Android and You: User Responsibility

droid_responsiblyBack on 6 Oct., AndroidGuys published a Newbtorial called “How to Keep the Zip in Your Android.” The article laid out some rudimentary pointers about how to avoid sluggishness on your Android device by not over-taxing the available memory. Killing background tasks, clearing caches, and managing your home screen were a few of the featured suggestions. As a whole, I think the article was well received, but what I wasn’t expecting were the comments speaking to the issue behind the need for such an article in the first place.

As I read over the comments, the more I feel that this issue needs to be discussed. So let’s just come out and ask the questions. Is Android’s task management shooting Android in the foot? Is Google making a mistake by giving the user to much freedom to run processes simultaneously?

As a quick answer I say, “No.” For those of us who have used a system like Android, how could we go back? Can you seriously see yourself being as productive on another phone where you are limited to running one task at a time?

So is the problem truly related to the way the OS manages tasks? IMO, no it isn’t and here is why…

The first thing that needs to be looked at is the distinction between the OS and the hardware. In my eyes, I see no task management breakdown within the OS. After all, Android manages tasks the way it is programmed to manage tasks, openly. The problem occurs when the functionality of the OS bumps up against the limitation of the hardware.

Here is where a bunch of people will say, “But why create an OS that out-performs the hardware to the point of it being non-usable?” To which I respond, “Why not? Besides the ‘non-usable’ idea isn’t a result of the OS, it is a result of exceeding resource.” Who activates the applications that use resources? Users. This is the same thing that we have always been doing with technology. Just look at any PC as an example. People just have a tendency to take some piece of technology and push it to the limit and then complain when it can’t do more.

This is where user responsibility is crucial. Maybe I am speaking too much from my IT fantasy land, but when a user adopts a product, they should understand what they have and what it is capable of in the context of how they use it.

It would be insane to think you could run something like Android – in the same fashion as it is currently being used – yet somehow apply some “smart-tasking” code that would make educated guesses at what should be closed and what should remain running. What happens when the “smart-tasking” closes something based on its parameters that I actually want left open? I’ll tell you what, users would complain about that too! The fact remains that the phone isn’t connected to your mind. It can’t tell what the user really wants. All the smart-tasking coding in the world would eventually come into conflict somewhere with user desire. So why not just leave the real decisions to real people?

This makes Android phones more Iphone than iPhone. I choose what I want to close. I decide what apps get to run in tandem. In short, I manage my phone. The iPhone in this respect may as well be renamed the wechooseforyouwhatyoucanandcantdoPhone. (Maybe Steve thought the name was too long.)

Here again is where a bunch of you are probably red in the face screaming “you can’t expect a user to be responsible for…blah blah blah.”

To use something as open as Android? Yes, I can. At least for now. I don’t think it’s asking too much.

Eventually Android will be placed on more sophisticated hardware with faster processors and more memory. At some point it will reach the stage where the hardware is greater in might than what the general user experience demands. When this happens it won’t mean the user responsibility has gone away. It just means that ignorance is bliss and as long as a user has some headroom between what they want to do and what the hardware limitation is they will be happy because they don’t have to recognize their responsibility.

Of course all this is just opinion. I’m not a programmer or developer, so I don’t know all the ins and outs. What do you think?

  • shaneaus

    I agree wholheartedly with your article.

  • I'm working for a large and well-known software company which does consumer software. From what I have learned I cannot fully agree to your findings though they are not completely wrong 😉

    We should distinguish between "users" and "users". Let's call them "prosumer" and "consumer" whereas the first one is everybody reading and the latter ones are your moms. Of course everybody reading is smart enough to understand what tasks are and all of you are able to use a task manager. And you also know that you're going to overload the system if you're starting dozens of apps which simultaneously notify about the latest Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and FriendFeed postings. This is exactly what you describe with "responsibility of the user".

    My mom, however, doesn't think of such things. But she will never encounter those problems anyway because she's not a tech geek and never heard of She doesn't even know what a blog is. If her mobile is slow or crashes than that's not her fault actually. At least she wouldn't feel guilty in any way 😉

    The key to success of a platform is to get both the consumer and the prosumer. iPhone definitely does a better job here but the Android platform hasn't reached full speed yet. And it was always one of Google's tactics to get the prosumer first because in the end of the day the prosumer ("you") is the one telling the consumer ("your mom", "your neighbor", etc.) what to buy. Just let's give the platform another 6 to 12 months and watch all the Motorola Blurs and HTC Senses user interface evolute to a real consumer friendly system.

  • I agree with this article. I do not want the OS deciding that I can only run 1 app or what to close. I just want it easier to switch between apps and to be able to close the ones I want easier. Maybe like WebOS? Say I want to check Facebook with the app, but then want to close it, I should be able to do that with out having to open another program, waiting for it to load then killing it.

  • If Android was a little more aggressive with killing unused apps BEFORE resources became scarce, wouldn't that help the issue? Like if the OS always tried to keep 20% ram available and limited the CPU usage of apps running in the background. Then those limits and settings could be made available to the user in an Advanced Settings menu for prosumers. Maybe I misunderstand the problem. Not an Android user yet, but the Moto Droid will change all of that soon enough.

    – Andrew

  • Richard Garnett

    This is no different than my WinMo phone that also left all apps running causing slowness. The close button (X) setting could and was changed to close apps, not minimize them. If I wanted an app running, I'd use the minimize from the close button, or minimize all to see the home screen. And I taught non-techy people to do the same, it is easy as long as there is a one stop place to make such memory changes/kill apps. On Nov 6th, I'll have to re-teach them all on the Droid.

