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Michael James Williams

Michael is a writer, editor, and web developer. He is the editor for Android.AppStorm and Activetuts+, and writes AS3 game development tutorials on his blog. You can find him on Twitter, too: @MichaelJW.

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There are a lot of photography apps on Android. And, thanks to Instagram being iOS-exclusive for so long, many of these apps compete exclusively with it.

I must admit, I didn’t “get” Instagram until someone explained to me that it was like Twitter, except instead of having 140 characters to communicate, you have one square photograph at a time. The actual app side of it (the filters, the frames, the interface), while nice, seems to be second to that social networking aspect. That explains why Facebook paid $1 billion for it, then.

Personally, I’m not interested in joining yet another social network unless it has a really compelling reason, and while I can see why a network centered around photography would appeal to some, it doesn’t appeal to me. Without that, what remains is a selection of decent effects and an easy interface – and although these are cool, they’re not cool enough to make me embrace Instagram as the One True photo app.

So that’s why I’m not using Instagram. But I know that many people love it! What about you?

I keep seeing reports about this: ICS is only on ~3% of Android devices, despite having been released way back in October. Alongside these reports almost always comes the assumption that this is a terrible thing, and that so many Android users are being left in the dust with some obsolete dust.

But hold on. Is that true? See, my Samsung phone doesn’t have ICS yet, but it does have a stable version of Gingerbread, which is already a great mobile operating system that I’m very happy with. Aside from the more gimmicky features like a stock panoramic camera and a facial recognition unlock screen – which I can get apps for anyway – the biggest deals to me are the new UI and the hardware accelerated rendering.

But I can already customise the heck out of my phone’s UI, and chances are that when my phone gets its official upgrade the UI will still look like classic TouchWiz rather than Holo. As for hardware acceleration, that’s already built in to TouchWiz, so I’m not missing out on too much there, either.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to getting ICS at last. But I’m not greatly inconvenienced by not having it yet. What about you?

Seen this video? It’s a new concept video from Google, formally announcing Project Glass, their augmented reality glasses.

The technology exists – Sergey Brin was seen wearing some recently – though presumably it’s nowhere near the level of sophistication shown in the video yet. Still, it’s cool to see Google having a real go at this, particularly as an Android fan (and glasses wearer).

On the other hand, augmented reality is one of those areas of tech that I always think looks really cool and futuristic, but that I’ve never found fun enough or useful enough to stick with. I know that’s not true of everyone, though; Paul Wilks wrote a great roundup of AR apps that he enjoys.

So as much as I love the concept video and underlying idea, I don’t think I’ll be buying a pair of these on release day. What about you?

Today, Darren Meehan put forward a case for buying an old, high-end phone instead of a new, low-end phone, if given the choice. However, he didn’t manage to follow this sage advice himself!

It’s a tough decision, and one that I hate making. Usually, if I’m faced with these two options… I save up until I can afford a new, high-end device. (Though I suppose that means, in the meantime, that I choose to stick with an old, high-end phone. Food for thought.)

But suppose you don’t have that choice – suppose your old phone’s broken and you’ve got a limited budget to buy a new one. Do you go for the old, time-tested phone with the abundance of ROMs, or the shiny new one that still has the sticky plastic for you to peel off?

The Humble Bundle is a cool idea: a few developers get together to offer their games as part of a bundle for a limited time, and we can buy the whole bundle for any price we like. Some of the cash goes to the developers, some goes to the organisers, and some goes to charity.

This month, the second Humble Android Bundle is up for sale: pay whatever you like for six Android games, and get the Mac, Windows, and Linux versions too.

These aren’t lame games that don’t sell on their own, either; the current bundle contains Swords & Soldiers, Snuggle Truck, Canabalt, Zen Bound 2, Cogs, and Avadon: The Black Fortress. The first four of those even include their soundtracks.

According to Humble Mumble, the bundle’s blog, Android gamers aren’t taking advantage of the “pay what you want” deal, unlike our stereotype.

Have you bought this bundle, or the one before it? Vote in the poll to let us know. And if you haven’t bought it yet, hurry up! There are only a few days left…

Today, Joe Casabona argued Google missed with Voice Actions, and Connor Turnbull said, “Siri’s an interface, voice actions are a proxy“.

Both authors highlight an important difference between Android’s Voice Actions and iOS’s Siri (aside from the marketing): Voice Actions works like a command line or keyboard shortcut, while Siri aims to be a natural language computer assistant.

It reminds me of Yahoo Search vs. Ask Jeeves back in the early 2000s; so-called “natural language” recognition may be more elegant and impressive and capable of constructing complex queries, but it’s far from natural – the natural way to inquire about something is to point at it and grunt. This could be why keyword-based search engines have typically been way more popular and useful. Want food? Search [food].

