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An unbiased view of Android vs. iPhone

A couple of years ago, I posted An unbiased view on Macs, because I couldn’t find anything even remotely resembling an unbiased view. I looked to see if there was an unbiased view of Android vs. iPhone, and I actually found one. It’s right here: Android vs. iPhone. It’s an extensive list, from a Mac developer who also happens to have a Nexus One, of pros and cons of Android, using iPhone as an opposing reference. I quite like the list. It really doesn’t reek of fanboyism. So if you’re interested in a comprehensive list of pros and cons, that’s the link you want.

I’m presenting it in a bit of a more personal view—why the iPhone appeals to me (why I love using my wife’s iPhone), and why I still use an Android phone.

First of all, I want to say that I think arguments fangirls and fanboys have about Android and iPhone are usually stupid. They tend to be arguments about which platform is “better” or which is more popular. The problem with “better” is that it is a vague and meaningless term that doesn’t help consumers make a choice. The bottom line is that neither the iPhone nor an Android phone will be the best smartphone product for everyone‘s mobile lifestyle. iPhone will be better for some. Android will be better for some. And some will find both equally good or equally useless.

So I’m more interested in the practical. What are the kinds of things that are important to you in making a smartphone purchase?

What I like about the iPhone
I know a lot of people who have iPhones. I’ve played with my friends’ iPhones. I’ve seen strangers use them on the bus. I’ve played with them in the Apple Store. I’ve “borrowed” my wife’s iPhone periodically. Here is what I can tell:

  • iPhones are sexy. The displays look good. The casing looks sleek. Even third-party apps generally tend to look better than their Android counterparts.
  • The interface is designed with touch in mind. That makes sense, since it is a touchscreen OS. One hard button takes you to the home screen if you press it once and then to search if you press it twice. Everything else is through the touchscreen. Android has too many hard buttons (Menu, Back, Search, Home, a trackball).
    Edit (March, 2012): I now own a Galaxy Nexus, which uses soft buttons for Recent Apps, Home, and Back. By default, there is a contextual Menu button and no more dedicated Search button. It looks as if Google is trying to move more in the direction of going fully touchscreen.
  • The touchscreen is very responsive (you’ll notice in a lot of YouTube videos comparing iPhones to Android phones that the reviewer often has to swipe or tap a couple of times for it to register on the Android phone). Pinch-to-zoom is a lot faster—there is no lag.
  • Multi-tasking is not a priority. Yes, I know some people view this is as a con against the iPhone, but I view it as a pro. I agree with Steve Jobs that performance and battery life matter more than multi-tasking. I really don’t use more than one app at a time anyway.
  • Here’s another one I like that I’ve heard many iPhone users complain about—notifications. I like that they just appear and then disappear. One thing I dislike about Android is that, to get rid of notifications, I have to swipe down the notification bar and then either click on the notification or click Clear to clear it. A notification should just notify me and then go away. I don’t need it lingering and requiring a lot of extra taps and swipes to remove.
    Edit (March, 2012): Since iOS 5, iPhones now use an Android-like notification in addition to the old notification system that pops up. This, for me, has now become a con for iPhone, since it essentially has the Android problem, making the interrupting notifications redundant… but still interrupting.
  • Updates come right away to all phones whose hardware can support the latest version. Don’t get me wrong—I definitely think criticisms of so-called Android fragmentation are exaggerated. Fragmentation doesn’t have much direct effect on the end user. But there is a real sense in which consumers just like to have the latest and greatest. If a new version comes out and Google says “Hey, it’s got this cool feature and that cool feature,” and you know your phone is powerful enough (enough processor speed, enough RAM) to support the update, it can be frustrating not to be able to install the update right away, and not everyone is geeky enough to risk a voided warranty to install a rooted rom (rooted roms can also be extremely buggy). With the iPhone, you just plug your phone into your computer, and iTunes will install the newest version of iOS as soon as it’s released.
    Edit (March, 2012): Google has three items in its “Nexus” line that get vanilla Android and over-the-air updates from Google in a timely fashion—the Nexus One, the Nexus S, and the Galaxy Nexus.
  • I may be the only Linux user who thinks so, but iTunes is a nice interface, and over the years it’s just gotten snappier in performance. I love the smart playlists and syncing capabilities. When it works, it works extremely well. Of course, I also know some iPhone users (particularly ones who have tried to use their iPhones with multiple computers) who have had a lot of bad experiences with iPhones and iTunes connectivity.
  • Even with the growth of Android as a platform over the past two years, sometimes there are apps available for the iPhone that are not available for Android. One that comes to mind is Netflix streaming. The iPhone has had this many months now (almost a year). Netflix just has murmurings about it possibly coming to Android “soon” and then for only select devices.
    Edit (June, 2011): Netflix now has streaming on just a handful of Android devices.
    Edit (March, 2012): Now almost all (maybe all?) Android phones on the market can play Netflix.

