Category Archives: Android

A few days with Android Wear

Android Wear has had plenty of coverage, some of it good, some of it less enthusiastic. The commentary I’ve found most interesting has been around the approach Google has taken of making the wrist a place to get alerts, rather than somewhere which either runs apps or acts as an adjunct to the sensors your phone already contains.
I’m primarily an iPhone user, but this commentary, plus the launch of Android Wear and Android L, made me think it was time to look again at Android Wear. So I bought a Samsung Gear Live watch, and I’ve been playing around with it for about a week.

Alerts which matter

One of the selling points of Wear is the ability of apps – and particularly Google Now – to deliver information when you need it preemptively. You’re not supposed to have to ask Google when the next bus is: it’s supposed to spot the fact you’re by a bus stop and tell you when the next one will arrive.

This is fine in theory, but it depends on Google knowing an awful lot about you and the kind of behaviour you exhibit on a daily basis. It also depends on Google being smart about how your behaviour changes, learning to ignore the odd occasion when you visit a different place so it doesn’t assume you’re interested in travel information to that location all the time.

Unfortunately, Google Now isn’t particularly finely tuned yet. For example, in common with most people I don’t drive everywhere. Neither do I get the bus everywhere. Yet Google forces me to choose between public transport routes or driving routes, and doesn’t learn which I use for what kind of journey. I don’t take the car to work, ever; but this doesn’t mean I get the tube for every journey, so there’s no point pre-emptively suggesting a leaving time for a trip based on that when it’s something I’d always drive to.

This kind of lack of granularity shows up on Android Wear particularly badly, because it puts alerts and what the machine knows about you front and centre. In theory, Google Now ought to get better and better the more you use it. In practice, I’m yet to see a major difference in how good its predictions are.

Keeping the phone in the pocket

However, using Android Wear has had one side-effect which I didn’t expect: it’s helped me to stay “present” in more situations and stop checking my phone for “urgent” stuff. Knowing that if something happens, there will be a little buzz on my wrist helps to avoid the feeling that you’ve got to get your phone out of your pocket “just in case”.

It’s also much, much less intrusive in social situations. Glancing at your wrist for a second to check an alert lets you stay more present in the conversation which is happening around you than ferreting around in your pocket, dragging out your phone, switching it on, checking whatever and putting it back. And of course with the phone, you’ve got the temptation to keep it on the table in front of you, glance at it, maybe see what Twitter is talking about… all of which breaks the social contact you’re having in the real world.

Where does this go next?

Android Wear is interesting, and so far I’ve really enjoyed using it. It, combined with Android L, is pretty-much an even match with the iPhone for usability at the moment, although from my experience of iOS 8 so far I’d say the iPhone will take a leap ahead of it again when it’s released.

However, using it has also made me hungry to see what Apple could do with a wrist-based wearable product. Ever since Tim Cook mentioned the wrist was “interesting” to the company, everyone’s assumed Apple will make an iWatch. But what you have on your wrist doesn’t have to be a watch: the fact you have two wrists means there’s space for two devices. Perhaps on the right you could wear something like Android Wear, designed to keep your phone in the pocket, while on the other, a smaller screenless device keeps a constant check on your heart rate, steps, and more. Or maybe it will be combined into a single wearable (which you have to charge every day).

If someone made a potato, Samsung would make a Galaxy Potato

GigaOm:

Another report in the Korea Times suggests that Samsung is also working on a pair or smart glasses designed to compete with Google Glass, tentatively dubbed Galaxy Glass. Samsung is reportedly hoping to launch these glasses by September at IFA, which might get them to market sooner than Google makes its Glass available at the consumer level. 

I’m trying to think of a new technology which has come out that Samsung hasn’t raced to copy. 

Nope, still trying… no. Can’t think of anything. 

Repeat after me: Chrome is the platform, Android (and iOS) is just the host

I’ve been saying for some time that Google’s longer-term plans for application development all hinged around Chrome. Native Android apps are silos: although Google has built tools which allow developers to make Android apps searchable (and thus a target for ad sales, and tracking) it’s much harder than with a native HTML web app. 

Building an app using native tools is also a dead-end: developers have to work harder to create a web-native equivalent. And web-native equivalents can be easily supported by advertising, supplied by… you guessed it… Google. 

Chrome Packaged Apps, on the other hand, are “native” web apps – and the web is Google’s true focus. So it’s no surprise that Google has released an early release which lets you bring Packaged Apps to iOS and Android. 

Chome is the development platform, not Android: Android is just the host, just like iOS is. 

Samsung’s road to smartphone dominance is a dead end

How many stories in the tech press have you read over the past year which posited a theory of Apple being in trouble? Tens – probably hundreds of articles have appeared which put forward the idea that Apple’s needed to move the iPhone downmarket and create a cheaper version to gain market share. Failure to do this means doom.

So let’s take a look at a company which has followed exactly this plan, competing at every level of the smartphone market from cheap devices for the masses through to expensive, high-end phones: Samsung.

Samsung’s earnings are out, and they’re not pretty:

“Earnings will remain stagnant this year as the explosive growth of the past two to three years seems to have ended,” said Lee Sun Tae, a Seoul-based analyst at NH Investment & Securities Co. “Although the lower-end smartphone market will continue to grow, the scale of profit from that segment doesn’t compare to the high-end market so the growth seems limited.”

