Why Apple doesn’t own Android’s future

People have been talking about the Apple v. Samsung verdict all weekend, and what everyone can agree on is that no one can agree on anything. Some say it’s a devastating win for Apple, that essentially every expectation people have about modern smartphones fall under Apple patents. Some say Samsung actually won, that the equivalency of Apple = Samsung in the mind of the price-conscious public is the best billion dollar ad campaign Samsung could have hoped for. Some even say that marginalized players like Microsoft, RIM and Nokia are the big winners now that Samsung, and by extension Android, have been taken down a peg.

These are all interesting suppositions, but not what I want to talk about today. I want to point out that nothing in this trial or verdict means _anything_ to Android going forward.

None of the Samsung phones in question shipped with Android 4+, Ice Cream Sandwich or Jelly Bean. None of them show the design aesthetic Mathias Duarte bright with him from the now open source webOS. Much of what makes Android distinctive today–cards in Google Now, the card-like multitasking interface, widgets and icons mixed on the home screen, the Action Bar–are unique to Android or borrowed from Palm, not Apple. If anything, the pull down notifications in iOS 5 are a copy from Android, something I’m sure Google will address in time via Motorola’s patents.

So while this verdict means that Samsung needs to be a bit more creative with device and icon design, something they’ve already done with the Galaxy S III, it really doesn’t have anything to say about other Android phones, especially phones running newer versions of Android. It might even make manufacturers push back against the carriers when the carriers demand the “skins” like Touchwiz and Sense. (I think it’s telling that by far the most blatant iPhone copy was the Verizon Samsung Vibrant, sold when Verizon didn’t have the iPhone and desperately needed something they could sell to people walking into a Verizon stupid looking for one. The Vibrant could easily pass for an iPhone 3GS to an ignorant consumer.) We might see phones a lot closer to stock AOSP going forward as manufacturers sick to Google for cover.

Searching for the ultimate Android text editor

Now that I have the perfect hardware for writing on the go, I need the software to match. I’ll get into supplementary Android apps for the writer in a later post, but for now I want to focus on the text editor, where I’ll be doing all my work. I’m pretty flexible since I was using plain text with Markdown on my iOS devices, but I do have a few requirements.

  1. It needs to have a clean, modern UI, preferably adhering to the Android Design Guidelines that came out with Android 4.0. We’re on 4.1 now, so really devs, you’ve had time to update your apps. Twitter isn’t going to give you this long.
  2. It needs to handle novel length files. This means no truncating or size limits, and a good search feature to navigate around.
  3. Not necessarily a requirement, but a preference: It should support prose formatting conventions, like automatically capitalizing the first word of a sentence. It’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t, since I’m using this for a first draft only I will ever see, but less stuff to correct later is better.

Doesn’t sound like I’m shooting for the moon, right? Well, as it turns out, you’d be surprised.

Let’s start off with where the data files are going to live, since that will dictate the tools we can use. For me, there are really just two choices: Google Drive and Dropbox. I already have both services and they’re already set up on every device I use, mobile and PC. It’s important to me that I be able to get to my files anytime, anywhere. I guess I should have put ubiquitous syncing in the requirements.

Google Drive

Since I’m all in with Google in so much of what I do, I figured the Big G would be the ideal place to look here, as well. I mean, it’s Google. They make Android. So of course, their office suite product should be the best word processor for Android, right?

Well….

It is good. And it does sync immediately and automatically. In fact, if I’m making changes to a document on my laptop in a web browser, I can see the changes on the Android app as I type them on the laptop. That’s pretty slick. And as a Google app, it follows the design guidelines and looks like a proper Android app.

So why am I still looking?

It doesn’t support share intents. For iOS people, this may be confusing, but it’s one of the best things about Android as a platform. Android allows apps a system-standard way of sending data between each other, kind of an evolved version of the Unix pipe | command. Like most text editors, Google Drive doesn’t have word count functionality built in, but that’s okay because I have an Android app called TextCounter. To get a little popup toast notification of my current word count, all I should have to do is select all and “share” it to TextCounter. Only, Google Drive doesn’t support sharing to other apps. So I’d have to select all, copy, run TextCounter manually as an app, paste in the words and push the Count button. Much less easy.

