Tag Archives: app store

Vine for Android: Not Good Enough

Android version of Vine

Vine for Android: a puzzling design decision to some of us

Vine has been available for Android for a couple of weeks, and my verdict is that it just does not provide a good experience at this time. Sadly, Vine’s shortcomings are not only indicative of the age-old, ongoing quality gap between apps with versions on both iOS and Android, but it explains them, too. Its simultaneous failures of design and massive popularity are a good microcosm for Android itself and its characteristics. To wit, Vine for Android:

  • has no limit on caching and as such can occupy 100s of MB of on-device storage
  • doesn’t have a push notification system: it notifies you via rich Jelly Bean notification that your video is being uploaded (good), but is mum if someone likes or comments on your post (bad).
  • is full of spam and fakes (I guess this is to be expected; even Instagram is overrun by follower-mills and spammers now)
  • doesn’t yet support front-facing camera or tags.
  • feels gummy and unresponsive when navigating to some users’ profiles, to the extent that it won’t even show their posts sometimes.

Many of these issues, like front-facing camera support, are likely to be addressed in updates. However, the overall sloppiness of the design makes Vine’s arrival on Android a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Yes, we got a hot app, but its developers treat us as if we don’t respect quality or good design. They treat Android users this way because for now a unified, huge, design-conscious Android audience sadly doesn’t really exist.

The best Android apps, other than the ones Google makes, are often either exclusive to the platform, like Falcon Pro, Eye in Sky, or Friday, or they exploit something unique about Android, like UCCW, Dashclock, or other widgets, or they capitalize upon some odd platform disparity between iOS and Android, like Pocket Casts, which takes advantage of less competition on Android and lack of a Google-made podcasting client. Whether they achieved success via exclusivity, astute platform exploitation, luck, or all of the above, Android’s best apps (a category that includes all of the apps listed above, sans Vine) are often targeted at such a niche audience that they aren’t so much “Android apps” as “Nexus/power-user apps.” They often require at least ICS or even Jelly Bean to even run, but more importantly, they require a user who cares about Android and who didn’t just pick up her/his device because AT&T said so or because it was so cheap.

Accordingly, it almost doesn’t make sense to talk about “Android” as a monolithic platform. Many Android users are on an older OS version or don’t even know that they’re running Android: their phone is just a phone that can do email and Facebook and maybe a few other things. Android’s fragmentation certainly exists, but it’s fragmentation of intent more so that fragmentation of OS version, the latter of which I think is just a product of the former, since not enough users care enough (or need) to seek the latest version of Android. Android isn’t “good” yet (if by “good” we mean “characterized by predominantly active, non-incidental, Android-first users) because of this disparity.

A year and a half ago, someone told me that Android was “the new Mac,” that is, that it was a trendy alternative to iOS, which had become so widespread that it could be regarded as the OS for normals. This struck me as an odd statement at the time: how could Android, with its huge user numbers, possibly be compared to the Mac back when it struggled to keep up with the PC? Isn’t Android the PC equivalent in the smartphone wars, the equivalent of a commoditized beige box? Well, no, depending on what specific “Android” demographic you’re talking about, and she did seem to be talking about the niche Nexus user demographic.

First of all, the best Android hardware and the latest Android software both have an elegance and sophistication – likely driven by Google’s own design chops – that Windows has never had. But more to the point: the number of users who actually know that they are “Android users” and not “Droid users” (i.e., users who only have a superficial connection to the brand via Verizon’s massively successful 2009 campaign) or “Samsung users” or “phone-that-emails-and-Facebooks users,” is almost certainly small. There have been roughly 3 million Nexus 4s sold all-time, next to nothing compared to even the Galaxy S4’s haul for May alone: and that’s considered a blockbuster by “stock Android” standards!

Nexus users like me comprise a hugely active and outspoken (especially on Google+) part of what the world sees as the “Android community.” We are just the tip of the iceberg, and interpreting their power-user, anti-Apple, customization-crazy intents as the modus operandi for the hundreds of millions of incidental and accidental Android users is misguided. Like the unseen part of an iceberg, those users elevate the power-users to greater visibility, since the media cares about Android seemingly because: 1) it’s not iOS; 2) it’s popular. Those users are perhaps like 1990s PC users, but the ones on the tip, the Nexus types, are perhaps more like Mac users: outnumbered (by their very different “Android” brethren and, if one grants this differentiation of populations within “Android,” then by iOS users, too) and outspoken.

