A recent thread in /r/AskReddit posed a similar question. The comments were revelatory, with plenty of resigned jokes about the heat death of the universe, antitrust proceedings, and the (unlikely) rise of Bing being the only ways for Mountain View’s best to be bested:
- “The first and most obvious way to cause a decline might be from some sort of anti-monopoly judgement being levied on them causing say for example the search engine portion of google, to be split from the part of google that manages android and chrome.” – /u/icantrecallaccnt
- “The heat death of the universe. Though they’ll probably buy some quirky startup that’s figured out how to reverse entropy and remain in business forever.” – /u/SoresuMakashi
- ‘The Big Bing’ – /u/tenillusions
- “If Chinese mega-sites and portals decide to really take expansion outside of their borders seriously. Baidu, Tencent et al are well on their way.” – /u/Tuxedo_Superman
Granted, there were some thoughtful responses that probed Google’s complacence and ongoing alienation of its important demographics (advertisers, developers – note: not end-users). But I think the issue isn’t so much that Google has gotten fat and happy and turned into Microsoft 2.0 (riding Search, Maps and Gmail the same way Ballmer et al rode Windows XP and Office). Rather, the issue is that Google is desperate.
Odd word choice? Not really – Wired picked up on it recently, too, with the keen observation that the middling Google+ has left Google clinging to ever-declining per-click costs while trying to find something – anything – to help it keep pace with rivals such as Facebook, that, despite having nowhere near Google’s profits, have arguably staked out a better slice of smartphone attention spans. I have often made fun of Facebook for being essentially a channeling of some of the best talents in computer science toward the end of designing hamburger buttons and click-by-accident advertising, but I admit that its new mobile strategy – discrete offerings for messaging, news, etc. – amplifies the threats to Google’s Web-centric business model that have always resided in walled-garden apps.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find much appetite in the mainstream technology media for examining Google’s weaknesses. In contrast, Apple – the world’s most profitable company – is often construed as facing near-constant extinction if it doesn’t, say, release a smart watch in the next two months. The inimitable Horace Dediu succinctly broke down the double standard in his post, “Invulnerable” –
“I suspect the absence of scrutiny comes from Google being seen as an analogy of the Internet itself. We don’t question the survival of the Internet so we don’t question the survival of Google — its backbone, its index, and its pervasive ads which, somehow, keep the lights on. We believe Google is infrastructure. We don’t dwell on whether electric grids are vulnerable, or supplies of fuel, or the weather.”
I would go a step further and say that Google is like a church or a cathedral. That is, it is frequently visited, assumed to be a mainstay of the cultural fabric regardless of external economic conditions and – most importantly – it collects little to no money from any of the end users who interact with it. Sure, parishioners may make a slight donation to the local church, but the real funding comes from other sources; likewise, Joe Surfer doesn’t directly pay Google for anything, with the possible exception of a buck or two for extra Google Drive space or Google Play Music All Access. Hence, the actual business of Google is abstracted from consumers, who end up spending little or no time contemplating how or why it could go belly up – it’s not like they can point to reduced foot traffic or ridiculous clearance sales as harbingers of decline.
The signs are there, though:
-Let’s start with Android. Android was a defensive land grab to stop Microsoft and then Apple from shutting Google out of mobile. It has succeeded in terms of worldwide adoption, but it confers on Google nowhere near the profits that iOS has on Apple. Maybe that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s symbolic of how Android was never designed from the ground up as a sustainable business but as a vehicle for legacy Google services (there hasn’t been a really great new Google service since Maps in 2005).
As such, Google is always tinkering with Android to make it less like an open source project and more like its own Google service. Peter Bright’s article on forking Android understandably struck a nerve with Google, which is awkwardly trying to maintain Android’s chief competitive advantage (no licensing fees, tons of customization possibilities for OEMs and carriers) while bringing it further under Mountain View’s umbrella.
-One of the best revelations of the ongoing Samsung-Apple legal battle is that Samsung really would like to move on from Android. Samsung isn’t a great leader, but the fact that it would even consider something as nascent as Tizen to take the place of Android on its smartphones lines is telling.
