Interesting privacy stuff- the debate goes on…
If you use a smartphone and download apps, as half the UK population does now, you’ve probably used an app which pops up a dialog box pop asking “Find your friends?” and offering to search some new social network – or one of the more familiar ones – for people you already know.
It’s easy and quick to click on the “OK” button. But do you know what’s happening once you do? This is where you suddenly discover that what you thought you knew about your online privacy is wrong – or at best, incomplete.
In mid-February, an Indian researcher, Arun Thampi, figured out what was happening when Path, a would-be social network app for Apple’s iPhone for “sharing your life”, asked that question. It was uploading the entire contents of your address book – names, emails, phone numbers – to Path’s servers.
The outcry over this data grab was rapid and widespread – at least among the Silicon Valley digerati and those who watch them. Path’s chief executive wrote a mea culpa blogpost, the company updated its app so it wouldn’t upload all the data, and everything seemed calm.
Then Dustin Curtis, a user interface designer, pointed out that loads of apps do this. On his blog, he noted: “I did a quick survey of 15 developers of popular iOS apps, and 13 of them told me they have a contacts database with millons of records. One company’s database has Mark Zuckerberg’s cellphone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’s cellphone number.” But he added: “This data is not meant to be public, and people have an expectation of privacy with respect to their contacts.” More digging showed that Facebook, Instagram, Yelp and location service Gowalla did too. It seemed like it would be easier to list the apps that didn’t do it.
For those feeling suddenly itchy about their privacy, there was more to come. A few days after Curtis’s blog, Twitter admitted that it too grabbed address book data (though only, it said, your friends’ emails and phone numbers); the purpose being just to find people you already know who might already be, or will be, members of the service. Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the US’s powerful Federal Trade Commission, summed it up in a sentence: “Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it.”
Apple chewed this over silently for a week and then announced that a forthcoming update of the iPhone and iPad software would prevent this.
But just as another privacy storm seemed to have come and gone, another arrived: Jonathan Mayer, who researches online privacy at Stanford University, discovered that Google had hacked past the default privacy settings of Apple’s browsers on the iPhone, iPad and desktop so it could track people’s use of the web, whether or not they were signed into its services. That also meant that its advertising arm DoubleClick could follow them too. Adding to the appearance of culpability, as soon as the Wall Street Journal, following up Mayer’s discovery, contacted Google, it stopped doing it. In recent weeks, only Facebook – accused wrongly by the Sunday Times of reading your text messages (the company insists it’s doing no such thing; the capability in its app is for a future mobile payment service) – has emerged without immediate criticism.
But the damage has been done. “Between the Path debacle and Google’s Safari cookies, [Silicon] Valley’s moral bankruptcy on privacy was made obvious,” commented James Grimmelmann, an associate professor at New York Law School, on Twitter.
But it’s not just in the narrow space of web browsing or apps that we’re identifiable. A chilling story in the New York Times described how the giant Target store is now so good at tracking what items people buy that it can spot if someone is pregnant – especially in the second trimester, when they begin buying things such as vitamins and maternity clothes; catch them there and “we could capture them for years”, as a statistician explained. The 25-item prediction system works so well that Target knew that a teenage girl was pregnant (and began sending appropriate shopping coupons to her home) before her father did. Which caused some red faces – first anger, then embarrassment – when he found them and accused the Target manager of encouraging her to get pregnant.
On Target’s part, it was nothing personal. But it wasn’t private either: somewhere in its machine, there was a link between the girl and her pregnancy.
Essentially, the edifices of privacy that we once thought we understood are melting like ice in a heatwave. Once upon a time, before mobile phones, it was really hard, without direct surveillance, for anyone else to know where you were. The advent of mobile phones meant police could track you by seeing which mobile masts your phone connected to. Then supermarket loyalty cards meant big retailers could make educated guesses about your home life – your income, education, life stage. Next, the location of your use of debit and credit cards, and the burgeoning number of CCTV cameras, all began to add up to a picture where not just the police but also big businesses could build up a picture of where you were pretty much throughout the week.
Now add in smartphones and apps such as Path, Twitter and Foursquare, as well as web-based companies such as Facebook and Google which rely on serving ads, and data-crunching like that done by Target (and all the big supermarkets) and the idea of “privacy” is being eroded from inside and outside. Your address book is somewhere in the “cloud”. You’re telling anyone who has access to your Facebook profile where you were. Foursquare users can track your whereabouts, if you “check in”. The supermarket where you shop is sending you coupons for nappies.
A graphical representation of how much public data Facebook used to show in 2005 compared to 2010 looks just like scary forecasts of polar ice cap melt. Except it’s already happening. In fact, online privacy looks altogether like global warming: we tut about it and mutter “something must be done”, and then do the equivalent of clambering into 4x4s – tagging photos on Facebook of friends getting drunk, tweeting pictures of our lovely trip and family on Instagram.
