Switching to Android – @#%*&$ and WOW!

You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

-Eleanor Roosevelt

 

Switch to Android

 

Having been a power user of iPhone since 29th June 2007 (the iPhone launch day), never did I consider moving to any other platform – until recently.

A month ago on April 1st, I decided to prank myself – I switched to Android cold turkey on that Friday evening without ANY preparation whatsoever. I stayed on Android full-time for a full month (I vowed to not cheat) and here are my trials and tribulations with a pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow experience on a Google Nexus 5X.

 

First 2 Days

I HATED everything about Android – icons, colors, typography, navigation model, OS experience, 3rd party apps, hardware – EVERYTHING. It’s like shifting the furniture in a blind man’s apartment by a few inches – there was a  @%*&$# moment every so often with an urge to throw the phone at the wall! This was in spite of being very familiar with Android for a few years now!

Once I got over the initial frustration and setup everything , the experience was a lot smoother – in fact much better than I dreaded it to be!

 

Hardware Experience

With an iPhone, Apple is a vertically integrated manufacturer that tightly controls the end to end user experience. Whether it’s the simple rewind/pause/forward button on the earpod headset or the custom chip that drives the camera, 3D Touch, retina display, etc., Apple owns everything that is strategic to the end user experience – and hence the superior experience. But, your hardware choices are limited to the design musings of Jony Ive and his crew at Cupertino.

Android on the other hand offers a plethora of hardware choices. Depending on your needs (e.g. screen size, camera, pure Android versus OEM experience, finger print sensor, cost, etc.), you have a much wider variety of devices at differing price points (starting at $30). In the long term, this variety at different price points is a strategic win for Google/Android (evident from the market-share statistics) – especially in the non-premium market segments.

 

Native OS/Software Experience:

This is where iOS really shines over Android. Whether it’s the visual voicemail that requires carrier integration, email/calendar/contacts/tasks integration with your corporate Microsoft Exchange server or the Apple ecosystem integration via Continuity, the iOS experience is a couple of notches better than Android. Its mostly a result of Apple’s willingness to invest in attention to detail – more on that topic here.

To give credit where its due, Android has improved a LOT in the last couple of years. Google Now on Cards is sublime – it magically surfaces the information I need at the appropriate moment. Some may call it intrusive, I find it brilliant! After installing the Google Voice app, my international calls to India were automatically routed via the super-cheap Google Voice service rather than ATT. Awesome!

 

AppStore / Google Play Apps

On my iPhone, like most others, I had a ton of third party apps from the AppStore. When I switched to Android, at the end of the month, I had a mere 18 third party apps – ranging from the the usual Whatsapp/Facebook/Amazon to the more esoteric ATT Visual Voicemail. 18 apps is all I needed – I suspect that most people need less than 20 apps!

If your usage is mostly limited to popular top tier apps (e.g. Facebook, Whatsapp, Amazon, eBay, DropBox, Pandora, etc.), these apps tend to offer solid comparable experiences on both platforms. Once you get to less popular tier 2 or tier 3 apps, iOS versions of the app usually tend to be a little better designed & executed than their Android counterparts for 2 reasons:

  1. iOS apps generate more revenue and hence the developers have an incentive to invest a little bit more on their iOS app.
  2. Because of the OS/hardware fragmentation on Android, maintaining a high quality product on Android is a lot more challenging and needs more effort.

 

Summary

Switching to Android was a seesaw of @#%*&$ and WOW moments!

If you had asked me a month ago before this switch, without batting an eyelid, I would have said that iOS wins. Now that I walked a few miles in the Android shoes, I think the answer is a little more nuanced. Android has definitely caught up with iOS in the last couple of years. Today I believe that iPhone holds a definite lead in most areas  of the user experience (e.g. better hardware, tighter hardware/software integration, OS upgrade availability, fit-n-finish, customer support, etc.) while Android leads iPhone in a few areas (e.g. hardware choices & price points, Google Now, etc.).

