Android is Better

Paul Stamatiou, on falling in love with Android:

I set out to write an article about how I feel Android provides unique affordances that create a unique cohesive mobile experience (more on that below) rather than talking openness, features and apps. However, the more time I spent living with Android it became obvious that being able to do anything and suit a variety of needs is a pillar of the Android experience.

I was trying to find out why Android felt so remarkably different to use, beyond aesthetics. I found there are a few pieces that help contribute to this magical user experience: the global back button, intents and Google Now.

Delight. It’s what designers strive to produce in the experiences they craft. Google Now has hit the nail on the head. I can’t even count the number of times friends have pulled out their phone to show me the smart things Google Now did for them.

Using Android feels like one fluid experience.

And it just keeps getting better and better!

Favorite Android Apps of 2012

Eighteen months ago, I wrote an article about my Favorite Android Apps, but a lot has changed with Android and its app ecosystem since then. Developers have started putting more focus on design and usability when creating apps, and of course newer apps have come along that I have come to rely upon. I myself have upgraded to newer devices, with a Nexus 7 replacing my Galaxy Tab 10.1, and a Galaxy Nexus from work has sadly replaced my beloved but aging Nexus S. So what follows are some of my favorite new apps from 2012, and some follow-up on what my previous favorite apps look like in modern attire. All screenshots are taken from devices running Android 4.2.1 (CM 10.1 nightlies).

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Why Ralf Prefers Android

Along a similar vein as my previous post on Why I Prefer Android, Ralf Rottmann, a self-described “Apple fanboy”, has described why I prefer Android better than I could in my own words:

The latest version of Android outshines the latest version of iOS in almost every single aspect. I find it to be better in terms of the performance, smoothness of the rendering engine, cross-app and OS level integration, innovation across the board, look & feel customizability and variety of the available apps.

On the topic of app and system integration:

Another great example: Sharing stuff on social networks. On iOS, I have to rely on the developers again. Flipboard, as one of the better examples, gives me the ability to directly share with Google+, Twitter and Facebook. On my Nexus 4, I have 20+ options. That is, because every app I install can register as a sharing provider. It’s a core feature of the Android operating system.

All of this is entirely impossible on iOS today. I’ve stopped counting how often I felt annoyed because I clicked a link to a location in Mobile Safari and would have loved the Google Maps app to launch. Instead, Apple’s own Maps app is hardcoded into the system. And there’s no way for me to change it.

Regarding possibilities for app developers:

On iOS, many things I always wished to see being developed, simply cannot be done because of the strict sandbox Apple enforces around apps.

I also have apps [on Android] that give me great insight into the use of mobile data across the device and all apps. Or the battery consumption. Or which apps talk home and how frequently.

None of it is available for iOS. And possibly won’t be at any time in the near future.

And summing up the way I’ve felt for a long time when using iOS devices:

… whenever I grab my iPhone for testing purposes, iOS feels pretty old, outdated and less user friendly. For me, there currently is no way of going back. Once you get used to all of these capabilities, it’s hard to live without them.

There are many things Apple got right with iOS, like making a consistent user experience, and encouraging users to spend money in the market for quality apps. But when they place so many restrictions and limitations on how you can use your phone, and what your software is allowed to do on your own device, I gladly give up those things that make iOS so great for the freedom to run apps that can do what I want — and expect — from a modern computing device.

Why I Prefer Android

Asked of me on Hacker News:

What do you prefer about Android?

I prefer Android because it allows apps to do more things for the user, and allows them to better integrate with the system as a whole.

I can replace the on screen keyboard with one that has a full five-row keyboard for times when I SSH into a machine. On a similar vein, when I SSH into a machine, I can actually leave the SSH session running in the background while I switch to another app, without fearing that the OS is about to kill my SSH app while I’m looking something up or responding to a text message. I can also leave my IRC client running in the background without it constantly needing to reconnect when I switch back to it.

Intents in Android, especially in combination with the global Share mechanism, allow any app to receive arbitrary data from any other app, meaning apps don’t need to know about specific apps or services in order to integrate with them. Clicking on a URL allows you to choose which browser (or set a default) to open the link in, allowing you to use alternate browsers (or alternate email clients, SMS apps, dialers, etc); tapping Share in the browser allows you to send the current URL to any application that can receive a URL, making apps like Instapaper, Pinboard, and 3rd party Twitter clients have the same capabilities as first party applications.

Sideloading apps means I’m not limited to installing programs from the Android Market/Play Store, and can do things like buy apps directly from the Humble Indie Bundle and install them on my own.

Proper background service support, and allowing apps to affect things outside their sandbox, lets me run programs like Locale that can monitor the phone’s status, location, etc, and modify the phone’s settings automatically based on a set of conditions that I’ve pre-arranged. My phone automatically silences itself at night time and while I’m physically at work, turns on my Wifi when I’m at home or work while defaulting it off when I’m out and about, and more.

That’s just some of the reasons I like Android better than iOS.

Favorite Android Apps

This past Friday, I bought the new Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, and I absolutely love it. The new Honeycomb interface looks amazing, and is quite an improvement over what’s available on my Nexus S with Gingerbread. I love that the back, home, and task switching buttons are now rendered on the screen instead of having hardware buttons, and combining those buttons into the notification and status bar means you don’t even lose screen space compared to previous versions. The new application switcher looks really nice, but does seem to have some odd behaviors, like not showing the browser that I just switched away from, or seemingly choosing at random whether to display the list from the top instead of from the bottom where you would expect.

