C’mon, Google. You can do better.

I’m an Android nut, no question about it.

I have three Android phones sitting on my desk, three Android tablets floating around the house, and even a Cr-48 Chromebook. I’ve embraced the Google ecosystem, and nearly all of my digital data–from music to contacts to files to photos–resides on Google servers.

AndroidEmailAs a marketer, however, I take a critical eye to how Google articulates and presents their solutions. As Android has evolved over the years, I’ve also evolved from utter frustration to iOS envy to a feeling of superiority over all other mobile operating system users. And, as Google hired more designers and non-technical product and marketing staff, it was visibly evident in their products and their marketing materials. Android morphed from a collection of disjointed features to a cohesive and connected OS with a single and pervasive design theme.

Google’s apps also started to look more and more similar, giving users a common set of metaphors and visual reinforcement that all of Google’s myriad apps and services were, in fact, being built by the same company.

Then, I get an email…

As backstory, there have been many rumors about Google’s upcoming Android upgrade. I’ve been rabidly consuming any and all speculation over the past few weeks related to Android 4.4, as well as their poorly-hidden Nexus 5 phone.

What I didn’t expect–given how Google has really upped their marketing game–was the weak, ineffectual, and uninspired Android 4.4 launch announcement I discovered in my inbox this morning.


Take a look for yourself. It’s as if it were sent from 1998, via AOL, over a dial-up connection. What are my nits? Here we go:

  1. First impressions count, and this email is boring, drab and, dare I say, ugly. White, black, and, ugh, brown? Sure, there’s a tiny bit of green in the header, but, c’mon, you can’t look at this email and feel anything. I’ll bet anything that it was designed by someone with an engineering degree.
  2. It is all text, which is boring and un-engaging. Sure, Android developers like details, but it’s boring and gives me no real reason to want to read it. Visually, it’s a “wall of text,” as a former executive I worked for once said as he berated a presenting product manager and, turning to the remaining presenters, screamed, “If I see another wall of text, your presentation is over.” (It was then comical to see a dozen product managers flip open their laptops and scramble to edit their presentations, but only because I wasn’t presenting that day.)
  3. It wasn’t sent to just developers, so why does it look like it’s for engineers? According to the footer, I received this email because I “previously opted in to receiving emails with product updates, new features, newsletters, special offers and market research related to Android.” That means that average people (i.e. consumers) are getting this email.
  4. It’s too detailed. Sure, people want details, but that’s what websites are for. This email tries to straddle the line between giving a lot of info and teasing enough to get readers to click through. But the textual nature of it causes it to look long. And boring.
  5. The call to action is at the end. And below the fold. And barely apparent.
  6. The call to action only appears once. Nothing else in the body of this email–not the Android logo, not the KitKat, not the individual bullet headings–is linked. When you finally do go to Android.com, you see a modern, responsive, interactive page. Why couldn’t the “smarter caller ID” header link directly to that content on the website? That’s not hard to do, especially when you have thousands of smart engineers in your company.
  7. Why no imagery? The website features great photos of the new OS’s features, but why didn’t they use any in the email? And if they decided to use one and only one image, why use the KitKat? That conveys nothing to the reader about the email’s content, especially if they are not already familiar with Google’s OS version nicknames.

Rant, over.

My Month with Miui

I’ve had my beloved HTC Nexus One for about 18 months now.  When it comes to tech hardware, for me, that’s about 12 months longer than usual.  In fact, I was just reading about the new Kindle Fire and, as my gadget lust consumed me, I started to wonder if I have some sort of personality trait similar to drug addiction.  I have a Windows 7 laptop, an Ubuntu laptop, two Android phones, an iPhone 3G, an iPod Touch, an iPod Mini, a Google Cr-48 chromebook, and an HP TouchPad – not to mention the wife’s Kindle and iPad – and I still want the Kindle Fire! What’s up with that?

Windshield wipers on your HTC Sense phone!
Windshield wipers on an HTC Sense phone!

