The end of Android

For me, at least. When I started this blog almost two years ago, Android was one of its main topics. I wanted to write about Android in an intelligent, high-brow way, to make an Android blog that could go toe-to-toe with all the top-tier Apple-focused ones out there, from Daring Fireball to Six Colors. The material just isn’t there, though.

But now I’m moving on to the iPhone 6 Plus. As I hinted in my last entry, the release of iOS 8 and large-screen iPhones closes many of the gaps between iOS and Android – the former now has huge displays, easy sharing, and extensions. What’s left for Android? Default apps? I’m sure that’ll be addressed some day, too.

Ok, that’s a bit superficial. What drove me away from Android, slowly over many years, was Google itself. The constant updates to its legalese privacy policy and terms of service. The obsessive telescreen that was Google Now. The shoehorning of G+ into everything (some of that damage is being undone now, but it’s too late).

I don’t even use YouTube (yes, I’m a dinosaur), and I do most of my searches with DuckDuckGo now. Android Wear? Too basic to draw me back in. My free Google Drive 100gb subscription is running out soon, and won’t be renewed; I’ve already moved everything onto an external HDD anyway, and I get more than my fill of Drive at work everyday.

If someone like me, who has delved into niche topics like UCCW and Android-only App.net clients, can be converted, what does that say about Android’s future? It’ll continue to be immensely popular if only because it’s easily licensed, open, blah blah. But it feels like many of its users will be accidental/incidental rather than willful ones.

Apps will continue to lag their iOS counterparts in their release and speed (I would think the arrival of Swift to replace Objective-C will make the gap even more pronounced). Android will be split between phones that are saddled with carrier bloatware and infrequent updates and, on the other hand, “stock” versions that are bloated with Google’s widening web of services.

Google provides great services for certain groups of people. But since the back-to-back-to-back hits of Gmail/Maps/YouTube in the mid 2000s, they’ve struggled to roll out any breakthrough Web services, notwithstanding Android’s rise on mobile. When I thought about just ditching my Google account for standard IMAP email, DuckDuckGo, etc., it felt…cleansing. The value/ickiness tradeoff (i.e., between how much Google’s offerings are better than their rivals’, versus how much data Google collects) has been skewed to the latter side.

What do my change of course mean for the blog? Not much. All the most-read Android stories are from months/years ago, like my weirdly popular UCCW how-to guide. My enthusiasm flagged after the early months of the Nexus 5. Given the saturation of commentary around iOS and my own status as a novice user of it, I won’t even try to get a foot hold there. Instead I’ll probably just write some essays about apps/services/workflows I like, cultural trends in tech, and my creative writing projects. Excited to blog again, finally; it feels like a weigh has been lifted.

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The end of Android?

On my Nexus 5, there are almost 30 system apps that list Google as the developer. These apps range from the often useful (Maps, Search, YouTube) to the sometimes useful (Google Play Books, Google+) to the never useful (Cloud Print, Email, Google Play Newsstand, Google Wallet). It’s ironic that “stock Android,” so often lauded as an antidote to Android phones stuffed with carrier and OEM bloatware, comes preloaded with enough apps to fill up several home screens.

I thought of Google’s enormous app suite while watching Apple’s most recent iPhone/Watch event. I remembered the addition of Passbook as a system app in iOS 6, pushing Settings down to the bottom row to fill some of the new real estate opened up by the iPhone 5’s 4-inch screen. Mercifully, Apple didn’t pad iOS 8 with new apps to eat up the space on the enormous iPhone 6 Plus.

But it felt like Google, were it in the same situation, would have inserted more apps to justify the big screen. For years now, Google has been separating-out system apps into standalone Play Store offerings, from the stock keyboard to the News and Weather app. The latter is puzzling – Google now has two built-in news apps (Newsstand and News and Weather). I can see the logic for turning Android into just a bunch of apps – it standardizes the Android experience for phones not running stock – but for Nexus phones, it’s a recipe for bloat.

And with this bloat, some of the barebones appeal of Android is lost. Stock Android is a lot different than in 2011, when felt very DIY with its WebKit browser and simple SMS, phone, and camera apps (all except the phone app are now heavily Googleized and in the Play Store). The sheer number of Google apps relative to good third-party apps also reinforces how Android, for all of its advantages in market share, is not a hotbed of good design. There are outstanding apps optimized for the platform (Press, Pocket Casts, etc.) but most non-Google offerings seem like afterthoughts.

For years, Android has had many first mover advantages over iOS, despite the app gap. It got LTE first, it always had larger screens available, and it included baked-in support for inter-app sharing and widgets a half-decade before Apple treated those functionalities as revelations in iOS 8.

Now, though, with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus and iOS 8 on the horizon (which could very well be a bigger change than iOS 7, even without the cosmetic overhaul), it feels like we may be reaching the end of Android. By that I don’t mean that Android will die, but that the justification for picking it will become increasingly narrow and that Android users will become by and large individuals who don’t like Apple or are in circumstances that don’t allow for an iPhone purchase. iPhones now have LTE, big screens, extensions and easy sharing. What’s left as Android’s calling card, for the typical consumer (I’m not talking about modding enthusiasts or developers)?

