Not long ago, I did a very bad thing: I dropped my iPhone 4 and cracked the screen. I was very sad, but the experience proved useful as it forced me to face up to my phone future. Did I want a new iPhone 5 or was it time to switch to a different brand of smartphone?
The timing of my little iPhone disaster was fortunate - right as my two-year contract was ending and just days before the iPhone 5 was announced.
But I swear I didn’t break it on purpose, it just slipped from my hand as I was taking it out of my pocket. The poor thing landed face-down on concrete, and at first I thought it had survived intact. Then I picked it up and saw the entire screen covered with spider cracks. It still worked fine, but it looked bad.
Galaxy Nexus To The Rescue
Fortunately, I had access to a Google Galaxy Nexus Android smartphone from the Google I/O conference. While I figured out what to do with my damaged iPhone, I slipped the micro SIM card into an adapter and powered up the Nexus.
It was a moment of truth.
At first, everything went well. Because I use Gmail for email and calendars and contacts, it was super easy to get all my personal info back on the phone. (It took a little work to get my ReadWriteWeb email on there, but I was able to solve the glitches without involving the IT department.) And most of the apps I use on the iPhone were available on Android, or there was some reasonable equivalent.
So while I was having have the iPhone 4 screen replaced for $90 by a friendly man in a tiny room in a non-descript San Francisco office building, I spent some time getting to know Android again.
Not New To Android
I’m hardly an Android virgin, as I’ve used an HTC Evo as well various Android tablets. But relying on Android as my go-to smartphone was a surprisingly big leap.
Or it should have been. I was repeatedly struck by just how similar - or at least equivalent - to iOS Android seemed. Not vastly better. Not signficantly worse. Just slightly different, like getting on a plane in New York and getting off in London. Everything worked much the same, but the cars were all driving on the other side of the road.
I got used to the Nexus' flimsy plastic back, and I liked the bigger screen. I really liked the superior Gmail implementation, too - not to mention the ability to completely avoid iTunes. And Google's voice control was nice after having been denied Siri on my iPhone 4. The camera seemed better than the one on the iPhone 4, though not as good as on newer iPhones. Whatever the specs, performance seemed pretty similar, but battery life was noticably shorter on the Nexus.
I did miss group texts with my iPhone-carrying family and friends, but Facebook Messenger proved an acceptible workaround. And while I like FaceTime (and I'm not a fan of Skype on smartphones) I could still videoconference with the iPhone legions using an iPad or a Mac.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
Here’s the thing. If I had started with Android, I would have seen little reason to switch to the iPhone. But since I’m already invested in the iPhone ecosystem, I don’t really see the point of switching to Android, either. (Though I am concerned about the new iPhone 5 connector.) When I popped the SIM card back in my iPhone, it was kind of a relief, like welcoming back an old friend. If I was a full-time Android user, though, I'd probably feel the same way in the other direction.
That's actually a big deal. Even though the two platforms seem roughly equivalent in many ways, switching back and forth is still relatively difficult. Not only because of what they can or can't do - both Android and iOS are pretty amazing by any rational standard. But also because of their slightly different approaches to the things we do every day. It reminds me of switching back and forth between Mac and Windows and having to remember whether to use the Ctrl key or the Command key to do essentially the same things.
Those little differences are not trivial for smartphone makers, because it suggests it won't be that easy to steal users from each other - growth will have to come from new users or from dying platforms like BlackBerry. And that means new entrants like Windows Phone 8 will have to offer something pretty spectacular to find a place.
There are other Android phones to consider, of course, some that might theoretically appeal to me enough to make the switch. I love the really big screen on the Samsung Galaxy Note, for example, and I’m looking forward to the Galaxy Note II, even if I'd have to buy pants with bigger pockets.
But many of those phones don’t run Jelly Bean, the latest version of the Android OS, like the Nexus I was using. And others add their own user interfaces on top of Android, and I certainly don’t want yet another interface to get used to.
The iPhone 5 Factor
Plus, when I checked out a new iPhone 5, it reminded me of what I liked about the iPhone in the first place: elegance, industrial design, spit-and-polish and fewer rough edges. And even though the screen still wasn’t as large as I would like, the iPhone was lighter-weight and worked a lot faster than my old iPhone 4.
So there you have it. I’m biting the bullet and ordering a brand new 32GB iPhone 5. For now, I’m confident that it’s the best available choice for me. I don’t know if that will still be true in two years when my contract runs out (I wondered the same thing when I bought the iPhone 4, and frankly the competition is already much tougher than it was two years ago) but I’ll worry about that in 2014.
In the meantime, anyone want to buy a slightly used iPhone 4 with a brand-new screen?
Lead image by Eliot Weisberg for ReadWriteWeb.