But I digress…

Back to the Nexus One. Over the past year and a half, I’ve gotten incredibly excited at every OS release, updating to Android 2.2 via OTA just to see how that worked, then manually updating to stock 2.3 to get the new UI. With each successive OS release, it’s the little things – whether with Android or iOS or Ubuntu or Windows – that get my curiosity going.  More than the speed or power increases, I’m interested in the “look” and the new functionality. What’s going to change the look? Is the font different? How are the icons designed? What are the sounds? Can I change the color of the blinking trackball light to correspond to different types of alerts? How cool is that animation that flashes the display to sleep like an old TV set?

Yes, I am a geek.

However, since Gingerbread/2.3 dropped in December, 2010, and other than some minor releases, it’s been a long dry spell for Android (phone) updates. What’s a geek to do? Sure, I’ve installed apps and themes that give me the look of HTC’s Sense, but that’s just in a few areas – like the awesomely cool flip-style digital clock and killer weather animations (oh yeah, the raindrops and windshield wipers are my fav, for sure!).  And, I changed my wallpaper pretty much weekly, going from Android’s cool “live wallpaper” to some of my own photos of local scenes to this awesome statue when I was on a bokeh kick. But those tweaks only satisfied me for so long.

The Unlock

I’ve always considered unlocking my phone, but never really wanted to devote the time to figure it out. The main driver was to try CyanogenMod, which is essentially a custom version of Android developed purely out of joy by a ‘Burgh dude, Cyanogen, and his community of developers. But I was always afraid of breaking something, bricking my phone, losing all of my data, or somehow making a mistake. Then, in a fit of boredom about a month ago, I took the plunge and, after about 20 minutes, had an unlocked Nexus One! It was an incredibly simple process and I can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner.

Miui Screens
Miui's refreshingly fresh look

With the phone unlocked, I now had the opportunity to “flash a custom ROM” onto the phone. CyanogenMod was the obvious choice, but I had been reading more and more about a Chinese company, Xiaomi, and their custom Android ROM, Miui. CyanogenMod looks very similar to stock Android and the team puts most of their effort into features and power, but Miui has taken a different approach and reskinned the entire UI. There’s very little in common with Android or even Sense. Sure, it’s the same 4×4 icon layout with a top notification bar and bottom button tray (same as every smartphone), but the “look” is entirely unique. All of the system-type apps, like the music player and text messaging, are new. Even better, Miui has fantastic support for themes, and better yet, you can cherry pick only the parts of themes that you like to create your own, totally custom theme. How cool is that?

The Flash

If the unlocking process was easy, the installation of Miui was just as painless. It took a few minutes and a couple of restarts and that was it. In my hands I held what was essentially an entirely new phone! Awesome! Of course, the downside was that, in my hands, I held an entirely new phone. I had to re-install all of my apps and reconnect with all of my social media services, but the process was pretty simple. In just 90 minutes or so, I was downright giddy! Over the next few days, I’m sure the wife became sick of watching me constantly play with my phone and, every few minutes, blurt out something like, “Oh cool! You gotta check this out!” She’s a good sport.

Some of the best improvements over stock Android are the capabilities of the Nexus One that Miui engages but that Android inexplicably ignores. It’s confusing especially since the “Nexus” phones are supposed to showcase all that Android can do. The FM radio is one example; it’s not accessible via Android at all. Multitouch is another. Why Google wouldn’t enable these features is beyond me, unless it has something to do with IP and lawsuits?

The Verdict

I’ll make it simple: Miui is awesome! I could go on for days on some of the best features, but here are a few of the key things that make it better than Android (and I won’t even compare it to iOS, which barely allows any user customizations at this level). It’s incredible to think of the amount of development that went into Miui, and that it’s FREE!

