When Google+ was first announced I counted myself among its fans. Primarily this was due to the interface which, unlike every other social media platform at the time, was clean and there was the possibility I could integrate all my social media in the one spot. However as time went on it became apparent that this wasn’t happening any time soon and the dearth of people actively using it meant that it just fell by the wayside. As other products got rolled into it I wasn’t particularly fussed, I wasn’t a big user of most of them in the first place, however I was keenly aware of the consternation from the wider user base. It seems that Google might have caught onto this and is looking to wind down the Google+ service.
Back in April the head of Google+, Vic Gundotra, announced that he was leaving the company. Whilst Google maintained that this would not impact on their strategy many sources reported that Google was abandoning its much loathed approach of integrating Google+ into everything and that decrease in focus likely meant a decrease in resources. Considering that no one else can come up for a good reason why Gundotra, a 7 year veteran of Google, would leave the company it does seem highly plausible that something is happening to Google+ and it isn’t good for his future there. The question in my mind then is whether or not winding down the service will restore the some of the goodwill lost in Google’s aggressive integration spree.
Rumours have it that Google+ Photos will be the first service to be let free from the iron grip of its parent social network. Considering that the Photos section of Google+ started out as the web storage part of their Picasa product it makes sense that this would be the first service to be spun out. How it will compete with other, already established offerings though is somewhat up in the air although they do have the benefit of already being tightly integrated with the Android ecosystem. If they’re unwinding that application then it makes you wonder if they’ll continue that trend to other services, like YouTube.
For the uninitiated the integration of YouTube and Google+ was met with huge amounts of resistance with numerous large channels openly protesting it. Whilst some aspects of the integration have been relaxed (like allowing you to use a pseudonym that isn’t your real name) the vast majority of features that many YouTubers relied on are simply gone, replaced with seemingly inferior Google+ alternatives. If Google+ is walking off into the sunset then they’d do well to bring back the older interface although I’m sure the stalwart opponents won’t be thanking Google if they do.
Honestly whilst I liked Google+ originally, and even made efforts to actively use the platform, it simply hasn’t had the required amount of buy in to justify Google throwing all of its eggs into that basket. Whilst I like some of the integration between the various Google+ services I completely understand why others don’t, especially if you’re a content creator on one of their platforms. Winding down the service might see a few cheers here or there but honestly the damage was already done and it’s up to Google to figure out how to win the users back in a post Google+ world.
One of the first ideas that an engineer in training is introduced to is the idea of modularity. This is the concept that every problem, no matter how big, can be broken down into a subset of smaller problems that are interlinked. The idea behind this is that you can design solutions specific to the problem space rather than trying to solve everything in one fell swoop, something that is guaranteed to be error prone and likely never to achieve its goals. Right after you’re introduced to that idea you’re also told that modularity done for its own sake can lead to the exact same problems so its use must be tempered with moderation. It’s this latter point that I think the designers of Phonebloks might be missing out on even though as a concept I really like the idea.
For the uninitiated the idea is relatively simple: you buy yourself what equates to a motherboard which you can then plug various bits and pieces in to with one side being dedicated to a screen and the other dedicated to all the bits and pieces you’ve come to expect from a traditional smartphone. Essentially it’s taking the idea of being able to build your own PC and applying it to the smartphone market done in the hope of reducing electronic waste since you’ll only be upgrading parts of the phone rather than the whole device at a time. The lofty idea is that this will eventually become the platform for everyone and smartphone component makers will be lining up to build additional blocks for it.
As someone who’s been building his own PCs for the better part of 3 decades now I think the idea that the base board, and by extension the interconnects it has on it, will never change is probably the largest fundamental flaw with Phonebloks. I’ve built many PCs with the latest CPU socket on them in the hopes that I could upgrade on the cheap at a later date only to find that, when it came time to upgrade, another newer and far superior socket was available. Whilst the Phonebloks board can likely be made to accommodate current requirements its inevitable that further down the track some component will require more connections or a higher bandwidth interface necessitating its replacement. Then, just as with all those PCs I bought, this will also necessitate re-buying all the additional components, essentially getting us into the same position as we are currently.
