The 80/20 rule, or why I chose iPhone over Android

The prelude: I’ve had an iPhone since the 3G. I love the iPhone. I’m not crazy about the rules for applications in the app store and I do wish it was a bit more customizable than it is, but as a whole package I love it. I also hate AT&T with a white-hot burning passion. Long story short, last month (pre iPhone 4) I decided to try out the new HTC Evo 4G – mostly prompted by the new AT&T packages for tethering. Plus, I’m a geek and I love to play with new toys. I’d never really played with Android, so I felt it was my duty to see what it was all about.

After about 4 days in to having the Evo, I was pretty much done with it.

The Evo is a beautiful device – it’s got a gorgeous screen, it’s fast and it supports Sprint’s 4G network (which is also pretty awe inspiring). Android is also pretty nice – had I never seen an iPhone before, I’d swear that the Evo/Android pair was the greatest thing to ever happen to technology. Unfortunately for the Evo, I have seen an iPhone before – and the Evo can’t even come close.

Why am I sticking with the iPhone over the Evo, even considering AT&T’s terrible service and worse plans? Two words – consistency and polish.

As a developer/IT worker, I’m constantly having the 80/20 rule brought to my attention. There are various permutations of what this means, but ultimately it comes down to this: implementing the first 80% of a project is easy – it’s the last 20% that’s nearly impossible to finish. In the corporate world, that last 20% is often left out – it’s disproportionately expensive to finish the last 20%, while the first 80% leaves you with a functional and usable product, albeit with a few holes.

The Android team stopped at 80%. The iPhone team finished their project.

I won’t argue specific features of iPhone vs. Android (in this post, anyway). What I’m talking about is just the general feel of using iPhone vs. using Android as your daily smartphone. Scroll between pages of apps on the iPhone – everything is super smooth. The same thing on Android (and I’m using the Evo – the flagship Android device right now) is almost smooth. Do they both get the job done? Certainly. Which feels better to use? iPhone hands down.

What about navigating around between and inside apps? On iPhone, there is an extremely detailed set of UI guidelines for non-game apps. Some argue that it’s too restrictive. Use Android for a few days and you’ll understand the genius of it. In any given iPhone app, I can almost be guaranteed that navigation between “pages” of the app will include a toolbar at the top, with a back button on the left of that toolbar. If there are multiple views, there will be a toolbar on the bottom. Editing items on a page? Almost always a button on the right of the top toolbar. Everything seems familiar.

Android is a different beast. Every app is different. There’s a hard back button on the device, but it acts differently between apps. Sometimes it’ll just back you up to pages that you’ve been to. Sometimes hitting it from the “home” page of an app takes you to settings. Sometimes hitting it from the “home” page of an app takes you back to the Android UI itself. There’s also a hard menu button on Android. Sometimes you have to use this, sometimes you don’t. It’s inconsistent between apps, and because of that you never really feel like the “master” of your Android device.

Apple took the time to eek out an extra few frames of animation in the UI. They took the time to understand the touch screen UI, and they took the time to standardize how it should all work on their device. Would the iPhone be a functional device without this last 20% of effort? Absolutely. Would it inspire such strong loyalty and even passion from its users? Not a chance. It’s almost like Google got everything in place to have an awesome platform in Android, and then just never put it all together in a cohesive package. All the parts are there, but they just don’t fit together.

I should love Android. I’m a geek, and I love to tinker with things. I WANT to love Android. Android is a tinkerer’s dream – you can tweak EVERYTHING (you can replace the built in on-screen keyboard even). iPhone is exactly the opposite – you will use it like Apple wants you to, and that’s that. And yet, after four days of using the Evo, I felt a distinct sense of relief when I picked up my iPhone again. It felt comfortable, and not constraining in any way. I can’t swap out the keyboard, but I don’t want to.

My point here is that while the last 20% of functionality might be painful and costly to implement, it also has the potential to buy you something that’s priceless – loyalty and passion about your product from your users. How many cars have you seen with Google or Android (or Microsoft) stickers on them? Now think about all the little apples that you’ve seen while driving around. Apple’s products aren’t more functional than their competitors (in fact, they’re often less feature-rich), and yet their users are like a cult.

As it turns out, that last 20% might just be worth more than the raw cost, even if it’s not immediately obvious or even measurable.

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