Living with an Android

At the end of October, I took plunge and pre-ordered a Google Pixel 3. Prior to November 1st, I’d never owned a smart phone other an iPhone. On July 11, 2009 I traded in my Motorola flip phone for an iPhone 3G and have never looked back.

So this switch to Android is definitely a huge, momentous occasion worthy of a lengthy blog post.

My primary reason for switching was price. Immediately after its release, Rogers was listing the iPhone XS for an insanely high $699 on 2-year contract! Thought it looks like they have drop that to a slightly more reasonable but still expensive $459. Conversely, the brand new Google Pixel 3 had a pre-release price of only $99 and came with a free Pixel Stand (a $109 value).

Combined with the generally stellar early reviews of the Pixel 3 and Android Pie, I thought now would be as good of a time as ever to give it a shot.

Stand Out Features

Cameras

The cameras are really great! I don’t really know all the photo lingo to describe how and why the photos are great. Suffice to say, my wife who has a BFA in photograph is insanely jealous. The wide angled camera on the front is especially cool – it makes big group selfies so much easier, what a smart idea. For some examples of photos take a look at my instagram. I generally don’t use filters and everything since November 1st has been taken on a Pixel.

Google Services

Google is great at web services. Apple is not. End of story.

The core Google apps (photos, maps, gmail, etc) are all essentially web apps, which means UI/UX on my phone is identical to what I see in a browser, on any device, on any desktop OS. It’s 2018, this is the way all things should be. (I know Apple is trying, but icloud.com still has tonnes of skeuomorphic and Safari-centric design baggage.)

Google Photos was especially impressive. I was concerned about exactly how I’d access 9 years of iPhone photos backed up in iCloud from my Pixel. Turns out, it was as simple as installing the Google Photos app on my iPhone 7 and enable syncing. It was able to suck in all my photos, including the thousands offloaded iCloud that were not even present on my iPhone’s storage.

Notifications

The way in which android handles notification is just so much more sane and better for my digital health. Prior to switching to Android, I’d disabled most notifications for most apps, I found them distracting and stressful. I have not done the same on my new phone.

It’s just so much more sane on Android and warrants some dissection:

  • Notifications do not pop up as frequently. There is some sort of “AI” (or something) the determines when to interrupt your current app with a notification. For whatever reason, I’m rarely interrupted by a notification popup.
  • Android does not have notification count badges. You’ll never see an “666” unread email badge. It’s not an option anywhere.
  • Pending notifications don’t linger around in the same way they do on iOS. When a notification is pending, the app gets a little icon in the tray next to the clock with the other background apps.
  • A side effect of notifications being treated the same as background apps is that they actually seem less urgent. For example, Spotify playing music in the background gets the same weight as a new text message, it’s somehow psychologically easier to dismiss the text message.
  • A “clear all” button exists and it actually clears all notifications. I don’t know why iOS doesn’t have this.

Quality of life

The Pixel has a number of little nice-to-haves. None of these features will get any press and I’m sure most Android users take them for granted by now. But add up all these features and you’ve got a phone OS that is objectively more useful. These are things that are completely impossible on reproduce on an iPhone, either natively or with an app. I am beginning to see why Android users dislike iOS.

Here are just a few I found especially cool:

  • Always on screen
    Time, date, weather and notifications are always visible on the screen. Without interacting with the phone. Without draining the battery. It’s magical.
  • “Now Playing”
    Whenever the phone detects background music playing the song/artist is shown on the always on screen and gets logged away in the “now playing” app for future reference. Google promises this happens on device without sending recordings or any other data to the cloud. Shazam was one of the first mobile apps that really blew my mind, the fact that this feature is built in to the OS without need for cloud processing is totally awesome!

  • Weather. Everywhere.
    An icon displaying the current condition and current temperature appear on the always on screen as well as the home screen. It’s great to be able to see this at a glance when checking the time.
  • Battery lasts until.
    When you tap the battery icon, it takes you to settings screen that shows you the exact time the OS expects your battery to run out. So much more useful than just a percentage.
  • Trusted bluetooth connection. Trusted locations.
    The OS allows you to configure trusted bluetooth connections, as well as trusted physical locations where your phone will always be unlocked. My phone is unlocked whenever it’s connected to the car, this way passengers can interact with navigation or music without having to ask for my finger print (or worse, faceID!). So much safer.
  • Back-side fingerprint reader.
    The back-side fingerprint is much more convenient and well positioned that I would have guessed. The ability to swipe down on it to get the settings/notifications menu is super handy.
  • Dynamic multi-screen wallpapers.
    Android supports cinemagraphs and wallpapers that span multiple home screens. This one is super minor but I’m just really not sure why Apple doesn’t allow this. Especially considering the Apple TV has cinemagraph screensavers. It just adds a little touch of life to the phone.

Misses

After a month of living with Android there are only a few minor things that I miss for the iOS ecosystem:

  • NFC Payment.
    Google Pay has extremely poor support in Canada. Neither my debit or credit card (from different institutions) is usable on the Pixel. The only Canadian banks that seem to have go support for Google Pay are CIBC and Scotia.

