Polyecosystamory

· 4 minute read

Around the time of Apple and Google’s maps-induced falling out, there seemed to be a common consumer-tech refrain around how the best theoretical experience would be comprised of Apple hardware tightly integrated with both Google’s software and Amazon’s content, and how much of a shame it was that this would almost certainly never come to fruition. Instead, it felt wasteful that all three companies were directly competing with one another on so many different fronts instead of each just doing what they do best.

This was a simplistic and misguied viewpoint, however – it’s precisely because such fervent competition exists that these companies and so many others have been pushed to build their best-in-breed products: Kindle is better because of iBooks, Spotify is better because of Apple Music, and iOS is better because of Android. This list goes on and on and on.

Today, such competition exists across far more vectors than in 2012. In 2018, we not only choose a type of smartphone to purchase, but which voice assistant we’ll talk to, which services we’ll stream our music and videos from, and which smart devices we’ll outfit our homes with. Such choices can be paralysis-inducing, and as such it’s hard to blame one for choosing to:

  1. Commit solely to either Google, Apple, or Amazon
  2. Commit to nothing, abstaining from adopting too many new devices and services until an indeterminate time in the future when it’s more obvious what the “best” setup will be

I’m here to tell you that these aren’t the only options, and that ecosystem polyamory can actually work quite well in practice. Just as the lack of deep Google and Amazon integrations on iOS hasn’t stopped most of us from using the Google Maps and Kindle apps on our iPhones, mixing and matching devices and services from different vendors can be a completely viable strategy depending on your particular home and familial needs. Of course, there are downsides – heterogeneous setups are more complicated, redundant, and inconsistent – but what you lose in simplicity, you gain in flexibility and optionality. And I hate to break it to you, but there’s likely never going to be a “best” setup much like how Google’s services are likely never going to integrate with iOS as deeply as Apple’s.

My wife and I have an Apple TV, which we can AirPlay to from our devices or use the Apple TV iOS app as a remote control. We have Sonos speakers for both TV audio and music, because Sonos provides far more hardware options than Apple does. We have Lutron Caseta lightswitches which are both HomeKit and Alexa-compatible, meaning they can be controlled from iOS, Siri, our Sonos Ones, or our Echo Dots. We use Apple Music primarily, but could switch to Spotify at some point. Spotify has better Sonos integration1 and Alexa support2, but doesn’t work as well with the Apple Watch. When we occasionally ask Alexa to play music, it uses the free tier of Amazon’s Prime music service. Occasionally this won’t include something that Apple Music does, but it’s somewhat rare and just one of the tradeoffs.

We subscribe to YouTube TV, which can be played either through an Apple TV app, or by casting directly from the YouTube TV iOS app. The latter requires your TV to have Cast support, but it’s easy to buy a cheap Chromecast device to add to a TV that doesn’t already come with it built-in. We could at some point replace our Echo Dots with Google Home Minis, which would allow us control YouTube TV via voice as well (Google Home already integrates with Lutron switches, and Sonos support is on the way).

If this setup sounds like it‘s continually evolving, it is, because consumer technology as a whole always is.

All of these companies – Apple, Amazon, Google, Sonos, Spotify, etc. – will continue to push forward on these fronts. As such, despite the landscape perhaps feeling devoid of clear answers today, I can’t personally foresee a “winning ecosystem“ coming into focus anytime soon. Waiting for this to happen will likely mean indefinitely depriving yourself of products that may otherwise meet a need today.

If there’s a single ecosystem that suits you, all the better. But if not, I wouldn’t be afraid to mix and match, especially if doing so will allow you to solve a problem that may never be solved by waiting.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

  1. You can use the Spotify app instead of either using the Sonos app or AirPlaying. 

  2. You can’t play Apple Music through Alexa. 

Suite and sour

· 3 minute read

(After trying to shine on a light on some inconsistencies of Apple’s doing, it seems only fair to give Google the same treatment.)

Like most of you (I presume), I’ve used Gmail for many years. In an industry where products can too often feel fleeting or unreliable, I can’t remember a time when I previously felt the need to question this decision.

My email addresses uses a custom domain (e.g. you@yourdomain.com). The only way to accomplish this while using Gmail is to create what Google calls a G Suite account1. Despite clearly being meant for businesses, Google’s marketing materials don’t really give a reason as to why you shouldn’t use G Suite for personal email.

What is the difference between G Suite and Google’s free apps? With G Suite, you’ll receive a number of additional business-grade services not included with Google’s free consumer apps. These services include: custom business email @yourcompany, twice the amount of cloud storage across Gmail and Drive, 24/7 phone and email support, 99.9% guaranteed uptime on business email, interoperability with Microsoft Outlook, additional security options like two-step authentication and SSO, and administrative controls for user accounts.