I’ve been enjoying playing with Vlingo in the past week, grunting commands like “play music”, “call Bob”, “search killer whale length”. This, to me, is much more comfortable than asking “How long is the average killer whale?”

I’m not trying to knock Siri – I don’t even have an iPhone so I can hardly give it a fair evaluation, and I believe it can cope with “grunt” commands as well – I’m just making the point that I’m happy happy with voice commands, without the need for full natural language processing.

What about you?

Sam’s recent post about Google Latitude got me thinking about check-ins in general.

I’ve used Foursquare and Latitude before, but I don’t live in a buzzing metropolitan area (and my local friends don’t use the service), so the actual benefits of checking in are lost to me. I can see the appeal of being able to broadcast, “hey, I’m at the trendy wine bar on such-and-such street” to my pals and have them pop in to meet me, but it’s never happened for me.

(Does it actually happen for anyone? I’m assuming the issue is that I live in a small British town rather than, say, New York, but perhaps I’m being too optimistic.)

So, most of the time my usage of check-ins is restricted to not-so-subtly showing off where I am – on holiday, perhaps, or in a fancy restaurant. To be honest, I could do this without the actual longitude and latitude of the location, but the little pin icon does give me an excuse to share where I am, rather than just what I’m doing.

The rest of my time with these features is spent figuring out how to turn them off. Recently, Facebook seemed to change their default settings yet again, because a friend of mine started broadcasting her home address alongside all her messages, free for the world to see. Not what she intended.

How about you?

If you’ve bought an app (or read this site) in the past day or so, you’ll have noticed that the app store formerly known as the Android Market has been rebranded as part of Google Play.

There’s more information in our full review, but here’s the summary: Google’s consolidated the Android Market, the Google eBookstore, and the Google Music shop into one storefront, called Google Play.

Google also announced at GDC that, within 2012, they planned to combine their different game platforms (Google+, Android, Chrome) into a single service, too. Given the name “Google Play” – with no mention of Android and the word “Play” in the title – I think it’s fair to guess that the new game platform will be a part of this as well.

I think it’s a smart and frankly necessary move on Google’s part to rebrand the Android Market under Google’s name; since a number of Android devices do not feature the Market app as default (most notably the Kindle Fire), the old name led to confusion. I’m not so sure that Google Play is the best possible name for it, though: the word “play” suits games, movies, and music, but not apps or books.

I’m also very glad that the old market.android.com links continue to work, as I didn’t fancy changing every single article on the site to match…

What do you think?

This week, Connor Turnbull wrote about a couple of recent plagiarism cases in mobile gaming. In each case, a company saw an existing, popular game, and copied elements of its core to create (and sell) their own version.

To be clear, I’m not referring to copying a basic idea: Tiny Tower and Sim Tower are both games in which you manage and build a tower apartment complex, but their gameplay is very different. Dream Heights, however, is practically a reskin of Tiny Tower.

Likewise, Triple Town is a match-3 game, and so shares a lot of game mechanics with other match-3 games – that’s fine. But Yeti Town shares a lot of game mechanics with Triple Town specifically, right down to the prices of individual items in the game’s store. Oh, but it’s set at the North Pole rather than in a forest, so hey, no problem.

I hate this. So much work goes into designing gameplay, and so much more goes into tweaking that gameplay to make sure everything feels fair and balanced and fun. If you have a finished game in hand, it’s easy to reverse-engineer all that work, to take a shortcut right past all the time spent on testing and development. And it’s easy to then repackage the result under your own brand.

I don’t plan to approve any more reviews of Zynga games on this site. But what do you think – is it all just business?

This week, Abhimanyu Ghoshal reviewed Pepperplate, a great app for collecting recipes and planning what meals to cook and ingredients to buy. It’s not the first such app we’ve covered: last month, Kim Barloso reviewed Food Planner.

But Android can be used for more than just planning meals – take a look at Jamie’s 20 Minute Meals, which contains 60 of Jamie Oliver’s recipes, each with photos, along with videos of Jamie explaining kitchen techniques like chopping an onion.

Personally, I prefer to stick with cookbooks or look up recipes online than to mess around with a screen that turns off every 30 seconds (particularly as I generally want to avoid smearing whatever I’m cooking with all over the touchscreen), but I do love using my phone as a kitchen timer. There are plenty of timer apps that claim to be specifically for cooking, but my favourite is the general purpose StopWatch & Timer: it’s well designed, with an easy-to-read display that stays on when the app is active, and an always-visible icon in the notifications bar when it’s not.

What about you? Do you prefer cookbooks and kitchen gadgets, or have you gone so far as to buy a cheap Android tablet specifically for the kitchen?

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