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March 21, 2023

Filed under: tech»mobile

Enthusiasm Gap

If I had to guess, I'd say the last time there was genuine grassroots mania for "apps" as a general concept was probably around 2014, a last-gasp burst of energy that coincides with a boom of the "sharing economy" before it became clear the whole thing was just sparkling exploitation. For a certain kind of person, specifically people who are really deeply invested in having a personal favorite software company, this was a frustrating state of affairs. If you can't count the apps on each side, how can you win?

Then Twitter started its slow motion implosion, and Mastodon became the beneficiary of the exodus of users, and suddenly last month there was a chance for people to, I don't know, get real snotty about tab animations or something again. This ate up like a week of tech punditry, and lived rent-free in my head for a couple of days.

It took me a little while to figure out why I found this entire cycle so frustrating, other than just general weariness with the key players and the explicit "people who use Android are just inherently tasteless" attitude, until I read this post by game dev Liz Ryerson about GDC, and specifically the conference's Experimental Games Workshop session. Ryerson notes the ways that commercialization in indie games led to a proliferation of "one clever mechanic" platformers at EGW, and an emphasis on polish and respectability — what she calls "portfolio-core" — in service of a commercial ideology that pushed quirkier, more personal titles out:

there is a danger here where a handful of successful indie developers who can leap over this invisible standard of respectability are able to make the jump into the broader industry and a lot of others are expected not to commercialize their work that looks less 'expensive' or else face hostility and disinterest. this would in a way replicate the situation that the commercial indie boom came out of in the 2000's.

however there is also an (i'd argue) even bigger danger here: in a landscape where so many niche indie developers are making moves to sell their work, the kind of audience of children and teenagers that flocked to the flash games and free web games that drove the earlier indie boom will not be able to engage with this culture at large anymore because of its price tag. as such, they'll be instead sucked into the ecosystem of free-to-play games and 'UGC' platforms like Roblox owned by very large corporate entities. this could effectively destroy the influence and social power that games like Yume Nikki have acquired that have driven organic fan communities and hobbyist development, and replace them with a handful of different online ecosystems that are basically 'company towns' for the corporations who own them. and that's not a good recipe if you want to create a space that broadly advocates for the preservation and celebration of art as a whole.

It's worth noting that the blog post that kicked off the design conversation refers to a specific category of "enthusiast" apps. This doesn't seem to be an actual term in common use anywhere — searching for this provides no prior art, except in the vein of "apps for car enthusiasts" — and I suspect that it's largely used as a way of excluding the vast majority of software people actually use on mobile: cross-platform applications written by large corporations, which are largely identical across operating systems. And of course, there's plenty of shovelware in any storefront. So if you want to cast broad aspersions across a userbase, you have to artificially restrict what you're talking about in a vaguely authoritative way to make sure you can cherry-pick your examples effectively.

In many ways, this distinction parallels the distinction Ryerson is drawing, between the California ideology game devs that focus on polish and "finish your game" advice, and (to be frank) the weirdos, like Stephen "thecatamites" Gillmurphy or Michael Brough, designers infamous for creating great games that are "too ugly" to sell units. It's the idea that a piece of software is valuable primarily because it is a artifact that reminds you, when you use it, that you spent money to do so.

Of course, it's not clear that the current pace of high-definition, expansive scope in game development is sustainable, either: it requires grinding up huge amounts of human capital (including contract labor in developing countries) and wild degrees of investment, with no guarantee that the result will satisfy the investor class that funded it. And now you want to require every little trivial smartphone app have that level of detail? In this economy?

To be fair, I'm not the target audience for that argument. I write a lot of my own software. I like a lot of it, and some of it even sparks joy, but not I suspect in the way that the "enthusiast app" critics are trying to evoke. Sometimes it's an inside joke for an audience of one. Maybe I remember having a good time getting something to work, and it's satisfying to use it as a result. In some cases (and really, social media networks should be a prime example of this), the software is not the point so much as what it lets me read or listen to or post. Being a "good product" is not the sum total through which I view this experience.

