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?

Un-simplified, and happy.

I recently talked about my intentions to simplify my workflows by using the default Apple apps on iOS and the Mac (Notes, Reminders, etc.) as replacements for the many apps I like to jump between. My goal was to see if by just letting go of my need to tinker with the connective tissue between parts of my workflows I could improve both my base anxiety level (derived not from fear, but from a constant feeling of “could I be doing this more effectively?”) and my ability to focus more on the “work” and less on the “flow” overall. I stuck with it for several weeks, and the results are in.

It’s… not for me.

The short version: between heavy-handed interfaces and iCloud flakiness, I gave up because I felt that I was neither gaining relief from the productivity improvement demons nor was I focused on my work. Instead, I was waiting for the other iCloud shoe to drop (data loss) and talking myself into the idea that this was good enough for me, when the truth of the matter was that it really isn’t.

I’ve been reliant on Dropbox for so long I can’t even remember or imagine a world without it. Many apps take great advantage of the APIs Dropbox has in place to both sync settings and data with moderate to high levels of success based on the app and its implementation. There are two reasons I feel better about this path:

  1. Dropbox exists in a tangible way on multiple computers I own as well as in the cloud
  2. Flexibility between interfaces

The first one is easy. I don’t trust iCloud fully yet. Every time I saw three copies of a single note appear in the Notes app or a reminder re-add itself to a list after completion, I added a tiny tick mark to the wall in my mind. Which is not to say that Dropbox sync services are without folly; certainly they can and do fail from time to time, however I always have the opportunity to throw my data into another app and test the waters elsewhere. I can easily see my data in Dropbox, which is important not primarily for sync settings, but for things like my plain text notes, which might be transitory and not long-term in nature as I’d discovered, but important to see and preserve as I saw reason to take the information down and capture it. Seeing duplicate notes appear was the flip side to the coin where notes suddenly vanish, and I’m not comfortable with that.

Second: Apple’s UI choices are polarizing if nothing else. There are many choices I enjoy and find delightful, and many at which I continually level disgust and contempt. With the relief provided by giving up my tinkering ways to Apple’s choices comes a compromise I’m unwilling to make right now – I’m stuck looking at yellow paper that formats plain text in obnoxious ways and parchment lists that while functional, are hardly the optimal way to organize (in my mind, at least) the tasks and efforts I need to complete. By using apps that plug into Dropbox, I’m afforded a variety of ways to look at the exact same data. Sometimes I need that variety, and it comes at the price of my inability to sometimes stop myself from exploring other apps and interfaces. I look at these screens entirely too much each day to be unhappy with what’s staring back at me. I can work at leaving well enough alone with regard to fiddly bits, but I can’t work at liking a UI I simply don’t.

The fundamental truth I learned about myself, which I mentioned in the first sentence of that other post is that I am a tinkerer. I like to try different things, break stuff, put it back together, and start from scratch. It’s something I can’t really turn off entirely, nor do I want to. It’s a curiosity I’ve had since I was a kid, and I hope my daughter expresses the same interest in exploration, whether it’s with software or any other interest she’s passionate about. I try new apps and add layers of complexity because I need to. It’s an evolving little puzzle I do with myself, like a game of Jenga in reverse. Occasionally I find something rock solid and leave it working, but there’s always something else to move on to, some new thing to play with, some new web service to leverage to make the mental machine run a little more smoothly. Understanding this about myself means I don’t feel guilty anymore about trying a million different ways to do a simple thing because I can rest a little easier knowing I’ve ruled out the ways I didn’t know before.

So, back to plain text, back to Dropbox, like a favorite pair of jeans. Sometimes you buy new jeans, sometimes you wear a suit, and sometimes the jeans sit in your drawer for a few weeks. But they’re there, and you know it, and it makes you happy.

Adding “value”.

