Wednesday, February 1, 2023

The State of Enthusiast Apps on Android

Matt Birchler:

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.


This app (again, in beta) is way behind apps like Reeder, Unread, and NetNewsWire in both functionality and design.

This app was presented to me as an example of how Android apps are better than iOS apps, and it instead made me more confident in my opinion.

John Gruber (Hacker News):

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.


Update (2023-02-03): John Gruber:

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.


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.

Steven Aquino:

iOS apps may attract more software aesthetes, but it’s also the case accessibility on iOS is far more expansive and polished than on Android. This isn’t to say Google ships inaccessible crap or cares less, but they certainly don’t match the breadth and depth Apple provides. This is well known in a11y circles. Not a trivial matter.

Nicolas Magand:

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.

Federico Viticci (Mastodon):

To say that I found the ecosystem worse than I remembered would be an understatement.


I do appreciate the greater freedom Android grants power users who care about aspects such as split-screen multitasking, total control over default apps, or theming. But the whole experience feels fragmented, and as a result crude, when it comes to using your phone with apps in everyday life. The general baseline of quality for design and expected system features is simply higher on iOS.

Update (2023-02-14): Barbara Krasnoff:

On the other hand, I have to admit that when I hear about an app that looks really easy and useful, go running to its site to see if I can try it out, and find that it’s only available for iOS, I can become, for a moment, something akin to an angry five-year-old. I want to play with this new toy, and I deeply resent anyone who says I can’t.

16 Comments RSS · Twitter · Mastodon

Apple has really managed to get people excited about app development in a way that Google isn't even near.

On Android the bar is set at "it does what it says on the box", so no attempt at pleasing the user or, heaven forbid, surprising them by exceeding their expectations.

Many apps have five to six year old interfaces etc. Ugly buttons on ugly tables.

BitTorrent clients and file managers all look like windows 95.

Compare and contrast macOS, where the enthusiasm has all but dried up, and "good enough" is actually often better and more functional on the other platforms.

(As a preamble, I may not be the usual audience for this blog. I used Mac forever, even a Newton, and had an iPod Touch, but decided against iOS's. I now use Linux at home and Mac at work.)

As an Android user, I use my phone closer to the original vision of the iPhone. I use mostly the built-in apps and for most everything else, I use the web. I do have the Fastmail app, a couple 2FA apps, an ebook reader, a daycare app that I have to have to sign in my kid, and I prefer Firefox for Android. But RSS, news reading and so, I use the browser. This is actually the same on my computer really, which is why switching from Mac to Linux was easy for me.

I switched from NetNewsWire to web-based RSS reader way back – Bloglines first (I think?), then Google Reader, one that's now defunct and now Miniflux – when I realized I was missing some feeds' items since they only included the last 10 items but refreshed more often than I check on my computer. I also often do things like open links in new tabs, so an app is very limiting.

Same for news — I've never wanted news apps since I tend to open lots of tabs, not be mention being able to use ad blocking and user styles.

I've never been a Twitter user, but all the recent discussion of Twitter apps surprised me since I would never use anything but their website. But maybe that's why I'm not a Twitter user.

The long and short of it is I don't really need many apps – good, bad or ugly – to use my Android phone how I use it.

Yet, somehow Apple keeps finding new ways to burn through its reserves of goodwill with devs.

A current Android phone has almost all the apps I need- mostly because Google took all the ideas I needed from Play Store apps, and put them in the OS.

I doubt we will see many great apps in future. It costs a lot of money to develop a great app, and it is too easy to copy the signature features of an app.

I read Twitter/Mastodon on my desktop Firefox- There is nothing special about Twitter's use case that makes me want to use an app. Use RSS on Firefox as well for certain sites- never aggregating feeds, though.

Old Unix Geek

Could simply be that Android users don't consider their phones to be status items, and don't look for the shiniest applications... People who conceive of themselves as Walmart shoppers instead of Louis Vitton shoppers.

Neither of these posts seem particularly curious about why certain UI conventions evolve within the app economies of different platforms, and instead want to make absolute declarations about what are pretty clearly subjective values. It's almost as if the desire to consider apps as a kind of art, and to value their "emotional appeal" and "the feel of [them]" is fundamentally incompatible with the desire to decide which apps do or do not fall into an ordered "top five" ranking. I don't see why an unadorned, animation-less app can't have just as much care, detail-sweating, and niceness as one with a non-brutalist UI?

I don't see why an unadorned, animation-less app can't have just as much care, detail-sweating, and niceness as one with a non-brutalist UI?

I don't see how one could. The apps in discussion don't seem to be choosing ugliness by design, or focusing their energies instead on features.

Gruber wrote a piece in which the thesis is that mastodon apps on iOS will "make your heart sing".

Johnny Tillotson said it better:

When I see my baby
What do I see
Poetry in motion…

One enthusiast app that Android has and Apple forbids: A web browser with a fully functional ad blocker.

Indeed. An ongoing conceit of apologists like Gruber is simply that functionality envy is a failure of character, rather than a healthy necessity. He might deny it--try to pretend otherwise, or minimise his generalisations--but the evidence is pretty clear that the Apple faithful defend their choice not on the basis of balances of priorities, which is the sensible way to look at it, but as a kind of status affirmation. Sad, because it ends up denying the very real functional limitations of Apple platforms, whilst giving a free pass to the user-hostile crap that comes out over in the other gardens. In the end though, as users, we ultimately have to make a choice to prioritise functionality and ease-of-use, among other things particular to platforms, and it's getting harder and harder (for me, anyway) to stick at least with macOS despite my love of the platform's former shadow and the hardware that runs it.

I don't see how one could. The apps in discussion don't seem to be choosing ugliness by design, or focusing their energies instead on features.

Part of my point here is that beauty and ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. I haven't used these apps, but I don't think their makers are trying to make them bad on purpose (thought John Gruber does actually kind of imply he thinks this).

@Moonlight To me it seemed clear that Gruber was not implying that. Also, a lot of the issues mentioned are not to do with ugliness but also features and design in the “how it works” sense.

@Michael Maybe it's just my reading of it, then. But when he's repeatedly asserting that Android developers are not trying to make their apps nice and sweating the details, the unanswered question is "what are they trying to do instead?" -- and his implications don't paint a very pretty picture.

But I don't want to get too bogged down in closely reading these posts for subtext. This whole bit of discourse is radiating very strong us-vs-them energy that I find unpleasant.

@Moonlight I think his second piece is saying that they’re not targeting the qualities he cares about because they lack the eye/taste. It’s not a conscious decision but rather that they just “don’t perceive it.” (I’m not making a judgement myself and haven’t used any of the apps in question.)

As an addendum, I think before any iOS user passes judgment on Android, they should install F-Droid and just browse around. It's an entire 'store' of free/open-source apps made by people who want to make something useful for themselves and others. It's such a different experience than trying to browse the App Store.

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