UPGRADING ANDROID: FIXING ANDROID AND ITS RELATIONSHIP WITH THE INTERNET OF THINGS

I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at Android lately.  It’s the most important computing platform in the world (so far). If it’s not already the most widespread, it certainly will be in the near future

Since my employer has gotten out of the phone business (sigh…) I now feel free to comment on Android and other smartphone things without worries of running afoul of any company policies on publicly discussing competitors. So here is the first in what will hopefully be a running series of thoughts on Android and how to further improve it. First up: Android and device compatibility with the Internet of Things

INTERNET OF THINGS: IT’S GOING TO BE A THING

It should be anything but controversial to state that Android’s greatest strength–its massive distribution across geographies, demographics and devices that vary in price and features from the very top of the market to devices that somehow sell an entire smartphone for less than some people pay for iPhone cases (in short, its diversity)—is also its Achilles heel.

The ability of Android to bring the power of personal computing to hundreds of millions and then billions of human beings who may otherwise never have experienced it is a tremendous achievement that should be celebrated. However, this creates a tension within Android: how to continue to drive the specs for low-end Android down, while continuing to drive innovation with cutting-edge hardware on the high-end? Let’s look at this through one particular angle, which happens to be the next frontier in mobile technology innovation: support for Internet of Things devices and wearables—particularly those with a direct (Bluetooth/Bluetooth LE) connection to the phone.

HELLO MOTO…HELLO?

My own Android (the brilliant Moto X) has a problem. It has had a stormy relationship with my BTLE, “Internet of Things”-era gadgets: my Pebble smartwatch and my Fitbit. At the intersection of chipsets, drivers, OEMs, developers and OS software (rest assured, they all blame each other), the connections between my Moto X and IoT devices are woefully lacking. My Moto X was simply “unsupported” by FitBit when I first bought it, and to this day the Pebble smartwatch can only maintain the flakiest connection with my Moto X, frequently losing the connection and failing to update the weather or whatever other info my Pebble watches. This of course comes on top of the already-frustrating                    month-long delay between Pebble 2.0 support being released on iPhone and its being released on Android.

How my Pebble usually connects to my Moto X (or doesn't)

How my Pebble usually connects to my Moto X (or doesn’t)

And again, this isn’t on some off-brand, not-even-Google-Play-certified device I got from a guy in Shenzhen. This is on the Moto X, a flagship Android device (and truly the best Android device I’ve used to date).

And it is clear that my device and I are not alone in this. Perusing Google searches and statements from developers and reviewers in the Play Store show there are countless users with various devices having connectivity issues, making the overall experience frustrating for users and a support nightmare for developers who get to enjoy what I call the “1-star Rage Review” problem in which a user whose device has compatibility issues takes it out on the developer and drags their app’s rating through the mud even though the situation is as likely to be the fault of an OEM with a glitchy BT driver.

THE PROBLEM IN A NUTSHELL

The problem is this: Android devices at the high end suffer from lack of consistency in hardware support for next-generation Internet of Things experiences. This makes the Android experience worse for developers and worse for Android end-users—and drives both of them to the iPhone, which by comparison really does earn its “just works” reputation (no wonder given that you can count the total number of iOS devices you need to target on one hand). The ultimate tl;dr for this article comes form Tile, a very nifty Bluetooth LE tag that lets you find tagged things anywhere with your iPhone (and only your iPhone):

The tl;dr right here

That pretty much sums it up

Google, this is a problem.

Given that Internet of Things and wearables are among the next big waves in consumer technology innovation, this is something Google should proactively address.

HOW, THEN, DO WE FIX IT?

Idea 1: don’t do anything. BTLE support will improve over time.

While strategic inaction can be a surprisingly underrated plan in some cases, I don’t think this is one of them. Yes it is true that BTLE support in Android has improved and will continue to improve and grow more widespread across the Android device spectrum. But it is still in a state of “improving” on Android right now, whereas iPhone is working right now. If you were a startup with a new idea for a connected Bluetooth gadget, which platform would you target first? No, Google must be more proactive.

Furthermore, even as the BTLE disparity slowly resolves, the next hardware innovation will begin the Cycle of Bad Support all over again (we see it now as Apple moves forward with the M7 motion-sensing co-processor and full API library to support it while support for similar functionality in Android devices is again a piecemeal effort at best between Qualcomm, Google, and OEMs).

Idea 2: mandate better support from OEM as a condition of Google Play certification.

