When it comes to mobile operating systems, a person's preferences are quite possibly the most nitpicky preferences of all. For instance, I prefer a repeat notification LED on my phone instead of the entire display lighting up. I also prefer reminder notifications to be stored in my status bar instead of badges on individual icons or folders. I could go on and on about the tiniest things that probably wouldn't matter to you or the next guy. The point is, what I may see as a benefit of a platform, you might view as a drawback, and vice versa.
Earlier today, however, I was reading an article that was brought to my attention by a reader. In the article, Why Ice Cream Sandwich won't be able to save Android tablets, Jason Perlow of ZDNet talks about how despite major improvements in performance and responsiveness, the Ice Cream Sandwich update "doesn't address the fundamental flaws with Android on tablet computers."
Perlow explains that he used a Galaxy Nexus and a Motorola XOOM with a build of Ice Cream Sandwich to compare the software between handset and tablet form, and concludes that "at the very least, the configuration screens look pretty much identical, and for the most part there is a large amount of consistency in the UI dialogs on applications that run on both the smartphone and tablet builds." But he also says that there are some outlying issues he had with Honeycomb that were not fixed in Ice Cream Sandwich and he still has a sense of "mental context switch" between the phone and tablet interfaces.
For the record, he is 100 percent correct. In Ice Cream Sandwich, which is the merge point for tablet and phone software for Android, tablets use a different launcher than phones do. The differences are pretty minimal, but they are unquestionably there. One of the biggest and most blatant is how notifications are done. On a phone, notifications are accessed by a pull-down menu, and incoming notifications are previewed in the status bar. On the other hand, notifications on a tablet running Android 4.0 are accessed by a tap in the lower right corner of the Action Bar, and incoming notifications pop up growl-style, temporarily blocking the other notifications. The interfaces look mostly the same, but they are different, and that's a very important point made by Perlow.
That said, it's about the only thing he mentioned that I can agree with. He goes on to say that these inconsistencies, the lack of application support, the poor ergonomics of Android tablets and lack of user friendliness will keep Android tablets from having a successful year in 2012. That is, unless they are Amazon tablets. Functionality, choice in size, price and design apparently hold no weight. But I digress. I'm more worried about the issue with a "mental context switch."
Perlow said he was hoping for pull-down notifications for tablets in Ice Cream Sandwich. That's the last thing I want on a two-handed device. Unless you have the tablet docked in (or propped on) something, pull-down notifications would force you to shift your grip and bring one hand to the top of the device to access notifications. If you're holding the device with both hands, gripping the lower corners, notifications are always within thumb's reach. Like I said, it's all about preferences, the little things.
These particular differences, though, shouldn't be viewed in such a negative, biased light. They should be interpreted simply as what they are: differences.
Note that his contrast to this is switching between an iPad and iPhone. Both of these iDevices run iOS 5 and the experience between the two, from performance to actual interface interaction, is almost completely identical. Even the notifications are exactly the same – both are accessed by a pull-down shade and unattended notifications are badges on the app icon. This is great for people who want a completely unified experience across all of their mobile devices.
Needless to say, I'm not one of those people. I want that slightly different (but same) experience on a tablet. These differences aren't inconsistencies; they're necessary changes that accommodate to different screen sizes.
Let's face it, there need to be minor differences in interfaces between phones and tablets. In fact, my least favorite thing about the iPad was the fact that the interface was almost identical to the iPhone's – so much real estate is wasted or not optimized for such a large display. What works well on a 4-inch display might not work as well on a 10-inch device. Notifications, for example, are just fine in the tablet version of Android 4.0, but a pull-down menu would be a slight inconvenience, solely based on how I normally hold the device. The bottom icon dock on the phone version of ICS would look ridiculous and would be ineffective on a tablet. Instead, accessing the application drawer by a button in the top right corner is more effective and flush. Lastly, when you rotate the Galaxy Nexus to landscape, the soft buttons "stick" to the sides. If they moved to the bottom of the display in landscape mode, they would take up a significant amount of important space. On a tablet, however, the buttons always change orientation with the rest of the interface, always sticking to the bottom of the display. It matters less where the buttons are on a tablet because the display is large enough to where I'm not worried about how much space they take up, landscape or portrait.
What say you, readers? Do you find the minor differences between Ice Cream Sandwich on tablets and phones to be a bad thing? Or, like me, do you see the differences as necessary due to the differences in display sizes?