 

As for me, I am back to paying the Apple tax!

 


Miscellaneous Notes:

  • The fingerprint sensor on Nexus 5X is waaaaaay faster than TouchID on iPhone 6. Wow!
  • I tried hard but could not get Visual Voicemail working on the Nexus 5X (a pure Android 6.0 experience). Had to download & use the ATT visual voicemail app.
  • The voice recognition & accuracy with Google Now is much better than Siri – even with my Indian accent.
  • As I go back to iPhone, I’ll sorely miss the hardware back button on Android. Although, Samsung’s choice of putting the back button on the right side is an abomination.
  • Steve Jobs would have described Google Now Cards as “magical”!

 

Apple TV – 4th Time’s the Charm for Industry Disruption?

If it weren’t for Philo Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners.

 – Johnny Carson

 

Apple TV Small

 

Apple debuted the Apple TV product over eight years ago in Jan 2007. Over the years, Apple introduced 3 generations of the Apple TV to lukewarm response. Perhaps this lack of success is what prompted Steve Jobs to position the Apple TV as a “hobby”. The go-to market challenges associated with regionalized cable operators, hard negotiating oligopolistic studios, mish-mash of government regulations, consumers’ unwillingness to pay for a set top box, etc. certainly did not aid innovation in this industry.

For 8+ years Apple kept honing the Apple TV “hobby” and released their 4th gen New Apple TV a couple of weeks ago. In the latest iteration of the Apple TV with its new-fangled tvOS, Apple finally did a copy-paste of the AppStore ecosystem from iOS onto the TV. That opens the innovation flood gates of 3rd party developers to let a “million flowers bloom” for the TV experience. My fingers raced to click the Buy button on the first pre-order day!

I am not going to bore you with yet another review of the product – you can find that on NY Times, CNET & Engadget. Instead, here is my take on Apple TV’s potential (and Android TV, see PS below) to change & disrupt a few industries:

 

Casual Gaming: For the first week of the launch, Apple prominently featured the Asphalt 8 game on its TV AppStore. When my 11 year old son saw the Asphalt 8 icon on the TV, his eyes lit up and his jaw hit the proverbial floor. For the next hour, I could not pry the Apple TV remote from his hands while he raced his tricked out & nitro’ed McLaren P1 GTR through the streets of the London while the home theater speakers pumped out the visceral chest thumping roar of the McLaren. Quite a sensory experience that you don’t get on iPhones and iPads! Apple deliberately invested quite a bit on their graphics and game development frameworks/SDKs to make this possible.

While these $2.99 tvOS games may not be a threat to billion dollar franchises like Halo, the landscape of the casual gaming industry (think sub $20) will definitely change. In the coming years, the publishers of lightweight games on the game consoles will have a hard time convincing their customers to pony up $10-$20 for a game console title while similar games can be had on a multi-purpose Apple TV for $1.99 – $4.99. Over time, I expect these game publishers to migrate to the Apple TV gaming platform (& Android TV, see PS at the bottom).

 

Online Learning: After dinner, when the family has gone off to sleep, I have some difficult choices to make – read, watch Netflix from the comfort of a sofa or do something productive & cerebral with the laptop. It’s hard resisting the siren song of the sofa & remote!

With apps like TED & Coursera on the New Apple TV, it’s easier to engage in something more cerebral while comfortably ensconced in the sofa. Suddenly the Machine Learning course in Coursera doesn’t seem as daunting as it does on the computer. Given this ease of learning from the sofa & the TV, I expect more consumer traction for the online learning industry on the TV.

 

Cable TV Industry: This is going to take a few years to play out. Barring the exception of Tivo and DVRs, the cable TV experience has been more or less static for the last few decades. An average American household pays $86/month for cable TV – for which you get a few hundred channels most of which you never watch. With the availability of HBO, ABC, National Geographic, Disney etc. in an ala-carte model on the Apple TV, cord-cutting is now easier than ever before. However, before TV consumption over IP becomes mainstream, a lot of work needs to be done by Apple to improve the user experience. The current model of app switching on the TV is nowhere as convenient as channel surfing with your set top box!

