The similarity of differences.

Google held its annual I/O conference recently, and unveiled some extremely interesting developments for the year to come. Focused ever more heavily on data processing and machine learning, its AI initiatives are being inserted into many of their products, and creating some new ones in the process.

One of the most notable new additions is Google’s Assistant, which replaces the Google Now functionality. Available throughout Android and new products like Google Home, Assistant will use context to present you with relevant information across many apps and services, allowing users to have a more fluid conversation with their devices, using the natural language patterns they’d ordinarily use talking to people as opposed to specific syntax queries.

Quite honestly, it’s very impressive stuff. I watched the I/O keynote in its entirety this week when I found some time, and I was blown away by some of the things Google is doing, right now, today.

I know a lot of people who enjoy it and use it daily, but for me, Siri has been inconsistent at best, and infuriating at worst. I can attempt the same, simple operations on different days and get wildly different results. Features have been added over the past few years, and on paper, it looks terrific. In reality, it is a crapshoot as to whether or not the small task I need to perform will actually get done in any possible way that would be faster than me using my phone manually. Using it on the Apple Watch is an abject nightmare. Your experience with it might have been nothing but unicorns prancing through fields of wishes and dreams, but it’s a broken system as far as I’m concerned.

Consistency is a huge part of good user experience. If, as a user, I have doubt, or reservations of any kind that the thing I need to do isn’t going to happen the way I expect or want it to, that creates friction. Friction eventually erodes trust, and without trust, I cease to be able to do the things I want in the way I want them done. I’ll find another way.

Siri has long struggled to mature under Apple’s development since the technology was acquired several years ago. I’m sure there are many, many good people working on it, and it pains me to feel the way I do and say these things, but it is simply not something I enjoy using–or use at all for that matter, anymore. There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about Apple’s ability to deliver compellingly (and consistently) in this new, shifting, data-driven landscape. Now famously having taken a stance in favor of localizing personal data to the device and protecting it in every way possible (a stance I am quite fond of), lots of questions as to whether or not the company is even prepared to meet this challenge–one that Google has been tackling for many years now–have arisen.

So back to Google.

They’re pushing forward with machine learning, using massive amounts of collected data–data that Apple has said it won’t take and doesn’t want–to create entirely new user experiences. The more it works, the smarter it gets. In the aggregate, all this data and use strengthens the product and allows users to do more things. It’s not an app, it’s an entire layer within the OS, working around what you’re doing with your device, affording you additional skills and options.

Earlier this week, prior to watching the keynote, I was having a conversation with some friends in Slack. Using my high-level glances at what Google was doing, and without really thinking too deeply into it, I said the following:

AI/bots may or may not be the future of computing. But data analysis and the kind of power Google has with those capabilities most definitely is.

That’s where Apple can’t catch up. This isn’t about phones. This is about what software is becoming and where the things we do with software go.

And I talked at length about why I thought this was true. I wasn’t spouting apocalyptic proclamations about Apple; they could set fire to piles of money today, every day for months, and still be in better shape than almost any other company on Earth. But I did express some real concern for the platform I enjoy and prefer not being able to keep up, and how the tradeoffs Apple is making to keep users safe (good) could potentially preclude it from delivering more compelling and timely experiences that people will come to expect from their devices (not so good).

Then I watched the keynote.

What became apparent to me, seeing everything myself and hearing the Google presenters talk about the technology, was that Google and Apple aren’t even competing in the same space anymore. Both companies are engaged in selling mobile devices, but they’re coming at personal technology from such different perspectives, they’re almost not even comparable. A few years ago, it seemed like the companies were at odds on the same field. But they’re not even playing the same sport.

If we’re going to distill it down to a focused, philosophical difference, I think it might look like this.

Apple’s world centers on hardware. It designs and builds amazing and transformative devices. Software is paired with hardware, and the integration points are tight, able to take advantage of hardware optimizations and tuning in crazy ways. Apple’s general perspective today on data is that they don’t want to know certain things, and want to obfuscate others. It’s a very individual-centered and -minded approach.

Google is all about that data. It eschewed hardware for its mobile OS initially, insisting that other companies provide it, following the Microsoft model of the recent past. It’s edged toward unifying software and hardware in a way similar to what Apple does, but doesn’t seem to be interested in pursuing that to its logical end. Hardware is a vehicle for software and data, passing in and out.

Apple and Google, in the eyes of the general public and many tech bloggers, have been at war for many years, and in vague terms, both companies sell fancy mobile phones. But the implications of those businesses are so far beyond the face value of what we see. And what I’ve realized is that they aren’t zero-sum or mutually exclusive. What I’ve come to understand is that the more the two companies seem to have been battling, the more the individual directions of each company become unassailably concrete.

Let’s use healthcare as an example, since that’s been the focus of segments in both companies’ recent presentations.

Apple: ResearchKit and CareKit. Centered around individuals, reporting personal data. Assembling tons of it, and allowing for better personal follow through on long-term treatment, and more individualized reporting for research purposes. Gathering of this data is done through traditional channels, but by allowing users to have agency in these processes, Apple affords people the ability to contribute to a large data set, but safely remain an identifiable component variable.