Simon Davies, director-general of Privacy International, the pressure group that has been warning about the ease of such invasions for years, thinks it’s an apt metaphor – but equally that, like the environmental movement, awareness is growing that it’s not right, and that we can’t go on this way.
“We have had developers tell us that they don’t want their platform screwed up by too much privacy management,” he says. “There’s all sorts of hoodwinking and linguistic devices that they use to persuade you to hand over your data.” Such practices are pervasive, he says.
But he sees signs for optimism: there’s growing awareness among a number of people on social networks (the irony might not be lost on you) that there’s value in keeping information about yourself, your whereabouts and life private. Not just to protect yourself from identity theft; also just because it’s nice to have some part of you that isn’t subjected to the panopticon of the web.
“It is like the environmental movement, in that there are evangelists working to keep the brakes on excess use,” says Davies. “I think Microsoft and Google are starting to see a change there.”
The trouble for Google is that 97% of its revenue comes from serving ads. Its profits improve if people click on ads, so it likes to show “relevant” ads – and the best way to work out which ads to offer is to watch which web pages people visit.
Google is painfully aware that government agencies take a dim view of any corporate infringement of people’s privacy – and also that if it loses users’ trust, the slope from top dog in search to also-ran could be slippery. (For that reason, Microsoft has been hammering away at the privacy topic in its PR efforts: when news broke that Google had worked around Internet Explorer’s protections, rather than follow its frankly arcane privacy system, Frank Shaw, Microsoft’s combative head of PR, tweeted in faux disbelief: “Google can work on a self-driving car but can’t figure out how to implement a standard?”)
“Even if you don’t think cookies are a privacy harm, you should care about Google’s inability to keep its promises,” noted Grimmelmann, who studies how software affects freedom, power and wealth distribution. He says it’s the same as not caring whether a politician had an affair: “[the politician] lying about it is still a big deal.”
And not many are prepared to give Google much leeway: “Of the four ad networks caught abusing [the] loophole in Safari cookie controls to track users, only Google is claiming it was unintentional,” tweeted Christopher Soghian, a security and privacy researcher based in Washington.
The culmination was the announcement last week by the Obama administration that it would push for all browsers to have a “Do Not Track” button as part of a “consumer privacy bill of rights”, while the Californian attorney general said that apps would have to include privacy policies to tell users what data they would access.
But where does it all end? “It’s a systemic problem,” says Davies. “The situation will only change when it’s not fashionable to give away your data, when it becomes sad to do so in front of your peers.”
Is there any chance of that happening? Mayer says there are “bright spots” in privacy; he is working on the “Do Not Track” system. But others in the industry point to the differences between the US and Europe – the strong data protection legislation in the latter, and its almost total absence in the former – and suggest the gulf can’t be bridged; our data will always flow downhill towards the area that lets companies make as much (profitable) use of it that they can. The columnist Helen Popkin commented despairingly: “Facebook is the slowly-warming pot of water and we, my friends, are the frog. By the time we noticed our peeling skin, another hunk of our privacy is long gone.” But that was in March last year. Since then more and more chefs have continued to gather around the pot. Do you want to find friends already using this service? Is it getting warm in here?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010Read More »
While the media was getting obsessed with Google+… the world actually got interested in Pinterest. What’s more, Google’s nascent social network, despite having seen a growing number of signups, only managed to attract visitors for an average of 3 minutes in the entire month of January – and that was a fall from the 4 minutes it achieved in December.
New data from the web measurement company ComScore say that the figures for Google+ in the UK are even worse: having hit an average per user of 3.5 minutes for the month of December, that fell to 2.5 minutes in January.
Meanwhile Facebook remains the monolith of the web – taking almost 18% of people’s entire internet time in the UK during January. None of the other social networks managed more than 1% of UK “user minutes” for the same period; the blogging site Tumblr.com managed 0.55%, followed by Twitter, with 0.27%, and the “business social network” LinkedIn with 0.22%. Google+ and Pinterest both had 0.01% of total internet time, by ComScore’s figures.
While the figures for worldwide visitor numbers to Google+ are impressive – hitting 88.3m in January, not far behind LinkedIn’s 100m, though some way short of Twitter 181.8m (and Facebook’s 805m) – the brevity of visits, and the apparent fall in interest compared to December suggests that the company has not found a simple way to retain user interest.
By contrast, Pinterest, which attracted almost no media interest before 2012, and which has not announced signup figures, has seen steadily growing figures both for users and for time spent since May, says ComScore: in January 2012, 13.76m people worldwide visited, and spent an average of 89 minutes there. The pattern is repeated in the UK, where steady growth saw 250,000 Britons visit the site in January, and spend an average of 25 minutes for the month. That contrasts with Google+, whose UK figures showed 3.8m visitors spending far less time on the site.