(I would actually argue that I would rather have slightly worse products if it meant, for example, that I didn't live in a surveillance culture filled with smooth, frictionless, disposable objects headed to a landfill and/or the bottom of the rapidly rising oceans.)

Part of the reason that the California ideology is so corrosive is because it can dangle a reward in front of anything. Even now, when I work on silly projects for myself, I find myself writing elaborate README files or thinking about how to publish to a package manager — polish that software, and maybe it'll be a big hit in the marketplace, even though that's actually the last thing I would honestly want. I am trying to unlearn these urges, to think of the things I write as art or expression, and not as future payday. It's hard.

But right now we are watching software companies tear themselves apart in a series of weird hype spasms, from NFTs to chatbots to incredibly ugly VR environments. It's an incredible time to be alive. I can't imagine anything more depressing than to look at Twitter's period of upheaval, an ugly transition from the worldwide embodiment of context collapse to smaller, (potentially) healthier communities, and to immediately ask "but how can I turn this into a divisive, snide comment?" Maybe I'm just not enough of an enthusiast to understand.

April 30, 2014

Filed under: tech»mobile

Company Towns

Pretend, for a second, that you opened up your web browser one day to buy yourself socks and deoderant from your favorite online retailer (, maybe). You fill your cart, click buy, and 70% of your money actually goes toward foot coverings and fragrance. The other portion goes to Microsoft, because you're using a computer running Windows.

You'd probably be upset about this, especially since the shop raised prices to compensate for that fee. After all, Microsoft didn't build the store. They don't handle the shipping. They didn't knit the socks. It's unlikely that they've moved into personal care products. Why should they get a cut of your hard-earned footwear budget just because they wrote an operating system?

That's an excellent question. Bear it in mind when reading about how Comixology removed in-app purchases from their comic apps on Apple devices. I've seen a lot of people writing about how awful this is, but everyone seems to be blaming Comixology (or, more accurately, their new owners: Amazon). As far as I can tell, however, they don't have much of a choice.

Consider the strict requirements for in-app purchases on Apple's mobile hardware:

  • All payments made inside the app must go through Apple, who will take 30% off the top. This is true even the developer handles their own distribution, archival, and account management: Apple takes 30% just for acting as a payment processor.
  • No other payment methods are allowed in the App Store — no Paypal, no Google Wallet, no Amazon payments. (No Bitcoin, of course, but no Monopoly money either, so that's probably fair.) Developers can't process their own payments or accept credit cards. It's Apple or nothing.
  • Vendors can run a web storefront and then download content purchased online in the app... but they can't link to the site or acknowledge its existence in any way. They can't even write a description of how to buy content. Better hope users can figure it out!

Apple didn't write the Comixology app. They didn't build the infrastructure that powers it, or sign the deals that fill it with content. They don't store the comics, and they don't handle the digital conversion. But they want 30 cents out of every dollar that Comixology makes, just for the privilege of manufacturing the screen you're reading on. If Microsoft had tried to pull this trick in the 90s, can you imagine the hue and cry?

This is classic, harmful rent-seeking behavior: Apple controls everything about their platform, including its only software distribution mechanism, and they can (and do) enforce rules to effectively tax everything that platform touches. There was enough developer protest to allow the online store exception, but even then Apple ensures that it's a cumbersome, ungainly experience. The deck is always stacked against the competition.

Unfortunately, that water has been boiling for a few years now, so most people don't seem to notice they're being cooked. Indeed, you get pieces like this one instead, which manages to describe the situation with reasonable accuracy and then (with a straight face) proposes that Apple should have more market power as a solution. It's like listening to miners in a company town complain that they have to travel a long way for shopping. If only we could just buy everything from the boss at a high markup — that scrip sure is a handy currency!

It's a shame that Comixology was bought by Amazon, because it distorts the narrative: Apple was found guilty of collusion and price fixing after they worked with book publishers to force Amazon onto an agency model for e-books, so now this can all be framed as a rivalry. If a small company had made this stand, we might be able to have a real conversation about how terrible this artificial marketplace actually is, and how much value is lost. Of course, if a small company did this, nobody would pay attention: for better or worse, it takes an Amazon to opt out of Apple's rules successfully (and I suspect it will be successful — it's worked for them on Kindle).