Google: machine learning to aggregate data against the treatment of extremely difficult ailments (diabetic retinopathy was the example presented in the keynote). Very few doctors can detect it accurately, and it’s very hard to do right/well. And this small number of doctors can’t be everywhere at once. But put enough data into a machine and it can pattern match the very intricate details–perhaps better than people, and everywhere at once (since people can only be in one place at a time). Throw incomprehensible amounts of information at an enormous amount of computing power and basically brute-force a treatment protocol that functions better than humans ever could.

Two fundamentally different approaches, two similar goals.

It’s a very interesting and important time in personal technology. Data moves through our lives like air. We want to protect it (some of us, anyway), but we want the value that sharing it can provide us. We want the future we were promised in our childhoods, but the changes we find occurring around us can be discomforting. This kind of change is everywhere, and it continues to move like perpetual motion, unstoppable. It’s beautiful and frightening. But it is inevitable.

I’m delighted that Apple wants to protect my information and is loudly standing up to the degradation of that idea in public and within the legal system. They may even be able to pull off the things I’m hoping for, without the compromises I’m looking to avoid. I’m also really excited to see what Google can actually do to advance the entire industry and provide new ways of solving serious problems. I think there are a lot of ways that these two approaches can exist together, in complementary layers, that can give us more of the future we’d hoped for. I’ve been becoming increasingly jaded about technology in the past few years, but I feel like I’ve been shown possibilities this week that may set me back in the other direction. Of course, there’s still time for things to go horribly awry.

The world will create a narrative of opposition because our nature is to set forces against one another. I no longer see this as a competition. And along with things like VR (which I have become obsessed with, in terms of non-gaming applications), for the first time in a while, I have real hope for things beyond my whatever my next phone might be.

That feels really good.

Delight and Disappointment

The merging of information with context is extremely powerful and portends the next wave of personal productivity for many of us. Google introduced actionable notifications to Android with Jelly Bean, allowing users to quickly take steps based on the type of notification coming in. It’s a cool way to have information presented to you in a way that makes sense and doesn’t require much effort to interact with. It was also something that iOS sorely lacked for a long time, and that still isn’t implemented as well as it could be (pretty much only works with a few built-in apps).

But Google is continuing to move quickly down this path. Whereas Apple usually takes an established idea and refines it until its value is perfectly clear and well-executed (mostly), Google is forging ahead with vigor. Google Now was the next step, bridging your device’s knowledge about your location in reality with the information contained in your Google account and its apps. Calendar events, flight information, travel, traffic, and a host of other useful items get surfaced to you when it makes sense. Leaving work? Here’s how long it’ll probably take to get home. Google achieves this by leveraging everything it can learn about you and your patterns to provide a far more compelling experience informationally and contextually than Siri can. Siri has personality, but Google Now feels like it’s thinking ahead for you, the way someone hired to assist you would.

Now it appears that context and intent will be utilized in new ways in Android 4.4 KitKat. Reading this Ars Technica article made me stop and actually think about where this is headed. The gist of it is that the main Android home screen launcher experience has been embedded into the Google Search app structure, which converts actions previously taken in the launcher to jump to other apps/experiences into collectible, applicable data points. This allows Android to present other content, make intelligent links to apps on your phone based on searches you perform, and infer even more about usage patterns and the way you use your information. A smart phone that actually feels smart, working for you, when you want it to, giving you not just more information, but the right information.

Herein lies the issue for me. My whole life I’ve been waiting for technology to catch up with my fantasies. And we’re standing on the precipice of that very convergence, and I don’t know how to feel about it. I know why I’m conflicted though, and it comes down to a sense of lost faith in the only company that’s poised to actually make these kinds of things happen – to bring the future that much closer to now.

In the early to mid 2000s, I was positively smitten with Google. It was a company that strove to enrich the way technology touched our lives. A bunch of engineers and web nerds, assembled together to make great things with a touch of geeky personality. Google Labs was a hotbed of interesting stuff. Working at Google seemed like it would just about be the greatest thing ever. It was always an advertising company, and we knew that, but the actions taken and the message regarding the position of the company at that time felt genuine: “Don’t be evil”.

In the intervening years between then and now, that phrase barely belongs on a bumper sticker, let alone echoed as the charter of a behemoth whose once clear path has become clouded. We’ve seen it happen as the Google grew and changed. There have been patent battles, privacy missteps, an alliance to unite wireless in the name of consumers, and the failure to make it so, since a deal with Verizon seemed like a better idea at the time. There’s been the trumpeting of open source values, and over time it’s been watered down to a catch phrase more rooted in zealotry than truth. The promise of the open and free internet, once a guiding principle for the company, has been abandoned since they’re now a provider of those same services. And those are the serious issues; Google can’t even keep simple promises anymore.

And yet in spite of all this, they are the most interesting technology company in the world right now. Android is an amazing mobile operating system, well past its ugly teenage years and has matured into something compelling and full of potential. Google’s web services are simply beyond anything else offered at the consumer level. Despite my personal feelings on the invasive nature of Google+, there’s a unity to the company’s brand offerings that didn’t exist before, and that’s appealing too. The other futurist initiatives underway speak to the heart of the innovation exploding at the company. Sometimes it really feels like the old Google is still in there somewhere. And there are individuals who I believe still are fighting for that, and embody those ideals, and for them I’m grateful.

