Tag Archives: google plus

The Android OS is Now Just a Bunch of Apps

The recent release of Google Keyboard and Google+ Hangouts to the Play Store demonstrates a key trend in Android’s evolution. Specifically, apps and services that were once deeply integrated into the OS – like the stock keyboard and the former Google Talk client – are now apps that nearly anyone running ICS and later can download onto their devices. Google is chopping up Android and distributing it to anyone who can access the Play Store. You don’t need a cutting-edge, “clean” Android device to get a “stock” user experience now.

Almost all of the beautiful Holo-UI apps that make up the “stock Android” or Nexus experience can now be loaded painlessly onto the majority of Google-centric Android devices. Along with the trend toward “Nexus Experience” versions of previously OEM-skinned devices like the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4, I think we may have seen (in the white Nexus 4) the last of standalone Nexus hardware. The piecemealing of Android is certainly a driving force behind this trend.

The amount of exclusive territory that Nexus/stock devices have left is shrinking, now that Google has distributed much of the core Android experience (i.e., its own apps) via the Play Store. By my count, stock devices still have the following non-downloadable apps:

  • Calculator: serviceable, but lacks a lockscreen widget.
  • Camera: the stock camera APK.
  • Clock: most notable for its analog widget, which is still inferior to some 3rd-party alternatives.
  • Downloads: the downloads manager/lister.
  • Email: an email client that looks like a sadder version of Gmail.
  • Gallery: the stock photo picker, with integration with G+/Picasa web albums, as well as its own peculiar set of filters.
  • Messaging: the barebones SMS client.
  • Movie Studio: an unstable but richly-featured video editor, which is somehow one of my favorite Android apps.
  • News & Weather: a barebones news and weather client that redirects news stories to Chrome.
  • Phone: the Holo-themed dialer.

There are a few other interesting items that could be tossed-in, like the stock iWinn IME (an emoji keyboard) or even the (Android) Launcher itself, which I could almost half-see being relaunched as, ugh, Google+ Home.

Is this a net positive for users? It’s hard to know. Stock Android is pretty, but commercially unimportant. While it has some of the most beautiful UI available on any platform, stock is increasingly an aggressive vehicle for Google’s own services, to the detriment of many 3rd-party developers (and would-be competitors). Google Keyboard? It takes direct aim at both Swype and SwiftKey, the latter having been one of the top-grossing Android apps of all time. Google+ Hangouts? A shot at WhatsApp (one of the most successful Android apps), Tango, Skype, and many others.

I don’t see competition with these 3rd-party devs as something evil, but in the context of Google’s overarching ambition, it is worrisome. They’re trying to run the table, and that mission comes thru even in seemingly innocuous releases like Google Keyboard.

Dashclock Widget for Android (4.2+): 13 of the Best Extensions

Dashclock

A sample Dashclock Widget, with extensions for Eye in Sky Weather, Battery Widget Reborn, Logika Word of the Day, and inQuotes.

Dashclock Widget is a revelation. It has become so integrated into my daily workflow on my Nexus 4 that I forget that it isn’t an Android system app and that it is in fact a 3rd-party solution (albeit one developed by a former Googler, Roman Nurik). When an app reaches this level, at which it no longer requires any effort or second thought to use, then I know that its functionality and design have resonated not just with me but likely with thousands of other users, too. If you need a quick primer about Dashclock, I’ve written one here.

The best thing about Dashclock, however, is that it is an ecosystem unto itself, a mini OS that governs your Android 4.2+ lockscreen (seriously, Google should acquire this app). Many Android developers have now created extensions for Dashclock and diversified and enriched its functionality. Out of the “box,” Dashclock supports Gmail, SMS, missed calls, weather (from the stock Android weather app), Google Calendar, and Alarm/Clock. 3rd-party extensions typically add support for other apps (like Google Voice) or display their own curated sets of data (like quotes). Some topshelf Android apps have Dashclock support baked-in, meaning that you only have to add their extension in the Dashclock settings menu.

Here’s a roundup of 13 of my favorite Dashclock extensions (why 13? Because I’m feeling unlucky today, that’s why).

