Android Honeycomb: Is GMail its only redeeming feature?

Although I gave Honeycomb the "old college try" during my recent vacation, I still could not tolerate the constant crashing and bugs. Its only redeeming feature? Superior GMail implementation.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Although I gave Honeycomb the "old college try" during my recent vacation, I still could not tolerate the constant crashing and bugs. Its only redeeming feature? Superior GMail implementation.

As I said to many a bartender during my recent trip to Mexico, "El tequila se arregla todo". Tequila will solve all your problems.

Well, not quite. It doesn't fix Android Honeycomb.

Back in April, I wrote about the serious problems I felt Android's tablet OS had. But in all fairness, I had only spent about 24 hours with the tablet before I became completely fed up with it, and sent the tablet that I was using it on, the Motorola XOOM back to Amazon.

I'm not a particularly tolerant person when it comes to crappy software.

Still, I wanted to give the OS another try. Maybe 24 hours wasn't enough to play with the thing. Maybe I needed... A week. Maybe I needed to be separated from the pressures of daily life in order to look at it objectively.

Maybe I needed to be drinking enough shots of reposado tequila during the evaluation process so I could be sufficiently medicated.

So instead of bringing my trusty iPad 2 to Mexico, I brought the Iconia A500, on loan from Acer/Gateway. While the device had an update just prior to leaving on my trip, it wasn't the coveted Honeycomb 3.1 that was announced recently at Google IO, it was an Acer interim fix for 3.0. I'm still waiting on the update, and hope to spend some time with that soon.

Nevertheless, for over a week, I used the A500 as my sole computing device while I was on vacation. I had access to my timeshare's Wi-Fi network, and used it to conduct business while I was away.

While I considered the thought of bringing no computing devices with me when I was on vacation, I have a number of personal reasons why that would be impractical or near impossible, the least of which would be a huge backlog of emails that would take me an eternity to dig myself out of when I returned. And I had some critical things going on during the week I was away that I could not ignore.

So as a compromise, I decided I'd check in with the outside world a few times a day, in-between trips to the swimming pool, the bar and going out for lunch and dinner.

Having spent considerably more time with Honeycomb 3.0, I'll say this -- yes, the OS is as crashy and unreliable as ever. Apps like Skype will routinely not only crash themselves, but also crash and even reboot the OS. Plenty of stuff still won't run correctly that is installed directly from the Android Market.

But Honeycomb's native GMail implementation? Oh if I could just have this on my iPad 2, I'd be in absolute tablet email heaven.

See, as GMail users go, I'm a serious power user. For various personal and business reasons, I need to create and maintain a lot of color-coded labels. In addition to the regular 10 "System" labels, I have about 15 other labels that I use in order to prioritize how I respond to communications, and who I forward things to. Given the huge volume of email that I get, GMail's labels are a key cannot-live-without feature.

For example, I have one called "Critical Documents" which is in red, various list traffic stuff in a few other colors, and I even have a color for "Legal Correspondence", which if anyone here deals with attorneys on a regular basis --  you know have to be especially careful with who does and doesn't get copied on certain emails, and what the relative urgency is to responding to them are.

And yes, I even have a color dedicated to communications from my wife. Who outranks my legal counsel.

In addition to these color coded labels in which I manually codify my email, I also have about 30 filters set in GMail that sort mail into different labels automatically. I have some emails which are sorted into multiple labels at once, because they cover multiple categories.

Now, on an iPad, or any other Apple iOS device for that matter, all of these color coded GMail labels are worthless. They're completely ignored by the iPad's Mail client.

Email just comes into your Inbox, with no indication of its priority or origin. While the iOS Mail client is able to translate those labels into folders, you cannot see those folders while you are in Inbox view, so the value of that mail organization is greatly diminished.

If you want to be able to use the labels properly on iOS, you really have to use the web-based GMail client on Mobile Safari.

I just want to state for the record that I do not like using GMail on Mobile Safari on an iPad. Ok? Great.

Now, while a lot of stuff about Honeycomb genuinely annoys me, it has one very good asset -- its GMail implementation is excellent. In fact I'd say it was the only really redeeming feature of the OS. If you're a GMail power user, Honeycomb is awesome.

The same goes for GMail as it is implemented on Android handsets. And while I love my iPad 2, iOS's lack of GMail label support is a serious enough feature defecit that I may actually continue with Android smartphones when my 2-year Verizon contract on my first-generation Droid is up for renewal this fall, no matter how alluring the iPhone 5 may be.

Apple somehow needs to figure out a way to provide native support for those labels, even if it means negotiating some sort of API licensing agreement with Google, or getting Google to write a native iOS GMail and Google Calendar client.

Right now, Google only has the most barebones of APIs for GMail exposed, which is why Apple is only able to treat GMail labels as IMAP folders.

Realistically, I don't expect Google and Apple to get along when it comes to improving mail interoperability. After all, Apple is about to launch its own competing cloud service, iCloud, although there seems to be some consternation that the web-based replacement to MobileMe is going away, leaving end-users with an App-only solution.

Short of Apple being able to tap into GMail native APIs, or Google writing native iOS apps for GMail, what we need is better interoperability standards for mail systems like IMAP, specifically how it handles these "Extended functions" such as labels.

Does the native GMail implementation seal the deal for you with Android Tablets or Smartphones? Does Apple need to implement better GMail and Google Apps compatibility? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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