But I can’t trust that it is. Google stood for something and it turned its back on its core values to become a different kind of company. It’ll say that it’s never going to do anything nefarious with my information, and I’ll have full control over it, but Google has flipped its position on the exact kinds of things I care about in the past – what would make this any different? Information is the new currency, and Google is a drunken monarch with an oral tradition of good intentions and a written history of falling short on its promises. You’re beholden to your shareholders once you go public, and the world is full of examples of corporations changing over time for exactly those reasons. But if you’re going to serve that master, you don’t get to play the role of high-minded philosopher too. The bottom line is that Google wants to be good, but it can’t help but be evil in the process. And that dichotomy doesn’t leave me with much confidence in its vision of our future.

That joke isn’t funny anymore.

Say what you want about the branding but we all laughed at the iPad when we heard that name for the first time too. KitKat may be silly, but what it portends is anything but.

As of right now, we collectively know most of what iOS 7 has to offer. There will probably be something announced on the 10th that we haven’t seen yet, whether it ends up being an addition to the software or a hardware feature that enhances the experience. But the net gain is primarily a visual one. Yes, yes, the physics engine. Yes, the deference to depth and clarity. I’ve been using the beta for weeks now. It’s very good, no doubt about it.

But I want something more. I want more than feel and form. I want a device that enhances the things I do every day. And right now, as excellent as iOS is, I’m not sure it’s enough.

Now when I say this, I’m not implying that Android is, nor Windows Phone, nor anything else. What I am saying is that no one platform is meeting my needs in the way I want. iOS has been a faithful companion for years now, and nothing I’ve touched has come close to approximating its ability to make complex things easy and beautiful. Its sheer breadth of good software is staggering. But the more I watch the changes in Android, the more I realize that iOS is dragging a lot of baggage along with it. Android is moving at a breakneck pace, and that might not be something everyone needs, but it’s the kind of thing that makes the overall landscape for people like me more compelling. And it’s the kind of thing that eventually trickles out to the edges of the userbase and becomes the norm.

Are there experiences on Android that are as singularly beautiful as iOS? by most accounts, probably not. It depends on who you ask, but I’d concede that iOS still has the upper hand when it comes to arresting visual style. But Android’s aesthetic path has been getting less rocky, more unified and more clean. The current base OS is a balanced and reasoned collection of interactions and third party developers have been impressing the hell out of us now for months as well with great apps on Android, some of which are legitimately wonderful.

And there’s something else worth remembering:

“It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

The bottom line is that while there are so many things I’d change about Android right now, it works well. It’s come a long way, and plenty of smart people are not only realizing it, but they’re finding reasons to like it – a lot. The platform is still struggling with so many problems; malware, fragmentation (arguable on iOS, but certainly more pronounced on Android), and a lot of terrible scammy apps. (Although, have you looked at the App Store lately? Not the king’s ransom we’d all like to think it is.) But ignoring it or making fun of it is junior high bullshit. It was easy to tease when it was ugly, but it’s not anymore. It was easy to laugh when only nerds could manage its complexity, but frankly, iOS has gotten more complex, and obviously people are managing to use Android phones somehow.

It makes Apple better to have someone nipping at its heels. If some of my favorite iOS developers – people whose design sense and technical choices I agree with – are looking at this platform more seriously and exploring it, is it still worth laughing at? How many iOS devs need to take a closer look before we drop the rah-rah shit? If you call yourself someone who truly appreciates how something works, and you’re still laughing, it might be time to stop and think about why.

When iOS 7 launches with its current feature set for the next year and KitKat hits, I won’t be laughing. I’ll be watching with great interest. A rising tide, right?

Glassboard and getting back on our feet.

When Hurricane Sandy hit us, our office, like most in our area, was completely shut down. We had no power, and our entire staff was scattered. We had about thirty people with varying levels of cell service, power, and internet connectivity. We needed a way to get everyone in one place quickly and easily, and that was becoming an increasingly tall order. That’s when I remembered the excellent Glassboard by Sepia Labs.

Glassboard is a private social network for groups. You create a board, invite your participants, and everyone can post and read into that board. You can add photos, reply with comments to posts, and receive push notifications when others update the board. The thing that really worked for us was that the service is available as an iPhone app, an Android app and a web app (still in beta, perfectly functional). This meant that across all our staff, everyone would be able to use it in some capacity – those who had cell service but no home connectivity could use the apps, and those with home connectivity and no cell service could use a browser.

In a matter of a few hours, we had status updates on everyone (all safe, thankfully) and were talking about a contingency plan for the office and our client obligations. Glassboard allowed us to communicate effectively and quickly across a variety of platforms, and took the guesswork and aggravation out of organizing a group of our size. It’s a great tool with some talented people behind it, and I look forward to seeing its continued development.

It’s free with optional pro account upgrades, and you should check it out. Our Iterate interview with Brent Simmons of Sepia Labs (and many other great things) will be up soon.

Android’s baby steps.

A few days ago, Google released a design guide for Android, a much welcomed first step into unifying the platform visually and creating cohesive application interfaces. Android has, over time, come under a lot of fire from visually-centered users and designers for its wildly varying interfaces and disparity among device types and sizes.

