Eric's Technical Outlet

Learning the hard way so you don't have to

How Android 4.2 and Firefox 19 Made Me Miss Microsoft

During the last couple of presidential cycles, the opposing candidate did a better job of getting me to vote against him than his rival did. The latest versions of Android on my phone and Firefox on my desktop are doing the same thing. Here I am, with papers to write for University, a major project to produce work for, and I need to get it all done in time to get some decent sleep because I need to be well-rested for my day job. But my normal tools of choice are holding me back. The bad thing is that they’re the ones that were supposed to save us from the bloated, unstable, user-unfriendly competition. The saviors have become the monsters.

Firefox 19

I had an upgrade notification for Firefox today, so like a good little user, I let it happen. I haven’t seen any purpose in upgrading since about version 8, but I do it anyway. I noticed that somewhere around version 14, Firefox performance had started to get noticeably bad. Anytime it needed to load something and it didn’t immediately come up, the entire browser would freeze, every single tab, until whatever that minor piece was had loaded. What made it especially annoying was that it seemed like it was really struggling on things like analytics measurements and advertisements, not useful content. So, I think I’ve stayed on the upgrade cycle in the hopes that they’d eventually get around to making it perform at least as well as Firefox 3 did.

The upgrade finished and the browser restarted. I went to my blog page<crash>

I reopened Firefox and went back to my previous tab<crash>

Restarted it again<crash>

Went to another p<crash>

R<crash>

Maybe I can go h<crash>

Yeah, done. I haven’t uninstalled Firefox, but I’m on the verge. The Firefox team of the last year or so has one and exactly one purpose: new version numbers. Quality control, testing, basic due diligence — all those things are a relic of Firefox teams past. I’ve dealt with their slowness, their nanny-state treatment of SSL pages, and their utter inability to make software that is a reasonably decent corporate citizen all over a couple of plugins that are no longer worth the hassle. The truth is, Firefox’s only value point has always been its plugin support and it owes the entirety of its continued existence to that community. Unfortunately, even the valiant efforts of those brave souls can’t keep this embarrassment alive forever. I’m sure I’m not the first to give up and go search for a browser programmed by individuals who could make it all the way through a Programming for Dummies book, but I’m also sure that I won’t be the last.

I know, I know, I’m not new to software problems, and maybe I should have spent a bit of time troubleshooting it, but I just don’t want to. I shouldn’t have to anymore. Internet Explorer has had the ability to allow a single tab to crash without destroying the browser since at least version 8, which is the rough equivalent of 9 Firefox versions. I’m down to only two add-ons and they’re neither new nor remotely unique (Flash and Adblock Plus), and if removing the plugins is the answer, then removing Firefox is just as good. I keep my history clean, even though I shouldn’t have to. So, whatever the problem is, even if it’s not actually due to any incompetence on the part of Firefox’s developers, it’s in there deep enough that I’d actually have to do some work to figure it out and I just don’t want to.

So where am I headed? Chrome? Nah. Google just doesn’t seem to be able to grasp the concept that just because I don’t have anything to hide doesn’t mean I want them inside every intimate detail of my life. I’m writing this from inside Internet Explorer 10. I haven’t really looked at IE in a long time and I have to say that I like how clean it is, how quickly the pages respond, and how I’m 665 words into a blog post and my browser hasn’t crashed even once. I think I’ll hang out here for a while.

Android 4.2

The fact that I fell for this one is mostly my fault. I had a Windows 6.5 phone for about three years and I really liked it. Sure, it didn’t have the app ecosphere that all the others do, but it had mobile versions of Outlook, Word, and Powerpoint, and I could read PDF files. That was really all I needed a smartphone for. Its phone feature was perfect for me. When people asked me what phone I recommended, I told them to go to the store and try out all the things they really wanted a phone to do and get the one that did all those things. I warned against getting caught up in the glitz and flash and gee-whiz stuff. All these phones are great for about the first 90 days, then they’re mostly just a phone that hangs there. So, I went and got caught up in glitz and flash and bought an Android 4.2 phone. The apps are nice, but as time goes on I use them less and less.