    Prior to switching, Apple Pay was the primary way I paid for things in-person, so this one is fairly big.

  • Car integration.
    Both my current car and my previous car (Toyota’s) support Siri Handsfree, which is a way to interact with Siri via a steering wheel button. I used this almost daily, mainly to read/send text messages. I’ve searched and searched but there doesn’t seem to be any way to enable something like this with Google Assistant.
  • Vibration Engine.
    iPhones seem to have multiple different vibration levels, you can tell the difference between a phone call, text message and generic notification. On the Pixel, they all feel the same.

That’s it. I am really pleasantly surprised at how simple and pain free the transition has been. It’s astonishing.

Privacy

I can’t write this review without mentioning privacy. I am a strong believer in privacy as a human right. I truly believe that a loss of individual privacy is a loss of freedom.

Google is a company that not generally super well regarded as privacy minded, so using Google hardware goes against my own moral code to some degree.

Apple on the other hand does seem to be making great effort to completely secure their customer’s data, in ways that I just don’t think Google could justify while maintaining a business model based on surveillance capitalism.

Here’s the thing though. As far as I can tell (conspiracy theories aside), if you install any Google apps on iPhone you are subject to the same level of privacy as you would be while using a Pixel.

For example, I can tell that Google apps track your physical location with the same frequency and accuracy on an iPhone as they do Android. I can tell because my Google Maps timeline is full of years and years of location data (correlated with photos) gathered from iPhones. However since Google apps are just web apps, they share settings across devices. So the same settings that you’d toggle to disable (and/or delete) this data collection affects your entire Google account on every device.

If you really want secure your own data privacy, simply using an iPhone is far from enough. Despite what Apple’s marketing would have you believe.

Conclusion

The Google Pixel 3 is an amazing device! I’ve experienced very little downside and a whole lot of upside by switching to Android.

It pains me to say this but… Android might actually be the better mobile operating system, at least as it’s implemented on the Pixel 3.


Note: I’ve used “Android,” “Android Pie” and “Pixel” somewhat interchangeably throughout this post. I’m not too sure which of the features I’ve written about are exclusive to Android Pie or the Google Pixel and which are generic to all Android.

Google Wave, The Quirky Future of Email

With the constant forward motion of tech, little time is spent on the past. A brief few years in the mid-00s – after the dot-com bubble and before the big winners of social were sorted out – spawned tonnes of interesting products and services, aka “web 2.0.”

Google Wave is one of those products that keeping bubbling up in my conversations with other old nerds. I think it’s a prime example of Web 2.0.


At Google’s second ever I/O conference – in 2009 – the team behind Google Maps their newest project, “Google Wave” a revolutionary new communications product. Its stated mission was to reinvent email, for the world of connected information services and social networks. A Web 2.0 take on a 30 year old technology.

The 80 minute I/O presentation is still available on YouTube and highly recommend watching this if you’re a fan of corporate cringe. At one point, Stephanie Hannon enters her Twitter password in a plain-text username box, for all the audience to see. Yup.

Unfortunately, Google Wave was never given the chance to gain any traction with a mainstream audience. It was kept in limited developer preview until late 2009. Google’s perpetual beta programs were the butt of many jokes at the time. But Wave continued with a more limited beta program and effectively shut down after 3 months of public release in mid-2010.

Wave lacked focus – both in UI design and in its feature set. It also lacked purpose, I don’t think Wave presented a single solution for a single real-world problem and it was entirely unclear when you would use wave instead of email or IM. In spite of Wave’s disorganized spaghetti-at-the-wall approach, it implemented a lot of tech that has only become common place in the past few years.

Google Wave was HTML5, build with the brand new Google Web Toolkit. Meaning it had a (mostly) javascript front-end, driven by AJAX requests and no page refreshes. It was perfectly cross-browser compatible and worked reasonably well on Android and iPhone OS. Incredible feats in 2009. The app also managed maintained synchronous state across sessions, in different browser, different devices and between users over the network – another amazing accomplishment, considering the internet infrastructure of the time.

The “Wave”

Google Wave was focused around the concept of a “wave.” An unholy union of email, message boards, instant messaging, group chats and word documents:

  • Users could add people to a wave, similar to how you might CC someone on an email. Later users could remove themselves or add others to the wave as well. While it’s technically possible to accomplish similar behavior with email. The email paradigm discourages messing with the CC list.
  • Waves were threaded, like a message board. A user could also start a thread at any point in the main wave text. So instead of quoting a portion of text,  like you would in email. A user could start an entire thread about a paragraph, right underneath the paragraph text. On paper, this is a huge improvement over reply-all soup that mass emails often devolve in to. In practice, it wasn’t really that much better.
  • Since Google Wave was a super responsive, real-time app, you could actually use sub-threads as a sort of makeshift instant messenger. I believe there was also Google Chat integration that sort of encouraged this behaviour.
  • Last but not least, much like your grandparents Christmas newsletters printed from Word, you could embed all manner of craziness into a “wave.” Photo galleries, polls, twitter streams, games of chess, you name it. Hell, they created a “robots” API to enable developers to write their own embeddable crazysauce.

