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August 06 2010

13:57

Are Android phones the best option for journalism students?

A few months ago I was asked what sort of mobile phone I would recommend for a journalism student. Knowing how tight student budgets are, and that any choice should have as much of an eye on the future as on the present, I recommended getting an Android phone.

The reasoning went like this: iPhones are great at certain things, and currently benefit from a wider range of applications than other mobile phones. But the contracts are expensive, the battery life poor, and Apple’s closed system problematic, for reasons I’ll expand on in a moment.

Currently, BlackBerry smartphones (apparently you can’t say ‘BlackBerries’) and high-end Nokias are probably the most popular phones for journalists. Both have excellent battery life and BlackBerry smartphones (yes, it gets annoying after the first time) have a particular strength in the way their email works.

But these are also expensive, and Symbian (the operating system for most high end Nokias) does not have a long term future, while its replacement, Maemo, has yet to build a present.

Which brings us to Android – the ‘Google’ phone – and the most affordable option for the student journalist looking at a multiplatform future.

  • With Google behind the technology, Android phones have excellent email integration – not quite as strong as a BlackBerry, but more than good enough.
  • Android’s app store – the ‘Market‘ – competes with Apple’s – and is catching up fast. Most of the must-have apps for journalists are already in there, and on this score it’s much stronger than BlackBerry or Nokia.
  • The biggest weakness is Android’s battery life, which is around the same as the iPhone (some tips on that here).
  • But apart from their affordability it is the openness of the Android platform which presents the strongest case for being the student journalist’s mobile of choice.

When I advised that student to get an Android phone, it was because I think that Android will seriously challenge iPhone both in terms of userbase (which is already happening) and app development.

Computerworld’s Jonny Evans (an “Apple Holic”) compares the situation to the struggle for the PC:

“[Apple's] insistence on a closed system means partnership deals aren’t open to it in the hardware space.

“So, where Android can deliver multiple devices for multiple niches at multiple price points to the market, Apple delivers a limited number of devices, hoping the quality of its software will make a difference. It seems to attract customers that way.

“As fellow blogger, Sharon Machlis, noted last week, the result of that strategy during the PC wars enabled Microsoft to seize monopoly-level market share on the desktop.

The game’s not over.

The same post, however, notes that “Apple’s key advantage against Android is its developer community”:

“Despite criticism of the way it curates its store, Apple does have an App Store that works, where 95 percent of apps are approved fast.

“This means developers already have a reliable and profitable route to market at 100 million iOS users – set to climb with the addition of at least 24 million more iPhone 4 users this year.

“Android developers may be able to develop more openly, but development is fragmented by the need to develop for multiple devices.”

Apple alienated parts of their community earlier this year when they released a new developer agreement. Then, a couple of weeks ago, Google provided a platform for a whole new community when it announced the launch of a tool that can only challenge Apple’s dominance: the App Inventor for Android:

“To use App Inventor, you do not need to be a developer. App Inventor requires NO programming knowledge. This is because instead of writing code, you visually design the way the app looks and use blocks to specify the app’s behavior.”

For the student journalist, this tool also offers an opportunity to experiment with mobile journalism and publishing in the same way that Blogger allowed you to experiment with online publishing and distribution, or Yahoo! Pipes allowed you to play with mashups (TechCrunch’s MG Siegler compares it with GeoCities). Tony Hirst has already written a series of posts exploring how the tool works (it’s currently in invite-only beta), which are worth bookmarking.

This tool seals the deal for me – it’s the difference between doing the job now and redefining it for the future.

But what do you think? What features do Android phones lack? What advantages do other phones hold?

For the record, I use an iPhone and an old N95. I use the N95 for phonecalls, texts and streaming video (because of its long battery life) and the iPhone for web browsing and apps – particularly RSS readers, Audioboo, editing blog posts and checking comments, Twitter, and email. Each handset is with a different operator, which gives me better 3G coverage options too. I also pay for an Android phone (a HTC Magic) in my household.


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