SPB Shell 3D for Android review

I have probably tried every Android “home” app available. Touchwiz (which comes with my Samsung phone by default), the Froyo and Gingerbread AOSP launchers, LauncherPro, ADW.Launcher, Go Launcher, Zeam, the list goes on and on. These apps are generally considered the UI of Android, the desktop interface from which you launch apps and interact with various widgets.

I’ve had a serious Goldilocks problem with Android launchers. In a way, I think the choice itself is the problem. In iOS, you have Springboard. That’s it. You take what Apple gives you and you like it. Even if you jailbreak, all you can do is dress it up. But on Android, every launcher app does things a little differently. Touchwiz and Go Launcher try to mimic iOS’s Springboard. LauncherPro and ADW stick with the “stock” Android launcher paradigm, but try to add features or flexibility. Zeam just tries to be as small and fast as possible. All of them have something I like, but they all have something I don’t. And ultimately, I gave up trying to find the ideal and stuck with the Gingerbread-themed Froyo launcher that came with with Serendipity, the custom ROM I use on my Samsung Captivate. Nothing really stood out.

Until now.

I knew SPB well from their work on Windows Mobile. They were almost single-handedly responsible for making Windows Mobile at least look like a modern smartphone OS (well, until HTC started doing their own thing).  Now they’ve taken SPB Mobile Shell from Windows Mobile and reinvented it for Android, and in the process they’ve come up with an Android launcher that really stands out.

Home screen carousel

Carousel

The first thing you’ll notice is a little slide bug in the center of the dock. Slide this back and forth, and the screen drops away to a carousel view. You can spin the screens around as fast or slow as you need, and pick the right one out of the group. You can swipe from screen to screen like every other launcher out there, but I find this use of 3D (hence the name of the app) actually helps me find the panel I’m looking for quicker. The animation is fast and fluid, and the spin slows down with the natural, organic feel you would expect from Apple.

Panel editing

Panels

If you tap on the little three-panel icon in the lower right of the carousel view, you get the editing screen shown above. While this is completely intuitive in use, the screenshot looks little confusing. The carousel pulls back, so you’re now looking slightly down at it rather than directly at it. Think the difference in perspective between an MMO like World of Warcraft and a first person shooter like Quake, respectively. In front of you between you and the carousel, you see several available but unused panels lying “flat” relative to the carousel. You can pull panels down from the carousel and put them in the stack, or pick up panels from the stack and insert them into the carousel. Like I said, it’s quick and intuitive in use, and the screenshot really doesn’t do the UI justice.

The panels available range from ad hoc things you build yourself to dedicated purpose panels that you might think of as full screen widgets. The included panels include time, calendar, SMS, weather, travel, images and more. These all show SPB’s usual polish and attention to detail. I particularly liked the weather panel, complete with animated current conditions, although in the beta I used for this review, I couldn’t get the weather to update reliably. I hope they get that ironed out for the release, because it’s really neat.

SPB Widgets

Widgets

You also have individual widgets supplied by SPB if you don’t want to take up a whole panel for your calendar, say. What I really like about these is that they are all multi-state, and you can change them in size to fit the layout you have in mind. The time widget can be a 2×1 condensed clock, showing your next alarm, the time and small date, or a 4×1 clock showing the same but with longer, more descriptive date and time formats, or a 2×2 analog clock. When the screen is in edit mode (which you enter by tapping and holding an icon, just like every other launcher out there) SPB widgets have a white arrow in a green circle in their upper right corner, as seen above. Touch that arrow to switch modes.

Also note the black bar at the bottom of the above screenshot. This is the tray, where you can hold items, apps, shortcuts and widgets, if they overflow while you’re moving stuff around. SPB Shell 3D automatically reflows each panel’s contents for you, and this means you never have a “no more space on this home screen” error. It also means you don’t have to tediously try to drag something from screen to screen to screen if you need to move it somewhere else. You can drop it in the tray, swipe over to where you’re going, and drop it where it belongs from the tray.