  • Unlock Screen:  Miui allows you to unlock directly into the dialer or messaging. The developers looked at the typically static unlock screen and asked themselves, “Why do people usually open their phones?” Obviously, it’s when they get an alert or they want to make a call. The unlock screen has three icons, a phone, lock, and message balloon. If you swipe on the phone icon, the phone unlocks into the dialer. It gets better by putting a number indicator to tell you how many unread texts or missed calls you have. Even better, if you press and hold on the message icon, it pops up the last few unread messages with no need to even unlock your phone! That’s amazingly helpful! If you’re listening to music, the unlock screen adds fwd/back and play/pause buttons so that you can quickly manage music without diving into your phone. This is invaluable when I’m running and listening to music on my phone.

    Miui's Unlock Screen
    Miui's unlock screen, showing the music controls (and graphics) plus the direct-to-app phone and message icons
  • Camera:  Miui speeds up the camera app’s opening so that you can take photos almost instantly. Then, they add dozens of new settings that Android ignores, like burst mode, effects, anti-shake, metering modes, and many more. You can even focus on specific areas of the image just by tapping that area. It also adds 720p video recording, for your high-def, memory-eating delight.
  • Toggles:  Stock Android offers a neat widget to toggle wifi, gps, sync, and brightness. Miui, again, goes much farther by putting 12 toggles into the swipe-down notification menu, making it accessible from any screen (unlike a widget, which lives on an individual screen). The “reboot” is an interesting toggle, and they even give you options for the type of reboot you wish to perform. Geeky, and I’ve never had to reboot my phone, but neat nonetheless.
  • Guest Mode:  An awesome feature that hides calls and texts and prevents apps from being deleted. Sure, it’s useful if you’re going to let someone else use your phone, but it’s killer for parents who want to let their kids play with their phones.
  • Themes:  I mentioned them earlier, but Miui themes are incredibly comprehensive and powerful, changing everything from fonts and sounds to icons and icon shapes, the look of the messaging interface, and the number of apps in the app tray. It’s incredible how they’ve implemented this to the point of essentially allowing anyone to create a theme and almost call it their own ROM. It’s that powerful.
  • Torch:  The Torch has to be the coolest app on Miui. I’m not sure if something similar is available elsewhere or in a downloadable app, but it’s brilliant! What does it do? From the lock screen, if you hold down the home key, your camera flash illuminates as a flashlight! It’s awesome for walking up dark stairs, finding your keys (or the keyhole), or not tripping and killing yourself in the dark.
  • Additional Fluff:  Pinching on any screen pops up a thumbnail of all screens, allowing you to quickly navigate to the desired screen or add new screens. App folders can create collections of apps within one button (yes, iOS has had this feature for a while…). There are eight screen transition options (when you’re swiping between screens), from 3D cube to rotate to page. You can add apps on up to 11 (maybe more?) screens, while Android limits it to 5. FTP, which allows you to copy files to/from your phone over wifi. The dialer shows a keypad plus the past four calls to quickly dial a recent caller. The battery icon can be made to show the exact percentage remaining, not just a simple, partially-empty icon. You can control, app by app, which can transfer data over wireless, wifi, or both, letting you specify, for example, that email can sync on wifi and wireless, but Netflix can only use wifi to save yourself from using all of your monthly data.

Bottom Line

I’m sure I’m forgetting a few things, but I think you get the drift. If you have an Android phone and want more control and a fresh UI, definitely give Miui a look. You’ll unlock your phone’s full potential and give yourself the chance to truly customize every aspect of your phone and make it your own. Honestly, it’s saved me a few hundred bucks from upgrading to an entirely new device. Sure, I’d love to have a bigger screen, and the N1’s “champagne” color is really cramping my style, but even in today’s lightning fast mobile phone world, my 18-month-old device is holding its own!

Get on it! I waited way too long, and now I’m looking forward to the day that I get tired of Miui (a few months, probably) and can give CyanogenMod a try. I’m sure the wife is excited for that as well…


Devinsupertramp’s Awesome Self-Promotion

I recently stumbled across the YouTube page for devinsupertramp and was struck by his very well-executed self-promotion and marketing – all without being hokey or narcissistic.  He has done a great job at creating a fun, interesting brand, putting his colorful video imagery at the forefront of the experience, and building a great relationship with fans.

