Beware The Ecosystems

I have a confession to make. For the past few months, Google has started to skeeve me out.

A few years back I wrote an article called “Pick Your Ecosystem Carefully.” I broke down the pros and cons of throwing in with Microsoft, Apple, Google and Palm (this was 2008, remember, when Palm still meant something). There was no clear winner, but what was obvious was the tremendous danger of lock-in if you ended up with a choice that no longer fit your needs.

The Verge’s Vlad Savov recently had a great comparison of the various digital ecosystems out there and after what was called “8000 words of fence-sitting,” he came to largely the same conclusion in 2012 that I did in 2008: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon… They’re all good, but choose wisely. None of them will do what you want all the time.

Until recently, I was pretty much a Google Man. All of my mail is in Gmail, and has been since 2004. I wrote in Google Docs, used Google Chrome for my browser, carried a Galaxy Nexus (the current “pure Google” Android phone) everywhere I went. I used Google+ to keep in touch with my friends, Google Calendar and Google Tasks to organize my life.

Lately, though, Google’s been giving me the willies. Guys like SearchEngineLand’s Danny Sullivan are starting to make a lot of sense. I wouldn’t go as far as to call Google evil; I don’t think the word is applicable to a corporation (which is not a person, regardless what the Supreme Court seems to think). But it’s growing clearer that my best interest and Google’s don’t align as they once did, and I’d be a fool to expect a for-profit company to respect my needs over their own.

This isn’t about the privacy policy or the terms of service for Google Drive. It’s about how Drive, Plus, Search and the redesigns of all the major Google services show an increased tendency to “lock in” users to Google… and only Google. Instead of enabling me to do what I want, I’m starting to feel penned in using Google’s services. I don’t trust them anymore. I don’t necessarily think they mean to “be evil,” but I no longer feel comfortable giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Only, here’s the thing. No one else is any better. Microsoft is all about locking you into Windows, Office, SkyDrive, Bing and Live services. Apple wants you to use exclusively iOS, OS/X, iCloud and iTunes. It’s trouble no matter who you go with. So, better the devil you know, right?

Wrong. In my next article, I’m going to show you how I’m building my own ecosystem from separate pieces, no one company in charge of everything. Where possible, I’m using open standards and data stores that I control. If I do it right, I’ll have a digital infrastructure just as capable as Google, Microsoft or Apple could give me, but not dependent on any of them.

Life Rolls

Kris Rusch has an interesting point in this week’s Business Rusch column. She talks about how writers can be sidetracked from writing, often for extended time, but major life upheavals.

My brain was busy these past eight months with Real Life. Imaginary worlds just weren’t as vivid or as important as they usually were—and that included other people’s books, television, and movies. I had little patience for anything that didn’t grab my attention immediately.

I’ve felt guilty as all hell since, well, since last summer, for not writing more fiction. I tell myself I want to write. I tell myself I’ll get back to it, really. I’ve even been excited about new projects. But I’ve actually written very little.

It wasn’t until reading this column by Kris that I realized I wasn’t writing because I’d had a heckuva life roll. I lost my job in January. For reasons I don’t want to get into here, I couldn’t fall back on unemployment insurance. I had no source of income and bills to pay, a roof to keep over my head.

Yet it didn’t occur to me why made up stories weren’t very important to me, except out of habit and guilt. Even my reading material over that time was almost entirely nonfiction.

My life is back on track now, and the urge to write has come back with a vengeance. I’m probably going to start posting WOYP colums twice a week for a while, on Mondays and Thursdays, and see how that goes. I’ll also be blogging about non-techie things, like this, as the mood strikes me.

And slowly, the urge to write fiction is starting to stir. Not just feeling guilty that I’m not writing, but actually wanting to write it. And of course, the way to get back into writing after a life roll is the same as breaking out of a writer’s block.

You write a word. Then you write another. Repeat as necessary.

It’s All About The APIs

Google’s been hearing a lot about APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, recently. Their lawsuit versus Oracle has dominated the tech headlines, and a lot of it centers around whether or not APIs can be copyrighted, and this require a license to use: ie. did Google break the law when they created their own Dalvik Java virtual machine to use the Java API rather than license J2ME from Sun/Oracle?

