I recently passed up the opportunity to wait until the end of the month and upgrade my battered iPhone 3G to Apple’s whizzy new 4G model. Instead, I opted for the similarly whizzy and well-spec’d Dell Streak, running Google’s Android operating system. While I love the iPhone’s user interface, I have become increasingly frustrated with Apple’s strategy of keeping the system so determinedly closed. I wanted a device that I could simply transfer media files to and from without having to go through a proprietary file manager like iTunes. I wanted the ability to choose which apps I wanted to run simultaneously, not a system whose creators place arbitrary limits on users and developers in a bid to maintain system performance.
But my most pressing, specific need was for a device that would allow me, if I so chose, to record any incoming or outgoing voice call and save the result as an MP3 file or similar.
As a researcher and journalist, I often need to record phone interviews in order to later produce accurate transcripts of conversations. It ensures I don’t misquote people, am able to review complex points until I understand them fully and allows me to concentrate closely and think of intelligent questions to move the discussion on, rather than missing points as I struggle to maintain an on-the-fly written shorthand transcript. And as I increasingly seek to produce more audio content, it would be useful to be able to record certain interviews on the phone for later editing and podcasting.
So, for me, call recording functionality is essential and I have been constantly frustrated by the lack of this feature on the iPhone, or in any of its millions of available apps. Apple has refused to expose the phone’s incoming and outgoing call voice streams to application developers, and there’s no hope of any call recording app emerging until they do – or until they build it into the OS itself. My previous Symbian-based Nokia phone had no problem recording calls, and it has been a standard feature of many simpler mobile handsets for years.
I had assumed that by changing to a phone with a more open operating system – Android – produced by the world’s #1 cheerleader for open platforms – Google – my frustrations would be over. How wrong I was!
Before I opted for a Dell Streak, I made a cursory check in the Android Marketplace and saw there were several call recording apps available. Great. But when I got my device and downloaded one, it didn’t work. Tried another. That didn’t work either. “What’s up?” I thought. Had my carrier, O2, crippled the device in some way? After a few tweets back and forth with one of Dell’s people, I found that no, everything should be working fine. Try another app, he suggested. But I’d exhausted the free ones, and didn’t want to part with any cash until I knew the app would work. So I Googled – and what I found left me utterly dismayed, enraged and incredulous.
After reading (and commenting on) a long thread over at the Google Code forum I discovered that, just like the iPhone, Google Android does not have a facility for developers to access the phone’s incoming voice stream. The call recording apps available in the Android Marketplace depend on an ‘analogue kludge’ – the only way to record both sides of a call is to turn on the phone’s speakerphone at sufficient volume for the incoming caller’s voice to be picked up by the phone’s mic. Not only does this mean you can’t record conversations without broadcasting them to everyone around you, but use of the speakerphone will produce a horrible echo for the other participant in the call and, unless you are in a totally silent environment, the resultant recording will be virtually inaudible. Completely useless if, like me, you ever take calls via a headset or need to record one somewhere other than a silent, isolated room.
And it’s not as if Google is not aware of the problem – the thread mentioned above was started some 15 months ago, and there’s still no word on any resolution to the issue. Some commenters suggested legal restrictions on call recording in certain countries were to blame, but it’s perfectly legal in the UK and many other places to record calls for the purposes I described above. And, as I also pointed out, many older and less complex phones have been offering this facility for years with no problems.
So my plea to Google is – FIX THIS FAST.
Ironically, with the introduction of limited multitasking on the new iPhone 4G, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where Apple decides to permit call recording, leaving Android phones among the only ones lacking such basic functionality. And if that happens, I may well be kicking myself for switching.