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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A tale of cell phones at the Googleplex

I miss the early days of the iPhone in 2007 and early 2008. Back in those days, it was still a cool thing to own one around the Googleplex. You weren't looked at like some kind of traitor just because you dared use one as your "daily driver" device. That all changed that fall when the first Android devices started rolling out.

At first, the only people carrying around those phones were the internal developers and a few trusted testers. They were these funny-looking things which resembled Blackberries, right down to the keyboard and joystick. See the picture here at Gizmodo.

Then the iPhone hit and it must have been like pushing the reset button. The next time Android surfaced, it had a huge touch screen which hid a bunch of teeny little keys. On that Friday evening in December 2008, all of the employees received one, whether they liked it or not.

They were not allowed to sell them, but they showed up as income on their taxes, and some people pushed back on this. Some basically said it's either a gift and we can do what we want with it, or it isn't, and we don't pay for it, but you can't have it both ways. I never found out what happened with that whole thing.

This started a sense of resentment inside the company. People who had worked their tails off on Android were not pleased to hear people finding fault with their device. There was squabbling. Some took the position of "you should like it, since we worked hard on it, and we're your coworkers". Others took a position of "if I have to pay taxes for it, it should actually be worth it".

Personally, I played with my phone for a little bit but found it unusable for my needs. My first guess that it was not ready for prime time is when I opened the box at work that evening. I didn't have a power outlet handy, but I did have my Macbook's USB ports right there, so I plugged it into that to start charging. A bit later, I went to power it up and I got a huge text-mode dump of some craziness and it didn't boot up.

It took me a bit to figure out that this was somehow linked to it being plugged into the computer when I powered it up. Even after I got past that, actually using the thing didn't inspire me to switch. I got over it and relegated it to the status of curiosity. I kept using my original iPhone even as more and more of these holiday phones started popping up at work, replacing the older phones many employees had.

Once in a while, I'd get a funny look or even a question about why I was using "one of those" when the company now made its own phones. Also, how could I support "those guys down in Cupertino" when they had done this, that, and the other thing? This was further reinforced in 2009 when the Nexus One was distributed to employees, and I went and got an iPhone 3GS instead.

At the time, I had no particular axe to grind with Google. It was just a simple fact that neither the G1 nor the N1 made me happy or did what I wanted. My pragmatic approach just didn't make sense to the rabid Android fanboys.

I miss those days of 2007 and 2008, back when it was still okay to like Apple around there.

I have a simple demonstration of the different approach to users these products have. Take an iPhone and plug it into a Mac. Odds are, iPhoto will pop up and it will let you import your pictures and clean out the phone. You can also go into iTunes and do whatever in there.

Now, grab a G1 or N1 and plug *that* into the same machine. Odds are, nothing will happen on your computer. For the first year or two, nothing big happened on the Android phone, either! To actually make it do something useful, you had to go into the settings menu and fiddle with the internal SD card. I think you had to manually unmount it.

Once you did that, it would appear to the Mac as any other camera, and iPhoto (or Image Capture, I suppose) would come up and let you do your thing. So tell me, what are the odds of a normal individual (who hasn't been poisoned by working on computers for years) figuring this out? Who outside of Unix geeks knows what "unmounting" means?

Newer devices improved this slightly. You now get some kind of message on the main screen and you can do the magic thing to the SD card from right there. That manages to miss the point altogether. You have two phones side by side, and one just works, and the other one makes you do ridiculous things? How can you stand behind that with a straight face?

The best part was reporting this as a bug and then finding out that nobody cared about it. Oh, they were aware. They just didn't care.

"It does that".