I get tired of saying it over and over again, but this is why the open web is important. If anyone charged 30% for purchases through your browser, there would be riots in the street (and rightly so). For all its flaws and annoyances, the only real competition to the closed, exploitative mobile marketplaces is the web. The only place where a small company can have equal standing with the tech giants is in your browser. In the short term, pushing companies out of walled gardens for payments is annoying for consumers. But in the long term, these policies might even be doing us a favor by sending people out of the app and onto the web: that's where we need to be anyway.

January 10, 2013

Filed under: tech»mobile


I used a Nexus One as my smartphone for almost three years, pretty much since it was released in 2010. That's a pretty good testimonial. The N1 wasn't perfect--it was arguably underpowered even at release, and held back for upgrades by the pokey video chip and small memory--but it was good enough. When Google announced the Nexus Four, it was the first time I really felt like it was worth upgrading, and I've been using one for the last couple of months.

One big change, pardon the pun, is just the size of the thing: although it's thinner, the N4 is almost half an inch wider and taller than my old phone (the screen is a full diagonal inch larger). The N1 had a pleasant density, while between the size and the glass backing, the N4 feels less secure in your hand, and at first it doesn't seem like you're getting much for the extra size. Then I went back to use the N1 for something, and the virtual keyboard keys looked as small as kitten teeth. I'm (tentatively) a fan now. Battery life is also better than the N1, although I had to turn wifi on to stop Locale from keeping the phone awake constantly.

I think it's a shame they ditched the trackball after the Nexus One, too. Every time I need to move the cursor just a little bit, pick a small link on a non-mobile web page, or play a game that uses software buttons, I really miss that trackball. Reviewers made fun of it, but it was regularly useful (and with Cyanogen, it doubled as a second power button).

The more significant shift, honestly, was probably going from Android 2.3 to 4.2. For the most part, it's better where Android was already good: notifications are richer, switching tasks is more convenient, and most of the built-in applications are less awful (the POP e-mail client is still a disaster). Being able to run Chrome is usually very nice. Maps in particularly really benefits from a more powerful GPU. Running old Android apps can be a little clunky, but I mostly notice that in K-9 Mail (which was not a UX home run to begin with). The only software feature that I do really miss is real USB hosting--you can still get to internal storage, but it mounts as a multimedia device instead of a disk, which means that you can't reliably run computer applications from the phone drive.

There is always a lot of hullaballoo online around Android upgrades, since many phones don't get them. But my experience has been that most of it doesn't really matter. Most of my usage falls into a few simple categories, none of which were held back by Android 2.3:

  • Reading social networks
  • Browsing web sites
  • Checking e-mail
  • Retrieving passwords or two-factor auth keys
  • Occasionally editing a file with DroidEdit
I'm notoriously frugal with the apps I install, but even so I think the upgrade problem for end-users is overrated. 4.0 is nice, and I'm happy to have it, but putting a quad-core chip behind 2.3 would have done most of what I need. Honestly, a quality browser means even the built-in apps are often redundant. Google Maps in Chrome for Android is a surprisingly pleasant experience. Instagram finally discovered the web last year. Google Calendar has been better on the web than on Android for most of its existence. You couldn't pay me enough to install the Facebook app anymore.

Compared to its competitors, Android was always been designed to be standalone. It doesn't rely on a desktop program like iTunes to synchronize files, and it doesn't really live in a strong ecosystem the way that Windows Phone does--you don't actually need a Google Account to use one. It's the only mainstream mobile platform where installing applications from a third-party is both allowed and relatively easy, and where files and data can transfer easily between applications in a workflow. Between the bigger phone size (or tablets) and support for keyboards/mice, there's the possibility that you could do real work on a Nexus 4, for certain definitions of "real work." I think it would still drive me crazy to use it full-time. But it's gradually becoming a viable platform (and one that leaves ChromeOS in kind of an awkward place).