AnyDash Pro

As its name suggests, AnyDash Pro lets you add an extension for any currently installed Android app. Simply pick an app, and then pick an icon to go with it. You’ll have to grant AnyDash Pro the appropriate Accessibility permissions so that it can monitor your notifications. My favorite apps to pair with AnyDash Pro are Snapchat, stock Email client, Words With Friends, and Google Voice.

Battery Widget Reborn

This app is an all-star. It gives long-term charts and history about your battery usage and life, with nice charts and relevant statistics (e.g., “battery usually lasts [time]”). It can also put your phone into “Night Mode” (with mobile data, wifi, Bluetooth, and background sync all disabled) automatically during assigned time periods. Its Dashclock extension shows the predicted amount of battery life left, or, if the device is charging, how long you’ll have to wait until it’s fully charged.

Dashclock Custom Extension

As its name suggests, this extension lets you add an action, icon, and title/text of any kind to your Dashclock. Want to launch Chrome or toggle Bluetooth? You can do it with a simple tap.

Dashclock Facebook Extension

I’m not much of a Facebook user, but this extension is useful if you are: it shows counts
and extended text for global notifications as well as Facebook messages.

Dashclock inQuotes Extension

This is a simple extension that provides a thoughtful or inspirational (or sometimes depressing) quote from a famous person. You can customize the content areas you want the quotes to pertain to (tech, love, etc.), as well as the refresh frequency.

Dashclock Keep Extension

Do you like Google Keep? Me too! It’s the best way to get a stock Android experience while taking notes, making lists, and saving images. This handy extension gives you immediate access to Keep, and better yet, it lets you configure what action you trigger when you tap its Dashclock icon: you can browse notes, or go directly to creating a new note or new list.

Dashclock SMS Extension

Dashclock can already display an SMS extension by default, but this 3rd-party extension
does a little more: it shows the actual unread count for your SMS/MMS, rather than the number of unread conversations. So if you have five new SMS from one person, it’ll show
that, rather than “1 Unread Conversation,” which wouldn’t give you a sense of how many
messages that person had really sent.

Dashclock Word of the Day

I used to use Dictionary.com’s app for a daily word of the day, but I eventually discarded
it due to the ugliness of its widget. This provides a much better solution: the word and its definition are shown in Dashclock, and can be clicked to take you to the Merriam-Webster page.

Eye in Sky Weather (Pro)

Eye in Sky is the greatest of all Android weather apps – it has a killer widget, lots of cool icon packs, and a persistent notification with hip language (“refreshingly cool,” e.g.) and a graphical preview of the rest of the day’s weather. It also supports Dashclock, with an icon to show the current condition, as well as read-out about the condition and temperature. There’s no reason not to ditch the stock weather extension for Eye in Sky’s version. And please, support the developer by upgrading to the Pro license (it removes the annoying in-notification adds, too).

Press

Press is snazzy RSS client that simplifies your reading experience and taps into Feedly Cloud, Feed Wrangler, and Feedbin, so that you’ll not need to fret Google Reader’s imminent demise.

PushBullet

This is a great app in its own right that lets you access links and files that you’ve pushed to your Android device using either the PushBullet website or the handy Chrome extension. Its Dashclock extension previews the content of the most recent push and shows you an applicable push count.

Robin

Robin is an amazing client for App.net (ADN), with some of the smoothness scrolling I’ve ever seen on an Android app and a rich set of features. Its Dashclock extension lets you preview any notifications.

Sound Search for DashClock

This nifty extension lets you perform a search on the current song playing and it lets you utilize Shazam, Sound Search for Google Play, or SoundHound.

BONUS!

Dashclock Stardate

If you’re a Star Trek nerd (like I am), this extension is a lot of fun. You can see the current Stardate, plus you can configure it according to whichever series/timeline you prefer (I use The Original Series). It clicks-thru to Google Calendar, too.

The Trek Episode Guide app is also a great resource if you’re a Trekkie.

The Internet Isn’t Objective

Objectivity

Objectivity?

Microsoft has updated Bing so that it now pushes Klout results to the top of its many of its results pages. Ostensibly, this is a move to provide better content and to keep pace with Google’s own efforts at integrating Google+ results into Google Search. It also squares with Microsoft’s generally aggressive commitment to social search, which can be glimpsed in its relationship with Facebook and Facebook’s Graph Search functionality in particular.

