Three Month Review: Nexus 5X

nexus-5x

So three months ago I got the Nexus 5X. It was an upgrade for my aging (and cracked and dented) Nexus 5. I really enjoy the form factor and size of 5″-ish phones, having had both larger (Samsung Note 2) and smaller (HTC Desire). I tend to use phones for about a year and a half or so before I feel like I really need to upgrade, though I’ve found myself using newer phones longer and longer as they tend to be just better devices over the long run.

Before I say anything about the 5X, let’s talk about the 5 for a bit. It was a good phone, not a great one, for several reasons. The most glaring defect was the terrible camera. It couldn’t really take good photos even in broad daylight. Every photo I took was very clearly from a phone, when what I’m looking for is parity with a point and shoot camera. It also had just average battery life and a fairly unimpressive screen resolution. Especially approaching the end of it’s usable life (for me), I was getting very little screen on time.

I liked the Nexus 5 but didn’t love it. What I really wanted was a newer, better version of the Nexus 5 with upgraded camera and better battery life in roughly the same form factor.

When the 5X was announced, I was excited but a little cautious. I wanted to wait for some trusted early reviews to get their hands on it and give me a real impression of what I was in for (MKBHD first and foremost on that list). What I heard made me pull the trigger, I bought the phone from the Google store, and got it next day, which was nice.

Display

The phone itself is basically an upgraded 5 form factor. The screen is larger and much, much prettier. Mind you, it’s still and LCD screen and I was hoping for an AMOLED display for some of the neat things it can do. But the LCD looks nice. So that’s good. It’s nothing super special but it’s leaps and bounds above the quality of the 5, which had a terribly display even for its time. Colours are crisp, it’s nice and bright, and the display even goes down to a fairly decent don’t-disturb-your-partner-in-bed level.

Form Factor & Design

The back of the phone is made from rubberized plastic, but it’s important to note that it’s not nearly as grippy as the Nexus 5. It’s gotten less slippery over time (good) but still isn’t anywhere near as rubberized and non-slippery as the 5.

The camera bulge is new too. I wasn’t that excited about the camera protruding from the back of the phone, but it looks like that’s something we just have to deal with if we want a thin form factor with a large camera sensor. Then again, the 5X isn’t really that thin. It feels very solid in the hand, a really physical object, and the camera bulge isn’t very pronounced. It doesn’t rock when you set it down on a table. The corners are all nicely rounded, but not rounded enough to make the device more slippery than it already is, and not enough to throw off the geometry of the phone (a complaint I have with the more recent iPhone industrial design: too much rounding just looks… dumb). All in all after using the phone for 3 months it really feels like a lot of thought went into the device’s design, reflected in a really nice package that’s a pleasure to hold and use at first and in the long-term is unobtrusive and most importantly not annoying.

The only bit of industrial design I don’t know if I love is the placement of the fingerprint sensor, a feature new to this phone by the way. The fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the phone. For being on the back it’s in a really good place, falling almost exactly where I would normally put my finger. 90% of the time this is great but there’s that other 10% of the time the phone is resting on its back and needs to be picked up to unlock. From what my friends with iPhones say, they often use their thumbs to unlock their phones (as the iPhone fingerprint sensor is on the front of the device), a motion I know would annoy me. On balance I think the fingerprint sensor on the back is a lot better if you have to pick one. The solution here is of course put a fingerprint sensor front and back which could be a selling point for the phone. This would change the speaker placement too, but I’m sure that could be gotten around.

Sound

Speaking of speakers, the 5X looks like it should be a stereo device (as it has identical grilles above and below the screen), but it’s definitely not. The sound is good and front-mounted speakers are a definite improvement from the bottom-mounted speakers of the 5 which I ended up blocking like 50% of the time, and having to rearrange my hand hold to suit the placement of speakers and buttons and whatnot isn’t something I want to think about.

Internals

This phone could really use is a little bit more RAM. It’s currently at 2gb, which isn’t really enough to do intensive multitasking and stuff like that. I haven’t run into that issue too many times but enough for me to notice apps having to be reloaded from disk and stuff like that. Other than the RAM issue, I haven’t had any problems with the speed of the processor itself. Everything seems buttery smooth. None of the interface artifacts I got on previous devices and versions of Android are present, and I only get slight hiccoughs when doing RAM-intensive stuff. Again, I would really have liked 4gb of RAM in this thing.

Android

Since this is a Nexus device it’s loaded with vanilla Android, my preference. I’ve used vendor skins and while some are okay most can die in a fire (I’m looking at you, Touchwiz). There’s not much to say here except to mention the Doze feature, probably the best thing about new Android versions. It senses when the device is at rest (eg when you’ve put it down somewhere like a nightstand for extended periods) and batches all those annoying wake requests together instead of allowing apps to randomly send wakelocks anytime they like. This means that the Nexus 5X just sips battery overnight instead of chewing through it. It’s really that good: I’ll lose only 1% of battery or so over an entire night. Other than that there’s not a whole lot more to say about the Android experience. There’s some new stuff baked in like Now on Tap, but that feature isn’t really ready for prime time yet.

The cool thing with Android now is the OS is in a place where I can just say “Yep, it’s Android, it’s good, nothing too annoying here”. I could not say that a year or two years ago. Android has come a long way. I think it’s actually better than iOS now, especially the latest versions. I don’t see anything about Android that gives me iOS envy, let’s put it that way. Again, that was not the case a year ago or two years ago. (In fact I think the latest versions of iOS look a little too… I dunno, cartoonish? I used to really envy their interface design; that’s no longer the case.)

So pros and cons time. This is stuff I really like about the phone versus things I really hate.