But my issue with Google revolves around other APIs, and other Google products. One with a very new API, and one without an API at all.

The other reason everyone is talking about Google lately is Google Drive. The long-rumored cloud storage service is nice, but they launched without an iOS client (they say it’s “98% done”). But more to the point, while they say they’ve released the APIs to interact with Google Drive, I haven’t seen a single iOS app updated to support it. No matter what I might think about the merits of Google Drive compared to Dropbox or iCloud, I’m certainly not leaving Dropbox until all the apps I already use support Google Drive as well.

What Google should have done was reach out to prominent Dropbox-supporting developers months ago and helped them add Google Drive support to their apps, so the updates would be ready on day one. Google can’t seem to get their act together on that. (See: how many Android apps still haven’t been updated to use the style guidelines released with Android 4.0.)

The other Google product is Google+. I was a Plusser from the very start, and for a time thought G+ would be the only social network, bookmark service, news reader, photo sharer and blogging platform I’d ever need. Recently, though, I’ve drifted away from G+. Not because of the content. In spite of what you may have heard, G+ is far from a ghost town. It’s the best way to keep up with several of my closest friends, in fact. But the problem is that it’s too easy to forget.

I mentioned last week my fascination with Flipboard for iOS. The more I use Flipboard, the less I use anything else for grazing on the interwebs. Having my Google Reader, Twitter and Facebook feeds all in one app, using a slick magazine-style UI, is incredibly compelling. I flip through all my feeds, throw anything interesting from any of them into Pocket for later perusal, and I’m done.

What’s missing here? Google+. Since Google has chosen not to release a third party API for G+, it can’t be added to Flipboard. And because checking my G+ stream involves a completely different app than everything else, that app tends not to get used (even though I’ve put it on my first home screen for easy access).

(Note for the LiteralNet: Yes, Google+ has a partial API, but it only provides read-only access to public data. Using it would not allow Flipboard users to reply to posts or see anything shared directly with them but not public.)

Google used to be smarter than this. Their whole empire was based on getting you what you wanted as then getting out of your way. The vast majority of Google searches bypass the Google home page entirely, coming from browser search bars or mobile devices. Google’s early competition made you go to them. How are Yahoo and Alta Vista doing these days?

And yet, that’s exactly what Google’s doing with their “bet the company on this” social network. Their decision not to release a third party API means that Google+ is a lot less engaging, a lot less used, than it could be.

And it’s giving me doubts about the entire Google ecosystem. Maybe I’m better off keeping all my documents in Dropbox, using industry standard formats instead of the goofy little pointers to cloud documents Drive creates. Maybe I’m better off sticking with Rdio than relying on Google Play Music. I know I’m better off with my Kindle library (de-DRMed and backed up to Calibre in my Dropbox) than I would be with Google Books.

So what about it, Google? Can you get your act together before it’s too late?

Back to the iPhone again

Every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in!

I just started my new job, and on the first day they handed me my shiny new company phone: a Verizon iPhone 4. It’s preloaded with iOS 5.1, so I’ve been using it as my only phone for the week and I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised.

The screen is as sharp as I remembered, and no adjustment at all coming from the 720p screen of the Galaxy Nexus. While I still like Roboto, I’d forgotten how charming and clean Helvetica Neue feels. The screen on the iPhone is almost comically small compared to the Galaxy Nexus side by side, but viewed by itself, it’s fine. And I definitely do notice how much easier the iPhone is to use one-handed. My thumb can actually reach across the screen!

Let’s talk software. The biggest change I’ve noticed in iOS 5.1 is the new notification system. I’m not sure how much I like it yet. It feels like a mashup of the Android 4 and webOS notifications, which is essentially what it is. Apple took the ideas that they liked from their competitors and bolted them together. I’d like more variety in widgets (I’m only using Weather), but I really do like the ability to swipe directly across a notification popup on the lock screen to go right to that event. I’d say it puts iOS on par with the competition, but not ahead.

The iOS multitasking system still feels a little primitive compared to the thumbnails you see on Android and webOS. But it is snappy, which Android’s thumbnails sometimes aren’t, even on Google’s flagship device.

