On the state of Android apps

Unlike the title may suggest, this is not a post about the fact that Android apps are being released later than iOS apps, or that Android apps are getting features later than their iOS equivalents. This is still true, to some extent, but it is reassuring that apps like Artifact are being released on both platforms at the same time: this was not the case a few years ago.

This post is about the Android apps themselves, especially indie apps, and what Android users have to deal with everyday. After talking about the lack of good Mastodon apps on Android, John Gruber published a new post on the matter:

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.

It’s true. Outside of Google’s own apps and others from big tech companies, apps on Android are generally terrible. Feature-wise they do the job, they are stable enough, not too buggy, decently integrated with the OS, but they are either ugly, weird, or both. “Stable enough, not too buggy, decently integrated” is not how you’d want to describe an app you have to use every day, but it is what it is.

When I worked at Xiaomi, circa 2019, I used an Android phone on a daily basis, obviously. Back then, I was already trying to avoid surveillance advertising as much as possible, so I wanted to avoid Google the best I could. On Android — unless you’re using a Google-free ROM built on the Android open source project — this is very hard to do, but you can manage to escape 80 to 90% of their tracking by disabling Google apps and a few settings.

It worked for me fine: I used Fastmail, Signal, the DuckDuckGo browser, Zoho Notes, etc. It was fine, decent, OK. Nowhere near “great.” I remember clearly the troubles I had finding a decent calendar app that wasn’t Google’s. I ended up using the Fastmail app’s calendar function because the standalone apps were awful, and there wasn’t a lot of them either (and don’t get me started on widgets).

Things may have changed for the better in the last four years of course, I can’t tell: I bought an iPhone 11 only a few days after my last day at Xiaomi, and never looked back. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there is today on Android a calendar app as polished and well-designed as Fantastical on iOS for instance.

On finding the reasons why there is this discrepancy — Android being the most popular platform after all — Gruber comes with an excellent and on-point explanation, which starts like this:

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.

This is the cheese and cracker story all over again. Some people will immediately taste the difference between the regular and better-tasting cheese, some will argue that this is the same thing, and that in terms of nutrition — features — there is no difference. This is what I refer to as the difference between regular nerds like myself, and Nerds: capital N.

Some Nerds are blind and only care about the technical specs of software and hardware, no room for feelings. This Porsche Taycan review from MKBHD — a known Tesla aficionado — captures this very well: the Tesla may be better on paper in every way possible, but when it comes to the drive and the feel of the car, the Taycan is on another level, and Marques appreciates this. True Nerds will say that both cars take you from point A to point B, and that their performance is similar at best. But car lovers will see a world of difference. It isn’t about the destination and the time it takes to get there, it’s about the journey itself.

Writing this I am reminded of this fantastic Molly Wood’s Nerd voice™ skit when she was at CNET, maybe 15 years ago:

Nerds only care about the colour of the Cat 5 cables to organise equipment: any colours will do.

Now I want a mug with this quote printed on it, and it should ironically use Arial as the font.