Why I’m sticking with Android
I don’t get fanboyism or fangirlism. How can you think one popular product is superior to another in every single way and not acknowledge that people have different needs and preferences? How can you not even acknowledge that almost everything (if not everything) in life has both pros and cons? Well, I’m definitely an Android user, but, as you can see, there’s a lot I admire about the iPhone.

Nevertheless, I won’t be switching to an iPhone any time soon. Here are some great things about Android that keep me there:

  • I love Google Voice, and its integration into Android is seamless. Back in 2009, they tried to submit an app to the iTunes App Store, and Apple rejected it (or just simply didn’t accept it, depending on what semantic backflips you want to employ). My guess is that Google then put zero effort into the iPhone Google Voice app for the next year and a half so that by the time it was released it was just garbage (I know because my wife tried it out on her iPhone). Maybe after a few updates Google Voice for the iPhone might be usable, but even then there are some levels of integration Apple simply will not allow. With Google Voice I get free, unlimited text messaging. I can block numbers. More importantly, I have one number I can give everyone, and it can ring my Android phone when I have my phone on, or it can ring my GMail account when I’m on the computer. Voicemail transcriptions are notoriously inaccurate (almost hilariously so), but they are still better than nothing.
    Edit (March, 2012): Google has since updated to the Google Voice iPhone app, and it’s now better, but it still doesn’t match the quality of the Android app and, without jailbreaking, cannot integrate fully with the iPhone.
  • On a related note, Android has the ability (and has had this since at least Android 1.5, Cupcake) to send certain numbers straight to voicemail. So even if people call my real cell phone number (not my Google Voice one) as a wrong number, I can just add them to my “wrong number” contact, and I’ll never have to hear the phone ring again when they call. If they call my Google Voice number as a wrong number, I can add them to “wrong number,” and they’ll simply be blocked—they won’t even have the opportunity to leave me a voicemail.
  • The keys on the iPhone keyboard are easier to peck at accurately, but I still prefer the Android keyboard for a couple of reasons. To sum up quickly, it’s the visual distinction between upper- and lower-case letters, as well as the autocomplete suggestions. You can read in more detail in my The Pros and Cons of the Android Keyboard entry.
    Edit (March, 2012): the Gingerbread (Android 2.3) keyboard is the best I’ve found so far (yes, I’ve tried Swype and all the Swype-like keyboards—no thanks), because of how many auto-suggest options it presents for words as you type. Unfortunately, the stock Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) keyboard regressed a bit (only three suggestions, and you have to long-press the middle suggestion to get more suggestions). Fortunately, you can still install the Gingerbread keyboard through the Android Market (now called Google Play).
  • Occasionally we’ll rent a ZipCar and drive around some place we’re unfamiliar with. Turn-by-turn GPS navigation is really helpful during those times, and that comes with Android for free… even though the voice is a little scary. My wife and I call her the dominatrix.
  • I don’t think it matters that the iTunes App Store has more applications than the Android Market has. Most of the important ones are present in both stores. More importantly, Google can’t tell you what not to install. Even if an app is rejected by the Android Market (which is rare), you can still choose to override that and install apps outside the Android Market (you get a big warning that is a security risk, of course). Now with the new web Market, you can install apps on your device remotely using your computer. Google also allows you to install various web browsers and email clients. There are no restrictions on apps with a claim that they duplicate core functionality of Android.
    Edit (March, 2012): Apple is now allowing for other web browsers like Dolphin, Opera, and Skyfire, but you can’t set your default web browser to anything other than Safari without jailbreaking.
  • In theory, at least, Android can use Flash in its web browsers. You have to have Android 2.2 or higher, though, and your phone has to have hardware that supports it. The ability to play Flash is never a con. Even if you don’t like Flash, you don’t have to use it, and as far as I can tell it is just Flash on demand anyway (you have to manually decide to play Flash to get it to play).
    Edit (March, 2012): Adobe is going to stop developing Flash for Android in the future

So should you get an iPhone or an Android phone?
Well, I don’t know who you are, but I will tell you that the iPhone world and the Android world are very much eco-systems.

If you want the best experience from an iPhone, you should have an iTunes account and use iTunes to manage your music. It’d be nice to have a Mac with Mail and iCal as your main email client and calendar, respectively, and to use iPhoto to manage your photos. Your music, mail, address book, and photos will sync up when you plug in your iPhone.