This is not to mention the fact that hoping other manufacturers, ones that already have a strong presence in the smartphone industry, will build components for it is an endeavor that’s likely to be met with heavy resistance, if it’s not outright ignored. Whilst there are a couple companies that would be willing to sell various components (Sony with their EXMOR R sensor, ARM with their processor, etc.) they’re certainly not going to bother with the integration, something that would likely cost them much more than any profit they’d see from being on the platform.
Indeed I think that’s the biggest issue that this platform faces. Whilst its admirable that they’re seeking to be the standard modular platform for smartphones the standardization in the PC industry did not come about overnight and took the collaboration of multiple large corporations to achieve. Without their support I’m struggling to see how this platform can get the diversity it needs to become viable and as far as I can tell the only backing they’ve got is from a bunch of people willing to tweet on their behalf.
Fundamentally I like the idea as whilst I’m able to find a smartphone that suits the majority of my wants pretty easily there are always things I would like to trade in for others. My current Xperia Z would be a lot better if the speakerphone wasn’t rubbish and the battery was capable of charging wirelessly and I’d happily shuffle around some of the other components in order to get my device just right. However I’m also aware of the giant integration challenge that such a modular platform would present and whilst they might be able to get a massive burst of publicity I’m skeptical that it will turn into a viable product platform. I’d love to be wrong on this though but as someone who’s seen many decades of modular platform development and the tribulations it entails I can’t say that I’m banking money for my first Phoneblok device.
One of the peeves I had with the official Twitter client on Windows Phone 7, something I didn’t mention in my review of the platform, was that among the other things that its sub-par at (it really is the poor bastard child of its iOS/Android cousins) it couldn’t display images in-line. In order to actually see any image you have to tap the tweet then the thumbnail in order to get a look at it, which usually loads the entire large image which isn’t required on smaller screens. The official apps on other platforms were quite capable of loading appropriate sized images in the feed which was a far better experience, especially considering it worked for pretty much all of the image sharing services.
Everyone knows there’s no love lost between Instagram and I but that doesn’t mean I don’t follow people who use it. As far back as I can remember their integration in the mobile apps has left something to be desired, especially if you want to view the full sized image which usually redirected you to their atrocious web view. Testing it for this post showed that they’ve vastly improved that experience which is great, especially considering I’m still on Windows Phone 7 which was never able to preview Instagram anyway, but it seems that this improvement may have come as part of a bigger play from Instagram trying to claw back their users from Twitter.
Reports are coming in far that Instagram has disabled their Twitter card integration which stops Twitter from being able to display the images directly in the feed like they have been doing since day 1. Whilst I don’t seem to be experiencing the issue that everyone is reporting (as you can see from the devastatingly cute picture above) there are many people complaining about this and Instagram has stated that disabling this integration is part of their larger strategy to provide a better experience through their platform. Part of that was improve the mobile web experience which I mentioned earlier.
It’s an interesting move because for those of us who’ve been following both Twitter and Instagram for a while the similarities are startling. Twitter has been around for some 6 years and it spent the vast majority of that being a company that was extraordinarily open with its platform, encouraging developers far and wide to come in and develop on their platform. Instagram, whilst not being as wide open as Twitter was, did similar things making their product integrate tightly with Twitter’s ecosystem whilst encouraging others to develop on it. Withdrawing from Twitter in favour of their own platform is akin to what Twitter did to potential client app developers, essentially signalling to everyone that it’s our way or the highway.
The cycle is eerily similar, both companies started out as small time players that had a pretty dedicated fan base (although Instagram grew like a weed in comparison to Twitter’s slow ride to the hockey stick) and then after getting big they start withdrawing all the things that made them great. Arguably much of Instagram’s growth came from its easy integration with Twitter where many of the early adopters already had large followings and without that I don’t believe they would’ve experienced the massive growth they did. Disabling this functionality seems like they’re shooting themselves in the foot with the intention of attempting some form of monetization eventually (that’s the only reason I can think of for trying to drive users back to the native platform) but I said the same thing about Twitter when they pulled that developer stunt, and they seem to be doing fine.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that this is what happens when start ups hit the big time because at that point they have to start thinking seriously about where they’re going. For giant sites like Instagram that are still yet to turn a profit from the service they provide it’s inevitable that they’d have to start fundamentally changing the way they do business and this is most likely just the first step in wider sweeping changes. I’m still wondering how Facebook is going to turn a profit from this investment as they’re $1 billion in the hole and there’s no signs of them making that back any time soon.