I could live with that, because hey, I’m a blogger and an indie novelist. I’m not writing to a target word count. A post or a story are as long as they are, right? Only that’s not the only weird little oversight in Google Drive.

For a program designed for general word processing, rather than code editing, wouldn’t you expect the keyboard to automatically capitalize the first word in a sentence? I sure did. But Google Drive doesn’t do that. Not with Swype, not with the stock Jelly Bean keyboard (this is on CyanogenMod 10, but I’m pretty sure it would work the same way on stock Jelly Bean). Why? I have no idea. But it’s a second black mark. Neither are deal breakers, but they’re annoying enough for me to consider my other options.

Dropbox

The other solution is to go with Dropbox. I have plenty of options here, though none as polished as the Dropbox-enabled text editors on iOS. But let’s see what we’ve got. It’s also worth noting that with Android, I’d be using the Dropbox app itself to access the files, and use Android’s share intents to open them in the app of my choice. It’s not necessary that the app itself support Dropbox if it supports share intents.

Dropbox text editor

Dropbox for Android includes a capable and lightweight text editor of its own. It’s clean, adheres to the Android Design Guidelines and it’s wicked fast. So do we already have a winner?

No. The only two items in the Action Bar are Save and Close. No search feature, no share intents to send text to Text Counter. The stock Dropbox text editor is fine for very short, unstructured files, but pretty weak for novel length work. (I could make it work by splitting each chapter of my book into a separate file and having the “novel” exist at the folder level rather than the file level, but I don’t want to do that.)

Amoeba

Amoeba is a relatively new Android text editor, designed to be fast and small. It works well and it supports sharing intents into it from Dropbox.

But it doesn’t support sharing intents out of it to TextCounter, and it doesn’t allow the keyboard to autocapitalize the first word of a sentence. I’ve emailed the developer asking for those features, because apart from those two omissions, I love it. But let’s keep looking.

DroidEdit Pro

This is probably the single best code editor on the Android platform, and surprisingly, it has some features (called Writer Mode) that try to make it appealing to prose writers. It fully supports the Android 4 UI conventions (even Gmail-like split action bar if you’re into that sort of thing) and inbound intents. It also supports Dropbox natively if you don’t want to use the Dropbox app to launch the editor. It comes with lots of built in themes designed for readability (unlike our next contestant) and you can make your own as well. The only downsides are that like Google Drive, it doesn’t autocapitalize words starting a sentence or line and it doesn’t share out text to TextCounter properly (TC returns 1 paragraph with zero words).

Qute

Qute tries to be a “distraction-free” text editor like WriteRoom on iOS, but then only comes with four themes, all of them visually distracting. “Paper” is probably the least visually busy, but it’s still difficult to focus on the text itself, despite it being rendered with a thin drop shadow to make it stand out. On the plus side, it autocaps and supports intents to open files directly from the Dropbox app. Functionally a winner, but visually…

Jota+

On the surface, this looks like a winner. ICS-style design. Proper autocapitalize. All the features you could possibly want in a text editor, frankly. It supports intents (in and out) and is quick and responsive. It even natively supports Dropbox if you buy the Pro version.

But that’s where things get squicky. When you click on the button to buy the Pro version, you’re not directed to the Play Store. You’re directed to a Google Sites page that says the Pro version isn’t for sale. But you can get a code for it if you donate to the original Jota text editor (an Android 2 era app, but it does support in-app purchase). So you think, “Okay, I’ll download the older version, donate, get the code, uninstall that and install the code in the new version, then PROFIT.” But not so fast. In the settings, under “Enter Activation Code”, it gives you a way to enter the code you got from donating to the older version before 4 December, 2011.