-Google Glass reeks of desperation. Jay Yarow of Business Insider insisted that Google botched Glass’ launch, ensuring that it would never take its apparently rightful place as the successor to the iPad as the next big thing in consumer tech. It’s a computer for the face, with no obvious use case as yet, a crazy price tag, and understandable cultural stigma. Tech media were wrong to puff it up as the Next Big Thing, but consider also the absurdity of this situation: Google is trying to sell a terrible HUD in order to get out ahead of the competition, like Apple did to much better effect with the iPod and then the iPhone.
-It’s not just Glass, either. The Nest acqusition, the Boston Dynamics aquisition, and the obsession with “sci-fi” projects at GoogleX. – Google could be looked at as “shooting for the moon.” Or, it could be viewed instead as desperately trying to find any revenue stream alternative to mobile ads, which just don’t work like desktop ones do and, moreover, are subject to intense competition from social networks and messaging platforms.
-The sci-fi thing merits more attention. Forever ago, I wrote this about Google Glass and its ilk:
“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?”
Trying to actualize the fantasies of sci-fi is not forward-looking; it is, by definition, backward-looking, with respect to someone’s text or vision about what was possible in the past. If someone created a real Death Star today, it would be impressive – as a testament to madness. Why would someone exert such enormous, concerted effort at recreating a technology conceived for recreational purposes in the 1970s, by individuals who had no idea that smartphones, MP3s, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and on on would be invented?
To analyze sci-fi is often to analyze what it doesn’t conceive of. I watched Gattaca recently, a 1997 movie with a setting in the far future. What was in this high-tech future? Big, hulking desktop PCs and keyboards. Sci-fi is the product of constrained imagination (“the future is hard to predict” – Captain Obvious), but imitating it is even more self-defeating. For this reason, I am immensely pessimistic about the prospects of any of Google’s top-secret projects being a breakthrough that would expand its business or appeal in meaningful ways. Sci-fi is a small porthole on the future.
-Google’s customers are advertisers and other businesses, not individuals. It reaches the latter by its presence on platforms that belong to the former – think its default search engine deals for Firefox and Safari. There’s not any real competition on those fronts for now – Bing is good but has lithe mindshare, and Yahoo is still locked into its deal with Microsoft. But Marissa Mayer is driven to displace Google on iOS, and Apple and Yahoo have a good relationship (Yahoo provides the data for Weather on iOS, for example). As MG Siegler has pointed out, it seems implausible that Apple would go on subsidizing Google, enabling it to make so much money off of iOS, money that it can channel into Android.
-Once one gets into the “Google isn’t invulnerable” mindset, it’s easy to see everything as a weakness, sometimes without good reason. But think about its efforts to bring Chrome OS apps to mobile devices. Such a tack seems defensive – a way to halt the decline of the Web and keep matters squarely in the realm of JS, HTML and CSS. I’ve often argued that Chrome OS is more of a breakthrough than Android (it has the potential to disrupt both the business model of Windows PCs and the essential appeal of tablets), but it looks like it could turn into just a moat for Google’s existing (and, to be fair, highly profitable, at least for now) Web businesses.
-Google+ has become the DNA of Google services. Its profile system is a way of indexing Internet users. It has succeeded in helping Google collect more nuanced data, even if it hasn’t exactly done much to blunt the impact of Twitter, Facebook, and others. But now that Vic Gundotra is leaving, Google+ looks weirdly quaint – like nothing more than Gundotra’s messy senior project for getting hired by another firm. There are already rumors that the Google+ team will be split up and sent to other projects (in the same way that the Google Reader team was once chopped up to work on Google’s initial forays into social).
Look, Google isn’t going to turn into AOL or Yahoo. But it should be increasingly apparent that Google is not synonymous with the Internet at large, and is not guaranteed to constantly occupy so much mind share.
“Stock” Android has become increasingly functional, reliable, and consistent after getting a facelift with 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and then 4.1 Jelly Bean. The evolution of its current unified “flat” aesthetic has arisen from Google’s renewed focus on, well, everything, and in its wake it has opened up a gulf between itself and the looser, anything-goes aesthetics of Android 2.3 and earlier. As such, Google’s vision of “stock Android” can often clash with the design of many 3rd-party apps, even as many of them have risen to the challenge and issued their own Holo-designed apps. Commercially, stock Android is a dud: even LG, after the heartening success of the Nexus 4 (which in the Samsung-dominated Android world is victory enough, for now), is no longer going to be bothering with Nexus manufacturing.