I miss my Windows 6.5 phone. A lot.

Android 4.2 provides the absolute worst phone experience in the history of phones. My grandmother had a rotary and I had a colleague with an iPhone 4, so I’m qualified to make that distinction.

On my Windows 6.5 phone, I could program speed dials. To call the person in slot #3, I’d start the phone interface and tap and hold on 3 until it dialed. Easy. If I wanted to call someone in my contacts list, I’d bring up the phone keypad and start touching the number keys with those letters. For instance, if I wanted to call my friend David, I would tap 3, 2, 8 and so on until the list it showed me got narrow enough to show me the David that I wanted, then I could tap and hold on his name and it would call him. When I dialed into voicemail and it made me press 1 for my voicemail (why?!?!?!?!), all I had to do was take my face away from the phone and the number pad would be there.

Not on my Android 4.2. Absolutely none of that works. Three and a half years after the debut of the Windows 6.5 model that I owned, and Google has taken us back to the stone age of mobile phones.

First, speed dial is gone. There’s apparently some widget I have to use. I found the widget, but you can’t just access it from a quick slot or the apps screen, you have to place it on one of the home screens and it takes about half of it. Well, I like the way my screens are laid out and I refuse to use an app when I already have a quick slot devoted to dialing the phone. Apparently, this widget is supposed to be awesome, but as I understand it, you can’t actually dial the phone from within the widget. You have to drop out of that and go back to the phone interface. So, if I use speed dial to call my wife and she asks me to call another number, I have to switch from phone applet A to phone applet B. If I go ahead and program the widget to dial that number, but it’s an automated system that needs me to use the keypad, well then I’m fumbling around through screens while the automated system starts its timeout countdown. That has to be the single most ridiculous design in history — after the Firefox-crash-o-matic. So the takeaway is, no speed dial in Android 4.2. Why? Because screw you, customer, that’s why.

Second, you can apparently use the Google voice search from the front screen to find people in your contacts list, or something like that. Well, I don’t like talking to my phone, how about that? I sit on buses and in crowded places and I don’t like looking like a fool making vocal contortions to get this junk to do something that I could do in two seconds with a proper speed dial. I spent three weeks trying to train that unlock-by-face-recognition and it never caught on, why would I subject myself to the torture of trying to train the ridiculous thing to understand my voice? Why can’t I just have a basic speed dial? Besides, I like to hold my phone in my left hand when I’m dialing and I can’t get my left thumb across the screen to hit that stupid microscopic microphone icon if I’m doing anything at all with my right hand. I can, however, hit any of the numbers on the phone keypad. So, again, why can’t I just have a basic speed dial?

Third, using your contacts list to dial someone is a waste of time. I’d rather carry an old-fashioned Rolodex with me. Funny how Google search can find anything anywhere on the Internet while I type, but Google phone can’t find someone in my contacts list of a whopping 42 people as I tap numbers. Useless.

Fourth, dial in to your voicemail, or any automated system. Pull the phone away from your face. There’s no keypad. 10% of the screen is a hang-up button, 10% of the screen is basic system buttons, and 80% of the screen is an utterly useless not-quite-a-face picture that serves absolutely no purpose. I get it that if you’re talking to someone who is in your contacts list and you have a picture of that person, then that picture will show up here, but… why? If I have that person’s face in my phone, don’t I already know who I’m talking to?

Fifth, wait for your phone to ring while it’s locked. Go through the motion to answer it. Did you answer it, or did you bring up their nifty Google voice search? The difference is all based on about 1/8th inch of space of the start of your swipe action, far less than the typical margin of error for a partially distracted user. And if your phone is ringing and you accidentally start a Google voice search, there is absolutely no way you’ll ever get that device to respond quickly enough to get back to that call. The really pathetic thing is that Google is supposed to employ some of the smartest people on Earth. Can you imagine how that design meeting went? I’m thinking something like this:

A: “So, what method should we program to activate the new Google voice search?”
B: “How about we use exactly the same swipe pattern needed to unlock the phone, but have the user start a fraction of an inch lower?”
A, C, D, E, F, etc: “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! GREAT idea!!”

