A fistful of dollars/for a few barrels more
Everyone wants a strong dollar, right? In the U.S., politicians will pay lip service to the notion of a strong dollar – i.e., in their minds, a dollar that trades more evenly against the other major world currencies (sterling, euro, yen) – because A) it sounds good; B) it feels good for American travelers who travel to Europe and Japan and realize that their greenbacks go pretty far.
When I visited Italy in 2008, I remember that the USD-EUR exchange rate was unfavorable to me (I’m American) and accordingly I felt the pinch of 50 EUR cab rides and 14 EUR gelato cones in Florence. At the same time, I remember fuel being expensive that entire year, with it peaking at near $150 per barrel that summer when Russia invaded Georgia.
That all feels like a 1000 years ago now. The dollar has strengthened mightily against the euro and oil trading for less than one-third of what it did the summer before Barack Obama was first elected. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia, whom George W. Bush begged that same year to increase oil production as energy costs skyrocketed in the run-up to the Lehman collapse, is dead. Bush himself is reduced to speaking at events in the Cayman Islands, an unmentionable even among his own party. Russia, though still ruled with vim by Vladimir Putin, is in economic and diplomatic free-fall.
But the strong dollar isn’t everyone’s friend. For starters, it is burden on corporations that sell goods around the world. Tech analyst Ben Thompson recently framed the problem in stunning terms, in ridiculing the widespread perception that Apple is always on the verge of catastrophe:
“It’s difficult to overstate just how absurd this is, but here’s my best attempt: last quarter Apple’s revenue was downright decimated by the strengthening U.S. dollar; currency fluctuations reduced Apple’s revenue by 5% — a cool $3.73 billion dollars. That, though, is more than Google made in profit last quarter ($2.83 billion). Apple lost more money to currency fluctuations than Google makes in a quarter. And yet it’s Google that is feared, and Apple that is feared for.”
I have been trying to wrap my head around this all day. All those seemingly minor variations in currency trading, piled up over and entire quarter at the scale of Apple’s business, ended up taking a cut out of Apple larger than Google’s entire quarterly profit – and Apple still managed the best quarter of all time, with $18 billion in profit.
Apple’s turnaround over the past 18 years is probably the greatest business story of all time. if you look at a chart of all the biggest quarterly results in history, it’s dominated by oil companies (Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell, etc.) and Apple and no one else. It’s a neat coincidence that Apple keeps outdoing itself at a time when oil – seemingly its only competitor in terms of product profitability – is taking a nosedive.
Growing up in the 1990s, this is all so surreal. For a kid growing up in rural America, at the peak of Windows (I had just turned 9 when Windows 95 was released) era, when every class at school was built largely around writing things in MS Works/Word and saving it to a floppy, Apple was nowhere to be seen. I remember reading about Macs when playing some Sierra On-Line games that were built for both PC and Mac, but I never even used one until 1999, in a school in Gallipolis, Ohio. Apple was on the margins.
Not anymore. To quote almost any stat about Apple anymore is to send the mind fruitlessly in search of anything else like it. The company’s iPhone business alone – just the iPhone, without even taking the iPad, Mac, iPod and iTunes into account – brought in more revenue than Google and Microsoft combined in the most recent quarter. Each quarter, it makes more profit than Amazon has ever made. It has enough cash to buy IBM outright at IBM’s current market cap – and still have tens of billions left over.
Paradoxically, the vast complexities of Apple’s supply chains as well as the efficiency of its manufacturing and marketing processes have ensured that simplicity wins out. The iPhone and its brethren feel natural and easy to use (despite mounting software issues, which is a topic for another conversation), reinforcing what I have always thought: that one significant part of the success of iOS in particular is that it eliminates the paradox of choice that is so paralyzing with Android or almost any other computing platform. It’s a good design, like John Gruber recently noted:
“Who knows how long Apple’s ride at the top will last, but this is a moment worth savoring. A toast to the value of good design.”
Just started reading a Stephen King novel from 2006, “Cell.” Right before 9/11, I went through a phase in which I read most of his 1970s and 1980s work, before my reading time was taken up by more academic novels for English classes. I eventually got back into him in late 2011, ten years later, following the release of his novel “11.22.1963” about the Kennedy assassination.
During my sophomore year in high school, everyone in our English class had to do a study about a literary author. I don’t remember whom I choose, but one of my best friends at the time picked King, a choice that our teacher initially balked at but acquiesced to after admitting that he had produced a “significant enough” body of work. I was jealous. Plus, I agreed with her final judgment – my experience of King superseded whatever criticism I had read about his work.