So if I donate now, does it count? And why the runaround? This is what bothers me about Jota+. The app looks great, but a lot of the cool features are locked behind the Pro version and the developer doesn’t seem to have a clue as to what he’s doing with that. Shame, too. It really is a nice looking app.

OI Notepad

As you might expect from the developer name OpenIntents, this app really gets Android’s intent system. And it’s not only open source, but also supports plugins for things like inserting the current date & time (great for journaling) and encrypting individual files. The UI isn’t as clean as I’d like, but the structure is sound. And it capitalizes the first word of a sentence automatically. I thought I had a winner here.

Until I tried scrolling through a long document (this post, which had reached 1,000 words by then). Not only is there no find function, but scrolling is abysmally slow, stopping on a dime the instant your finger stops. So it’s good for writing, horrid for editing.

Epistle

Epistle is pretty much a straight up clone of the iOS text editor Elements. And that’s a good thing. It is clean, easy to use and supports all the features I want. Sorta.

It doesn’t support incoming intents, so it doesn’t show up as a choice to open a text file from the Dropbox app. But it does support Dropbox directly, so that’s a wash. However, it only supports one Dropbox folder, and no subfolders. So if you’re going to use Epistle, you have to keep all your documents (or at least the ones you’ll want to edit on the go) in one place.

And I really could have made my peace with that. But while writing this post, something bad happened, and it was Epistle’s fault. I’d written the original outline for this in Epistle, and then worked on it more in Notepad++ in Windows. Nearly a thousand words worth of work. Then when I opened it in Epistle again, where I’d inadvertantly left the file open, it synced the outline over the work I’d just done, erasing it all.

FIRST RULE OF WORKING WITH TEXT FILES: FIRST, DO NO HARM.

As it turned out, that wasn’t a disaster, because I was able to go to the Dropbox website, bring up Previous Versions for this file, and restore it back from the 177 byte outline to the 5.7KB post (which is sitting at 10k as I type this). I still like Epistle, but the fact that it can wipe out what you’re working on if you’re not careful gives me the screamin’ willies.

Dishonorable Mention

These apps, for various reasons, didn’t even make the consideration round:

  • Write, by Amimetic. Wasn’t about the drop the $3 for this (despite quite liking many of Amimetic’s other apps) considering it’s tablet-only (won’t work on my Galaxy Nexus) and doesn’t support sharing either Dropbox or sharing intents. Nice UI, though.
  • Ink Bar, by Keifer Miller. Crashes on Jelly Bean when you try to run the app.
  • Text Edit, by Paul Mach. Android 2 era app that is no longer being developed.

And the winner is…

So our finalists are:

  • Google Drive
  • Amoeba
  • DroidEdit Pro
  • Jota+
  • Epistle

All are good text editors in their own right, and none have show-stopping omissions or design choices that put them out of the running. But none of them are exactly what I’m looking for, either. The perfect choice doesn’t exist, and recommend anyone looking to do serious writing on Android try them all. For me, it comes down to what compromises I’m willing to accept.

If the dev adds the features I’ve asked for to Amoeba, it’s a slam dunk. But until then, it comes down to Google Drive or DroidEdit Pro. Both have largely the same upsides and the same downsides. And given that, I have to go with Google Drive. It’s Google, and I have to think they’ll get it right sooner or later. And in the meantime, it integrates tighter with the rest of my Google ecosystem than anything on Dropbox. It means I basically don’t care about wordcounts when I’m not using a full Chrome browser that can do a word count in the web interface, and I need to get into the habit of capitalizing my own damn sentences, just like I do when I’m typing. Swype makes this pretty easy, so it’s just a matter of building the habit.

So that’s that, the state of Android text editing in late 2012. What’s your choice and why? Sound off in the comments.

