Monthly Archives: July, 2013

Google Currents gets inconsequential update

Google Currents, which as an Android snob I still prefer to Flipboard, got one of those dreaded “oh yeah we still have this product lying around” updates from Google, with “bug fixes” listed as the only change (Google Voice got one such update back in April). My hope was that maybe they would fix the RSS reading feature to be a bit more usable.

I actually use Currents a lot more than ever now that Google Reader is gone. I still use the exceptional Android-exclusive RSS client Press to keep up with a few blogs (most of them by Apple bloggers), but I rely on Currents for Android news and rich editions of magazines like The Verge and Slate. Its flippable (heh) widget is also one of its handiest features.

I had wondered what would happen to Currents’ feed-reading/RSS abilities now that Google Reader is not only dead but also wiped clean (the final data purge took place…today). It still seems to work in that characteristic did-it-or-didn’t-it way; e.g., the Daring Fireball feed (which Currents laughably says has “0 subscribers”) is up to date until Friday, and new feeds can be added, although they’re still hard to search for or find. If you really must use Currents to consolidate your magazine and RSS reading, then by all means do so, but a standalone RSS client is probably better at this point.

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Not in the Cards

Google Play Music is the Android app that made me like Android. Back in early 2012, when it was just Google Music and its icon was a pair of non-glossy black headphones, it (more so than any other app) showed the beautiful future of Android by wrapping the most easily used music locker service ever inside of a clean design. ICS may have been nascent and mainstream Android still mired in Gingerbread’s ugly capacitive buttons, but Google Music was a trip into the future, even on my early 2011 single-core HTC Inspire.

It was a nice coincidence that the app came to public attention at the same moment that Megaupload was getting shut down; Google Music showed how storing and accessing a massive collection of music (up to 20,000 songs for free) could be made palatable, safe, and legal for even the most casual users. It was a music app that embraced rather than resisted over ten years’ worth of changes in music consumption habits, as it didn’t care where you got the songs from and treated them no differently than the songs you bought through the app’s store front. Whereas Google’s apps (and Android apps in general) were often complicated or overly tech in comparison to their iOS counterparts, Google Music was a lean alternative to the increasingly bloated iTunes and impossible-to-understand (for non-techies) services like iTunes Match.

Google Music replaced the iPod I used to carry around, and for a solid year and half it was easily the most used app on my phones. But now, I don’t turn to it as often. Sure, I still have a huge 60+ GB collection of 320kbps music, much of it rare, stored in there (and redundantly backed up to multiple Google Drives), but something about the app is driving me away. I use Spotify a lot, but it’s not a complete substitute since: 1) it doesn’t have a lot of the more obscure tracks and regional album variations that I have collected; 2) I don’t own the music. So why I am suddenly down on Google Play Music?

I think it’s the cards. Ever since the advent of Google Now, Google has become fixated on converting many of its apps to card-based UI. After Now, much of the Play suite got card interfaces, too. I don’t use Google Play Books, Magazines, or Movies nearly enough to care about their cards, but the cards in Music just don’t work for me and I think they are killing my usage of the app.

Cards are perfect for Google Now (which admittedly I barely use) or Twitter for Android because they capture discrete pieces of information that you’re likely to view in isolation and then, once you’re done with them, swipe them away or hit the back button. Music doesn’t work this way: much of the time, you’re probably navigating through a list of albums or songs. In the original iPhone keynote, Steve Jobs spent what now seems like an inordinate amount of time showing off the new phone’s ability to do things like scroll through album covers. It was an assurance, I believe, to customers that even on a device on which music playback wasn’t the only, or even primary, functionality (it was going to cannibalize many of their iPods, after all) that the ability to peruse a music collection would be preserved.

The old Google Music had a classic list interface with album art. The new one instead has a big fat wall of cards: not only does it not feel good to scroll thru them, but it makes even harder to find music because so much real estate is instead taken up by the album art that Google has supplied (unless you uploaded it yourself; even if you did, sometimes Google will replace it, like it did in the instance of the European and American covers for Paul Oakenfold’s Bunkka). The cards overemphasize each album and don’t respect the flow or shape of your entire collection (possibly a failure of “big data”? heh). The indication is certainly that you should be using the search bar to find your music (something that was touted during the unveiling of All Access at this year’s I/O), but that’s become harder to use, too, thank to All Access.

I subscribed to All Access, Google’s Spotify clone, for a month before giving it a rest. Initially, I was excited at the prospect of consolidating all my music listening needs ex podcasting into one app, but the card interface just didn’t work out and was made worse by the search functionality, whose consistency varied. It made no distinction between my collection and its own streaming library. The Verge touted this as one of its advantages over Spotify (which respects the distinction), but it made me get lost looking for an album or song sometimes.

