and I’m a bit grumpy about it.

I owned 5 different iPhones between 2008 and 2017. By 2017, I hadn’t been using OS X I am well aware the operating system is now called macOS: that happened after I stopped using a Mac, and since it was called OS X during the historical period when I was using Macs and that’s what I’m discussing, that’s the name I’m sticking with. for a while (I’d switched back to Linux due to a general frustration with Macs feeling like increasingly locked-down machines on top of a few years of what was widely perceived as a decline in Apple’s software quality): some of those same frustrations also applied to iPhones, and since I was no longer “in the Apple ecosystem” it seemed like a good time to see how the other half lived.

So my next phone was a Samsung Galaxy S9, and although I’d never say the Galaxies are as well-designed as iPhones, I did find Android to be a pretty refreshing experience, and I stuck around. My major criticism of the Galaxy was primarily that Samsung’s additions to stock Android were annoying & difficult to avoid, so when the Pixel 4 was released in 2019 I decided to try a first-party phone with the stock Android experience.

As a software experience, the Pixel was wonderful, but as hardware it was disappointing. Within about a year of getting it, the wireless charging & NFC became very unreliable and I eventually stopped trying to use them. A few months ago, I think I finally figured out why: the NFC chip & wireless charging coil are stickered to the back of the case, and connected to the main board not by a wired connector but by a bent bit of metal on the main board that sits under a contact point on the rear panel. The metal piece has some springiness to it, so installing the rear panel puts the metal in contact with the rear panel and compresses it enough to provide a solid connection, though it’s entirely pressure-based, there’s nothing mechanically holding the contact. Well, I say “solid”, but over time I suspect that normal use of handling the phone creates minute changes in pressure on the back of the phone, pushing that metal piece in-and-out a tiny amount, until it loses some flexibility and stops making a good connection, and NFC & wireless charging stop working. That is an astonishingly cheap & lousy bit of engineering for an $800 phone!

How did I discover this design flaw? That back panel on the Pixel 4 is held onto the rest of the case with a strip of adhesive around the entire phone’s perimeter: the adhesive on my phone starting failing a few months ago, and the back panel fell off. Also not what I would call sufficient build quality for a flagship smartphone, to put it mildly.

I considered trying to repair the Pixel 4, but I was pretty skeptical that any replacement of the adhesive or repair to the metal clip I’ve described would be much more than “very temporary”. So I started looking at new phones, and quickly ran into two challenges. First, after my Pixel experience I’m equally skeptical of the build quality of other Pixel phones, and also at this point there are effectively zero well-reviewed/well-built Android phones that are the same size or smaller (the Pixel 4 was roughly the largest I’d ever want a smartphone to be: very slightly larger than iPhones 8/9 and about the same size as iPhone 12).

So my criteria for a phone included “probably won’t fall apart in 3 years” and “fits in a pocket”, and that apparently was already a pretty tough set of criteria to satisfy. I knew going back to iPhone would satisfy those criteria, but the other criteria I wanted to satisfy that made me resistant to switch back was “run a real version of Firefox with a real ad-blocker”.

One of the greatest pleasures of using Android was that I could use Firefox for my browser, and not “the Firefox UI wrapping the Safari engine”, but actually, really Firefox. And while I do prefer Firefox to Safari and that’s nice, even better is that meant real browser plugins, most importantly uBlock Origin.

I think it’s a widely acknowledged that these days the Internet without a competent content blocker is excruciating & nigh-unusable. Safari does build in some tracker blocking, which is great, and content blocker plugins do exist on iOS, but they are much less technically capable than plugins like uBlock (no fault of the authors of those apps, it’s entirely Apple’s decision what these plugins can do). And iOS content blockers also only work with Safari itself, not other browsers on iOS like Firefox This is AFAICT: it’s tricky to actually confirm. Unsurprisingly, Apple doesn’t say it clearly anywhere that I could find, and I bet they’d get real mad at a browser vendor who tried to document this clearly. I concluded this simply based on noticing that using content blockers with Firefox on iOS didn’t really seem to help at all, and comparing web pages between Safari & Firefox on iOS, and Firefox on my laptop with uBlock. (even though every browser on iOS is effectively the Safari engine under the hood; again, this is entirely about what Apple allows, not what programmers could technically implement.) Using mobile Safari with content blockers is definitely pretty good, and certainly vastly better than using the web without any content blocking, but it is still noticeably worse than Firefox with uBlock.