Sounds great! And in practice, everything will mostly just work the way that you’d expect it to, until it doesn’t, and you hit one of G Suite’s many inexplicable limitations.

In this particular case, I was trying out YouTube TV and was surprised to learn that I couldn’t invite my wife unless I first switched to using a regular Gmail account. This wasn’t a huge inconvenience: I do have a regular account, I don’t particularly care which of the two is associated with YouTube TV, and I hadn’t thus far invested much time into setting YouTube TV up. But this could’ve very easily been quite painful. And what else can’t G Suite accounts do?

One such answer was have their email and calendar made accessible to Google Home – presumably, one of that device’s biggest selling points.

This was eventually fixed, but this trend still strikes me as fairly troubling. Imagine spending years investing in Google’s ecosystem only to learn that your account is a second-class citizen because you decided quite some time ago that you wanted to use a custom domain for your email. In the case of Google Home, you could’ve potentially worked around email access specifically by setting up forwarding rules2, but other products (e.g. Google Calendar) lack such forwarding mechanisms3. It’s great that this particular limitation seems to have only been temporary, but what will the next (seemingly arbitrary) limitation be, and will that one ever be remedied? Being sufficiently dug-into G Suite, I can’t help but feel pretty stuck.

As two of Google’s newest products, you’d think that Google Home and YouTube TV would be encumbered by comparatively few legacy restrictions. If G Suite accounts aren’t a priority today, it’s hard to feel confident that they’ll be adequately supported in the future.

Google should remove these restrictions from G Suite accounts, such that anyone already using a custom domain for personal email can do so without any roadblocks. Additionally, if Google really wants G Suite accounts to be for business purposes only, they should make it such that regular Gmail accounts can support custom domains, and improve their marketing copy to make all of this abundantly clear before anyone makes the wrong decision as to where their data should reside.

Thanks to Brian Donohue for providing feedback on this post.

  1. Formerly known as a “Google Apps” 

  2. Export all of your existing email, import it into a regular Gmail account, set up email forwarding from the G Suite account to the regular account, ad nauseam. Don’t get me wrong, this would be a massive headache, but it at least seems theoretically doable. 

  3. To my knowledge. I haven’t researched this extensively. 

An aspirational home screen for 2018

· 3 minute read

It’s1 the start of a new year, and thus a good opportunity to think about how the next 365 days can improve upon their predecessors. I’ve spent a inordinate amount of time in recent months considering how the software in my life can can be more of a means and less of an end, and as such have am starting 2018 with the following:

For many years, my home screen reflected the apps that I used the most, a self-fulfilling prophecy if there ever was one. I used Tweetbot so much that it seemed to very obviously deserve a spot in my dock, guaranteeing that I’d continue to use it a ton without considering whether or not that was actually the intention. Instead, I’m now trying what I hope will be prescriptive of the habits I want to engrain2 – most of them offline as opposed to online – rather than descriptive of my status quo.

Tweetbot hasn’t only been removed from my dock and home screen3, but from my phone altogether. I first replaced it with the official Twitter app, an app that I find less enjoyable to the point where I figured it’d help me kick the habit, but it didn’t, and as such Twitter is also gone (in favor of Nuzzel and TwiM4). Same with email; once badged and in the dock, but now buried in a folder without any such adornments or permissions.

I have a real love-hate relationship with Twitter. It has – at times – brought me immense joy, knowledge, and offline friendships that I value dearly to this day. I truly consider it to be my most important professional network. Conversely, I’ve found it to be a time-suck that I’m drawn to like no other. And it’s important to me that I change that.

The blessing and curse of the modern mobile operating system – depending on your self-control – is that your phone can take on any form you’d like: a machine for Twitter and games, a tool that encourages an active and present lifestyle, or in most cases, something in between. Without a right answer, the best that I think you can do is to make sure that you’re consciously deciding.

  1. Well, it was. 

  2. Meditation being perhaps the boldest example of this. I’ve not meditated prior to this year, and don’t necessarily intend to make it a regular part of my routine. But I know I want to do it more than I have in the past, and putting it front and center is the best way I can think of to accomplish that. Even if only on occasion. 

  3. Please don’t misunderstand this as anything but the most effusive of praise for Tweetbot, both as a longtime customer but also as a software developer who very frequently finds their mastery of the craft maddeningly jealousy-producing. 

  4. I still use Mobile Safari to visit twitter.com more often than I wish I did, but it’s an improvement that I’ll take for now.