I remember when I first saw Windows Phone 7 introduced all those years ago now how it just looked like Microsoft playing the me-too game with one of its biggest competitors. This was also a time when RIM, you know those guys who make the BlackBerrys that everyone used to rave about, where the kings of the smart phone world and Android was still considered that upstart that would get no where. Back then I said I’d end up getting one of these handsets eventually, mostly for application development purposes, but also so I could share the experience with you, my readers. I never really made good on that promise but thanks to LifeHacker I’ve had the privilege to have a Nokia Lumia 900 as my sole communications device for the past couple weeks and I thought it was high time I told you what I think of it.
Before I get into the meat of the underlying operating system I want to take a little time to comment on the phone itself. Nokia, renowned for their low end handsets that are everywhere, sheds those preconceptions easily with the Lumia 900. Whilst I know its no indication of the underlying quality the 900 has a really nice heft to it, feeling quite solid in the hands. The specs are actually quite incredible with it sporting a 1.4GHz Qualcomm Scorpion processor, 512MB RAM and 16GB of internal storage. Couple that with an 8MP camera with Carl Zeiss optics capable of capturing 720p video you’ve got a solid base of hardware that’s easily comparable to all other handsets from its generation. The battery life is also pretty incredible, easily lasting a couple days with moderate usage. Indeed if Nokia were to release a similar phone to the Android market there’s no doubt in my mind that it’d be right up there with the likes of Samsung and HTC.
My first impressions were quite good for Windows Phone 7 with some teething issues that I’ll dive into. On the surface Windows Phone 7 is visually pleasing with the large icons, live tiles and a very smooth scrolling experience that all just works. Just like you do with Android or iOS you sign into your phone using your Windows Live ID, which can be any email address you want, which then hooks into the underlying services that power your Windows Phone 7 handset. For the most part this is synching with things like Live Contacts, SkyDrive for your cloud storage and any other Microsoft service. For the most part these work well however I had a stumbling block at the start which did sour me initially on the platform.
So ever since I moved from my Windows Mobile device to my first iPhone all those years ago I’ve had my contacts stored in Google Contacts as that was the easiest way to ensure they’d follow me from platform to platform. Thankfully Windows Phone 7 allows you to add accounts across a wide range of services, Google being one of them. So I entered my details and hit sync…nothing happened. Indeed even when I tried to sync to my LiveID (which has nothing in it) I got a similar error saying “Attention required” and upon investigation it said that my username/password combination wasn’t correct. No matter what I did to get this to work it would always come up with this same error for both services. To rectify this I had to reset my phone to factory defaults, sign in again with my LiveID and then attempt to sync again. For Google Contacts I had to create an application specific password to use it (I have 2 factor auth turned on for my Google account) but I wasn’t prompted for this from Windows Phone 7 like I have been for other services. Realistically I’d expect a little better from a platform that’s been around for this long and this was why I was initially unhappy with Windows Phone 7.
However all the other in built apps like email, messaging and maps work absolutely flawlessly. It didn’t take me long to get everything in sync with all my emails coming down as soon as the server received them and things like MMS, which usually require some fiddling to get them to work properly, just worked straight away from the APN settings that came down from Telstra. The problems I experienced getting my contacts onto Windows Phone 7 were really the only major issue I had with the platform itself and it speaks volumes that the rest of the experience was so trouble free by comparison.
Of course the platform itself is only part of the equation as it’s the third party applications that can make or break it. Thankfully I’m please to say that for all the major applications like Twitter, Facebook and Shazam there are native applications and the function pretty much identically to their counterparts on the other major platforms. There are of course some differences in the applications that can be rather irritating (Twitter for instance doesn’t preload tweets like it does on Android) but they are more than usable. I wouldn’t say I prefer the Windows Phone 7 experience over Android or iOS as I was very much used to the former due to it being my platform of choice for the past year and a bit but I don’t find myself wanting for any specific feature. It’s probably more due to the fact that Windows Phone 7 has its own UI styling that’s pretty consistent across all the applications and for some instances that fits well but for others it just doesn’t really work at all.
