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.