It’s very difficult for me to see these policies as anything but anti-competitive, or to square them with Apple’s public stance as supporting consumer privacy protection. Lest we forget, the crux of the Microsoft antitrust trial was Microsoft’s tying together of Windows & Internet Explorer, and Microsoft’s restrictions on third-party browsers were in many ways less restrictive than Apple’s policies on iOS. Please note I’m describing Apple as anti-competitive, not monopolistic. I think the Microsoft comparison is instructive, but every time people criticize Apple’s App Store policies others point out that Apple’s market share isn’t big enough to be considered a monopoly. That’s true, but IMHO a red herring. The social & economic landscape is very different than it was 20 years ago, and even more different than when antitrust legislation was introduced over a century ago, and “market share” is not a sufficient measure of economic/cultural impact.

I’m not suggesting that Apple’s privacy stance isn’t a genuinely held belief. Features like Hide My Email & Private Relay demonstrate that it is. But Apple has a strong tendency towards paternalism, and their stance on third-party browsers & content blockers feels an awful lot like “We care about your privacy, so you can have the amount of privacy we care enough to provide for you, but you can’t trust anyone other than us to protect your privacy, and we won’t allow anyone else to even try to provide better privacy tools than we do.” Worse than a crime, I think this is a mistake.

I find this enormously frustrating & disappointing. My choices seemed to be to either buy another Android phone that would be too big and possibly fall apart quickly, or buy an iPhone that fits comfortably in my pocket and will probably still work in 5 years but has a sub-par web-browsing experience.

Ultimately I decided I was madder about buying a supposedly-flagship phone that was apparently built with paperclips and Elmer’s glue than I was about Apple’s frustratingly restrictive treatment of their platform, and I’m now the grudging owner of an iPhone 13 Mini. So far, it’s all pretty much what I expected. Apple remains peerless with industrial design and build quality: as a designed object, the iPhone physically feels streets ahead of any Android phone I’ve seen. I certainly expect it to be durable, and that’s important to me, but it’s also nice in a way that other manufacturer’s phones aren’t, and despite my relentless practicality I have to admit it’s a pleasant thing to hold and use. Needing to use Safari and seeing more ads than I’m used is annoying, but if there’s a silver lining it’s that maybe this will encourage me to waste less time surfing the web on my phone?

I don’t know that I have a worthwhile point here, but if I was trying to succinctly identify why I find all of these compromises annoying, it’s this: participating in modern society to some degree requires being connected to the Internet, using a computer & a smartphone, etc. (I realize you can get by without a smartphone, believe me, it was on my list of options this year, but I’m not quite there yet.) And these devices are expensive! So why aren’t there any unambiguously good ones? Why did I have to choose between “well made” and “behaves like a general-purpose compute device I can use how I please, not how the manufacturer wants me to use it”?

This post is already too long, but as a brief closing remark my thinking about this recently has been influenced by a couple blog posts. One was this review of the new Apple Studio Display, which elegantly describes a conflict similar to my own: feeling that in many ways Apple’s products are severely flawed and “bad deals” (in that paying a lot of money for a product you don’t like very much is never fun), but in the end they also suck less than the alternatives.

The other was Dan Luu’s recent “Why is it so hard to buy things that work well?”. There is a late-capitalism tendency to see some tropes of Capitalist thought as laws of nature, e.g. “the invisible hand of the market” will enforce efficiency and ensure that if people want good things companies will build good things, so if that isn’t what happens it tautologically means that what you think is “good” isn’t actually good (or at least what people value). It’s Leibniz filtered through Adam Smith to demonstrate why we must live in the best of all possible worlds. Dan’s writing is always wonderful, and this post is a well thought out analysis on why it so often seems that Yeats had the right of it: things fall apart, the center cannot hold.

Who knows, in another 5+ years when it’s time for another phone maybe there will be better choices available. After all, I switched from Linux to OS X around 2005 because Desktop Linux was in a miserable state at the time and OS X was “A UNIX that worked”, and when I switched back a decade later Linux was a much more enjoyable experience for me and I prefer it to macOS. Right now there are early attempts at Linux phones, and I wouldn’t touch one with a ten foot pole today, but if history repeats itself that could be a viable option in 10 years.

In the meantime, my family is just happy my text messages are blue again.

Miscellaneous nits

This is a laundry list of things I wanted to mention but they didn’t really fit into the main narrative (to the degree there is one). They’re mostly complaints about iOS, but in fairness I did also mention points in iOS’s favor when they occurred to me.

