The Outside Scoop: Thoughts on Android Wear and a possible iWatch

The big news in tech today is Google’s announcement of Android Wear, a version of their Android OS specifically optimized for “wearables” like watches.

The tech media is erupting with ridiculously titled blog posts that refer to this as Google’s “answer” to the iWatch, a product that Apple has not announced, nor even acknowledged working on.

Surprisingly, for the first time I actually found one of these wearables mildly interesting, the Moto 360. But I am still skeptical of wearables in general, smart watches in particular, and especially the idea that Apple is working on one. But I’ve learned from my past mistakes, when I was convinced Apple was neither working on a smartphone in late 2006 nor a tablet in late 2009. So, in my world at least, my adamant belief that Apple is not developing a watch should probably be my biggest clue that they are.

So where is Apple’s “iWatch”? Aren’t all of these competitors eating Apple’s lunch (before it’s even cooked)? Perhaps. But consider this:

Remember the original iPod. It came into a market that already existed (but sucked), and delivered a radically superior user experience, and was a huge hit. Remember the iPhone. Once again, it came into a market that already existed (but sucked) and totally revolutionized it.

The thing is… a smart watch market doesn’t really exist (or didn’t when rumors of an “iWatch” first started to circulate). It almost seems like Apple got the wheels of the rumor mill turning deliberately, to goad their competition into creating the market, thinking they were beating Apple to the punch but in fact creating the exact environment of suck Apple needs to release a product into.

Oversharing and paranoia

Oversharing is an inherent part of social media. Just ask anyone who’s made the mistake of clicking a Socialcam link on Facebook.

But oversharing takes different forms, and the most potentially dangerous type is one many people don’t even realize exists: the copious logging of your online activities by the social networking sites you’re logged into. Thanks to their “deep integration” with other websites, you may be “sharing” your browsing habits with Facebook, Twitter and Google even when you’re not on their sites.

Have you ever been on a site and noticed a little corner of the site looks like it’s been invaded by Facebook? That sickly blue, the font, the little profile pictures of your friends who’ve liked or commented on the page you’re currently viewing?

How did that get there? It’s because the site is integrating with Facebook, and through the magic of cookies, Facebook’s servers can tell that it’s you looking at the page and deliver content customized to your profile. Maybe you like that, but I find it a little creepy. Twitter and Google do it too, even if it’s not as obvious.

Google may be the most insidious, with so many of its tools now consolidated under a single login. If you use Gmail, and you keep your account logged in, every Google search you do is logged. Ostensibly this is to help deliver “personalized” results. More crassly, it is used to put “targeted” ads in front of your eyeballs. But that data is being collected, and regardless of what Google says their privacy policy is now, the data is there, and could stay there for a long time. Someday Google might change their policies or sell that data or the government might subpoena it or just come in and take it.

What’s worse, Google Analytics is everywhere. Heck, even paranoid old me uses it. Google says Analytics isn’t tied in with your Google account, and maybe it’s not… yet. But why assume it will always be that way?

Fortunately, there’s something very simple you can do to combat all of this data collection. It’s the online equivalent of a tinfoil hat, except it actually works. Log out. And just to be safe, clear your cookies.

I’m trying something out right now that takes all of this even a step further. It all hinges on the fact that in all three of these cases — Facebook, Twitter and Gmail — the web interface is probably the least usable, least satisfying way to experience these services. I’ve never really been a user of Gmail’s web interface; I’ve always preferred using the Mac’s built in Mail application. But now I’m also strictly using the Twitter app on my Mac. (I already use Tweetbot on my iPhone.) And I have made the decision not to use Facebook on my computer at all. I already hated the Facebook web experience anyway, so why bother with it? Now I am only going to check it using the Facebook iPhone app.

The real reason Android is (and has always been) in trouble

Over on Daring Fireball, John Gruber links to a Business Insider piece by Jay Yarow, called “Android Is Suddenly in a Lot of Trouble.”

Gruber responds:

It’s not that Android is suddenly in a lot of trouble — it’s that a lot of people are suddenly realizing that Android has been in trouble all along.