Cons

I have a couple nitpicks that really annoy me. First they changed the button layout so the power button is directly above the volume toggle on the right hand side of the phone. This is a decent concept because I can reach all the buttons with my thumb, but practically it means I accidentally power off my phone all the time when adjusting the volume. I’d like the power button to be absolutely anywhere else. Seriously, top of the phone, left side of the phone, anywhere else.

Second, the headphone jack is on the bottom of the phone, quite close to the edge on the right side. This makes it really, really awkward to hold when you’ve got headphones plugged in. Every time I have headphones in it just bothers me where this jack is located. I understand some people like the jack on the bottom so they can pull their phone out of their pockets naturally without having to flip the phone around, but if the jack had been located just a couple centimeters closer to the center of the phone it would have been way, way easier to hold.

Speaking of headphones, you don’t get any out of the box. This is annoying, as I basically trashed my last pair and needed new ones. I’ve never had a phone not come with headphones before, and I’m disappointed that they didn’t throw some in-ears or something in there. This is kind of a small thing, but it still annoys me.

The camera doesn’t have optical image stabilization. I get it, at this price point we’re probably not going to see that, and I expect the next generation of this phone will have it. But taking shots in low light conditions without HDR mode is only okay. Movement with definitely screw up your shots.

USB C means all those connectors you have are pretty much obsolete (well, except for the raft of devices that use the old connectors still). The package comes with a USB C-compliant charger and cable which is a good thing because compliant cables and bricks are pretty darn hard to find. There’s lots of dangerous USB C junk on the market right now.

Pros

The camera is great. Like, really great, especially for a Nexus device. In daylight I wouldn’t be able to say if the photos it takes came from a phone or a point and shoot. It has a larger and better sensor than Nexi past; in fact this is probably the biggest upgrade in this device. The Nexus family has always had terrible camera quality and it’s nice to see that boat being turned around. It’s not perfect, but it’s leaps and bounds better than any camera on any other phone at this price point. Low light still struggles a bit, but HDR mode will help out with that at the expense of slowing down your shots. The camera is nice and responsive too, another huge pro. I hate missing shots because shutter speed is an issues, a problem I’ve had so much with Android phone. Thankfully that’s almost never the case here.

USB C, apart from having to buy new cables and whatnot, is just so much better than USB-whatever-came-before-it. The plugs are reversible, small, and fit snugly, so no more turning your USB plug around 3 times to orient it correctly in whatever 4-dimensional space old USB occupied.

Fast charging is just… this is the standout “I wasn’t expecting this” feature for the Nexus 5X. I knew it charged faster, but I wasn’t prepared for just how fast. Not having to wait around for two hours to get a fully charged phone is amazing, and plugging this thing in for 10 minutes will net me a ~50% charge. Excellent. I hadn’t noticed how annoying having to charge my phone the old way was, but trust me, I don’t ever want to go back.

The fingerprint sensor has changed the way I interact with the phone, too. I wasn’t expecting to care about this, even though I knew it existed. But it really took away some of the annoying friction of unlocking a secured device. I should have known I would like a fingerprint sensor, as I’d always just kept my old Nexus 5 unsecured to get around having to type something or draw a pattern or whatever. The fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate, and setting it up is super easy. I use it all the time, and I just love it. The only thing it doesn’t like is when you have any moisture on your finger, like if you’ve just washed your hands or been doing some dishes. Other than that? Awesome.

Verdict

So for a long time every Android phone I’ve had has had some significant downside that would make me second-guess recommending it to your average user. The Nexus 5X is probably the best all-around Android phone I’ve seen, ever, for what it is. It’s a very simple, very good, very well-thought-out package with no really big downsides. I would be absolutely comfortable recommending this phone to anyone except maybe a power user. This is the kind of phone that the Android market has really been missing for a while. Just a good, good phone. And at half the cost of a new iPhone or whatever, sure it’s not as fast, but if you drop it on the ground or accidentally throw it in a river you’re not going to have to empty your savings to get a new one.

The real question is: If I lost this phone tomorrow, would I go buy a new one? And the answer is… hell yeah. And I can’t think of another Android phone that’s made me say that in a long, long time. Maybe ever. This is a great daily driver, a well-rounded experience, and just generally a wonderful phone. There’s nothing on the market right now that makes me say… “I want that instead”.

So the verdict? Good to great. Very happy with the purchase.

YouTube & its Indie Labels, or, A Long Slide Into Evil

I’ve been covering the deteriorating situation at the once-golden Google and its various products for quite some time.

Now this: Google is set to block Indie label content on YouTube. Over licensing terms for a new service.

Now, as an article by The Guardian points out, this might be a misunderstanding. There are a few options:

One: YouTube is indeed threatening to block the videos of indie labels: if they don’t sign up to the terms of its new paid music service, their videos will be removed from its free service too. Although Vevo-run channels seem likely to stay up.

Two: YouTube will block indie labels from monetisation of their videos on its free service. It’s possible that YouTube will leave labels’ videos up, but block them from making money from ads in and around those videos – as well as from using its Content ID system to make money from ads shown on videos uploaded by YouTube users featuring their music.

Three: This is all just a big misunderstanding. If indie labels choose not to sign up for YouTube’s new paid music service, their videos will be blocked on it, but left alone on the existing free service.

I think it’s probably a misunderstanding, too. As Chris Hubbs said on Twitter, it’s hard to imagine Google giving up its “YouTube is all the videos” platform just to squeeze some indie labels.

But it might, right?

So I expected to hear Google & YouTube put out a strongly worded statement to the contrary. But, to the contrary, this is what they said:

“Our goal is to continue making YouTube an amazing music experience, both as a global platform for fans and artists to connect, and as a revenue source for the music industry. We’re adding subscription-based features for music on YouTube with this in mind — to bring our music partners new revenue streams in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars YouTube already generates for them each year. We are excited that hundreds of major and independent labels are already partnering with us.”