Inside the wave client you would have seen number of active waves, presented and managed in chronological order, like an email client. If this is sounding a little strange, it was.

Real-Time Typing

I/O demo showing real-time typing

Have you ever tried to have a conversation inside a Google Doc?

One of Wave’s quirkiest features was that text entry. As a user typed anywhere inside the wave, any other user presently watching the way would see these edits in real-time, character-by-character.

Google claimed that this allowed readers to recognize and respond to text in a more natural way. Similar to how you can start to know what someone is saying after only a few words, the thought was that you could know what someone was typing after only a few words.

In practice, this feature exposed the poor typing skills of your fellow wavers. I have never seen any other IM client attempt to replicate this feature, with good reason. “Your friend is typing” works really well.

On the cooler side, waves could be spell-checked (revolutionary at the time) and Google Translated (still cool) inline, in nearly real-time.

Playback

A wave being played back.

Google thought that the ability to add members to a wave at any point in its lifespan might be problematic. From the I/O presentation, I gather that they were afraid that people would get lost if they jumped in at the end of a long conversation thread.

To solve this problem they gave Wave a “playback” feature. It allowed users play back or step through the revision history of the wave, one change at a time.

I have a hard time understanding the utility of this feature. Period. I just don’t get it. It feels like more of a tech demo than anything else inside wave.

Federated and Client-less

I/O demo of a crazy cool wave CLI.

Google Wave was designed from the ground up to be a federated service.

Just like email, any corporation and individual could set up their own Wave server. Just like email, you could include users from any Wave server using the conventional [email protected] format. Unlike email, messages bounced between servers in real time! Even the quirky real-time typing worked  across server and across clients. The gif above shows someone typing in the CLI client and having it displayed in the web. I have never seen anything quite like this in the eight years since wave.

Google also designed it to be an open protocol from the beginning. The main I/O demo, with its horrendous UI, is really just Google’s version of a Wave client. Just like email, anyone could develop their own clients for Wave. CLI, native app, whatever.

These two featured have me absolutely convinced that Google Wave was a real, concerted effort to reinvent email. Not just a crazy tech demo. At the time, Google did a poor job communicating this part of their vision. The tech press and power-users alike, got totally wrapped up in the unsuable feature soup they built.

As a privacy mined individual, federated messaging/social networking is a problem that I’d love someone to crack. I wonder where we’d be if Wave had gained a following.

Where Is It Now

In 2012, Wave was effectively donated to the Apache Software Foundation. Technically the project is still “incubating”, but there aren’t really any signs of life, the project page hasn’t been updated since 2014.


If you liked this post and want to see more like it, recommend something you’d like to see me do a deeper dive on. Leave a comment or a tweet.

SEO is Dead.

When Forbes writes an article proclaiming the death of SEO, there is a good chance that SEO might already be long gone.

I’ve always viewed SEO with some skepticism. When I started messing around with HTML the tone of the “SEO” conversation was entirely “black hat.” If you knew where to look, you could find an IRC channel, newsgroup, or a forum in the darkest recesses of the web where nerds would discuss their latest exploits: hacking coke machines, sharing pirated software and gaming Alta Vista, Yahoo and Google.

For the longest time Google’s job was to fighting off black hat SEO tricks. Keywords stuffing, invisible text, http redirection tricks. The Wikipedia article on spamdexing is incredible long. Smart webmaster always avoided these types of tricks, lest they face harsh penalties if Google caught them. Short term gain, long term pain. For their part, Google has historically done a really great job killing these sites – eventually.

At some point  around 2005, the concept of “whitehat” SEO started to catch on, SEO firms big and small were born. Whitehat SEO experts would employ “link building” techniques that skirted just on the very edges of Google’s policies. Generating as many links back to your site as possible all across the web. Part of the job of a good SEO firm was follows Google trends and reacts to new rules quickly as possible. But, even with “white hat SEO” it was still somewhat of a game of cat and mouse. Once a certain technique hit critical mass, Google would inevitably ban it.

So now.

With Google’s increased emphasis on social the line between SEO and social media strategy is blurring. And here’s the thing, as the industries are starting to merge, they are falling under the banner of “SEO”. People who would have previously considered themselves “social media experts” are now printing up new business cards with new titles “SEO Shaman” and “Superhuman SEO Starlet.”

That’s wrong. Here’s why.

Remember blackhat SEO? Guess what, blackhat SEO is always going to exist. There will always be loopholes in Google’s algorithm that can be exploited by cunning individuals. Blackhat SEO worked and will continue to work – in the short term. There is nothing illegal about taking companies money to provide black hat SEO services.

So now I’m confused.

If you told me today that you hired an “SEO guy” I would have no idea what you meant. What is he actually doing? Is he using old irrelevant white hat link building techniques? Is he aware just how irrelevant those old techniques are? Is he a social media guy? Or is he some sort of psuedo-hacker with arcane knowledge of Google Fu? Are you wasting your money? Probably.

SEO is dead. Drop the term. The idea is antiquated.