Exactly. But he doesn’t go on to mention why it’s been in trouble all along (though as I recall, he has in the past). I’ve seen plenty of reports, like this one from comScore that iPhones use WiFi networks significantly more than Android phones in the U.S. and U.K. This is one way of measuring the qualitative differences in how people use iPhones compared to how they use Android phones. You could also talk about app revenue, for instance.

All of these measurements and analysis revolve around one clear conclusion, especially when one considers how people end up walking out of a store with either an iPhone or an Android phone. Carriers are pushing Android because they can control the experience more. They’re giving away Android phones as stock upgrade models when customers’ contracts come up. People who don’t even care about owning a “smartphone” are bringing home Android phones because that’s just what the sales rep at the store recommended.

Android is in trouble because a lot of its users (the majority? the vast majority?) are just using it as a phone. It’s a commodity. A lot of the people buying it don’t really know or care what it is, and will never actively use its full potential. It’s just a phone. It may be capable of much more, but if it’s not being used for more, what difference does that make?

People who go into a store wanting to purchase a smartphone predominantly choose the iPhone. Not all of them, of course. Tech-savvy people do choose other smartphone platforms, including Android, especially those who want to tinker with the system. But the rest take whatever they are told to buy by their carriers’ sales reps.

This is the biggest reason Android tablets haven’t taken off, and it’s been discussed too. There’s a built-in market for the apathetic purchase of an Android smartphone. But no one (well, I hope) is walking into a cellular carrier’s store and saying “I want a tablet. What tablet do you recommend?” People who want a tablet don’t just want a tablet; overwhelmingly they want an iPad. Most people who don’t want an iPad don’t want a tablet at all. (Almost) everybody needs a phone.

The problem for the carriers, and the reason they’ve been promoting Android, has typically been that Apple retains too much control (from the carriers’ perspective) over the iPhone. That’s not likely to change, but with Windows Phone, suddenly the carriers have other options. Microsoft is definitely keeping a tighter rein on Windows Phone than Google does with Android, but with Windows Phone, the carriers still have options they don’t get with the iPhone. (Not that this lack of control has prevented them from selling millions of the things.)

If Verizon is serious about pushing Windows Phone (along with the fact that they still sell huge numbers of iPhones), then we’ll soon begin to see just how Android was, as Gruber says, in trouble all along. The success it has achieved to date was largely dependent upon carriers pushing it on unsuspecting or indifferent customers. If they stop doing that…

Google’s redesign: a second look

I want to follow up on my post about Google’s redesign from a couple weeks ago, as this redesign has, unsurprisingly, continued to evolve (or at least, reveal itself through ongoing usage).

It’s clear that Google is phasing in a massive overhaul, not just of how their products look, but how they work, and more specifically how they work together. This is a full-scale rethinking of the Google brand, and I’m not sure I like it.

The natural inclination for most users when something is unexpectedly changed is initially resistance. (Just look at how TechCrunch announced their redesign yesterday. They knew what the reaction would be.) And I frequently fall into that too, only to finally come around after a while when I finally “get it” or just get used to it.

But there are unprecedented challenges for Google with this redesign, owing mainly to two things: 1) users’ absolute dependence on Google tools for certain online tasks (search and mail being the most obvious) and 2) the vast scope of products and services Google is attempting to graft together.

The first is hard to avoid: the more users depend on something, the more upset they’ll be when you change it. (Like this.) The second is not. The second is neither necessary nor obvious. It didn’t have to happen at all, and it doesn’t have to happen the way it is. And as time goes on, I realize that’s what I dislike most about both the initial shoddy execution and the plan and goals underlying it.

As I consider it more, I realize that my disappointment and frustration stem from the fact that this massive integration effort affects my dependence on Google products in a way more profound than I would have expected. I have a Google Apps account for my room34.com domain, and in the conversion Google has forced upon that domain, I am running into numerous issues as I’ve had to merge my personal Google account with my domain account (which I didn’t even realize were separate, since they both use the same email address). Certain data didn’t survive the transition (like my Reader subscriptions); third-party applications that tie into these services are no longer working because of the “2-step verification process” which itself isn’t working, for reasons unknown; certain tools are unavailable to my domain, without explanation (I can’t create a Google Profile, which also means I can’t use Google+); and worst of all, whenever I run up against one of these issues, all Google can do is direct me to outdated and irrelevant documentation. No answers, only more questions.