There are a lot of applications that don’t yet take advantage of what’s offered by the Honeycomb APIs, but still tend to work really well. It mainly depends on how well the author designed the application to scale with the user’s screen size and density. An example of doing it wrong is the official Facebook app; it’s still usable mind you, but it certainly looks dumb in process, showing the main menu as a large grid of tiny icons with massive amounts of whitespace between them. It would have gone a long way if they had simply scaled the images to fill the screen.

I’ve been meaning to write about some of my most cherished apps, and seeing them in new form has given me an even better reason to get to it. Some of them really only work well on a phone, and others have only gotten better than ever when given a tablet form factor to call their own. So in no particular order, here are my favorite apps for Android. All prices are rounded up from Market estimates at time of writing, and all screenshots are taken from my devices:

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Locale

Fred Wilson’s recent post on Locale for Android was on Hacker News today, and although I commented there on why I like Locale, I want to expound on that a bit further.

I bought the very first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, when it was first released over two years ago. Even then, Locale was big news for the platform, having won the very first Android Developer Challenge. I have been using it on all my Android phones since then, and I continue to be impressed by it.

Locale is the killer app for Android. It embodies everything that Android is capable of, and everything that Apple refuses to allow in iOS. My phone can now be smart enough that I don’t have to babysit its settings everywhere I go; it knows when to be discreet and when to be secure. No other mobile OS can do that.

For a quick background, Locale is an application for automating changes to your phone’s settings based on a configurable set of “situations”. You define a set of “defaults”, and then each situation is comprised of a set of “conditions” and “settings”. When a situation’s conditions are met, the associated settings override the defaults; when the conditions are no longer met, Locale returns to the default settings. By combining multiple situations together in a priority list, your phone can make intelligent decisions, and seamlessly switch between multiple situations as they become active or inactive.

But what makes Locale even better is that it was designed from the beginning to be extensible. You can find plugins on the Market that add new conditions and settings. Because of Android’s ability to share data between applications, these plugins can even go so far as to use context from, or modify behavior of, other applications installed on your phone. As an example, the Astrid task manager allows you to attach a location to your tasks, and integrates with Locale as a condition when you reach those locations.

But for a more concrete example of just what’s possible, I’d like to show you what my current Locale conditions and settings are.

  • Defaults: Wifi off, Ringer volume 85%, Vibrate on, Media volume 70%, Password lockscreen on
  • Night (Time 10pm-7am): Ringer off, Vibrate off
  • Work (Location): Wifi on, Ringer off, Vibrate on,
  • Headphones (Headphones connected): Media volume 20%
  • Home (Location): Wifi on, Ringer volume 100%, Password lockscreen off

The Locale plugins that I use to accomplish this:

Color me happy.

Android is Open

I am biased. But hopefully I can still be insightful and argue this point. This was sparked by a thread on Hacker News, in which someone commented:

Android is all but open.

I’m calling this out. Android, as a software project, is completely, 100%, open. It’s released by Google with the Apache license, which is recognized by OSI and the FSF as a Free/Libre, Open Source license. The Android code itself is freely available, freely redistributable, and can be compiled and flashed onto any compatible device.

However, there is a significant portion of the Android ecosystem that is not “open” by the same definitions above:

  • Device drivers for individual phones are open or closed depending on the device and the individual chipsets in question, but that is a moot point in my opinion as there are plenty of people who use Free desktop operating systems with closed “binary” drivers. Therefore I will leave this topic for another discussion.

  • All of the Google-branded applications — including the Market, Gmail, and Maps — are closed-source and must be licensed with Google to be included on a phone. This means that Cyanogen is not allowed to include these apps when he releases his amazing CyanogenMod firmware. Other services that Google then builds on top of these closed applications are also closed by nature, including their proprietary “push” communication model.

For some purists, this is a major problem, and I would generally agree. But unlike Apple and iOS devices, none of these Google-branded apps are “privileged” applications; they don’t get special treatment from Android, and they don’t have access to anything that “normal” applications can’t access through the SDK.

But more importantly, these apps are not Android, and they are not necessary to delivering an Android phone or firmware. Developers can write and release competing or nearly indentical applications that replace these closed system apps, and indeed, there are multiple competing “app stores” for Android, with Amazon rumored to be creating yet another. There are even better alternatives for Chrome to Phone already available. And if you insist on not using — or have a phone without — the Android Market, Android is perfectly capable of “side-loading” software packages, and nobody needs to pay Google for the rights to do so.

What is all this proclaimed openness worth if it still boils down to exploiting security systems if you want to run that system you just modified?

That is the real problem, and in my opinion the blame is firmly with the carriers; not Google, and certainly not Android. I specifically purchased a Nexus One because it supports the ability to flash the phone with unsigned firmware. I can download the Android source code, compile it, and flash that resulting firmware to my phone, without needing to root, exploit, or jailbreak my phone. I could do that with my Openmoko Freerunner, and I can do that with my Nexus One.

If enough people insisted on purchasing phones with this capability, then the carriers and manufacturers would pay attention and deliver. Or perhaps Google should be standing up to carriers and demanding that all Google-branded and licensed Android phones have this capability. But even if they could get away with that demand, they can’t enforce it on all Android devices; the very definition of Free Software allows carriers and manufacturers to take Android and do what they want with it if they don’t like Google’s terms.

Maybe the real lesson is that Free Software is a double-edged sword, and if you want corporations to join in, you have to be willing to play their game too.