I doubt that Google makes revenue of any significance from its pay-to-download music store, and would probably prefer if everyone just streamed the songs that it had ultimate control over. But for now, it has revealed its limited knowledge of music or music apps in its effort to build-out its monolithic Google Now-Google+-hyperlocal superapp, a failure that can be attributed to Google’s solipsism (good Greek word – read the Benedict Evans entry I linked to, which explains this phenomena in Facebook and Google better than I can).

(And yes, I realize that this blog has a card-based theme of sorts.)

The problem with LinkedIn

By classical metrics like revenue and profit, LinkedIn is the most successful social network other than Facebook.  Unlike Facebook, however, it uses a seemingly more sustainable freemium business model, which sells your profile to recruiters via premium account subscriptions.  No autoplay video ads to see here.

But have you tried to actually use LinkedIn’s apps? They’re embarrassing failures of both concept and execution. AFAIK, their Android app doesn’t use native code and is outdone by 3rd-party clients like DroidIn. Their iOS Contacts app can’t add contacts, naturally. And their Web interface makes basic tasks, like changing your default email address, into labyrinthine ordeals (but it is good at showing you whom viewers also viewed and people I may know – thanks for the lesson in creepiness, and more on this below). For a company with $100s of millions in revenue, why can’t LinkedIn create either a fundamentally useful mobile experience or a Web experience that isn’t just a way to show off how it tracks profile searches?

Inertia, I think. When a category leader becomes entrenched against seemingly any competitor, it (and the writers who chronicle it) began to question the importance of quality or user experience. You can see this in mantras about how it “didn’t matter” that BlackBerry made ancient legacy devices that were out of touch with consumer trends because every serious CIO wouldn’t give up his Torch, or how it didn’t matter that the iPhone made hardware keyboards obsolete since real business users wouldn’t tolerate a software-only keyboard, even it it did have impeccable quality.

Well, let me say: experience and quality always matter. If a device or service is shittily designed, it will suffer, eventually. No one notices this, even after the fact, because it often takes so long for the bottom line to take a hit that observers have already moved on. For example, a forward-looking Cassandra might have thought that the debut of the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008 would have spelled immediate doom for BlackBerry, which accordingly should have nosedived any day thereafter. It actually hit an all-time high during that summer, and sales increased every single quarter until early 2011. It weathered the first four iPhones, the first two iPads, and its own disastrous release of the PlayBook! As Paul Graham says: revenue is a trailing indicator. It can continue rising even as sickness sets in and waits for the kill.

To compound issues for LinkedIn, its dated design (which in its mobile agnosticism still looks like something built for Win XP in ~2005) may seem just fine to its users, 80% of whom are 30+ and who came of age before mobile-first app design, when niceties like iOS 7 and Android Holo were just twinkles in Silicon Valley engineers’ eyes. It also has a level of creepiness that I think should make even Facebook blush. I won’t try to innovate in pointing out the oddities of both People You May Know and People Also Viewed: there are two excellent articles about those subjects here and here. But I have noticed that LinkedIn does indeed have a knack for knowing that I “may know” an ex-boyfriend in another country who was not even in the contacts directory of my LinkedIn-linked email address. And, yep, it looks like the “People Also Viewed” ribbon for most profiles is populated by LinkedIn’s younger females members.

I’ve mercilessly made fun of Facebook in the past, but LinkedIn may have been the better target all along. It feels like a mid-2000s era dating service (the profile views tracker is particularly indebted to those forerunners) brought up to respectability by a critical mass of older professionals. It also has no real competitors at this point, at least in terms of sheer users. But  for services that rely on critical mass and assume that quality doesn’t matter, problems arise when even one successful well-designed product comes out and infringes upon their space. To wit:

-Facebook: the release of Instagram in 2010 revealed how relatively hard it was to share photos via FB, as well as how noisy and filter-biased FB was. Snapchat similarly exploited disillusionment with FB’s huge data mine, which until then had been seen as one of its most critical strong-suits. Aaron Levie was right to say that the moats that protect a company in one era become threats in the next.

-LinkedIn: Pulse News was a recent LI acquisition, which occurred with minimal noise and received bored looks from the tech press. Why would LinkedIn care about news reading? Well, because news readers are becoming venues for creating and customizing content. The best example here is Flipboard and its custom magazines. What if someday Flipboard let you create your own resume in a visually rich, interlinked way? LinkedIn would immediately be in trouble – Flipboard would be to software what BYOD has become to hardware.

Acquisitions and copycatting can buy time, but it can’t protect a company against all possible comers. Some of them will succeed in siphoning off a key service into another app/location, like Instagram did with Facebook vis-a-vis photo sharing.