The data will be uncomfortable reading for Google’s chief executive Larry Page, who has committed the search giant to focussing on “social search” to the extent that the company has been accused of skewing its search results to push Google+ content above the position that it would normally merit on previous Google algorithms.
Page made much of the number of Google+ signups during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings in January, saying that 90m had signed up and then added “Engagement on [Google]+ is also growing tremendously. I have some amazing data to share there for the first time. [Google]+ users are very engaged with our products. Over 60% of them engage daily and over 80% weekly.”
But that statistic, while appearing to make Google+ look attractive, in fact only means that those people use services like Google Search, Docs, Mail and other products with that frequency – not Google+ itself. The company has not released its internal data which would show how long people spend on the site, in contrast to Facebook.
Google is trying to get Google+ to rival Facebook and Twitter so that it can expand its advertising business; the two networks are increasingly protective of their content. Facebook prevents Google from indexing the majority of its content, while Twitter declined to renew a contract to provide its full “firehose” of tweets to Google when the two could not agree on how much Google should pay it for what would in effect be lost revenue from advertising to Twitter through the lack of visitors compared to the amount Google would earn from showing ads against searches which included Twitter content.
The ComScore data does come with caveats. Rather than coming directly from the sites themselves, it is estimated via a user sample who have a toolbar installed on their desktop or laptop PCs – and so does not record visits to sites made by people using tablets such as the iPad, or from mobile phones. Facebook and Twitter have significant use via mobile phones. It is unclear how much use Google+ gets from mobile phones; it is now built into Android phones, which have dominant market share worldwide, and is available on Apple’s iOS, the second best-selling smartphone OS.
The ComScore data also only offers a mean value – which may disguise large variations in the time people spend on sites. Some Google+ users report being very engaged with the network, spending hours on it – which implies that some of the visitors spend scant seconds on the site during the month.
Other sources suggest that Google+ is failing to engage users: speaking to the Wall Street Journal, John Schappert, the chief operating officer of games maker Zynga, known for its “social game” Farmville, said that the network had been “slow on the uptick with users right now”. Intel’s social media manager Ekaterina Walter said that response on Google+ was “not as great as were hoping it was going to be” and pointed to the fact that its Facebook page has millions of fans and gets thousands of comments – while the Google+ one gets dozens.
But inside Google, there is no alternative: Page has declared that staff bonuses will be dependent on the success of its social efforts – though it is not yet known what measures will be used to determine that success.
Facebook dominates web use both in terms of visitors
And in time spent:
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010Read More »
Geckoclick are now publishers! See the revamped Kindle of Renate Greenshields captivating life story here;
and also here:
Renate Greenshields writes of a happy childhood in a small town near Hanover in north west Germany.
When she was 10 years old war broke out. Renate had to join the Hitler Youth. Her father, a Lutheran pastor, sheltered Jews in the Rectory and the family were under constant surveillance from the Gestapo. In 1946, at the age of seventeen, Renate and the English town commander of Lehrte met and fell in love. Barely eighteen years old Renate came to England as one of the first war brides and certainly the youngest.
Renate writes in A Bit of Time of her first five years in England as the wife of a farmer-artist, how she learned to adjust to the English way of life, coped with homesickness, a foreign language and bringing up her children.
“Everybody, who like me, was brought up to hate and despise Germany should read this book. How human those old enemies were. Renate Greenshields has given birth to a little masterpiece of memory and has let us leap out of time.”
Some of the stereotype maps mentioned in the previous post…
Tigers…Read More »
We like maps…something for everyone here.
There is nothing quite as obsolete as an out-of-date map: untrustworthy, suspect, politically incorrect. An atlas that still has Czechoslovakia on it may be historically interesting, but it illustrates a world that no longer exists. Change is constant: new countries spring into being, population centres shift, capitals are shunted from one place to another. With every adjustment, another map is rendered useless.
Why not map ignorance instead? In a fast-changing world, national stereotypes remain remarkably stable. View the globe from an American perspective and you can still get away with labelling the whole of Russia “Commies”. If nothing else, it saves you having to spell Tajikistan.
The Mapping Stereotypes project is the work of Yanko Tsvetkov, a graphic artist who also goes by the name Alphadesigner. Tsvetkov has lived all over Europe, but back in 2009 when he got the idea to produce maps charting prevailing stereotypes, he was still in his native Bulgaria.