Now that, my friends, is a absolutely shitty non-response. It’s the sort of thing that makes you think… Oh. Maybe it’s true after all.

Two points. One, Google of today is not the Google of yesterday. And I’m not even talking about whether they used to have ideals but now don’t, blah blah blah. I mean they used to get good press and now they don’t.

Say what you will about Apple, they get a metric shit-tonne of good press, so much so that the bad press is pretty much drowned out. Google doesn’t get that. These days they pretty much just get bad press. This is a pretty fantastic change from a few years ago when Google was the open-source idealistic saviour of the internet.

Two, they should have been out in front of this, offering a plain, frank denial. Even if that denial was a half-truth. Instead some intern was given the task of crafting their message, which was basically “talk about something else”.

We’re not stupid, we can tell when you’re trying to “change the message” or “redirect the conversations” or as we call it, “change the subject”. Especially when done abruptly and awkwardly.

ViHart on Google+

The article is here. Quoth (any emphasis mine):

Making huge forced changes to a platform is problematic for people whose livelihood depends on certain things being a certain way. I would not recommend making YouTube or Google+ a large part of your business, and these changes should be scaring away anyone who was considering investing in the platform.

and

Google’s products used to augment humanity with beautiful tools that helped us get the information we wanted to see. That was the superiority of Google search, Google reader, gmail with its excellent spam filter, and YouTube, which allowed you to subscribe to any individual who might want to post videos.

and

Making things people want is good business. Tricking people into using things they don’t want with a bait-and-switch is not good business.

I think these changes are going to make a lot of popular YouTube videomakers looks for an alternative platform — which is to say now seems like a great time to start that service.

Can you imagine the video functionality of YouTube with a comment presentation more like, say, Reddit?

I’m done with Google+

I’ve used every Google product somewhere along the way, I think. In fact, I still use search and Gmail multiple times per day. I used to use Reader (RIP, you will be missed; Feedly is okay, but I miss Reader) more than either of those actually. I also occasionally use the baked-in stuff on my Android phone.

I used to think of Google as more of a concept than a company. Sort of an idea that just happened to be a corporation. That seems, looking back, incredibly naive. There was a time where Google was a champion of all things open — open source, open data, open graph, interoperability, etc.

This is no longer the case. And this is probably Facebook’s fault more than anything, but however it happened, Google is no longer about open. They are all about the walled garden. There are still nods to openness, of course. You can do a fairly useless Takeout if you want to move some of your data elsewhere. You can still use IMAP to grab all your mail. Chrome is still technically open source. I expect these examples to become fewer and fewer over the years, as Google shutters some products and removes export abilities from others.

It seems like I’m watching Google become Microsoft. And I do not like Microsoft.

Actually, I think Google and Microsoft have been quite similar for a while now. They even share the same boneheaded product naming conventions. They have the same peculiar habit of ignoring something until it becomes too large to ignore, and then trying to turn the whole company on a dime. The example that springs to mind here is Microsoft and Internet Explorer. Microsoft ignores the internet until they no longer can, and then suddenly everything is internet-enabled, including bolting Internet Explorer to the internals of Windows.

I get the feeling that Google is trying to do the same thing with Google+. They must certainly know this.

The only problem is that Google is not Microsoft, not in terms of market penetration, not in terms of the type of services offered, and not in terms of sheer clout. (In fact, I don’t think anyone is like Microsoft anymore. Not even Microsoft. Their notable failure to get Windows Phone off the ground speaks to this.)

So when they come up against the idea of social (and by social, we of course just mean Facebook) and the threat it poses, Google’s solution is to turn the company on a dime and try to inject some social into their DNA.

At first I thought this would be a great idea. Google has always had too many services that did different (and sometime the same) thing, services that weren’t really connected to anything. Drive, Gmail, Search, Docs, Talk… they all existed in their own little universe, not connected to each other in any meaningful way.

I was wrong. Or at least, I was wrong about what I thought they wanted to do. I was picturing a sort of integrated sharing hub, where we could interact not only between products, but between users. Google+ would make sharing so much easier–right?

Well, not really. What we got instead was a Facebook clone. A good one, but a Facebook clone nonetheless. And then products started disappearing. At first it was the obvious ones, the ones that were always oddballs, that never caught on. But then Reader died.

Reader didn’t die because it wasn’t being used. It was. Everyone I know used it. The hue and cry raised across the internet when it died was another proof of that. The reality is that RSS doesn’t fit in with Google+ very well. It should have been obvious when Google ended RSS sharing and replaced it with the Google+ +1 button that Reader didn’t fit. RSS sharing doesn’t jive with the walled garden approach. Even though it was incredibly useful for so many different things, including content discovery–I routinely found wonderful articles and feeds on Reader, as my friends shared them.

In fact, this is the only sharing concept that Google ever got right. It just worked, and I loved it.

Reader is gone now, and it’s been replaced by a growing antipathy toward Google+. Google+ is the thing that killed one of my favourite products ever, bar none.

This is all a long preface to a list I’ve wanted to make for some time. This list is why I’m not going to use Google+ anymore wrapped up in why I don’t trust Google anymore. Maybe this is an abbreviated list of why I used to be a fanboy and now I’m not. Something like that.