In the lower right of the above shot, you see the standard grid icon for the app drawer. This is pretty standard stuff, smooth scrolling against a black background, but they managed to put in a nifty feature even here. When you’re in edit mode, you’ll see a little house icon over each app in the drawer that is also on the home screen. This is a great way to see at a glance what apps you have out on your panels and which apps you won’t see unless you look in the drawer. Personally, I prefer to have just about everything on the home screen, so the only apps in my drawer that don’t have little house icons are those that I launch by widget instead (BeyondPod, Rdio, etc.).

Folders

This is SPB Shell 3D’s best feature, IMO. The stock launcher has had folders for some time, and even iOS finally gave up and admitted they were necessary. But there’s a problem with home screen folders. Once you put something in them, even if the folder icon shows you tiny thumbnails of the icons, you rarely go back to that app. Folders are where apps go to be forgotten.

But SPB Shell 3D has a different approach. Yes, you can have folders that are just 1×1 thumbnails of the apps inside, but like Shell 3D’s widgets, folders can also be multiple sizes. As you can see in the screenshots above, in addition to the thumbnail grid, home screen folders can contain 3-7 full size icons that are just as tappable as anything else on the home screen. This gives you the best of both worlds. A labeled container to hold related apps, but you can still get to those apps without the extra step of opening the folder. Of course, you can open the folder and see all the apps contained therein at their full sizes, if you need to. But I find that even with big groups of apps like Utilities, there are rarely more than 7 I need quick access to. Maybe I’m OCD — okay, definitely — but I really like having my home screen apps “penned in” with like apps in neat little groupings.

Speed

The last really cool feature I don’t have any screenshots for. You’ll just have to see it for yourself. Given all this eye candy, you’d think SPB Shell 3D would be slower than the competition. But the folks over at SPB have optimized this down to every line of code, and it runs not only faster than “full service” launchers like LauncherPro and ADW, but it runs faster than the stock launcher in my testing. Everything is quick, taps are responsive, and animations are smooth. It doesn’t feel like it weighs down my phone at all. And as far as launcher replacements go, that’s really saying something.

Downsides

While it’s fast and pretty, that all comes at a price. Battery life. I noticed my battery draining noticeably faster with SPB Shell 3D than with the stock launcher. The drain isn’t dramatic or crippling, but it could be a factor if you’re just barely getting by with battery life as it is. I still get through a full day with my Captivate, but the battery is almost completely dead by the end of the day rather than around 30%.

With the caveat that my test copy is a beta, I also found a few issues with crashing. Sometimes things would just stop responding, and I’d need to reboot, or I’d get weird feature lockups like the weather panel refusing to update. I’m sure these are normal development bugs and will be fixed in the release version.

It’s also a little pricey compared to the competition, selling for $14.95. This is really expensive by Android app standards, three times the price of LauncherPro. Is it worth it? I think so, but your mileage may vary.

Conclusions

SPB Shell 3D is my new default launcher. It makes my Android phone more capable, and more fun to use. It’s a little pricey, but well worth it if you use your Android device heavily. SPB Shell 3D is available now on the Android Market.

Amazon building an Android ecosystem

Amazon dropped another bomb this morning, right on both Apple and Google. For a while know, Amazon has been quietly building something. Something involving Android. A tablet? Maybe, but we don’t know yet. I think Bezos has his sights set a little higher. He’s not building yet another Android tablet. At least not yet. What he’s building is iTunes for Android.

One of the things that makes the iPhone and other iOS devices so compelling is their end-to-end integration with Apple, mostly through iTunes. If you have an iOS device, you have one place to go to get apps, music, movies and books. Apple has you covered and it’s all easy to deal with if you’re already used to buying music on iTunes and syncing your iPod.

Until now, Android didn’t really have that. Google offers some stuff, but it’s fragmented and doesn’t all work together. Google Books is still pretty much a beta, and currently Google doesn’t have a music service, though they are rumored to be working on one.