Google could update the Google Play minimum devices specs to include more robust support for BTLE and other advanced sensors. They could restrict the number of “acceptable” chipsets and rigorously test them to ensure compatibility reaches “it just works” levels. Or they could welcome any chips but require them to pass a vastly more stringent suite of testing requirements.

This would backfire because it would either drive device prices up and/or drive OEM partners away.

Saying that all Android phones must have flagship-level support for IoT connectivity puts an unreasonable burden on the makers of low-end Androids, who will pass those costs on to end-users. The phones will cost more. If they cost more, fewer will be purchased. That’s bad for everyone.

What is even worse for Google is that forcing these changes on all OEMs could simply drive many of them to use a non-Google fork of Android that doesn’t come with Google’s expensive requirements in order to continue making phones at lower and lower prices

And all this for what gain? Yes the problem for people purchasing Moto Xs, HTC Ones and Galaxy phones would be solved, but for the rest of the world, “better connectivity to my smartwatch and Fitbit” is not really a pressing concern. Google needs a solution that improves the experience for the high-end phone+IoT ecosystem without impeding the growth of the low-end, phone-only ecosystem.

Idea 3: The Good Idea

Well you knew I was setting you up for this, didn’t you? I suggest Google go for a more pareto-optimal approach. For high-end devices targeting wealthy consumers in developed markets, offer OEMs a supplemental certification program. It could be a narrower band of BTLE chipsets supported, it could be more rigorous testing requirements for any chips, or some other means of ensuring a more reliable and easier to target developer platform.

I’ve even got a name to show Google Play certification of Internet of Things devices: Google PlayThings

Hey, it works

Hey, it works

People like me who are interested in a high-end Android phone and an Internet of Things that goes along with it can buy a PlayThings certified Android. The billions of people on earth who need smartphones to be as cheap as possible can still get a great Google-connected device

The “1-star Rage Review” problem could also be ameliorated. Imagine if only users who had a PlayThings certified phone could leave reviews on the product. Developers and other potential users could get useful reviews instead of being drowned in a sea of 1-star “IT DOESN’T WORK” rageviews. Better, more useful reviews means happier developers. It also means more users, which in turn means even happier developers who will bring more great new experiences to Android.

Moreover, PlayThings as a standard should evolve as the technological frontier moves forward. For example, PlayThings 2014 may focus on BTLE while PlayThings 2015 could add focus on a consistency in motion coprocessors.

While Android can never replicate Apple’s simplicity of compatibility (“works with iPhone 4S, 5, 5S”) being able to say “works with PlayThings 2014 devices” is an improvement on the current practice of maintaining lengthy lists of compatible and incompatible devices from dozens of OEMs.

OPENING UP A NEW MARKETING OPPORTUNITY

Of course, any change in a product/program should be accompanied by an analysis to see if it opens up any new marketing opportunities, and a PlayThings program would open up new marketing opportunities for both consumers and developers. Google could start promoting PlayThings-certified phones, IoT things, and supporting apps in its Play Store.

Consumers will benefit from having a visible and trusted place to buy new pieces of hardware to augment their Android experience. With such a showcase, consumers would purchase more new connected devices than they would otherwise, which of course also benefits the 3rd party developers making them and going through the effort to support Android and not just iOS.

Why not use this valuable real estate to promote an ecosystem cool Android-compatible gadgets?

Why not use this valuable real estate to promote an ecosystem cool Android-compatible gadgets?

So there we have it. I think this solution addresses a real platform problem of Android in a practical way that:

  • doesn’t hurt Android’s ability to scale down to the next billion users
  • improves the experience for high-end users
  • also creates a new marketing and merchandising opportunity to make targeting Android more lucrative for today’s most cutting-edge hardware developers.

Google I/O is coming up soon. Let’s see what they have up their sleeves…

Why Gruber may be wrong re: “Smartphone Mojo”

John Gruber wrote a rebuttal of sorts to a piece in The Nation about the iPhone “losing its Mojo” against the ever-growing wave of Android devices.

Gruber did point out (correctly, in my view) that the iPhone does attract the more valuable segment of customers, and so they can still do well with a smaller share of the market because they have the customers that matter.

One comparison I found a bit less convincing was when he talked about how iPhone “was never the smartphone market share leader” being behind Symbian and BlackBerry (while still having a superior ecosystem to the companies with larger shares of the pie).