First, let me tell you how I found this guy’s site.  Better yet, here’s the video that I saw (on Guy Kawasaki’s never-ending Alltop.com stream) marketing a neat jet pack from Jetlev – you gotta watch it! Seriously!

The quality, editing, soundtrack, and overall fun “vibe” of that video just blew me away – so much so that I’m now saving up the $99,500 to buy one of those for myself! 😉

I was also intrigued enough to check out the person who created the video, devinsupertramp.  What’s great is that his YouTube page is nearly a full-fledged website.  (Who knew that you could customize YouTube?  I guess, as a marketer, I should have known that…)  But just the feel of his site, colorful and fun, with a black background to focus the visitor’s attention on the images.  Plus, the funny face he’s making in his “portrait” speaks volumes:  he’s poking a little fun at himself which shows that he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but the photo gives the audience a good enough picture that he would be easy to recognize if you saw him.

Marketing, however, is only half of his story.  If the product didn’t measure up, the marketing would fall flat.  I’ll let you visit his page and watch the videos for yourself (definitely amp them up to HD quality!), but I have to say that they are incredible!  Again, a very fun vibe, and always with a warm, “bunch of friends” feeling to the cast of characters.  And the music choices are fantastic – fitting perfectly with each video’s feel.  I even downloaded the tune from The Beatards featured in the Jetlev video.

He puts a new video up every other Tuesday, and today’s Tahiti video is another great one, and has an original score to back it up.  Hit up his page to watch the video, or just check out his excerpt photos here.  Amazing images!

All of his videos are extremely well done, but if you only have a few minutes (after watching the Jetlev video, of course), be sure to also watch Waimea cliff jump, North Shore in Slow Motion, and the appropriately-named Huge Bike Jump into a Pond 35 feet in the air.

Bottom Line

The marketing around this “brand” is nearly perfect.  It has a feel, a personality, great interaction with fans, and a killer product to back it up.

Did I use the word “awesome” yet?  😉

You can follow devinsupertramp on Twitter or Facebook.

Good Design Should be a P-zero for All Marketers and Product Managers

I just read a wonderful post by Shawn Borsky at Six Revisions on why “craftsmanship” is critical to good web design.  He keys in on professional pride, which essentially defines craftsmanship, as the primary reasoning.  As I see it, anyone can slap some wood together to build something, but a real craftsman takes pride in his or her work, puts thought into the design and the execution, and strives for an elegant and functional finished product.

Early on, Borsky states, “If you do not take pride in your job, strive to build better value, and feel rewarded in your work, this article is not for you. The first step to being a better craftsman is care for your work no matter what it is.”  That’s a true statement regardless of your profession, but especially in technology where too many developers, product managers, and even marketers focus on the functionality with little thought given to the actual experience.  My recent post on “Marketing and Physics” calls out Google, but there are many, many more examples of good technology fronted by poor design.  Apple, on the other hand, is the reigning master at putting design ahead of technology, and has forced other tech companies to up their game tremendously across hardware, apps, and websites.  (More and more, HTC has matched or beat Apple at their own game.)

Borsky covers such minor, yet critical, points as naming and organization. It’s this focus on sweating the small stuff that really helps create a killer design.  Being diligent about alignment and symmetry – two of my many PowerPoint pet peeves – is as important as layout, graphics, and other “major” design elements.

I won’t spoil the whole story, so do yourself a favor and jump to Six Revisions to read the entire article.

(As for the “P-zero” in my title, it means an absolute must-have item in a list of priorities.  P1, for example, is first priority, P2 is second, and so on.  I learned of this early in my career as a Product Manager at Siebel Systems, where the engineering team considered P0’s as something we definitely wanted, P1’s as excuses to extend meetings, and everything P2 and beyond as complete wastes of time and not worthy of discussion.  Ah, those were good times! 😉 )