This decoupling of content providers & cable operators probably bodes well for the content providers as well. Once they have their channel as an app on the Apple TV (or Android TV), their market availability is worldwide – they probably don’t need to worry about negotiating with dozens of cable operators worldwide!

 

What other Disruptions?: Unlike mobile phones, tablets and laptops that offer a personalized compute experience for you, an app-enabled smart TV offers a new model – a shared (for you & everybody around you) compute experience from the comfort of a sofa. Try the gorgeous AirBnB app on a TV and you will know what I mean. The voice search via Siri is also pretty nifty – I’m looking forward to Apple opening up Siri to third party developers. What new opportunities (or disruptions) that creates, only time will tell. I for one, am quite looking forward to that!

 

PS: The New Apple TV & Google’s Android TV are very similar positioned and compete neck to neck. Given that, the above commentary applies equally well to the Android TV. In fact, the combined forces of these 2 behemoths probably double the chances of industry disruption!

Apple Watch – Judge it Tomorrow, not Today

Judge me not for what I’ve done, but what I’ll do!

– Unknown

Apple Watch

With the Sept 2014 announcement for Apple Watch, Apple joined the crowded league of Google, Samsung, Motorola, Fitbit, Pebble, etc. jostling for the next wave of wearable computing. When it became available for pre-order in April 2015, after some research, I decided to postpone the purchase until the next generation Apple Watch.

When Apple announced the watchOS 2 in the June WWDC, I ordered the Apple Watch as soon as I finished watching the opening day keynote video! I was excited about what’s coming in Apple watchOS 2 and I wanted to live through that evolution.

I finally got my Apple Watch Sport a month ago. I’m not going to bore you with unboxing photos and videos (you can find that here, here and here). Instead, here are my impressions based on my 4 weeks of use:

Useful – but not compelling

  • Activity Tracking: With those 3 concentric activity circles on Apple Watch that visualize your Move/Exercise/Stand times, what we’ve always suspected is now confirmed – our lives are very very sedentary. The periodic haptic feedback on the wrist is a nice subtle nudge to get off the butt!
  • Notifications & Messages: I setup my watch to receive notifications from a select few apps (e.g. Messages, Calendar, Whatsapp, etc.) and blocked notifications from most other apps. It’s convenient to quickly view messages & select notifications on the wrist without having to pull out the phone.
  • Phone Calls: At the risk of looking like a “beam-me-up-Scotty” Star Trek geek, talking into your watch for a quick 10 second call (e.g. “honey, please pick up the kids”) on the phone is useful on occasion.
  • Glances: As the name suggests, Glances on Apple Watch provides a “one screen construct” for apps to surface their functionality. Most third party apps that I used make an uninspired use of the Glances construct. However, one app that shines at the use of Glances is the Zillow app. The other day I was hanging out on the Carmel beach with my out of state friends. As we were driving back in the car, this friend was curious about the property prices around the Ocean Ave in Carmel. While driving, I just swiped up on my watch and the Zillow’s Glances interface showed the nearest property value – neat! When implemented correctly, Glances experience can be sublime.
  • Siri: Siri on the wrist is infinitely more convenient than using Siri on iPhone to satiate those moments of curiosities!