For these reasons, you can never feel that your service is “too good” or that its goodness doesn’t matter. Nothing can be too good – the sweating over quality and details is why Apple remains uniquely advantaged against its competitors, and it’s why Google continues to have little competition in search or maps in particular. I’m kinda scared to think about what a “too good” LinkedIn would look like (would it identify a secret crush as someone I may know? would my brother or alternate email profile show in the “also viewed” ribbon?), but LinkedIn itself had better start thinking about how to get there.

How to replace all of Google’s apps on your Android device

If you like Android but are either fatigued by or unhappy with Google’s burgeoning product portfolio, then you’re in luck. Android is super flexible and lets you replace any of Google’s popular consumer-facing apps with 3rd-party alternatives. You can do this without even rooting your phone. Simply choose the alternative app over the Google app when given the option, by tapping it and then tapping “Always” in the dialog box:

Complete Action Using

An example of choosing a 3rd-party app as the default over a stock app.

App: Chrome

Replacement: Link Bubble

Link Bubble is mobile browsing reimagined. It doesn’t look like any other browser and is instead an overlay (a “bubble” that loads your links in the background and then can be expanded when you want to read them. I’ve written a more detailed guide here.

Apps: Google Search/Google Now/News and Weather

Replacement: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

If you’re tired of tracking and privacy breaches, DuckDuckGo is a good bet. It has a simple, lean search engine that doesn’t engage in filter bias, so you’ll see the same results as everyone else: no “personalized” results based on years of tracking. Founder Gabriel Weinberg aims to make DuckDuckGo the Craigslist of search engines, i.e., a reliable an simple service that sticks to what it’s good at. The DuckDuck Go app for Android also includes a nice news reader that draws from Reddit, the New Yorker, and others.

App: Gmail/Email (stock client)

Replacement: Kaiten Mail

Kaiten Mail is a $5 client (the free version is ad-supported, which I don’t recommend) with lots of customization options for look, feel, refresh interval, and display. It’s fast and has perks like a rich text editor.  Most importantly, it features rich Jellybean notifications that you reply or delete a message from a notification. I only wish that it had  a scrollable widget or DashClock support, but for now I can work around the latter using AnyDash Pro.

App: Google Drive

Replacement: Dropbox

This one’s easy. Dropbox does virtually the same thing as Drive, with the exception of spreadsheet creation or saving to .gdoc format (neither exactly a pressing need on a phone in particular).

App: Google Keep

Replacement: Simplenote

I like Google Keep, but it’s busy and is essentially a place for collecting junk from around the Web. Simplenote is dead simple but supported by Automattic (the makers of WordPress.com). It has tags, deep search, and a Mac app, too.

App: Google Play Newsstand

Replacement: Flipboard/Press

I like Newsstand’s widget and RSS support, but Flipboard was the original visual-centric reader. You can connect numerous feeds and editions, as well as your social profiles (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). The ability to create/curate custom magazines is a unique Flipboard feature.

For RSS reading, Press offers a much richer set of features and is compatible with services such as Feed Wrangler and Feedly.

App: Google Maps

Replacement: All-In-One Offline Maps

The only real competitors to Google Maps at the macro level are Bing Maps and Apple Maps, neither of which is available for Android. All-In-One Offline Maps is a clever app that lets you have offline access to maps, which can be handy if you just need a map and not an overwhelming social data mining solution.

Google+ Hangouts

Replacements: Skype, WhatsApp, Tango, LINE

Another easy one. WhatsApp and Skype both have more users. Tango is a comprehensive VoIP, messaging, and video conferencing solution. IMO is a hybrid messenger app that has support GTalk, Facebook, AIM, and others alongside its own Broadcasts service, which is similar to Twitter/ADN.

App: Google Keyboard

Replacement: Swype

Now that Google has its own keyboard app (just a standalone version of the former Android Keyboard), any device running 4.0+ can download it. Swype is a capable 3rd-party alternative that feels slightly more accurate to me, at least for now. It also has a built-in voice assistant called Dragon.

App: YouTube

Replacements: TubeBox, Vimeo (not recommended)

YouTube is tough to replace because it’s a social location/hub more than an app. If you still need YouTube’s unique content stream and critical mass, TubeBox is a YouTube client with better multitasking support. If you’re looking to break off completely, Vimeo is an alternative to YouTube that sadly has only a lackluster Android app (its iOS app is much better).

App: Calendar

Replacement: ZenDay

ZenDay is a unique calendar/to-do list combo (something I’ve always wanted; I see less and less reason to have a standalone reminders app) with 3D animations. It has a steep learning curve, but can be worth it if you’re tired of the corporate doldrums of Google Calendar.

App: Google Wallet

Replacement: ???

NFC payments aren’t very popular. I keep Wallet around for paying at Walgreens sometimes, but I’ve made exponentially more purchases with the Starbucks apps, for example, which uses a simple barcode rather than an NFC chip.