But now thanks to Amazon, anyone with an Android phone has a music store, a book store and an app store. They can also store whatever else they like (documents, movies) in Amazon’s Cloud Storage, and download those to anywhere. And all of this comes with Amazon’s famous commitment to customer satisfaction. For media, they’ve not only beaten Google to the punch, they’ve pretty much edged them out of the picture. I doubt Amazon will launch their own email and organizer service like Google Apps or MobileMe. They don’t have to. They can let Google continue to provide the free stuff, while they set up to take all the money.

Apple was smart with how they rolled out their mobile devices. They already had music and movies available when they released the iPhone. They already had apps available when they rolled out the iPad. Is Amazon doing the same thing, creating the demand before they release their Android tablet, their answer to the Nook Color?

Maybe, but don’t hold your breath. If Jeff Bezos really wants to knock people’s socks off and take a ridiculous lead in this market, he needs to wait. Others have noticed that the price of a new Kindle is dropping linearly, intersecting with $0 this fall. A lot of people have guessed this might be something else they add to Amazon Prime, as they recently did with video streaming. Pay $80/year, and you get free second day shipping, free video streaming, and a free Kindle. But what if that free Kindle, wasn’t the Kindle 3, but rather a 7″ Android tablet preloaded with the Kindle app and Amazon’s Android Appstore?

The coming Author War

I believe there will be a war between the writers who want agents and traditional publishers to “take care of them” and indie writers who want to control their own careers. — Dean Wesley Smith

I’ve been worried about this for a while now. I’ve noticed people choosing up sides on blogs and Twitter. Folks like Smith, Konrath, Hocking, Barry Eisler and myself on one side, and traditionally published authors like Lilith Saintcrow and Maureen Johnson on the other. One side wants, even needs, publishing to change so we can control our own destinies and write whatever we want. The other side needs publishing to remain the same, or at least stable, because that’s how they feed their families. They’re invested in the status quo.

So far, both sides are getting along, agreeing to disagree. But this tolerance is starting to slip. Debates are getting more heated. But it’s starting to look more and more like familiar political structures, taking on the flavor of unions versus freelancers. I fear that like American politics, the two sides will diverge to the point where they can no longer talk to each other, no longer respect each other’s point of view.

Barry Eisler’s defection to the indie side has shaken a lot of people in traditional publishing. When a New York Times Bestselling author walks away from a half million dollar advance to go indie, it makes indie publishing real. We’re not the lunatic fringe anymore. We’re the competition. The disruptors. The heretics.

Not that it’s all smiles and bunnies in the indie camp, either. There is dissension in the ranks. While some indie authors race to the bottom to sell their books at 99 cents before they lose their competitive price advantage, others decry how 99 cents “devalues” the book as an art form and demand their peers price their books higher, lest readers get too accustomed to paying a buck a book. I suspect this argument will settle out when the 99 centers figure out that they can’t sustain that price, and that their market dries up too fast. But I hope we get it ironed out before traditional publishers, along with the authors that depend on them, mobilize against the threat indie publishing poses.

The sustainability of 99 cents

Jennifer Mattern on allindiepublishing.com has an interesting interview up today with indie phenom Zoe Winters. They discuss something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, the sustainability of the 99 cent price point.

I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut. — Zoe Winters

This is what bothers me. The Between Heaven and Hell trilogy — which comprises the first halfish of the Unification Chronicles, so this is already complicated — is somewhat genre-bending. Here’s the elevator pitch for the first book, Revelation:

When Daniel Cho sees a dead man walk away from a car wreck, he becomes the catalyst for a final battle between angels and demons.

