The Weird Voodoo Necessary To Spawn Great Apps On Your Platform

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“Android users don’t buy apps”, people will tell you. I have no idea whether that’s true, but I do know I switched to The Mac in part due to the presence of great apps, apps not present on Windows. I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that a platform will gain in popularity by virtue of having great apps. Which makes launching new platforms difficult. Inherently, new platforms won’t have many apps at launch and unless some really good ones are written fast, your platform might never take off.

Let’s define a great app as being an app that’s simple, beautiful, solves a problem for you, and is fast and stable.

I like Windows. I’ve used it for a decade. There are window-management features I still miss, having switched. I hope Windows 8 will do great. But I can’t say Windows ever had great apps; Windows had good apps. I particularly miss Directory Opus, an over-the-top-powerful file management application with integrated FTP, regex file renamer and too many nice features to mention. This was a good app, and I would love a Mac version. But it’s not a beautiful app. It’s got an uninspiring icon, the UI is cluttered by default, the bundled icons don’t look good and the app itself is only as pretty as Windows native UI is. But does it matter that an app isnt’ beautiful?

My noodling on the matter says yes. During the formative months or years of a new operating system — case in point, OSX — the apps that come out will generally dicatate what follows for that platform. If a slew of functional, great-looking apps come out, these apps will define where the bar is set. Once the platform, for a variety of reasons including the presence of aforementioned apps becomes popular enough, it will obviously attract a slew of crappy apps as well, sure. But the higher the bar was set initially, the fewer crap apps will follow. There’s simply no need to look beyond that one app that filled a niche.

Back when I was still powerusing Windows, ALT-tabbing and generally working things to my liking, I was surprised at my Mac friends and their utter determination to make sure all their dock icons were pretty. Sure, I can appreciate a good icon design, but an app can be good without a great icon, can’t it? This mac-using-friend-determination went further and involved criticising the lack of native UI in the Firefox browser, an otherwise tech-hipster darling at the time. I couldn’t care less at the time. As Yogi Berra said: if the app is good the app is good. Right?

Right. And also sometimes wrong. Windows has good apps, but few of them are beautiful. That’s how it’s always been. As the PC has grown from its DOS infancy, apps have improved in both features and looks. But Windows itself, although functional, was never particularly beautiful to look at. Almost reflecting this, neither were Windows apps. Still, it was the platform with the most apps by far, probably still is. The downside is that most of them are crap. Google windows video converter and you’ll more results than is funny. How are you going to find the one good one among them?

The Mac, on the other hand, made a clean break with OSX. Apps had to be rewritten from scratch, and the operating system itself had received a “lickable” design — it was very pretty to look at by yesteryears standards. The Mac was in a bad place at the time, marketshare-wise, so the trickle of new OSX-ready apps wasn’t overwhelming. Still, because of the clean break and the presence of a userbase, apps did appear. For some reason, these apps were simple, beautiful and userfriendly. Like the OS. You could think the Mac developers at the time felt their apps should reflect the sense of taste the OS itself exuded. Whatever happened, a philosophy of building the one app to rule each niche seems to have been born at this time. Microsoft never made this clean break with Windows, so there was never an opportunity for developers to stop and rethink their apps, and the standard for “pretty” was never very high. The result is a billion apps that do the same thing, because no developer filled a niche in any significant fashion.

I sound like a long-time Apple lover, which I’m not. I switched to The Mac because of the UNIX commandline. Make no mistake about it, there are things about The Mac Way that I sincerely loathe. OSX Lion, for example, is the worst $29 I’ve spent in years. I’m also firmly entrenched with The Android, the Gmail app and seamless syncing is enough to ensure that.

But thinking about the weird voodoo necessary for a new platform to take off, it’s really hard to get around both the Mac and the iPhones portfolio of apps and the standard they’ve set. While it’s all a bunch of evening noodling and gut-feelings, this all tells me that if you want great apps on your platform, you need to combine a beautiful UI with a clean break. It appears Microsoft may be taking this route. Android take note.