Where Windows Phone 7 starts to fall down is in the niche application area, I.E. those applications on other platforms that you have for one specific need or another. My best example of this would be SoundCloud, a music sharing application, which has a great application on both Android and iOS. For Windows Phone 7 there’s no official application and all the third party solutions are really quite bad, to the point of being unusable. Of the 3 I tried no one supported logging in with Facebook and since I have no idea what my SoundCloud password is (I never set one, because of the Facebook integration) I simply could not try them. The SoundCloud mobile application is actually quite good but it doesn’t function the way you’d expect it and in order to get similar functionality you have to do things that aren’t particularly intuitive. Reddit is another example as whilst there’s an usable application (Alien News) it’s just not as good as Reddit is Fun on Android.
The state of the niche applications might not be a big deal to the majority of people who only need a few major applications (which are well supported on Windows Phone 7) but for power users like myself it feels like you’re artificially limiting yourself to being a second class smart phone user. Now this is no fault of the platform, it’s simply a function of its popularity among the wider public, and the only thing that will solve it is more users and time. Whether that will happen is hard to say as whilst Windows Phone 7 market share has been growing it’s still hard to call it anything more than an also-ran in comparison to Android and iOS.
In an objective comparison between all the platforms, forgetting the applications as they’re not strictly reflective of the platform itself, I can say that Windows Phone 7 is most definitely comparable to Android and iOS. The interface is slick and smooth, the built in applications are very usable and there are no real show stopping bugs that prevent you from doing anything that you could do on other platforms. Whilst I’m not sure if this will become my default platform of choice for the future (considering my Lumia won’t get Windows Phone 8) I definitely can’t fault anyone for choosing it over any of the other ones available. Indeed for certain people, especially those who are heavily invested in the Microsoft platform, I’d recommend it over anything else as its tight integration with Microsoft would make it much more worthwhile.
So overall I was very impressed with Windows Phone 7 as I was truly expecting the majority of applications to be no where near as good as their iOS/Android counterparts but they were. The most telling thing was that I never found myself wanting to do something and then finding out I wouldn’t be able to do it. Sure the experience wasn’t ideal in some cases but the capability was there and in many cases that’s all that matters. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the upcoming Windows Phone 8 and whilst I won’t promise that I’ll rush out to get one for the review (I’ve made that mistake before) I won’t say to no if Microsoft gives me a loaner for a couple weeks.
Which is actually a real possibility considering I’ll be blogging for them 😀
It’s hard to believe that we’re still in the first year of Google+ as it feels like the service has been around for so much longer. This is probably because of the many milestones it managed to pass in such a short period of time, owing the fact that anyone with a Google account can just breeze on into the nascent social network. I personally remained positive about it as the interface and user experience paradigms suited my geeky ways but the lack of integration with other services along with the lack of migration of others onto the service means that it barely sees any use, at least from me.
Still I can’t generalize my experience up to a wider view of Google+ and not just because that’s bad science. Quite often I’ve found myself back on Google+, not for checking my feed or posting new content, but to see conversations that have been linked to by news articles or friends. Indeed Google+ seems to be quite active in these parts with comment threads containing hundreds of users and multitudes of posts. Most often this is when popular bloggers or celebrities start said thread so its very much like Twitter in that regard, although Google+ feels a whole lot more like one big conversation rather than Twitter’s 1 to many or infinitum of 1 to 1 chat sessions. For the most part this still seems to be heavily biased towards the technology scene, but that could just be my bias stepping in again.
Outside that though my feed is still completely barren with time between posts from users now expanding to weeks. Even those who swore off all other social networks in favour of Google+ have had to switch back as only a small percentage of their friends had an active presence on their new platform of choice. This seems to be something of a trend as user interactivity with the site is at an all time low, even below that of struggling social network MySpace. Those figures don’t include mobile usage but suffice to say that the figures are indicative of the larger picture.
Personally I feel one of the biggest problems that Google+ has is lack of integration with other social network services and 3rd party product developers. Twitter’s success is arguably due to their no holds barred approach to integration and platform development. Whilst Google+ was able to get away with not having it in the beginning the lack of integration hurts Google’s long term prospects significantly as people are far less likely to use it as their primary social network. Indeed I can’t syndicate any of the content that I create onto their social network (and vice-versa) due to the lack of integration and this means that Google+ exists as a kind of siloed platform, never getting the same level of treatment as the other social networks do.