“Cell,” even in its first pages, reminds me of why King is an enduring institution. There’s the distinctive, seen-it-all-before narrative voice that comes off as both grizzled and humorous, as well as the sharp cultural observations. “Cell” was released on the eve of the first iPhone and it captured the peak of a different mobile era, when phones were all very different from each other, with fanciful designs, custom ringtones, and dramatically different apps depending on the manufacturer and carrier:
“The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved – was it called ‘Axel F’? … The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. Peppermint-colored? Crazy Frog (“who” topped the charts around this time, with a ringtone)? They became relics almost overnight as the iPhone and its imitators made standard-issue ringtones and a limited selection of design options – black or white; silver/gold/space gray in the iPhone’s case – the norm. Phones, from 2007 on, became part of the tradition that Andy Warhol once identified:
“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”
The president’s iPhone and your iPhone are essentially the same, give or take storage capacity differences and coloration. There’s an attractive egalitarianism and homogeneity there. What I like about the above passage from “Cell” is how it hints at what’s to come: there’s the “exactly the same” haircuts, conveniently about the “iPod headphones,” which had already done to the MP3 player and headphones markets what iPhone would do to phones. Then there’s “Pixie Light and Pixie Dark” – it’s like “Cloud White” or “Midnight Blue” or “Space Grey” or “Gold” when buying a phone.
Excited about this book already. Expect a few more entries, especially about its premise of mobile phones spreading an apocalyptic disease.
Notifications are the one thing that Android has always done better than iOS. Even Android 1.0 from 2008 had status bar notifications, a feature that the iPhone et al did not get until the addition of Notification Center in iOS 5 in late 2011, at which point Apple opted for the familiar pull-down gesture that was already widespread on the seas of Gingerbread and Froyo phones.
iOS 7 has a lot of promise in its revamped approach to notifications, but Jelly Bean raised the bar and has kept Android in the lead on this score at least. Expandable notifications gave a user a window into rich content and enabled an endless array of quick actions. Want to type out a quick text without opening the SMS app? Want to archive an email instantly? Want to view a list of items? There’s an
app notification for that.
In a way, I think that Google’s insane focus on notifications was the first step toward bring Android at least level with iOS in quality. The system notification UI – so neatly grouped in that pull-down menu – provided a common framework from which a user could interact with apps without having to actually enter the apps as much, hence mitigating annoyances like aesthetic gaps between iOS and Android versions or the shittiness of garbage collected languages (read: Java) on mobile and in the hands of devs who don’t do manual collection.
Here are twelve apps and two Chrome extensions that can up the notification game.
What it is: A top-shelf weather app.
Notification perks: 1) persistent, regularly updated temperature figure in the status bar; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) expandable weather notification with customizable icons and forecasts.
What it is: A handy sleep tracker app that catalogs your deep and light sleep percentages and also features an alarm clock.
Notification perks: 1) sleep tracker toggle in notification bar
What it is: A custom notifications app.
Notifications perk: 1) expandable; 2) lists; 3) alerts; 4) photos
What it is: An app that can receive pushed images, files, and/or lists from its accompanying Chrome extension.
Notification perks: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) expandable notification for lists and image previews
What it is: a way to connect your Android notifications with your desktop instance of Chrome or Firefox.
Notification perks: shows all Android notifications in a popup in the lower-right in Chrome or Firefox. I love using this on Chrome OS with its extension.
What it is: A battery conservation and tracking tool.
Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with usage chart/time remaining estimate; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) Daydream; 4) lockscreen widget
What it is: An SMS client and a huge upgrade over stock (and it gets updated all the time)
Notification perks: gee, where to begin: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) multiple widgets; 3) persistent quick text notification in status bar; 4) expandable notifications with read/reply options for new messages; 5) scrollable widget that can be overlaid inside of any app.
What it is: A music streaming service. I assume you’ve heard of it.
Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with forward/backward/play/pause control and add to playlist button
What it is: A podcasting client.
Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with rewind/fast forward (not just forward/back) and play/pause controls
What is: A lockscreen notification center which I’ve written about here.
Notification perks: Out-of-the-box compatibilty with Gmail, SMS, weather, Google Calendar etc. Customizable with numerous extensions.
What it is: A way to bring the Moto X’s distinctive (and somewhat intrusive) notifications to any Android phone
Notification perks: 1) screen wakes with specific information about each notification’s content.
“Mobile-first” and “mobile-only” are almost clichés in terms of current app design. But overuse of “mobile” language aside, iOS and Android users have definitely benefitted from this new focus from developers on producing software that exploits and respects the unique capabilities of smaller devices. Maybe even too much so: I recently combed thru my app drawer and felt overwhelmed by the nearly 100 apps – most of them both beautifully designed and easy to use – in it. My first instinct was to simply cut myself off from many of the services provided by these apps, so as to simplify my experience and reduce app count. I initially thought about completely ditching RSS reading and some social networking, for example.
Ultimately, I opted to do something different and instead I redistributed my workflow across my mobile device (a Nexus 4), my Mac, and my wifi-enabled Wii U. Although many of the apps and services I was using had versions available for both Android and OS X (and Web), I decided to restrict many of them to only one of my devices and ignore its other versions. So for example, I kept the mobile Google+ Hangouts app, but eschewed its desktop Web/Gmail version, and likewise kept my desktop RSS reader (Reeder) while ditching my previous mobile RSS clients.
The most difficult, yet most rewarding, part of this process was determining which apps and services I could remove from my phone and perform only on my Mac or Wii U. Amid the swirl of “mobile-only”/”mobile-first lingo,” I reflexively felt that I was selling myself short by offloading many of the excellent apps and services I used onto my relatively old-fashioned Mac and my dainty Wii U, but the experience has been liberating. I have improved my phone’s battery life, reduced clutter in its launcher, and restored some piece of mind: there are fewer things to blankly stare at and anxiously check on my phone while on the train, at the very least.