  • There’s no one there. Google has routinely touted the Google+ usage numbers. I think they’re juicing them. I really do. How can so many millions of people be using a product that’s a virtual ghost town? I mean, there’s lots of tech geeks on there, and a few superstars of the tech world are really involved, but that’s all the activity I see. For a social site, it really sucks when no one I know is there.
  • It’s slow and unwieldy. I have a fairly new, fairly powerful ultrabook. Yet Google+ stutters and moves slowly. This is all in Google’s own browser, Chrome. Firefox is actually somewhat better. But not good enough. This reminds me most of Wave, a product that should never have existed in the form it was released in. There are some neat features, sure. But if these neat features are making the thing run like a dog, maybe it’s time to cut down on the cruft.
  • The interface sucks.The fact that it looks like a sad ripoff of Pintrest isn’t exactly a huge turnon. When Facebook introduced its Timeline feature, I didn’t like the dual-stream design. It’s not particularly user-friendly. Having to scan back and forth doesn’t exactly make the site easier to use. Now imagine instead of two streams, you have three! What an innovative way to make me angry! Having used the new design for a few months, I really hate it. With a passion. In an additional bit of screw-you, if you choose to have only one column on your screen, in proper timeline fashion, Google+ gives you a tiny centred column which looks ridiculous. The interface is a textbook example of an idea that must have seemed great but actually makes me want to scream in desperation. It makes me think that the internet as a whole is moving backwards–we did so much design work on making things like threaded comments and comment moderation and upvotes/downvotes work, and now we’re back to unordered streams. Yay internet!
  • It killed Reader. I don’t think you understand how much I used Reader. It was intra-day. On my breaks, at home, on the bus. I loved that ugly son of a gun. Now Google is trying to tell me to use Google+ instead. I know that’s the reason. It didn’t fit the strategy. That’s why Reader is gone. Google might as well be asking me to fall in love with the man that killed my wife. Every time I think about it, my antipathy to Google+ grows. You killed Reader and gave me this? Screw you.
  • No import or export. One of the big reasons I ever used Twitter was because posting to Twitter was easy. I could do it from anywhere. This was back when the internet of things was still a possibility for Twitter, back before they started walling off their own garden. No such luck with Google+. You can’t send stuff to Google+, except manually, and you certainly can’t pull your shares and +1’s and posts out if you want to. No RSS feed for Google+ stuff! If you want to share, you have to use the API, and if you’re using the API, you might as well be trying to suck a golf ball through a straw. Kudos to apps like ThinkUp who try to at least make a backup of all that stuff, and kudos to those developers who have managed to wrangle Google+ into an RSS feed (a service which I actually use), but from Google’s perspective they’re doing exactly what Google doesn’t want them to do: Jump the garden wall.

There’s your list. That’s about all I can take. So farewell Google+, I’m not really going to miss you at all.

And for Google, a bit of advice:

stop-trying-to-make-google-plus-happen-meme

Look, if you can’t go to the popular kids’ parties, don’t make your own party. It’s pathetic. Do something else instead.

Goodbye Reader

I’ve used Google reader for a long time. Pretty much as long as it’s existed, in fact. I got tired of doing the same circuit on the web, visiting all my friends’ blogs, all the tech blogs, and all that. I got tired of their constantly-changing interfaces and oddly-placed navigation.

I wanted to take the hassle and variability out of my web reading experience. RSS and Reader did that.

Reader was not always fantastic. In fact, at the beginning, it was fairly ugly and feature-light. But it did what it advertised and it did it without requiring a desktop app.

This is something often overlooked. I think Google Reader is responsible for introducing a variety of people to the idea that we don’t need a desktop app for everything anymore.

That aside, as it accrued features, Google Reader also became a bit prettier, though it was never (let’s be honest here) that great to look at. What it did better than any other competing reader was sharing. You had friends, you shared articles or blog posts with them, and they could see what you shared. Even better, the sharing was done by (what else?) RSS. So you could pull out your personal shares via RSS and do… well, whatever you wanted. It wasn’t the perfect data interchange, but it worked. You could take your shared items and post them to a blog (which I did) or post them to Twitter or Facebook or really, whatever you wanted. You could even have individual contributors to a blog posting shared items for a sort of “best of the web” type thing. You could pipe that RSS feed into a bookmark service like Delicious. And because Reader used Google’s servers instead of pulling directly from the sources, Reader was a great way for a lot of people to get around censorship in places like Iran and Syria. There’s a list as long as my arm of stuff you could do with the data that flowed in and out of Google Reader on an intradaily basis.

Now, Google never made it really easy to get that data out. It was an obscure setting obviously intended only for power users. But let’s face it, lots of people who use Reader are power users. Sort of the backbone of Google, the people who got Google started and popular in the first place. The fact that Google no longer caters to or seems to need power users is not something lost on us.

First came Wave, then Buzz, now Google+. With Wave they re-invented email, but in a clumsy, heavy, not-very-user-friendly way (here’s a great thing about email: It’s instantly and completely understandable from an interface perspective). Buzz re-invented Twitter, also in a clumsy and heavy way, with bonus privacy invasions. When both of those things failed, Google decided to just go ahead and clone Facebook, but also in a clumsy, heavy sort of way.

At first we didn’t understand what Google+ was about. We didn’t understand what it was meant to do, I don’t think. Maybe a few people did, the visionaries who understood Google’s plan with Google+. They were going to make Google+ the backbone of the Googleverse.

There’s a lot to be said about that. There’s no particular reason that the backbone of Google had to be a social networking layer. There’s no reason that Local results are there now. There’s no reason that Hangouts have to be tied into that, or sharing of Google Docs, or Picassa, or any of that stuff. It did need to be unified, but it did not need to be unified as Google+.

This is the moment that Google stopped being the Google we knew and became the Google we know. I know, this sort of demarcation is essentially me creating a narrative that may not fit the actual transition time. Or maybe Google is fundamentally the same but my perspective on the company has changed. Maybe it’s all optics. I don’t know.

But this is what it feels like. It feels like Google went from deeply believing in open formats, open social, sharing between platforms, and data interchange to a company embracing an idea of “sharing” that another company (i.e. Facebook or someone in that space) had created. This idea of sharing is primarily sharing INTO but not OUT OF a service. So for instance when you search on Google you have the option to share into Google+ but nowhere else. If you hit a +1 somewhere, you share into Google+ and nowhere else.