If you want the best experience from an Android phone, you should have a Google account and use it for GMail, Contacts, Google Voice, and Calendar. You shouldn’t mind dragging and dropping music files to removable storage (even from iTunes) instead of having things automatically sync. Ideally, you should actually prefer dragging and dropping to iTunes syncing.
Edit (March, 2012): I have found an amazing pay-for app in Google Play called iSyncr. If you’re really conflicted about wanting an Android phone but “needing” iTunes, iSyncr is worth the investment.

Since I use Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu all regularly, drag-and-drop (as opposed to iTunes syncing) is ideal for me. I know that isn’t the case for everybody. And since I use three different operating systems, it’s nice to sync to “the cloud” my emails, contacts, and calendar, instead of to a single computer.

It’s certainly possible (and I know people who do it) to use an iPhone with a Windows computer and a GMail account. I just don’t think you’re getting the most out of it by doing so. Likewise, a hardcore Mac-Safari-iCal-Mail-MobileMe user who has no GMail account could use an Android phone but would also not get the most out of the phone by doing so.

I hope this has been helpful in some way. As always, use what’s best for you. There is no empirical “best” for everybody.

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Hey, PCMag: Google doesn’t keep a blacklist

In Google: Judge, Jury and Online Shopping Executioner, Lance Ulanoff says Google—in updating its search algorithm to no longer reward with top search results businesses who have lots of negative user experiences—is potentially dooming other legitimate businesses:

Borker was very upfront is[sic] his dastardly business strategy and has only his self to blame for the world’s largest online search corporation summarily dismissing him for them web. But who are these other companies? How did Google come up with this list of companies with bad user experiences? How will these companies know if they’ve been “Borkered”?

Uh, read Google’s official announcement about the change. They didn’t come up with a list of companies. They updated their search algorithm. I’m sure they probably did some investigating to find a handful of Borker-similar businesses so they could test their algorithm, but they don’t have a static or periodically updated blacklist of “bad” businesses. They have a search algorithm. The algorithm got updated.

But what if some didn’t deserve it? What’s their recourse and where does Judge Google stop?

A computerized search algorithm will never perfectly return the absolute best results as determined by Lance Ulanoff. It’s an algorithm. Google’s been tweaking its algorithm for over ten years now, and it’s never been perfect, but it’s been good enough that people still use it more than any other search engine. Hey, I think my wife’s graphic design firm is the best, but if you search for graphic design firms on Google, she doesn’t appear anywhere on the first page. This is an outrage! What recourse does she have? Where does Judge Google stop? How could Google have condemned my wife’s business to a lower ranking than some worse design firm? See where this is going? You aren’t entitled to be at the top because you think you’re the best or that you’re just supposed to be there. As Ulanoff admits, even PCMag itself isn’t into such a supposed meritocracy:

PCMag.com doesn’t sell anything to consumers (aside from our Utilities Downloads), but we certainly work hard to be a part of the first page of any Google search relating to products and technology. Our methods are based on good search engine optimization (SEO) training—and mostly focus on topic relevance.

If you’re search engine optimizing instead of just being the highest quality content you can, aren’t you anointing yourself your own judge over what should be at the top instead of just letting the natural results rise to the top?

Here’s the most ridiculous example:

I have seen big companies struggle to shake off the burden of previous missteps. Perception is not only reality, it can be awfully persistent. Look at Symantec and its product Norton Internet Security. For years, it was a dog of a product that, while properly protecting your PC, turned it into a sluggish mess. A few years ago, Symantec completely rebuilt the security suite. It’s now among the fastest, lightest and most effective security suites on the market. Yet, when I speak to people, they still think it’s a dog and refuse to even try it. It’s like they have their own brain-matter-based search engine that’s stuck on all the bad info fed into it years ago. New, positive information can’t seem to rise up above the vast amount of negative sentiment they initially received about the product.

In Google’s new world, bad actors are always bad actors. They could be banished based on bad reviews, even if the company is busy cleaning up its act.

First of all, bad actors are not always bad actors. Somehow Ulanoff missed that Google updated its search algorithm. It’s not a static blacklist of businesses that are bad.

More importantly, if you do a Google search for antivirus, Symantec shows up in the first ten results. The idea that customers who have a bad experience with a product will not return to the product despite its later improvements has absolutely nothing to do with Google search results. That’s just life. That happened before Google. That happened before the internet. That’s a branding and marketing issue. That isn’t search result ranking.

If Symantec wants to fix its problem, it need a proper marketing campaign. And if Google wants to fix its problem, it needs to update its search algorithm, which it actually has done.

