On Android Launchers

Usual disclaimer, that what I’m writing about is my own opinions, and not those of my employer, and so on.

I have a relationship that is probably best described as love/hate/hate with Android launchers, from the first Android phone I used — the Motorola Milestone, the European version of the Droid. I have been migrating to new launcher apps every year of two, sometimes because I got a new launcher with the firmware (I installed an unofficial CyanogenMod port on the Milestone at some point), or with a new phone (the HTC Desire HD at some point, which also got flashed with CyanogenMod), or simply because I got annoyed with one and try a different one.

I remember for a while I was actually very happy with HTC’s “skin”, which included the launcher, which came with beautiful alpha-blended widgets (a novelty at the time), but I replaced it with, I think, ADW Launcher (the version from the Android Market – what is now the Play Store – not what was on CyanogenMod at that point). I think this was the time when the system apps could not be upgraded via the Store/Market distribution. To make the transition smoother I even ended up looking for widget apps, including a couple of “pro” versions, but at the end of the day grew tired of those as well.

At some point, I think upon suggestion from a colleague, I jumped onto the Aviate launcher, which was unfortunately later bought by Yahoo!. As you can imagine, Yahoo!’s touch was not going to improve the launcher at all, to the point that one day I got annoyed enough I started looking into something else.

Of all the launchers, Aviate is probably the one that looked the most advanced, and I think it’s still one of the most interesting ideas: it had “contextual” pages, with configurable shortcuts and widgets, that could be triggered by time-of-day, or by location. This included the ability, for instance, to identify when you were in a restaurant and show FourSquare and TripAdvisor as the shortcuts.

I would love to have that feature again. Probably even more so now, as the apps I use are even more modal: some of them I only use at home (such as, well, Google Home, the Kodi remote, or Netflix), some of them nearly only on the go (Caffe Nero, Costa, Google Pay, …). Or maybe what I want is Google Now, which does not exist anymore, but let’s ignore that for now.

The other feature that I really liked about Aviate was that it introduced me to the feature that I’ll call jump-to-letter: the Aviate “app drawer” kept apps organised by letter, separated. Which meant you could just tap on the right border of your phone, and you would jump to the right letter. And having the ability to just go to N to open Netflix is pretty handy. Particularly when icons are all mostly the same except for maybe colour.

So when I migrated away from Aviate, I looked for another launcher with a similar jump-to-letter feature, and I ended up finding Action Launcher 3. This is probably the launcher I used the longest; I bought the yearly supporter IAP multiple times because I thought it deserved it.

I liked the idea of backporting the feature of what was originally the Google Now Launcher – nowadays known as the Pixel Launcher – that would allow using the new features announced by Google for their own phones on other phones already on the market. At some point, though, it started pushing the idea of sideloading an APK so that the launcher could also backport the actual Google Now page — it made me very wary and never installed it, it would have needed too many permissions. But it became too pushy when it started updating every week, replacing my default home page with its own widgets. That was too much.

At that point I looked around and found Microsoft Launcher, which was (and is) actually pretty good. While it includes integration for Microsoft services such as Cortana, they kept all the integration optional, so I did set it up with all the features disabled, and kept the stylish launcher instead. With jump-to-letter, and Bing’s lovely daily wallpapers, which are terrific, particularly when they are topical.

It was fairly lightweight, while having useful features, including the ability to hide apps from the drawer, including those that can’t be uninstalled from the phone, or that have an app icon for no reason, such as SwiftKey and Gboard, or many “Pro” license key apps that only launch the primary app.

Unfortunately last month something started going wrong, either because of a beta release or something else, and the Launcher started annoying me. Sometimes I would tap the Home button, and the Launcher would show up with no icons and no dock, the only thing I could do was to go to the Apps settings and force stop it. It also started failing to draw the AIX Weather Widget, which is the only widget I usually have on my personal phone (the work phone has the Calendar on it). I gave up, despite one of the Microsoft folks contacting me on Twitter asking for further details so that they can track down the issues.

