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I'm Dave, one of the founders of the Recurse Center.

Is Android the new Eclipse?

March 13, 2010

I want to get rid of my iPhone. Just about every move Apple has made in the last 3 years with the exception of making absolutely gorgeous products has pissed me off (think DRM issues, closed App Store, removing apps months after they’ve been approved, the Google Voice fiasco). I want desperately to vote with my wallet and buy something new, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

The obvious choice for me is an Android phone like the Nexus One. The code is open, the platform is permissive – you can install apps from other sources besides the Marketplace – and it has a soft keyboard (this takes WebOS out of the running for now), but it’s not enough. My apps aren’t holding me back. I can drop most of them, although I think I’d miss Tweetie. It’s the little things like scrolling that mess me up: Android’s friction coefficient is all wrong and for some reason the lack of spring back when you reach the end of a scrollable area really irks me. These things just work better on my iPhone. Despite my philosophical misgivings I chose to use my iPhone because my smartphone (or should I say, my com) is such a big part of my life. I can’t live with anything less than beautiful.

Enter iPad

I think the iPad is the future of computing and I want one desperately. Even my Dad wants an iPad. I don’t want to buy one though. I have to draw a line in the sand somewhere (This doesn’t mean I’m not going to get one, I want to leave room to compromise my principles later). What I really want is a tablet and phone made by a company with as much design sense as Apple, but without the need to lock it down. I don’t even care if it comes locked down as long as the company that makes it provides a way for me to set it free (props to Google for doing this with the Nexus One).

Now let’s imagine a company wants to make one of these imaginary tablets. What platform do you think they’re going to use? Duh, Android. It is a well supported, free OS with an existing install base, platform support, and apps. Except I don’t think an Android tablet would be any better (and possibly worse) than an Android phone. You’ll notice that Apple designed a whole bunch of new interface elements for the iPad that the iPhone won’t have.

Android as the new Eclipse

I recently saw Code Bubbles. I think it’s the coolest and possibly most game changing development tool in a long time. Then I heard it was based on Eclipse and my heart sank just a bit. Eclipse is the de facto open source IDE (an application used to help develop software, for all you laypeople). In fact, it’s not even just an IDE, it’s a platform for creating other IDEs. This is presumably why Code Bubbles’ authors chose to build their project on top of Eclipse. So much is provided for free: syntax highlighting, debugging, build system integration, cross platform GUI libraries. The works. There’s just one problem: all of these freebies are only good enough. I develop in Eclipse at work and have no problem doing so, but there are a bunch of little quirks that get to me. It feels as if it were designed by committee and it shows.

When you go to develop a new IDE, do you start from scratch? No, you start from Eclipse. When push comes to shove, it doesn’t matter about all the quirks, it just matters that you get all those free features. A couple of people can execute their new IDE idea in a reasonable amount of time by basing it off of Eclipse. To build a whole IDE from scratch, you need many months, if not years, and a huge team. The same is true of Android. If you want to make a new piece of mobile hardware, Android’s a no brainer. It takes enough resources to get your hardware, ID, mechanical, project management, and manufacturing teams executing together. If you decide to start from scratch, you need a gaggle of software engineers as well as graphic designers and interaction designers. Oh, and you’re expected to come up with at least a few new UI ideas if you really want to be considered a serious player and not just an iPhone or Android clone.

The Upside

So what of my iPad competitor? Will I have to chose between a beautiful device that I am philosophically opposed to or a device that is just adequately designed but allows me to sleep soundly at night? I don’t think the picture is that grim. I’m intrigued by Windows Phone 7 Series (yes, a gross name). There has clearly been a lot of good thought put into its design, and competition always drives the market towards something better. There are also important differences between Android and Eclipse. At this point, as I understand it, Eclipse truly is designed by committee. Android, on the other, hand has a strong captain in Google with a firm hand on the helm. Google’s design philosophy might be skewed too far towards the logical and analytical for some, but it has created some absolutely beautiful products. Gmail has set the standard for how webmail, and frankly all email, should operate, and Chrome blows Safari (and everyone else) out of the water in terms of design and usability (its tab closing behavior has been lauded and its tab to search feature is the number one thing I can’t live without in a browser).

While Android isn’t exactly where I want it to be, it has improved in leaps and bounds since it’s 1.0 release just one and a half years ago, and sooner than later, an Android device will be ready to replace my iPhone. The only question is, what will Apple be making then?

Oh, also, I want an iPad now.