Android and iOS – Two Approaches to Managing Constraints

iOS-Home

In a perfect world with infinite resources, one can create a perfect product. It would be a thing of beauty, with oodles of functional excellence and be dirt cheap. Unfortunately that world does not exist but in the fevered imaginations of dreamers. The rest of us have to live with constraints the real world imposes. We think hard about which audience we create the product for, how will it help solve their problems, what price will they pay, and so on. I have learnt a lot from this post on constraints by Matt Gemmell. Some quotes from that post, which should be read and assimilated in its entirety by the way.

All technology imposes constraints.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost. At buying time, we presumably consider availability too. They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

What will you optimize for, given the constraints imposed. What is more important to you as a creator. What is important to users you wish to target. But the hard reality is this, Users don’t really get to make a complete choice.  The hard choices are already made by the designer.

I remember Steve Jobs mentioning in one of his presentations that users employ product creators to make these decisions on their behalf. It is the job of the designer to choose between constraints judiciously. Not to randomly tack on features because it helps tick off one more check box in the minds of consumers who might not think deeply. Whether multi-tasking is a benefit when considering power management on a mobile device. Whether screen-size accounts for ergonomics of a human holding the device.

Superficial customization, extensibility options provide an illusion of control for the end user but come saddled with unacceptable tradeoffs for some users. For example extensible memory on my Galaxy S2 was seldom used. I preferred syncing over Wi-Fi or even a cable with my PC.

As a concrete example of how engineering decisions impact user experience, see this post by a Google engineer on why Android does not have a Fluid UI experience and might never have one. Here is the money quote:

It’s not GC pauses. It’s not because Android runs bytecode and iOS runs native code. It’s because on iOS all UI rendering occurs in a dedicated UI thread with real-time priority. On the other hand, Android follows the traditional PC model of rendering occurring on the main thread with normal priority.

That gentlemen is a classic example of a design decision taken on the Android platform. Deep in the bowels of the OS is a decision that ripples up to the UI. Of course am not sure if this was a decision to not optimize for fluid user interface. Or perhaps it was a legacy constraint that Android engineers could not work around.

The point is this, what are you optimizing for. Will you take the hard engineering decisions, that would not be seen or even understood by 99% of your users? Will you ask user’s to trust your judgement or will you take the lazy route and give everything the user asks for?

Apple chooses to optimize for user experience, for tactile responsiveness. Android chooses to optimize, or not, for broadest compatibility across a range of devices. Seen another way, the choices seem to be whether to work well on a single class of devices or work sub-optimally on a range of devices. What the designer chooses says a lot about their priorities. Which platform a customer chooses says a lot about what constraints they are willing to live with in exchange for what services.

Don’t miss reading Matt’s post, it opens up additional perspectives on how one should think when creating anything.

Android Design Methodology Not

My last post on Android design review documents gave me deep insight into possible Android design practices. Its a combination of simplicity and innovation. Details below.

Android-Design-Methodology-planB

Android-Design-Methodology-planB

 

Note: Am sure there are brilliant designers and engineers at Google and Samsung on the Android teams, no decent engineer or designer would stoop to blatant copying. I blame the senior management at these firms. Microsoft could innovate with Windows Mobile, they did the honorable thing even when pushed to the corner!

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Samsung Android and Daylight Bamboozlement

Apple sues Samsung on Android

 

Apple and Samsung have gone to the courts. Apple contends that Samsung Android ripped off iPhone’s design.

As a part of this process it was revealed how Apple took inspiration from Sony’s industrial design approach. Many online took this as an opportunity to paint Apple in a negative light, saying they too copied. I have always believed being inspired is one thing, outright theft quite another.

Today am happy to link to one example of what outright theft looks like. Please see below an internal Samsung document presented in court that goes through screen by screen where Samsung Android fails in terms of usability. See every screenshot in the document and determine for yourself if the UI of almost every app was copied or not. They obviously could not get every detail right so were doing some reviews.

Android-Samsung-Design-Review

I have written about Android before. But this level of blatant copying is ridiculous. No wonder Steve Jobs was pissed off.

Every creator goes through a soul-wrenching process to create anything. Companies like Samsung/Google with their Android are a blot upon the finest instincts of humanity and spirit of capitalism.