I’m left with the impression that all of this was not fully thought through. But then again, I don’t think all of it could be thought through. I think it’s damn near impossible to integrate all of these disparate products and services into a cohesive whole, when most have been developed by relatively autonomous internal teams or acquired from outside, and were never designed nor envisioned as one day becoming integrated. And while I applaud Google for its (apparently sudden) focus on this grand new vision for its products, I’m not sure it’s something I really want anyway. Google is already a bit frightening and monolithic, with its vast stores of personal data collected about each of its millions of users. Despite its “Don’t be evil” motto, (former) CEO Eric Schmidt has said things like this (as quoted on Daring Fireball):

“We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

That quote is taken out of context, but the context doesn’t really help it much. With thinking like that trickling down from the top, do you really want Google to seamlessly integrate all of its products? Their disarray was the only thing providing a modicum of security-through-obscurity for Google’s users. Google may just be collecting all of this personal data to help it more effectively deliver ads to your eyeballs, which is how they make their money, and is bad enough. But that data is there. Who knows how it will be used by Google or whoever else might get their hands on it in the future?

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be too paranoid. Google’s incomplete efforts at integration are probably a good thing after all.

Google: anatomy of a (half-assed) web redesign

There are many things Google is good at. Internet search and targeted advertising clearly being the top two. I use and appreciate several of Google’s products, especially Gmail, Google Reader and Chrome. But I only use Gmail as a reliable email provider with great spam filtering; I hate the web interface, and check my mail using the native mail clients on my Mac and iPhone. I use Google Reader solely to manage my subscriptions, whereas I actually read my RSS feeds, on all of my devices, with Reeder. And the only times I fire up Chrome are when I need to use Flash, per John Gruber. In general, I like Google’s products for the power of their underlying technologies, just as I hate them for their miserable user interfaces.

I think there are very few people who would consider design to be one of Google’s strong suits, from their traditionally un-designed home page, to their hideous logo (which, nonetheless, went through several apparently well-, or at least extensively-, considered revisions), to the notorious case where, engineers to the core, they logically weighed the relative merits of 41 shades of blue.

If you actually use any of Google’s websites directly, you’ve surely noticed in the last 24 hours that there has been a redesign. The most distinctive feature is the jarring black bar now at the top of all (well, most) pages. Personally I’d prefer something a little more subtle, but it’s tolerable, and presumably achieves its goal of getting your attention by being the only solid black area on your computer screen.

What really bothers me about this redesign is the lack of internal consistency as you dig deeper. To wit, let’s have a look at the landing pages of Google’s three biggest search tools (as determined by their placement in the black bar): Web, Images and Search:

The main things I notice about the main Google (Web) search page compared to the previous version are that the logo is slightly smaller (and appears to have been refined in terms of the extent of 1997-era Photoshop effects applied to it, although I think that change happened a few months ago), and that the “Google Search” and “I’m Feeling Lucky” buttons have been redesigned. They have very slightly rounded corners, an extremely subtle off-white gradient, and are set in dark gray Arial bold 11-point (or so) type.

On Google Images, the logo appears to be basically the same (although perhaps a bit more dithered), but it is much higher on the page. The search box itself is darker and has a drop shadow. The “Search Images” button is larger, has sharp corners and a more intense gradient, and is set in black Arial, larger and normal weight. If I’m not mistaken, this is how the buttons on most Google sites looked prior to yesterday’s redesign, so this appears mainly to be a case of Google Images not keeping up with the changes happening elsewhere.

