Meanwhile, Over in Androidtown

Whilst we iOS users celebrate the recent releases of Thomas Ricouard’s Ice Cubes, Tapbots’s Ivory, and Tusker, and look forward to the imminent release of other new Mastodon clients like Shihab Mehboob’s Mammoth, over on Mastodon I asked what the best clients for Android are.

Long story short: crickets chirping.

The app that got the most recommendations is Tusky, an open-source client available free of charge. It’s fine, and for now, it’s what I’ve got on my home screen on my Pixel 4. But if Tusky were an iOS app, it wouldn’t make the top 5 for Mastodon clients. I’d describe its UI as brutalist. (Tusky does have fun “burst” animations when you tap the Like or Bookmark buttons on a post.)

Honorable mentions to Tooot, the official Mastodon client, and some open-source forks of the Mastodon app like Megalodon. There’s also Fedilab, which costs $2.50 on the Play Store but is also open source. I find Fedilab homely, even by the standards of Android apps, but it’s fast and has some neat features like built-in translation. (Bonus points to the fellow who suggested this Emacs mode, I believe non-sarcastically.) All of these apps are more brutalist than Tusky.

None of these Android clients would garner any attention at all on iOS. Tooot and the official Mastodon client are also available on iOS, and seemingly offer the same features and same basic interfaces on both platforms. There’s a reason third-party clients are overwhelmingly more popular on iOS than Mastodon’s official client — yet the Mastodon app is clearly among the best on Android. It’s really just a different world over in Androidtown. Things like fluid scrolling, swipe gestures, and tap-and-hold contextual menus are table stakes for an iOS app. None of the Android clients scroll fluidly, none offer swipe gestures, and only Tooot seems to offer a tap-and-hold contextual menu. But more broadly they all just look and especially feel inert and rigid. Nothing shrinks or stretches. There’s no life to them.

Google’s Android system software and first-party apps try. (The Chrome Android app in particular is iOS-caliber. Not iOS-style, but iOS-caliber, in terms of fluidity, originality, and attention to detail.) The Instagram app for Android tries. But for the most part, it seems like third-party Android apps don’t even try to achieve the look-and-feel comfort, fun, and panache of iOS apps. It’s a weird thing. The chasm between how iOS and Android apps look and feel is growing, not shrinking. The opposite happened with the Mac and Windows back in the ’90s. Windows itself and Windows software in the Window 3.x era were just awful. Starting with Windows 95, the gap closed significantly. Spending a few hours perusing the state of the art in Android Mastodon clients gives me the distinct impression that Android is forever stuck in its Window 3.x era of UI polish and design. It’s rough.

iOS and Android are, from a macro perspective, rival peer platforms. But it’s not like, say, game consoles — PlayStation vs. Xbox vs. Switch — where all of the major games on all of the consoles are striving for the highest possible production values. Not one Android Mastodon client seems to be striving for iOS-level production values. Again, not iOS style — just the baseline level of polish and detail-sweating that are de rigueur for apps like new Mastodon clients on iOS. Your bank’s iOS app probably sucks (mine does), but that’s because it’s probably a cross-platform web wrapper that’s nearly identical on Android (mine is). Nintendo Switch games don’t have the same style as PlayStation or Xbox games, but all of them are trying to be really nice. That’s just not a thing on Android. It’s banking apps almost all the way down. It’s an entirely different culture, with a different value system from iOS.

20 years ago my friend Brent Simmons wrote about why he chose to create apps exclusively for the Mac, despite the Windows market being so much larger:

One of the reasons I develop for OS X is that, when it comes to user interface, this is the big leagues, this is the show. That’s probably what Joel would call an “emotional appeal” — and to call it that, that’s fine by me. [...]

The other path is honorable and sensible and has its rewards too.

But to me it’s the difference between an empty night sky and a night sky with all the stars shining and a big, bright bella luna. “Emotional appeal?” Oh yes indeed. And I don’t apologize for that for one second.

I’m well aware there are Android enthusiasts who choose and embrace the platform because they strongly prefer it. But the differing priorities of both users and developers between iOS and Android are rendered stark by looking at Mastodon client apps. There doesn’t seem to be a single developer trying to make a commercial Mastodon client for Android, for one thing. Everything feels like a hobby app because everything is. Android seems to be the platform for people who consider this comprehensive feature checklist to be a helpful resource for evaluating which apps they should try. iOS is the platform for users and developers who care about craftsmanship, who see emotional appeal as something far more essential than any feature comparison that can be expressed in a spreadsheet. I often cite this quote from Stanley Kubrick: “Sometimes the truth of a thing isn’t in the think of it, but in the feel of it.” It’s the feel of iOS Mastodon clients that makes them outclass those on Android.

iOS is now the show.