As more and more Google services got folded into the Google+ sharing model, it wasn’t long (surprisingly, as Reader wasn’t exactly a well-maintained product) before Reader could only share into Google+ as well. Suddenly instead of a share button, we had a +1 button. The share functionality had been completely removed.

All that functionality that was enabled by Google Reader sharing items via RSS was suddenly… gone. And what about using Google+ to accomplish this instead? Was there a way to share out of Google+ in a reliable, easy way?

Nope. Google+ has no RSS, and although you can get limited access to your shares via an extremely limiting API, this was a feature clearly designed for a select few developers. The subset of people able to share out of Google Reader suddenly shrank to almost zero.

This was called the Shareocalypse. For good reason. Google took a perfectly good sharing service and dismantled it overnight. It wasn’t malicious, perhaps, but it was certainly pointed. It was pointed directly at Google+. The executives in charge of Google+ looked at that torrent of shared items and wanted it. They wanted it dumped into Google+.

It turns out that this is not what the users wanted. Clearly sharing to Google+ was far inferior and most people simply stopped sharing. I know most or all of my friends did. So what Google actually did was take that torrent of shares and turn them into a trickle. Great job, guys!

And then, when the trickle of shares was finally small enough, they decided to turn Reader off altogether. After all, it wasn’t doing what they wanted it to do, which is what they want everything to do now: Feed into Google+, make Google+ full of content and (hopefully) therefore eyeballs, give it that sharing bump.

See, the people who ran Reader GOT sharing. They understood it. It wasn’t quite simple enough maybe, but the concept was there: Let me share what I want to share where I want to share it. If I want to pipe it into my blog, fine. If I want to pipe it into my Facebook, by all means.

I don’t hold out a lot of hope that Google+ will ever share this way. Google is starting to become more and more jealous of its own data. Not just the secret backroom server stuff that they’ve always been secretive and paranoid about, but the actual public facing stuff, the stuff that goes in and out of its web services. I can guarantee you that if Wave had been a success, it would be forked, no longer open-source, and somehow connecting into Google+.

This is the future of Google, by the way. They looked at Facebook swallowing more and more of the open internet and enclosing it into Facebook’s walled garden… and they were jealous. They wanted that. They took a look at their services and realised… look at all this stuff we have! All these services that don’t connect together in any real way! And they decided to connect them together and co-incidentally make the connection look and act like Facebook.

The only thing left to do is to plug all those darn holes. All those places like Reader where the data is leaking out. So if we take a look at all of Google’s services, we see a lot of standard-based data interchanges. For instance Google Talk uses Jabber or can at least talk to Jabber servers. I will bet you $1000 that when Google’s new Babble service (or whatever else they call it) arrives, it will not do these things. They’ll have their own thing. They’ll say it’s because no-one was using it, they’ll say that they’re putting more wood behind fewer arrows, or whatever they need to say, but in reality it will be about plugging that leak.

This is why I think Google has changed. It was always secretive and paranoid with a layer of sunshine and smiles on top of that (look at the platforms and services Google has literally invented to keep Search everywhere). But recently all the stuff that used to buy them goodwill in the tech community has started to fade away. Standards compliance… open source… all that jazz. Watch and see.

You have to remember that back in the day, Microsoft had a lot of goodwill in the tech community, too. Apple, the same. Sun, the same. But then they changed or sold out or ripped off the mask to reveal their true personalities. And Google’s true personality is a paranoid data hoarder. They used to put a layer of treats and candy on top of it (literally in the naming of Android releases), and they still do, but that paranoid data hoarder is starting to show through.

If you’re wondering why so many people seem so upset about Reader closing down, it’s probably not just because a nice product has unexpectedly found its end. It’s because Google is starting to cause cognitive dissonance. It’s not the company you used to love. It’s a different company now.

Which should maybe give you some pause when the next tech darling come along and wants you to pledge your life and data to it.

My Data Is My Data: Why Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ Are Bad For The Web

We just can’t get along

Facebook doesn’t want to talk to Google. Twitter doesn’t want to talk to Tumblr, Facebook, Google, or, really, anyone. Google only wants to talk to you.

It’s like a bad highschool drama. You’ve got jocks, geeks, nerds, goths, whatever, and none of them know how to communicate with each other. I mean, of course they know how, but none of them really wants to take the effort.

I’m not going to extend the simile past its breaking point, but you get the picture.

For all our talk of a new web, of sharing, of the bright and shiny future of all things internet, it seems that we’ve forgotten that these companies and their associated networks are all actively fighting each other. Not only that, but they’re fighting each other with our data.

Everyone understands how networks work, right? The more people on a network, the more useful the network becomes (at least most of the time). Especially if that network is something like Facebook, where identities aren’t as fluid as something Reddit or, in the extreme, 4chan.

Even Reddit benefits from network effects (the same way Slashdot and Digg did). It’s not that you can find a lot of people, but that you can find a lot of interesting bits of text, you can interact with users from other cultures and backgrounds and experiences, and you can discover new and funny and significant things.

But on another level a network doesn’t really benefit simply from your presence. If you don’t do anything, what’s the point? You’re just a tiny dot in the database somewhere. If you, for instance, have a Facebook account and never do anything with it, you’re probably actively making the network worse. Facebook’s goal, after all, is to keep you on Facebook so they can sell you ads. And the way you do that is to interact, whether it’s with people, games, or content. Everything that Facebook does points at that single goal. Keep you there and sell you ads.

The thing is, the multi-billion dollar empires of Facebook, Twitter, and to some extent even Google, are built on your data. When you interact, you create data. You post something, that’s data. That’s your creative expression. When you share something, the fact that you shared that is (or at least should be) your data. When you make a friend, that activity is a datapoint about you, and should be your data. No-one should be able to own these bits of data, and no-one should be able to say “you can’t tell anyone about this or that”.