Finding apps to do everything I did on Android hasn’t actually been difficult at all. Instead of Epistle on Android to edit markdown-formatted text files on my Dropbox, I use Elements (the two are so similar I’d be surprised if Elements weren’t the inspiration for Epistle). I use Pocket Casts for podcast listening on both platforms. Evernote is mostly the same on both platforms (see below). And on iOS, I have EgretList again to help me use Evernote as a GTD system. Rdio, Pandora, WordPress, Roku, Google+, Google Voice… all pretty much the same on both platforms.

Currently, I’m reading in the Kindle app, which is actually a bit more advanced than the Android version. It supports “personal documents”, so I can email whatever .mobi formatted books I want out of my Calibre library to my Kindle email address and download them as fully functional ebooks in the iOS Kindle app. I also have Stanza installed and attached to my Calibre library, so I could read that way too if so inclined.

While we’re talking about reading, Flipboard, where have you been all my life? While iOS has a perfectly functional Google Currents app and a plethora of Google Reader apps, I can understand why people tout Flipboard as one of the great exclusive features of iOS. The layout is slick and attractive while also being quick, minimalist and easy to use. And being able to read Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr and Instagram all in one app is… ahhhh. If only it supported Reddit (using AlienBlue until it does) and Google+, it’d be perfect. Of course, the latter will require Google to release the gorram APIs.

It’s not all unicorns and bunnies, though. iOS still doesn’t support widgets on the home screen, and this is turning out to be a bigger impediment than I would have thought. Particularly with Evernote, the inability to quickly create a new note or voice transcription is slowing me down.

So, am I on iOS for good? Regular readers know that’s a ridiculous question. I change platforms the way some people change underwear. But yeah, I think I’m going to keep using the iPhone as my daily driver for a while. Part of it is practicality: I have to carry the iPhone for work, and if I can do with it what I can do with the Galaxy Nexus, why carry both? But mostly it’s just that I’m really enjoying seeing what iOS can do these days.

I will keep using the Galaxy Nexus for reviews, and for testing so that when I explain a new trick here, I can tell you how to do it on iOS and Android.

My primary PC is my phone

Long time readers will recognize this has been a goal of mine for many years. It finally dawned on me recently that it finally happened. My default device for most of my computing tasks is now my Android smartphone, not my laptop running Windows.

Reading

While Amazon’s Kindle app gets better and better, it still doesn’t offer the control over typography I want. So instead I use MoonReader+, and tie it to my Dropbox-hosted Calibre library where I’ve converted all my Kindle (and Fictionwise) books. Not a solution for the faint of heart, but it I weren’t such as nerd about typography, I wouldn’t need it and could get by just fine with the Kindle.

Now that Google’s Currents has been updated to sync much faster, it’s my go to news reader. Again, presentation matters, and Currents’s magazine-style layout is a more comfortable read than anything on my laptop.

For other stories outside my favorite blogs, I use Reddit News, an ICS Holo-themed app that beats the pants off trying to read Reddit on my laptop. The Reddit website is a mess, and I can’t find any good Windows clients for it, so reading on my phone, especially the 1280×720 display on my Galaxy Nexus, remains my ideal. And of course, for regular web browsing, I have Chrome for Android.

Writing

I’m writing this post in WordPress for Android, with the help of my Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard for Android Tablets (which, despite the name, works just fine with Gingerbread and ICS phones). The WordPress app has a few rough edges, but it’s gotten much better over the years and is easily as nice to use as the web interface. And with a solid bluetooth keyboard, I can type just as fast as on my laptop.

For longer works, I use Epistle, which syncs Markdown-infested text files to my Dropbox. This has the advantage of being lightning quick and distraction free, working at least as well as WriteMonkey on my Windows laptop, if not better.

Actually, let’s talk about “distraction free” for a minute. The key advantage of working on a smaller screen is that I’m forced to focus in tight on what I’m doing. I’ve seen lots of people mention this as an unexpected perk of working on tablets, and it works just as well on phones, provided you have a phone with a large enough screen. My Galaxy Nexus’s 4.6″ screen is just about the lower limit I’d really be comfortable with as my primary computer. The 4.7″ screen on the HTC One X would work just as well, and the over 5″ screen on the Galaxy Note would be even better. But even a 7″ tablet, like my old Nook Color, is too big to take everywhere.