So what’s the point of Holo and the whole “stock” experience? Well: I think it has its merits, if only because it weeds out crapware and bloat and gives users a quality experience due to its reliance on Google’s mostly great apps and services (even if you don’t use G+, the app itself is still a beautiful thing, for example). But it still has lots of shortcomings, like its blatant disregard for entire categories like podcasting or good video playback, and the increasing sprawl of Google apps and services – now that Google wants to stick its fingers in every pot, how long until the Android install image is itself so large and bloat that it won’t be much of a relief from the overloaded ones that come with the Samsung Galaxy S4 or many other bloatware-stuffed phones?
Since it’s unlikely that stock Android will ever be a blockbluster, it’s basically left behind for nitpicking types like me to nit and pick it apart, so with that, let’s look at some of the most important stock Android apps, and the available alternatives. These lists aren’t totally comprehensive, for the sake of conserving space more than anything. I apologize in advance if I’ve left out a key app(s): let me know in comments.
Stock Option: Chrome
Chrome is a capable WebKit-based browser, but so is Dolphin, and thanks to Dolphin’s Jetpack add-on, the latter’s speed can often outstrip even Google’s own browser. But speed isn’t everything. Dolphin’s tab interface is straight out of Android 2.3 and feels like a desktop app that has been scaled-down for mobile. Chrome, by contrast, feels mobile-first and has a nice stacked window interface. It also keeps in sync with Chrome on other devices.
Firefox is a good alternative to either of the above. It also keeps in sync with your other instances of Firefox and is decently fast. Firefox also does a better job of respecting privacy, by letting you enable Do Not Track and install ad-blocking add-ons.
Opera is now Webkit-based, too, and it features a neat “offroad” mode which lets you get better speeds even on slower connections.
The one worthy challenger, however, is Next Browser. Built by the team behind the GO Launcher, Next is a speedy, sleekly designed browser that I now use as my default.
Stock option: Gallery
Major alternatives: QuickPic
This is a tough one. Gallery has a slick scrolling interface (one of the only instances of satisfactory Android scrolling, sadly) and keeps in sync with your Picasa/G+ albums. It also has filters, if for some reason you didn’t get your fair share from Instagram, Snapseed, Flickr, Pixlr Express…
QuickPic, however, is, well, quicker. And it weeds out those Web albums by default, making for a simplified photo browsing experience.
Stock Options: Email, Gmail
Email clients are a wasteland on Android. Gmail for Android, with its swipe gestures, quick actions from notifications, and compatibility with Dashclock Widget and Google Now, is so good that it discourages competition. The stock Email client has a similar interface, sans swipe gestures or quick actions, and can be made compatible with Dashclock via the handy Any Dash Pro app.
K-9 Mail is my favorite of the non-stock options: it has a ton of functionality and customization built-in, along with a handy Dashclock extension, although its interface is reminiscent of the 2.3 era, with lots of options tucked away in the menu.
MailDroid Pro is a completely built-from-scratch client that is either ad-supported or ridiculously expensive (or maybe not, given the difficulty of building good email clients), neither of which make it an easy buy unless you’re looking to experiment.
Stock Option: Messaging
SMS seems to be on the ropes outside of the US, where unlimited text/talk plans are rare. Even in the US, it is under siege from OTT (over the top) services like WhatsApp and Line (see below). All the same, SMS is still important for many users since it sidesteps many of the requirements (like two-way clients) that OTT services have.
Sliding Messasing Pro is an immaculate, super customizable SMS client with MMS support and a buttery sliding UI. Highly recommended. Go SMS Pro is packed with features, but is also in-your-face and a little too eager to have access to your phone so that it can begin spamming you with offers to join its own messaging network. Chomp SMS is fine but a little strange: it hasn’t worked out its notifications such that it doesn’t duplicate the stock app’s SMS notifications.
Stock Options: Gallery/Google Play Movies & TV
Major Alternatives: MX Player Pro
Android doesn’t do video playback so well natively: it sends the video to Gallery, doesn’t offer many options, and doesn’t support all formats. MX Player Pro has nice acceleration options, pinch-to-zoom, and support for virtually all video formats.
Stock option: Google Currents
The demise of Google Reader leaves behind a strange RSS landscape on Android. Google Currents is Google’s own alternative: it can integrate RSS feeds, as well as pretty “editions” of many popular websites and blogs. I wrote about it here. However, it’s a bit unstable and gummy at times. You’re likely better off sticking with its editions when possible and limiting its RSS feeds to just a few favorites.
