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


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.


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 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.


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.


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…

If You See a Close Button, They Blew it

–UPDATE: Hello readers of Marco’s blog! I’m John Kneeland and enjoying my 15 minutes of fame. Feel free to follow me @SirKneeland on the Inter-twits.–

Apple’s iPhone wasn’t the first touchscreen portable device, but it was the first one that didn’t make you want to stab yourself (or the device) with its stylus. One of the many reasons for this was that they were the first big company to realize that a touchscreen should not simply take desktop metaphors designed around a mouse and cursor and shoehorn them into a tiny touchscreen being used with your fat fingers.

One of the most obvious ways in which this is apparent is the replacing of small tiny buttons designed to be hit with a fine point (a cursor or stylus) with much larger buttons that can be accurately tapped with a finger.

Except, of course, for when Apple simply shoehorns desktop metaphors into a touchscreen:

I hope you brought your stylus...

The most egregious example of this interface inconsistency is in the teeny tiny close buttons that pop up on the iOS interface when you want to close apps in the app switcher, delete apps from the homescreen, or close a browser tab. it’s even worse in Apple’s new iOS notifications system, which decided being hard to use wasn’t enough and it should be hard to see as well.

Now featuring low-contrast colors for added inconvenience!

Naturally, since iOS made this mistake, Google made the same mistake when copying iOS designing Android.

Apparently great artists steal bad ideas, too.

In fact, the Android one may be even worse than the iOS one because while the iOS button is located halfway outside the window object’s border and thus catches the attention of the mind that identifies these jarring aberrations in shapes, the Android button is completely nested in the window.

How to avoid using the close button then? People still need to close things after all. I think there are two valid methods. In increasing order of awesomeness, they are: holding down for a contextual menu (exemplified in Windows Phone 7), and swiping away to dismiss (exemplified in webOS).


Well MS stuck with the teeny tiny close button in their browser windows, they have made a great contextual menu system in other areas, such as app management on the homescreen: Hold down your finger on something, and a contextual menu of actions pops up.

This successfully avoids the problem of having the teeny tiny close button. It also is potentially extensible as it allows for a large number of relevant contextual choices (for example, archive vs delete in Gmail). but runs the risk of replacing the teeny tiny close button with a teeny tiny text menu and leaving it open for the user to accidentally select the wrong contextual option. It also can wind up being used by app developers as a lazy catch-all for actions, leaving users with too many options, rather than forcing the developers to spend more time thinking about minimizing complexity and putting these other options elsewhere.


Swiping things away is, in my opinion, the most natural way to dismiss things as it is the most similar to how one might get rid of things in the physical world–toss them away!

webOS swipe up
Just swipe it away. No teeny tiny buttons required!

Of course, swiping has some problems of its own in terms of extensibility (it has none) and discoverability. In a few years the average user may be sufficiently ‘trained’ in expected touchscreen behaviors to know to try swiping, but for now any system using a swipe gesture should be sure to educate their users on the availability of swiping, ideally on device first-run.

Bottom line, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, is this:

if you see this button:

They blew it.

It should really be called the “blew it button.” I want to see a touchscreen OS that doesn’t have a single one of these (and unfortunately webOS added them in 3.0 for deleting apps on the homescreen). It’s one of those rare cases in which I can say Palm should take a lesson from Android and look at how removing an app from Android’s homescreen involves dragging an app to the trash:

Now THIS is how you delete an app!