What genre does that sound like? If you picked “science fiction,” you’d be right, only you didn’t pick that, did you? As the story develops, it turns out the angels and demons are really humans with a purely technological basis for immortality, and over the millenia they’ve inspired our myths of gods, angels and demons. In book five of the series, we’ll find out how and why they became immortal in the first place, and what that means about humanity and our place in the galaxy. But to start out, this book seems like urban fantasy or horror. We only find out it’s really science fiction later.

This genre ambiguity means the niche for people who want to read my books is on the smaller side. I will never pull down numbers like Amanda Hocking because paranormal romance just isn’t what I write. I have to accept that my niche is finite, even with the ebook market expansion accelerating.

And given that, 99 cents is troubling. A sale at 99 cents makes me only 1/6, or 16.7%, of what I make at $2.99. Hocking, Locke and others like them can get away with that because their pool of potential customers is so much larger. But if I want to make a living at this, 99 cents can only be an occasional promotional price. $2.99 or even $3.99 has to be the default.

A year from now, when the entire Between Heaven and Hell trilogy is available, plus two stand alone novels and my novella “Do Over!“, I’d have to sell about 500 copies of each book a month to sustain myself. Even that seems high to me, although I’m probably underestimating the size of the overall ebook market by several decimal points. Those will slide down the long tail over time, and be replaced by new books as I keep writing. As long as I stay around 3,000 copies overall a month, I can make my living as a writer. In theory, that’s sustainable.

At 99 cents each, on the other hand, I’d have to sell 13,000 copies a month to make the same amount of money. 13,000 new readers every month, 12 months a year. That’s more than the population of the whole town where I went to high school. Every month. In my niche, I just don’t see how that’s possible.

I’ve seen claims that standardizing on $1 is inevitable for ebooks, and their math is compelling. And while I’m not one of those who frets that $1 is “devaluing” the book, I can’t deny that under the current royalty conditions, $1 doesn’t work for me.

(If Amazon extends the 70% royalty to 99 cents and I’d only have to sell 6,000 copies a month, well, that’s a horse of a different color.)

Authors aren’t ronins, they’re masters

Mur Lafferty, one of the pioneers of podcast fiction, has posted on her blog about her decision to go indie and not seek another agent after the one she had decided they should no longer work together. She likens it to being a ronin, a masterless (and often disgraced) samurai. While that’s a romantic image, I think she has the analogy turned around.

Agents are great. I know people who swear by their agents, talk to them daily on chat, would not make any career move without them. I met a fantastic agent at WorldCon, a very knowledgeable and kind guy. But for me, where I am right now, and what I’m looking to do in 2011, I think the ronin way is the way to go. I’ve been busting my ass for six years, trying build an audience hungry for my work. And now I’m going to attempt to grow that audience, get more readers, and encourage people to buy my books. If I have to do that without an agent, or even without an editor, so be it. I didn’t have plans to be an independent author for the long haul, but it seems that’s where I am.

This is the thing to keep in mind. The agent — and the editor, and the publisher if you go that route — work for you. Without you, there is no book. Period. We are the masters, and the agents and editors are our samurai. They perform valuable services, but you must never forget that without the author, there is no book. It’s easy, the way legacy publishing is structured, to forget that. To feel like you work for the publisher, or worse, you work for the agent that got you the deal with the publisher. After all, these are the people that hand you money (after they take their substantial cut). And in other lines of work, the people that give you money are in charge of you.

Writing is different. Publishers aren’t doing you a favor by deigning to publish your little novel. You are providing them with a way for them to profit off of your work. They add value by editing, distributing and marketing the book (or at least, they used to, which is why so many of us have decided it’s no longer in our interest to work with them, but that’s another rant), but without you, without the book, they have nothing to do.

So keep your heads high, authors. You are storytellers, maintaining a tradition that predates our species. You are the base of the whole pyramid. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Is 99 cents clear cutting your ebook sales?

Switch11 over at Kindle Review has an interesting article up about why you don’t have to be Amanda Hocking or John Locke to be a successful indie author. He lays out three levels of success, with the bottom being “solid indie authors,” those that only make tens of thousands of dollars a month rather than hundreds of thousands or millions.