In effect, since they won’t talk to each other, that’s exactly what these social networks are doing. Tried to export your friend list from Facebook lately? It gives you some data, yes, but as little as possible. Just a list of names. It’s essentially so little information as to be completely useless.

Tried to export your follower/following lists from Twitter? No such luck. I mean, you can go copy and paste them if you want, but from a data interchange point of view, that’s like driving from Toronto to Tulsa to buy a fridge. It’s doable, yes, but it’s definitely not worth it. And more to the point, it’s uninhibitedly non-repeatable and non-automatable.

This makes sense for the companies involved. For Facebook, there’s nothing in the universe more important than Facebook’s data. It defines their network. It makes them powerful. The same thing for Twitter. They don’t really want you to export your tweets to somewhere. They want you to import but not export, because your tweets make them powerful.

Google on the other hand wants to slurp all this data up and give you search results while (you guessed it!) selling you ads. Google is a microcosm for the problem that we want to solve.

Google offers a free service with high utility. It searches the tangled depths of the internet to give you relevant information. It wants to be able to see into your Facebook and your Twitter so it can serve up better and more relevant search results.

This is service they can’t offer because Facebook and Twitter do not allow Google inside their walled gardens. Sure, Google can index the public bits of Facebook and Twitter, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg of what exists on those networks. Especially Facebook, where you can control privacy settings.

Google would love to return personal search result on your personal social graph. Their wet dream is unfettered access to the depths of Facebook’s database so they can return information that is relevant not only to everyone, but also relevant to you and only you.

You may not want Google to do this. Or you may. Either way, the point is moot. Google is denied providing this service because they simply can’t get that data, and frankly, there’s no way for you to tell Google “Okay, go in an suck out all my data”. Facebook would shut that down 20 seconds after launch.

Again, you may not want Google doing this. But the point is you don’t have the option.

Or let’s say you want to create some kind of meta-journal of you life. You want to integrate what you email, what you tweet, where you go, what you eat, who you’re with… and dump that all into your own personal database. Then when you’re 80 you can look back at your boring life feel terrible. Whatever.

You can’t really do that right now. I mean, you kind of can, and some people are trying really hard to make a part of that happen (I’m looking at you, ThinkUp), but it’s difficult. It’s also not becoming easier. Twitter and Facebook and Google aren’t allowing more of your data to escape their walled gardens. It’s less. And from what you can see from Twitter’s shuttering of the various anonymous data access techniques, the amount and type of data is declining.

This is not an optimal state of affairs. It’s not good. It’s not even close to good.

Why this is bad, part 1

The title of this blog post makes it clear: My data is my data. You can build your empire on top of it, you can use it to monetize me, you can use it to sell me things, but none of that changes the fact that it’s my data. It’s my creative work. It describes me. It describes my life. It describes the things that I do. And this data is mine.

How can Facebook, Google, Twitter, or any other social network (but especially the Big 3 social networks where all the utility lies) deny me the right to do what I want with that data? How dare they tell me what I can and cannot export and to whom I can and cannot export it? Who does Facebook think they are that they won’t let Google index at the very least my profile and actions?

Again, I understand why these networks do this. But having a good reason is not the same as doing a good thing.

Twitter is, I think, probably noticeably and publicly terrible at this. Not only are they technically incompetent (I can’t access most of the tweets I’ve made), but they’re also technically evil, constantly revising their API to limit what I can access and how I can access it and how often and on and on and on.

All this because Facebook and Twitter have gone the way of traditional media companies and decided that I’m not the customer. They don’t want to have a relationship with me. They want to sell me or at the very least sell my eyeballs. They don’t want me to do this or do that or do that other thing because it dilutes their network’s value. Their display guidelines exist to make sure that I must see their ads (I won’t, but only because I use other means), and their access restrictions exist to prevent 3rd party clients from gaining too much market share and becoming powerful within the ecosystem.

Why this is pad, part 2

Look at the internet. The internet is one of those rare examples of the free market working properly because the oligarchies of the time either didn’t understand what was going on, or didn’t realise its value.

If the internet oligarchies of today’s network space existed when the internet was being built, we would still have AOL, Compuserve, and whatever else. They wouldn’t talk to each other. They’d preserve their own network’s value, but they wouldn’t work together to enhance the value of the network as a whole.

I can imagine an protointernet that works this way. It’s not pretty. Each side clinging to its various silos, desperately trying to steal network value from one another.

The benefits of our internet and the way it works together are obvious. Anyone trying to create silos out of the internet via hardware (China, Iran) or software (Facebook, Twitter, etc) are doing the network as a whole a disservice. They’re giving the finger to the hard work of all the people who invented this wonderful thing, and all the benefits the internet has given us.

Can you imagine being unable to send someone in Sweden an email because you don’t subscribe to Sweden’s network, or you haven’t bought the “talk to Sweden email upgrade package”?

Ridiculous, right? Who would use email?

Facebook, Twitter, Google+… all these services that capture data and activity into silos and keep it to themselves are doing the same thing. They are diluting the value of the internet as a whole because they keep the data to themselves.

Why this is bad, part 3

This kind of network effect causes splintering effects too. This is counter-intuitive, but let me explain my thinking here.

In the physical world, large-scale networks take a lot of money to develop and maintain. Build-out and operation is capital and labour intensive. This is why new and disruptive physical networking technologies tend to piggyback on existing networks. Take the internet as an example: It resided at first on telephone networks and then cable networks and finally mobile networks not because those were necessarily the best technologies available (with the notable exception of mobile networks, which were literally the only technology available) but because they were there. (As an interesting side-note, eventually phone and cable networks will reverse this and piggyback completely on the internet, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Of course, the rules that make things difficult and costly in the real world don’t apply in the digital world. In the same way that digitally copying music and tv costs pennies to the dollar of physical distribution, building a massive network on top of the internet is fairly easy. Except that now instead of being one of the only games in town, you’re one of many games in town. And instead of being vulnerable only to buyouts and bankruptcy, you’re vulnerable to your users simply leaving.