  • The Android clock app can do multiple timers. This seems like such a minor thing but if you like to cook it is enormously useful. Yes, there are apps in the App Store that can do multiple timers: all the ones I’ve tried are varying degrees of bad, and their UX is invariably worse than Apple’s clock app, which is in turn slightly worse than Google’s clock app IMHO. Pretty surprised this feature hasn’t gotten sherlocked by now.
  • On the flip side, iOS’s built-in CalDAV & CardDAV support is excellent, and Android doesn’t build that in at all. This was one of my gripes when I switched to Android, but there are apps available on the Play Store that do a rickety-but-serviceable job of acting as CalDAV/CardDAV sync daemons (and I think the fact these apps are even technically possible on Android is a point in the platform’s favor: if Apple didn’t support CalDAV I’m not sure a decently usable third-party option would be even possible), but it’s an odd omission. I presume this is Google’s own protectionism manifesting as wanting to push everyone to use GMail, Google Calendar, etc.
  • Android is pretty good at detecting when you get 2FA codes via SMS (not the best way to do 2FA, I know, but sometimes it’s the only option), and will show the message notification for longer than a regular message to give you time to type the code. It even shows these notifications with a “copy” button, so if you’re using the 2FA code on your phone directly, you can just copy-paste instead of actually typing it. iOS seems to go out if its way to not show incoming message notifications at all for senders not in your contact list—great for ignoring spam, but makes SMS 2FA much more annoying! I knew I was going to get called out getting something in this list wrong: a friend pointed out that iOS actually does pretty much exactly what I described Android doing for them, even auto-filling the code without any prompting. I can also get my iPhone to prompt to paste-in a recent 2FA code, and I also have seen iMessage notifications pop up, but I’m also confident that there have been many times where no notification popped up even though I was staring at my phone the whole time. So I should probably chalk my experience here up to “computers don’t work”, and just say that my perceptual experience was that this functionality was more reliable for me on Android than on iOS so far.
  • More generally, while Apple has better “design sense” than Google, I think Google tends to be better at “smart features”. I generally decry the rise of “smart” everything and would prefer most technology strive to be less smart, but if you’re going to try and make smart software features I think it’s critical they work pretty reliably: a “smart” piece of software that is only successfully smart some of the time is often worse than nothing.

    As an example, iOS has a “headphone safety” feature that warns you if you’re listening to your headphones too loud. That’s already pretty paternalistic, but hearing damage is pretty serious so I’m willing to see it as a useful feature. If it works.

    I make furniture as a hobby & ride a motorcycle, so I spend a lot of my weekends running loud power tools & on a noisy vehicle. I wear hearing protection! In my shop I use hearing protectors with built-in Bluetooth (these, if you’re curious) so I can listen to music while I work, and they’re great. I promise you, I know the volume level on them is fine. For one, I am aware of the risk of hearing loss, so I take this stuff seriously: I’ve been one of those guys at rock shows wearing ear plugs for years. Secondly, even when I’m not running tools my shop headphones are quieter than my usual pair of Sony WH-1000XM3, which I have worn for hours with my iPhone and gotten no noise alerts. But I’ve gotten a headphone noise alert from my iPhone every weekend I’ve been in the shop since I’ve gotten it.

    I’m not positive, but I suspect this feature is measuring noise via the mics on Bluetooth headsets, and in my case it’s also measuring the external tool noise and attributing that to my headphones themselves, not the table saw (which I can barely hear because the headphones are also hearing protectors!).

    And I totally understand that this is a weird and rare edge case, fair enough. But the infuriating part is that as far as I can tell there’s no easy toggle to turn the headphone safety notification off (there is at least one to stop it from automatically reducing volume). Helpful paternalism that looks out for your safety I will grudgingly accept, but paternalism that is so sure of itself that you can’t disable it is infuriating. These kinds of “smart” features that won’t easily acknowledge they’re not nearly smart enough put me in the mindset of Hades.

  • I had gotten to the point where every device I owned that needed to be charged used USB-C (except a Kindle, but that’s pretty tolerable since the battery lasts so long), and the iPhone is an annoying backslide. Needing just one kind of cord around for charging, and particularly when traveling, was wonderful and obviously carrying two cords isn’t the worst thing in the world but I still wish I didn’t have to do it.

    Since Apple has bought into USB-C elsewhere, including the iPad, I’m personally convinced they’re still using Lightning for the iPhone just because they still remember how everyone (unfairly) threw a fit when they switched from the old iPod 30-pin connectors to Lightning, accusing them of “gouging” and such, and they really don’t want to deal with that all over again.

  • One area where iOS is much better is OS integration with third-party password managers. I manage my passwords with pass, and there’s good apps for both Android and iOS, but the OS-level autofill integration on Android is very unreliable and I often would end up needing to manually copy-paste my password from the pass app. On iOS, the ratio is reversed: autofill almost always works, it’s been the rare times I’ve needed to manually copy-paste.