The irony is that Ulanoff’s “article” has risen to the top of Google News right now over other more sanely written articles on the same topic. Maybe Google’s next algorithm update project should be on punishing attention-grabbing headlines for poorly written articles.

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Gmail, what took you so long?

I’ve been an email client person ever since I got off using Telnet and Pine. I’ve used Eudora, Outlook, Thunderbird, Mail. I like email clients (well, with the exception of Outlook). Once I got an Android phone, I thought I’d give Gmail a try. A friend of mine had been using Gmail for quite a while, so I asked her what she thought about it. She loved it… except she had to warn me about how annoying “conversation view” might get. She wasn’t lying. It’s annoying. In fact, if you search for how to turn conversation view off, you’ll see thread after thread, feature request after feature request practically begging Google for the ability turn it off. Well, Google has finally relented. Maybe they are keeping to their pledge to not be evil.

P.S. To followers of my blog, I haven’t posted in a while, because I’ve been a little tired and busy, and I also haven’t had much new to say. So you get a fluff entry about Gmail. Yay!

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Annoying Android usability issue – Gmail with multiple accounts

I love my Android phone. It’s a lot of fun, and I think Google has done a lot of good things with the Android platform. There are still some major usability issues, though, that I hope Google will iron out in Android 3.0 (Gingerbread).

Here’s one, for example:
Issue 1664: Gmail should allow choosing the From: address on an account that has multiple addresses
Send As Feature in Gmail

For years, I’ve been using Thunderbird as my email client. I used it on Windows. Then I used it on Ubuntu. Then I used it on Mac OS X. Recently, inspired by my move to an Android phone, I decided to go as Google as possible. Google Voice. Google Docs. Google Maps. Google Reader. Gmail. There were some things that took adjusting to in Gmail (conversations instead of messages, anyone?), but I didn’t miss Thunderbird as much as I thought I would. Google gives you nigh-unlimited email storage (I don’t see meeting the 7 GB limit any time soon the way my emails are going), and the interface is simple and quick, and easy to use. More importantly, I can aggregate with Gmail a bunch of email accounts into one, just as I would with a traditional desktop email client (like Thunderbird, Mail, Eudora, or Outlook).

In the regular Gmail web interface, you can choose which of these accounts is the default email address (meaning if you compose a new message, that message will have the from: address be that email address unless you choose otherwise), and you can also choose to have all replies sent from the email the original message was sent to. That means if someone sends an email to my church account and I hit Reply, the reply will appear to come from my church account; and if someone sends an email to my home account and I hit Reply, the reply will appear to come from my home account.

Pretty nifty feature to have. Too bad it’s missing from Android’s Gmail app. In the Android Gmail app, if you compose a new message, it will always come from your Gmail email address, regardless of what your setting is on the web client. And if you reply to a message, it will also come from your Gmail address. That makes it pretty much useless to me in terms of writing emails, seeing as how I use my Gmail account to aggregrate other email accounts, and I basically never want emails to appear to come from my Gmail account.

Fortunately, there’s a workaround, but it’s not pretty. The workaround is not to use the Gmail app. Just use the Gmail web interface in your favorite Android browser (Browser, Opera, xScope, Dolphin, etc.). If you use the mobile version (which is the default) of the web client, you won’t actually get to see your from: address, but it’ll still operate the way it’s supposed to (I tested it on both a reply and a new email). You can switch to the desktop (or “classic”) mode of the web client if you actually want to see the from: address.

Now, Google, how difficult would it really be to fix this problem?

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Living the Apple and Google life

Ever since Apple rejected the Google Voice application for the iPhone last year, the tech press has tried to play up a corporate rivalry between Apple and Google. Will people pick Android or iPhone? Will Apple make Bing the default search engine on the iPad? Will Google start making touchscreen tablets to “kill” the iPad? I’m sure Eric Schmidt and Steve Jobs don’t get along as much as they used to, and Apple and Google certainly have experienced some overlap in terms of competing markets and target audiences. Nevertheless, for a lot of everyday consumers, the Apple/Google dynamic is more of a hybrid synthesis than a divided pledge to one or the other.

