What’s Wrong With My Phone

In my review of my new HTC Sensation earlier this month, I tried to explain how my new phone – with it’s swish and simple interface – didn’t feel quite… geeky enough for me. I picked up on the way that it’s process management works, but I’ve since realised that this is only symptomatic of a deeper problem. This is entirely to do with the difference between traditional computers (of which my old N900 was one) and modern consumer-centric devices (which, inspired by the iPod/iPhone/iPad/etc.) try to simplify things for the end-user and provide strong support for centralised repositories of pre-packaged “apps” for every conceivable purpose.

To take an example of the difference: my N900 ran Linux, and felt like it ran Linux. As a reasonably-sensible operating system, this meant that all of the applications on it used pretty much the same low-level interfaces to do things. If I wanted, I could have installed (okay, okay – compiled) sshfs, and be reasonably confident that every application on my phone, whether it’s a media player or a geocaching application or whatever, would use that new filesystem. I could store my geocaching .gpx files on an SSH-accessible server somewhere, and my phone could access them, and my geocaching app wouldn’t know the difference because I’d have that level of control over the filesystem abstraction layer.

Similarly, if I installed a game which made use of Ogg Vorbis to store its sound files, which therefore installed the Vorbis codecs, then I can expect that my media player software will also be able to make use of those codecs, because they’ll be installed in the standard codec store. This kind of thing “just works”. Okay, okay: you know as well as I do that computers don’t always “just work”, but the principle is there such that it can “just work”, even if it doesn’t always.

On these contemporary smartphones, like the iPhone, Android devices, and (I assume) modern BlackBerrys, the model is different: individual applications are sandboxed and packaged up into neat little bundles with no dependencies outside of that provided by the platform. If you have two applications installed that both use sshfs, then they both have to include (or implement) the relevant bundle! And having them installed doesn’t automatically give sshfs-like functionality to your other filesystem-accessing tools.

It’s not all bad, of course: this “new model” is great for helping non-technical users keep their devices secure, for example, and it means that there’s almost no risk of dependency hell. It’s very… easy. But I’m still not sure it quite works: I’ll bet that 90% of users would install an application that demands dubious levels of permissions (and could, for example, be stealing their address book data for sale to scammers) without even thinking about the risks, so the security benefits are somewhat nullified.

In summary:

Pros Cons
Traditional-computing device (e.g. N900)
  • User actually “owns” device
  • Applications to be combined (e.g. pipes, automation, new middleware)
  • Open-source development likely to thrive
  • User can probably “brick” device
  • Full potential requires learning investment
  • Harder to monetise platform, as a developer
“New model” device (e.g. iPhone, Android)
  • Easy for non-technical users
  • More secure (in theory) as platform exposes little
  • Centralised “app store”/”marketplace”
  • Potentially limiting for technical users
  • Only as secure as the user is savvy.
  • Centralised “app store” store can act as a “lock in”

Needless to say, the new model devices are winning, and already tablet computers powered by the very same platforms as the mobile phones are beginning to be seen as a simpler, easier alternative to conventional laptops. It’s to be expected: most of today’s users don’t want a learning curve before they can use their smartphone: they just want to make some calls, play Angry Birds a bit, keep up with their Facebook friends, and so on. But I hope that there’ll always be room for a few folks like me: folks who want to tinker, want to play, want to hack code for no really benefit but their own pleasure… and without having to shell out for a developer license in order to do so!