Thinking about my tech ecosystem again

This past week was the WWDC conference, held every year by Apple to tout its newest features that will be making their way into their operating systems. This year, for the first time in a while, it felt like Apple had its ‘mojo’ back.

A couple of the announcements have me thinking about my ecosystem again. A few years ago I started moving all of my things into the Google ecosystem. Google Docs and Gmail were taking the world by storm and jumping on board seemed like the place to be. I was able to access my documents from any web browser, and I didn’t think twice about what it meant to participate in this new world that Google was creating.

I also jumped on board with a Chromebook, and for a reasonable price had a portable computing device that could easily access this new world. I eventually retired my Chromebook, due to age, and went back to a MacBook. Before I had gotten my Chomebook I had made my first attempt to make my iPad a fully fledged computing device. I tried to weave together a bunch of different apps to create a desktop-like experience, but it just wasn’t there yet.

Over time a lot of different apps have come to the iPad, including dedicated apps for Google Docs, Microsoft Office, and Apple’s iWork suite. These have helped to fill a huge gap in the productivity arena, and this past week Apple showed off their newest creation, a dedicated iPadOS. This operating system takes iOS and expands it to create a more robust, laptop like experience on the iPad. It was a bold move by Apple, if for no other reason than they had been resisting it in the past. This recent keynote showed that they’re finally acknowledging that people need a bit more power that allows them to go beyond the Apple paradigm of how to get work done.

With the inclusion of real file access, better text manipulation, and a much needed boost to Safari, I feel like I could actually use an iPad as my main mobile working device. Especially since there are now iPads in the $329 range that I could pop a ruggedized bluetooth keyboard and case on, and feel comfortable biking and camping with.

The next thing that’s got me thinking more and more about getting out of the Google ecosystem is the continued drumbeat of the past couple of years around the technology society that we’re living in. For so many products on the market, the actual “thing” for sale is not the device, but the user of that device. From Google’s “free” services, to Roku streaming services, everyone seems interested in knowing everything about me so that they can convince me to buy whatever they want. Apple drove this point home with its announcement of their new login service, “Sign in with Apple” that allows you to sign in to websites using your Apple ID instead of Google or Facebook. Apple has stepped up to promise that they won’t sell your data, and are even taking steps to help you obfuscate your email address from apps.

People sometimes complain that Apple devices are just too dang expensive, especially compared to other devices. There is certainly some truth to this, and they opt to go for the premium side of the market, but at the same time, Apple has chosen to make their business more about the hardware that you buy up front (along with the services direct cost), and less about selling the data around who is using the device. That means that they can’t subsidize their hardware through advertising revenue, and hopefully it stays that way. My wife and I had a conversation just the other day about this, and she commented that perhaps Apple should lean more into this in their messaging to consumers. It might draw in more people who are simply done with the way that companies have been using their users.

All of this is to say that I’m thinking of going back more deeply into the Apple ecosystem, and moving more away from Google. It might spur the purchase of a new device or two, and most certainly would influence the choices I make around the services that I use. I’m not decided on anything yet, but its quite a bit of food for thought.

Why can’t Google make up their mind?

I’m a big user of Google Services. I’ve loved Google Docs since it first launched, and use it all the time for both personal and professional things. I’ve also been a long time user of Google’s instant messaging ecosystem including GTalk, Hangouts, and Allo (briefly). On top of all of that I also use Google Play Music as our family music subscription service.

Anyone who’s familiar with Google’s product history knows that they often try things, and then change their mind and move on to something else. Google+ was supposed to be the new Facebook competitor. Hangouts was the new GTalk. Docs became Drive, and so on and so on. Google’s IM application history is a convoluted story, and a complete mess that still isn’t resolved. Right now we’re all waiting in anticipation for their new “Chat” app that will come pretty close to being an iMessage clone for Android, as well as the ability to use it on the web.