So the Nexus users will complain about Vine’s shortcomings, while everyone else on Android – the incidental customers or users on older versions – won’t care and will download and use it anyway. The latter group is the reason why Vine for Android even exists (you don’t see Vine for Windows Phone, do you?) but also the reason why its design isn’t on par with the iOS design. “Android” doesn’t have just one addressable demographic, since its different user groups may as well be using (and being conscious of) different platforms altogether, and because of this, we get the only-on-Android odd scenario of a massively popular app that, given the chance to do so much, does only the bare minimum and gets away with it, despite protests from the minority.

Pudding Monsters HD

Game: Pudding Monsters HD

Platforms: iOS, Android

Rating: 90%

ZeptoLab has become one of the most recognizable names in mobile app development, thanks to the ubiquitous Cut the Rope, which has become a gaming staple alongside the Angry Birds franchise, Words with Friends, and Draw Something. Now they’re back with another blockbluster, the oxymoronic Pudding Monsters HD (because, after all, what kind of pudding isn’t cute and non-monstrous?). Whereas Cut the Rope focused on slicing cords, ropes, and strings to get a piece of candy into a reptile’s mouth, Pudding Monsters HD is about googly-eyed pieces of red, blue, purple and green pudding who are trying to unite with each other and gobble up stars.

Screenshot_2013-01-26-20-04-09

Three normal red puddings and a slimy green pudding.

Pudding Monsters HD has simple controls – simply slide the puddings around to try and and smash them into each other. A level is considered complete when all the puddings are united into one giant, monstrous pudding. The star squares indicated in the shot above are likely familiar to anyone who has played Cut the Rope – your performance in each level is measured by how many stars you attain. An interesting wrinkle to Pudding Monsters HD’s gameplay, however, is how it only considers you have to “mastered” a level when you have completed it by getting 0, 1, 2, and 3 stars in separate playthrus. For me, this meant playing it thru again and getting 0 or 1 stars on many levels, since I had tried hard to get at least two stars on each level the first time thru.

Screenshot_2013-01-26-20-03-31

Hypnotic purple puddings.

In the style of Angry Birds (but perhaps with better variety and flexibility in terms of the gameplay options it opens up), Pudding Monsters HD gradually grants you access to new puddings with new powers, and to machines/props that can be manipulated in each level.

Red pudding – this is the standard pudding. It has no powers.

Green pudding – these puddings leave behind a slimy trail when slid. Other puddings can be slid onto the trail and have their momentum halted by the slime, meaning that they’ll stick in the location.

Purple puddings – these come in groups. Moving any one of them in a given direction moves all the others in the same direction.

Blue puddings – these puddings are asleep and have to be “woken up” by having puddings of other colors smashed into them.

Screenshot_2013-01-26-20-03-49

A red pudding near some cloning machines.

In addition to the houses, TVs, and coffee cups which create natural barriers to the puddings’ progress, there are also springs which bounce a pudding’s progress back, ice blocks which block progress one time only, and cloning machines which replicate any pudding which passes thru them. The springs and blocks are particularly useful – you must restart any level in which any of your puddings slides off the table, since that sliding makes the creation of the merged pudding monster impossible.

As fun as Pudding Monsters HD is, it’s also perhaps too short and easy. This is perhaps excusable since it’s a new game. ZeptoLab has also promised new levels soon. I’m hoping that they can inflect Pudding Monsters HD with some of the difficulty found in the later stages of Cut the Rope, when trying to even complete a level becomes maddening (but in a good/can’t-wait-to-try-it-again later way).

Screenshot_2013-01-26-20-03-01

Red and blue puddings.

The game is $0.99 USD. Like Cut the Rope, it offers the option of paid upgrades in the form of purchasable “mushrooms” or items that let you create a gigantic pudding monster with no effort, allowing you to capture all the star blocks on the board.

While it can be completed in just an hour or two, this seems like a game with a solid future and plenty of room for expansion and diversification.

Screenshot_2013-01-26-20-29-29

Victory! A merged pudding monster.

-The ScreenGrab Team

 

 

What’s the Matter with Facebook?