Instacast released its 2.0 update yesterday to some Twitter fanfare. As a regular user of the app, I updated immediately. Now, to be clear, I don’t love Instacast. In fact, I have lots of personal issues with it. But as a regular listener of podcasts, it sucked the least of all the apps I’ve tried, and I’ve tried many. I wish so much that Apple would add even the most basic subscription support for podcasts to iOS within the native music app, but they haven’t, and it doesn’t look like they will any time soon.

What I found after updating was an interface that remained just as abstruse as the initial one, with the “added value” of reduced functionality. Most notably, the default behavior for podcasts downloaded within the app was altered. The original behavior of the app was that when podcasts were downloaded, they would stack up in a list, from oldest at the top to newest at the bottom. Now that order is reversed, to list the newest at the top. Which fundamentally changes the only way I listen to shows.

For a $1.99 in-app purchase, it appears that I could add functionality that would allow me to edit this playlist, and (I assume) change the order to something more palatable. I’m assuming this because I’m not going to make that purchase. And believe me, it’s not because I’m cheap. I buy tons of apps. I buy apps I don’t even plan on really using if I want to support the developer, because I believe in doing things like that. I won’t be adding that in-app purchase for two reasons:

1) because I don’t like paying again for what I was getting as a previous paying customer

and more importantly

2) because I have a hard time supporting something I don’t even really enjoy.

Instacast was originally a purchased app, not a free one. I understand completely if the developer of a free app wants to monetize through in-app purchase, but having paid for the app initially, and not expecting anything more than the basic continued functionality I was experiencing, to be forced to use the app differently is annoying, but then being told that I can use it the way I was using it if I pony up a few more bucks is really annoying. I’m not talking about adding new abilities or allowing some additional features. I’m talking about simply making it work the way it was previously working, one day earlier.

Furthermore, as I said, I don’t really love this app. And I know I might be in the minority, but I paid for and used the iPad app too, and I don’t like it either. Both UIs are needlessly complex, and expose inconsistencies throughout. The iPad app is almost unusable in my opinion because between the arcane controls and the spotty iCloud integration, I can never tell what’s actually happening within the app, and as such, I just stopped using it. I know a lot of people who wrote great things about it when it launched, and it was pretty as all get-out, but I’d be curious to know how many people are still actually listening to podcasts on their iPad at this point with it.

Listen, despite how this all came off and how my cranky tweets read, I don’t hate this app, nor do I hate the developers, their families or their pets. I just really believe very strongly that if you’re going to refine a UI, then really refine it. Don’t add things that seem like new controls yet obfuscate purpose. Don’t take gestures that were slightly difficult to discover but very useful and replace them with even more confusing options. If you have an overcomplicated hierarchy, make it simpler. And for the love of all things holy, don’t up-end the way people (especially previous paying customers) use the app and then tell them they can buy “great new features” in order to restore the basic way they’d been using the app to begin with.

I’m fully aware that these choices were most likely not arbitrary, and actually based on feedback. They represent a conscious choice on the part of the designers and developers to respond to feedback and provide what they feel is an improvement to the existing model. Choices are hard. I get it. The craziest part of all of this? Instacast is still, after all of this, significantly cleaner and easier to use than almost every single other podcast app in the App Store. Don’t even get me started on the other app everyone endlessly recommends to me (because I have it, surprise, and I have even fewer things I can point to as good).

Bottom line: creating in-app purchase options is a tricky choice, and I give a lot of credit to devs who pull it off successfully. But this kind of purchase isn’t adding value. The only thing it’s adding is frustration.

Update on Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This post was picked up at iMore and there’s some discussion over there about it. I was challenged as to the harshness of the post, and I defended my reasoning behind writing it if you’re curious about my motivations. (Hint: it wasn’t because I wanted to conduct a witch-hunt today.)

Update on Thursday, June 21, 2012

Since it was brought to my attention earlier today, it is worth noting (and I should have posted it as soon as the change took place) that Vemedio has since reinstated the features that were pulled from Instacast and placed behind the in-app purchase. They listened to their user base, respected the feedback, and in turn, I respect that decision. It was a tough call, and I disagreed with it initially, but I certainly harbor no ill will, despite how cranky I was the first time around.

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.