The big news of today though is their music subscription service. Google has now launched YouTube Music, which is targeted directly at players like Spotify. It’s a music subscription service that allows you to play music on demand, as well as take advantage of deep playlists to help you find new music. It’s basically a small enhancement of their existing Google Play Music service. But instead of just improving Google Play Music, they’ve created yet another new product that directly competes with their older product.

Thankfully, existing Google Play Music subscribers get a free subscription to YouTube Music, but it begs the question, “How long till Google kills Play Music?” There’s not a lot of point in Google having two music subscription services, so eventually they’ll most likely go down to one. Since YouTube is the hot new kid on the block, it probably means that eventually all of us Google Play Music people will just end up having to change which app we’re using and move over to YouTube Music. That’s not the end of the world, but it’s annoying.

Google just can’t seem to keep it’s eye on any one thing for a long time. It’s like a kid with Asperger’s who has a new favorite TV show that they’re TOTALLY in to every week. Something new and shiny comes along and they decide to change everything, sometimes for what seems like the sake of change. It’s this type of stuff that makes me wonder why I bother trying Google services. Maybe I should have just gone to Spotify or Amazon and be done with it. Thankfully I don’t need to make any decisions right away, but come on Google, let’s get it together.

Apple’s Education Event

Yesterday I took the time to watch the live blog of Apple’s “Field Trip” education event. Apple in education has been something that has been near and dear to me since my childhood. The very first computers I worked with were Apple IIe computers in our computer lab. I was even lucky enough to have a teacher-aide in the family who was able to bring one home for me over the summer for me to work with. Although my first computer that I owned was a Commodore 64, the Apple line was always present in my educational settings.

However, in recent years Apple has been getting it’s butt handed to it by Google in the education space. Specifically, the advent of the Chromebook and it’s associated Google services. Google took their model of cheap computers that can access web based applications, and brought it to schools that were suffering from lack of funds to keep expensive Mac computers refreshed. Google’s GSuite is a robust set of tools that allows for all sorts of productivity, and isn’t dependent on any specific piece of hardware from any specific manufacture. This is a perfect situation for schools that are often strapped for cash, and for system administrators. Google’s user-based design means that devices can be passed around from student to student, and everyone’s content stays with them, no matter which device they’re on.

Apple is still married to the old way of doing things, with documents stored locally and then sync’d to the cloud. Despite Apple’s best attempts at web based versions of their productivity suite, the best experience is still the locally installed fat clients on either a Mac or an iPad. This means that you’re tied to an expensive Apple device to use these services to the best of their ability. There is one area though that Apple shines… content creation.

Apple and MacOS/iOS have always been the king of creative digital creation. Ever since the first iMovie and Garageband apps hit the scene, they have ruled this lower-to-middle end of the creator space. Apple still has to compete in the high-end, professional market, but for the regular guy/gal, tools like iMovie and GarageBand are more than adequate to create amazing content, quickly and easily. This also applies to students who need nice and easy tools to learn and create things for school and for their budding creative endeavors. This type of simple creation just too hard to accomplish on a Chromebook, and get the same level of results.

Where I think many schools are landing is with a hybrid approach. They have dozens of Chromebooks lying around for students to do writing and create presentations. But then for creative content creations, such as music or video, they have a few Mac’s that students can use for those purposes. This is what one of my son’s school’s does, and it seems to work really well. The kids are able to move between the devices just fine and context switching just seems natural for them.

I feel bad that Apple has lost their lead in the education field, but they got beat fair and square by Google, who offers a better solution for cash and resource strapped schools. However, if they keep their focus on creativity, and things that simply can’t be done on the web, they still can have an important role in schools for a long, long time.

Am I an Apple guy anymore?

Recently, I’ve been starting to question how much of an Apple guy I am. Those who know me, know that I’ve been an Apple fan boy since the late 1990s when I was running OS 7.x on a clone Power Computing machine. The evolution of Macs to OS X was a tremendously welcome change for me, especially since I am an old Unix geek at heart. The ability to have a full CLI shell for power work, and still have a nice GUI for daily putzing was a dream come true. I even converted my friend Wes from Linux to Apple over a decade ago.

