Don Norman Weighs in on Mobile Design and Usability

Mobile Design and UsabilityGetting to pick an expert’s brain is always exciting and insightful. We do it on a monthly basis on the uTest Software Testing Blog as part of our Testing the Limits series (this month we spoke to four experts – the board members of the newly founded International Society for Software Testing). Recently the folks over at GigaOm got to sit down with design guru Don Norman.

The man who wrote “the bible for design thinking and technology” and went so far as to say that bad design is downright dangerous has some interesting things to say about today’s technology and design. Here’s a snippet of the GigaOm interview:

Android. I think that the Android phones and Apple iOS phones are remarkably similar. There’s very little difference. The main difference is what religion you subscribe to: Do you subscribe to the religion of Apple or the religion of Google? Actually, I think Android in many ways is a copy of the Apple iPhone.

Apple has always exerted tremendous control over what you can do with their products. They control the hardware and the software and they are restrictive about the kind of apps that can run on it. Apple developers have a horrible time because they submit their app to Apple, Apple takes a long time and says ‘no,’ and it’s hard to figure out why they said ‘no.’

I don’t use the Apple phones because I don’t like the restrictive dictatorial policies Apple has instituted, so I went to Android because it’s more open. As a result of the openness, though, there’s a bit more chaos. Different apps work in different ways and are maybe not as reliable, but I still prefer the openness of Android. The truth is I use an iPad and I use an (iPod) Touch and I use an Android phone. But they’re all the same.

And just to get your a bit more worked up, here’s Don’s response when asked about Windows Phone:

I think Microsoft has sort of been left out of this battle. People forget they exist. I think that the Windows 8 for phones is really a better system than either the iPhone or the Android. I’m very impressed with what Microsoft has done. It’ll take them a few tries to get it right. Now it’s on version 2 — and version 3 is always Microsoft’s hotspot. And I think the new Surface tablets and new phones — they did not copy Android, they did not copy iPhone. They started over again. They understand discoverability. They understand some of these design principles and they use them.

There’s a lot more to this great interview discussing design and mobile (and a few other things). Be sure to read the whole thing at GigaOM >>>

Android Fragmentation in Pictures

Time for your regular reminder that the Android world is giant and extremely fragmented! Open Signal put out a great visual looking at Android fragmentation in July, and compared it to last year’s landscape. Here are a few stats to warm you up:

  • 11,868 distinct Android devices seen in 2013
  • 3,997 distinct Android devices seen in 2012
  • 8 Android OS versions currently in use
  • 47.5% of devices are Samsungs
  • 37.9% of users are running Jelly Bean

Now, here’s the actual visual Open Signal produced to represent the Android device ecosystem in 2013:

Android Device Fragmentation

For more information and graphics, visit Open Signal >>>

Forget about housing all those devices in a lab (never-mind all eight OS version still in use), let in-the-wild testing help you cover the Android matrix.

Unity Developers: Read This Before Launching Your Next App

Unity_3D_logo-300x165About a year ago, the wicked smart dev team over at uTest launched Apphance – a mobile app quality tool that makes it easy for developers to understand how their apps are working across a wide range of mobile devices, carriers and locations. At the time of launch, the tool supported developers working on The Big 3 operating systems: iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Last week, uTest announced that is was supporting the next big platform: Unity.

If you’re a Unity developer who’s targeting your apps for iOS or Android and want to try Apphance right now, you can get started by creating a free Apphance account and reviewing the installation instructions for adding Apphance to your Unity app. The installation process is simple, and an experienced Unity developer should be able to have everything working in around 30 minutes to an hour.

Unity is an incredibly popular cross-platform game engine, allowing developers to write their apps once and deploy them on a number of different game systems. With more than 2 million developers who have collectively submitted over 1,500 apps to the Apple App Store alone, Unity has become a major force in the development world. We’re incredibly excited to bring Apphance to this community and offer them a great tool that simplifies testing their apps while making it easy to monitor issues affecting their actual customers.

Want to learn more?

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Infographic: Google Play vs. The App Store

There is no shortage of comparisons between the two rival app stores (Google and Apple, in case you were wondering). There are detailed reports, with fancy charts and graphs. There are articles, blog posts and interviews. There’s also tools like Applause. Hmmm, what am I missing? Ah yes, infographics! Here’s a great infographic courtesy of Kinvey on the “uncommon comparisons of the App Store vs. Google Play.”




Attention Mobile App Testers: Big Tablet News

TabletsA few interesting stories broke recently in the world of tablet manufacturers.

