Tag 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).

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. 

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. 

Cheap tablets and baked beans

Jared Newman reviews the Hisense Sero LT 7in tablet, currently selling for $99 in Walmart:

But there’s one big caveat with the Sero 7 LT, not listed on Walmart’s product page: According to Engadget, TechRadar and others, this tablet will only last for about four hours on a charge. Most other tablets last at least twice as long. Even if you’re not planning on hours of consecutive use, a big battery allows you to keep your tablet lying around for days at a time, using it on and off throughout. With a four-hour battery, you’ll need to be extra mindful about plugging the tablet in when it’s not in use.

Also, keep in mind that while the Sero 7 LT’s microSD slot compensates somewhat for the measly 4 GB of built-in storage, it’s not a cure-all. Some Android apps and widgets can’t be installed to a microSD card, and juggling two sources of storage can be a hassle.

So in other words, it’s a tablet which has a battery which makes it certain not to last through the day, tiny amounts of storage, and a dual core processor which is likely to make it feel sluggish. It has no roadmap for future software upgrades. Essentially, it’s barely useable for the kinds of purposes that any family would want to use a tablet for. 

Yes, it’s cheap, but in the way that 10p tins of beans used to be cheap: you’d open them up, and find a third of the can was thin watery sauce, with some tough, tasteless beans nestled at the bottom. You’d eat them, because they were the only thing you could afford: but if you could afford anything better you’d buy that instead.

Chromes OS, Android, and the future of Android apps

Sundar Pichai, who recently took over Android from Andy Rubin, pours some cold water on the “Chrome OS and Android to merge” rumours in this interview with Wired. But he does leave one door open:

” We want to do the right things at each stage, for users and developers. We are trying to find commonalities. On the browser layer, we share a lot of stuff. We will increasingly do more things like that. And maybe there’s a more synergistic answer down the line.”

Suppose that, rather than Android effectively subsuming Chrome, as most people seem to think will happen, Android got the ability to run Chrome Packaged Apps? What if Chrome Packaged Apps ultimately became the default way to develop for Android?

Java, which Android apps are currently developed in, has never felt like a good fit for Google – a company which spends much of its time evangelising the web and web technologies. Packaged apps deliver native-like capabilities and are installable, so you don’t need a constant Internet connection to run. Developers have already used Packaged Apps to create some pretty good games, which shows what can be done. 

I wouldn’t expect to see this at this year’s Google I/O… but next year? That sounds like a pretty Googly thing to do.

HTC One, Android Zero

A great point about the new HTC One from Techpinions’ Steve Wildstrom:

There was a word missing from HTC’s unveiling of its impressive new HTC One phone. HTC executives talked about the BlinkFeed streaming home screen, the redone Sense user interface, the BoomSound audio system, and the Zoe photo-plus-video app. But there was no mention of the phone’s Android software. Even on the One’s web page, you have to drill down to specs to learn that it runs Android.

Nexus is a brand. HTC One is a brand. Samsung Galaxy is a brand. Is Android really a brand anymore?

What, exactly, is Android?

Toward a More Informed Discussion on Android | TechPinions:

“Android is in no way shape or form the same as OS X, Windows, iOS, Windows Phone, or RIM’s Blackberry OS. When we speak of those operating systems we are speaking of a unified platform controlled by one company whose platform share represents the total addressable market, via single SDK, for developers. Should a developer want to develop for any of those platforms, all they need do is get the SDK for that single platform. Android, however, is an entirely different beast.

Android is not actually a platform, it is an enabling technology that allows companies to create platforms Because Android is open source, all the term Android refers to is the AOSP, or Android Open Source Project. Anyone can take this core code and create their own custom operating system using Android as the core. Google created and manages the AOSP but also has their own version of Android. Amazon does this and has their own version of Android. Barnes and Noble does this and has their own version of Android. I would not be shocked if new entrants as well take the Android platform and make it their own for their own needs as well.”

This is the thing that gets overlooked, all the time. Android is not a single, unified operating platform: it’s a set of semi-compatible platforms, built around the same technology.

Amazon’s version of Android is to Google’s version of Android what FreeBSD is to Ubuntu. You can probably get the same apps to run – but be prepared for some tweaking.

Google’s iOS app strategy

If you think that it’s in Google’s interests to create better apps on Android than iOS, two recent releases should absolve you of that notion.

First, there’s the latest release of Gmail, an app that’s so good even Android sites are wishing it was available on their platform.

Then there is YouTube, which improves so much over the previous (Apple-created) app that I wish Apple had dropped its own version sooner.

So what’s going on? Why would Android’s creator make better apps for the platform it competes with than for its own?

There’s two reasons. First, as I wrote in my most recent posting on Macgasm, the role of Android isn’t to defeat iOS, but to ensure that Apple does not dominate mobile in a way which meant it could lock Google search out. Second, there’s the issue of revenue. Although Google doesn’t break out how much it makes from ads served to iOS devices, given that iOS drives far more web traffic than Android it’s safe to assume Google serves more web ads to it. And that makes iOS a more profitable platform for Google than Android is.

Given this, why would Google want to damage a platform it makes more money per user from, in favour of a platform it makes less money per user from? Google is driven by data, and the data says that providing services to iOS users makes it money.