Realistically though it’s all about turning the ghost towns that are most people’s timelines into the vibrant source of conversation that many of the other social networks are. Right now Google+ doesn’t see much usage because of the content exclusivity and effort required to manually syndicate content to it. Taking away that barrier would go a long way to at least making Google+ look like its getting more usage and realistically that’s all that would be required for a lot of users to switch over to it as their main platform. Heck I know I would.
Google+ has only been around for a mere 2 months yet I already feel like writing about it is old hat. In the short time that the social networking service as been around its had a positive debut to the early adopter market, seen wild user growth and even had to tackle some hard issues like their user name policy and user engagement. I said very early on that Google had a major battle on their hands when they decided to launch another volley at an another silicone valley giant but early indicators were pointing towards them at least being a highly successful niche product at the very least, if for the only fact that they were simply “Facebook that wasn’t Facebook“.
One of the things that was always lacking from the service was an API that was on the same level as its competitors. Both Facebook and Twitter both have exceptional APIs that allow services to deeply integrate with them and, at least in the case of Twitter, are responsible in a large part for their success. Google was adamant that an API was on the way and just under a week ago they delivered on their promise, releasing an API for Google+:
Developers have been waiting since late June for Google to release their API to the public. Well, today is that Day. Just a few minute ago Chris Chabot, from Google+ Developer Relations, announced that the Google+ API is now available to the public. The potential for this is huge, and will likely set Google+ on a more direct path towards social networking greatness. We should see an explosion of new applications and websites emerge in the Google+ community as developers innovate, and make useful tools from the available API. The Google+ API at present provides read-only access to public data posted on Google+ and most of the Google+ API follows a RESTful API design, which means that you must use standard HTTP techniques to get and manipulate resources.
Like all their APIs the Google+ one is very well documented and even the majority of their client libraries have been updated to include the new API. Looking over the documentation it appears that there’s really only 2 bits of information available to developers at this point in time, those being public Profiles (People) and activities that are public. Supporting these APIs is the OAuth framework so that users can authorize external applications so that they can access their data on Google+. In essence this is a read only API for things that were already publicly accessible which really only serves to eliminate the need to screen scrape the same data.
I’ll be honest, I’m disappointed in this API. Whilst there are some useful things you can do with this data (like syndicating Google+ posts to other services and reader clients) the things that I believe Google+ would be great at doing aren’t possible until applications can be given write access to my stream. Now this might just be my particular use case since I usually use Twitter for my brief broadcasts (which is auto-syndicated to Facebook) and this blog for longer prose (which is auto shared to Twitter) so my preferred method of integration would be to have Twitter post stuff to my Google+ feed. Because as it is right now my Google+ account is a ghost town compared to my other social networks simply because of the lack of automated syndication.
Of course I understand that this isn’t the final API, but even as a first attempt it feels a little weak.
Whilst I won’t go as far as to say that Google+ is dying there is data to suggest that the early adopter buzz is starting to wind down. Anecdotally my feed seems to mirror this trend with average time between posts on there being days rather than minutes it is on my other social networks. The API would be the catalyst required to bring that activity back up to those initial levels but I don’t think it’s capable of doing so in its current form. I’m sure that Google won’t be a slouch when it comes to releasing new APIs but they’re going to have to be quick about it if they want to stem the flood of inactivity.
I really want to use Google+, I really do it’s just that the lack of interoperability that keeps all my data out of it. I’m sure in the next couple months we’ll see the release of a more complete API that will enable me to use the service as I, and many others I feel, use our other social networking services.
For the past year I was somewhat of an anomaly amongst my tech friends because I choose to get an iPhone 3GS instead of one of the Android handsets. The choice was simple at the time, I had an app that I wanted to develop for it and needed something to test on, but still I copped it sweet whenever I said something positive about the platform since I’d usually be the only one with an Apple product in the area. When it came time again to buy a new phone, as I get to do every year for next to nothing, I resisted for quite a while, until one of my friends put me onto the Samsung Galaxy S2¹. The tech specs simply overwhelmed my usual fiscal conservativeness and no less than a week later was I in possession of one and so began my experience with the Android platform.