The more things change…

I wrote my first novel longhand in a paper day planner as I was outprocessing the Air Force. I was no stranger to writing digitally, but this was 1996, and even if I had owned a laptop back then, I certainly wasn’t going to lug the heavy, battery-challenged thing around with me everywhere I went. Computers were mostly stationary, connected-to-AC-power things back then, and I had places to be. But everywhere I went, I had my pleather-bound, 6×9 inch notebook, ready to record the next exciting chapter that popped into my head.

This is my new writing rig. It’s my Asus Nexus 7, along with a few choice accessories. I expect to write as much with this as I did back in the day, for largely the same reasons. It can go anywhere I do, but it’s large enough to provide an immersive writing experience that my Galaxy Nexus (large-screened though it is) just can’t match. But it needs a little help. Here’s what I’m using to turn a tablet into my perfect writing device.

Blurex Ultra-Slim Case

I’ve got both this and its big brother, but I like the smaller version better. This case provides an elegant, professional presentation and tons of utility. Not only does it hold my stylus at the ready, but it also doubles as a stand if I decide to bring along my Bluetooth keyboard and do some typing. On the inside of the front cover there’s a wide elastic hand strap that the fingers of my right hand slide into, making it almost impossible to drop even if I’m walking around with it, and under that strap is a small magnet that puts the Nexus 7 to sleep when I close the cover and wakes it when I open the cover.

You’ll notice in the picture that the stylus loop and elastic strap are on the left. This is because I’m a southpaw and use my Nexus 7 mostly “upside down,” so that the case opens left to right. For you righties, you’ll be fine using it the “normal” way.

Boxwave EverTouch Capacitive Stylus

The stylus is something special, too. Unlike most of the capacitive stylii on the market that use rubber tips, this uses a weave of capacitive fibers. The cloth tip is just as soft and easy on the screen as the rubber tips, but it doesn’t streak and wear the screen the way rubber does. Long after rubber tipped stylii have lost their slickness and become grippy little friction factories, this stylus glides easily and is recognized reliably. I found that even good rubber stylii didn’t always register as touching the screen, which makes my next tool much harder to use.

Swype

This is where it all comes together. Using Swype, I can write with the stylus as fast as I can type. In case you’ve never seen it, Swype is an on-screen keyboard that allows you to drag your finger or stylus from letter to letter to form words, only breaking contact with the screen between words. The result is that each word becomes a glyph in its own right, and muscle memory kicks in after a while. You know the shape a common word makes on the keyboard, and you start just drawing the shape rather than carefully connecting the letters. Using Swype and the EverTouch stylus, I can write with one hand fast enough to keep up with the stream of words in my head, and without needing to find a place to set up a Bluetooth keyboard. I can write on the go just the way I did when I was writing my first novel, only this time recording everything digitally the first time through. All in a nice pleatherbound package that fits easily in hand and weighs just an ounce over a pound.

Welcome to the new Writing On Your Palm!

I’ve been getting the urge to blog again, and as much as I’ve thrown in my lot with Google–more on that in a later post–I’m not as keen to use Google+ as a blogging platform as I used to be. Social networking is fine, but I want to own my blog.

And, for various reasons, I wanted a change. Dreamhost did well for running a simple WordPress blog, but I wanted more. Specifically, I wanted a really great landing page for my About The Author links and a nice blog on the side. I wanted better social integration and some ecommercey stuff for my books.

Both Leo Laporte and Dan Benjamin keep talking up Squarespace, so I decided to check it out. And it was exactly what I was looking for. So I used Hover.com to transfer my domains from Dreamhost and GoDaddy (don’t judge me, it was the only way to get a .in domain in the US when I registered kirv.in) and directed them to Squarespace.

Jeff.Kirv.in is my main page, my “About The Author” page. I’ll post updates here infrequently, like if I ever actually end up doing a book tour.

Writing On Your Palm is the blog, which I’ll be updating on the rigorous schedule of “when I darn well get to it.” You can find it at http://jeff.kirv.in/woyp Here I’ll cover the same eclectic grab bag of writing, technology and science that I’m known for. If you like that sort of thing, then it’s the sort of thing you’ll like. Hope to see you around.