“There was a gas crisis, a pretty harsh winter, and we were a little bit cold,” he says. His first map posited a Europe made up of competing interests and reductive presumptions. Russia is simply labelled “Paranoid Oil Empire”. Most of the EU comes under the heading “Union Of Subsidised Farming”. Turkey has been renamed “No YouTube Land” and where Georgia should be it says “Armed Winegrowers”. He titled the map Where I Live and put it up on his website.
“People started leaving comments about it,” Tsvetkov says. “People I didn’t know. And then, by the unknown laws of the internet, it got quite popular.” Tsvetkov realised this could be the beginning of a larger project. He made a map of “The World According To Americans”, with Kazakhstan renamed “Borat”, the Falklands marked “British Riviera” and all of North Africa summarised as “Fucking Desert, Dude”. His map of Berlusconi’s worldview is both hilariously vulgar and, one suspects, not far wide of the mark. No matter where you’re from, you should be able to find something here to offend you.
To add to his growing collection, Tsvetkov has created two new maps for the Guardian, one titled The Arab Winter and the other Crystal Ball View Of Europe In 2022. In the former, Algeria has been renamed “Gaddafi’s Sperm Bank” (“Because most of his family ran away to Algeria,” Tsvetkov says, “so it’s like a sperm bank for the preservation of his legacy”). In the latter a smaller territory in northern Italy has been coloured orange and labelled “Gays”. “The region around Rome will be under gay occupation,” he says, “because at some point all gay people will get tired of Pope Benedict’s homophobic remarks and will invade the city to shut his mouth for ever.” Most of the references are self-explanatory, although a working knowledge of geography (or, in my case, an old atlas with Czechoslovakia on it) comes in handy.
Tsvetkov himself is nowhere near as narrow-minded as his maps. He speaks several languages, currently lives in Spain and feels comfortable throughout Europe. “I have friends in most major European countries,” he says. “I work as a designer, so we are a big community. We’re like the European ideal.” Has his cosmopolitanism also made him an expert on local prejudices and stereotypes? “Yes, there are things that you can only perceive when you are among the people, but the internet helps.”
Tsvetkov has also lived in London, and in his Europe In 2022 map the UK (minus Scotland) is called Passive Aggressive Kingdom, a nickname that stems from David Cameron’s recent refusal to sign an EU treaty. “It refers to the British way of thinking about Europe,” Tsvetkov says. “It doesn’t want to have much to do with the continent, but it wants to have a say. It’s about wanting to achieve something by not doing anything.”
Arguably these maps could do as much to reinforce stereotypes as ridicule them, but their primary purpose is to entertain. “If there is a serious problem, I prefer to present it in a funny say,” Tsvetkov says. “I think there is enough serious coverage, and loads of people who can analyse it way better than I can.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010Read More »
Here’s some pix from the hot new photographer Linus Day.
Read More »
Our chums the App geniuses BigApp have ventured into the wonderful world of ebooks.
Geckoclick wish them well!
Based in West London, BigApp have designed killer apps for Rough Guides and Jamie Oliver, amongst others.
Watch this space for more news on their ebook offerings.Read More »
Cronenberg- original as ever.
It’s always tempting to imagine you can psychoanalyse a film-maker on the basis of their movies, especially so when it comes to David Cronenberg. What should we make of a director who has seared on to our collective unconscious images of exploding heads, rapist slugs coming up through the plughole, video cassettes being inserted into vaginal stomach openings, avant-garde gynaecological instruments? The fact that his new movie deals with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and the infancy of the psychoanalytic movement only adds to the urge.
Cronenberg is sitting opposite me, on a comfortable couch, but there’s little prospect of getting him to lie down on it. If anything, it’s he who puts me on the couch. I tell the 67-year-old director that Scanners (its aforementioned exploding head in particular) was a formative experience for me, illicitly viewed and reviewed in slow motion on VHS, a good six years before I was legally allowed to. “Oh my God, I hope it didn’t do you too much damage,” he laughs. In the 1970s, Cronenberg was your typical science geek: greasy black hair, bottle-top glasses. These days, he looks pretty cool: like Ted Danson’s smarter brother.
Legions of horror fans have expressed dismay, even anger, at Cronenberg’s apparent desertion of the special effects-heavy stomach-churners with which he made his name. Cronenberg, they argue, has sold out, moving into the mainstream with films such as A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. “Yeah, yeah, you shrug that off,” Cronenberg says, “because they have no right to be angry. It’s the downside of having fans. Freud would have called it repetition compulsion: they just want you to keep doing the same thing. They want to be 10 years old again and see Scanners when they weren’t supposed to. But that’s their project. My project is to explore things and keep myself interested and excited by film. Two different things.”
