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Tag Archives: Facebook

Alternative Android browsing: Thinking beyond Chrome

Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).

You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.

There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.

Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.

If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-28-45

Dolphin for Android. Fast, but traditional.

Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI.  It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.

If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-27-07

DuckDuckGo is a search engine, news reader, and Web browser built into one.

DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.

If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble 

Screenshot_2014-08-30-15-58-37

The “HG” bubble can be tapped to open up Link Bubble, which contains some stories clicked from this Google search.

Screenshot_2014-08-29-10-18-37

The Link Bubble interface, inside the bubble. Drag the bubble to different parts of the screen to perform actions. DuckDuckGo home screen widget is in background.

Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.

When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.

Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.

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The problem with LinkedIn

By classical metrics like revenue and profit, LinkedIn is the most successful social network other than Facebook.  Unlike Facebook, however, it uses a seemingly more sustainable freemium business model, which sells your profile to recruiters via premium account subscriptions.  No autoplay video ads to see here.

But have you tried to actually use LinkedIn’s apps? They’re embarrassing failures of both concept and execution. AFAIK, their Android app doesn’t use native code and is outdone by 3rd-party clients like DroidIn. Their iOS Contacts app can’t add contacts, naturally. And their Web interface makes basic tasks, like changing your default email address, into labyrinthine ordeals (but it is good at showing you whom viewers also viewed and people I may know – thanks for the lesson in creepiness, and more on this below). For a company with $100s of millions in revenue, why can’t LinkedIn create either a fundamentally useful mobile experience or a Web experience that isn’t just a way to show off how it tracks profile searches?

Inertia, I think. When a category leader becomes entrenched against seemingly any competitor, it (and the writers who chronicle it) began to question the importance of quality or user experience. You can see this in mantras about how it “didn’t matter” that BlackBerry made ancient legacy devices that were out of touch with consumer trends because every serious CIO wouldn’t give up his Torch, or how it didn’t matter that the iPhone made hardware keyboards obsolete since real business users wouldn’t tolerate a software-only keyboard, even it it did have impeccable quality.

Well, let me say: experience and quality always matter. If a device or service is shittily designed, it will suffer, eventually. No one notices this, even after the fact, because it often takes so long for the bottom line to take a hit that observers have already moved on. For example, a forward-looking Cassandra might have thought that the debut of the iPhone 3G in the summer of 2008 would have spelled immediate doom for BlackBerry, which accordingly should have nosedived any day thereafter. It actually hit an all-time high during that summer, and sales increased every single quarter until early 2011. It weathered the first four iPhones, the first two iPads, and its own disastrous release of the PlayBook! As Paul Graham says: revenue is a trailing indicator. It can continue rising even as sickness sets in and waits for the kill.

To compound issues for LinkedIn, its dated design (which in its mobile agnosticism still looks like something built for Win XP in ~2005) may seem just fine to its users, 80% of whom are 30+ and who came of age before mobile-first app design, when niceties like iOS 7 and Android Holo were just twinkles in Silicon Valley engineers’ eyes. It also has a level of creepiness that I think should make even Facebook blush. I won’t try to innovate in pointing out the oddities of both People You May Know and People Also Viewed: there are two excellent articles about those subjects here and here. But I have noticed that LinkedIn does indeed have a knack for knowing that I “may know” an ex-boyfriend in another country who was not even in the contacts directory of my LinkedIn-linked email address. And, yep, it looks like the “People Also Viewed” ribbon for most profiles is populated by LinkedIn’s younger females members.

I’ve mercilessly made fun of Facebook in the past, but LinkedIn may have been the better target all along. It feels like a mid-2000s era dating service (the profile views tracker is particularly indebted to those forerunners) brought up to respectability by a critical mass of older professionals. It also has no real competitors at this point, at least in terms of sheer users. But  for services that rely on critical mass and assume that quality doesn’t matter, problems arise when even one successful well-designed product comes out and infringes upon their space. To wit:

-Facebook: the release of Instagram in 2010 revealed how relatively hard it was to share photos via FB, as well as how noisy and filter-biased FB was. Snapchat similarly exploited disillusionment with FB’s huge data mine, which until then had been seen as one of its most critical strong-suits. Aaron Levie was right to say that the moats that protect a company in one era become threats in the next.

