Daring Fireball: Making Our Hearts Sing
Wednesday, February 1, 2023
Matt Birchler, “The Shocking State of Enthusiast Apps on Android”:
I recently commented on Mastodon that I think 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 it would be the 3rd-5th best app in that category on iOS.
It’s harsh, I know, but I really think it’s true for pretty much every app category I care about.
Someone replied to me saying that there are a bunch of Android apps that are better than their iOS counterparts. I wanted to be open-minded, so I asked which apps they would recommend I look at to see how Android is ahead of iOS. They recommended a text editor with a user interface 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 Mastodon Android clients, but I hadn’t noticed he had written that post until today – a day after my taken on the same theme. Birchler then reviews 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 make it onto the list of best iOS feed readers is nice. That’s enough to make you wonder if anyone on Android even knows what a feed reader is. Birchler’s opinion is more than correct. It doesn’t select an app from a category – I think it’s fair to say that Read You exemplifies the state of Android, because, as Birchler calls them, “enthusiastic apps”.
Android enthusiasts don’t want to hear it, but design-wise apps on Android suck. They might not suck from a feature standpoint (but they often do), but they’re aesthetically unpolished and poorly designed, even from a “design is how it works” standpoint. . (For example, Read You doesn’t offer an unread folder count, has a weirdly information-poor layout, and its only supported sync service was discontinued in 2014. It also requires a frightening number of permissions. system to run, including the ability to launch on startup and run in the background.) And as I wrote yesterday, the culture chasm between the two mobile platforms is widening, not narrowing. I’ve kept a toe dipped in the Android market since buying a Nexus One in 2010, and the difference in production values between top apps in a given category has never been greater between Android and iOS. . And that’s only talking about phone apps, leaving aside the sorry state of tablet apps on Android.
Michael Tsai found two threads on Hacker News with short discussions of my post yesterday, here and here.1 A representative comment from an Android user skeptical of my view:
What the hell is he asking of these apps? How to objectively compare the “panache” of one application to another? If I was a developer, what are the steps I can take to program some “comfort” into my application? These complaints seem so tasteless and underspecified.
Then he leaves with Kubrick’s quote: “Sometimes the truth of a thing is not in the thought, but in the feeling.” We are fully in the realm of mysticism now, this is not an attempt to compare or fairly measure anything. […]
I think if he wants to praise some apps and dunk others, he should compare using measurable criteria. Otherwise, this is just one person’s opinion. Simply saying “App X feels good” is like saying “App X has better chakra energy”. What is a developer supposed to do with these comments? The whole article could have been summed up as “Personally, I like these apps and I don’t like these”.
It’s like asking for “measurable criteria” to evaluate a film, a novel, a song or a painting. I’ll offer another quote from Kubrick: “The test of a work of art is, ultimately, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it’s good.”
Art is the key 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 a long time ago is that people who prioritize design, UI and user experience in the software they prefer can understand and understand the choices made by people who prioritize other factors (e.g. the number of raw features or the ability to tinker with their software at the system level, or software being free). But it doesn’t work the other way around: most people who prioritize other things can’t understand why someone cares deeply about design/UI/UX because they don’t perceive it. Thus, they attribute the enthusiasm of native iOS and Mac apps to being mesmerized by marketing, Pied Piper-style.
What’s happened over the last decade, I think, is that instead of the two platforms reaching some sort of balance, the cultural differences have instead increased because users and developers sorted themselves. Those who see and appreciate the artistic value in software and interface design have overwhelmingly found themselves on iOS; those who did not end up on Android. Of course, there are exceptions. Of course, there are iOS users and developers who envy Android’s more open nature. Of course, there are Android users and developers who see how crude user interfaces are for the best apps on this platform. But we are left with two entirely different ecosystems with entirely different cultural values - nothing like (to reuse my example from yesterday) the Coke-vs.-Pepsi situation in console gaming platforms. On mobile, cultural differences are as polarized and clearly delineated as the politics of our national affairs.
It’s no coincidence that among Steve Jobs’ last words on stage was his soliloquy about Apple existing at the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. March 2011:
It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone isn’t enough – it’s technology married to the liberal arts, married to the humanities, that gives us the results that make our hearts sing.
Make your heart sing. That’s the difference.