But it’s only a first step. Developers need to embrace the new guidelines and conform their designs to the recommended paths. However, there are still lessons for Google to learn as well. We just got a Galaxy Nexus in the office and one of the first things I realized was that the “Menu” button has been removed and replaced with a few squares on the screen within apps like this:

Android 4.0 Dialer

Android 4.0 Gallery

It took me a second to realize that the tiny squares were there, and another to realize that I could tap them to invoke the menu options that in previous versions of Android were at the bottom of the phone with the Home, Back, and Search keys. But the problem for Google is not the size, nor the location of the squares. It’s that squares already mean something else:

ICS Android Devices

Those little squares are ways to get to your apps. So for an inexperienced user, performing an activity within an app, it may appear that you can tap those squares to get your app drawer opened. Granted, the fact that someone will only really confuse this approximately once is not lost on me. But it’s inconsistent. You can’t attempt to strongly coerce an already fractured design platform if the visual metaphors you choose to implement are murky. Would it have been so difficult to choose some other shape to either signify “apps” or “menu”?

That said, the very existence of the guidelines shows that Android is truly maturing as a platform. Some people won’t like it, because it means Google’s exercising more Apple-like control. Some users will welcome it because it means higher-quality experiences across devices. One thing’s for sure: we won’t be debating “open” for much longer if this keeps up, and that’s fine. It was a straw man from the start.

The Kindle Fire. Take two.

As co-host of two iOS podcasts and a mobile design podcast and as an iOS user, when I mentioned I took the plunge, people on Twitter asked me to write up my thoughts. As such, I’ve decided to try and approach this as pragmatically as possible, so I’ll be looking at this from the perspective of a technically proficient and critical nerd, and also as much as possible like a regular person might.

I say take two not because I’m the second person to write a review (btw, read Marco’s exhaustive and very specific review as well – he covers the super minutiae better than I could hope to) but rather because the first take for me was a less-than-stellar experience in a brick-and-mortar store with the Fire immediately after it launched that left me feeling less-than-impressed. But as I have some time until the next iPad arrives, and I’m feeling experimental, I decided to give it another shot. I had heard that the software update improved the interface a bit, and was curious to see it for myself.

As Marvin would say: let’s get it on.

In keeping with fashion these days, I offer you this:

tl;dr

Though needing some definite love in a few areas, the Kindle Fire is not nearly as bad as I’d felt in my initial experience. There are some questionable decisions that Amazon’s made regarding both hardware and software, but for a content experience (following the intentions that Amazon has set for use of the device), the size and UI are functional and easy enough to use for most people. Nerds will likely continue to find fault in a few key areas.


In The Hand

I’ve gone on record saying that while I don’t think the iPad would work as a 7″ tablet, I do see a place for smaller devices in the market. I stick by that. Whereas the 10″ Android tablets I’ve tried feel cartoonishly long or tall depending on the direction in which you’re holding it, the dimensions of the Fire, while similar, don’t feel as strange. I’ve read paperback books that were oddly shaped, and it’s not too foreign a feeling, despite my preference for 4:3 devices like the iPad and TouchPad.

It is, however, a bit heavier than you’d expect. If you’re holding it up – and you’re likely to do it based on its overall size – you may feel fatigued. I noticed my hands becoming sore when reading in certain positions for extended amounts of time. Granted, they got sore with the iPad too, but I was more inclined to rest that larger device on something, so I avoided the experience without realizing it. The build quality of the Fire is, as a result of this weight, significant. It feels very sturdy and relatively high-end given its price point. It feels good.


Hardware

The most distinctive thing about the Fire’s hardware is probably that there are no exterior buttons, save for the awkwardly-placed power button on the bottom of the device. It’s tiny, and I can see how it’d be hard for some people to find it to activate or turn off the device, but I didn’t have too much trouble. My hands are smaller than some, and I’m used to manipulating smaller controls like that on other devices, so take that for what it is.

Not having exterior volume controls is a little strange, though, especially while watching a movie or listening to music. When watching video, it’s distracting to have to tap the screen, then tap the settings gear, then adjust the volume (Amazon seems to default to having the volume icon pre-selected when you do this, almost as though they’re trying to mitigate the annoyance) – but it’s not horrible. It’s definitely not ideal, though. During music playback, if you have the screen off, then you’ve got a slightly awkward power button press (since there’s no home button to quickly tap to wake the device), then a swipe, then the taps I just described. Not terrific. [EDIT: I discovered a setting in the music player that enables lock screen controls for playback; it’s a little odd, but it works fairly well.] Will it slowly drive me mad over time? Possibly. But then again, I’ll probably do more text-based consumption on the Fire than I will audio/video media, despite its prevalence at the top level of menu navigation and Amazon’s content availability.

Speaking of media, the speakers are ok, not great. A little thin, and not loud enough. Well, they’re sort of loud enough if you crank the volume, but the controls are sensitive, so you’ll probably spend a lot of time between not loud enough and damn it why can’t I just get this a tiny bit louder.

Battery life is definitely solid; not iPad solid (and definitely not e-ink Kindle solid, which is otherworldly), but very good. More than I expected. But that was a lot of app browsing and reading; throw video streaming in the mix and you’ll likely watch it drop a lot faster. It also gets a bit warm during video playback which never leaves me feeling great about a device.


