November 8, 2013

A Glass Half Broken

Filed under: digital,documentation,doom,fail,hate,interfaces,losers,toys,vendetta — mhoye @ 3:46 pm


A friend of mine has called me a glass-half-broken kind of guy.

My increasingly venerable Nokia N9 has been getting squirrelly for a few months, and since it finally decided its battery was getting on in years it was time for a new phone.

I’m going to miss it a lot. The hardware was just a hair too slow, the browser was just a hair too old and even though email was crisp and as well done as I’ve ever seen it on a small screen, Twitter – despite being the one piece of software that periodically got updates, strangely – was always off in the weeds. Despite all that, despite the storied history of managerial incompetence and market failure in that software stack, they got so many things right. A beautiful, solid UI, an elegant gesture system that you could work reliably one-handed and a device whose curved shape informed your interaction with the software in a meaningful way. Like WebOS before it, it had a consistent and elegantly-executed interaction model full of beautiful ideas and surprisingly human touches that have pretty much all died on the vine.

Some friends have been proposing a hedge-fund model where they follow my twitter feed, scrape it for any piece of technology I express interest in and then short that company’s stock immediately and mercilessly. The reasoning being, of course, that I tend to back underdogs and generally underdogs are called that because of their unfortunate tendency to not win.

So now I own a Nexus 5; do with that information what you will. The experience has not been uniformly positive.

Android, the joke goes, is technical debt that’s figured out how to call 911, and with KitKat it seems like somebody has finally sent help. For a while now Android has been struggling to overcome its early… well, “design process” seems like too strong a term, but some sort of UI-buglist spin-the-bottle thing that seemed to amount to “how can I ignore anyone with any sort of design expertise, aesthetic sensibility or even just matching socks and get this bug off my desk.” KitKat is clearly the point we all saw coming, where Android has pivoted away from being a half-assed OS to start being a whole-assed Google-services portal, and it really shows.

Look: I know I’m a jagged, rusty edge case. I know. But this is what happened next.

As you open the box, you find a protective plastic sheet over the device that says “NEXUS 5” in a faint grey on black. If you don’t peel it off before pushing the power button, the Google logo appears, slightly offset and obscured behind it. It’s not a big thing; it’s trivial but ugly. If either word had been a few millimetres higher or lower it would have been a nice touch. As shipped it’s an empty-net miss, a small but ominous hint that maybe nobody was really in charge of the details.

I signed in with my Google Apps account and the phone started restoring my old apps from other Android installs. This is one of the things Google has done right for a long time; once you see it you immediately think it should have worked that way everywhere the whole time. But I didn’t realize that it restored the earlier version of the software you had on file, not the current one; most of my restored pre-KitKat apps crashed on startup, and it took me a while to understand why.

Once I’d figured that out and refreshed a few of them manually, set up my work email and decided to see if Google Goggles was neat as it was last time I looked. Goggles immediately crashed the camera service, and I couldn’t figure out how make the camera work again in any app without power-cycling the phone.

So I restart the phone, poked around at Hangouts a bit; seems nice enough and works mostly OK, could use some judicious copy-editing in the setup phase to sound a little less panopticon-stalkerish. (But we’re all affluent white men here it’s no big deal, right? Who doesn’t mind being super-easy to find all the time?)

I went to make dinner then, and presumably that’s when the phone started heating up.

Eventually I noticed that I’d lost about a quarter of my battery life over the course of an almost-idle hour, with the battery monitor showing that the mail I’d received exactly none of was the culprit. From what I can tell the Exchange-connection service is just completely, aggressively broken; it looks like if you set up the stock mail client for Exchange and pick “push” it immediately goes insane, checking for mail hundreds of times per second and trying to melt itself, and that’s exciting. But even if you dial it back to only check manually, after a while it just… stops working. A reboot doesn’t fix it, I’ve had to delete and recreate the account to make it work again. Even figuring out how to do that isn’t as easy as it should be; I’ve done it twice so far, one day in. So I guess it’s IMAP and I’ll figure calendars out some other way. We use Zimbra at the office, not Exchange proper, and their doc on connecting to Android hasn’t been updated in two years so that’s a thing. I’m totally fine in this corner, really. Cozy. I can warm my hands on my new phone.