I decided to reconsider the previous launchers I used, but I skipped over both Action Launcher (too soon to reconsider I guess) and Aviate (given the current news between Flickr and Tumblr, I’m not sure I trust them — and I didn’t even check to make sure it still is maintained). Instead I went for Nova Launcher, which I used before. It seems to be fairly straightforward, although it lacks the jump-to-letter feature. It worked well enough when I installed it, and it’s very responsive. So I went for that for now. I might reconsider more of them later.

One thing that I noticed, that all three of Action Launcher, Microsoft Launcher, and Nova Launcher do, is to allow you to back up your launcher configuration. But none of them do it through the normal Android backup system, like WhatsApp or Viber. Instead they let you export a configuration file you can reload. I guess it might be so you can copy your home screen from one phone to the other, but… I don’t know, I find it strange.

In any case, if you have suggestions for the best Android launcher, I’m happy to hear them. I’m not set on my way with Nova Launcher, and I’m happy to pay a reasonable amount (up to £10 I would say) for a “Pro” launcher, because I know it’s not cheap to build them. And if any of you know of any “modal” launcher that would allow me to change the primary home screen depending on whether I’m home or not (I don’t particularly need the detail that Aviate used to provide), I would be particularly happy.

Diabetes control and its tech, take 2: panic buttons

So as I said in my previous post calling my diabetes problem is not really a type 2. According to the specialist I went to see this week, it’s actually much more similar to type 1, but it’s neither, and is strictly related to my pancreatitis.

Anyway the doctor put me on insulin (which I was actually expecting); this is no big deal, even though my mother started fretting as soon as she heard of it (why do I still keep her up to date? I really shouldn’t, at this point). I mean, there are kids out there managing their own insulin injection, why should I be worried about this? And it’s not like I’m scared of needles at this point.

But of course, they had to warn me about the dangers of hypoglycemia (also known as low blood sugars), and how to treat it. Since I live alone, they were even more concerned: in the (remote, given my blood sugars) chance I would have an episode of hypoglycemia, I have to rely on somebody actually checking on me. During the week it’s easy: I work at an office, so I asked my colleagues, if I don’t arrive and I’m not answering to please check on me. But what about the weekends? What about bank holidays and vacations?

Well, I started looking for an app for android to do that as that seemed to be the obvious solution to the problem. Unfortunately, I could not find anything that fits the bill as intended for me. The main problem is that most “dead man’s triggers” apps (some of which are named this way or variants thereof, are designed for a different situation: they are designed to get rid of the data on your phone if you either died or your phone got stolen or got lost, which means they got features such as password protection and wiping, but they don’t have a “call with a pre-recorded message” feature which would be much more useful to me.

Indeed, what I’m looking for is:

  • scheduler: I don’t want to have to ack the trigger during the night;
  • list of randomly-selected people to text or call;
  • ability for the person that has been called to ack/nack the request (so that somebody else can be contacted if, say, the contact is away from the city);
  • an escalation procedure so that if nobody can be reached to reach to me (and I still haven’t answered the trigger, which should keep ringing), an absolute emergency contact can be defined — in my case that would be my employer’s security office;
  • a way to provide a quick broadcast of the location of the phone, so that if I’m not home somebody can actually find me.

If I don’t quickly find a solution to this I might as well just decide to write my own, but I’d rather avoid that since I have barely the time to live, lately.

Artificial Regions

I’m writing this while waiting to go to the office, I’ll probably finish the post over the hours that I have to spare waiting for my tasks to complete. I’m still in Los Angeles and very happy to be.

We’re all pretty used to the artificial region limitations that Big Content force us to deal with: DVD and BluRay both have region-coding, the former actually having two region codings (a Japanese DVD would be Region 2 and NTSC, whereas Europe is under Region 2 but PAL). We’re also grown used to, although unhappy about, content store being limited by the country you live in — which is why many people, me included, wondered if Google forgot that a world exists outside of the US, as the recent rename of Android Market to Google Play Store forgets that their Music offering is limited to the United States.

