A New Year, A New Phone

This year I’ve decided to make a foray into the future by finally getting myself a proper smartphone. I’ve had an iPod Touch for a while but also had a simple Nokia not-smart phone to make actual phone calls. It’s always been somewhat annoying to have to manage two devices: a real phone for calls or texts and the iPod for any Internet and data-related work. A large part of my resistance to getting an actual smartphone was that I simply didn’t want to spend a lot of money on a cell phone plan when I was surrounded by wi-fi all the time and barely made actual phone calls. But now that there are finally both reasonably cheap unlocked smartphones and contract-free data plans I decided to bite the bullet.

The unlocked iPhone 4S would end up costing me a tad over $800 after tax and Applecare. I was also getting bored of the iOS ecosystem and its closed, silo system for apps. So instead I got myself a much cheaper unlocked Android phone – the Google/Samsung Nexus S. I’m pairing that with a $30 a month T-Mobile data and phone plan. I’m still waiting for a new SIM card to show up but till then I’m making use of the ample wifi coverage that’s a side-effect of living in a college town. For now, I’m only going to talk about my first impressions on the Nexus S itself.

Google Nexus S

Google Nexus S (via Wikipedia)

The Nexus S is Google’s previous flagship phone. Its current flagship is the Galaxy Nexus which Google is also selling unlocked. However it’s almost twice the price I paid for the Nexus S and in my opinion, isn’t sufficient of an upgrade to justify the price. Even though it’s about a year old by now (and technically running the old version of Android), I haven’t had a problem with it so far.

It looks pretty different from the iPhone and the plastic feel takes some getting used it. I also think it slips more easily, but that might just be a personal problem. The back of the phone has something of a ridge at the bottom which I guess is supposed to make it easier to hold. Though the build quality does feel inferior as compared to the iPhone, I like it and have no major complaints.

The Android sofware feels like a breath of fresh air as compared to the iPhone. It is considerably more customizable and I like the presence of both tradiiontal apps as well as “widgets” that add functionality directly to your home screens. I’ve found widgets great for quickly looking up data like the weather, Twitter mentions or what system services are currently running.

The tinkerer in me loves how customizable the Android system is. Changing the look and feel is just the beginning. There are a lot of bells and whistles and options and sometimes it can be a rather confusing. For now I’ve only stuck to the usual set of apps (Twitter, Foursquare, Camera) but I’m looking forward to trying out new and interesting apps in the future. More than that I feel like Android would be a really good platform if I decide to get into mobile dev anytime soon.

There are a few things about the Nexus S that I’m concerned with. I think the battery life is a tad too short, especially with the geolocation services on all the time. Luckily, the battery monitor widget makes it simple to turn off services with a touch so maybe some manual management might make it better. While the Google apps are really well integrated (especially Google Voice) and apps from large companies are well done, third-party apps seem to be of considerably less quality than iOS equivalents. I don’t really blame the developers given the multitude of devices but it does mean that finding good apps for simple things like RSS is more difficult than it should be.

Despite the glitches and minor annoyances I really like the Nexus S. The hardware is pretty solid and I like Android so far. Right now having a fully functional smartphone is still pretty new to me, but I’m hoping that when the novelty wears off I’ll dive into actually programming the powerful computer in my pocket.

Attention to details

Yesterday I decided to subscribe to a friend’s RSS feed. She is currently in Japan and writing about her experiences there (yes, she’s been talking about the earthquake among other things). I’ve been carrying around my Chrome netbook since it’s more comfortable to use than my Eee PC netbook and I was using when I decided to subscribe to her feed. Chrome OS is supposed to be optimized for living on the web and RSS is definitely a part of the web. In fact, Google Reader is the probably the best web-based feed reader out there (and one of the better RSS readers period). However, despite Google’s expertise with the web and their investment in ChromeOS doing something as simple as subscribing to an RSS feed takes three separate steps.

When you get to a webpage that has associated RSS feeds, Chrome will auto-detect them and put a small RSS icon in the address bar. When you click that icon you get  a list of available feeds. That’s fine because it exposes important information in an unobtrusive form and makes more detailed information easily available. Once you click whichever link you do want to subscribe to, you get taken to another page which shows a preview of the feed articles and lets you choose which feed reader you want to subscribe to. To be fair, this step can be removed by picking a default feed reader. In my case I choose Google Reader. But instead of just adding your feed to Google Reader, you are dropped into Reader where you have to click the subscribe button to actually subscribe to the feed. Though I’ve seen far worse signup processes, this could all be boiled down to a single step process if Google Reader and Google Chrome OS worked just a little bit better together (yes, I said Google twice to make a point).

I’ve done this lots of times already, but today it really bothered me. A few hours before I subscribed to my friend’s feed, I read Andy Ihnatko’s review of the iPad 2. If you’re considering buying the iPad 2 (or just interested in it) take half an hour and go read it. I want to highlight the part of the article that really stuck with me (and fueled my annoyance at the Chrome/Reader signup process).

