I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Google Blindness

Paul Stamatiou’s “Android Is Better” is generating a lot of discussion and inflammatory headlines, and many readers have sent it to me (partly because I get name-checked in it — I’ll get to that in a bit).

Paul’s headline is his thesis, conclusion, and call to action: Android is better, and everyone should try it and will likely convert like he did. But after reading the article, I’m more convinced than ever that the best mobile platform for me is currently iOS.

That sentence contains two huge qualifiers: the best mobile platform for me is currently iOS. I’ve learned to write and think with a broader view, since it’s less insular and more accurately reflects reality. (The world is a big place.)

While reading Paul’s article, I was often struck by how differently he and I use the same technology.

His article exudes a narrow tech-world view by having no such qualifiers. I don’t know Paul, but if his audience is similarly narrow, this might be a safe assumption in the context of writing on his personal site. I don’t qualify my posts here with “…well, if you have a computer,” because I can assume that most people reading my site are included in that group. But I bet Paul’s audience isn’t as narrow as he thinks.

Despite using a Mac and formerly using an iPhone and iPad, Paul says he doesn’t use any major iCloud services and doesn’t use iTunes (or maintain a music library at all), then concludes:

The list of Apple products I use daily largely amounts to OS X and Apple hardware. People identify themselves as Mac users and Windows users… zoom out a bit and you’ll find another Venn diagram where Google almost entirely encompasses all of these users.

Rather than using Apple’s services, he uses a wide variety of Google’s: (emphasis his)

Google+ Auto Backup … I use Chrome … My calendars are hosted by Google … I made do by exporting from the OS X Contacts app and importing to GMail Contacts. … Most services I rely on daily are owned by Google. My world revolves around GMail and Google search. …

One key component to this experience is that my identity follows me around. Given that the majority of the services I rely on are Google products, I’m already logged in or just need to select an account. This is a significant convenience that also extends to apps using Google for sign-in. …

However, Google Now is what genuinely makes this experience magical. … So how do you use Google Now? Well, you don’t. You just go about your life and when it’s appropriate, Google Now will send you a notification to something relevant.

To me, that sounds like a nightmare.

I object to a huge, creepy advertising company having that much access to me and my data, I think it’s unwise to use many proprietary, hard-to-replace services in such important roles, and I think it’s downright foolish to tie that much of your data and functionality into proprietary services run by one company in one account that sometimes gets disabled permanently with no warning, no recourse, and no support.

But people love Google’s services, especially geeks and power users. I get it — there’s a lot to love. They’re just not for me. I use search and maps, but little else.

If you give Google an inch, they take a foot. I stay logged out of my Google account most of the time, despite their incessant badgering. I try to keep some distance from them, which means I’m always defending my technology use from further Google intrusion.1

If Apple somehow irrevocably locks out my Apple ID, which I’ve never heard of happening, it would be inconvenient. My contacts and calendar would temporarily stop syncing during the 20 minutes it would take to create a new account and point my devices to it. The biggest problem would be losing my app and media purchases, although I wouldn’t lose any local copies of anything, and there’s a phone number I can call to convince a human to give me a transfer or credit. But that’s it. My standard IMAP email, and almost everything else I do on my computers and phone, will be fine.

It’s important to maintain diversity of services.

No tech giant wants you to maintain any diversity, though. Apple pushes you to choose Apple hardware for every profitable device category, then buy software and media from Apple storefronts (and a lot of that media still has DRM). Google tries as hard as it can to railroad you into using Google’s services for everything you do online. Facebook’s even worse, more shameless, and more proprietary by trying to replace staples like email and calendars with completely proprietary implementations and zero interoperability (which Google can’t wait to copy). Twitter is trying very hard to achieve Facebook levels of creepiness, intrusion, and lock-in as quickly as possible, and Microsoft wishes they could still do it like they did in the ’90s.

If you buy into Apple’s ecosystem too much, Android will be limited, annoying, and incomplete to you — especially if you try to keep Google away from most of your data. Alternately, if you buy mostly into Google’s ecosystem and avoid most of Apple’s services, like Paul says he does, iOS’ downsides and limits may feel unjustified and Android will feel more integrated.

It’s foolish for people on either side to ignore the other or the middle, because despite what it sometimes looks like to geeks like us, we’re not everyone. Not even close. Even within our world, we can’t agree on much.

What Paul’s article really says is that Android “is better”… for him, his usage, and his priorities. That’s fine, but it really doesn’t generalize well.2

As for my name-check:

The Android community lacks a champion. An evangelist that doesn’t obsess over hardware specs and has a broader appeal. Someone that vividly illustrates how Android can fit into the ebb and flow of your daily life as it has mine. And sure, even someone to encourage budding developers to take their next idea to Android. Where is the Marco Arment or John Gruber of Android? We’ll get there.

I’m honored by the suggestion that I’m somehow helping iOS, but in reality, I’m not that important. iOS helps itself, especially in developers’ eyes, by delighting its customers so they keep coming back, being a pleasure to develop for (compared to most platforms), and attracting a healthy ecosystem of better users to develop most apps for.

Developers aren’t fools. We aren’t swayed by charismatic figureheads who try to convince us to develop for their platforms. The formula is quite simple. We’ll develop for a platform if:

  1. We use it.
  2. A lot of other people use it.
  3. We can make a living developing for it.

If your platform nails all three, we’ll develop for it. Nobody will even need to ask us. We’ll break the door down.

A weakness in any of those three can only be made up for by both others being very strong. Even then, you often don’t get great apps. iOS nails all three, so that’s where most developers focus their attention. While Android has closed a lot of the gap since I wrote that in 2010, it still significantly lags behind iOS in criteria 1 and 3, despite kicking ass at 2.

As for “an evangelist that doesn’t obsess over hardware specs and has a broader appeal”: John Grubers don’t just fall from the sky and get allocated to random hardware platforms. (John also doesn’t really “belong” to iOS or Apple the way many Windows and Android fans suggest.) Android isn’t just sitting around waiting for its turn to get one. Time won’t fix this.

The better question the Android community should be asking itself is why it hasn’t attracted or developed great writers and evangelists as well as Apple has. They’re probably there, but in smaller numbers and far less visible. What is it about Android and its community that’s preventing such people from shining through?

  1. As one example, I use Safari for most browsing, but use Chrome anytime I need to run Flash or log into Google, Facebook, or Twitter for something. (With the ubiquity of their embeds and their cross-site tracking practices, I’m too skeptical to log into any of them from my primary browser, even though I’m sure they’re tracking my Safari browsing through inference anyway.)

    Every time I visit a site in Chrome with a Keychain-saved login from Safari, Chrome barrages me with Keychain prompts to access it. If I say no, it just keeps asking. (And no, deleting all of Safari’s Keychain entries is not a helpful “fix”.) Clearly, there aren’t a lot of people at Google testing cases such as “current or former Safari users” or “people who don’t allow Google to access everything all the time”. ↩︎

  2. While reading his article, after scrolling past the halfway point, a balloon popped up that prompted me to post a link to it on Twitter and follow Paul.

    I’d never implement something like that on my site, and relatively few of my readers would ever accept such an invitation on any site. (I sure wouldn’t.) But Paul’s different, and his audience is probably different.

    Again: different worlds. ↩︎