Microsoft’s defense of the move produced this strange paragraph:

“Microsoft believes that content is so powerful that is almost doesn’t matter whether Klout’s “experts” actually have any real expertise. If enough Klout users vote up an answer, it will still likely be a worthwhile addition to Bing results, Ripsher said.”

If one had any doubts about the internet’s objectivity or its “openness” (to use another overused adjective), then this peculiar development should allay them.

“The internet” is often characterized as an almost untouchable, coherent, self-contained system that can provide definitive knowledge and answers. The rise and insane hype around services like Quora and Klout are the current symptoms of this characterization, although it actually began long ago with Google and Wikipedia becoming (for relatively well-off internet users, at least: a relatively small portion of humanity) the go-to resources for queries, and with social networks then becoming echo chambers and in effect new realities for their respective users. As I have mentioned before, onlookers who regard these services in these ways seem to overlook the fact that the internet is actually a manmade thing and not a law of physics or deity.

On the contrary, the sheer volume of information available thru all of these channels in turn has led to the internet becoming, for many commentators, akin to the burning bush on Mt. Sinai, able to dictate authoritative wisdom at will, although it arguably one-ups even God’s favorite flaming plant, since much of that wisdom is “crowdsourced,” too. Now, the so-called crowdsourced structure of many online services – Google’s collection and subsequent application of user data, Wikipedia’s group editing, Reddit’s upvote/downvote system – is a hopeful development not because of the veracity of its content but because it, at the very least, shows that there are human agents who drive the internet, rather than some unstoppable, robotic force of nature that we often vaguely call “the internet.”

So how is that crowdsourcing intersects so snugly with the prevalent narrative of a self-driven internet? How is that search engines (the clearest, most obvious metaphors to a wisdom-producing computer from, say, Star Trek, yet another debt that tech owes to imagination and the liberal arts) are now, in many cases, conduits for social networks and other crowdsourced news? I don’t think it’s odd at all, actually, since it confirms that the internet, as a source of knowledge or truth, is just as subjective and contingent on human inputs as anything else. I mean, let’s look at some of the major drivers of internet content:

-Google: uses proprietary algorithms and integration with proprietary social networks (most notably G+). Results system can be gamed or “bombed” to promote certain results. All of this despite its promotion of “openness.”

-Twitter: proprietary social network that suggests certain celebrities or popular users to follow, primarily because said persons are the best evangelists for Twitter itself (as a tool/service).

-Klout: dependent on mostly amateur “expertise” and opinion, as noted above by The Verge.

-Reddit: predominantly male, and dependent on user opinion/taste. Often wildly wrong on important news stories.

-Wikipedia: predominantly male, too. Arguably sexist. Many articles are protected from editing at all, or are zealously guarded, despite its “openness.”

So Microsoft is hardly putting anyone or anything newly “under the influence” of amateurs. The entire internet is built around these types of subjectivity that inevitably result from human input and tinkering.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Why I Don’t Care About Google Glass

Short version: this photo

Long version: For a field that so lionizes technical chops and scientific knowledge, tech is oddly fascinated with fantasy. The geekery of Google’s Project Glass and its computer-on-face ethos is perhaps the most obvious evidence for this phenomenon, but one can grasp it nearly any time that someone references the technology from Star Trek or Star Wars (or Blade Runner, or a cyborg movie) as an aspirational endpoint, or describes something as “the future.”

By “the future,” commentators usually mean “a reality corresponding to some writer or creative artist’s widely disseminated vision,” which shows the odd poverty of their own imagination as well as the degree to which they often underestimate the power of creative artists/humanities types to drive technological evolution. But can human ingenuity really aspire to nothing more than the realization of a particular flight of fancy? Should we congratulate ourselves for bringing to life the technology from a reality that doesn’t exist?

