“Our community demanded a newer, faster processor than the one we had originally planned. So we put a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor in the OnePlus One,” a OnePlus spokesperson said on stage a few days ago, detailing the role the user community played in determining the hardware of the OnePlus One.
A number of people in the audience applauded, but a senior tech journalist sitting next to me, gently whispered, “But why on earth would they do that? What are they running on 801 that won’t run on the 800?” To the hardware gurus, such a statement would have been tantamount to tech sacrilege, but that statement highlights a rather stark fact: hardware has of late become a point to boast about at conferences and launches rather than something to facilitate better performance in most Android flagships. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying the new hardware does not deliver a great experience to the user. It’s just that especially over the last year and a half, I have begun to wonder if most users actually need the sort of horsepower being served up by Android flagships.
Good? Yes. Much better? Well…
I managed to get my hands for a few hours on the Nexus 6 two days ago. I think it is rather embarrassingly large by Nexus standards, but for those few hours, I had a fantastic experience in terms of performance. Apps ran beautifully, browsing the Web was a pleasure, and the large display really made gaming an absolute delight. All in all, size aside (and I am sure one could get used to that, it was an awesome experience).
Right. Now put any of “OnePlus One”, “Samsung Galaxy Note 4,” “HTC One M8”, “LG G3”, “Sony Xperia Z3,” “Moto X (2nd generation), “Xiaomi Mi 4,” “Lenovo Vibe Z2 Pro” in place of “Nexus 6” in the paragraph above. And you do not need to change anything else – every other word in that paragraph applies to these devices as much as it does to the Nexus. In fact, I will go further. Take the ‘awkward size’ out of the equation and place the more than a year old Nexus 5, Xiaomi Mi 3 or the LG G2 in that paragraph in place of the Nexus 6. The paragraph will STILL read fine.
Which brings me back to what my colleague said at the launch of the OnePlus One. Yes, a particular community of users might have demanded a newer processor. But what on earth for? Boasting rights? Higher benchmark scores? I might be wrong, but one cannot escape the feeling that Android flagships are becoming involved in a tech spec race, where the hardware is overshadowing the very OS it is supposed to run on. It is a bit like saying that you have launched a car that can run at a speed of 200 miles an hour. It sounds impressive to the expert, but at the end of the day, most users will drive it on a congested urban road where traffic moves at not even a fourth of that speed.
Android’s appy blues
And this is particularly the case with Android. There are so many so-called “flagship devices” around and all of them have great spec sheets, much better than what they were a year ago. But in real performance terms, well, the Android experience has been more or less the same for a while now. Newer icons, yes, material design, yes, but at the end of the day, a person who uses Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, e-mail, Chrome and Flipboard and plays Temple Run, Angry Birds and the latest edition of FIFA Football on their device will not notice a significant bump up in performance, notwithstanding all the “enhanced” hardware.
Other platforms have fewer flagships (they are less popular too, we concede), and consequently the performance of new devices is discernibly superior to that of older ones – an iPhone 6 Plus makes an iPhone 5S look slow in many tasks, a Lumia 930 makes the Lumia 1020 seem awkward and laggy, the BB Passport is a clear notch above the Q10. In each case, a user is motivated to move up to a newer device for a better experience – Infinity Blade 3 plays delectably on the iPhone 6 Plus, Photoshop Express runs brilliantly on the Lumia 930, the BB Passport handles spreadsheets better than any BB in history. In Android, however, the stress seems to be on hardware. For, let’s face it, the experience is not really changing. A number of people still test Android devices using Temple Run: Oz, a game that is more than a year old, and we have lost count of people who try to gauge the speed of an Android device by just seeing how quickly menus and home screens scroll. A device like the OnePlus One comes with terrific hardware but most people will use it to run apps that were designed for older devices. In fact, many Android apps have still not been optimised for full HD displays, even as flagships get into quad HD mode!
Whatever happened to the Android experience?
In fact an increasing number of users are evaluating Android devices purely by their spec sheets – RAM, battery life, cameras and processor cores. Which is horribly unfair to the world’s most popular mobile OS. Because honestly, the way things are, it does not need all that muscle to deliver a great experience. Android One proved that.
Yes, we know the march of hardware progress is inevitable. Processors will get better, RAM will increase, storage capacities will go up, cameras will improve and so on. But all that hardware is of little use if there are no apps that make the most of it. And that unfortunately is what is happening on the Android front. No matter what geeks on different consumer fora ask for, what Android needs right now is killer apps. Apps that make users realize the difference between a LG G3 or a Nexus 6 and its predecessors in a stark manner, rather than in edits and page turns that are milliseconds faster and barely noticeable. As Raju PP notes, whenever a new iOS version is announced or a new iPhone is released, Apple ropes in few developers to showcase a couple of unique apps to make use of the new hardware/software. Hardly ever the case with Android. Hell, Google didn’t even bother to have a launch event for Nexus 6.
To sign off with the automobile simile: Android has the drivers and the cars. What it needs is a road for them.