On the surface, A Dangerous Method, could be his most conventional to date: there’s an A-list cast, historical characters and a period setting. Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play, it is based on the apparently true story of the short-lived alliance between the young Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor, Freud (Viggo Mortensen), and the pivotal role played by Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), first a patient of Jung’s, then his lover, then his student. But A Dangerous Method mischievously subverts its period trappings. Bestial impulses squirm beneath the decorous facades of 19th-century Vienna, and occasionally flare up spectacularly. In the absence of any gore, the spectacle of Knightley first raving hysterically, then being spanked by Jung in masochistic delight provide the film’s abiding images. “Of course, Keira was a little worried about the spanking scenes, but that’s normal,” Cronenberg says. “Often the actors’ fear is that they can’t give you what you want. But she’s very down-to-earth and we could have a straightforward discussion about it. I said, ‘Don’t hold back.’” Some critics have judged her jaw-jutting portrayal over-the-top, but Spielrein’s case was well-documented, Cronenberg says, and Knightley’s version of it is “absolutely accurate”.
More than just an exceptionally articulate love triangle, A Dangerous Method lays out a landscape of repression and release, strained civilities and deep neuroses, before stopping on the brink of the first world war – as if to suggest these issues would shape Europe for the rest of the century. “Freud has never been more relevant,” Cronenberg says. “Because of his understanding of what human beings are, and his insistence on the reality of the human body. We do not escape from that. Jung went into a kind of Aryan mysticism, whereas Freud was insisting on humans as we really are, not as we might want to be. That’s often hard to take, but it keeps coming back to us: the possibility of descending into tribal barbarism was very shocking to Europeans of the era. To suddenly be engulfed in flames and barbarity was the shattering of their ideals. And we’ve had Kosovo and the Balkans to remind us it can happen again.”
Has Cronenberg any direct experience of therapy? “No. It’s something you use as a tool in your life if you feel you need it, and I don’t feel I’ve needed it. It’s like taking an antibiotic when you don’t have an infection.”
For all the perversions he has put on screen, he considers himself completely normal – and try as they might, his critics have found little to contradict this self-evaluation. His parents were “warm and loving and sweet and not demanding”, he says of his Toronto childhood. They died relatively young, before he’d really got into his stride as a film-maker. He doesn’t think they’d be shocked by anything he went on to do. “They never pushed me to get a real job or anything like that. They understood art.” He switched from science to English at university. He smoked marijuana but not much, because it hurt his throat. He took LSD once. “I found it a very revealing and potent experience, and I was sure I would take it many times, but I never did.” He enjoys bicycling through the countryside.
If anything, Cronenberg’s films have revealed more about their audience than their director. Look at the way Britain lost its head over Crash, back in 1996: the reaction of the press in this country to the film’s vehicular eroticism was so disproportionately hysterical, it looks comical in retrospect. “Ban This Car Crash Sex Film,” frothed the Daily Mail, until the matter was taken up by politicians and councillors. “Crash surprised me totally, the reception,” Cronenberg says now. “It was a 20-year-old novel, well accepted as part of JG Ballard’s canon. I really didn’t think this movie that was fairly faithful to the tone of the novel would be so shocking to people here.” Ballard described the furore as “little England at its worst”, symptomatic of a “strange, nervous nation”. There was no Crash controversy in France or Canada, Cronenberg points out. “Different countries have different reactions. Some films are successful in some places; some not. I think Shivers played in Glasgow for three years non-stop. Why was that? I have no idea.”
He suggests that A Dangerous Method has brought him full circle, in a way. His very first film, a seven-minute short called Transfer, was a surrealist skit about a psychiatrist and his patient. He has broached the subject since, most notably in 1979′s The Brood, in which Oliver Reed played a renegade psychiatrist whose experimental techniques consisted of him pretending to be his patients’ abusive parents or neglected children. (It doesn’t end well for him, what with the demonic Samantha Eggar hatching homicidal mutant children in the attic.) Cronenberg later admitted that the story, which takes a pretty scathing view of psychiatry, was inspired by his separation from his first wife and the custody battle over their daughter.
As with much else, Cronenberg’s stance on therapy seems to have changed a great deal since. If there is any constant to his work, change would be it. Or rather, transformation – of the body and mind, and usually society, too. By some external force, Cronenberg’s characters are routinely thrown into a radical new mode of existence, and it’s not necessarily a negative experience: Videodrome’s toxic TV transmissions create “the new flesh”; Crash’s auto accidents are described as “fertilising”. A Dangerous Method fits this mould, too. There’s no need for body horror any more; it’s simply ideas that infect the host and catalyse the transformation.
“You could easily view the psychoanalytic circle in Vienna as the Crash cult,” Cronenberg says. “That is to say, a subversive group who have a handle on reality not accessible to society at large, and who band together to explore it. I’m interested in people who don’t accept the official version of reality, but try to find out what’s really going on under the hood.”