Samsung’s problem is simple: at the low end it is being squeezed out of existence by low-name and no-name Chinese manufacturers, all happy to stick “good enough” Android on their phones with no costly extra software. Although the company has tried to differentiate its products by value-ended extras and services, for price-conscious consumers these are meaningless or, in some cases, a turn-off.

At the high end, it is being squeezed by Apple, which has proved it can compete in any market.

If you want to make a comparison to the PC market, Samsung is like IBM was: a “quality brand” producing products which aren’t sufficiently different from cheaper commodity players like Dell. In the smartphone market, for Dell read Lenovo or (long term) Xiaomi.

A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.

Cheap Android phones don’t mean what you think they mean

Benedict Evans ponders the meaning of Android:

As should be obvious, this makes counting total ‘Android’ devices as though they tell you something about Google or Apple’s competitive position increasingly problematic. But to me, pointing out that ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily competed with iPad is rather boring – what’s really interesting are the possibilities that these new economics might unlock. 

A good example is this – a 2G Android phone wholesaling for $35 (just one of hundreds). Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

Benedict picks out what’s really interesting about Android, and it’s absolutely not that “80% market share” pundits keep going throwing around. The kinds of devices that Benedict describes aren’t in the same market as the iPhone: a $35 2G smartphone is as comparable to the iPhone as a Mercedes S-Class is to a Mini. Both do the same thing (carry you around), but no one who’s in the market for one of them will end up walking out of a showroom with the other. 

But what is interesting, as Benedict points out, is what a $35 Internet access device enables. When devices like this are as pervasive as a pocket calculator used to be, what does that allow us to do? Smart devices, network-enabled, which are almost cheap enough to throw away are much more interesting in the long term than expensive (but undoubtedly brilliant) devices like the iPhone. 

What are low end tablets used for?

Ben Bajarin takes a peek into the “white box” segment of the tablet market and finds out what they're being used for:

Nearly all evidence and data we find comes back to a few fundamental things. First, most of these low cost tablets in the category of ‘other’ are being used purely as portable DVD players, or e-readers. Some are being used for games, but rarely are they connecting to web services, app stores, or other key services. I have asked local analysts, local online services companies, app tracking firms, and many many more regional experts, and the answer keeps coming back the same. They affirm that we see the data showing all these Android tablet sales. But they aren’t actually showing up on anyone’s radar when it comes to apps and services in a meaningful way.

Is this even the same market as the iPad? I don't think it really is. Whereas the iPad is being used to effectively replace (or augment) the PC in many homes and businesses, this looks much more like a replacement for the portable DVD player. Think video iPod, not Mac replacement.

How not to do a review

The Verge reviews the new Nexus 7:

So when Google announced the new, $229 Nexus 7, I immediately leapt to the pre-order page. This would solve all my problems! It has a fantastic display, a great processor, all the books and magazines and movies I want, and it’s so small and light it’ll go everywhere with me. Right?

Then I looked over at the Nexus 7 I bought last year, which I loved to pieces. But it’s sat dormant for six months. The battery’s dead, maybe permanently. I scratched the screen pretty good, too. But a year is a long time, and maybe this would be the one. I had to find out.

Someone who runs out on day one and buys a product is highly unlike to admit on day three that they’ve bought a lemon, no matter what faults they find. That’s just human nature, and it’s one of the reasons why, when doing reviews, you get short-term loaners from the company rather than buying your own.

Why buy a Nexus over an iPad?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is really quite impressed by the Nexus 7, going as far as to say that:

If Apple doesn’t raise its game with respect to the iPad, my next full-size tablet could be a Nexus.

I’m going to leave to one side a lot of what Adrian says in support of the Nexus 7, because it boils down to things which are either personal preference or equally applicable to the iPad mini. However, I’m not sure why he makes the statement above: After all, there’s already a nice, big Nexus device which – from the perspective of hardware – matches the larger iPad.

Personally, I haven’t used my Nexus 7 since I bought the iPad mini. There’s nothing in the N7 that’s superior to the mini, apart from the price. If you want a tablet and are on a really tight budget, the N7 will serve you well. But really, if you can afford the extra money for the mini, spend it: you won’t regret it for a moment.

Even if you’re wedded to Google services, the mini is probably the better option. With Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Drive and pretty-much everything else well supported by apps on the iPad, you’re missing out on almost nothing, and you have a wider variety of apps to choose from (and generally better quality ones too).

Apple is winning. Google is winning. Can we shut up now please?

Ben Thompson on the Google we always wanted

Android did its job: Google’s signals have unfettered access to users on every mobile platform. Microsoft is in no position to block them, and Apple, for all its bluster, isn’t interested.

Chrome is doing its job: Google’s signals sit on top of an increasing number of PCs, slowly making the underlying OS irrelevant.

Google+ is doing its job: Every Google service is now tied together by a single identity, and identity is the key to data collection on mobile.

This is the thing that people often don’t get: while Google and Apple appear to be competing with each other, because both companies sell a mobile platform, in fact they have entirely different aims and objectives. This means that it’s perfectly possible for both to “win” by their own criteria.

Apple wins by selling the best devices, ensuring no one can stop them delivering the best user experience and making a profit from them. Google wins by improving its advertising products and ensuring that no other company can lock it out, depriving it of potential audience. 

This is why the occasional talk of Google pulling or handicapping its iOS products (see the comments here) is laughable. Google doesn’t care if you’re using an iPhone or an Android phone. It cares if you’re using Google services or not. And the best way to get iOS users to use more Google services is to produce better products for iOS, rather than expect them to buy a new mobile phone.