Whither Web-Apps

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The web changed things. It’s dictated the path of Android, iOS and Chrome OS. All three are operating systems that approach menial computer tasks in an entirely different way:

  • they store things in the cloud
  • they hide the filesystem from you
  • they’ve shed the shackles of the traditional desktop and windowing metaphor

We no longer have to discuss whether it was actually Xerox PARC that invented the “Recycle Bin” concept, we can instead discuss whether we even need one1. It’s exciting. A computer no longer has to have a floppy or a disc drive. In fact, often times you don’t even need a keyboard. In the future, we might not need a physical interface at all, controlling everything with voice and gestures. It’s as if the new way has uprooted us from the rut of putting application links in a dock and discussing whether the window close button should be in the top left or the top right corner. Everything is different, and we can thank Apple first and Google second, for finally bringing us this much needed paradigm shift. In one key area of this exciting new future, however, Google and Apple differ in their approaches.

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  1. The answer is yes, but not for files. Could be for closed tabs, or it could hold an “Undo” history perhaps.  

Android OS vs. Chrome OS

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Google’s IO keynote is over. One day was dedicated to Chrome OS, another to Android OS — one day for each of Googles operating systems. Here’s what thay said about the next Android OS, Ice Cream Sandwich:

Our goal with Ice Cream Sandwich is to deliver one operating system that works everywhere, regardless of device. Ice Cream Sandwich will bring everything you love about Honeycomb on your tablet to your phone, including the holographic user interface, more multitasking, the new launcher and richer widgets.

So naturally, people are asking: if the goal is one OS for all devices, why does Chrome OS exist?

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Use Microsofts official Internet Explorer Virtual PC testing images in VirtualBox on OSX

If you need to test Internet Explorer 6 on your Mac, but don’t want to resort to multibooting, you can download the free VirtualBox software, and grab one of Microsofts free VirtualPC testing images and get up and running.

  1. Download a VPC image of your choice.
  2. Rename the .exe file to .rar, then unpack using a RAR unpacker on the Mac
  3. Create a new Virtual Machine in Virtualbox. When you get the chance to select an existing disk, do that and point to the VPC image.
  4. Boot. The VPC image may require activation and/or a password (which resides inside the .txt file that came with the VPC image)

Yep. There’s the activation hassle. It’s Microsoft. What did you expect? It’s still easier than manually installing Windows XP.

Android MIUI Mini-Review

MIUI is a japanese chinese (apologies, ed.) homebrew version of Googles Android operating system. It is installable via strange super-user voodoo, a process which is not for the faint of heart. I’ve talked about it before, but in a fit of boredom, I installed it. Here’s a mini-review.

miui_home4

The first thing you’ll notice in MIUI is that it’s replaced the default Droid Sans font with Helvetica, system-wide. From then on, it’s clear that Apples iOS has been the main inspiration for this Android custom ROM. This not only goes for the font, but it goes for the settings design, the semi-transparent statusbar and even to concepts such as the lack of an app-drawer, forcing all apps onto the homescreens. This last concept makes a lot of sense, and in the MIUI implementation, you get the added abillity to sort freely where your icons are placed — not just their order. That, and widgets and other Android niceties, of course.

miui_apps miui_folders2 miui_settings

In many ways, MIUI is tasteful. The lockscreen, while suffering from the same “too easy to unlock” stupidity as the HTC Sense lockscreen, is very pretty, and the stack of default wallpapers (even this stack is inspired by iOS) is gorgeous.

miui_themes

I’ve previously argued that building an entire Android distribution, just to be redesign the skin a little bit, is a bad idea. That said, MIUI does utilize the extra responsibility to do some neat tricks, such as the widget organizer as well as the statusbar tray power control.

miui_tray miui_widgets

In the end, however, MIUI does suffer from fragmentation-itis, and so you can expect instability to be inherent. Which once again illustrates the really basic concept: building an entire operating system is hard and difficult work. Forking a path in the road simply to be able to change the skin and add a few features, I find, is a waste of time; time better spent building the individual features and themes into Android Market apps.

miui_crash

Gmail Creator Paul Buchheit: Chrome OS Will Perish Or “Merge” With Android

Gmail Creator Paul Buchheit:

Prediction: ChromeOS will be killed next year (or “merged” with Android)

People don’t get it — I didn’t at first. Chrome OS is there to replace Windows XP for hospitals, municipalities, large corporations, clothing shops for inventory management, gyms, etc. Anywhere browser-based apps only are used, Chrome OS is going to be huge.

Sure, we’ll see Chrome on Android, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that Chrome OS is to Chrome what XBMC Live is to XBMC. It’s Chrome plus a wafer thin client, for the markets that need just that. Which is a lot of markets.

