I was going to lunch today, walking along Lake St. in Chicago to a Jimmy John’s (conveniently next to a Starbucks, where I would get a coffee afterward) and I saw a Facebook ad. No, not one of those “Save 20% on designer shoes” or “Buy Dawg Pound merchandise here” in-stream shills, but a real, physical banner on a bus stop. It looked like this:
Kinda creepy. It was for Facebook Messenger, the app that was recently split off from Facebook proper on mobile (though you can still use all the features of Facebook together in the convenient mobile Web app) and that now has 500 million users. There’s not much Facebook branding here, really, which I think is intentional. Messenger is meant to be something as basic and habitual as text messaging or IM clients were just a few years ago. Facebook’s enormous databases – your friends, your profile, your history – are just the back-end, the magic behind the scenes.
I thought about calling this post “Facebook-as-a-service” (you can see it in the slug still) in a cheeky way, since the “as-a-service” moniker is most often applied to resources like servers and software that are delivered to customers on-demand, without the need to install anything. Messenger seems like just another app – a LINE or WhatsApp clone – but it’s being marketed as a way to do Facebook without really being “on Facebook,” i.e., scrolling through News Feed chaos. In that way, it resembles infrastructure- and software-as-a-service, which let you get more computing power and packaged applications without dealing with the mess of equipment management or software downloads.
Also, this ad is one of the only ones I’ve ever seen with a Windows Phone rectangle next to the App Store and Google Play equivalents. The sticker centerpiece is strange but overall the ad seems at least as effective as all those in-stream ones I’m missing out on by using AdBlock.
Much of this blog was originally about Android. I wrote numerous guides, longform articles, and lists about how to use Google’s mobile OS. Traffic grew exponentially after I began delving into how to use tools such as UCCW and Dashclock Widget on Nexus devices. After 1.5 years of my Android blogging, though, I tired out – I had plateaued with a Nexus 5 running mostly stock Google apps and a few cross-platform mainstays such as Pocket. I didn’t know what else to write without going into rooting etc., which didn’t interest me.
Earlier this month, I switched to an iPhone 6 Plus after 3+ years on Android. I got my first smartphone in 2011 – an HTC Inspire from AT&T – and then moved on to the Nexus 4 and the Nexus 5. The iPhone 5S, with its stunning camera and Touch ID, tempted me to jump the Android ship, but I held out, thinking that Apple would eventually make something bigger. They did, and I switched, realizing that the only thing that had prevented me from going to the iPhone had been screen size.
After three weeks with iOS, here are my three main reactions to switching:
When I was an Android user, I regarded phones and tablets as secondary gaming devices – good for the occasional time-waster on the subway, but not for the “serious” experiences like the ones I got from my 3DS. The big screen iPhones have changed my outlook, not so much because of their GPUs and the Metal API (though both help), but because of battery life. The iPhone 6 Plus easily lasts the whole day even between podcasts, music, Pinterest and sessions of Plants vs. Zombies 2 and Plunder Pirates (and iOS exclusive for now – it went Metal before it went Android). On my Nexus 5, the battery would drop precipitously after just a few minutes of gaming. I couldn’t relax or give into the experience, but now I can. Skullduggery!, Mr. Crab, PvZ2: The app gap between iOS and Android is most pronounced in both the gaming selection and how each platform handles common games.
A world without the Web (browser)
Chrome was a mainstay of the Android experience, but Safari doesn’t hold the same centrality for me on iOS. I usually only end up there if something else sent its way. Native apps are better, and Spotlight Search, linked into DuckDuckGo, has all but eliminated my Googling. FeedWrangler takes care of RSS for the websites I usually check, anyway. The only thing I regularly use Safari for is the mobile Facebook site, since I don’t like how the Facebook iOS app affects battery life. Part of iOS’s strength here is in high-end immersive apps like Tweetbot, Vesper, and various games, which between them run the gamut of content consumption and creation.
The small stuff
Neither the Nexus 4 nor 5 shipped with bundled headphones or a podcast app. Both charged with microUSB, so the cable wasn’t reversible. I had to draw a pattern or enter a code to unlock, without the option to reliably use my fingerprint. These all sound like minor quibbles, but considering how many times a smartphone is looked at each day, they add up.
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.
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
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
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
1. Buy Pocket Casts
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.