The recent Snapchat vs Facebook Poke snafu is one of the great under the radar tech stories of the year. After witnessing an entire generation of teenagers sext text each other via Snapchat, without in turn having to sign over any information or data to the folks at Menlo Park, Facebook responded by proudly boasting of its carbon-copying of the app, which took only twelve days and featured some very hands on (and mouth on, apparently) contributions from Mark Zuckerberg himself. The app’s name even made reference to “poking,” the hipsterest, old schoolest, most useless feature of the platform.

Yet after only a few days, Poke has plummeted. Like the company’s similarly panic-induced Facebook Camera app (that panic having been induced by eventual Facebook subsidiary Instagram), its initial popularity seems to have worn off as users realized that it did not deviate much from the app(s) it copied and is basically just leveraging the massive Facebook user base. There obviously is nothing wrong with copying a competitor’s features. On one end of the spectrum, there’s early-80s Apple xeroxing the plans for a mouse-driven interface from…Xerox, and there’s Canonical forking the Debian Linux distribution to make the massively popular and intuitive Ubuntu. On the other end, there’s Microsoft trying to paper over the fatal flaws of Windows Vista by imitating the translucency of early OS X, and there’s Facebook trying to protect its turf from its rival social networks.

Social networks are odd. A successful social network often succeeds due to being an early mover or having a critical mass of users, not because it has the best software or coolest features. Myspace, an unsightly and self-described cesspool, bewilderingly overtook Google as the most visited webpage in 2006, and the similarly sloppy Friendster actually pioneered the entire craze. Facebook itself, with its seemingly unchanging blue/white interface, me-too ads, and buggy pre-Googlesque search engine, feels like a relic of the desktop computing era. Its Android app only recently got an influx of native code that brought its performance up to a reasonable speed, and its iPad app was only released this year. No one uses Facebook because of its zippy performance, clean UI, or beauty – they use it because everyone else uses it. If aesthetics and/or innovation mattered, for example, Google+ would be the epicenter of the Internet (although it is worth noting that well-designed networks like Path and Instagram have succeeded in part due to their aesthetics).

Accordingly, Facebook has never had much to fear from the likes of G+ et al unveiling a single killer new feature or design that would allegedly make Facebook seem instantly dated (it already is dated, and no one seems to care). For example, Facebook even copied the nifty way that G+ displays photos and likely burnished its popularity in the process. Rather, the real threat would be creating a new platform, no matter how inane or poorly designed, which could draw (young) users’ eyes away from their News Feed and in turn make Facebook feel in comparison to this new app like a desktop now feels in comparison to an iPad or a Chromebook. Early Instagram did this and now Snapchat has done it, too, by creating a new walled garden that doesn’t play well with Facebook. It should have been disconcerting to Facebook investors when Facebook’s only real response to the Instagram surge was to simply buy out the company, a maneuver which it unsuccessfully tried to repeat with Snapchat.

Facebook has sometimes been likened to the next Google, an assessment which never seemed to make much sense, even if one leaves aside the massive disparity in revenue at similiar stages of company maturity. Google succeeded in large part because it opened up the Web to discovery and then transformed that success into imaginative reinventions of email, cloud storage, and mobile software. By contrast, Facebook has succeeded by combating the open Web, by luring you into a highly regulated, controlled site in which it makes the rules. The advent of the App Store, with its sandboxed discrete apps, aided Facebook’s ascent, too, by cultivating its analogous walled garden approach. But walled gardens have their risks, risks not shared by the creation of something open-ended like Google Search or Linux-based Android. Chief among them is the obvious possibility of another walled garden stealing your users – and when it comes to social networks, user acquisition really is a zero-sum game most of the time (I’m excepting Twitter, which, by virtue of its sheer brevity, is really a different bird, one that doesn’t really compete with any other), with every photo, message and status update migrating from one platform to another. Friendster gave way to Myspace, Myspace to Facebook, and Facebook to nothing, at least not yet.

So is Snapchat the network that finally begins Facebook’s decline? It’s unlikely. Snapchat is not a broad social experience and is more akin to flirting at a bar or mixer. But the waves it has created in the social network community should remove any doubt that social networking is a fickle, volatile sector driven less by software ingenuity than by the whims of young users. It should also be worrying that Facebook, despite its massive cash reserves and abundance of engineering talent, cannot find time to do anything more exciting that clone a sexting app, when the likes of Apple and Google (companies often mentioned in the same breath as Facebook) are pushing us into new computing paradigms. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has something else up his sleeve. For the sake of high-profile tech innovation, I hope he does.

-The ScreenGrab Team