There’s no lock-in anymore. You can try to create lock-in, and trust me, they’re trying, but it’s not the same as being locked into a three year mobile plan on one of three networks all of whom are essentially the same (but in the case of mobile phones, at least they interoperate!).

Because they’re no barrier to entry and no lock-in, creating a new network-on-top-of-the-network Facebook-style has become the latest internet trend. There are veritable host of up-and-comers. They all want to be the next big thing. And none of them talk to each other.

In retrospect, it’s obvious why Google created Google+. Google may not have even wanted to ever create a social network. Google may have even been averse to it. But they had to. They need that data. They need your interactions. And as always, it’s to serve ads to you.

The unwillingness of Facebook and Twitter directly lead to a massive elephant entering the social networking space. This is splintering in action, a failure of the free market in digital economies, all caused by a massive tragedy of the commons that no-one except some FOSS crackpots cared about for a long time.

Time to start caring

I’ve heard a lot of suggestions about what to do here. Consumer rage. Developer boycotts. User boycotts. Site boycotts.

None of that is going to work. I think we’re going to have to go that third party that seems to always end up mediating tragedies of the commons: The Government.

Listen, there’s no other way around it. We’ll have to legislate this. Come up with a flexible export format for user data that can be pinged, let’s say X number of times per day or week. Let’s make this part of consumer protection legislation.

At the very least the threat of a legislated solution would bring the parties to the table and allow us to make a better web.

In the end, I just want to be able to do what I like with the data that I created. I wasn’t paid for it. I did it all for free. There’s no work for hire or anything like that here. I just want my data and I want to do whatever I like with it.

That’s not too much to ask, is it?

So, Android…

I have an Android phone. It was my absolute first choice when I was looking for a phone. I’m a power user. I like to do odd things with my phone, and I had researched my choice quite well before diving in. My HTC Desire was served me well for a year and a bit now. I want to upgrade, and when I upgrade it’s going to be to another Android device like the Galaxy Nexus. Beautiful hardware, and Android 4 is looking very beautiful (especially compared to the version I get to run on my device right now).

But Android has its limitations. I’m not talking hardware, fragmentation, or any of that junk that doesn’t really matter or has largely been solved.

I’m talking about vision. Specifically the vision of the Android team and (I’ll get into this a little later) the vision of Google in general.

Android is always playing catch-up. Really. Ever since it was announced, it has played catch-up to iOS. There may be many reasons for this, especially when building a device to fit a bunch of different hardware from different manufacturers, with different form factors. Apple may (and probably does) have it a lot easier than Android due to its single-device nature.

Of course none of that really matters. What matters is the device that the customer gets in their hand.

Android has a bunch of really cool features I could mention. But none of them is a big selling point. I can’t point to a single feature or group of related features on Android and say, “That’s why I bought an Android device.” Larger screen, cloud backups, good notification system, etc. But none of those is a really killer feature.

Android’s killer features have been, as far as I can tell, that it is on cheaper devices. It’s open. You can can do some geeky things with it. But it still feels unfinished and a bit awkward. Slapped together.

Now, iOS is playing catch-up too. Their notification system was notoriously broken. They had no cloud backup. But as usual, iOS caught up to Android in those areas. Then they moved the goalposts.

Siri is a killer feature. It really is. I don’t personally like the idea of talking to my phone, even though I often narrate text into my Android phone. Speech-to-text (when done right) feels stupid, but it makes typing seem really, really slow and bothersome. The little easter eggs built into Siri encourage exploration and further usage. It’s good to look at. It’s a selling point, and a big one.

That’s how you move the goalposts. Apple has always been good at that, and that’s a good thing because we all benefit.

There’s no way that Android, who had speech-to-text first, by the way, can create a competing project in the next while without seeming like a huge me-too.

Android had speech-to-text before iOS did. It was here and there. There was voice search (of course), and voice transcription, and some voice controls, but nothing like Siri. You have to ask: Why not? Did no-one at Google thing, “We should do a unified AI assistant”?

They should have. I’ve had the idea before. It’s not a new thing. It’s hard to do, especially when you consider the spotty history of voice input (Microsoft, I’m looking at you), and digital assistants (Microsoft, again, I’m looking at you).

The phone is the absolute best space for this. It has a built in microphone, connects to the internet so all the horsepower doesn’t have to be in your hand, and is has always been a space in which text input is difficult and time consuming.

This is a failure of vision. All the pieces were in place for Android to do that, but no-one put the pieces together.

(There’s also a huge failure of branding and marketing at Google, as they had iCloud functionality first as well and no-one freaking knows it; but that’s a whole other post.)

Isn’t this characteristic of Google right now, though? All the pieces and no-one to put them together.

Think about every product that Google has launched since search and Gmail (and maybe Maps, maaaaaaybe Chrome). They’ve all been me-too products. Search and Gmail revolutionized their fields. Android, Picasa, PicasaWeb, Google+ (most obviously), Reader, Books, Music, App Engine, etc, are all pushing into markets with dominant players with better products. None of these services is particularly visionary or different in their field than the products or platforms they’re trying to displace.

This isn’t to say Google isn’t going to be marvelously successful in some or even many of those areas. Copying or buying others has always been a great business strategy (as always, Microsoft is a great example of how to copy well).

But if you want to truly own the market you have to be more than a copier and a follower. You have to be a visionary. Move the goalposts. Get there before the other guy. Especially when you have all the pieces in front of you, and all you have to do it put them together.