Quick thoughts on the MIUI Android rom

A new rom has been developed by the chinese. It’s called “Miui” and it’s Android based. Be careful, unless you like 80ies power-ballads, you may want to turn down the volume:

Since I’ve been very harsh to HTC Sense and Android skins in general, I’ve been politely asked my thoughts on this one. And while I’m still preparing a larger rant on the skin situation, I’d like to give a few quick notes on what I think about this particular flavor.

— I love that it’s possible. I love that because of Android being open source, such an OS image can be put together.

miui_lockscreen

— I like the lock screen, insofar as you can open the phone, messages or the device in general by swiping three different icons. I’m less thrilled that the direction to swipe/unlock is vertical. Which doesn’t work so well for HTC Sense.

miui-add-to-home

— The homescreen / launcher seems as uninventive as every other homescreen out there (save for Windows Phone 7 which looks to bring something new to the table), but it’s a formula that works reasonably well. There’s a customizable dock for those shortcuts you use all the time, and there’s the rest of the screen for littering with various apps you use.

— In the spirit of Samsung TouchWiz (ugh), every icon gets an iOS-like rounded-corner box. Which does bring a grid-like look to the apps, but feels dated. Also, since the icons weren’t designed to be shown in such boxes (unlike iOS icons), I doubt the viability of this framing of all icons.

— Android has numerous ways to quickly toggle GPS, Bluetooth, Wifi and other “quick settings”, and it’s an interesting approach for MIUI to place these in the notification drawer. But like task-killers, some of these features really shouldn’t be “quick toggles”, but rather completely automatic and built in such a way that they don’t kill your battery. Like Android 2.2 killed task killers1, I’m hoping future Android releases will better manage these settings for me.

— The ability to quickly rearrange the sequence of homescreens is nice, if one likes the way Android homescreens work. I’m not convinced. On the one hand, I love the completely sandbox-esque feel of being able to tweak every homescreen and their widget and app layouts. On the other hand, I like iOS completely automatic and fascist homescreen regime wherein the leftmost homescreen is the search screen, and homescreens are simply added to the right when you need them. In the case of iOS, however, the otherwise brilliantly unified “there are no app shortcuts” metaphor lends itself to what I like to call the “stocks-app homescreen syndrome”, which refers to right-most iOS homescreen which is usually the debris garden for unwanted yet un-uninstallable apps.

— The app/widget trash can that has gotten prime real estate right at the top of the screen is rather silly. Sure it makes it easy when you need to move apps from one homescreen to the other, but in the ongoing crusade against the filesystem, the trash can will be first against the wall. And so it’s a UI metaphor that we should start to shy away from, no matter the kooky and fun way we decide to use it. The trash can is broken goods.

— In the folders vs. stacks fight that goes on, I’m actually in the stacks side of the arena, even if I think the stacks implementation of “max. 12 apps per stack” on iOS is dumb. This MIUI implementation of having folders that just look like stacks but behave like folders, is unimpressive.

— Most central in my argument against skins is that there are some aspects that are fair game, and some that you just don’t mess with. With HTC Sense, it’s primarily the bundled apps. Overall, I think it’ll be the same with MIUI, whose contact list is so stupid. How stupid is it? It’s so stupid, it copied Apples patently stupid interface mechanism where if you swipe right on a contact, it reveals a delete button (see the video, 3 minutes in exactly). Which, if it isn’t clear, is such a vicious example of mystery meat navigation that only bad bicyclists can get my blood to boil more.

— So you don’t mess with core apps is my mantra. Browser, calendar, mail, contacts, phone … those are off limits. Do not touch. What’s left in MIUI? Well there’s the lock screen, the homescreen (with custom icons and widgets), the app drawer and the notification drawer. Did you know that all those aspects of the Android interface, can be replaced by Android apps? In fact, MIUI could’ve been simply an Android app instead of a fullblown rom.

Did I mention I love open source? My friendly criticism aside, I love that MIUI exists. I may even try it, and I will no doubt like it more than HTC Sense. But it all boils down to the fact that we’re still dealing with a phone, which needs to be stable, easy to update with security patches. And the core experience — phone, browser, contacts, email — needs to be razor sharp. With that in mind, I think it’s a real pity that MIUI isn’t just an Android Market app that replaced my homescreen, lock screen, app drawer and notification bar. After all, that’s not only entirely possible, but it’s likely I’d pay for it. I could say the same for HTC Sense.

  1. Yes, really! Task killers no longer work in Android 2.2, and you don’t need them either.