Not so great

  • Battery Issues: The 24 hour battery life on the Apple Watch is inadequate – nuff has been written about that in tech rags. It doesn’t end there. To support the up-to-date display of watch-face complications (calendar, weather, stocks, etc.), turns out that the watch is constantly chit-chatting with its sibling iPhone – and that drains the iPhone battery. Yuck!
  • Geeky Look: Is it the thickness, the rubber strap, rectangular shape or the profile of the watch (looks like a mini iPhone on the wrist)? Maybe all of the above. Regardless of how salivating it looks on Apple website, Apple Watch on most wrists looks geeky!
  • Expensive Straps: I understand the strategy of premium pricing, accessory margins, etc. However, the $49 rubber strap (errr Fluoroelastomer) is too expensive even for Apple provenance – the COGS (cost of goods sold) on this band is $2.05 according to research firm IHS! Don’t even get me started on the $249 modern buckle leather band & $449 link bracelet. I ended up buying a $20 leather band from eBay! When Apple launched the iPhone1 in June 2007, they dropped the price by $200 after 66 days of the launch. Will history repeat itself? @AngelaAhrendts, are you listening?

Future – Wearable Apps, NOT Mobile Apps

Given my lukewarm experience, it’s tempting to write off the Apple Watch. Tepid sales of 3+ million units for Apple Watch to-date confirms my own experience – most people find it to be a curious (and an expensive) technology – not very compelling!

BUT, I’m still excited about the Apple Watch prospects (and the smart watch industry in general). Why?

Most Apple Watch experiences today (especially the third party apps) are built as an after-thought extension of their iPhone apps. Perhaps that’s a result of the architecture of the WatchKit SDK today – the watch app extension code runs on the phone while the display is handled on watch. I call these mobile app extensions for the watch.

However, the watchOS 2 (coming in Fall 2015) changes the paradigm. Apple watchOS 2 allows apps that are completely native to the watch – apps that execute natively on the watch and can access the motion sensors, audio capabilities, health sensors, etc. on the watch – i.e. wearable apps. This new breed of wearable apps are purpose built for the watch – and not poor extensions of today’s mobile apps. While mobile apps and wearable apps share similarities, wearable apps are distinctly different and enable experiences that are not possible with today’s mobile apps:

  • Purpose Built:  The best apps for Apple Watch are built for the wrist AND they naturally lend themselves to off-the-wrist consumption – not just extensions of the phone app. I’m glad that Facebook & Snapchat decided to defer their watch apps until they have something more compelling!
  • Immediacy: Imagine turning your wrist to a custom clock face/complications that shows you the exact information you want – e.g. the yardage of the next hole on the golf course. With mobile apps this will require pulling out the phone from your pocket, unlock the screen, launch an app etc.
  • Sensor Driven: Unlike the iPhone that alternates its stay on the dresser, in the pocket, car’s cup holder and the desk, the Apple Watch remains strapped to your wrist for the better part of the day. Imagine a watch app that analyzes your hand/body motion movement and identifies early signs of carpal tunnel syndrome or other health issues. Imagine apps that take advantage of heart rate data.
  • Discreet: Imagine you were carjacked. You could discreetly triple click the button/crown that notifies the law enforcement agencies with you location. It could even activate and relay the microphone audio stream off the watch.

Just as the mobile apps today enable a distinctly different functionality compared to the desktop & web-based applications of yesteryears, I expect the new class of wearable apps (end of the year?) to offer user experiences that are above and beyond today’s mobile apps. This is exciting!

 

Verdict:

Apple Watch + watchOS 1.1 today = platform for Mobile Apps (& Extensions)

Apple Watch + watchOS 2.0 tomorrow = platform for Wearable Apps

This is a classic case of “Judge me not for what I’ve done, but what I’ll do!

Tools & Technologies for Building Mobile Products

We shape our tools and afterwords our tools shape us!

– Marshall McLuhan

Mobile Technologies

I have been building Mobile Products since Mar 6 2008 – the day the iOS SDK was first launched. As a Product Guy, I work with teams of engineers, QA, designers & marketers. Here are some of the tools and cloud platforms that we have used in the past to build world class mobile products.

A/B Testing: There’s a notorious Silicon Valley story about Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo, ex-googler) that once tested 41 shades of blue on the google.com homepage just to test which shade of blue consumers prefer! A/B Testing refers to the practice of testing different variations of a product design and measuring results to see which variant performs best. Companies like Google, Yahoo & Facebook are well known for rigorous A/B Testing to determine what works best.