Maybe. I think that viewing “technology” as the product not simply of a linear progression of machinery but also of contemporaneous creative artistic visions (which don’t necessarily follow a similarly linear path) can elucidate those aspects which make devices, software, and services appealing to people. Most individuals don’t know that much (and don’t care) about specifications, and in many cases likely cannot notice a huge difference between one product generation and another. But despite this general lack of hairsplitting over spec bumps and generation-to-generation changes, people do gravitate toward general product categories while shying away from others. iPad vs Surface, or Android vs BlackBerry, are some examples. In other words, people have good sense in differentiating categories, if not technical details.

But what do some of those more attractive categories have in common? For one, they were not totally obvious when they debuted. The iPad was based on almost no market research and resurrected a category – tablet PCs – which had been abandoned by other companies marching along on their own paths of “progress,” and which completed a circle back to nigh-ancient means of human interface design and input. Android made a wonky Linux-based cellphone OS successful during an era when most computing was still done thru closed-source Windows. And the iPhone? Well “[S]ometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was,” is how one man put it.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have too-obvious devices like touch-enabled ultrabooks, the Surface line, and basically everything BlackBerry has released in the wake of the iPhone 3G shattering its reason to exist. They don’t fit into coherent categories, don’t do any single thing well, and only exist to loudly announce that they’re The Future, without doing the work necessary to qualify as such.

Google Glass is obvious. It hasn’t even been released yet and it already has its own mythology, about how it is driving (despite not being widely available) us into the era of “wearable computing” and, more importantly, stealing the mantle of innovation from Apple, who still prefers to do quaint things like wait until a product is finished and salable before thrusting it upon the public. Heads-up displays may someday be a viable product category, but this specific product – Google Glass – is going to be a flop.

Now, I’m obviously no Apple apologist, but the tech press has just gone nuts searching for any sign of weakness at Apple, such that they’re willing to drape Samsung’s specs-loaded, capable but boring phones with the mantle of “innovation” and, now, they’re eager to deem Glass the next phase in computing. It is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the anti-Apple wave, as well as a great litmus test of just how nuts said wave has become: “look! this unreleased product is already disrupting the iPhone!”

I agree with Guy English that wearable computing, for all the presumptive nods it gets in the tech media, is hardly a sure thing and possibly something that just won’t strike a chord with normals who don’t want to become cyborgs. As with the way-overblown demise of Google Reader, the tech press often forgets that it occupies a geeky echo-chamber fed by sites like The Verge and Reddit, in which reactions to things like the end-of-life of an RSS client and the impending release of a cyborg hat have much different currency and urgency than they do with the population at large. What I’m saying is: Google Glass is not a consumer product for average consumer.

It’s perfect for the geek loner/showoff. Accordingly, it has about the degree of decorum and respect for others’ privacy that one might expect from the CEO of the similarly “futuristic” product, Uber, or from Glass-happy Mark Zuckerberg, who will surely bring Facebook’s exhaustive, intrusive status updates to the device. Ok, ok: some point out that we used to be afraid of how cellphone cameras would end privacy and decorum, too. But most cellphones aren’t made by advertising companies who offer lots of “free” services in exchange for data collection, and who also make the 2nd-largest social network in the West. How easy will it be for a secretly captured Glass photo/film to “accidentally” make its way onto YouTube or G+?

Silver-lining: Google Glass, to the extent that anyone uses it, will team up with services like Facebook Home to accelerate social-network fatigue. There will be no escape from carrying your friends list and wall posts everywhere, to the extent that reality itself may end up as a sadder place. The current attitude, often described as solutionism, sees Google Glass a way to “fix” apparent issues like smartphones apparently not being immersive enough (you can turn them off and put them in your pocket very easily, after all, and it’s obvious when you are/are not paying attention to bystanders while using one). It even seems to attempt “fixing” the issue of paying for stuff – Glass doesn’t even allow app makers to charge for their Glass services, or serve any ads.

Google Glass (the specific product/preview) isn’t “the future.” It’s just the best evidence yet of Google’s insistence on force-feeding the world questionable solutions to “problems,” like privacy and smartphones, which aren’t real problems for anyone except for iteration-/sci-fi-minded executives. If someone says something is “the future,” don’t take his word for it – after all, age-old inventions like silverware, shoes, and restaurants (to quote some of Nassim Taleb’s favorite examples) have outlasted literally thousands of years of disruption, and even CDs are still going strong. What we see as “progress” is often nothing of the sort, and Google Glass is a good reminder of that.