Uncharacteristically, after A Dangerous Method, Cronenberg went straight on to another movie: an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novella Cosmopolis, starring Twilight’s Robert Pattinson. The story is set entirely inside a billionaire’s limousine, cruising around New York. Cronenberg looks as surprised as anyone that he moved so fast. “Usually I take three or four years between movies, but suddenly there it was and I wanted to make it. I haven’t turned my back on my past, but when I’m making a new movie, my other movies are irrelevant. The critics think about your imprint, or your sensibility. ‘Is it Cronenbergesque or not?’ But creatively that doesn’t give me anything. It’s nice to be an adjective, but it can also be a trap.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010Read More »
As thrillers and crime fiction overtakes romances and historical novels in UK lending libraries, the same seems to be true with ebook sales.
So is it that readers are only buying “genre” fiction because its cheap, or is it down to the marketing on Amazon etc (how much time do people have to trawl through millions of titles in the store?), or is it “guilty pleasure” reading- that is, its easier to read trash when no-one can see you doing it? Maybe they still like buying “real” books when it comes to proper literature? Or is all this just bogus, and is back to the ancient issue of belittling certain literature by condemning it to a genre?
Here’s some genre fiction titles that are worthy of being fiction/literature/ classics;
Yellowthread Street by William Marshall (not actually an ebook at the moment)Read More »
A useful Android primer.
Apple sold 15.4m iPads in the final quarter of 2011, but there is more to the market than one manufacturer and OS. Strategy Analytics estimates that 39% of the 26.8m tablets that shipped that quarter were running Google’s Android operating system.
Yes, that’s shipments as opposed to sales: it’s anyone’s guess how many of those devices remain on shelves and in warehouses. Even so, more Android tablets are emerging, with some – Amazon’s Kindle Fire in the US and Samsung’s Galaxy Tabs elsewhere in the world – building some momentum.
One of the key selling points for Apple’s iPad is the more-than 140,000 native apps available for the device. Android devices have a way to go to catch up in terms of overall quantity, but the number of quality apps for Android tablets has been improving steadily.
Hence this roundup, following our separate rundown of the 50 best iPad apps in September 2011. Shortly after that was published, we began gathering suggestions for inclusion in an Android follow-up, and have spent the months since then drawing up our own longlist of possibles.
Some caveats. First, this is aimed more at people unboxing an Android tablet for the first time, so some of the suggestions may seem obvious to experienced owners. Second, any selection of this kind will be tinged by the personal preferences of the writer.
In both cases, your criticisms and alternative suggestions are welcomed in the comments section. We have also opted against restricting the list to apps optimised for Honeycomb-only software, given the existence of a number of tablets running earlier versions of Android.
A third caveat: Android being what it is, we can’t guarantee that all 50 apps will be available or run well on all the devices out there, particularly at the cheaper end of the market.
Proceed with caution, but please do report back on your experiences with specific devices. On with the show…
SOCIAL MEDIA / WEB
FEEDLY free. Looking for an Android alternative to Flipboard? Feedly is worth a look, promising a personalised magazine pulling in stories from Google Reader, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and other services.
FIREFOX free. Now optimised for tablets as well as smartphones, Firefox offers a useful alternative to the default Android browser, including the ability to sync bookmarks and history with the desktop version.
IM+ PRO £2.99. This catch-all messaging app combines Skype, Facebook Chat and a host of instant messaging services into one, with the option to ping text, photos and voice notes to contacts.
NEWS360 FOR TABLETS free. Another news aggregator, News360 gets content from more than 10,000 news sites, promising to learn from your social and RSS accounts what you like to read about, in order to filter accordingly.
TABLIFIED MARKET HD £0.94. If this article is a starting point for discovering new Android tablet apps, Tablified Market should be your next port of call. It’s a discovery app that promises to ‘find Tablified apps so you don’t have to’. A good database with regular updates.
TAPTU – DJ YOUR NEWS free. Another social news-reading app, this, which accesses stories from sites using their RSS feeds. At its most useful when you dive into its tools to “remix” different feeds into single streams about whatever topic you like.
TWEETCOMB free. Keen Twitter users should appreciate TweetComb, which is a Twitter client focused on tablets running the Android Honeycomb software. It makes good use of the larger screens, and its notifications can be tweaked to your preferences.
BBC NEWS free. The Beeb’s official news app was updated with an Android-focused edition in January 2012, with a choice of landscape and portrait modes, swipe-based navigation through stories, and – later in the year – a live stream of the BBC News channel itself.
CNN APP FOR ANDROID TABLET free. News network CNN’s Android app is a very polished way to get the latest stories, including text and video reports. Its tablet-optimised design stands out, while its iReport feature aims to get users filing their own stories.