The iPad 2 Smart Cover is emblematic of what makes Apple a great technology company. I kind of want to hide one in my jacket pocket every time a tech company is giving me my first briefing on a new tablet, and bring it out at a decisive moment.

“Halt,” I would say, unrolling the Smart Cover and holding it before me like a talisman to ward off evil. “Did you put as much thought into your entire tablet as Apple put into this deceptively simple screen cover?”

See, I’m increasingly coming to the view that the small things matter. Not only do they matter, they are downright important and worthy of serious attention especially if they are part of products you want to get into the hands of lots of people. Unfortunately this does not seem to be clear to people and companies that are making said products, even companies that should know better.

As much as we’d like to pretend that humans are logical beings and use products and services based purely on their technical merits, the truth is we’re not Vulcans. Using beautiful, well-designed products and living in attractive environments actually makes us feel better and more productive. And when it comes to making a solid, fine-tuned experience, the small stuff matters. It really matters.

Not to sound like a total fanboy, but Apple realizes this and executes it well, and is one of the few companies that do. Interestingly enough, Apple’s penchant for polish and good design spills over into the whole ecosystem of Mac apps. OS X is the only platform where I honestly say that some applications are beautiful. The web is a becoming close second thanks to the increase in quality of rendering engines. I think this is an analog of the “broken windows theory” — Apple actively discourages broken windows on its platform. It’s own products are useful, well-designed and a joy to use. They’re continually raising the bar, in terms of hardware, software and the combined experience.

Demanding perfection and not shipping bad products is not a easy choice to make, but is certainly pays. Again, Apple last made $14 billion in profits. In profits. And is now the second largest company in the world. Companies like Moleskin, Behance and Rhodia make beautiful, thoughtfully designed stationary products and they’re not cheap. But they’re worth it. If you’re serious about creating products and services that people not only use, but want to use, then you should sweat the small stuff and work on creating the filter.

Sunday Selection 2010-10-03

Reading

A new medium requires a new literacy The times they are a changing, and keeping up is not a easy business. This article from the Huffington Post talks about how the idea that younger generations are automatically better equipped to deal with technology isn’t quite true and how education is perhaps more important either. It’s centric to the United States but could easily be generalized to the world at large.

Staying healthy and sane at a startup Most of us might not be working day-in-day-out to get our awesome startup off the ground, but this post from former Twitter API lead Alex Payne is useful to anyone working at an intellectual desk job. It discusses the value of diet, exercise and meditation and offers some sane and down-to-earth advice on how to keep yourself in shape (physically and mentally). I’m starting to implement these in my own life (especially diet and exercise) and I hope to see some good effects.

Media

How web video powers global innovation YouTube often gets a bad rap for being a time and productivity sink and to a large I think that’s true. In this TED talk, TED’s CEO Chris Anderson talks about how the rise in online video is helping to boost global innovation on a multitude of levels. This doesn’t mean you’re justified in spending hours watching cats do funny things but it does mean that online video is more than just entertainment.

Software

Google Voice If you’re not using Google Voice, you should be. Voice gives you a number that acts a “proxy” between the caller and you’re actual phone. Why is it awesome? Because it gives you an unprecedented amount of control over how you receive and handle phone calls. If you have multiple physical phones you can redirect calls to your Voice number to any (or all) of them. You can set rules for who gets to call you and when or you can just turn on the “Do Not Disturb” mode which sends everything to voicemail. Voice also presents voicemail in an email-like web interface so that you can see who called you in once glance. And lest I forget, you get free SMS too.

Nothing left to lose

Today’s been a productive day. Lot of code written, good conversation and a lot of reading done. I caught up with my backlog of stuff I had to read around the internet and even let myself carry on reading links. Out of everything I read, there are two things I read that I feel worth writing.

The first was about Microsoft and the recent Kin debacle. It’s a good article with lots of remarks from people inside Microsoft and it’s definitely worth a read if you’re interested in technology or business at all. The article paints a pretty grim picture of where Microsoft is going. MS is definitely not my favorite technology company (and I’ve been Windows free for a while now) but it still hurts a little to see a once-great company go so tragically wrong. As I was reading that article I kept thinking that Microsoft really needed a cold, hard reboot. A complete restructuring where they would identify their core strengths (Windows and Office), unify their various disparate projects (Mobile/Kin, all their various web efforts) and bring more developers onto their side (C#, F# and the rest of .NET). Is any of this going to happen? I don’t know. I hope so, but my gut says no, sadly.

However, when I read this next article (about weak AI applied to cars and massive data sets) one line stuck out that pretty much summed up what I thought about Microsoft and its current situation. The line was this: It turns out that, innovation, like freedom, “is just another word for having nothing left to lose.” Very fitting, yes?