Barnes & Noble announced that they will no longer produce the Nook Tablet in-house. Sinking sales numbers have lead the company to stick with the e-reader, but ditch the fully loaded tablet – for now. B&N reported plans to partner with an outside manufacturer to continue the Nook tablet line but no details have been released. From paidContent:

In an attempt to stanch the bleeding, B&N said it will create “a partnership model for manufacturing” those tablets, while continuing to develop e-ink readers in-house. “The company’s tablet line will be co-branded with yet to be announced third party manufacturers of consumer electronics products,” the company said. …

Barnes & Noble says it will keep selling Nook tablets through the holiday season, will keep building its digital content catalog and will keep focusing on e-readers. “We plan to continue to innovate in the single purpose black-and-white e-reader category,” CEO William Lynch said in a statement, “and the underpinning of our strategy remains the same today as it has since we first entered the digital market, which is to offer customers any digital book, magazine or newspaper, on any device.”

Though the tablets will still be sold for a few months, and people who already own one will obviously keep using it, developers may pull away from testing on the device. It will still be a part of comprehensive in-the-wild testing, but will likely take a back seat unless a third-party producer is announced soon.

In other news, Samsung is continuing on its march to create devices that are the perfect size for every preference. The newest addition to the Samsung family is a set of tablets all housed under the name Samsung Galaxy Tab 3. Available in three different screen sizes, resolutions and processing power/memory, this trio will give developers and testers a run for their money. Here are the specs, as reported by GigaOm:

The 7-inch slate is poised to compete with Google’s Nexus 7 and other small tablets, but based on the specs alone it seems priced a tad too high. The 1024 x 600 screen resolution is the same as the original Galaxy Tab I purchased in 2010, for example, and that’s somewhat surprising. Even a 720p screen would be more appropriate here. A 1.2 GHz dual-core processor and 8 GB of internal storage (which can be expanded through microSD cards) and Android 4.1 are included. Why not Android 4.2, Samsung?

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Which Android Version are You Running?

Android OS VersionsLast week I wrote about the challenge of software fragmentation. As part of that, I highlighted the different available versions of the Android operating system:

We’re up to the seventh major version of the Android operating systems (with several sub-versions mixed in). If developers want to support all versions with a sizable market share, they need to account for Gingerbread, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean – all of which have more than 25% of the Android distribution. While it pales in comparison to the big players, Froyo still accounts for nearly 4% and even Eclair has almost 2%. Total: 3 major versions that definitely need support and 2 older versions that should possibly be considered.

That same week, Gigaom wrote about how Android fragmentation is beginning to disappear.

Google’s Developer Dashboard saw its monthly update on Tuesday, showing that 58.6 percent of all Android devices hitting the Google Play store are running Android 4.0 or better. More than a third still use Android 2.3, also known as the Gingerbread version, but that figure continues to spiral downward. Why? Partially because Gingerbread launched in December 2010, and the average smartphone customer has upgraded their phone since then.

Both analysis are technically right, it’s just a matter of how you look at the numbers. The question became, how is Google coming about this data? Is it really an acurate representation of the app-consuming population (which is what developers care about)? The answer is yes. From a follow-up Gigaom article:

A few months ago, Google started looking at version numbers of Android devices hitting the Google Play store; prior to that it would check whenever a device hit Google’s servers. I actually prefer the new method because the data is really meant for developers. And if I were a developer, I’d want to know what devices are actively seeking apps.

But good journalism isn’t about just believing, it’s about digging a little bit deeper. So Gigaom put up an informal poll to see which version of Android its readers are running. It turns out Gigaom’s fans are a bit ahead of the curve when it comes to getting the latest and greatest version, but the results still reflect a bit of that famous Android fragmentation.

As of this morning, 76.88% use Jelly Bean, 12.81% are running Gingerbread, 6.28% are on Ice Cream Sandwich, 2.76% are still rocking Froyo and a tiny handful of people are using Donut, Honeycomb and Eclair.

Are you an Android user? Go make your voice heard at Gigaom >>>

iPad Top Tablet, But Android Top Tablet OS

Since tablets became popular the iPad has dominated the space. No other tablet has even come close to its massive sales numbers. Even now, with a collection of other tablets options taking a bite of sales, the iPad is still the top selling tablet by far. From GigaOm:

Apple is still the world’s largest tablet seller; it shipped 19.5 million in the last quarter, up from 11.8 million the same quarter a year ago, according to IDC and its own numbers released earlier this month. That’s an increase of 64 percent. Its No. 1 mobile competitor, Samsung, saw its shipments grow even faster, from 2.3 million tablets a year ago to 8.8 million in the latest quarter. Rounding out the Top 5, Asus and Amazon also more than doubled their tablet shipments from a year ago. Microsoft, which did not start selling tablets until October 2012, shipped 900,000 Surface units between January and March.