Here are a few examples:

  • Me: As some of my Ubuntu-using readers are dismayed about, I recently switched my primary operating system to Mac OS X on a Macbook Pro (still using Ubuntu on the netbook, still will keep updating Ubuntu tutorials). At the same time, I have an Android phone, and I will not be giving it up for an iPhone until Steve Jobs says (in all sincerity, not as a joke) “I love Google Voice and I think it’s the app everyone should install on the iPhone!” To make the most of my Android experience, I use GMail also, even to check my non-GMail accounts (via POP3). And, of course, I use Google as my main search engine.
  • My wife: She’s an Apple user through and through. She uses a Mac at work, and she uses a Mac at home. She has an iPhone. She uses Mail, not Thunderbird or GMail. Safari (not Chrome) is her main web browser. At the same time, she has a Nook (Android-based) e-reader, and Google is still her main search engine.
  • My pastor: Even this Apple hipster recently traded up his iPhone for an Android phone (albeit an iPhone clone), but he plans to get an iPad to keep up his “street cred.”
  • My sister-in-law: She uses a Mac Mini with iTunes and has an iPod, but she also has an Android phone and a GMail and Google Voice account.
  • My boss: She uses Google for just about everything. It’s her search engine. GMail is her email. She just got started with Google Voice the other day. She uses Picasa to organize her photos. But she’s an iPhone user.

In fact, I would say, at least among my social circle, the last example is the most typical. Yes, I know a lot of iPhone users. Before they had iPhones, they had iPods. Some of them still use iPods separately from their iPhones. But Google is the main search engine. GMail is the email. Google Voice is starting to catch on. Even if you don’t have an Android phone, there may be other Android devices (like a Nook) that you pick up. Even if you love Google, you may still have an iPhone.

Who’s going to win? Apple or Google? I say both will win. In some ways, both have already won.

P.S. I do know a couple of iPhone users interested in Google Voice. Anyone with a non-jailbroken iPhone who’s been using the two together for a while willing to share the experience of using the Google Voice mobile page in Safari? Pros and cons?

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Privacy on the Internet Still Doesn’t Exist

Two years ago, I posted Privacy on the internet doesn’t exist. Well, it still doesn’t. I’m not saying you should go out of your way to disseminate your personal information to the general public, nor am I saying that paying attention to privacy settings in various online services is an exercise in futility. What I am saying, though, is that the idea that you can use the internet and be totally off the radar from governments and corporations is delusional.

Google and Facebook have certainly had their screw-ups when it comes to user privacy. But you have to realize we live in an increasingly networked and digitally stored world. You do not have control over everything about you. If you use the library, the government can find out what books you read and how long you read them for. If you even just look at an item on Amazon, Amazon keeps track of what you’ve looked at. If you encrypt your emails you send out, even if you run your own mail server locked in a bullet-proof vault, the people who receive those emails may forward them on unencrypted or may have weak passwords that get guessed by cracking programs or people who then read your private emails. If you don’t have a Facebook account, your friends who do will still post pictures of you and comment about what you all did last night. If you own a credit card or have a bank account, your information is stored somewhere or even multiple places in a networked computer system. All it takes is one unscrupulous or stupid employee to allow someone else access to your information, and it’s out there.

Are you using a proxy? How do you know you can trust the proxy with your information any more than you can your ISP? If you don’t trust Google’s privacy policy, why should you believe Scroogle’s?

I really am sick and tired of tinfoil hats (especially on Linux forums) pretending they have some magic bullet of privacy just because they use ixquick instead of Google to do searches. Unless you live in a cave, have no bank account, do no business, never see people, don’t have a phone, don’t pay taxes, and never use a networked computer, your imagined total privacy simply does not exist.

Do I care that Google knows who my friends are and how often I call them? Not really. Before I had an Android phone, I used a Virgin Mobile phone. Guess what! Virgin Mobile and Sprint (whose network Virgin borrows) knew who my friends were and how often I called them. Do I care that Google knows what I’m searching for? Not really. I’m not searching for anything that anyone else isn’t searching for. You can tell because they now try to guess what you’re searching for, and it’s usually what you are searching for, even if you’ve never searched for that before. Do you think if Britney Spears does something crazy that you’re the only one searching for “Britney Spears [something crazy]”?

And also, do you think if the government suspects you’re a terrorist that they really won’t just tap your phones and stalk you (I believe it’s called surveillance) anyway? Don’t you think the hospital, when served with a subpoena, will hand over your medical records? Don’t you think the store you shop at will hand over its security camera footage of you shopping there and what you bought? Please, just put the tinfoil hats away. Use common sense, and that goes both ways. You can hide most things from the general public, but if the corporations and governments want your information, they will get it. That doesn’t mean you have to make it easy for people to find information about you, but it does mean you can’t pretend your information is impossible to find.

