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August 02, 2010

As Froyo 2.2 Looms for Evo, HTC Sense Is a Concern

Even as Android gains in market share, assuming the #1 position by most metrics, ahead of both Apple and Blackberry, the very nature of its expanded ecosystem presents weakness. With an Apple product, you are getting an Apple hardware device with an Apple operating system. Should something go awry, you can usually look to Cupertino (or AT&T). But with an Android-based phone, issues could be tied to the hardware provider (HTC for me), the Android OS, or even a thin software layer on top of Android which many manufacturers are using to "enhance" the experience. And you know what? This makes fixing any bugs that do arise a pain. When my Evo does something unexpected, I can't tell whether that's a bug with HTC's software or hardware, or if it's Android itself. And I don't know that getting the latest Android build will fix it.

For those unfamiliar with HTC Sense, it's essentially a launcher, a UI environment that resides on top of standard Android, between you and your apps or data. It's as if Apple shipped an iPhone with iOS 4, and then handed the UI over to Microsoft to make a skin on it - or even more directly, if Microsoft gave Windows 7 to Dell and then Dell made their own UI. From my own experience, and comments around the Web, it is HTC Sense which is to blame for much of the battery drain on the Evo and other similar devices. And it is HTC Sense which has given me the most trouble with the Evo, in terms of being extremely sensitive to touch, and affected by heat. I mentioned the occasional issues last month when I detailed my switch to Android, and they have been intermittent, but they are debilitating when issues do come up.

What's the worst thing your phone could possibly do to you? Not make a phone call?

Forget Antenna-gate. Beyond losing data, blowing up, or sending a virus, there's little worse a phone can do, in my opinion, than taking actions without your initiating them. HTC Sense at times seems possessed, making artificial clicks in my e-mail, in apps, or even launching phone calls without my permission. Imagine my annoyance when the Evo called my mom at 1:20 in the morning one Saturday, and the only thing I could do, as the screen had locked up, was to turn the device over and yank the battery out to stop the call. Brilliant.

At the bottom of the Evo's design are four small keys, used to navigate the device. In HTC Sense, an arc at the bottom of the home screen features fast access to "Phone". When clicked, the next click would automatically call the last number dialed - both in or out. So in moments of hyper-spaz-osity (a real word), I could see the device dialing on my behalf to the last person I talked to, again and again. It even called back telemarketers who thought I was interested in their pitch. Guess what? I'm still not.

At the risk of bringing attention from the pro-iPhone crowd, I know this is not an Android issue per se. The problems didn't even arise until HTC "helpfully" loaded an over the air (OTA) update at the beginning of July, which did little to improve the phone, but coincidentally started at the time problems began. So I worry a bit that even though Froyo 2.2 may have amazing magical powers, that HTC Sense could still bungle it up. This specific OTA update even disabled the Root access I had on the phone, blocking ShootMe for screenshots, and making Sense mandatory after I had previously disabled it.

Android gets slammed on occasion for the issue of fragmentation, and I believe they are working on that, of course. I know they aren't too interested in some devices running old versions of software and others running new, as the ecosystem splinters. But the problem will always be worse if the handset manufacturers also think they are great at user interfaces and they want to put their content on top of the vanilla software. There's a reason Dell and HP and IBM and many other Microsoft OEMs tried to get a standard Windows experience. Google may be pushing for an open and flexible partner-friendly channel, but it'd be great to do away with the modifications that slow down progress and introduce problems.

For now, I've downloaded Launcher Pro from the Android Marketplace and told HTC Sense to take a hike (again). But who knows if when their approved 2.2 build comes out if that will stay? I love the Evo as a phone, and love Android's capabilities, but HTC Sense is a drain on my cycles, real and mental.