Feedly is a popular alternative that updates promptly and has lots of sharing and sorting options. It perhaps isn’t ideal for huge feed collections, which is where rival gReader can excel. While gReader doesn’t have the slick interface of either Currents or Feedly, it is a bit more feature-rich, and one hopes that it’ll keep its word and remain functional past July 1.
Press is a minimalistic, subtly designed RSS client with Dashclock Support that also promises to remain operational after July 1. Its my weapon of choice if I use RSS on mobile, which isn’t that often.
Stock option: News and Weather
The stock News and Weather app is pretty bare-bones, but it’s weather and uses common weather data, so you’re not going to find a revelatory alternative. Accordingly, assessing weather apps is more about style and bells/whistles.
Eye in Sky has a good widget and lots of customization options for its colors and icons. Beautiful Widgets is true to its name, letting you setup sophisticated widgets on your screens that display date and weather; it also has a neat Daydream/screensaver. And WeatherBug Elite is a more traditional, fewer-frills weather app that receives frequent updates. Like Eye in Sky, it can also pin a temperature read-out to your task bar.
Stock Option: Clock widget
Major Alternative: Dashclock Widget
This is one of the easiest ways to upgrade your Android experience (on Android 4.2 and later, anyway). Simply download the free Dashclock Widget, add it to your lockscreen, and remove the default clock widget. You can then begin adding all sorts of custom extensions and data to your lockscreen.
Stock Option: Google Play Music
Music apps are a dime a dozen, and despite their number I don’t think they vary all that music in their quality. Most of them have licenses for the same catalogues, so differentiation comes down to interface, price, and, probably, whatever service you began using.
Google Play Music offers a music store, a locker to which you can upload up to 20,000 songs, and access to album/song streams and custom radio stations. It covers almost every base, and it’s cheap, too (for now – signing up before the end of June can lock you into a lower $7.99 monthly rate). But it doesn’t have a desktop app, works only on Android/Web, and has a relatively minimalist aesthetic (in keeping with stock Android).
Spotify works on nearly any platform, but its app design is wonky and often unstable, especially on Android, where sometimes I have to go back and reenter a search query for it to register. Since I’m already entrenched in Spotify, making the switch to near-duplicates like Rdio or Last.fm is pretty much out of the question, but the prospect of integrating a streaming collection with my 8k song library in my Google Play Music library is also enticing (Google Play Music displays both locker-stored albums, store purchases, and streaming albums/songs in the same location, unlike Spotify, which separates them).
Stock Option: QuickOffice Viewer, Google Play Books (kind of)
The default PDF viewer is stock Android is ungainly, with all of its option tucked away into the overflow button on 4.0+. You can load your PDFs into Google Play Books, but you’ll have to go to the Play site on your Mac/PC first.
Adobe Reader and iAnnotate PDF are both free and feature annotation tools, with iAnnotate having a slightly larger variety. But ezPDF Reader Pro is worth the price tag, since it has high-level features like PDF reflow, integration with cloud services, and a bookshelf UI.
Stock Option: Google+
Major Alternatives: …just kidding
-The ScreenGrab Team
Chrome OS has come on big in 2013, thanks to the proliferation of cheap but reliable machines from Samsung and Acer, as well as the meaningless (for now) glitz of the Chromebook Pixel. While some people may easily embrace Chrome OS’s continuous, Web-based model of computing, others may balk at a platform that has no native apps except for a browser and file manager.
Fortunately, Chrome OS still gives us the illusion of having discrete apps that can be docked and clicked to open their own webpages. Here’s a list of some easy-to-use apps to get started
Recent hacks aside, Evernote is a reliable tool for storing or creating just about any type of content (text, photos, quotes, videos, screenshots). The Web-based version is fast and lightweight but still highly functional, making it a great counterpart to the native Evernote apps elsewhere.
This “app” takes you the Chrome-optimized version of the NYT sight, which is far less-cluttered than its standard page. It also supports Chrome OS’s desktop notification system, which is handy for keeping track of breaking news.
Gmail can sometimes be slow, an issue further compounded by limited resources on many Chromebook models. Gmail Offline solves two main issues for Chromebooks: it lets you manage your email more quickly, and it gives your device some real (and rare) offline functionality.