[Update: Removed Scribd embed, linking to Samsung Design Review file now.

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At Google, Poor Smeagol is Done, Gollum Takes Over

Before

Google DoNoEvil Smeagol

Google General Counsel Kent Walker wrote:

While collaborative [Standards Setting Organizations (SSOs)] play an important part in the overall standard setting system, and are particularly prominent in industries such as telecommunications, they are not the only source of standards. Indeed, many of the same interoperability benefits that the FTC and others have touted in the SSO context also occur when one firm publishes information about an otherwise proprietary standard and other firms then independently decide (whether by choice or of necessity) to make complementary investments to support that standard in their products. … Because proprietary or de facto standards can have just as important effects on consumer welfare, the Committee’s concern regarding the abuse of SEPs should encompass them as well.

– via AllThingsD.

What Google Actually Wants

Basically Google says, “Some features are so popular with customers, that they should be considered standards. Hence these features should be available for every manufacturer since it would otherwise harm consumers.”

Not sure if you got that? Okay, let me try again, “Since its obvious Apple has features that are loved by most, let us get those features for free so as to benefit our customers”. Btw, these are not about essential inventions which are covered under FRAND and Google is known to block sharing FRAND patents though it is legally obliged to do so via its Motorola acquisition.

Okay now, let us move to a comment by Urs Hölzle, boss of infrastructure at Google when asked about OpenCompute(a Facebook led initiative to share knowledge on building efficient DataCenters):

“Open Compute is a little bit tricky, if you can figure out how to make things work at scale and at good cost, that’s a competitive advantage. Thousands of years of engineering work has gone into the system to make it work.”

– via VentureBeat.

After

Google DoEvil Gollum

Err, did you see the disconnect there?! When it suits Google features developed by Apple should be considered a ‘standard’ so that consumers can benefit. But if its around sharing details of its own crown-jewels it acts all capitalistic.

We all know corporate sloganeering about “Open Standards”, “Do no evil” are mostly posturing to keep the gullible pleased but this double speak from Google is another order of hypocrisy. Am hoping for the thermonuclear thing that Steve Jobs had wanted for Google/Android.

Why Samsung/Android Will Never Get Another Dime From Me

Android - No dime from me

Android - No dime from me

(Rant Alert. Keep away if you wish!)

I hate Samsung Mobiles and Android. I hate them with an unparalleled intensity. Btw, I pre-ordered and bought a Samsung Galaxy S2, SGS2, believing it would ‘truly’ be the phone that proves Apple iOS had legitimate competition.

Before you ask, I am an Apple fan but never owned an iPhone myself. I have owned Nokia, BlackBerry and Motorola so far. Apple phones have always been rather expensive in India, so have admired them from afar. You would think with Nokia, Blackberry and Motorola as yardsticks for quality Samsung and Google would have no issue in making a customer happy. Tough luck, these fellows have no bloody clue on what makes a consumer device tick.

Just so we are objective in our hatred, here are some points:

Multi-tasking: The very first joke that hit me. After a full first charge done overnight, I used the phone from 8am and the damn thing lasted until 1 or 2pm, just by using the built-in apps. I used them slightly more than normal because it was a new device and I was eager to play. Pathetic power management was my impression on the first day of use. Nah, make piss-poor power management. Am sure at least few engineers behind Android knew multi-tasking would suck the battery’s soul and spit it into dark places. But guess multi-tasking was a marketing differentiator against Apple and the morons used it.

First App: Which led me to Google for options. I found that using a product like Advanced Task Killer helps power management. I hope you get the irony of this. My first f**cking app is “Advanced Task Killer” on Samsung, can you f**cking believe that? Anyway gentlemen, I did that and power management got vastly better..if I constantly killed apps that run in the background. Reminded me of using TaskManager on Windows to speed up my PC.

App Launch Experience: I got the standard list of apps Samsung ships with its version of Android. Eagerly I opened the pre-installed apps one by one. Every time I did that I had to accept Terms and Conditions..for every bloody app. I did not bother to understand whether it was for every app or every publisher or some other criteria. For all apps on the home page I had to accept conditions. What the f**k were they thinking?!!