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Some advice for Google about Buzz

Google just announced a new service called Buzz, which is supposed to be Google’s answer to Facebook. Unfortunately, based on the Buzz site and its accompanying video, I don’t see this supplanting Facebook any time soon. I’ve got some advice for Google on how to make it work:

  1. Allow people to start slowly. Yes, when Facebook was released to the general public (not just college students), a lot of us felt like “Really? You want me to sign up for yet another thing? I thought we did all this? Friendster, MySpace, Xanga, etc. I don’t want another account.” Many people gave in, though, and created another account because Facebook offered the kind of lively community other social networking sites had not yet offered. It’ll be a lot more difficult to convince people to start up not only another social networking account but another email account. A good chunk of my friends have GMail accounts, but they don’t all have GMail accounts. From what I’ve seen, Buzz requires a GMail account and is part of the GMail interface. That’s a mistake. It should be its own thing (like Docs, Translate, Maps, etc.) with perhaps added integration with GMail if you already have a GMail account. Google wised up to this with its recent changes to Google Voice (you can have a subset of GV features by using your current cell phone number, and you can add more GV features by creating an entirely new GV number). If Google doesn’t encourage people to start slowly, Buzz will die, because I’d much rather keep in touch with all my Facebook friends than only the ones who use GMail (by the way, I have a GMail account, but it is not my main email account, and I check it through an email client, not through webmail).
  2. Really follow through on reducing noise-to-signal ratio. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve finally grown to love Facebook. There are a few things about Facebook that still annoy me, though, and if Google wants to have people use Buzz, Google needs to step up and really fix the mistakes Facebook has refused to fix. The biggest problem for me now is that I’m basically friends with someone or I’m not. There are people I want to keep in touch with, but I don’t want to know every single aspect of their lives. Right now, Facebook allows me to either ignore certain friends completely… or hear about what they had for breakfast, and lunch, and snack, and what latest gadget they got, and some link they thought was interesting, and twenty pictures of their baby daughter. If Google can organically make the updates fit how friendships really work, that’d be a huge draw for future former Facebook users. No more fretting about whether someone is an acquaintance, a friend, a former close friend, a current close friend, a family member. You’ll get the kinds of updates you care about. Certain people will appear more frequently in your feed or more kinds of posts you care about will appear more frequently (to anyone who’s my Facebook friend right now, I love pictures and interesting status updates—I hate weird applications, quizzes, and embedded videos).
  3. Make privacy settings easy. The privacy settings in Facebook right now are the worst of both worlds: they’re complicated, but they are also not comprehensive enough. Just as I don’t want to hear everything about what’s going on in certain people’s lives, I don’t want everyone to know what’s going on in my life, but sometimes I want even acquaintances or not-so-close friends to know certain things. In Facebook, people can basically either see your updates… or they can’t. If Buzz has the ability to set any given post as for just super-close friends, for all my friends, for all my friends and acquaintances, or for anyone with internet access, that’d score points for me and make me want to move over from Facebook.
  4. Keep the interface consistent. I have no doubt, actually, that Google will do this. I’ve seen them overhaul GMail and the Google homepage, but they tend to take years to do a makeover. Facebook seems to want to redecorate every few weeks, and that annoys its users. If Google wants to bring people over, there needs to be a lot of emphasis about what Buzz has to offer that Facebook doesn’t.
  5. Encourage folks to “dual-boot.” If Google can find a simple way to encourage people to try out Buzz and actually use it while not entirely giving up Facebook, that’d be gold for Buzz. No one is going to drop Facebook completely and start Buzzing. If Buzz is going to take off, people have to be able to test the waters. I would suggest a Buzz kickoff week, in which Google encourages everyone with a GMail account to take a brief sabbatical from Facebook and Buzz about something cool that week.

That’s all I can think of. And I don’t even think that’s a surefire way to get Buzz to take off. I think if Google takes all these suggestions, it may have a fighting chance against Facebook. No guarantees, though. Right now, Facebook is everywhere.

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What bothers me about the Ubuntu-Yahoo deal

On Tuesday, Rick Spencer announced on the Ubuntu developers mailing list that Ubuntu has entered a revenue sharing deal with Yahoo! and will make Yahoo! the default search engine in the next Ubuntu release (10.04, Lucid Lynx). This sparked an extremely long discussion thread on the Ubuntu Forums about whether this is a good idea or not.

Generally speaking (with few exceptions), the reactions fall into one of two categories:

  1. This is great. I won’t use Yahoo! myself, but if it makes money for Ubuntu, why not? How hard is it to change the defaults. Two clicks.
  2. This is unacceptable. Yahoo! is in bed with Microsoft. This is wrong. If Ubuntu needs money, we should donate. Why wasn’t the community consulted?

