Sunday, October 7, 2012

Do Androids Dream?

Good question. But certainly, not of electric sheep.

I've now had a couple of months with the Google Nexus 7 tablet, and a month or so with the Galaxy Nexus phone, which I bought to match it (you don't want to know how dumb my previous 'smart' phone was). It's been an interesting experience.

While the Nexus 7 hardware represents excellent bang for the buck, the experience hasn't been about the hardware at all. Nor, strangely enough, has it been primarily about the Android Jelly Bean software. It's been about what lies behind it: Google.

In recent years, I've relied heavily on the aging infrastructure of my home office: Lotus Domino servers for email, calendar, web server and various home-grown applications, such as my bibliographic database and PhD work journal, augmented by CentOS boxes running a lot of standard open-source apps for mail, etc. The whole thing was fun to set up, useful for learning and an utter pain in the rear to keep running. Even more nerve-wracking was the fact that my wife's business depended upon it, and any system failures would have devastating consequences.

So I set about a long-term plan to get off it. The first step was to move the email and calendar off Notes/Domino and over to Google Docs. I did this first with my wife's business, and it worked so well that I soon moved my email over. Rather than Notes on the desktop, we switched to the combination of Mozilla Thunderbird with the Lightning calendar plugin with Google provider, and the gContactSync plugin for contact synchronization. The migration proved fortuitous, for a couple of months later a hard drive in our main Domino server died - but by then, it was only running my web site (which I am still working on migrating - another story).

The bibliographic database was replaced with Zotero (http://www.zotero.org) and the work journal shifted to Evernote (http://evernote.com/).

So, it was with this migration achieved that I decided to explore the Nexus 7 (which actually arrived as a birthday gift from my better half). Although I had initially planned to use it as a reading device like the Kindle, as well as maybe to play music, etc. in practice it turns out to be a portable Google box. Initial setup requires a Google account (Gmail or Google apps) but the Nexus happily deals with my three accounts (two businesses, plus university email/calendar). All the calendars are merged but can be turned on and off individually). I quickly installed Evernote and found it to be the perfect complement to my desktop usage (which replicates between my home and work desktops and notebook, the way that Lotus Notes used to).

The lack of wireless broadband (3G/4G/LTE) soon led me to consider upgrading my phone. Kogan (http://www.kogan.com) had the Galaxy Nexus at only $379 - perhaps because the Nexus is under-rated by comparison with the newer Galaxy S III - and since it is the reference platform for Android phones, guaranteed to have the newest version of Android available first, and my existing Telstra contract was nowhere near running out, I decided this was the way to go. The phone came with Ice Cream Sandwich installed, and I left it like that for a few days, but soon unlocked the boot loader and flashed it with the Google factory image of Jelly Bean, so that it matched the Nexus 7. The decision to do this was driven by one key feature of Jelly Bean which makes it a killer: Google Now.

It's hard to describe the impact Google Now has on your time management and phone usage. Here's a little example, which illustrates how it integrates with other Google services:

A company I do some work for wanted me to sit in on a meeting with a prospective client in North Sydney. So, I made sure that my contact there was in my Google Contacts, and scheduled the meeting. Because we would need to go over a few things before the meeting with the client, we'd need to get together somewhere nearby - but where? Google Local provided a list of nearby coffee shops, so I schedule a pre-meeting meeting at one of them. Parking could be a problem, but Google Local sorted that out, too.

I live around 25 minutes drive from North Sydney, and sure enough, about half an hour before the pre-meeting, the Nexus 7 chimed that it was time to leave. I've previously noticed from experiments that Google Maps and Navigate have good information on traffic density, and will pick the best route - it can offer me at least two different routes to work, for example. So I clipped the Galaxy Nexus into a windscreen mount and let it navigate me to the car park, and once out on the street, I used it to find the coffee shop. Shortly before the client meeting, it alerted us in time to walk there, and I used Evernote on the N7 to take conference notes - which I then emailed to my client.

It's the ability of Google Now to present information before you need it that is so radical. There's an article in MIT Technology Review that stresses this point (http://www.technologyreview.com/news/429345/googles-answer-to-siri-thinks-ahead/) as well as an interesting article on Google's Knowedge Graph (http://www.technologyreview.com/news/429442/google-puts-its-virtual-brain-technology-to-work/).

The Knowledge Graph lies behind some of Jelly Bean's other neat features. For example, while using it for navigation, I'd noticed that the voice prompts include information read from road signs - this is obtained from the Google Street View camera cars and integrated into Google's maps databases.

The other really neat Jelly Bean feature that depends upon the Knowledge Graph is voice search:


I haven't done a direct comparison with Siri on the iPhone, but I suspect she wouldn't come out of it too well.

Apart from these killer features, there are lots of other things to like about the Galaxy Nexus / Nexus 7 combination: transparent synchronization of all contacts, email, etc. It's not without problems - for example, each of my Google accounts contains my wife as a contact, with various different email addresses (because we're in each others' businesses and they're both now Google Apps domains), but Google also wants Google+ to become a central feature of the Google world - so my better half has wound up with multiple entries in my consolidated "People" app, and Gmail invariably picks the wrong email address when I start to type her name. However, it's rather cool to see someone's face, picked up from Google+, when they ring you.

I'm learning to love Google+, and I'm coming to agree with those who say that it's been a sleeper that is now rapidly growing to rival Facebook. I have very different circles on G+ compared to groups on FB, so there's no rivalry at this point. However, there's no doubt that the tight integration of Google+ with the other parts of the Google ecosystem and especially with the Android apps makes it far more functional than Facebook. For example, scheduling an event through Google+ puts it straight into the calendar, and on arrival at the event, it prompts to put the phone's camera into "party mode" in which every photo is automatically uploaded to the Google+ event page for sharing with the invitees.

Similarly, there's tight integration with Blogger/Blogspot, Youtube, etc. - all of which are supported on the Android devices. This does lead to one of the other sources of pain: getting your Gmail accounts sorted out. Both my wife and I had ordinary Gmail accounts, started before we'd migrated our business email to Google Apps. I'd started this blog using my old Gmail account, and she'd started her blog using her old Gmail account. Now, while I was easily able to add my new Gmail account to this blog and then take over administration - I want to do everything while signed in as me, myself and I, just one account - for some reason she ran into terrible trouble doing the same process. At one point, we thought she'd completely lost access to her blog - months of blog entries effectively lost - and we had to create yet another Gmail account for her as part of the transition. It was a tricky, nerve-wracking process, which leads to another major recomemendation:

Before you buy a Nexus device - phone or tablet - make sure that you get your Google accounts consolidated, rationalized and squared away, with everything running smoothly with one primary account you intend to use. Multiple accounts are certainly possible and useful - as I say, I have two business accounts and one university account - but you really want to have as much as possible consolidated to one primary account.

I do use the Nexus 7 for other things: I have the Kindle app for various books, especially textbooks, and I use Free42 and go41c as replacements for my trusty - but aging - Hewlett-Packard programmable calculators. I dabble on Twitter using Slices, and I shop on eBay using the official app.  I even use the Galaxy Nexus to talk to people, occasionally, but I have probably taken more photos than made calls, to date.

However, for most applications, it seems that most of my data - certainly, most of the data that organizes my life - has moved into the cloud. I access it via a conventional computer, or I access it via the tablet, or I access it via the phone - but in most cases, it seems that Google has it, and places it before me before I need it.

So, to answer the question: No, I don't think Androids dream - in fact, I'm not sure Androids even sleep.
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