I’ve been using my Bespoke I/O Google Apps accounts before Google doubled down on this grasping, awful “G+ Or GTFO” policy, and disabling G+ in Apps years ago has turned my first-touch experience with this phone into a weird technical tug-of-war-in-a-minefield exercise. On the one hand, it’s consistently protected me from Google’s ongoing “by glancing at this checkbox in passing you’re totally saying you want a Google+ account” mendacity, but it also means that lots of things on the phone fail in strange and wonderful ways. The different reactions of the various Play $X apps is remarkable. “Play Games” tells me I need to sign up for a G+ account and won’t let me proceed without one, Play Movies and Music seem to work for on-device content, and Play Magazines just loses its mind and starts into a decent imitation of a strobe light.

I went looking for alternative software, but The Play Store reminds me a lot more of Nokia’s Ovi Store than the App Store juggernaut in a lot of unfortunate ways. There are a handful of high-profile apps there work fast and well if you can find them. I miss Tweetbot and a handful of other iOS apps a lot, and keep going back to my iPod Touch for it. In what I’m sure is a common sentiment Tweetbot for Android is looking pretty unlikely at this point, probably because – like the Ovi Store – there’s a hundred low-rent knockoffs of the iOS app you actually want availabl, but developing for Android is a nightmare on stilts and you make no money so anything worth buying isn’t for sale there.

It’s really a very nice piece of hardware. Fast, crisp, big beautiful screen. Firefox with Adblock Plus is way, way better than anything else in that space – go team – and for that on its own I could have overlooked a lot. But this is how my first day with this phone went, and a glass that’s half-broken isn’t one I’m super happy I decided to keep drinking from.


  1. Quit thinking of it as a “G+ Account.” It’s a Google profile. If you don’t want one, for whatever reason, well, you are going to find it increasingly impossible to use Google services, because you need a Google profile to use most of them. You might want to instead get a Windows Phone (which will require a Microsoft account) or an iPhone (which will require an Apple ID), but it’s not clear to me that there’s a real win there.

    Beyond that, you’re doing the rookie mistake thing of talking about a new UI when you’re still used to the old one, like a MacOS user who just started using Windows and is all ranty about it (or vice versa). When I switched to Android from webOS, I wrote angry screeds about how bad the UI was and how nothing would ever be as awesome as webOS ever again. When I re-read that criticism months later… it didn’t hold up well. Different UIs are different, and it takes time to get used to UI idioms that are not the ones you’ve been accustomed to.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — November 8, 2013 @ 4:29 pm

  2. And so specifically, if your gripe is that G+ makes you use your real name on a social network, you can get a Google Profile without being forced to use a social network, despite legacy references to G+ in the Google Profile stuff.

    But if your gripe is that Google Profiles require you to use your real name in other contexts, then yeah, that’s true. They do. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, then no shit your best bet is to put that phone in a drawer until you can install another OS on it, or eBay it. Because attempting to use it without a Google Profile will be nothing but pain and suffering.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — November 8, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

  3. (Psst: That Firefox sentence no verb.

    Also: Much as it is weird for me to say this, because it has been confusing and painful for even those of us who have drunk the KoolAid but would have liked to pick the flavor, Koz is right about the relationship between a G+ account and a Google profile right now. I’ve got more than one Google account. Only one of them has an G+ account. The rest, well—I may or may not confirm or deny that I may or may not know people with names like “zip zzip” who seem to be maintaining G+ accounts fine.)

    Comment by Zeynep — November 8, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

  4. ((And by “verb” I meant “adjective.” Friday afternoon late brain fried etc etc.))

    Comment by Zeynep — November 8, 2013 @ 5:01 pm

  5. you can get a Google Profile without being forced to use a social network, despite legacy references to G+ in the Google Profile stuff.

    My gripe – among others, very obviously – is that I’ve _got_ what should be a Google Profile in my Apps setup, and because I’ve specifically declined to participate in the social network part of it, all kinds of shit just doesn’t work for no good reason.

    Comment by mhoye — November 8, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

  6. Beyond that, you’re doing the rookie mistake thing of talking about a new UI when you’re still used to the old one,

    That’s patently false. There are a lot of glaring, obvious inconsistencies in the Android UI, and the fact that you can get used to them doesn’t excuse them.