Well, my reaction to this deal wasn’t quite either of those. Yes, I believe the community should have been consulted. That isn’t really what bothered me. What bothered me is that the decision was made soley with regard to revenue and not thinking at all about the user experience. It wasn’t “We evaluated the default search engine and decided Yahoo! has better search results or gives a better search experience than Google, and so we have decided to enter a revenue-sharing deal with Yahoo!” Nor was it even “We evaluated Yahoo! and Google and found the Yahoo! search experience to be only slightly worse than the Google one or about equal, but we thought revenue-sharing would be worth the sacrifice.” No, no mention of the user experience at all. It’s just the revenue.

I have nothing against Ubuntu making money. Mark Shuttleworth has deep pockets, but if Ubuntu is to be self-sustaining, it can’t just drain his pocketbook indefinitely. Nevertheless, defaults matter, and if they didn’t this deal would get Ubuntu no money (if most people changed the default, very few users would keep Yahoo!, which means Ubuntu wouldn’t get much revenue from this deal).

That last bit is something people don’t realize. If all (or even most of) the Ubuntu users change the default to Google or Cuil or Scroogle, then you can’t say “Well, I won’t use it, but great for Ubuntu to make some money.” They won’t be making money if you all keep changing the search engine.

But we won’t all be changing the search engine. Anyone handed the live CD and trying to do a search will either not know Yahoo! is the default search engine or just not bother to change it. (One of the reasons defaults matter.)

So I can see only two sensible reactions to this deal:

  1. This is great. Anything to make Ubuntu money. I intend to keep Yahoo! as the default to make Ubuntu money.
  2. Extra revenue is great, but why isn’t the user experience even considered when making this decision?

Obviously, I choose the latter.

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How else can Linux fail in the consumer space?

Many Linux advocates and Linux bashers still think the success or failure of Linux in the consumer (not server or embedded) space rests on technical merits. Implementation, marketing, pricing, inertia, vendor lock-in—no, of course, those have nothing to do with whether people decide on Linux as opposed to Windows or Mac OS X. Would it help to work on the technical merits of Linux? Sure. Will that alone make Linux a success for consumers? Hardly. Technical merits will get technical users into it (Network admin, want a server? Use Linux. Hey, TiVo, want a free operating system for your DVR product? Use Linux).

Linux had a few good opportunities to succeed, but flubbed on the execution:

  1. OLPC. When I heard about the One Laptop Per Child project, I got giddy. It was marketed as the $100 laptop. It was going to be durable. It was going to use Linux. It was going to help kids in developing countries learn. If that had been what really happened, Linux would have really taken off, at least in certain demographic segments of the world. What really happened? Well, the laptop was nowhere near $100. It was more like $200. And if rich folks wanted them, they had to pay $400 ($200 to get one, $200 to give one). It also was a pretty ugly laptop, with an extremely crippled version of Linux.
  2. Dell. When Dell started up its Idea Storm section, it probably had no idea the section would be bombarded by Linux users demanding Dell start offering Linux preinstalled. Well, Dell half-heartedly gave in and offered a couple of select models with Ubuntu preinstalled. This half-hearted effort doomed the new venture to failure. Dell hid Ubuntu away so no one could see it on their website without a direct link or clever Google searching. Dell priced the Ubuntu laptops more than spec-equivalent Windows laptops. Dell “recommended” Windows on all the Ubuntu laptop pages (it still does). Dell still used Linux-unfriendly hardware (Broadcom, anyone?). To sum up, Dell was not invested in really selling Linux preinstalled. It just wanted to sort of, kind of appease the Linux community (most of whom continue to buy the cheaper Windows-preinstalled laptops and then install Linux for themselves).
  3. Netbooks. I love the idea of netbooks. The execution was terrible, though. They were not heavily advertised. Early netbooks had 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB SSD drives with 7″ screens. The battery life was poor. The keyboards were cramped. The screen resolution was practically non-existent. Worse yet, all the OEMs included crippled versions of Linux… Linpus Linux Lite, Xandros… installing software became in reality the nightmare that Linux haters often misrepresent it to be. It would be like having apps for the iPhone without an App Store. Yes, you could install a regular Linux version yourself, but that’s not what the everyday consumer is going to do. Microsoft slammed the years-familiar XP down on netbooks, and—suffering from a bad implementation and no marketing or advocacy from OEMs—Linux on netbooks floundered.
  4. Android. In many ways, Android is actually a success. But it is not the success it could have been. When people were saying various Android phones could be the next “iPhone killer,” I thought, Hey, maybe they could be. We’ll see. I wasn’t surprised to see that the G1 did not kill the iPhone, the MyTouch didn’t kill the iPhone, the Hero didn’t kill the iPhone, nor did the Droid, nor did the Nexus One. I have a MyTouch 3G with Android, and I love my phone. I understand very well why it didn’t kill the iPhone, though. Apple understands how to make an excellent user experience, and Google doesn’t. That’s the bottom line. I’m not an Apple fanboy. I actually disagree with a lot of the design decisions Apple makes. What I don’t dispute is that Apple has a vision. Every decision, whether I agree with it or not, has a rationale that makes sense. Yes, there are pros and cons, and Apple weighed them and decided the pros outweighed the cons. With Android, though, and with various HTC phones using Android, I see various bad interface implementations that have no pros at all. I just don’t see anyone properly testing these things. For example, on the MyTouch and the Nexus, the speaker is on the back of the phone. Why? On some of the Android text dialogues, you have to tap into the text field (even if you have no hard keyboard) to get the onscreen keyboard to appear (shouldn’t it appear automatically if the text field is in focus?). Those are just a couple of examples.