So sure, the Nexus 4 is a great smartphone. For the asking price ($300) it's a real value. But where things get interesting is that Android phones that aren't quite as high-powered or premium-branded (but still run the same applications and OS, and are still easily as powerful as laptops from only a few years ago) are available for a lot less money. This was always the theory behind Nokia's smartphones: cheap but powerful devices that could be "computers" for the developing world. Unfortunately, Symbian was never going to be hackable by people in those countries, and then Nokia started to fall apart. In the meantime, Android has a real shot at doing what S60 wanted to do, and with a pretty good (and still evolving) open toolkit for its users. I still think that's a goal worth targeting.

June 8, 2010

Filed under: tech»mobile

Page Up

Last week, at the Gov 2.0 conference in Washington, D.C., I sat through a session on mobile application design by an aspiring middleware provider. Like most "cross-platform" mobile SDKs these days, it consisted of a thin native wrapper around an on-device web page, scripted in some language (Ruby, in this case), with hooks into some of the native services. As usual with this kind of approach, performance was awful and the look-and-feel was crude at best, but those can be fixed. What struck me about the presentation, as always, was the simple question: if I already have to code my application in Ruby/HTML/JavaScript, with all their attendant headaches, why don't I just write a web service? Why bother with a "native" application, except for the buzzword compliance?

This is not just snark, but an honest query. Because to be honest, the fervor around "apps" is wearing me out--in no small part, because it's been the new Product X panacea for journalists for a while now, and I'm tired of hearing about it. More importantly, it drives me crazy, as someone who works hard to present journalism in the most appropriate format (whatever that may be), that we've taken the rich array of documents and media available to us and reduced it to "there's an app for that." This is not the way you build a solid, future-proof media system, people.

For one thing, it's a giant kludge that misses the point of general-purpose computing in the first place, which is that we can separate code from its data. Imagine if you were sent text wrapped in individual .exe files (or their platform equivalent). You'd think the author was insane--why on earth didn't they send it as a standard document that you could open in your favorite editor/reader? And yet that's exactly what the "app" fad has companies doing. Sure, this was originally due to sandboxing restrictions on some mobile platforms, but that's no excuse for solving the problem the wrong way in the first place--the Web didn't vanish overnight.

Worse, people have the nerve to applaud this proliferation of single-purpose app clutter! Wired predictably oversells a "digital magazine" that's essentially a collection of loosely-exported JPG files, and Boing Boing talks about 'a dazzling, living book' for something that's a glorified periodic table with some pretty movies added. It's a ridiculous level of hyperbole for something that sets interactive content presentation back by a good decade, both in terms of how we consume it and the time required to create it. Indeed, it's a good way to spend a fortune every few years rewriting your presentation framework from scratch when a new hardware iteration rolls around.

The content app is spiritual child of Encarta. Plenty of people have noticed that creating native, proprietary applications to present basic hypertext is a lot like the bad old days of multimedia CD-ROMs. Remember that? My family got a copy of Encarta with our 486-era Gateway, and like most people I spent fifteen minutes listening to sound clips, watched some grainy film clips, and then never touched it again. Cue these new publication apps: to my eye, they have the same dull sheen of presentation--one that's rigid, hard to update, and doesn't interoperate with anything else--and possibly the same usage pattern. I'm not a real Web 2.0 partisan, and I generally dislike HTML/CSS, but you have to admit that it got one thing right: a flexible, extensible document format for combining text with images, audio, and video on a range of platforms (not to mention a diverse range of users). And the connectivity of a browser also means that it has the potential to surprise: where does that link go? What's new with this story? You can, given time, run out of encyclopedia, but you never run out of Internet.

That's perhaps the part that grated most about the middleware presentation at Gov 2.0. A substantial chunk of it was devoted to a synchronization framework, allowing developers to update their application from the server. Seriously? I have to write a web page and then update it manually? Thing is, if I write an actual web application, I can update it for everyone automatically. I can even cache information locally, using HTML5, for times when there's no connectivity. Building "native" applications from HTML is making life more complicated than it needs to be, by using the worst possible tools for UI and then taking away the platform's one advantage.