This level is very important if you’re an author because it’s a level you can hit even if you don’t get every single thing right. Perhaps you can’t write paranormal romance or thrillers. Perhaps you refuse to join any social networks. Perhaps you don’t have the energy to both write great books and do great promotion. Those are all negotiable – The $1 price isn’t. However, everything else is.

The bit about the $1 price got me thinking. I know Konrath is running an experiment to see if he can make more money selling The List at 99 cents and a 35% royalty than he was making at $2.99 and a 70% royalty. So far, it seems to be working, in that he’s selling more than six times as many copies, and thus making more total revenue. It’s encouraging, especially if the pressure towards the $1 price point intensifies. And I know I’ve said on this very blog that pricing ebooks lower doesn’t cannibalize sales because you bring in more readers that wouldn’t have purchased your book at all at a higher price.

But I wonder if this rate of sales is sustainable. I have absolutely zero evidence for this. This is just my intuition talking. But to me it seems like selling all your books at 99 cents is like clear-cutting a forest. It’s quick and initially very profitable, but it’s not sustainable and leaves you with an empty, worthless asset once the original burst of profts passes.

I’m in this for the long haul. I want to make my living as a novelist, month after month. And I worry that the rate of sales people are seeing at 99 cents is chewing up their potential market — contrary to my own previous statements, the market isn’t truly infinite; I’m not going to start buying romance novels at any price, and know others feel the same way about the stuff I write — faster than the market for ebooks overall is growing. People aren’t planting new trees fast enough to keep up with the clear cutting, in other words.

I could be wrong here. The ebook market may be a tide rising fast enough to raise any and all boats. But it sounds too good to be true, and I’ve long since learned that things that sound too good to be true almost always are.

So I wonder if I might be better off keeping my prices for most of my books at $2.99, even if that means fewer sales and less money overall, at first. Let the fire burn dimmer and cooler, but for longer time, long enough to pay my bills while I write more books.

Because that’s the other thing to consider. While Konrath is right that indie ebooks are assets, things you own that continue to generate money without additional work on your part — let’s set aside promotion for the sake of argument — sales will taper off over time as your market reaches saturation. This is what Chris Anderson calls the “long tail.” The demand for any book will slide down the tail towards just a trickle of sales, but never stop so long as the book remains available. The key is to keep writing, adding book after book until all their long tails stacked up provide enough money for your needs.

I doubt that 99 cents will give me time to do this, but I’m willing to give it a try. The first book in my Unification Chronicles series, Revelation, will start at 99 cents and stay there. I plan on releasing the other six books in the series, along with any follow on novels — there exists a 20 year period between books 5 and 7 in which I could write for the rest of my life — at $2.99, using the first book to get new readers hooked on the story. Time will tell if I’ll be able to keep to that plan, but it’s going to be an interesting ride.

The power of impulse pricing

I had a really interesting conversation this morning on the Twitter machine with Lilith Saintcrow, an urban fantasy novelist I’ve liked for a few years now. Lili was linking to another post on Nathan Bransford’s site, this one explaining why, sometimes, an ebook just has to cost more than the paper version. As I’ve explained before, Nathan’s math is fatally flawed because he assumes that post-scarcity goods like ebooks still conform to supply and demand economic theory. They don’t.

I pointed out that with ebook supply being effectively infinite, it doesn’t make sense to price the books high enough to drive away anyone. That it’s better to price the books as low as you can, 99 cents to $2.99 on Amazon, depending on what royalty rate you’re looking for. Over time, you’ll pull in more total income at a lower price because of the Long Tail effect and making the purchase an “impulse buy.”

Lili disagreed, stating that the ebook market is bounded by the cost constraints on buying an ereader, that not everyone had a laptop, Kindle or Nook. While this is partly true, Amazon makes it possible to read their Kindle books on just about every platform available, from phones to ereaders to tablets to full computers. There are people in some parts of the world who have cell phones but not electricity (they charge at the village market, which does have power, or at least a generator). I would argue that the ratio of humans to ebook capable devices will approach 1:1 in my lifetime.