    • Tom

      Agree. Windows Mobile is the first thing that came to mind when I read this article. Ultimately, Google wants Android to be adopted by the mass market – that's not us (the one's reading tech blogs like this 🙂 To do that, they need to streamline the OS alot more. I'm honestly concerned they did not remedy this before going after the mass market with Droid. I think alot of new, non-techie owners are going to experience slow downs over time and return the phone.

      Android will get to the masses but it will take time. It's a long way. Apple proved "normal" consumers will adopt technology faster if it's dead simple to use – EVEN if it lacks features. "Easy-to-use" will always beat out "feature-heavy" when you're talking mass-market consumer.

  • Valerie

    I migrated from WinMo 6.1 to Android when the MyTouch came out, and I couldn't be happier. But, I rooted my phone and my apps are on the SD Card. Ideally, the average consumer should be able to do that without having to root the phone. Also, I run Cyanogen's ROMS that are WAY faster than the stock ROM, which makes me wonder what Cyanogen is able to do that the Android team isn't doing. My phone is fast, does everything I want, and has a bunch of apps installed.

    @André: I'm a Mom, but I get your point. People who aren't technical types should just stick with the simpler phones.

    That leads me to another point: Why do phone consumers only have two flavors? We either have total geek-phones that are too complex for the non-techies, or we have phones that are just for talking and not good for much else. Someone should make a basic smartphone that just synchronizes your calendar, contacts and tasks and gives alerts for reminders and appointments. I'm the techie in my family – my husband and kids are not. I wish they could have simple phones to which I could just push the google calendars, etc. (and for which a full data plan would not be needed, of course).

    • David

      Valerie – to point two, I'd say that the iPhone is that middle-of-the-road device. It's more powerful than your typical phone, but Apple and the OS itself control your usage in ways that keep you from getting yourself in too much trouble.

      As far as point 1 goes, I've read that the reason that they've stayed away from apps2sd is at least in part that they don't want to introduce the instability that would be caused by removing the SD card mid-stream when that's where your apps are stored. While this makes sense to a point, it seems that so much else about Android is geared toward the more techie user that this is an issue that we could deal with. At least it could be an option, along with a sternly worded disclaimer. Personally, I've been using Cyanogen's mods for about four months now, and I've been amazed at how much more usable my G1 is now – it's truly like night and day. I look back now and I don't know how I put up with the slowness of the standard ROM.

  • bryan

    I would love to see android implement a system similar to blackberries for app management.

    You can exit out of an app and leave it running by using the home key, or app switcher (long press home key). If you use the back key or the close option in the menu then the app closes and does not run in the background. That way both advanced users and regular users have an easy way to control what happens with an app when you exit.

  • PamG

    PLEASE fix your rss feed. In Google Reader, seeing nothing but ad-sense javascript.

  • Rachel

    I would like apps that have permission to run in the background (w/o something in the taskbar) to request that with the same permissions that we see with any other app when we get it from the market. Several games run in the background after I stop using them even though there’s absolutely benefit to it (except perhaps they would start up more quickly – not worth it considering the resource taxation.)

  • katamari

    I'm sure this will more than infuriate a few, though appearing to be a troll is not my intention. I really just don't understand the so called 'importance' of running several apps at once, at least not until the mobile market comes up with batteries (and not just task managers) that can sustain all the resources being utilized.

    The only way I can see it as beneficial is if the phone gets hung up opening and closing apps, to which my iPhone does this quickly, and seamlessly.

  • Valerie


    [flame on!] …just kidding.

    My hubby has an iPod Touch. It IS an elegant device and I have big-screen envy. I also like that little magni-bubble that comes up when selecting text. But… I could never give up my Android for that. The i-thingy just doesn't do things that I take for granted on the Android.

    Example: I use Remember the Milk for tasks. The RTM Android app is location-aware and pops up a reminder of a task when I approach the location I set for the task (very cool). If I share RTM lists with other people and they make changes to the lists on the web, the lists on my phone automatically update. With the i-things, you have to remember to run the application – it won't update on its own.

    There is the Locale app that adjusts my phones settings based on location, time and other conditions.

    Oh, and I can expand the memory with a MicroSD card.

    The phone is completely customizable; it looks and behaves exactly the way I want it to. Because it runs things in the background, I can set my preferences and go on with my life – my phone then lets me know when I need to deal with something. With an iPhone, I would have to fire up the various apps to get updates on things. I know the iPhone allows some notification capabilities, but they are so limited to what "the man" deems worthy.

    I could go on, but I think that captures my point. If the hardware provides enough memory and processing power, everything runs great. I keep my phone docked at work and I have a car charger, so battery life is manageable.

  • katamari


    I thought about this after I posted, and I realized something… and in all-sad seriousness, I am a rather dormant person without a lot of daily errands/tasks at hand, so I guess I can see why the nature of multi-tasking doesn't seem so important to me…because it would make me realize all the more how little I really do/ get done. 😉 So I guess if I had more on my plate, and were better able to utilize those features, I would love it too.

    As for the Micro SD card expansion, had I not found Simplify Media and Orb Live I might have just gone screaming, but they give me a virtual access to stream all 30 GB of my music, and 125 GB of my video without ever taking up an MB of space, or having to go through annoying file conversions. Of course, the downside is they both work best on wi-fi, but are acceptable on 3G. But most iPhone owners I know don't look for these types of resources, which, in my opinion, makes most iPhone users seem like simpletons who don't want for more.

    I keep my eye on Android sites because, to me, it's the only other OS out there other than Apple which seems to have a pulse. I want to see it succeed because we all know a worthy contender will finally bring competition, and more innovation to the market overall…for everyone.