    Comment by mhoye — November 8, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

  7. Re Profile: an Account isn’t a Profile. Yes, this is weird and a total hack, and probably nobody at Google would design it that way if they could sit down with a blank slate, but there you are. And yes, you need to enable G+ in order to create a Profile, which is also called a G+ Profile in places, which is kind of weird, but there it is.

    And so if you object to that on elegance grounds, I have your back. If you object to it on privacy grounds… well, unless you’re a privacy absolutist who buys burner SIMs with bitcoins, you’ll want to make sure you’re clear on what you’re objecting to (which is not a social network), and where the lines are between what you find okay and problematic.

    Re UI: Yes, there are inconsistencies and infelicities in Android. Like there are in every single piece of software ever. On net, I find Android to be more elegant and polished than iOS (which feels very clunky and awkward and obscurantist when I try to use it — but I know that to some sense that’s my own “UI paradigms I’m not familiar with” problem).

    Right now, with it new to you, the problems stand out (including some things that you think are problems, but really will turn out not to be) and you’ve not yet come to appreciate the new things it can do that are better than what you’re used to. This is a well-known, common phenomenon, and it’s why everyone says not to review stuff until you’ve used it for a good long while and truly understand it.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — November 8, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

  8. KitKat is clearly the point we all saw coming, where Android has pivoted away from being a half-assed OS to start being a whole-assed Google-services portal, and it really shows.

    I gotta ask, did you use any of the previous Android 4 versions for long? Because it’s been like that for a while, unless KitKat has done something remarkable and *way further* than before.

    Comment by John — November 8, 2013 @ 7:07 pm

  9. If you object to it on privacy grounds… well, unless you’re a privacy absolutist who buys burner SIMs with bitcoins, you’ll want to make sure you’re clear on what you’re objecting to (which is not a social network), and where the lines are between what you find okay and problematic.

    I object to it on anonymity and identity grounds. Denying people access to anonymity or pseudonymity is grossly regressive and exclusionary. The fact that some people are successfully skirting those rules actually makes them worse, not better – it means they’re arbitrarily enforced on top of being straight-up reprehensible.

    The dependencies on a “Profile”, as opposed to a just a Google account – which, as documented above, are entirely arbitrary – exist only to fluff the numbers on their moribund social network.

    Seriously, I’m glad this stuff works for you, but quit making excuses for them when it doesn’t work for other people.

    Comment by mhoye — November 8, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

  10. No, look, the thing is you don’t insist on total anonymity everywhere. You buy from places that only accept credit cards; you get credit cards that demand your real name. You sign contracts with utilities that want your real name.

    “Social networks shouldn’t demand real names” is a defensible line, and I’m fine with it. “Google should never want my real name under any circumstance” is knee-jerk, and I think you’re just extending your previous G+ dislike without thinking it through.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — November 8, 2013 @ 8:25 pm

  11. “Public account name” and “name on the credit card” don’t need to be the same thing, and most places they’re not. Unless somebody decides it does, obviously. But even then, it’s an inconsistent, ridiculous mess. I bought this phone from Google! They have my credit card number, and it’s associated with the same account that restored the phone. The only thing I’ve declined to do is _say I want a G+ profile_, but that’s a technical catastrophe as far as a bunch of their Android apps are concerned, for no good reason whatsoever.

    I’ve never said that Google shouldn’t want my real name in any circumstances, I’ve said that I would like to decline to participate in those parts of Google’s services that insist on it for everyone, because I find it a regressive and awful practice. Google has decided to expand the account-management system behind those services – again, arbitrarily – to become an underpinning of a bunch of other things for reasons I find ridiculous and don’t care to be a part of. Coincidentally, that decision breaks a bunch of things in this phone, for reasons I don’t think are reasons at all, but actually really thin excuses.

    Comment by mhoye — November 8, 2013 @ 8:56 pm

  12. Well, then. I reiterate: The phone will not work well for you, and will only cause you pain and suffering. Don’t put that hairshirt on. Get whatever kind of phone it is that will let you create an account without your real name, whatever that is.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — November 8, 2013 @ 9:04 pm

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