Making Our Hearts Sing

Matt Birchler, “The Shocking State of Enthusiast Apps on Android”:

I recently commented on Mastodon that I thought when it comes to third party apps, iOS is remarkably far ahead of Android. My feeling is that you can take the best app in a category on Android, and that would be the 3rd to 5th best app in that category on iOS.

It’s harsh, I know, but I really think it’s true for basically every category of app I care about.

Someone responded to me saying that there are a bunch on Android apps that are better than their iOS equivalents. I wanted to be open-minded, so I asked what apps they would recommend I look at to see how Android is ahead of iOS. They recommended a text editor with a UI that looked more like Notepad++ than a modern writing tool.

Birchler’s Mastodon post was in a thread I started with my question about the best Android Mastodon clients, but I hadn’t noticed that he’d written this article until today — a day after my take on the same theme. Birchler goes on to review an Android RSS reader named Read You, which seems to be the best feed reader on Android. To say that Read You wouldn’t even register on the list of best iOS feed readers is being kind. It’s enough to make you wonder if anyone on Android even knows what a feed reader is. Birchler’s review is more than fair. He’s not cherry-picking one app in one category — I think it’s fair to say that Read You exemplifies the state of Android, for, as Birchler calls them, “enthusiast apps”.

Android enthusiasts don’t want to hear it, but from a design perspective, the apps on Android suck. They may not suck from a feature perspective (but they often do), but they’re aesthetically unpolished and poorly designed even from a “design is how it works” perspective. (E.g., Read You doesn’t offer unread counts for folders, has a bizarrely information-sparse layout, and its only supported sync service was deprecated in 2014. It also requires a frightening number of system permissions to run, including the ability to launch at startup and run in the background.) And as I wrote yesterday, the cultural chasm between the two mobile platforms is growing, not shrinking. I’ve been keeping a toe dipped in the Android market since I bought a Nexus One in 2010, and the difference in production values between the top apps in any given category has never been greater between Android and iOS. And that’s just talking about phone apps, leaving aside the deplorable state of tablet apps on Android.

Michael Tsai found two threads on Hacker News with short threads discussing my piece yesterday, here and here.1 A representative comment from an Android user skeptical of my take:

What on earth is he asking for out of these apps? How do you objectively compare one app’s “panache” with another? If I was a developer, what are the steps I can follow to program some “comfort” into my app? These complaints seem so wishy-washy and underspecified.

Then he leaves with the Kubrick quote: “Sometimes the truth of a thing isn’t in the think of it, but in the feel of it.” We’re fully in the realm of mysticism now, this is not an attempt to fairly compare or measure anything. [...]

I think if he’s going to praise some apps and dunk on the other ones, he should compare using measurable criteria. Otherwise, it’s only one person’s opinion. Just saying “App X feels right” is like saying “App X has a better chakra energy.” What is any developer supposed to do with that feedback? The whole article could have boiled down to “I personally like these apps and I don’t like those.”

That’s like asking for “measurable criteria” for evaluating a movie or novel or song or painting. I will offer another quote from Kubrick: “The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.”

Art is the operative word. Either you know that software can be art, and often should be, or you think what I’m talking about here is akin to astrology. One thing I learned long ago is that people who prioritize design, UI, and UX in the software they prefer can empathize with and understand the choices made by people who prioritize other factors (e.g. raw feature count, or the ability to tinker with their software at the system level, or software being free-of-charge). But it doesn’t work the other way: most people who prioritize other things can’t fathom why anyone cares deeply about design/UI/UX because they don’t perceive it. Thus they chalk up iOS and native Mac-app enthusiasm to being hypnotized by marketing, Pied Piper style.

What’s happened over the last decade or so, I think, is that rather than the two platforms reaching any sort of equilibrium, the cultural differences have instead grown because both users and developers have self-sorted. Those who see and value the artistic value in software and interface design have overwhelmingly wound up on iOS; those who don’t have wound up on Android. Of course there are exceptions. Of course there are iOS users and developers who are envious of Android’s more open nature. Of course there are Android users and developers who do see how crude the UIs are for that platform’s best-of-breed apps. But we’re left with two entirely different ecosystems with entirely different cultural values — nothing like (to re-use my example from yesterday) the Coke-vs.-Pepsi state of affairs in console gaming platforms. On mobile, the cultural differences are as polarized and clearly delineated as the politics of our national affairs.

It’s no fluke that among Steve Jobs’s final words on stage was his soliloquy about Apple existing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. March 2011:

It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.

Making your heart sing. That’s the difference.

  1. It sounds a bit conspiratorial, but for several years now it’s seemed clear to me that Hacker News has Daring Fireball in some sort of graylist. It’s not blacklisted, obviously, given the aforementioned two threads about yesterday’s piece, but nothing I write here ever gains any significant traction there. Ever. And the reason there are two threads for yesterday’s piece is that the first one disappeared from the home page soon after it was posted. I think? In this list of recent Hacker News threads for articles from DF, going back four months, only three have more than 10 comments — and two of those are the threads from yesterday. I don’t know who I pissed off there or why, but I’ve never seen an explanation for this. Update: HN commenter Michiel de Mare has quantified the apparent suppression, based on the ranking of this very article. Exactly what I’ve noticed for years. ↩︎