Built-in Apps: The Google native apps were tolerable but none, absolutely none, of the built in apps put a smile on my face or helped accomplish my task without wincing. Let me highlight another gem, on the home screen the following apps were pre-installed – Voice Command, Voice Recorder, Voice Talk and Voice Search. Am sure if you thought about it deeply you might figure out what each of them did..but are you so jobless? Was there no person at Samsung to spot this?

Heating Problems: This phone heats up without apparent reasons, like a teenager who needs no specific reasons to feel horny. And I have given up trying to figure out the causes, just as I would think of a raving, slobbering, drunk on the street. It just is, best to ignore.

App Store: This deserves its own post. The Android App Store, or Google Play, is the very antithesis of “play”. It is a murky cesspool, notwithstanding the shiny veneer that confronts you when you launch it. Peer a tad closer and you will see clones of popular apps, apps that don’t elicit confidence that your private data will be treated with care, app equivalent of the Nigerian inheritance scam mails and more.

And so far I have not mustered enough recklessness to give Google my credit card details, so never bought a paid app. Before you think am a technical noob, I regularly buy my books/ebooks online via Amazon or Flipkart. On my iPad, of the 176 apps almost 35-40% are paid apps. Least expensive must be the 99cents ones, and most expensive one must be the WSJ subscription and AppCooker. That is just on my mobile devices, on the Mac I have bought Scrivener, OmniGraffle and more. Bottom line, as a software guy I love to pay developers for their work and don’t mind putting up the cash. The Android ecosystem(Google Play, Android, Samsung) just does not inspire that confidence in me, nor delight me enough to overcome perceptions of the ecosystem.

PC Sync: Samsung supplies a software called Kies to play the role of iTunes for iOS devices. It would be no exaggeration to state Kies is easily the most effed up piece of software thrust upon a hapless mankind. I truly have no words to describe how awful it is. The syncing mechanism is not reliable, when it actually manages to work. Inspite of constant updates, it has stayed as half-assed as when it was born. The firmware upgrade process is a joke, the OS upgrade is yet to arrive, the syncing works sometimes..in short, useless.

To Android fans: Sorry, you might have your reasons to love your variant of the mess that is Android. Hackability is a important but not in a consumer device. The ecosystem just does not attract the kind of mindsets and cultures that go into making beautiful and affordable experiences. Apps like Instagram for Android are exceptions to what prevails normally.

Conclusion: I bought a brick with my hard-earned money and deeply regret buying Samsung Galaxy S2. The issue is not with this device alone but the entire ecosystem and the kind of software providers and mindset it attracts. Am putting up this post so it can help people who are considering Galaxy Note, Galaxy S3 and other locust-like swarm of Android variants that are waiting to feed on our money and our patience. Not a dime more from me Google/Android/Samsung, I did pay a big price and trusted you to build something worthy. And you let me down big time.

Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Don via Compfight
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Taste and Specification

Taste in product creation overlaps a lot with design: doing it well requires it to be valued, rewarded, and embedded in the company’s culture and upper leadership.

That is a quote from Marco Arment‘s post titled Time and Taste. An excellent post as usual from Marco, and I would like to elaborate on the taste aspect.

Specification is not the Product

Any product is always built to a specification. A 4-inch touch-sensitive screen, 1GB RAM, 8GB memory, expansion via SD card slots and so on. Yet the result, when one considers an Android phone, feels like something a one-eyed drunkard put together, after pondering nuances with co-drunkards in a noisy section of a 3rd world bazaar.

Yes it is manufactured to specification but the thing functions in a way that makes you feel disappointed every damn time. That experience betrays lack of taste at every point from, and between, producer to consumer. Of course there will be a market for poorly designed products/services. You could argue about affordability, demographic needs, wider price points and so on. But a producer of such tasteless goods is only a slightly refined version of crooks who steal from children.

Aesthetic Escapes Specification

What is taste? Hard to describe but taste can be i) an aesthetic sensibility ii) an outcome of a specific world-view or iii) result of a reasoned belief. Taste, like reasoning, is a skill of mental cognition. Everything needs to be actively thought about, critiqued and most important savored for what it is beyond its functionality .

Put simply, if specification is prose then taste would be poetry. A specification can never capture beauty and feeling.

Why should you care? Tasteful products have competitive differentiation built-in. Of course it requires an audience with taste. The challenge will be to identify this audience, if not to work towards educating and building up an audience with taste. That done, you don’t have to play the “price drop” game anymore. And taste is hard to copy too. Your competitor can steal a feature or your style but they can seldom be you or your product.