Software

As we all know by now, the Fire runs a highly customized version of Android, forked from Google’s path down a questionable road of Amazon’s choosing. They’ve made some good choices and some strange ones with this decision.

First, the overall interface to a regular user is pretty good. You start up and you see a text bar of all the things you can do, and it’s pretty clear what those things are. Jump to an area and you’ll have (in most cases) two options: what’s in the cloud and what’s on your Fire. And you can usually hop over to a storefront for that area to get more stuff quickly. While not exactly what I would call intuitive, the Fire’s UI is obvious, and that’s very important too and not to be diminished.

The other thing I noticed is that given Amazon’s customizations, the typical things you might think to do with an Android device (widgets, changing launchers, theming, etc.) are missing. And in this case, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not only has Amazon removed the fiddly nature of Android to make a more simplified device that more people can understand, they’ve made a stand as to how they want to shape the presentation of their content (and yours). It’s a very Apple-like move, that goes against the tweaky lineage Android has forged up to this point, but it’s actually a bit refreshing, because you don’t spend the time you normally would playing and trying a million different visual and functional configurations. You just use the device.

Having said that, I immediately tried treating it like a regular Android tablet and began browsing for apps. The on-device store for Android apps that work with the Fire is fairly limited – for people like us [“What do you mean YOU PEOPLE?!”]. For regular people, it’s probably more than enough. There are some confusing elements, though, as Marco pointed out. The appearance of multiple versions of apps – one of which may be labeled “Kindle Fire Edition” or something of that nature – could definitely be confusing to people. It sort of confused me for a second. Fire-optimized apps that I tested generally have a more natural feel on the device, whereas the other apps you can install from the store may just look stretched, which is a complaint of many Android tablet users.

If you try to browse the Amazon Appstore from your computer, prepare to see a lot of apps that are not compatible with your Fire. Amazon clearly calls this out when you view the app page, and while you’ll be allowed to purchase the apps, they won’t sync down to your device and install. There is a way around this and I’ll mention it here, but keep in mind, this is a perfect example of the problems with software on a customized device like this.

What I did to get a few other apps onto the Fire:

  • downloaded app to a separate phone via Android Market
  • used Astro File Explorer’s backup feature to drop the .apk onto the SD card
  • plugged phone into my computer
  • copied the .apk I wanted to the desktop
  • disconnected the phone
  • plugged in the Fire
  • added the .apk to the SD card
  • disconnected the Fire
  • used AndroXplorer file browser on the Fire
  • navigated to SD card
  • tapped .apk
  • installed app (which only worked some of the time, some app installs failed)

No normal person is going to do this.

But like I said, most normal people won’t care. What they get through the Amazon Appstore will be good enough. But it’s still indicative of a different way of using this device. It’s not really an Android tablet – it’s an Amazon content delivery mechanism. If you adopt this viewpoint, you’ll make out all right.


Content

Obviously Amazon has plenty of content for you to browse, buy, download, stream, and consume. In fact, I’ve said in the past that the only way Amazon had a chance with this was due to the fact that the content was in place already, and it will certainly be a success of some measure if only for that alone.

Books: Amazon’s got bunches. If you prefer the e-ink Kindle experience, then you won’t like reading here. I’m used to reading on the iPad and iPhone, so it’s actually nice to have a slightly smaller/larger view (depending on which device you’re talking about) to read text. Marco made some very good points about smaller details, most of which won’t bother me and most people, I would wager, but if you’re very specific about your reading experience, they might.

Magazines: I haven’t had a chance to explore the magazine subscription content yet, but the magazine viewing is a little odd. You either get a full-page view you can barely see, or you get a stuttery zoom that’s not wonderful. However, you can also apply a simpler text view very much like Instapaper that is pretty readable. Of course, you’re giving up the magazine layout at this point, so you might just say forget it and not bother if that’s why you like magazines in the first place (and there’s a good chance that it is).

Music: Tons of mp3s to download, and Amazon’s got the cloud player system in place. Haven’t used it because I’ve got a Subsonic server set up at home and I use that for all my streaming. The Fire audio player itself is a little spartan though, and not having external volume keys is fairly annoying, and could become more so over time.

Videos: As a Prime member, I’ve got a lot of content I can view for free, both TV and movies, but it’s still not a mind-blowing selection. You can forget about using Netflix on the Fire; it’s a hot mess. Constant stuttering, dropped frames, audio out of sync, the works. Even the Amazon video did some crackling and stuttering in certain parts of my house where I have no problem with other streaming devices (and I have FiOS, so bandwidth is not the issue either). I’m going to continue experimenting with video stuff and see what I find. There’s an app that I found which appears to be like Air Video for iOS, which is a longtime favorite of mine, and would allow my Mac mini to stream video around the house over wi-fi.

