Three Android lessons learned the hard way

By Jonathan Blum, contributing writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Watch out, iPhone.

After a slow start, Google has stealthily become a key player in the smartphone field. Essentially every major cell phone maker -- HTC, Motorola, Samsung, Sony Ericsson -- now ships a phone based on Google's Android platform. Many more gadget companies make Android-powered devices, and embedded technology developers like Wind River Systems are taking Android into products like thermostats. I've even spent the afternoon noodling with an early prototype of an Android microwave oven from San Francisco-based Touch Revolution's coming line of Android-powered appliances.

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Android-powered phones can multitask -- but not always smoothly

Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) CEO Eric Schmidt says 60,000 Android units are shipping per day as of 2010's first quarter. That's more than 20 million units annually -- within striking range of the 30 million iPhones Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) is on track to sell this year.

So should you hop on the Android bandwagon?

Be wary. Here's what I've learned deploying Android phones throughout my business.

Lesson #1: Unless you're careful, too much software brings Android to its knees.

Google made its mobile computers like any computer: They run more than one program at a time. Android phones can multitask mobile stuff like telephony, SMS and e-mail with complex apps like turn-by-turn directions, accounting packages and social networking tools.

Initially, all this Android worked well. But as our demos wore on and we loaded more apps, installed more contacts and sent more e-mail -- that is, as we did more real business -- all these programs running at once stressed the phones' limited processors and memory. Performance began to lag. And I mean, lag.

At first, advanced apps like Facebook faltered. But eventually even core stuff like e-mail, SMS and yes, telephony, grew unstable. Android phones offer utilities to turn apps on and off, which helped a little, but we could only reliably restore performance, a la Windows 3.0, by deinstalling programs until things started working again. Also, resource-intensive apps were not what we expected: It turned out media software like that from The New York Times, Fox News and CNN crippled the phones we tested the most. Who knew?

Google says it is not responsible for how third-party apps perform on its phones, and it stands behind the performance of Android in its factory configuration. But a company representative said users need to take a common-sense approach to how many apps are running on a phone and be aware when they overwhelm the resources of the device.

For small businesses trying to have an app-savvy Android phone that still runs, nothing will beat trial and error. Plan on carefully testing apps on your businesses phones before unleashing them on your entire operation. Trust me, nothing is more frustrating than not being able to answer a client's call because ESPN Mobile is installed.

Lesson #2: Relying on voice recognition for business tools is a no-no.

Google has made great play of its new voice recognition tools, which are featured on most Android devices. And for simple business tasks -- like saying "Dial Steve" in a quiet office -- the system brings a hip, gee-whiz factor to your business day.

But take an Android phone out into the real world -- say, in a car trying to get to a pitch meeting -- and the voice recognition falls flat.

In more than six months of testing this service in noisy vehicles, across many phones, we couldn't get it to work even once. This would be just another loose bell-and-whistle if not for the fact that voice recognition is critical for many of the in-car features that we small business people rely on. Navigation, messaging and telephony run much better when you don't have to mess with hand-entered data.

Google maintains that its voice recognition software is stable and opens its device to many new uses. But a company spokeswoman acknowledged that it's also "a work in progress" and will evolve.

Which means that no matter how late you are to that sales call, if you're using advanced tools like Google Maps Navigator or you need to send e-mail, your best bet is to pull over and use your hands to enter data.

Lesson #3: Assume that you, your employees and your customers won't be able to read much on an Android phone.

I'm sorry, but this one is really a black eye for Google: Without exception, every Android device we touched relies on tiny type -- like 4 points or smaller -- to display data on ludicrously crowded text-oriented user interfaces and menus.

I am blessed with decent vision, but many of my employees are not. Certain functions -- system controls, advanced search, shopping for apps on the Andriod Market -- required reading glasses, very bright lights and even a magnifying glass from time to time.

Google said other have reacted negatively to text size and layout; our issues were not unique. In fact, the operation is working to improve its devices' usability by those with vision problems. A company spokeswoman would not comment on when these upgrades might be made, but my read is that larger type and other improvements will come in new versions of the code.

The bottom line is that you will need to be careful in picking features to use during your workday. Basic tools like e-mail can work just fine, but be skeptical about how advanced tools like word processing, graphic attachments and complex spreadsheets will function on Android devices.

These phones aren't yet reliable for all your business needs. To top of page

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