-LinkedIn: Pulse News was a recent LI acquisition, which occurred with minimal noise and received bored looks from the tech press. Why would LinkedIn care about news reading? Well, because news readers are becoming venues for creating and customizing content. The best example here is Flipboard and its custom magazines. What if someday Flipboard let you create your own resume in a visually rich, interlinked way? LinkedIn would immediately be in trouble – Flipboard would be to software what BYOD has become to hardware.

Acquisitions and copycatting can buy time, but it can’t protect a company against all possible comers. Some of them will succeed in siphoning off a key service into another app/location, like Instagram did with Facebook vis-a-vis photo sharing.

For these reasons, you can never feel that your service is “too good” or that its goodness doesn’t matter. Nothing can be too good – the sweating over quality and details is why Apple remains uniquely advantaged against its competitors, and it’s why Google continues to have little competition in search or maps in particular. I’m kinda scared to think about what a “too good” LinkedIn would look like (would it identify a secret crush as someone I may know? would my brother or alternate email profile show in the “also viewed” ribbon?), but LinkedIn itself had better start thinking about how to get there.

DuckDuckGo, Google Now, and the NSA

I don’t use Google Now anymore. It occasionally chirps up in my notification tray with a depressing White Sox score, but I barely use the swipe-up gesture to access its cards. The last time I did, it didn’t even give me transit info for the closest bus stop and still showed sports some old Blackhawks playoff scores that I hadn’t manually swiped away (1. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup over a week ago, and here’s a video from the parade; 2. That clear-out gesture is surprisingly hard to make). I initially loved the idea of a comprehensive think-ahead assistant that could pool together transit schedules, sports scores, and Gmail notices into one interface. It has seemingly improved since last year, now that it can show predicative news or music suggestions. But the price is that one has to go on using Google for everything – Google Search to scour the Web, Google Play Music to play both your own collection and stream other content, GMail to handle all email. And it’s becoming an increasingly unbearable price.

Apple blogger Marco Arment, with whom I don’t always agree (he’s dismissive of Android), had a great post up about how Google, along with peers Facebook and Twitter, were essentially killing the standards-based Web that had given life to them in the first place. Twitter  doesn’t play nice with 3rd-party debs. Facebook  has always been a walled garden. And Google, once a leader in standards compliance, nows wants everything behind the G+ wall: chat clients, video calling, photo backup, etc. I agree with Arment that Twitter in particular may have the theoretical high ground, since Twitter developers aren’t entitled to unfettered access to others’ proprietary services. But it, like Facebook and especially like Google, want to ultimately control what you see, i.e., ads and promotions.

Losing the standards-based Web would be tragic, but maybe not for the reasons that some cite. It would be painful to go on losing services like Google Reader or Falcon Pro (whose demise I recently chronicled), sure. Yet the real pain will come from large swathes of Web being the exclusive provinces of certain corporations who, for reasons either furtive or coercive, decide to give info to the American NSA. You’re social walled garden is also conveniently a surveillance state – it has natural tracking mechanisms and clear owners (by contrast, no one “owns” RSS or email) who can be talked into compliance. And of course, the rhetoric from both the array of walled gardens and from the NSA itself is all about making your worry less. Using Google Play Music apparently makes streaming music simpler (I never had a problem with Spotify, though), while the NSA’s collection of email is for the (truly outlandish) purpose of making you worry less about terrorism, something that kills fewer persons per year than bathtub falls do.

Google Now is really a microcosm for the time of cordoned-off surveillance made possible by the perfect convergence of the Web giants’ collective renewed focus on proprietary services and America’s obsession with surveilling (and being surveilled! many people of course have no issue with exposing all their info, they will even volunteer it, and because of them there’s a whole cottage industry of bullshit related to “no one cares about/should care about privacy, derp” out there). Are these suggested “research more” topics really going to enlighten me, or are they just going to take me to some SEO pile? Well, I don’t have to worry about that question anymore, at least practically (I’ll go on pondering it as philosophical issue), since I just use DuckDuckGo.