But you can side-load content: Sure, you can, but there’s not a ton of room. You have about 6 GB actually available to you on the device, and that’ll get eaten up fast. I’m wondering if I can hack it to add more storage, but that’s not a normal person thought, that’s a nerd thought. And my gut tells me no. I tried to load some comics I had in PDF form and they weren’t detected by the Fire in any capacity (even as “Docs”) so I installed Adobe Reader to view them. I loaded some books as epubs and dropped them into the “Books” directory of the SD card to find that they were completely ignored, unsurprisingly, by the Fire. In fact, I could only find one epub reader on the Kindle Fire store at all, and it’s a complete piece of crap. Even the TouchPad could read my epubs, including the ones I downloaded through iBooks. So there’s that. On second thought, I think that was only the epubs I may have downloaded and placed into iBooks. Apologies for misstating that.

The bottom line is that you better like streaming everything (with the exception of books) because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. And you better like Amazon’s content, because a lot of other things just won’t quite fit in as nicely as you’d hope.


Summary

As a nerd, the Fire is a waste of time for the most part. You’re limited by the choices Amazon’s made in the hardware and software, and getting stuff done around those choices is possible, but probably not worth your time unless you really feel like poking around. People have been hinting at how great a CyanogenMod build would be for the Fire, so you may want to go that route eventually, but then again, why not just buy another Android tablet if that’s what you want it for? Surely if you’re willing to hack to that end, you can save yourself some time with other hardware. But I guess there’s the challenge too.

As a normal person, the Fire is pretty good. Seriously. The software update (which auto-installed minutes after I unboxed the Fire) made a big difference in responsiveness. Prior to that, half my button presses didn’t even register and scrolling was pretty lame. If you’re comfy with Amazon’s selections, and you don’t mind a few weird moments (like always tapping the screen to do everything), you probably won’t mind it too much. There’s plenty to do and it’s laid out clearly for you. If you use the device in the manner Amazon has envisioned, you’ll be fine. It’s when you stray outside of that use case that you face some resistance. My guess is that most Fire owners won’t make that choice.

Regarding the sales numbers: well, a lot of people probably got them as holiday gifts, and haven’t really begun using them yet. And Amazon’s always been a little reticent about sharing that stuff. Who cares anyway? Actual, regular people don’t care about this stuff. They only care about what they’re doing with the device.

I know I didn’t cover everything, I probably couldn’t if I wanted to. But as I said, Marco’s review is worth reading – it’s much more specific on a technical level about the things I touched on. I just think that most people won’t care about a lot of them, because they’ll either see it as a Kindle that does a few extra things, or as an ancillary device along with their iPad – which is exactly how I choose to view it. It’ll never replace an iPad, and Amazon is bat shit crazy to even suggest such a thing. I thought they’d have approached the device a little differently among consumers, but that page shows clearly what the intent of the marketing is.

Takeaways?

  • It feels well-made and decent in your hands, but a little heavy
  • If you use it how it’s meant to be used and don’t bolt on your own expectations about what the device should be able to do, it’ll probably be fine
  • If you watch a lot of video, I wouldn’t recommend it unless there’s a software fix to make it better overall
  • If you currently like to read on your non e-ink devices and want something that’s more of a dedicated reader with a few other things, you might like it
  • If you’re a serious app hound, you’ll probably be disappointed as the app selection (at least the ones easily available and compatible) seems limited
  • If you focus on the little things, it’ll drive you crazy, but you can probably get over them and still enjoy it for the most part
  • It’s a decent secondary device, but you wouldn’t want to do “work” on it, the way we’ve gotten used to doing some things with the iPad
  • It is $199, after all
  • It’s not an iPad and never will be

The last one is the sticker.

I do still like it, though, and plan to keep it. I’m reading more, and I like the size a lot. I also plan to get the next iPad when it arrives and have an entirely different plan for how I think I’d like to use it (it involves taking my laptop fewer places for starters). If I change my feelings significantly or something happens in the future to the Fire, I’ll possibly revisit this post and write an update. If you were on the fence about it, I hope this at least sheds a little light on the decision for you. Consider me your guinea pig.

Forked up.

There have been some rumblings that Google is starting to realize how varied the landscape of Android devices actually is and may take steps to unify the platform. This current state is of course the direct result of the fact that Android was distributed to OEMs and carriers to customize for the devices they wanted to build and sell. It’s a great model for the aforementioned groups, because it allowed them to add all manner of software to the OS as a point of differentiation beyond the hardware itself. For consumers, it hasn’t worked out as well because companies are less inclined to update older devices with new builds of Android as it comes out because the work and expense involved, it seems, is better spent on churning out new devices to sell. The net result is that up until now, unless you had a Nexus device, you were gambling on what kinds of updates you would see on your handset, and for many people, the house always wins.

So let’s think about the first point in that paragraph: that Google may take steps to unify the platform. We’ve already seen shades of it in the restricted release of the open source Honeycomb code earlier this year. Ice Cream Sandwich is around the corner and has a ton of additional features in it that have been done in OEM/carrier customizations or third party apps. What would those groups do if Google just said one day that the party was over? How would they differentiate? In the face of Google changing the way companies can interact with Android, would hardware differentiation be enough?

It might be, but think about this for a second: given that updates to customized Android builds on varying handsets are not consistent across the board (please don’t argue with me, Android supporters, let’s call it like it is – your phone may have gotten updates, but not every phone does), what single action would allow manufacturers an opportunity to set their devices apart against the constant phone updates and turnover? What could they do that would let them continue to use Android the way they want to if Google changes the game?