But don’t listen to me. I’m a Pollyanna futurist, after all. But it’s not just me saying this. Amazon started selling more ebooks than hardcovers last summer, and recently, they announced that they’re selling (not giving away public domain works, but selling) more ebooks than they do paperbacks. The world’s largest bookseller is selling more ebooks than paper books. Somebody has to be buying them.

Maybe it’s a technological filter thing. Obviously people who already buy their books online will be more inclined to read on one of the various Kindle-friendly platforms. But not everyone lives digitally. A lot of people still walk into brick and mortar bookstores and buy stacks of good old-fashioned wood pulp, right?

Do they? Mall bookstores like B. Dalton’s and Waldenbooks faded away a while back, and now Borders is going out of business, leaving Barnes and Noble as the only national chain bookstore in America. Independent bookstores like Powell’s in Oregon and the Tattered Cover here in Denver are seeing a resurgence of sorts, but then again, so are record stores now that Tower is gone. And for the same reasons.

Paper books, by the end of this decade, will be collector’s items, like vinyl records are now. There will be a market for them, and they will sell, but mostly to pretentious hipsters who like to show how analog they are. For the vast thundering herds of humanity, sitting on busses and beaches, shuffling through airports, ebooks on a convenient handheld device will be the order of the day.

Lili doesn’t see that, and I understand why. She’s blogged extensively about her life as a single mom supporting her family through her writing. She has literally bet everything on the publishing system as it exists today, or rather as it existed five to ten years ago. Feeding her children depends on that system remaining viable, so she can’t afford to doubt it. When I pointed out that it was better to sell 1,000 copies of an ebook at $1 than 100 copies at $5, she disagreed, stating that those thousand copies would cannibalize the market, resulting in lower overall revenue. To her eyes, the market is fixed and unchanging. There are only x number of people willing to buy her books, so she needs to make as much off of each of them as she can.

The ebook market is still growing, and that growth is accelerating, not declining. And with ebooks, the supply may not be truly, mathematically infinite, but if your market of potential readers is x, then the supply is always x+1. There are always more readers, unless you’re JK Rowling, whom I believe does actually have 6.5 billion sales. She would have to start beaming books into space. But for everyone else…

Ebooks, in fact, make discovering new writers easier and more tempting that ever. And this is really why impulse pricing is so important. I already buy more Kindle books than I can possibly read, even having my Kindle read them to me while I’m driving. When I see an interesting book in the “Recommended” or “Buyers also bought” lists on Amazon, if it’s under $3, I just buy it. Even if I don’t get around to reading it, it’s worth such a low amount of money to have it handy in case I want to. But if the book is more than that, I’ll click the Sample button instead. This sends the first few chapters to my Kindle as a “stake in the ground” in case I come back to the book later. And you know what? I almost never do. Unless the sample is hella compelling, why spend more money on Book A when I already have all of Book B on my Kindle? Both are the same genre, both look interesting. Convenience wins, because humans are lazy when they can get away with it. And impulse pricing is what buys you that convenience.

In fact, that’s how I found Lili in the first place. I hadn’t read much Urban Fantasy, but eReader.com had the first book in her Hunter series on sale and I decided to give it a try. I was put off at first by her obvious pseudonym, but that was before I learned about who she was as a person and that she kept her real name on the down low to protect her kids. The book was gripping and exciting, and I’ve been hooked ever since. But without that impulse price, I never would have given her a second look.

And this is the danger that authors who have built careers on print ignore at their peril. Their worldview, their paradigm, is based on a publishing industry and more importantly a publishing market that doesn’t really exist anymore. If they can’t adapt to new realities, like Amazon selling more ebooks than paper books, all they’re going to be left with is a pair of dimes.