COMICS free. ComiXology’s combined comics store and reader app boasts of being the only one offering titles from both Marvel Comics and DC Comics. A wide catalogue of titles is available to buy in-app, while the reader’s “Guided View” technology works well for finding your way through cells.
GOOGLE BOOKS free. Google Books is a tablet window to Google’s cloud-based e-books service, where you can shop for e-books to read across multiple devices, or choose from a wide selection of free titles.
GOOGLE READER free. The existence of apps like Taptu and News360 is sometimes used as an argument for RSS being old hat – even though they rely on the technology to pull in content. If you’re more old-school in your RSS habits though, Google Reader is very good.
IMDB MOVIES & TV free. The world’s biggest database of film and TV information is really impressive on Android tablets, enabling you to browse the database and watch trailers. There’s a US focus, but it’s still useful.
KINDLE free. A firm favourite on iPad as an alternative to Apple’s own iBooks, the Kindle app is also a must-have on Android tablets. Buy from Amazon’s e-store and then read the e-books on your slate, syncing with any other devices you use too.
NETFLIX free. Netflix launched in the UK in January 2012, meaning that its impressive tablet apps now have an audience on this side of the Atlantic too. Browse its catalogue of films and TV shows, then watch them on the device.
THE CAT IN THE HAT £1.90. The Dr. Seuss classic has been turned into a faithful book-app that looks as good on tablets as on smartphones. The illustrations are familiar, while there’s voice narration and zooming words to aid young readers.
TUNEIN RADIO PRO £0.61. The TuneIn Radio app has been a huge success on various platforms, and while it doesn’t make major use of tablet bells’n'whistles, we’d still recommend it for Android slate owners. Find radio stations from around the world and, well, tune in.
ZINIO free. An increasing number of magazines are launching bespoke apps for iPad, if not Android tablets. One good way to plug the gap is Zinio, which sells digital replicas of a large range of mags from its in-app store.
ANGRY BIRDS free. Okay, somewhat obvious. But amid all the big-number milestones and commercial spin-offs, it’s easy to forget that at its core, Angry Birds is a very, very good game. It’s just as suited to tablets as smartphones too.
BACKBREAKER THD £3.09. The Super Bowl may be over for another year, but NaturalMotion’s casual gridiron game is fun all year round, as you dodge and spin past hordes of defenders. This version showcases the Nvidia Tegra processors inside some Android tabs.
BLOOD & GLORY (NR) free. Glu Mobile’s take on the Infinity Blade beat ‘em up is notable for two reasons: first it’s on Android, unlike its inspiration. And second, it’s a freemium title, so you don’t have to pay to initially play it.
DUNGEON DEFENDERS SECOND WAVE free. This is another game that’ll show off the graphical grunt of your (high-end) Android tablet. The gameplay is a mixture of action-RPG and tower defence, as you set your defences then run around swinging at attackers as they pile in.
GRAND THEFT AUTO III £2.99. 10 years after it was first released for consoles, GTA III returns for tablets (and smartphones). It has dated wonderfully, with its mix of crime and, well, more crime still feeling fresh. What’s more, it has survived the transition to touchscreen tablets, with well thought-out controls.
MINECRAFT: POCKET EDITION £4.29. Tablets lend themselves to relaxed usage while loafing about on a sofa. The perfect game for this scenario is Minecraft, as you wander a blocky landscape digging, building and admiring the views.
ONLIVE free. Streaming games service OnLive turns your Android tablet into a fully-fledged games console, complete with (if you buy it) a joypad peripheral. Assuming your Wi-Fi connection is up to the task, this is technically impressive, with an increasing catalogue of games to have fun with.
OSMOS HD £3.18. Currently part of the excellent Humble Bundle for Android, Osmos is a trippy puzzle game that involves absorbing glowing “motes”, complete with an atmospheric electronica soundtrack.
SHADOWGUN £3.49. First-person shooter Shadowgun is a visual feast, as you battle an army of cyborgs and droids inside “maniacal genius” Dr. Edgar Simon’s mountain base. It’s shooting to become the mobile and tablet world’s Halo, and on this evidence, that’s not a crazy ambition.
SLEEPY JACK £1.99. 3D shooter Sleepy Jack runs as a universal game across Android tablets and smartphones, and is addictive enough that you’ll want to play it on both. 40 beautiful worlds to fly through provide plenty of depth.
ANOMALY WARZONE EARTH HD £2.49. A simple twist on the tower defence genre makes Anomaly Warzone Earth instantly stand out from the herd: you play the attackers rather than the defenders. A deep campaign mode and attractive visuals makes it even more of a treat.
WORLD OF GOO £2.99. Just as much of a joy on Android as it is on iPad, World of Goo gets you dragging and stretching virtual goo-balls into objects to get you through puzzle-packed levels. Wonderfully tactile, and challenging without ever making you throw your tablet through the window. A good thing, really.