The page is also cluttered up with instructions and a rather arbitrary set of four sample images. I never bothered to read that text or figure out why the images were there until just now as I was writing this article. Being able to perform a visual search by dragging a sample image into the search box is a really cool idea, but anecdotally I would suggest Google has a daunting challenge in educating users about it, if making it the only thing on the page besides the search box itself still doesn’t get the user’s (i.e. my) attention. Maybe their insistence on using undifferentiated plain text (while it might make Jakob Nielsen proud) for everything is part of the problem.

Google Videos is really the odd man out. A smaller logo, set too far down on the page, and a bright blue search button with no text, just a magnifying glass icon, that would look more at home on a Windows XP start screen than on a Google page. (Astute observers will also note from these screenshots that Google Videos, unlike Google Images and Google Web, displays a glowing focus state on the search box, which is due to the lack of :focus { outline: none; } on the CSS for that element.)

I realize this blue button is more of the direction Google’s heading and I do like it visually, even if I don’t think the search button needs to be so prominent on a page that contains very little else. But the thing that bothers me is the overall inconsistency between these tools.

Consistency is a big buzzword for me. To me it is absolutely the most important thing to consider in good UX and UI design. It doesn’t matter how novel your design elements are; if you present them consistently users will quickly learn how to use them and will gain confidence with your tools. They will also gain expectations that you then have to manage. These do impose limitations on you in the future, sure, but they also relieve you of the burden of having to reinvent every page.

Consistency demands a good style guide, something that is easy to overlook. And just as important as having the style guide is having the commitment to using it. That’s something even a company as big as Google clearly struggles with.

My favorite Super Bowl commercial

Super Bowl commercials tend to scream at you, both literally and metaphorically. So a quiet, subtle commercial like the one Google aired is easy to miss. (The Focus on the Family commercial, for all the fervor preceding it, was also easy to miss.)

Luckily I didn’t miss the Google commercial. It was simple, and simply brilliant. Maybe it’s because I have a life-changing event in my own past that is at least partially traceable to a Google search, but I think the message here is powerful and moving: in the Internet age, profound events in your life can stem from things you find online. And what better way to find things online than Google?

My favorite moments are “What are truffles?” followed by “Who is Truffaut?” and when the user changes “Long distance relationship advice” to “Jobs in Paris.” It’s silly, I know, but I start to tear up at that one.

Best Google Doodle yet

If you’re a regular user of Google, you probably know that Google likes to occasionally honor historical events by changing its logo for a day, in a way that symbolizes the event it’s honoring.

These are usually interesting (if for no other reason than simply what events the Google team deems worthy of their recognition), and sometimes quite artistic. But today’s Google Doodle is probably my favorite yet.

You see, today is the 25th anniversary of Tetris, one of the most iconic video games of all time.

And here’s the doodle:

Google Doodle: Tetris

Vintage Google

I learned this morning from Daring Fireball that Google has temporarily restored their earliest available index from 2001, allowing you to see what was available back then for your searches.

Kind of cool. But a little depressing for me personally, to see that back then my site was the first result you’d get when searching for John Coltrane. Now it’s 7th, but I suppose I should be glad it’s still on the front page, given my lack of attention to SEO. (Of course, I think SEO is at least 75% snake oil anyway.)

Google, you’ve failed me

Over the past few years, I’ve come to assume that any piece of information in the known universe is only a few keystrokes away, thanks to the wonders of Google.

So today, while wondering when the new Best Buy store at the Mall of America is opening, I naturally turned to Google, expecting an immediate answer.

For those of you now firing up Google in another browser tab, I’ll save you the trouble: try any combination of keywords you like, but you’re just not going to find this information.

Everything that came up for me is speculation from last summer, along the lines of “Best Buy to move into Mall of America?” Well no crap. I’ve seen the old Sports Authority storefront closed up with huge “Best Buy coming soon” signs all over it. It’s a done deal, and it’s probably just a matter of days or weeks before they open. The Best Buy logo was filled in a panel at a time, like puzzle pieces, but it’s all there now so it can’t be much longer. Not that I’ll ever know, thanks to Google.

Update (a few minutes later): Finally I gave up on the Best Buy-centric approach and just googled "Mall of America" "new stores" and found this page stating vaguely that the store will be opening in “late summer or early fall.” Boo.