I don’t think that is relevant to Apple’s situation vis-a-vis Android. See, BlackBerry and Symbian were not at all into the whole “ecosystem” thing. Symbian (pre-Qt) and BlackBerry (pre-BB10) developer platforms were technically rough and a headache to develop for. The powers that be behind Symbian and BlackBerry OS weren’t working furiously to match their market size to a developer platform from a technical or business perspective. The difference between Apple building a superior ecosystem with smaller market share then (vs Symbian and BlackBerry OS) and now (vs Android) is that Google has done (and continues to do) spectacular work in recognizing the importance of a developer ecosystem and building the technical and business supports for that ecosystem.

Apple has never been in a situation in which a competitor held considerably larger market share and put just as much effort into its developer platform/ecosystem as Apple did.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Apple did face a competitor like that before. It was called Windows.

image credit: FTD.de

Apple didn’t do so well when a competitor combined a real ecosystem effort with bigger market share. Nearly killed ‘em, actually…

Instagate: Put up or Shut Up

Okay, technical elites. You’re the ones who are the most upset over Instagram’s policy changes. You’re also the most technically able to build new things, and wield influence over others (so you say, anyway) to change how we do things.

Well, you self-styled leaders, it’s time to lead. How about you actually stop using Instagram and start using something else? Put up and do something, or shut up and bow your heads down in servitude/while aiming your iPhone at your food to take another picture of it

Metro++ | Is that text clickable or not?

In what will hopefully be the first of many “Metro++” blog posts on improving the Metro experience, I wanted to focus on discoverability of functionality. One of the weaknesses in Metro as it now exists is that the emphasis on typography instead of chrome means that it isn’t always clear when any particular piece of text is meant to be clickable and do something, and when it is meant to simply be read. This has two negative consequences:

  1. Users will miss functionality by not knowing some text chunks are clickable, which is a Bad Thing
  2. Once they grasp that some text is clickable, they will try poking (or if using Metro with a mouse, clicking) all over all the time to discover the Metro app’s functionality by trial and error—which at least works, but isn’t particularly elegant, and would be seen as a downgrade compared to iOS and Android which better delineate between clickable text elements and non-clickable elements by making the former more button-like

Case-in-point. I only accidentally discovered that header was clickable

Now, how can Microsoft (or an OEM with some significant rights to customize the OS) solve this problem?

  1. Redesign the entire OS. No.
  2. Delineate between clickable and non-clickable text with additional graphical elements. In the Metro UI guidelines, MS shows how to make a clear distinction between graphical elements that serve as buttons and those that don’t: Put them in a circle or a box. A circle/oval would be impossible and look out of place. A rectangle around actionable text would work, but add a lot of clutter, especially if there is a lot of actionable text. So…No, but getting warmer.

What it would look like to button-ize everything: a cluttered mess

I think the solution is right under our nose…or somewhere between the nose and the screen. I am of course referring to smell-based computing the hover!

Crafting Hover

Hover (or onMouseOver) rose to prominence in the early-ish days of the WWW as a mass phenomenon. HTTP websites were a new concept for millions of people accessing the Web for the first time, and much as in Metro today, there was some confusion in what text was clickable (this can still be witnessed today by watching your parents trying to navigate the Internet). This was solved in two ways:

  1. When the cursor was on top of something actionable it turned into a pointer finger
  2. When the cursor was on top of a UI element (such as a nav menu) that was actionable, the element would change color or to another graphic thanks to the power of this newfangled thing called JavaScript

Of course both of those relied on a cursor, which doesn’t exist in a touch interface. Can we make an equivalent of this “I’m here, but not clicking on it” function in a touch screen?

YES WE CAN*

*with the help of some clever capacitive technology

Capacitive touch screens work by sensing a disturbance in The Force the electrical field around the screen, not just at the immediate glass surface. It is actually entirely possible to sense a finger wandering around above the screen without actually touching it, as Sony recently demonstrated with “floating touch” in their Xperia Sola. And so it is possible to have mouseOver effects in the Metro interface! When the finger is near a clickable block of text, that text could highlight itself in a number of ways, but I think 2 good ones would be:

1. Underline, a la IE in the late 90s

OPTION 1: Underline on mouseover

2. A glowing effect around the actionable text

Option 2: Glowing effect on hover

Any of these would address this discoverability shortcoming in Metro, and also look pretty darn cool and futuristic, which helps sell devices at retail, and adds another layer of sophistication in human-device interaction that would make iOS and Android look a bit dull by comparison. Also in Metro, an added bonus is the ability to have graceful degradation from Touch to Mouse, since the onHover signals can just as well apply to MouseOvers. So, that’s what I’d like to see. Get to it, Microsoft!