Google’s app strategy is turning Android into iOS with fewer exclusive apps or consistency. Maybe it was inevitable, considering how Android had to be turned into a moneymaker somehow. Plus, Google’s apps are marginalized on iOS, which will be getting DuckDuckGo as a search option soon, too – so there’s need to create a similarly controlled OS that plays to Google’s strengths rather than its weaknesses. But for users like me, who chose Android for its weird aesthetics and flexibility, it feels like iOS has caught up and the entire ecosystem is under pressure.

How to read RSS and listen to podcasts on Android

RSS isn’t dead. The demise of Google Reader last year inspired pearl-clutching about the demise of the standards-based Web and the rise of Google+ and other proprietary content filters. But here we are in late 2014 and podcasts (audio RSS) are thriving and there are multiple sustainable RSS engines available for subscription, from Feed Wrangler to Fever. Making a podcast client is the new making a Twitter client.

Meanwhile, Google+ has lost its mastermind and services such as SoundCloud, through their increasingly onerous EULAs, show the perils ahead for insular networks. RSS, email, et al will outlive Facebook. In my own ridiculously small slice of the Web, I have proposed that blogging will survive because it’s the foil to the artifice of social media and “solutions.”

Android is less a playground for RSS and podcast clients than iOS. It makes sense, given the Android clientele. Android lacks a built-in pod catcher like iOS’s Podcasts, though it can do RSS reading via Google Play Newsstand. For less than $25, an Android user can get a top-notch RSS and podcasting experience.

For RSS reading (news):

1. Subscribe to an RSS service

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The Feed Wrangler web interface

Feed Wrangler is my pick here. It’s got a simple, barebones Web interface that makes adding feeds easy. It only costs $18 for a one-year subscription.

2. Buy Press and log-in with Feed Wrangler or another account

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Press for Android

Press is the best RSS client for Android. It has a sleek interface that nicely weaves-in Pocket, Instapaper, and Readability, support for DashClock Widget, and its own large widget. You can log into it with Feed Wrangler, Feedly, Fever, and Feedbin

For podcasts:

1. Buy Pocket Casts

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Pocket Casts for Android

Podcasts are having a moment, for at least as long as Squarespace is willing to keep sponsoring episodes. Shifty Jelly have made an outstanding, Android-optimized podcatcher called Pocket Casts that offers variable playback speeds, easy navigation, lock screen controls, and a handy widget.

How to use Link Bubble for Android

In my previous entry, I mentioned Link Bubble, a nifty Android app made by Chris Lacy, the creator of the Tweet Lanes Twitter/App.net client. Like DuckDuckGo (a merged search engine-browser-news aggregator), Link Bubble is on the bleeding-edge of mobile browsers. It doesn’t just try to compress a desktop experience for a small screen a lay Chrome, Safari, or Dolphin (all good browsers, but ones that are of a piece with almost every browser of the past 20 years). It realizes that the mobile Web is a destination rather than an immersive app – how many times have you ended up in Chrome et al because you clicked on someone’s link and had to wait for the page to load?

Link Bubble is an overlay – it is, sure enough, a “bubble” that is drawn over whatever screen you’re currently on. It looks like this:

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Here’s how to use it:

1. Download Link Bubble from the Play Store. You’ll probably want to get the Link Bubble Pro upgrade, too, since it unlocks most of the features worth using (multiple bubbles, colors, etc.)

2. Click a link in any app (Hangouts, Google Search, email, whatever) and then, when prompted with the intent dialog, select Link Bubble and select “Always” so that it becomes your default browser. You may have to go through this process for several apps, depending on where you click most of your links. The clicked link loads in the background and shows up with a favicon to the side, in the overlaid bubble. The “HG” in the screenshot above is for Hardcore Gamer, for example. Since it’s done in the background, you don’t leave the app you’re currently in – convenient! Especially for Google searches where there’s more than one link you want to click. Here’s what it looks like when you tap on the bubble to go into the actual browser:

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3. After it’s the default, open the Link Bubble settings (find it in your app drawer and click it) and set things up:

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You’ll need to pick a fallback browser (probably Chrome unless you’ve downloaded something else) to handle any links that Link Bubble can’t handle. You’ll also want to pick the default behaviors for the upper-right and upper-left bubbles. It’s easier if I show a screenshot:

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These extra bubbles (upper-left, upper-right, bottom_ show up when you tap and drag one of the bubbles (circles) at the top of the browser. You can customize it to your wish, but the default is Pocket (if installed) in the upper-left, share in the upper-right, and close tab at the bottom.

4. If you ever need to hide the bubble because it’s in your way, or simply want to close everything in one fell swoop, you can do so from the notifications tray (Link Bubble creates a persistent notification):

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Touch it once to hide the bubble; you’ll be able to get it back the next time you click a link. Expand the notification with a downward slide to close everything.

Alternative Android browsing: Thinking beyond Chrome

Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).

You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.

There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.

Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.

If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin

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Dolphin for Android. Fast, but traditional.

Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI.  It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.

If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

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DuckDuckGo is a search engine, news reader, and Web browser built into one.

DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.

If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble 

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The “HG” bubble can be tapped to open up Link Bubble, which contains some stories clicked from this Google search.

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The Link Bubble interface, inside the bubble. Drag the bubble to different parts of the screen to perform actions. DuckDuckGo home screen widget is in background.

Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.

When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.

Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.

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