DuckDuckGo is a search engine and news service that has become an unlikely hero in the recent NSA revelations. It doesn’t track users and provides results that, at least in my heavy daily usage, seem to be as good as Google’s, if not better since fewer persons are out there trying to game them. It reminds me of using Firefox for the first time back in the dark days of WinXP/IE: a startling relief, a glass of ice water in hell. When you download the Android app, there’s no sign-in, no “we just need your email, pretty plz,” no “connect with Facebook/G+,” no “add all your friends and family as ___”. It just goes directly into a news feed with a search bar at the top. In one fell swoop, both Google Search and Google Now are strangely unessential on my Google-designed phone.

Of the three Web titans Arment mentions, Google by far has the most to lose in the potential anti-NSA/anti-tracking world that DuckDuckGo represents. No tracking and fewer ad impressions mean that Google’s business model – which most people don’t understand – just doesn’t work. And unlike Facebook or Twitter, Google has no unique service, with the possible exception of its sophisticated Maps: most of its services are fast-follow efforts or copies, with Google Drive (which combines MS Office with Dropbox) being the best example. You can take your email, your search queries, or your files and notes elsewhere; but you can’t necessarily take your Twitter followers or Facebook friends. Their walled gardens are simply better than G+. This is why Google needs to create Arment’s described “lockdown” effect via G+ in order to compete with Twitter et al, and it has to do this in spite of Apple’s efforts to clear Google off the iPhone (how long til we see Bing as the default search engine on the iPhone?). Good luck.

I agree with Arment’s conclusion, expressed as a retort to the proprietary lockdown efforts from leading Web companies: “[F]uck them, and fuck that.” It’ll take huge steps to stem the tide of them and of the surveillance (both by them and by government) that they enable, however. The recent Google reversal on retiring CalDAV in favor of the Google Calendar API represents one such small victory, and I hope that there are more. And switching to DuckDuckGo is one good, painless way to get back on the path to a saner, more private existence.

Having Fun with Betteridge’s Law of Headlines

There’s been a recent surge in attention given to a relatively obscure British journalist’s thoughts on headline writing. “Betteridge’s Law” is the informal term for the argument that any (usually technology-related) headline that ends in a question mark can be answered “no.” Betteridge made his original argument in response to a TechCrunch article entitled “Did Last.fm Just Hand Over User Listening Data to the RIAA?

The reason that so many of this rhetorical questions can be answered “no” comes from their shared reliance on flimsy evidence and/or rumor. The TechCrunch piece in question ignited controversy and resulted in a slew of vehement denials from Last.fm, none of which TechCrunch was able to rebut with actual evidence. John Gruber also recently snagged a prime example in The Verge’s review of Fanhattan’s new set-top TV box, entitled “Fan TV revealed: is this the set-top box we’ve been waiting for?”

So we know what Betteridge’s Law cases look like in terms of their headlines, which feature overzealous rhetorical questions. But what sorts of stylistic traits unite the body of these articles? Moreover, why do journalists use this cheap trick (other than to garner page-views and lengthen their comments sections), and what types of arguments and rhetoric do they employ in following-up their question? I am guilty of writing a Betteridge headline in my own “Mailbox for Android: Will Anyone Care?,” which isn’t my strongest piece, so I’ll try to synthesize my own motivations in writing that article with trends I’ve noticed in another recent article that used a Betteridge headline, entitled “With Big Bucks Chasing Big Data, Will Consumers Get a Cut?

Most visibly, Betteridge’s Law cases employ numerous hedges, qualifiers, and ill-defined terms, some of which are often denoted by italics or scare-marks. By their nature, they’re almost invariably concerned with the future, which explains the feigned confusion inherent in the question they pose. That is, they act unsure, but they have an argument (and maybe even a prediction to make). Nevertheless, they have to hedge on account of the future not having happened yet (the “predictions are hard, especially about the future” syndrome), or, similarly, use conditional statements.

I did this near the end of my Mailbox article, saying “This isn’t a critical problem yet, or at least for as long as Google makes quality apps and services that it doesn’t kill-off abruptly, but it will make life hard for the likes of Mailbox and Dropbox.” My “yet” is a hedge, and my “it will” is the prediction I’m trying to use to establish more credibility. In The Verge article linked to by Gruber, the authors say “IPTV — live television delivered over the internet — is in its infancy,” strengthen that with “Meanwhile, competition for the living room is as fierce as it has ever been,” and then feebly try to make sense of it all by saying “At the same time, if it matches the experience shown in today’s demos, Fan TV could win plenty of converts.”