I'm not arguing that there's no place for native applications--far from it. There are lots of reasons to write something in native code: access to platform-specific APIs, speed, or certain UI paradigms, maybe. But it all comes back to choosing appropriate technology and appropriate tools. For a great many content providers, and particularly many news organizations, the right tool is HTML/CSS: it's cheaper, easier, and widely supported. It's easily translated into AJAX, sent in response to thin client requests, or parsed into other formats when a new platform emerges in the market. Most importantly, it leaves you at the mercy of no-one but yourself. No, it doesn't get you a clever advertising tagline or a spot at a device manufacturer keynote, and you won't feel that keen neo-hipster glow at industry events. But as a sustainable, future-proof business approach? Ditch the apps. Go back to the browser, where your content truly belongs.

May 5, 2010

Filed under: tech»mobile

As A Courtesy

Dear Valued Customer,

We hope you are enjoying your Smartphone! We appreciate and value your business and want to be sure you are aware of a change we've made to your account to ensure you have the best possible experience with unlimited data usage in the United States.

Smartphones are made for data consumption-surfing the web, social networking, email and more. That's why we require a Smartphone data plan in conjunction with our Smartphones. This ensures that customers with data intensive devices are not unpleasantly surprised with high data pay-per-use charges-just one low, predictable, flat rate for unlimited use each month.

For whatever reason, our records indicate your Smartphone does not have the correct data plan. As a courtesy, we've added the minimum Smartphone data plan for you.

Thank you for being an AT&T customer. We look forward to continuing to provide you with a great Smartphone experience.


Dear AT&T,

Thank you for your charming explanation of "Smartphones" and their associated data usage (I don't think the capital S is AP style, though--mind if I drop it?). Despite your carefully-worded letter, I must admit to some confusion: after all, use of my current smartphone has not resulted in any substantial data charges (that would be odd, considering I was on an "unlimited" data plan). Nor has the change from a Nokia phone to a touchscreen Android device resulted in a noticeable increase in data use--your own web site consistently placed my bandwidth consumption at around 100MB/month.

Which is why it surprised me to see that you had "upgraded" me from said "Unlimited" plan to a new "Smartphone" plan, which does not seem to offer any actual advantages to me over the old plan, unless you count the ability to pay you an additional $15 per month (perhaps you do). As a courtesy, I have moved myself to another carrier. I hope you are enjoying the carefree sensation of having one fewer customer!

Can we speak frankly, AT&T? I've been meaning to do this for a while anyway. After you complied in warrantless wiretapping of American citizens ("As a courtesy, we are secretly recording your phone calls, traitor...") it was difficult to justify doing business with you. But the organization of the American wireless industry, even after number porting legislation, is powerfully aligned with keeping customers right where they are, both technologically and contractually.

Consider: in this country, we have two incompatible radio standards (CDMA and GSM) split between four major carriers, each using a largely incompatible portion of the radio spectrum. Even on the GSM carriers, where the technology allows people to separate their number from a specific phone without your "help," the frequency differences mean they'll lose 3G service if they switch. The result is that moving carriers, for most people, also means buying a completely new phone for no good reason. Why, it's almost as though you all have conspired to limit our choices on purpose! ("As a courtesy, we have created an elaborate and wasteful system of hidden surcharges for switching service...")

And your industry's business models--well, I don't think you're even pretending those are customer-friendly, do you? Charging customers with unlocked phones the same premium as people with subsidized hardware? Long contracts and costly early termination fees? Text-messaging plans? This business with your capital-S-Smartphone plans is simply the latest effort from a wireless industry fighting desperately to be more than just a data-pipe provider, just like the ISPs. It's AOL all over again, AT&T, and it's inevitable. I can see why you're trying to squeeze your customers while you can, but it doesn't mean I have to be a part of it.