When the iPhone came out I waited for a while, mainly because it wasn’t on a carrier I wanted to work with. Eventually though I joined the ranks of happy iPhone 4 users on Verizon and have been an iPhone user ever since. Before this I had spent a bit of time on Android and webOS (Palm), and although they were good platforms, iOS had them beat hands down. Perhaps the biggest advantage that Apple had was it’s ecosystem. At the time, iTunes and the Apple store were fresh and innovative, and no one had anything that came close. The Google Play store was mediocre, and even Google Docs was still mostly rudimentary.

Fast forward to 2017 and when I look at the tools I use, everything is Google. Ever since Google Play Music came out with an unlimited family subscription plan, I haven’t loaded up iTunes. I use Google Docs for just about everything productivity wise, and on my iPhone my primary clients are Gmail and Chrome. So, am I really even using the Apple ecosystem anymore at all?

I know a part of this has to do with the fact that I live in a mixed household where some people use Android and others have iPhones. This means that collaboration moves over to the most supported tools on both platforms, which means Google. But when I really look at the ecosystems, I have to admit that Google really has Apple beat when it comes to many of the things I use it for. The email client is smoother, the productivity apps are fully web enabled and robust, and the media ecosystem is at least on par with what others offer.

When you toss in the fact that for many years my laptop was a simple Chromebook, which I still use regularly, and I have to wonder if I really have anything keeping me with Apple. Most likely my desktop will always be Apple, since I can’t get the photo tools that I need elsewhere (and no, I’m not going Windows), but perhaps it’s time to delve into the Pixel realm for my phone, and look at upgrading my Chromebook to something a bit newer and more powerful. Maybe it’s time to just admit that I really don’t use Apple for all the things that I used to. Maybe it’s time to make the leap…

So about that Google stuff

This past week Google had their big event to unveil a bunch of new hardware. Slowly but surely Google has been catching up to Apple (along with Microsoft and Samsung) and producing high end hardware that highlights their software in the most ideal way possible. This is an area where Apple has had an advantage for decades. They produce hardware and software that is custom fit for one another. Android has always suffered from fragmentation, and a bit too much openness.

Google has entered the hardware market in small ways before, but with the advent of last year’s Google Pixel, it feels like they’re doubling down. This year they proved that they’re here to stay, showing off a bunch of new devices, a couple of which are very intriguing to me.

First up, the Pixel 2. This is a new iteration of their highly successful phone from last year. They’ve continued to evolve over last year’s model with better performance, and most importantly continued improvements to the camera. A bunch of reviews I’ve seen have said that they were disappointed by the lack of design innovation. However, I feel this is a red herring. Almost everyone I know puts their phone in some form of a case for protection. When you’re spending $500+ on a phone, you protect it. Many of these cases change the design aesthetic of the phone anyway, so the fact that Google didn’t bother to creating something groundbreaking with curved edges means very little to me. Overall, the Pixel 2 looks like a great phone.

Google also announced the Pixelbook. This is its entry into the high end Chromebook market, and wow, does it look amazing. It’s got top of the line specs, and all of the bells and whistles of a nice Macbook. I’m anxious to see one in person and see if the screen and keyboard are as beautiful as they make them out to be. This is also one of the few Chromebooks that has a backlit keyboard, one of my personal needs.

The home automation revolution was also on display in the Google Home Mini and Max. I’ve never really thought much about getting a product like this, except recently I’ve noticed how often I’m talking to my phone to set timers and look things up. Evolving to a home assistant seems to be a natural progression. Something like the Mini might be a good foray into this arena to see if it’s something I would want to keep using.

The new Google camera has very little interest to me, but I could see how some people might like it. Google also unveiled a pen for the Pixelbook, which might be cool, but I’m not a huge pen-on-tablet user. There was a handful of other devices, but the ones above were the ones that interested me the most. I have no idea if any of these will actually find their way into my house, but I’m getting more and more intrigued by Google’s offerings. They give me a lot to ponder on the technology side of things…