Delving into the aformentioned article about “big data,” we find similarly representative text:

  • “You probably won’t get rich, but it’s possible”
  • “But there’s a long road ahead before that’s settled”
  • “Others aren’t so sure a new market for personal data will catch on everywhere”
  • “not as much is known about these consumers”
  • “That’s a big change from the way things have worked so far in the Internet economy, particularly in the First World.”
  • “big data”

This headline is really a grand slam for Betteridge’s Law. Simply answering “no” means that you believe that corporations specializing in data-collection won’t be all that generous in compensating their subjects for data that they’ve possibly given up without even realizing that they’ve done so. After all, lucid arguments have been made about how Google in particular could be subtly abetting authoritarianism via its data collection, which if true would constitute a reality directly opposed to the fairer, more democratic world proposed by advocates of data-related payments. To the latter point, Jaron Lanier has argued for “micropayments” to preserve both middle-class society and democracy in the West.

The article examines mostly nascent data-collection and technology companies and ideas whose success or failure is so far hard to quantify and whose prospects remain unclear. Accordingly, the author must use filler about the weak possibility of becoming rich, the cliché of a “long road ahead,” and the admission that many consumer habits are a black box and that maybe not all consumers are the same. Even the broad “consumers” term is flimsy, to say nothing of the nebulous term – “big data” – that the article must presuppose as well-defined (I have argued that it is not so well-defined) to even have a workable article premise.

For additional seasoning, the article resorts to the outmoded term “First World” (a leftover from the Cold War) and the ill-defined “Internet economy.” I think I know what he means with the latter: the targeted-ad model of Google, Amazon, and Facbook. But the vacuity of the term “internet” leaves the door open: would Apple’s sale of devices that require the internet for most functions count as part of the “internet economy,” too, despite having a different structure in which users pay with money rather than data?

Like many Betteridge-compliant headlines, the accompanying article isn’t a contribution to any sophisticated discussion of the issues that it pretends to care about. Hence the teaselike question-headline; Betteridge’s Law cases pretend that they’re engaging in high discourse, perhaps in the same way that the valley girl accent – riddled with unusual intonations cadences that throw off the rhythm of its speaker’s sentences and draws attention away from content – pretends it is partaking in real conversation. Perhaps we really should bring back the punctus percontativus so we can see these rhetorical questions for what they really are.

How to Improve your Android Experience (Without Rooting)

If you have a new Android phone or tablet, or even if you have an older Android device that you’re looking to get more out of, then you can upgrade your experience in only a few minutes using a collection of free and paid apps. Fortunately, you won’t have to root your phone or risk damaging its software in anyway along the way.

Most of the apps and services described below require at least Android 4.0. Some of them have free versions, but I’ve linked to the paid version when possible, since I want to support these developers and to promote ad-free software.

1. Install a custom launcher

Nova Launcher

Nova Launcher in action.

What’s a custom launcher? In plain English, it’s the service that is triggered whenever you hit the home button on your phone or open up your all apps drawer. Facebook Home is the most famous custom launcher for Android, but it isn’t good, because it does the opposite of what a good launcher should do: enhance the value of your entire suite of apps and services.

Nova Launcher (Prime) is one of my favorite custom launchers. Here’s what it lets you do:

  • Change how your app icons look: see the entry below on icon packs.
  • Hide icons for unused system apps (without disabling them): you won’t have to skim over “Navigation” or “News and Weather” anymore.
  • Control your home screens with custom gestures: for example, double tap to bring up Nova Settings, pinch-out to show multitasking bar, or pinch-in to see all homescreens, for example.
  • Add unread counts to certain app icons: Android doesn’t support these numbered badges by default.
  • Scroll more quickly thru screens: Nova and other launchers allow for rapid, silky smooth animations and screen transitions.
Settings Android

Nova Settings menu, from which you can hide specific apps or customize your gestures, folders, desktop, and dock.

2. Buy an icon pack or use LINE Deco

Icon Pack Android

The Lustre icon pack for Android, running on Nova Launcher Prime.