  • Artisan: Artisan has a great A/B Testing platform that lets you A/B test without doing any coding for those different variants and without having to force the end users to download the newer versions of the app. Once the Artisan SDK is integrated into your app, you can use the Artisan dashboard to create test segments and deploy different A/B tests (e.g. different strings, button colors/sizes/locations, different images, etc.) without having the touch the app code. Getting A/B tests done without having engineers code them into the product saves precious engineering cycles. Similar Products: Optimizely

Analytics:

  • Google Analytics: Google Analytics is a well-known analytics platform used by thousands of websites to track user behavior. In the recent years, Google extended that platform to offer similar capabilities to the mobile apps. While the Google Analytics for mobile is a great platform with lots of bells and whistles, be ready for a learning curve. Sometimes to get mundane data and insights, it takes non-trivial effort.
  • Flurry: Flurry was one of the first analytics platform on the mobile scene until it was acquired by Yahoo in the recent past. Flurry offers a pretty good analytics platform that is easy to use. What it lacks in bells in whistles it makes up by its ease of use – at least when compared to Google Analytics. Flurry also has an interesting concept of personas that lets you see what kinds of people are using your apps.

App Distribution: 

  • HockeyApp: When you have a team of product managers, QA, developers, marketing, designers, etc. they all need to test & use the product under development. The HockeyApp platform for iOS & Android (recently acquired by Microsoft) makes it easy for teams to get the access the latest builds of the product to test and use. Saves engineers the headache of manually installing builds on everybody’s devices.

Crash Reporting:

  • Crashlytics: When developing products, crashes are a reality. Crashlytics has a pretty good platform that captures the crash analytics data so that developers can analyze and fix crashes. My engineers setup integration between Crashlytics and Slack such that they get an automated message posted on their Slack channel whenever there was a Level 3 (and higher) crash. Sweet!

Customer Support:

  • HelpShift: If you have a high touch mobile product and want to offer a solid customer support experience from within the app, checkout HelpShift. HelpShift allows mobile users to access the FAQs from within the app and get in touch with the customer support teams from within the app.

Deep Linking:

  • Branch.io: A neat platform to enable deep linking within your app.

Reporting: For a small monthly fee, reporting platforms automatically fetch your Google Play & AppStore app download stats and show that data in pretty graphs that you can slice and dice – very useful for Product Managers, Marketers and execs. They even generate daily/weekly/monthly reports that are automatically emailed to teams.

  • AppFigures: AppFigures has a good reporting platform that pretty much does all what you need.
  • AppAnnie & Distimo: Both these companies recently went through a merger. In addition to reporting, they also offer high level aggregated reports & insights organized by leaderboards, platforms, geographies, categories etc. Very useful to understand broad trends in the mobile ecosystem.

Marketing Automation:

  • AppBoy: Allows you to run push notification, email & in-app messaging campaigns to your mobile app users to drive app engagement. Once their SDK is wired into your app, you also get other capabilities such as analytics, install attribution, etc.

Performance Monitoring:

  • Pulse.io: To monitor and track hard to solve performance problems such as spinners, loading delays, network lags, etc. you will find this tool to be quite useful. Google recently acquired this company. Similar Products: Newrelic

Prototyping & UX:

  • Invision: Once you have the UX mockups, use Invision for prototyping the app’s flow – get a real feel for the app using a dynamic prototype that you can touch & feel instead of evaluating with static wireframes.

Miscellaneous:

  • PLJukeBox: When using the Music app on iOS devices, if your turned the device to landscape mode, you can see the coverflow (i.e. the neat album art row that you can flip through). If you want to offer a similar experience in your app without writing all that custom code, use the PLJukeBox SDK to make it happen.

I’d be curious to know the tools and platforms that other companies use for mobile product development! Post your comments below…