The default UI that comes with all of Samsung’s Android handsets, called TouchWiz, feels uncannily similar to that of iOS. In fact it’s so familiar that Apple is suing Samsung because of it, but if you look at many other Android devices you’ll see that they share similar characteristics that Apple is claiming Samsung ripped off from them. For me personally though the Android UI wins out simply because of how customizable it is allowing me to craft an experience that’s tailored to my use. Widgets, basically small front ends to your running applications, are a big part of this enabling me to put things like a weather ticker on my front page. The active wallpapers are also pretty interesting too, if only to liven up the otherwise completely static UI.
What impresses me most about the Android platform is the breadth and depth of the applications and tweaks available for the system. My first few days with Android were spent just getting myself back up and running like I was on my iPhone, finding all the essential applications (Facebook, Twitter, Shazam, Battle.net Authenticator, etc) and comparing the experience to the iPhone. For the most part the experience on Android is almost identical, especially with applications that have large user bases, but some of them were decidedly sub-par. Now most would say that this is due to the fragmentation of the Android platform but the problems I saw didn’t stem from those kinds of issues, just a lack of effort on their part to polish the experience. This more often happened for applications that weren’t “Android born” as many of the native apps were leaps and bounds ahead of them in terms of quality.
The depth of integration that applications and tweaks can have with the Android platform is really where the platform shines. Skype, for example, can usurp your outgoing calls and route them through their network which could be a major boon if you’re lucky enough to have a generous data plan. It doesn’t stop with application integration either, there are numerous developers dedicated to making the Android platform itself better through custom kernels and ROMs. The extra functionality that I have unlocked with my phone by installing CF-Root kernel, one that allows me root access, are just phenomenal. I’ve yet to find myself wanting for any kind of functionality and rarely have I found myself needing to pay for it something, unless it was for convenience’s sake.
Android is definitely a technophile’s dream with the near limitless possibilities of an open platform laid out before you. However had you not bothered to do all the faffing about that I did you still wouldn’t be getting a sub-par experience, at least on handsets sporting the TouchWiz interface. Sure you might have to miss out on some of the useful apps (like Titanium Backup) but realistically many of the root enabled apps aren’t aimed at your everyday user. You still get all the benefits of the deep integration with the Android platform where a good 90% of the value will be for most users anyway.
Despite all of this gushing over Google’s mobile love child I still find it hard to recommend it as the platform for everyone. Sure for anyone with a slight technical bent it’s the platform to go for, especially if you’re comfortable modding your hardware, and sure it’s still quite usable for the majority who aren’t. However Apple’s platform does automate a lot of the rudimentary stuff for you (like backing up your handset when you sync it) which Android, as a platform, doesn’t currently do. Additionally thanks to the limited hardware platform you’re far less likely to encounter some unknown issue on iOS than you are on Android which, if you’re the IT support for the family like me, can make your life a whole lot easier.
Android really impressed me straight from the get go and continued to do so as I spent more time getting to know it and digging under the hood to unlock even more value from it. The ability to interact, modify or outright replace parts of the underlying Android platform is what makes it great and is the reason why it’s the number 1 smart phone platform to date. As a long time smart phone user I feel that Android is by far the best platform for both technophiles and regular users alike, giving you the usability you’ve come to expect from iOS with the tweakability that used to be reserved for only for Windows Mobile devices.
Now I just need to try out a Windows Phone 7 device and I’ll have done the mobile platform trifecta.
¹I’m reviewing the handset separately as since Android is available on hundreds of handsets it wouldn’t be fair to lump them together as I did with the iPhone. Plus the Galaxy S2 deserves its own review anyway and you’ll find out why hopefully this week 😉
Just to see how this goes, I’ve created a horrible mess of web 2.0 applications so that several different websites will update themselves when I post on this blog.
I believe this is what those crazy web kids call “mash ups” these days, when really its just programs talking to each other. Or maybe I’m getting cynical in my old (HA!) age 🙂
Expect a few more of these kinds of posts if I find I’ve broken something.
Appears that I’ve made it work. All it took was an hour and few non G rated words yelled at my server to get it working 😉