Where does taste stand in your scheme of things? Does your organization have it, encourage it?

A Parent’s Guide to Apple’s iPad

Parents Guide-Home

There are a ton of Apple iPad guides and tutorials over the web. But very little info to guide parents of children under 5.  If you are a parent, or about to be one, read this post.

A shiny toy/device like the iPad invariably draws children to it and there is little you could do to stop them from messing about with it. A bawling child is a argument you can’t win. And almost every time the iPad can act as a high-tech pacifier to get your child to do anything(stop bawling, eat their food, divert attention from other gadgets and give you some breathing time!).

Steps to defend your iPad

Familiarize yourself with the Settings –> General section. Almost all the stuff you have to do resides here.

Parents Guide-Settings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Man the Gates with Passcode

Parents Guide-Passcode Lock

 

This is your first line of defense.

Go to Home –> Settings –> General

Choose Passcode Lock and turn setting to on. You will be asked to select a four digit number. This will be your primary lock down step.

Note the Erase Data setting. After 10 unsuccessful logon tries the system would wipe out your data. Be careful with this. I have chosen to keep it on.

Restricting Apps

Next step is to enable various restrictions on what can be done on your device.

Parents Guide-Restrictions

Right below Passcode Lock, you will find Restrictions entry. Switch this on and you will the screen shown here.

Again, to get here follow Settings –> General –> Restrictions.

Below entries should ideally be turned “OFF”

i) Installing Apps ii) Deleting Apps iii) Accounts iv) Location v) In-App Purchases vi) Multiplayer Games vii) Adding Friends viii)Safari ix)YouTube and x) iTunes

Of course doing this restricts capabilities of the device and makes it a little dumb but the whole point is to prevent kids from doing things you don’t want them to do. You can selectively enable these options when you want to.

Restricting Content

If restricting all online media consumption options seems tyrannical then you can notch down things a little.

Allowed Apps

Parents Guide-Allowed Apps

Choose the country you are in to get ratings relevant to your region. So this is Settings –> General –> Restrictions –> Ratings For.

All apps on the Apple platform are rated just like media.

This is a truly a smart way to think about Apps on a device like the iPad. Curation of apps by Apple ensures there is consistency in the ratings.

Select Allow Apps Rated. Choose the ratings relevant for your child’s age group.

 

Allowed Music & Podcasts

Parents Guide-Allowed Music Podcast

 

Select Allow Music & Podcasts Rated.

Turn this Explicit setting to “OFF”. You certainly don’t want kids watching dodgy stuff. Of course you can turn it back on when you are using the device.

 

 

 

Allowed Movies

Parents Guide-Allowed Movies

 

 

Choose the option Allow Movies Rated. Select the rating options relevant again.

 

 

 

 

Allowed TV Shows

Parents Guide-Allowed TVShows

Select the Allow TV Shows Rated option.

Select the options most relevant for your child.

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Lockdown

After all this, you might get a little complacent and think you are safe. But kids have a way of getting their fingers into screens you never thought existed. This skill will put them and you in trouble especially when connected to the Internet. So my step is to shutdown ability to get online.

Parents Guide-WiFi Access

 

Go to Settings –> WiFi.

Switch the WiFi setting to “OFF”.

This would stop your iPad from getting online. This is most useful and can be used as a master switch, without fiddling with allowed ratings for various types of content and apps.

 

 

 

Important Note : On iTunes, ensure you don’t save your password. Require to provide this password every time. That way when your kid somehow gets to iTunes on the iPad or tries to buy something the password request dialog box will act as another line of defense. Remember, your credit card details are on iTunes and a simple click can wipe some serious money from your account.

Some Parting Words

It is a delight to watch your child pick up the UI idioms without blinking, as if it were all obvious. And therein lies the magic of what Apple has managed to deliver. For all the Android and other tablet fans out there, I really would like to see a first generation device that can be used by a child.

All said, if you are a new owner of an iPad, hearty congratulations. As an individual and as a parent it has exceeded my expectations in the first few days and am sure it will do the same for you. And do not take your child’s time with the device lightly, always ensure you have some adult supervising its use. Have fun.