But sometimes regionality comes to ludicrous levels. As I’ve said before I’m spending some time in the US, near Los Angeles, for work reasoons. The office I work in is just a staircase away from a Starbucks shop and I’m very happy about it since I love their coffee. My customer/employer also gave me the first day a Starbucks Card to use, and yesterday, after some time, I went to register it online… let’s ignore the fact that you can’t register it without an US address (since I sorta have one now, one could say).

If I want to charge the card in-store, my European MasterCard works just fine, although the Visa refuses, as usual, to work without CAP. If I go online, I can use my Italian Visa as well just fine. If I try to use PayPal, though, the website refuses the transaction because it only works with US-based account. Wha?

Okay nevermind, I register the card, fill in the form (and I’m now waiting to reach Gold status — I should be able to go there before leaving the US!), and see they have an Android application. Nice, so I don’t even have to get my wallet out.. but where is it?

From the Play Store (sigh!) I can’t find it; from the Starbucks website I can get to the web version of the store which tells me that none of my devices are compatible. And it’s not a matter of software version)

Indeed, since today I received a local AT&T SIM to use on my phone, I noticed the change: it was enough to have the phone report an American contract, and the region is unlocked for me, including, it seems, the Starbucks application that as of yesterday I was ineligible to use. Logical!

What’s next? I’ll enter a shoe shop and they’ll tell me that they can’t sold me Nike shoes (or anything else) because I’m not a permanent resident?

In all fairness

I know that Apple got a lot of hate from Free Software developers (and not) for the way they handle their App Store, mostly regarding the difficulty to actually get application approved. I sincerely have no direct experience on the thing, but if I apply what I learnt from Gentoo, the time they might take to get the applications approved sounds quite about right for a thorough verification.

Google on the other hand, was said to take much less time, but by personal experience to search for content on the Android Market, I can only find DVD Jon’s post quite on the line. There are a number of applications that are, if not entirely, on the verge of frauds, that got easily approved.

On the other hand, as soon as Google was found to add to the Froyo terms of services the fact that they reserve the option of remotely killing an application, tons of users cried foul. Just like they did for Apple, that also has the same capability and has been exercising it for applications that were later found not to agree with their terms of services.

*A note here: you might not like the way Apple insists on telling you what you should or should not use. I understand it pretty well, and that’s one of the reasons why I don’t use an iPhone. On the other hand, I don’t think you can say that Apple is doing something evil by doing so. Their platform, their choice; get a different platform for a different choice.*

So there are a number of people who think that Apple’s policy in reviewing application is evil (and Google’s allowing possible frauds is a-ok), and in both cases, the remote killswitch is something nasty and a way for them to censor the content for whatever evil plan they have. That points a black light on both of them, doesn’t it? But Mozilla should be fine, shouldn’t it?

I was sincerely wondering what those people who always find a way to despise “big companies” like Apple and Google at the same time, asking their users to choose “freer” alternatives (often times with worse problems) would think while I was reading Netcraft’s report of the malware addon found on the Mozilla index.

I quote: “Mozilla will be automatically disabling the add-on for anyone who has downloaded and installed it.” So Mozilla has a remote killswitch for extensions? Or how are they achieving this?

And again: “[Mozilla] are currently working on a new security model that will require all add-ons to be code-reviewed before becoming discoverable on addons.mozilla.org.” Which means they are going to do the same thing that Apple and Google already do (we’ll have to wait and see to find out to which degree).

Before people misunderstand me: I have nothing against Mozilla and I think they are on the right track here. I would actually hope for Google to tighten their approval process, even if that means much longer turnaround for new applications to be available. As an user, I’d find it much more reassuring than what we have right now (why half the demo/free versions of various apps want to access my personal data, hmm?).

What I’m trying to say here, is that we should really stop crying foul for any choice that Apple (or Microsoft, or Sony, or whoever) makes, they might have quite good reasons to do so, and we might actually follow their steps (like Mozilla appears to be going to do).