Top Tablets of 2013

But if you look at the top five tablet manufactures closely, you’ll notice something important: three of the five top tablet providers run the Android OS. And that doesn’t account for the other popular Android-based tablets that didn’t make the top 5 – like Barnes & Noble’s Nook. According to the IDC report, “Other” tablets made up 31.5% of the market share in Q1. That large number, plus the sales of Samsung, Asus and Amazon means Android has taken over as the most common tablet operating system. From GigaOm:

The overall growth in tablets means Android is now the most popular mobile OS in tablets shipped during the quarter; a year ago it was on 8 million of tablets shipped worldwide, compared to the 11.8 million iPads. This past quarter saw Android shipped on 27.8 million tablets that were shipped and 19.5 million iPads and iPad minis.

So while one, individual tablet or manufacturer has a long way to go to catch up with the iPad, Android as a whole is overtaking iOS. With Apple keeping its operating system all to itself, this development was only a matter of time once other makers started putting out tempting tablets.

The take away: Even though we continuously hear about the iPad crushing the competition, don’t neglect Android tablet apps – they have a pretty far reach.

Google Play Tightens Security Even More

Google Android is famously different from Apple iOS because of its policy of openness. While iOS is often referred to as a “walled-garden,” Android allows for customization and gives users the option of downloading apps from other stores. While many Android users love the OS for those exact reasons, it has also led to a malware-laden reputation for Android. Google has taken steps – like adding built-in antivirus – over the past year to help solve those issues, but it recently announced yet another step.

Google updated its policies to prevent developers from releasing app updates in any form other than via the official Google Play store.

Google Play App Update Policy

Sophos notes that this can be a good and bad thing:

One possible downside to this is that it now explicitly prevents developers from publishing emergency patches via their own websites, even if only part of the app is changed, while waiting for the new version to be approved into the Play Store.

On balance, though, this seems like a loophole that needed closing.

The risk of a bait-and-switch, where an app draws you in under a veneer of Google-bestowed legitimacy and then turns itself into something you’d never have chosen if only you had known, are obvious.

This obviously won’t effect apps downloaded from other Android stores so it won’t eliminate malware all together. Taken together with Google’s other recent app security steps, though, it shows that Google understands the issues its open platform inherently faces. The company is trying to strike a balance between protecting users and walling off its own garden.

Mobile Quality Tool Apphance Gets an Upgrade

Last month, uTest introduced a brand new UI for Apphance, a mobile quality tool that makes it easy for mobile app developers to understand how their apps are working across a wide range of mobile devices, carriers and locations. After making so many improvements to the UI, we’re ready to turn our attention to the other half of the Apphance software stack – the SDKs. Today we’re launching a new and improved version of the iOS SDK, version 1.8.8, that adds several features and enhancements our users have been asking for. Let’s take a look at a few of the big ones:

Two-Finger Swipe Bug Reporting

One of Apphance’s coolest features is in-app bug reporting. You simply shake the device and Apphance responds by taking a screenshot and allowing the user to write a complete bug report right on the device itself. Our customers love this feature because it allows them to see bugs in the same context as they were discovered, along with important details and information about the device and app state.

While most users prefer to trigger bug reports by shaking the device, some of our customers have asked us for an alternative. Many of them use the accelerometer for other purposes, or they’re developing fitness apps where the device is always in motion. With this new update, we’re introducing an alternative (and optional) bug reporting approach that relies on swiping your fingers upwards from the lower corners of the screen.

Instructions for changing the bug reporting mechanism are available in the Apphance help topics. By default, Apphance will still trigger bug reports using the accelerometer, but switching to the two-finger swipe method can be accomplished by adding just two lines of code.

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Both Android & iOS Struggle with Mobile App Security

Mobile App SecurityWhen you think about bad mobile app security, Android tends to come to mind. The open nature of Android makes it (theoretically) easier for malicious apps to find their way into the app store and onto users’ devices. While intentionally malicious apps may be a problem for Android, when it comes to data leaks and the loss of personal information iOS is actually a bigger security offender, according to Veracode’s recent State of Software Security report. From Computer Weekly:

Surprisingly, 26% of Android apps exhibited information leakage bugs, compared with 42% on iOS. This covers the leakage of personal information such as email, text messages, GPS coordinates, and the content of users’ address books.

“When you install Android, it requests access to certain phone functionality. The app developer has to request explicit access, while on iOS a developer does not have to request access,” said [Chris Eng, vice-president of research at Veracode].

Even when developers take the extra steps to make their apps secure, their approaches may be miss guided. Trying to build in cryptographic keys to protect user data can actually make security worse if not done correctly. This issue is troubling for both major operating systems.

Overall, cryptographic issues affected a sizeable portion of Android (64%) and iOS (58%) applications.

The report warned that using cryptographic mechanisms incorrectly can make it easier for attackers to compromise the application. Cryptographic keys are used to protect transmitted or stored data.

It found that in some applications, developers had hard-coded a cryptographic key directly into a mobile application. Should these hard-coded keys be compromised, any security mechanisms that depend on the privacy of the keys are rendered ineffective.

Mobile app security is complicated. Developers and testers need to keep working to understand the issues and learn how to best address them.