Infinite, free, customizable listening to NPR stations.
I’ve actually gotten GIMP to run (albeit painfully slowly) on my ARM Chromebook, but this is a solution much more suited to Chrome OS’s style. It allows for some light photo editing and sharing, with the option to upgrade for more sophisticated features. It also has a handy extension for detecting, capturing and editing images on the current page.
This one actually comes bundled with Chrome OS. Its Web app is one of the easiest ways to listen to music online, and a must-have in lieu of a fully functional Spotify Web app. You can listen to any of the songs stored in your Google Play Music locker, or songs purchased from the Google Play Store.
A Web app that runs in a native app-style standalone window, TweetDeck is the best way to use Twitter on Chrome OS. Luckily, it also seems to be getting even greater attention from Twitter now that the iOS, Android, and AIR version of TweetDeck are being retired.
My favorite text editor for Chrome OS. White on black, simple, and fast.
No native IM apps? No problem! IMO lets you manage all your major IM accounts (AIM, Skype, Jabber, Google Talk) from its Web app.
Perhaps a stretch, since this app is just a link to the usual Pandora website, but it’s free music (or paid, higher-quality music, if you have a subscription) nonetheless.
-The ScreenGrab Team
Chrome OS appears to be a hit, thanks to Acer’s workhorse $199 C7 Chromebook and Samsung’s sleek $249 model. Chromebooks are often construed as “companion” devices, meant to supplement a Mac or Windows laptop/desktop, but in my experience they feel more like companions to a tablet/phone. Their modest power, stripped-down OS, and rich ecosystems make them much like a traditional computer influxed with cutting-edge mobile-informed software.
That said, transitioning from a traditional Mac/Windows machine to a Chromebook can be jarring. After all, you can’t install any native apps, and you have to run nearly everything thru the Web browser, all the while being conscious of the machine’s limited power. Here are some tips for getting started:
1. Samsung or bust
The variety of Chromebook models is diversifying, with both Lenovo and HP now getting into the game. The trend is sure to accelerate now that OEMs seem increasingly skeptical of Windows 8.
The $249 Samsung Chromebook is currently the best value on the market. It has a sleek, much-more-expensive-than-it-looks body, and it runs totally silent and cool. Its custom ARM processor is power-efficient and gives you up to seven hours of battery life. It can also support a 3G connection. It escapes the cheap netbook look that plagues the Acer C7 and it’s lighter and better performing that the heavier Samsung 550. While HP’s Pavilion Chromebook is still to be released, its heavy body (replete with Ethernet port) and power-hungry Intel processor don’t inspire confidence.
2. Consider an Ethernet-to-USB dongle
While wifi is more than enough for more uses of the Chromebook – I enjoy playing Pandora One while cooking or exercising, or using it while watching TV -, power users may also want to think about an Ethernet-to-USB dongle for the Samsung Chromebook, which doesn’t have a native Ethernet port. The cabled connection is great for more intensive productivity tasks, such as using Google Drive/Docs or uploading/editing photos, since it gives a nice speed boost to the machine’s modest guts.
3. Customize your dock
While Chrome OS only runs Web apps (with the exception of the browser itself and the file manager), it still offers a comforting desktop metaphor that makes launching apps easy. Filling the dock with icons gives you quick access to full Web apps like Evernote or Tweetdeck, or to your favorite sties, such as the New York Times (optimized for Chrome) or Phandroid.
4. Use the Search key
Chromebooks feature a novel Search key which is a great productivity enhancer. It searches all apps and files on your machine, in addition to a standard Google search.
5. Find equivalents for your Mac/PC apps – they’re out there
I often hear that Chromebooks “can’t do anything” and aren’t serious laptops. This may be true if you’re a hardcore gamer or Wall Street analyst, but otherwise a Chromebook can do almost anything a casual user or student might need to, using apps from the rich Chrome Web Store:
Productivity – Evernote, Google Drive, Write Space, and the excellent Drive-integrated Scratchpad can perform almost any writing or blogging functions
Music – Pandora and Google Play Music both run flawlessly in the browser (and can be stored in the dock), and things should get even better soon once Spotify pushes out its Web app.
Video – Hulu, Internet TV, and YouTube are some of the choice options here.
-The ScreenGrab Team