Fork it.

Amazon did. The Kindle Fire runs a highly customized variant of Android that Amazon built on a completely different path from Google’s. Now, the first thing that tech people think in this case (myself included) is “well, you’re never getting the updates to the OS that everyone else will get”. Guess what? Not everyone does now, on the existing upgrade path. In fact, I’m fairly certain some phones are being released currently that aren’t running the latest version of the OS, and have no defined upgrade path from the manufacturer. The Kindle Fire is running an older version of Android, sure, but its experience wouldn’t indicate this, because Amazon has changed the entire UI to suit very specific use-case needs.

What’s stopping companies from forking Android? Can’t be money, because they’re spending a ton of it on the largely crappy customizations to the OS itself (forgive me, I’m a fan of standard Android on a functional level, though it leaves a lot to be desired visually). Is it R&D? Do they simply not have the resources to actually continue crafting versions of the operating system in house? If not, wouldn’t it make sense to try and bring those abilities inside at this point? Part of me says it’s fear that they’ll go down a path they can’t come back from, and part of me thinks it’s just laziness. “Google’s doing the heavy lifting; let’s throw a few new widgets on this new unobtanium phone we just made and call it a day.” Then they’ll do it again in sixty days (or less). But the effort involved in building what is essentially your own OS is not lost on me, so I know it’s not something everyone can do.

The business model is selling hardware, I get that too. But part of that hardware – an ever-increasing part – is experience, and that’s where the Fire will excel and where all these other companies continue to fall short. Apple can do it, I think Amazon can too, because they’re not thinking about the same things anymore. It’s a content play for them – get the devices in market and sell through the massive Amazon catalog. But they need to sell hardware to sell the experience. They’re not mutually exclusive. They never have been.

Furthermore, building a business on someone else’s platform is always a tenuous proposition. Ask any Twitter developer who’s had run ins with changing APIs or any iOS developer who’s run afoul of Apple’s often arcane rules. All of these third parties building on top of Android may have some tough decisions ahead of them if Google tightens the leash on what can be done to the OS. Microsoft has a whole mess of restrictions for Windows Phone, and that positioning seems to be doing them at least a small favor in that hardware variations exist, but there’s still a cohesive nature to the WP experience. Google may look at this model, not to mention iOS (where hardware and software are as tightly integrated as they could possibly be) and wish to move in this direction for any number of reasons.

It all makes so much sense! Why wouldn’t a company do this? Control the path of your development future. Build compelling hardware that meshes perfectly with the software. What’s stopping this new horizon from being reached?

Content.

If they do, they’re cut off from all the content the Android Market offers. Fork Android, and you can forget Google services. Amazon’s not worried because they have their own playground and don’t need Google’s apps and services. But every other hardware manufacturer does, because without it, all they have is a well-crafted little island that no one in their right mind is going to buy. No apps means no platform, and no platform means no sale. No one is going to splinter off, go up against the iOS App Store and Android Market and even make a dent. I suppose they could try to integrate with the Amazon Appstore, but I have a feeling that may not be a great answer because it’s just trading one content master for another. Through building an Android Market, Google has created a lock-in point for anyone who wants to use Android for anything, because without apps, consumers won’t even consider a device. People give Apple a lot of crap for their policies regarding the App Store, but at least there was no mistaking the intention. Without the Market, every other Android device is toast from the start.

What are we left with, then? An ocean of incessant me-too, bullet-pointed, one-upping phone releases made from varying metals, plastics and glasses. A market strewn with devices, ostensibly orphaned by the manufacturers that released them into the wild, mere months after their introductions. Consumers not sure about which phone they should buy because there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to consumer choice. Too little of it and you feel hemmed in (with the possible exception of the iPhone), too much and you have some heavy buyer’s remorse or just confusion about devices in general. Android held great promise as a new open platform on which many different devices could be built. What it’s become, in spite of itself, is a walled garden of a different kind, albeit with a slightly lower wall, without anyone realizing it. Content is king, everyone knows it, and as long as there isn’t a better channel for it, we’re in for a whole lot of the same.

Why yes, that is a Galaxy Tab 10.1 in my pocket.

Knowing that we’re going to have to think about Android tablet development at some point, it was a matter of time before we picked one up. The perfect storm of frugality swooped in this week as Staples had a $100 off coupon for tablets, excluding the Nook, TouchPad, and one or two others. This coupon, plus a few rebate cards I’d been saving meant I was able to snag a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 for about $227. Sweet deal.

So – the big question – how is it, really?

I think at this point I’ve established myself as a fan of electronics, not just those made by Apple, so I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say that while a cool piece of kit, the Tab 10.1 is not quite there for me. I didn’t buy this thing just to bash it – I bought it because I need to understand platforms before we can design for them – so understand right off the bat that I’m not complaining about a review unit and sending it back, or on the Cupertino payroll (or Kool-Aid, depending on how you like to think of those things).

The simple fact of the matter is that for many people – specifically consumers – there isn’t a case for tablet computing yet. There is, however, a case for small pieces of software that deliver compelling experiences. Unfortunately, Android is not delivering them, and iOS is.