… it gets passed up to some senior executive who looks at it and says, “Sure, I’ll sign off on that.”

Sort of makes you wonder what criteria goes into determining who the smartest people on Earth are, doesn’t it? If this is the best we’ve got, God help us if we’re ever faced with something like the asteroid from Armageddon or worse, a stubborn bag of Fritos.

Conclusion

So, here we are. 2013. A Firefox browser that can’t match the stability and usability of Internet Explorer 6. An Android phone that can barely be used as a phone. These were the products that were supposed to deliver us, and they have become the boat anchors. Well, Microsoft, I’m back. With the bar set this low, you won’t even have to work that hard to keep me.

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3 responses to “How Android 4.2 and Firefox 19 Made Me Miss Microsoft

  1. Amos Batto March 6, 2013 at 9:43 am

    Obviously, something got screwed up in Firefox and the upgrade process didn’t work right in your case. Firefox 19 is very fast. You should uninstall it and then reinstall.

    I understand your frustration, because I have experienced similar frustrations with software regressions in my life. The transition from GNOME 2 to GNOME 3 left me screaming similar things. As an advocate for free/open source software, I constantly am trying to get people to switch away from proprietary software. However, it became very difficult for me to convince people to use Linux when that crazy GNOME 3 interface didn’t even have a proper menu.

    The only thing that I can say is that even software companies like Microsoft seem to break their products so they are unusable. Millions of users who have tried Windows 8 now want to go back to Windows 7. Millions of Visual Basic programmers cursed Microsoft up and down when it changed to the .Net architecture, because their code no longer worked.

    The difference is that when Microsoft or any other proprietary software company makes a change to software, you can’t do anything about it except gripe. When a piece of free/open source software changes, you have rights. If it has an open development model like Firefox, you can file a bug report and participate in the forums where these decisions are made. If it has a closed development model like Android, you can still file your bug report. Frankly, you are wasting your time blogging about your frustrations when you should be using that energy to file bug reports.

    Then, you can look around to see if anyone has a created a replacement phone app which has speed dial (and blog about it so others can also find it). You can even install CynogenMod or some other customized version of Android which does what you want.

    As I see it, the problem is that we often don’t want to “waste” time filing bug reports and helping to improve the software. But if you embrace the philosophy of free/open source software, you start to see it as positive time helping others, so that everyone has better tools that make their lives more fulfilling. The other question is how much time do we want to spend fiddling with our technology so it does what we want.

    Like

    • Eric Siron March 6, 2013 at 11:16 am

      Hello Amos, and thank you for the careful, well-thought out reply.

      I’m something of an advocate for open source, although I don’t take a hard line stance. Basically, I can’t and won’t argue against those who want open source to take over the world, but I’m not going to go to the rallies, either. I believe fully in the merits of open source.

      I believe that Firefox is an embarrassment to the entire open source community, and I don’t think it started with the screw-up that was 19.0. 19.0 was the pinnacle that sat atop a mountain of junk that has represented Firefox since at least version 10. I believe that when anti-open source people need a “gotcha”, Firefox is the go-to example. I’ve struggled with the software for a long time and on multiple computers, and it has gotten nothing but slower and clunkier over time. I see no functional difference in performance between Firefox and IE on the various machines I have them installed on, except that Firefox commonly freezes the entire browser where IE occasionally freezes tabs.

      As for installing, uninstalling, bug reports, etc., no. Just no. If the open source community ever wants open source to be treated as anything but toys, then this expectation that the end user spend a lot of time tinkering and searching Internet forums just to make the software perform its basic function must end. I used to tinker. Actually, to be correct, I want to tinker. I love tinkering. However, I work a full-time job which takes up about ten hours a day. I then come home and split the rest of my time between studying for university, blogging for the technology I have real interest in, writing a book under contract deadlines, and trying to be a halfway decent parent. My tinkering time is very precious and I devote it to the tech that butters my bread. If the orange button doesn’t work but the blue button does, then I’m just going to use the blue button. Grandma is going to use the blue button. Most people are going to use the blue button. In 1993, the average computer user would tinker and make an effort. In 2003, the average computer user would tinker some, complain, and ask for help. In 2013, the average computer user is going to put forth minimal effort, complain, and and go elsewhere. Expecting anything else guarantees permanent niche-status.