I think what everyone is feeling that Microsoft is simply far too big and unwieldy to make the drastic changes that are really necessary for it to stay in the game against the likes of Apple and Google. Restructuring a large company to fend off faster moving rivals is never an easy thing to do and it’s even harder when:

  1. You’re company is violently divided politically into jealous corporate fiefdoms
  2. Everyone in the world seems to know about how bad it is

The feeling that I think is prevalent is that even though Microsoft desperately needs to make an about turn in a lot of different areas, they’re not going to. Not yet, not unless more heads have rolled and not until they’ve lost a lot more, both in terms of interesting products and shareholder value. In other words, Microsoft will have to be forced into a situation where they have nothing left to lose before they start to really make the changes that they need to.

And that is sad. Sure, I’ve bashed Microsoft before and I’m certainly not a fan of Windows, but I too want them to get their act together and become a formidable software company again. I have good friends working at Microsoft who have had good experiences and I’ve heard good things about C# and .NET (language geek that I am). If nothing else, diversity is good and the more sources of interesting technology we have, the better. So I wish Microsoft the best of luck and really, really hope that the Kin (and Courier before it) are what finally kick Microsoft into action and push themselves to get back to the top of the game. Will that actually happen? We’ll see.

It’s my choice dammit

Anybody who tells me I can’t use a program because it’s not open source, go suck on rms. I’m not interested. 99% of that I run tends to be open source, but that’s my choice, dammit.

I got my shiny new iPod Touch yesterday and even though I really like it for a number of different reasons, I can’t help but feeling a little bit guilty. I like Apple in general, but the iPod is pretty much as closed as a system gets and I don’t feel too good about giving my hard money to something that is rather opposite to what I think computing should be like.

Though I can’t shake off the feelings of guilt (and am concerned by the direction in which popular computing is going), I let practicality take the upper hand in this case. The reason I bought the iPod Touch is that there is no other device on the market that lets me do just what I want to with the Touch. I needed a light, mobile internet connection device that could connect via Wi-fi and fit in my pocket. Also, I didn’t want to spend a small fortune (for a college student). I didn’t want a phone with a plan (I hate phones) and I didn’t want to shell out $500+ for an unlocked Nexus One.

What I needed was basically a web-ready PDA for the modern day and the iPod Touch pretty much fits the bill. The calendar and mail apps work wonderfully with Google services and there are some good to-do list apps available cheap. If there was an Android equivalent to it (say the Motorola Droid without the phone part) I would buy it instead in a heartbeat. But there isn’t and I need something that gets the job done today.

Though I am very much an open source advocate, I’m not fanatical about it. I use OS X on a regular basis because I think it looks good and the UNIX underneath lets me do most things I need it to do (except perhaps package management, but I haven’t really tried that). On the other hand, I went completely Microsoft-free last week. I stopped using proprietary formats long ago, preferring plain text, HTML and PDF. But I nuked my Windows partition simply because I didn’t use it any more. I was back up and running with a beautiful fresh, 64 bit Arch Linux install in about an hour.

Having a philosophy and values and ideals is awesome, but in the end I choose technology that serves me best. If that means I have to spend a few dollars lining a closed giant’s coffers, then so be it. The reason I grew to love Linux was because it was so easy to tinker with and because I could write programs very easily. I never quite figured out how to write serious code in Windows and I’ve never been a big IDE guy. If Windows had let me program and tinker as easily, I would have probably stuck to Windows. Some would argue that Windows will never be that way because of its closed nature. I’m not sure I agree, but then again, I can’t say I’ve tinkered enough with proprietary systems to tell what can and cannot be done.

And of course no conversation on openness today can be complete without some mention of the iPad. I think it’s an interesting piece of tech, but it’s not something I will buy because I don’t have a plausible use case for it. I either want something I can carry in my pocket (the iPod Touch or iPhone) or I want a full fledged computer. However, I also understand that I’m not the iPad’s target audience. The target audience is people who don’t do a lot of typing and are more digital consumers than they are proper computer users. And though the iPad may be unimpressive from a technical perspective, it will almost certainly sell like hot cakes (as my friend puts it). And no doubt Google will push out an Android-based competitor to it within the year.

Part of my misgivings about buying the Touch has to do with the fact that at heart, I am a tinkerer. I like cracking things open to see what the parts do and then putting the parts back in a slightly different just to see what will happen. Seeing a mass market popular device that is so tinkerer unfriendly does unsettle me. But there are also things that I have no interest in tinkering with. I don’t want to jailbreak my Touch or run my own “unauthorized” programs on it, because there are far better things for me to do with my time. Computer technology is at the point of maturity where you don’t have to tinker to get things to work the way you work and I think that in general is a good thing. I care more about users having a good experience and getting their job done than I do about running a completely free software stack. If that means I need to throw a little proprietary into the mix, so be it.

Linus Torvalds does sum it up really well for those open source users who aren’t primarily motivated by morals or ideals: most of what we run is open source because it works and gets the job done. And most importantly, it’s my choice.