Case in point: when I went to Staples, I asked the sales guy for the 10.1 and the first thing he said was “What are you buying it for?” When I replied, “development”, he said “Ok, because this thing isn’t going to replace a laptop for you”. No problem, I assured him, we’re app devs, and we know what we’re doing. Then, the manager came over to verify the coupon I had and asked the same question again. Again I replied “development” and he asked “Of what?” rather indignantly.

“Uh, Android apps?” I replied incredulously.

“Oh, ok, because we’re selling a lot of these things, and we get a LOT of them back. People buy them thinking they’re getting rid of a laptop, and they all come back returning them.”

That doesn’t seem to be happening with iPads, because I think people’s expectations are set accordingly when they buy them. These are not full computing devices; they’re not built to be – and yet when you watch the commercials, what do you hear? The “full” internet. Flash. Do it all. Why wouldn’t people be disappointed when they can’t actually replace a computer with a device that promised they could?

But anyway, on to the Tab itself.

Physically, the 10.1 is a great feeling device in the hand. Thinner and lighter than you expect it to be, with a gorgeous screen and all the requisite hardware checkboxes filled. I’m not sure how I feel about the 16:9 frame, though. No, scratch that, I’m pretty sure I don’t like it. I wasn’t sure that Apple was right about the iPad’s 4:3 ratio, but after having one as my only tablet for over a year and then spending a good deal of time with the 10.1, I’m pretty sure Steve was right. It feels too long horizontally, and way too tall vertically. Don’t get me wrong – I could get used to it, if I had to, but I’m kind of glad I don’t have to. Overall, it’s a very nicely built device, though. While still somewhat plastic-y, Samsung made it feel decent.

The Honeycomb OS is light years ahead of where Android started, and it really shows. It’s really quite nice, and my initial experience with the 10.1 was very different from the one I had when I handled my first G-1 at a party a few years ago. Both the UI design and the functionality have added a great deal of value to the device, and I’m really looking forward to seeing future Android devices as the system continues to mature. There’s an incredible amount of customization available on the platform, and that attracts both regular folks and tinkerers alike. I would have liked to see a little more in terms of basic stuff, like wallpapers (since some of what ships default with the 10.1 is like showing an overcaffeinated toddler the gradient tool in Photoshop), but hey, that’s what the internet is for. There are plenty of wallpaper apps in the Market. The attention to detail in small things like the bar at the bottom of the display that has a lot of useful controls baked into it shows that Google really is trying to make the entire interface less for engineers and more for real, actual users. And there’s cool stuff tucked away, like the recently viewed button, which upon tapping, brings a vertical ribbon of apps you’ve been to lately (along with a thumbnail of the activity) – a nice touch, and very useful. Credit where credit is due.

Where it falls apart for me (and likely for most people) is in the user experience surrounding software availability. I fully recognize that there isn’t a ton of software available to Android tablets right now, and that Honeycomb is still an OS that most people don’t have and aren’t developing for, based on market numbers. This is not a problem germane to the 10.1, or any other Android tablet in particular. However, for the amount of marketing and push that these tablets are getting, there should absolutely be not only a wide range of options, but a clearly delineated path with which to reach them. Android Market has neither. You can search for “tablet”, and you hit quite a few things, and you can search for “Honeycomb”, and reach some others, but you have things like themes and wallpapers for phones in the Honeycomb style that make their way into your search. Apple has two sides of the App Store – iPhone and iPad – and it’s completely obvious where the tablet apps are. I’m an experienced user, so I’m figuring things out, but I can’t imagine someone who isn’t comfortable with this stuff having much fun doing the same.

More importantly, by this point in the iPad’s life cycle, there was a huge number of apps available for the platform, and I just don’t feel that happening for Android tablets. Is it because there’s just too much disparity in the sizes and specs? Possibly, but I think it has a lot to do with what I mentioned earlier. If consumers are returning tablets, why develop for them at all? Stick to the phones. Hence, people simply aren’t finding the kind of software they expect to find when they try to download, and it’s causing disappointment. I’m not talking about the geeks, rooting and playing. I’m talking about regular people for whom “unlocked bootloader” might as well be a foreign language.

Honeycomb, as I said, is fantastic. Unfortunately, run an app that’s built for a phone on it, and suddenly it’s not so pretty anymore. It doesn’t scale proportionately the way the iPad does (even if the pixel doubling does look like crap), but instead stretches everything so there’s a ton of wasted space everywhere. And while I’m perfectly content to dig around in settings and adjust fonts and scaling to make it look halfway decent, why would any normal person even think to do that? It should just look good when you open it.

But very little does. Even apps built for tablets might be built for smaller tablets, and behave similarly, and the apps I tried that were built for this size were sorely lacking in design. I know we all kind of assume Android apps don’t look as great as iOS apps, but some of the stuff I saw that touted “built from the ground up for Honeycomb tablets” looks like they didn’t get past the foundation. If your flagship app looks like a development test with some gradients thrown on, you’re doing something wrong.

I guess I’m really most saddened by the fact that I still don’t see a contender in this market. I love Apple stuff, but I want so badly to be able to have something else that’s as good, if only for a change of pace from iOS. I’m a demanding geek, and that’s not going to change. As of right now, Apple’s still the only company giving in to those demands.