      Besides, I’ve seen people try to use the bug reporting and feedback systems for things like SSL. My take-away was that the Firefox developers are smarter than we are and know what we want and we’re just too stupid to figure it out so they’ll give us what we want and we’ll like it. It’s basically what I envision Apple looking like if it ever went open source. So, yes, the Firefox team has trained us that using the bug reporting and feedback systems are a gamble that could result in a waste of time and energy.

      There is a huge difference between the exodus from Firefox and the adoption of Windows 8. People don’t use Windows 8 because it doesn’t work the way they think it should, not because it doesn’t work. I would challenge anyone to back up any “unusable” claim on Windows 8 beyond the anecdotal level. Windows 8 is fast, stable, and feature-packed. People don’t like Windows 8 because of personal preferences; that’s a design issue, not a functional flaw. As I blogged previously, the learning curve is far flatter than the nay-sayers want us to believe anyway. Users have always wanted the benefits of change without the challenges of change and Microsoft gave a big “No” answer this time. People who responded negatively did so because of convenience reasons, not because Windows 8 crashes all the time or because Microsoft made fundamental changes that contradict long-standing expectations of operating system functionality. Conversely, people left at Firefox 19.0 because a developer put in a naked divide by zero when he should have used one of those new-fangled try…catch blocks, and nobody thought, “Hey, we should test this,” prior to release. So, Microsoft can say, “Yeah, you don’t like the way it looks, but it went through several focus and study groups and we had a very long beta and release candidate cycle to do what we could to ensure that it worked at release time.” How is Firefox going to respond to that? They don’t so much release their versions to the community as flush them. Again, Firefox is an embarrassment to the open source community because it makes it look like open source people can’t be bothered to do any kind of basic due diligence. I know you can come up with a stack of open source organizations who are doing it right, but how many of them would show up on a list compiled by an average Joe asked to free-associate the term “Open Source”?

      One the phone issue, I accept your basic sentiment as valid. But, this is a phone. The wheel for phones and user expectations is extremely round. I’m not asking for anything new or uncommon. Why should I have to look for an alternative phone dialer to have speed dial? Replace my entire phone operating system and risk invoking the wrath of my carrier just to get these two very basic things together? No way. Not that it matters, but I did look, and unless there’s some super-awesome hidden gem somewhere that evaded my searching, there doesn’t seem to be any way to get around the need to use at least two apps to get the basic functionality of manual dial and speed dial. I find the entire idea that I need any special phone app to use my phone as a phone to be ridiculous from the start.

      If Android and Firefox continue to be the high-profile faces of the open source community and this is the best they can do, then Microsoft and Apple will live forever and their strategies will be the chosen emulation route for software manufacturers who choose “Success” as an overriding principle to “Idealism”.

      Like

  2. Dallas Texas February 20, 2013 at 10:30 am

    Mr. Siron,

    I have shared your observations and sentiments regarding the state of Firefox for the last few years; to the extent that I switched to Opera, avoiding the invasive Chrome and seeking an effortlessly high-quality experience. In the past 6 months or so, Opera has suffered from similar instability issues, including but not limited to becoming unresponsive while something in the background loads.

    This sort of narrow development focus is what keeps Linux out of the mainstream, and I think that its spreading is a by-product of current Internet/pop culture. They are roughly the same thing now, aren’t they? Too many people are focused on quantity over quality, and as the ‘net generations gain power, the products (ba-boom, tss) of our society are bound to reflect that thinking. We will all suffer the consequences, but will enough people realize it to make a difference; or will they just stop ‘liking’ Android and Firefox on Facebook?

    By the way, when Opera fails me, I find myself opening the ever-ready IE, and making short work of the task at hand. I never thought that that day would come.

    Like

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