I mean, I'm not endorsing anyone, but there is at least one carrier who's starting to get it. They're offering month-to-month plans with no contract, and discounts for people who bring their own phones (or, more accurately, they're not charging for unsubsidized hardware). They're GSM, so subscribers can buy phones from anywhere--you know, like the rest of the world. And hey, they sold me an unlimited data plan (with unlimited text messages included, no less!) for the same price I was paying you before you "corrected" my data plan. It's still not perfect--it's the cell industry, after all, and frankly I'd socialize the lot of you in a heartbeat--but it's a damn sight closer to sanity.

In any case, I don't want to sound bitter. Thanks for letting me know about the change you've made to my ex-account. Good luck with that.


April 15, 2010

Filed under: tech»mobile

Android Essentials

My love for Locale aside, what else is good on Android? Inquiring minds want to know.

  • K-9: I am, apparently, a total weirdo in that I don't use G-Mail. I have an account, of course, because it comes with the whole Android developer thing, but I pretty much only use it when Google requires it. Unfortunately, the POP/IMAP client that ships with devices--even up to and including version 2.1--is awful. It forgets which messages I've read, doesn't easily allow batch operations, and decides randomly not to connect. K-9 started as a fork of that client, but it's reached the point where it's the only reasonable choice for handling non-Gmail on Android. There are still some things I'd like to see added (text-selection, recover from trash), but it also has touches of brilliance (check out the swipe-to-multi-select list mechanic).
  • Touiteur: There are lots of Twitter clients on Android, and for the most part it's a matter of personal preference which you use. Seesmic is great, but it keeps asking me which account I want to use even though I've only got the one. Lately I've been using Touiteur instead, for a few reasons: I dig the pull-down windowshade for updates, the UI for jumping out to links is better, and it's super-speedy. Also, the name cracks me up. Like all Android clients, of course, Touiteur gracefully handles checking for messages and mentions in the background via the notification bar, and it makes itself available to the "share" menu for URL-shortening right from the browser.
  • Ringdroid: One of the main goals for Android is that it's not tied down to a computer. Everything's either in the cloud, or it's meant to be self-sufficient. Sometimes this can be frustrating (I'd love to have Outlook sync included), but for the most part it's liberating. Take Ringdroid, for example: it's a basic WAV/MP3 editor that you can use to edit and set system sounds directly on the device. I don't use it often, but if I decide to nerd out on the bus and set my notification tone to a Star Trek communicator clip I found online, Ringdroid makes it possible (and yet no less shameful).
  • Text Edit: Every platform needs a Notepad.exe equivalent. Unfortunately, most of the note-taking programs for Android keep their data siloed in a private database, which defeats the point of having that SD card filesystem available. Text Edit actually opens and saves files, which makes it tremendously helpful for someone like me who'd actually like to get some work done in a standard format every now and then.
  • Smart Keyboard Pro: You can replace almost anything on an Android phone if you don't like the default, and I don't much care for the built-in soft keyboard. Specifically, I hate the way it keeps all the good punctuation hidden away from me. Smart Keyboard offers good foreign language support, swipe gestures (one of the better bits from Windows Mobile), multiple skins, and Blackberry-like autotext shortcuts. But most importantly, it puts all the punctuation on the keyboard as a long-press of individual letters, so I don't have to hunt for question marks or semi-colons anymore.
  • Replica Island: There aren't a lot of great games on Android, but Replica Island (which started as a tech demo for the platform) is a well-done little platformer, and it's free.

The interesting thing about making a list like this is, for me, was that I realized how little use most of the native software on the device actually sees. 95% of my time on a smartphone is spent in three places: e-mail, Twitter, and the browser. That's not to say that I don't use other applications--that I don't find them phenomenally helpful, or that I wouldn't miss them if they were gone--only to say that as a matter of routine, those three are what matter most. Everything else is gravy.

(Well, almost everything. When people ask me about whether they should get a smartphone, the first thing I tell them is that Maps will change. Their. Lives. Because it absolutely does. I spend relatively little time in Maps, but it's probably the most valuable application on the phone.)

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