Just yesterday, Steve Jobs announced the iPad to much ridicule. People made fun of the name. People said it would be useless without Flash, a USB port, without a front-facing camera, without multi-tasking. They called it an oversized iPhone. They said the 4:3 aspect ratio wouldn’t be good for movies. The LED screen wouldn’t be good for reading in sunlight or for long periods of time.

I kind of liked it. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I wasn’t drooling. But I can see the appeal. It looks like a slick device, and it’s priced a lot lower than people thought it would be (most of the speculation saw it between $700 and $1000). If it’s a standalone device (doesn’t need to hook up or sync to a Windows or OS X computer with iTunes), I might consider it.

I would be curious to see if any OEM is going to step up to the plate here, though, and give Linux a real chance. I doubt it. It would be quite simple, though. Create a tablet just like the iPad (has to include proper multi-touch, though… no backing out for fear of so-called patent infringement, Google). Run a Linux-based operating system that is mainly open source (but can have some proprietary programs on it). Include multi-tasking. Include a proper software repository. Use a regular hard drive instead of SSD drive. Include USB ports. Have better screen resolution or a widescreen aspect ratio. Then price it just a little below the iPad… oh, and give it a proper name… one people won’t make fun of.

How simple is that? Will it happen? Probably not. A bunch of iPad imitators will pop around, sure. They’ll each have serious flaws, though. Many will lack multi-touch. Most will be too bulky. Some won’t have a sensible user interface. Some will be too expensive. Then I can tack it on as yet another way Linux has failed in the consumer space.

Mark Shuttleworth, if you’re reading this, it’s about time you realized Bug #1 gets fixed once you create a full and unified software-hardware user experience. Hoards of Windows users aren’t going to download the Ubuntu .iso, set their BIOSes to boot from CD, repartition their hard drives, install Ubuntu, and then troubleshoot hardware compatibility problems. You (or someone with your savvy and financial resources) need to be the open source Steve Jobs if Linux is going to succeed in the consumer space.

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Good support is in the timing and quality, not the medium

In “Complaints greet Google Nexus One phone,” the BBC says “Many people are unhappy with Google only responding to questions by e-mail and are calling for it to set up phone-based support.”

I’ve been the victim of bad customer service and the beneficiary of excellent customer service. I also happen to do customer service for a living (not for a corporation but for a school). Whether I’m getting customer support or giving it, I know good customer service isn’t any better on the phone. In fact, most of the bad customer service I’ve gotten has been over the phone. You know why? Because, although “your call may be recorded for quality control purposes,” it’s recorded by the company giving the support, not by you. You don’t have access to that recording. And chances are, unless you’re extremely diligent, you’ve totally forgotten the name of the customer service representative who “helped” you.

Many times I’ve received “help” over the phone and nothing was actually done. Something was supposed to be fixed, canceled, or sent, and it never was. The phone call leaves no accountability.

Phone support may seem immediate and “better” because you’re talking to a “live” person. Ultimately, though, I don’t want to be put on hold for a half hour or 45 minutes and be constantly told that my call is important to this company putting me on hold. I want answers, and I want them now.

You know the best customer service I’ve gotten? ICDSoft, my web host. Answers within minutes… usually one minute. And by email. It doesn’t matter what kind of silly question I ask, the expert support staff at ICDSoft gets back to me within minutes.

So don’t tell me customer service is better over the phone. Customer service is better—phone or email—when your question or problem gets answered or solved quickly. That’s the bottom line. The bonus with email is that you have a written record of the exchange.

Google, if you want to make your customers happy, give timely and effective support. Call centers have nothing to do with it.