Productivity

I’m deeply sunk into Google’s ecosystem for all of my personal data (Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Voice, etc.), so Android fits me just as well here as anything else. I use the stock ICS Calendar app, Gmail, Google Voice for all my calls and texts and the Tasks app to tie into Google Tasks.

Entertainment

My phone is also my personal entertainment hub. I watch Netflix on it (again, this works better on the Galaxy Nexus than on most Android phones, so ymmv). I use it to stream music in Google Music, Rdio and Pandora. I listen to podcasts via DoggCatcher. And when I do watch Netflix on my TV, I use my phone for the Roku remote and to look up stuff on IMDB.

I’ve really grown to like Instagram for taking and sharing pictures, and thanks to Google+, all the pics I take on the phone are automatically uploaded to Picasa for safekeeping.

Social

It’s probably least surprising that my phone is my social hub, but I rarely actually talk to anyone on the phone. I use it far more for texting via Google Voice (which costs me nothing, Verizon!), and lurking about on Twitter via Plume and on Google+.

Conclusion

For the first time, I’m really coming to believe that an average, non-geek person could use a smartphone as their only computer. The app experience is strong enough and constant connectivity to the internet is more important than computing platform. With the rise of cloud-based data, local storage becomes a nice offline feature rather than a necessity. The only use I have for my PC, really, is high end gaming like MMOs, and those are coming to mobile platforms more and more. It won’t be long until most people don’t need a traditional PC at all.

Android 4 app redesigns done right

Unfortunately, these are just mockups. But this is what Android apps should look like these days. It’s possible for an app to look and feel like a true Android app (versus an iPhone port or cobbled together hodge podge) and still be iconic and branded. The Android design guidelines are a starting point, not a cage.

That said, I think we have a winner on the Twitter front. After weeks of bouncing between Seesmic and Boid, and waiting impatiently for a public release of Carbon, longtime Android Twitter client Plume has come out with a shiny new Holo-styled update that looks and works great. It actually looks remarkably like the Twitter mockup in the link above.

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Design Spotlight – Tasks

I’ve become a real stickler for good software design. I stickle on a regular basis, even in public. In fact, that’s become one of my main considerations when deciding on whether to use or keep an Android app. Yes, I said Android. Apps that adhere to Google’s recent design guidelines for Android 4.0 can be not only functional, but beautiful. Increasingly, if an app doesn’t have an Action Bar, I’ll pass.

Last week I talked about Epistle, a slick, well-designed text editor that makes excellent use of several Android core features (Holo theme, system share menu, etc.). I think apps like this showcase what makes Android special: simple, consistent user interface and a focus on discrete functions. I prefer simple apps that interact cleanly with others to behemoths that try to do everything.

This week I want to introduce you to another app built with that philosophy of simplicity. Even the name is simple: Tasks. (There is an ad-based free version, but this link is for the paid version, 99 cents for a limited time.)

There are lots of to do apps for Android. Most of them sync with Google Tasks. So what makes this one different?

It does less.

Tasks is just a Google Tasks client, and it adheres tightly to Google’s design guidelines to keep things simple. Create a new task by tapping the + in the Action Bar. Move tasks up and down in a list by dragging them with your finger. Promote or demote (indent) by tapping and holding to enter select mode, tap the items you want to change, and then < or > on the selection action bar.

In short, if you know how to use any modern, guidelines-compliant Android app, you know how to use Tasks.

Syncing so far has been flawless. It only syncs with Google Tasks, but that’s the point. You can clear completed take from each list, but you can also bring up a view of just completed tasks (via the Action Bar overflow menu).

Widgets are flexible and efficient. They scroll and resize on ICS and sport a + for quick task creation. You’ll need a separate widget for each task list or category you want on your home screen, and the widgets support indentation. Tapping on a task in the widget pops up a dialog asking if you want to edit the task or just mark it as complete.

There’s not a lot more to say. Tasks is fast, clean and elegant. If you’re already a Google Tasks user, this is the Android app you’ve been waiting for. It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles sone other apps have, but the sheer speed and simplicity make it worthwhile.