More importantly, I know have a firmer sense of what I want each device, with its accompanying apps and services, to do. The productivity bump and happiness that I have experienced has also made me realize, finally, why Windows 8 has flopped. Trying to treat all devices the same and have them run the same apps is a recipe for poor user experience and too many duplicate services. It becomes more difficult to know what any given device excels at, or what a user should focus on when using it. If focus is truly saying no to a thousand things, then it’s important to say “no” to certain apps or services on certain platforms. Steve Jobs famously said “no” to Flash on iOS, but one doesn’t even have to be that wonky or technical when creating workflow boundaries and segmentation in his/her own life: I’ve said “no” to Web browsing on my Wii U and to Netflix on my phone, for example.
With this move toward device segmentation and focus in mind, I’ll finally delve into the tasks that I know do only on desktop or in the living room, so as to relieve some of the strain and overload from my mobile device. I perform these tasks using only my Mac or my Wii U, and I do not use their corresponding apps or services on my Nexus 4.
RSS can be tricky: you probably shouldn’t subscribe to any frequently updated sites, since they will overwhelm your feed and leave you with a “1000+ unread” notification that makes combing thru the list a chore. Rather, sites that push out an update once or twice per day (or every other day) are ideal material for RSS. Rewarding RSS reading requires you to have specialized taste borne out of general desktop Web browsing (see below), as well as a tinkerer’s mindset for adding and subtracting feeds. It’s a workflow meant for a desktop.
Granted, there are some good RSS clients for Android: Press and Minimal Reader Pro spring to mind. However, neither is great at managing feeds due to their minimalism and current reliance on the soon-to-be-extinct Google Reader. Plus, I’ve yet to find an Android rival for Reeder, which I use on my Mac an which is also available for iOS. The time-shifted nature of RSS also makes it something that I often only get around to once I’m back home, not working, and sitting down, with Reeder in front of me, and so I forego using a mobile client most of the time. This may change if and when RSS undergoes its needed post-Google Reader facelift.
The thrill of wide-open desktop browsing doesn’t exist on mobile. Maybe it’s because most mobile sites are bastardizations of their desktop forbearers, or because screen size is a limiting factor. Moreover, most mobile apps are still much better and much faster than their equivalent websites. I haven’t disabled Chrome on my phone, but I seldom use it unless another app directed me there. Instead, I prefer news aggregators like Flipboard and Google Currents, or strong native apps like The Verge, Mokriya Craigslist, and Reddit is Fun Golden Platinum.
Of this trio, only Tumblr has a first-rate Android app in terms of aesthetics and friendliness to battery life. It’s easy for me to see why I don’t like using any of them on mobile: they all began as desktop websites, and then had to be downsized into standalone apps. Alongside these aesthetic and functional quibbles with website-to-app transitions, I also consciously limit my Facebook and LinkedIn intake by only checking them on desktop, and in the case of Tumblr, I may create content for it on my phone, but I usually save it to Google Drive (if only to back it up, which I’ll always end up doing one way or another) and then finish formatting and editing it on my desktop before posting it.
Twitter is a different story, due to its hyper-concise format. I’ll talk about it in the next entry. Google+ – which is almost completely ignorable as a standlone site on desktop – is also much better on mobile, wherein it performs useful background functions like photo backup. Mobile-first networks like Instagram and Vine are obvious exclusions as well.
Spotify is a unique case. Its Android app is certainly functional, but unstable and not so good with search. It is difficult to get a fully populated list of returned search results, and in many cases you must hit the back button and re-key the search. Its Mac app is much better – the gobs of menus and lengthy lists are right at home on the desktop. For listening to music on my Nexus 4, I use Google Play Music, where I have a large, precisely categorized personal collection accessible via a clean UI, and the terrific holo-styled Pocket Casts, which I use to play weekly trance podcasts from Above & Beyond and Armin Van Buuren, among others.
I’m not a huge fan of Netflix on tablets or large-screen phones. I do probably 99% of my Netflix viewing on an HDTV connected to my Wii U, with the remainder done on my Mac. I can see the appeal of viewing Netflix while lying in bed, so I don’t rule out its mobile possibilities altogether. However, most of the video watching I do on mobile is via YouTube, Google Play Movies, or my own movie collection as played by MX Player Pro.
Skype is a good desktop messenger and video calling service, but it may as well be DOA on Android, especially stock Android. Google+ Hangouts (the successor to Google Talk) is much simpler, since it requires only a Google+ account and has a dead-simple video calling/messaging interface. Plus, Skype for Android is unfortunately a battery-drainer, in my experience. That said, Skype’s shortcomings on mobile are balanced by its strengths on desktop: its native Mac app is still an appealing alternative to having to open up Google+ in Safari/Chrome.
In part two, I shall look at apps or services that I now do exclusively on mobile, as well as the select group of apps and services that I use on both desktop and mobile.