DuckDuckGo, Google Now, and the NSA

I don’t use Google Now anymore. It occasionally chirps up in my notification tray with a depressing White Sox score, but I barely use the swipe-up gesture to access its cards. The last time I did, it didn’t even give me transit info for the closest bus stop and still showed sports some old Blackhawks playoff scores that I hadn’t manually swiped away (1. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup over a week ago, and here’s a video from the parade; 2. That clear-out gesture is surprisingly hard to make). I initially loved the idea of a comprehensive think-ahead assistant that could pool together transit schedules, sports scores, and Gmail notices into one interface. It has seemingly improved since last year, now that it can show predicative news or music suggestions. But the price is that one has to go on using Google for everything – Google Search to scour the Web, Google Play Music to play both your own collection and stream other content, GMail to handle all email. And it’s becoming an increasingly unbearable price.

Apple blogger Marco Arment, with whom I don’t always agree (he’s dismissive of Android), had a great post up about how Google, along with peers Facebook and Twitter, were essentially killing the standards-based Web that had given life to them in the first place. Twitter  doesn’t play nice with 3rd-party debs. Facebook  has always been a walled garden. And Google, once a leader in standards compliance, nows wants everything behind the G+ wall: chat clients, video calling, photo backup, etc. I agree with Arment that Twitter in particular may have the theoretical high ground, since Twitter developers aren’t entitled to unfettered access to others’ proprietary services. But it, like Facebook and especially like Google, want to ultimately control what you see, i.e., ads and promotions.

Losing the standards-based Web would be tragic, but maybe not for the reasons that some cite. It would be painful to go on losing services like Google Reader or Falcon Pro (whose demise I recently chronicled), sure. Yet the real pain will come from large swathes of Web being the exclusive provinces of certain corporations who, for reasons either furtive or coercive, decide to give info to the American NSA. You’re social walled garden is also conveniently a surveillance state – it has natural tracking mechanisms and clear owners (by contrast, no one “owns” RSS or email) who can be talked into compliance. And of course, the rhetoric from both the array of walled gardens and from the NSA itself is all about making your worry less. Using Google Play Music apparently makes streaming music simpler (I never had a problem with Spotify, though), while the NSA’s collection of email is for the (truly outlandish) purpose of making you worry less about terrorism, something that kills fewer persons per year than bathtub falls do.

Google Now is really a microcosm for the time of cordoned-off surveillance made possible by the perfect convergence of the Web giants’ collective renewed focus on proprietary services and America’s obsession with surveilling (and being surveilled! many people of course have no issue with exposing all their info, they will even volunteer it, and because of them there’s a whole cottage industry of bullshit related to “no one cares about/should care about privacy, derp” out there). Are these suggested “research more” topics really going to enlighten me, or are they just going to take me to some SEO pile? Well, I don’t have to worry about that question anymore, at least practically (I’ll go on pondering it as philosophical issue), since I just use DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine and news service that has become an unlikely hero in the recent NSA revelations. It doesn’t track users and provides results that, at least in my heavy daily usage, seem to be as good as Google’s, if not better since fewer persons are out there trying to game them. It reminds me of using Firefox for the first time back in the dark days of WinXP/IE: a startling relief, a glass of ice water in hell. When you download the Android app, there’s no sign-in, no “we just need your email, pretty plz,” no “connect with Facebook/G+,” no “add all your friends and family as ___”. It just goes directly into a news feed with a search bar at the top. In one fell swoop, both Google Search and Google Now are strangely unessential on my Google-designed phone.

Of the three Web titans Arment mentions, Google by far has the most to lose in the potential anti-NSA/anti-tracking world that DuckDuckGo represents. No tracking and fewer ad impressions mean that Google’s business model – which most people don’t understand – just doesn’t work. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google has no unique service, with the possible exception of its sophisticated Maps: most of its services are fast-follow efforts or copies, with Google Drive (which combines MS Office with Dropbox) being the best example. You can take your email, your search queries, or your files and notes elsewhere; but you can’t necessarily take your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Their walled gardens are simply better than G+. This is why Google needs to create Arment’s described “lockdown” effect via G+ in order to compete with Twitter et al, and it has to do this in spite of Apple’s efforts to clear Google off the iPhone (how long til we see Bing as the default search engine on the iPhone?). Good luck.

I agree with Arment’s conclusion, expressed as a retort to the proprietary lockdown efforts from leading Web companies: “[F]uck them, and fuck that.” It’ll take huge steps to stem the tide of them and of the surveillance (both by them and by government) that they enable, however. The recent Google reversal on retiring CalDAV in favor of the Google Calendar API represents one such small victory, and I hope that there are more. And switching to DuckDuckGo is one good, painless way to get back on the path to a saner, more private existence.