Icon packs can beautify your Android experience by giving all of your app icons a unified aesthetic (e.g., make them all blue, or make them all square and flat). They only work if you are running a custom launcher. In many cases, the icon pack will radically change how an app’s icon look and how you think about it: Snapchat may become like a Pac-Man ghost, for example:

Icon Pack Android

SMPL Blue icon pack running on Nova Launcher Prime. Note the Snapchat icon the second from left in the dock.

My favorites include: SMPL Blue, Stark, Vintage, and Lustre. LINE Deco is also a great option since it’s free and has a ton of constantly updated with community contributions:

Screenshot (03:14PM, Apr 13, 2014)

A home screen made with LINE Deco

3. Replace the stock Android keyboard

Swype Keyboard for Android

Swype + Dragon in action.

Android’s keyboard took a quantum leap forward with gesture typing in Jelly Bean, but it’s no match for some of the 3rd-party alternatives available (and said alternatives are essential if you’re running a version of Android that doesn’t support gesture typing out of the box).

My favorite is Swype, which is much more accurate, features a good dictation system (called Dragon), lots of custom gestures, and uses an account system to backup your custom dictionaries. It will literally save you minutes each day by cutting down on stupid autocorrect mistakes or miscues from the stock keyboard.

SwiftKey is another popular alternative. Also, if you don’t have Google Keyboard, it’s free to download.

4. Install Dashclock Widget

Dashclock Widget Android

A sample Dashclock Widget running on Android 4.2.2. Extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, inQuotes, and Logika Word of the Day have been added.

Dashclock Widget is a must-have for Android 4.2+. It gives you a rich set of information (unread Gmail/SMS, missed calls, weather) right on your lockscreen, plus it’s highly customizable via slew of 3rd-party extensions.

5. Install DuckDuckGo Search and Stories

Screenshot_2014-08-31-15-27-07

The DuckDuckGo search bar and story feed.

DuckDuckGo is an alternative search engine, but it’s not a second-rate Google clone. It gives the same results to every person (no filter bubble), plus it’s the best generic news reader I’ve ever used on Android. It draws upon various subreddits and leading publications (NYT, WSJ, Re/code, Vox) to provide a fast, unique overview of the day’s news. Plus, it’s compatible with Orbot for secure prowling via a Tor proxy.

6. Install Battery Widget Reborn

Battery Widget Reborn Android

Data from Battery Widget Reborn.

Battery Widget Reborn is an efficient way to keep tabs on your battery level, usage, and history. It has a persistent, expandable notification that can give you estimated battery life remaining (or time until the phone is fully charged) and that can also put the phone into “night mode,” disabling all mobile data, background sync, wifi, and bluetooth for as long as you wish. You can also set up automatic “night mode” periods, such as from 12-8am.

7. Tweak your input settings for better battery life

Battery saving Android

Two of the settings (circled) that can disabled for better battery life.

You can save a ton of battery life on Android by simply tweaking some settings like haptic feedback, lock/unlock sounds, and 2g/3g network usage. I’ve written a more comprehensive entry about battery life here.

8. Install MX Player Pro

MX Player Pro video player Android

MX Player Pro’s default screen.

Android isn’t good at video playback. Luckily, MX Player Pro solves that problem by giving you a clean, hardware-accelerated player with lots of simple gestures.

9. Use top-shelf alternatives to official/stock social network apps

Flipster Pro for Facebook

Flipster Pro for Facebook showing a sample NewsFeed.

The official Facebook app is a battery-drainer and remarkably unstable, too. Twitter has been getting better, but I still prefer a 3rd-party client. Many of these clients, whether they are for Twitter or another network, often have better design and are more battery-efficient (in the case of Facebook and Twitter clients, they refresh less often). Here are some good clients to use:

10. Maximize your widgets

BW Pro / Beautiful Widgets

Beautiful Widgets Pro screensaver/Daydream, with windshield wiper animation to indicate rain.

Many apps have widgets that can display useful information and act as your launcher icon for that app (so that you don’t have to stick its icon in your dock or on your homescreen. There are a lot of good widgets, as well as some good standalone widgets apps like the peerless Beautiful Widgets Pro, which I used to display the current date and weather.