PRODUCTIVITY / TOOLS
CATCH free. Early Honeycomb tablet owners were buzzing about this cloud app, and justifiably so. Not a million miles away from Evernote, it’s about scribbling notes, recording voice memos and taking photos, then storing them in the cloud – with a Streams feature particularly useful for collaborative work.
DROPBOX free. An increasingly essential service no matter what device you own, Dropbox gathers your photos, documents and videos – among other files – for access on the go. As on other platforms, the interface is clean and efficient, for speedy use.
EVERNOTE free. As with Catch and Dropbox, Evernote’s strength comes when you use it across several devices, not just one tablet. Sync text notes, lists, voice memos and photos across them all, with sharing features built in too.
FILE MANAGER HD free. Another app from the early days of Honeycomb, which offers a simple-yet-slick way to manage files on your tablet, browing by lists or grids. One of those apps that might not be sexy on the surface, but which will be used regularly.
GOOGLE DOCS free. Another of Google’s own apps, this, which aims to provide a neat native way to access Google Docs – including offline – on Android tablets. Again, simplicity and speed is the focus, to make it quick to edit and share documents.
HD WIDGETS £1.29. Widgets are one of the ways Android obviously differs from iOS, and HD Widgets offers a bunch of examples, from clocks to weather reports. Tablet tweakers will love it.
MINDJET FOR ANDROID free. If Evernote and Catch are more about notes, Mindjet is more about richer brainstorming sessions, making good use of the large tablet screen to organise your thoughts and make them understandable for future reference.
QUICKOFFICE PRO HD £12.97. If you’re not ready to move into Google’s cloud, what about this app for creating, editing and sharing Microsoft Office documents? Support for documents, spreadsheets and presentations makes it flexible, and it also plays nice with Evernote and Catch.
SKITCH free. Evernote’s second app in this list is more for fun, letting you scribble on photos and images to annotate them. It’s very easy to use, and while doodling rude things on friends’ mugshots is the obvious use, there are work applications too.
SLIDEIT KEYBOARD £3.79. Android tab owners are spoiled for choice when it comes to alternative on-screen keyboards, so we’ve chosen two of the best here. SlideIT delivers on its promise of speedier typing with finger-tracing rather than tapping.
SPLASHTOP REMOTE DESKTOP HD £4.56. Remote access used to be a corporate thing, but nowadays even consumers are keen on the idea of accessing their main PC or Mac from their tablet. Well, some consumers. SplashTop Remote is one of the best known ways to do it, and one of the friendliest too.
STICKY NOTES HD TABLET WIDGET £1.22. You could argue that shoehorning virtual sticky notes onto a digital device is pure nostalgia. You might have a case. Even so, Sticky Notes HD does it well, stacking the virtual Post-Its neatly so you don’t lose your reminders.
SWIFTKEY TABLET X KEYBOARD £3.49. The second soft-keyboard app in this roundup comes from SwiftKey, with its clever prediction algorithm to guess what word you might be typing next. Cleverer still is the way it can learn your most common words by tying into Facebook, Twitter and Gmail.
LIFESTYLE / SCIENCE
ADOBE COLLAGE £6.99. At a time when social media startup Pinterest is gathering a head of steam, Adobe’s Collage app looks onto a good thing. It’s about making moodboards with a mixture of photos, scribbles and text, importing several file-types and content from Google and Flickr.
ADOBE PHOTOSHOP TOUCH £6.99. Another Adobe app here, but one that’ll be more familiar to veterans. It’s a touchscreen-optimised reboot of the Photoshop editing software, with some powerful features if you know what you’re doing, and syncing back to the desktop version if necessary.
ACCUWEATHER FOR HONEYCOMB free. Whether sunshine, rain or the kind of snow that brings Britain’s infrastructure to a halt (i.e. two inches), AccuWeather offers a tablet-friendly window on the weather around the world.
GOOGLE SKY MAP free. It’s currently being cut loose – sorry, open sourced – by Google, but its in-house Sky Map app remains a joy. Hold your tablet in the air at night, and get an instant guide to what all those stars are called. A handy search mode is good for planet-spotting too.
GOOGLE EARTH free. Zooming around the planet is as fun a tablet experience on Android as on iPad, with 3D buildings and some nifty tweaks for larger-screened devices.
OPENTABLE free. Restaurant reservations service OpenTable does a very good job of finding nearby eateries, plotting them on a map, and helping you decide whether they’re worth booking.
SKETCHBOOK PRO free. Autodesk’s painting and drawing app has been tuned for Honeycomb-toting tablets, helping you sketch on-screen. Professionals may get most out of it, but the app is fun and rewarding even for less artistic Android owners.
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