How to Save Battery on Android

Batteries suck. Before Farhad Manjoo made it cool to point out the conundrum of faster network speeds bumping up against the limits of Li-Po/Li-Ion batteries, I posted my own skepticism about how LTE and other “advancements” in mobile technology were necessarily hemmed in by the relatively poor state of batteries. Even a device as carefully crafted as the Nexus 4 can struggle when confronted with a power-user’s layering of music playback, social networking, news readers/RSS clients, and document/photo processing. And even the iPhone 5, despite Apple’s own claims, is no hero in this regard.

On Android, these battery issues are compounded by the OS’s relatively loose restrictions on what apps can do. Whereas iOS tightly controls what any app can do while active or suspended (in the background), Android apps are often free to continually wake-up the phone even during sleep and in turn tax its already inadequate battery. With that in mind, let’s look at five relatively simple steps for getting better battery life:

1. If You Don’t Use it, Uninstall it!

How many apps do you actually use? The number is probably smaller than the number of apps you currently have installed. If there’s some game that curiously needs access to your call logs,  an ad-filled video app, or reader that you haven’t touched in ages, then please, please uninstall it! God only knows what it’s doing in the background while you (and your phone) are sleeping.

2. Use a Battery Manager

Screenshot_2013-03-31-11-45-43

Battery Widget Reborn

These tools are a dime a dozen, and some of them are sketchy. I recommend Battery Widget Reborn, which is a paid app that pins a battery percentage level to your status bar and lets you set automatic “night mode” or Airplane Mode times (it can’t put the phone into Airplane Mode on Jelly Bean or later, so it does a less-comprehensive “night mode” instead, which is similar except you can still receive calls/SMS). It also estimates battery life time remaining and gives helpful statistics about average battery life, as well as deltas for how long it takes for 1% of the battery to dissipate. Also includes a flashlight, in case you ever need that (and don’t have a flashlight app/real flashlight already).

3. Avoid Vibration

Screenshot_2013-03-31-10-57-31

Disable Vibrate When Ringing and everything below it.

There are no Good Vibrations in the battery-life world. Vibration is a gimmick that is both annoying and relatively hard on your battery. But avoiding it isn’t as simple as just changing your ringtone – you’ll also need to disable all haptic feedback and other input-related vibration, which luckily is easy to do on Android 4.0+. Simply open up Settings -> Sounds and disable Vibrate When Ringing, Dial Pad Touch Tones, Touch Sounds, Screen Lock Sound, and Vibrate on Touch, too. Individual apps may also have their own settings for vibration notifications, too, so you’ll need to enable them as well.

4. Don’t be Afraid of 2G

Screenshot_2013-03-31-10-57-08

Click More…

Screenshot_2013-03-31-10-57-14

Click Mobile Networks

Screenshot_2013-03-31-10-57-20

Select Use Only 2G Networks

 

3G (to say nothing of LTE) is a battery hog. It requires a high level of power and is always seeking new signals to optimize its strength. If you don’t need blazing fast speeds for apps like Google Now/Maps or for your Web browsing, then don’t be afraid to enable a 2G-only connection under Settings -> More -> Mobile Networks -> Use Only 2G Networks. This can improve that aforementioned 1% battery delta by an astonishing 2-3 minutes. On AT&T, this means using EDGE, which is hardly “fast” if you’re a speed demon, but does just fine with email or light Web browsing.

5. Pay for Your Apps

This may seem like an odd suggestion, but free apps are sneaky. They trade their low, low price for all sorts of ad-running, tracking, and other inconspicuous means. Facebook is absolutely criminal in this regard: it’s one of the most battery-intensive Android apps out there (Google+ is, too, but is a bit harder to detach from the stock Android experience due to its outstanding Instant Upload and Hangouts features). Twitter is, too, which is why I recommend using a Twitter client if possible, since they refresh less often and don’t require nearly as much sync maintenance. And if possible, you should pay for your apps: paid apps are often higher-quality and more transparent in what types of permissions they require and which tasks they perform.

-The ScreenGrab Team