Google & low-hanging fruit

Google has picked all the low-hanging fruit of search. Easily spidered pages on public websites? Done. Basically anything with machine-readable text is done.

This is both good and bad. It’s good because the low-hanging fruit is the best and most useful fruit (as far as I can tell). It’s bad because this kind of search is now something of a well-understood problem. Competitors are now popping up with their own spin on search.

The rest of the fruit is more difficult. Image search is more difficult. The relative lack of image search tools compared to text search tools speaks to that difficulty. Video search is more difficult still. Right now video search mostly involves indexing the pages the videos live on. Google’s purchase of YouTube makes sense in that context. But any other kind of video search (within video for instance), is an engineering and a computational challenge. Indexing of audio faces the same challenge. Indexing the dark web is difficult. Indexing information that isn’t yet online is nigh impossible.

I’m sure you can think of a few more difficult search arenas. (Leave them in the comments!)

If it doesn’t look like anyone’s enthusiastically pursuing these search technologies, it’s probably because of diminishing returns. Problems with a high computational component tend to be future technologies. You can argue Google is a product of low bandwidth cost, low storage cost, and low computation cost with a bit on engineering prowess mixed in.

We may not be at the point where these problems make sense to solve. We may never be. Computation cost is essentially energy cost, and energy cost is not trending down. There may never be a point at which (barring of course the kind of engineering breakthroughs that make these sorts of technologies suddenly and oddly viable) it makes sense to index video itself instead of the pages it lives on.

Google faces a choice, then. It can pursue indexing all information ever, with diminishing returns at ever higher costs, or it can branch out.

I think Google is branching out. They have been for a while. They keep throwing things at the wall. A few of them are sticking. And very few of them are directly related to search. Most are orthogonal to it. Most are instead directly related to ecosystem lock-in (Gmail, Docs, etc), and userbase protection (Chrome, Android, etc).

This is what you do when the low-hanging fruit is gone, after all.

A quick note on Google.

Microsoft owned the desktop computing space (for while at least) with we now call the “ecosystem”. That is to say, they didn’t just produce Windows, but they produced Windows as a platform. Good developer tools, good office tools, all of this led to them owning that space. Users chose the Microsoft way because the Microsoft way became the only way that really made sense. There’s a lot of really unethical and evil stuff that Microsoft has done and continues to do to keep from losing that space. Windows and Office are their core products.

Everything that Microsoft does (except for, strangely, X-Box, though I’m sure they have a reason for that) is directly tied into Windows. Even their keyboards have a Windows button. Zune, Windows Phone 7 (what a truly awful name), Windows Live, Bing… it’s all built to keep people using Windows. To keep that pipeline of money going directly in Microsoft’s pockets. The chief threat for Microsoft is that people will be able to easily move away from Windows, taking their data (and their money) with them.

Google on the other hand, isn’t building products to protect a platform. After all, you can use Google anywhere. Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, you name it. You don’t need a particular set of software or hardware to use Google search and be served up Google ads.

The threat for Google is a bit different from the threat for Microsoft. Where Microsoft is afraid their captive audience might slowly drift away, Google is afraid their mostly self-chosen audience might not be able to access Google search. Microsoft’s platform dominance was built on an ecosystem, Google’s search dominance is also being extended through an ecosystem with (and this is crucial) Google by default.

Any time Google is faced with a challenge to their search dominance, they enter that market. Google isn’t the default on your phone? No problem, Google will make software to run on your phone. Google isn’t the default in your browser? No problem, Google will write their own (better, imho) browser. Google isn’t the default on your operating system? No problem, Google will release an operating system.

Defaults are terribly important. Microsoft defaults to Bing. Not because they love search or are even (by a very long shot) a search company or even an internet company. No, Microsoft defaults to Bing because they want to keep you hooked into Windows. Search revenue is incidental. Microsoft’s offerings, such as Bing and especially Windows Live exist specifically to hook you to Windows and keep that cash baby alive. They don’t want cross-platform accessible data freedom. No, they fear that more than anything.

Google on the other hand wants you to default to Google. Not because they want to protect their platforms. The revenue from their platforms is incidental. Google’s offerings, such as Chrome and especially Android exist for no other reason than to keep you searching with them.

And this is why you see Google and Microsoft competing in the same spaces so often. Their operating philosophies are completely different. Microsoft isn’t particularly know (to its detriment) for its whimsy, for example. But they enter the same spaces to do the same thing: Protect their core product. No other reason. They are protecting very different things, and are very different companies, but that’s why they’re there. Make no mistake. Everything Google does comes back to search. Everything Microsoft does comes back to Windows. And so it goes.

Today’s hobby…

Browsing source code with Google Code Search. Search for any array of words that means “this is the words code I have ever created”. Examples:

  • ircd-hybrid.com/fullhist.php – line 29926 – #undef’d USE_TABLE_CODE this is f*****d*.
  • downloads.activestate.com/WebService/PHP/webservice.tar.gz – line 766 – // man is this f****d up. can’t do wsdl like dis!
  • Some Freebsd package referring to (of course) Internet Explorer – // ugly hacks for an ugly browser
  • gentoo.osuosl.org/distfiles/HTML_Template_Flexy-1.2.3.tgz – line 175 – // wtf does this do
  • freshmeat.net/redir/scribus/13994/url_bz2/scribus-1.3.3.9.tar.bz2 – line 1529 – //CB: Stop calling damn GUI code in loading docs! IT doesnt *look* like //this makes a difference apart from being faster, of course.
  • www.bullfreeware.com/download/sources/aix43/fltk-1.0.10.tar.gz – line 27 – // Another disgusting X interface, based on code extracted and // purified with great difficulty from XLayerUtil.C

Seriously fun.