Metro++

Metro++

I love Metro. It’s clean, fast, refreshingly different, and beautiful. But that doesn’t mean it is perfect. I hope to write some blog posts on how I would improve Metro, and the Windows (and Windows Phone) experience.

In full disclosure, I am an employee of Nokia, the premier partner of Microsoft when it comes to Windows Phone. While I have the privilege of working with many teams on many exciting projects throughout the company, I do not work with our design teams, and if there is any suggestion I make that happens to be in a future Nokia product, it is a pure coincidence (although if Marko Ahtisaari/Peter Skillman/Kevin Shields want to drop me a line they are welcome to ping me on Lync J )    

 

A Modest Proposal: Google, Take My Money

Hey Google.

How are you? I’m doing fine (but then again you probably knew that already from all the data you’ve collected on me).

That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, actually.

Google, as you continue to make it easier for us to be tracked all over the Internet (and harder for us to opt out), it seems to be dawning on more and more people (though I would say far from a critical mass by any stretch) that the Google we all know and love is steadily creeping away from its original mission of simply being the world’s best search engine.

I’m not going to ascribe this to some sort of evil intent as others seem to be all too happy to do. I get (and rather love) capitalism, and understand you need to make money to continue existing. I understand that it costs money to build and run your awesome Internet services (I for one am particularly dependent on Gmail, contacts and calendars—all of which work swimmingly with my Nokia Lumia, thanks for that btw).

Right now the only currency I can use to pay for most Google services is myself—my eyeballs and my data, which are worth a certain monetary amount to you. Let’s eliminate the middle-man (advertisers) and let me give that money directly to you. In exchange for a monthly or annual fee, you will give me the Google services I know and love with no ads, and no tracking tools behind them. You can detect my device’s useragent to ensure an optimal experience, and my location if I choose to share it with you, but everything else about me remains my business and nobody else’s. I get a better service—cleaner, and without the analytics gobbletygook that is now pushing the size of a typical web page up to 1 MB, probably a good deal faster too.

Meanwhile, you get the same money you would have gotten—and possibly more if you charged a premium over what you would have made on ads (I don’t know if you make $100 a year on me now, but I’ve been known to pay that much for .Mac/MobileMe, and those didn’t even work).

Moreover, it’s not as if this were an unprecedented idea; it’s precisely how a growing number of apps work. For the typical Zynga game, there is usually the option of a free, ad-supported version and a paid, ad-free one. Apps give us a choice of pay or ads, why can’t Google? I know plenty (if not the majority) of your users don’t want to pay, and are happy to deal with ads to get Google services for free. But you should offer the option satisfy your power users. Think of it as the Android Nexus version of Google writ large.

Make Nexus premium brand across all of Google's properties.

The longer you don’t do this, the more likely it becomes that a competitor will—be it a nimble young upstart, an old wealthy nemesis, or newer and even wealthier nemeses will (or perhaps an old struggling nemesis looking for a Hail Mary?)

In short: Google, you deserve to be paid for your services. I just wish you’d take alternative forms of payment besides my eyeballs and my personal information.

Oh, and Facebook: Same goes for you.

Moving on to The Next Billion

I have made the decision to move to Nokia, effective December 19.

While I fully support Meg’s announcement to make webOS an open source project, and am tremendously excited for the future of webOS, I was given an opportunity at Nokia that I couldn’t turn down where I think I can have a significant impact.

Nokia sells more phones to more people than any company on Earth, and their corporate mission of connecting the Next Billion resonates with me personally. When I spent 2 years working in India I witnessed firsthand the power of mobile technology to transform how people from all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum worked, played, and lived–on Nokia devices more than any other. This is what gave my professional life direction, what inspired me to move to Silicon Valley and dedicate myself to mobile technology in the first place, and the opportunity to be a part of the company that started it all for me is simply too exciting to pass up. I am honored and excited that Nokia has invited me to join in their journey of connecting the world’s billions.

2011 was a year of challenges for those of us at HP, and I worked with some that taught me a lot about overcoming adversity and working under pressure. I want to thank all of them for taking me under their wing and teaching me and making my time there so memorable. The webOS community of developers, hackers, and superfans is truly like nothing else. Even though I am trading my Pre3 for a Lumia 800, webOS will always have a special place in my heart.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a billion people to connect…