“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.
What is “big data?” Good question. Its name suggests that it describes a large pile of something, collected and organized by a company: numbers, autocorrect mistakes, search queries, anything
More practically, Big Data is often the tagline for aggregative software services that do things like predict fluctuations in airline ticket prices, or track video-viewing habits on Netflix. It collects and stores all of this data for retrieval later, and then uses it to try and predict outcomes. Accordingly, phenomena like House of Cards (based on painstaking research of Netflix habits), the 2008 Wall Street meltdown, and the installation of (mostly unmonitored) video cameras in seemingly last corner of Chicago are good examples of Big Data at work. What’s so great about any of that? To be fair, Google and especially Facebook can be regarded as leading Big Data collectors, too, but in both cases, the benefits they’ve provided are often matched by the privacy infringements, security concerns, and general Internet fatigue that both of those “free” services can cause.
The next time that some TED speaker, Amazon-bestselling author, or columnist tells that we are living in a uniquely disruptive and transformative era and that (this time, anyway) Big Data is the reason why, your should be skeptical. Big Data, as understood in the tech media, is basically a way to collect data, infringe privacy, and, in return, provide services (often “free” – be wary of anything that’s “free,” because it usually has a hidden price in the data it collects). Its Bigness is a byproduct of higher network speeds and cheaper, easier cloud storage. Other than size, its data collection targets (what we do, watch, buy, sell, etc) are old-hat, nothing that would shock even the the Attic Greeks, who kept their own meticulous manual measurements (Small Data?) of diet and exercise regimens. There’s nothing new out there.
But Big Data is a Big Deal because it has no drawbacks for the parties that promote it. As Anthony Nyström pointed out recently, the idea of Big Data is so nebulous that even if it fails to deliver, then the speakers and evangelists who have sold tons of books and speeches on its account can simply say that the “data is bad” or that it’s your problem. This is what happens when people are allowed to get away with generalities and not pressed to be more concrete in their assertions. But it also highlights how flimsy the notion of “data” is, anyway. “Data-driven” and “the data” are terms that have become almost sacrosanct in the United States in particular. Elon Musk’s recent spat with the NYT over its “fake” review of the Tesla S is a good case in point. The reviewer-driver, Musk asserted, was simply lying when he said that the car had an unreliable battery that couldn’t hold charge in cold weather, and “the data” that Musk’s company had collected from the car would shatter the reviewer’s soft nonsense. No such thing happened. If anything, Musk’s torrent of data only inflamed the he-said/he-said debate.
Look: data is not some god or force of nature. It’s manmade, and handled by humans who have to then make sense of it. If you have a bad analyst, or too much data, then the entire operation can be compromised. Would Apple have been better off collecting more data about tablets before it made the iPad, rather than simply following Steve Jobs’ gut assertion that users needed to be guided in what they wanted? It’s debatable whether more data even leads to better decisions. And even in cases where the amount of data isn’t an issue, its quality can become one, too, even if it seems like good data on the surface. Data about lower crime rates in certain neighborhoods could lead one to think that crime wasn’t an issue there, despite having the obvious blindspot that many crimes go unreported and as such are not part of “the data.”
But that can be fixed, you might say – we just need better surveillance and better tools to give us better data. More technological progress (I disagree with the entire notion of “progress,” but I’ll let that slide for another time) you might say. OK: but at what cost? The same sort of nonsensical, overexcited language that drives a lot of the press about Big Data also drives the posts of many tech bloggers who advocate for rollbacks on privacy or any notion of any unconnected world. Jeff Jarvis thinks you shouldn’t be worried about losing your privacy, since publicness makes our lives better. Nick Bilton just can’t stand it that electronic devices can’t be used during airplane takeoff, as if those few moments of not being able to refresh Gmail or Facebook were critical to the betterment of humanity.
In these cases, as with the debate about Big Data and all of its privacy entanglements, it’s not so much the content of the assertion as it is the attitude with which it is made. It rings of “I know best” and has little regard for niceties like privacy and offline existence in particular. Don’t want to be part of “the data” made by Big Data and its tools? Too bad, that aforementioned attitude would say. What’s worse, the price of this “progress” toward more data and bigger data is often hidden because so many of Big Data’s tools are “free.” To be fair, paid services like Netflix are also part of the overall Big Data dredge. But general consumer awareness of how and why their data is being collected, whether by a free or paid service, appears to be low, and that’s too bad.
Slate has already worried that Big Data could be the end of creativity. I disagree, but I’m glad to see at least some pushback on the Big Data train – it isn’t clear that Big Data, despite all of its pretenses, is giving, or can give, us what we really want or need. Big Data, I think, assumes a certain linearity in how humans operate – that we show a machine, by way of what we click or like or +1, what we truly want, and that that input can be transformed into a high-quality output, like a certain type of content. I admit to making some data-based posts myself, but if I were to make this entire blog a slave to the data it collects, it would probably look like a super-geeky version of BuzzFeed, which, while fun for a while, would preclude some of the longer or more detailed posts that provide variety and often are surprise hits (at least from my modest perspective). So I’m sticking with just a modest, consciously restrained dose of data for now, something I think that those aforementioned Greeks would approve of.