May 23, 2010

When Apple started the original “Switchers” ads on television I desperately wanted to get an Apple PowerBook as my computer. Its elegant form combined with the Aqua user interface and Mac OS X seemed like an unbeatable combination to me. I haunted eBay and Amazon auctions (remember Amazon Auctions?) trying to find a good used machine. Unfortunately most of the offerings were scams, each time I managed to win an auction the seller always had some reason why they couldn’t use an escrow service or otherwise complete the sale.

In January 2003 I finally bought my first Apple laptop,  a Titanium PowerBook G4, a machine I used on a daily basis until this past October when I upgraded to a new Unibody MacBook Pro. The entire Apple experience has been very satisfying for me; the applications, the fit and finish of the operating system, the community around Apple and their products. I am an Apple fanboy.

When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone three and a half years ago I was utterly taken with the device. That I could have in the palm of my hand a miniaturized computer was astounding, that it looked beautiful and performed fantastically was unbelievable.

I’ve never owned an iPhone however, at first because I was in the middle of my 2-year contract, and later due to not feeling like I could afford the extra $30 a month on a data plan. This spring, however I felt like the time for waiting and excuses was over - I was ready to get the new iPhone as soon as it was announced and available.

There were some concerns however. We live in Manhattan Kansas, which doesn’t have 3G support from AT&T yet. There are rumors that 3G support is coming “later this year,” but those rumors are now more than a year old. Even if I were to buy a new 4G iPhone after its release this summer, I would only be able to connect at Edge speeds whenever I was out of WiFi range. And people I know in town with the 3GS model complain about every call being dropped. As I only have a cellphone (no land line) I need reliability; dropped calls would be more than a nuisance, they would be unacceptable.

And I admit I have some concerns about the walled garden that Apple is building around their flagship product. I fully support Apple’s desire to protect themselves from some of the platform fragmentation issues and 3rd-party dependencies that would come with a more open platform, however, I think their heavy handiness in this pursuit will eventually cost them.

Over the past week or so I have been considering getting an Android based smartphone. Until a couple of days ago I knew very little about Android or the handsets that incorporated it, but I knew there was a large, rabidly supportive community growing around these devices. Through several of the people I follow on Twitter I tracked the announcements from Google’s IO conference this past week, including the 2.2 release of Android. As a result I have become very intrigued by the possibility of an Android phone.

Like many people my desire for a smartphone centers around convergence, I want a single device to replace three devices today: my Palm m515, my 5th generation iPod, and my Sony-Ericcson w600i cellphone. Since 1997 I have owned four Palm handhelds, starting with a Pilot and currently with a Palm m515. The m515 works beautifully but the Palm software hasn’t been updated in eons, and the synchronization and charging process is clunky. My aging iPod, stashed away in the armrest of our Honda Insight where it provides music through the car’s auxiliary channel, is over four years old now and has about an hour of battery life once unplugged. And my cellphone, while serviceable and extremely rugged, is just a phone.

I am not overly attracted to the tens of thousands of apps that are available for the iPhone. My use cases are few and rather specific. I want to read eBooks (I have over 200 eReader titles through my Palm), I want to send/receive SMS text messages, I want to interact with Twitter, I want to do email, web browsing, and perhaps instant message chat. I would make good use of maps and navigation tools, and I would love to have a GPS for tracking bicycle rides and neighborhood walks. Through my cello playing I have become aware of a couple of music related applications I would like to have, a chromatic tuner and a metronome.

Becoming more aware of the Android OS made me wonder if it was worth looking into as an alternative to an iPhone. Certainly several of the HTC designs were beautiful, and with Verizon as the provider I would have 3G service in Manhattan on day 1. Telling myself that I was only going to look and see, I stopped by the Verizon store yesterday and asked to see the HTC Incredible. Having visited a Verizon reseller on Friday who didn’t have even a mock up of the Incredible I figured I was safe. Ha. They not only had an Incredible, it was a live phone that I could interact with.

There are any number of lengthy reviews online that explore the HTC Incredible and its features in depth, so I won’t do that here. However I will say that I was extremely impressed. I think HTC has raised the bar on Apple and produced a phone that is every bit as capable, as beautiful, and as versatile as the iPhone. Moreover, give the lack of AT&T 3G coverage where I live and work, the Verizon phone is better.

Since leaving the Verizon store I have confirmed that my favorite eBook application is available for Android, as is the Twitter application I like. The chromatic tuner application for iPhone is also available for Android. The HTC web browser is webkit based, and since Android comes from Google, Gmail and Google Calendar are tightly integrated as well. As a bonus the beautifully done and highly functional chromatic tuner application for iPhone is also available for Android. In short I can find no compelling reason to not get an HTC Incredible instead of an iPhone. And I can find at least one reason to not get the iPhone (no 3G service).

I’ve spent the last 24 hours talking about every aspect of these choices with Sibylle, including comments about how wonderful it is to have a choice and to go through the angst of deciding. In the end there is only one thing that might make me regret choosing the HTC - an announcement in early June from Apple that the new iPhone will be available through Verizon. I say might because now that I’ve played with the Incredible and read reviews of the phone, the Android OS, and the HTC Sense extension, I have to say that presented with both an iPhone 4g and a HTC Incredible with equal service offerings I would probably choose the HTC.

I haven’t decided whether I should order an Incredible today, and gamble that Apple won’t announce a Verizon contract in two weeks at the World Wide Developer Convention (WWDC), or whether I should wait until after the WWDC keynote to make my choice. Everything I’ve read leads me to believe that Apple will extend their relationship with AT&T for at least six more months. I think AT&T is offering the $15 per month, no contract required 3G service on the iPad as a stay against Apple switching to another carrier. But I also recognize the goodwill people feel toward Apple is being harmed by the relationship with AT&T, and that unless AT&T vastly improves their network, and fulfills the promise of tethering, that Apple will start to pay a price for not switching.

Mostly I guess my hesitation is giving up the dream of owning an iPhone. I am disappointed that there is no 3G service where I live, and I am increasingly disheartened by Apple’s insular stance on some issues. The Verizon store is open this afternoon from noon until 6 pm. Who knows what will happen.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.