Carbon's Android Twitter app puts shame in Twitter's game

Carbon is a really great Twitter client that is theoretically doomed. But it could push things forward for Android development.

Just a few short months ago, "Twitter client for Android released" would be a statement on par with "Sun rises," or perhaps "Professional designer pleased with iPhone's interface." But Carbon has hit Google's Play Store for Android apps with some fanfare. There are many apps for sending and reading Twitter updates in the Play Store, and Twitter has its own official Twitter app (along with the multi-account-focused TweetDeck). And Twitter limits any new client at 100,000 users. Why should anyone put their time into creating a Twitter app for Android these days, let alone one that reflects lots of time and effort?

[FTC: App developers, stores should take new privacy steps and Use any Android calendar you want with a great widget]

Because raising the bar for how happy you can make users is always going to help every user, even if the happiness is contained inside just one sub-set of the now commonplace occurrence of Twitter interaction. Once Android users and developers see how good something can be, it changes the expectations and ideas for what else can be that good. Thoughtfulness can't be unseen.

I say that because Carbon is that good. It won't be for every Android user—in fact, because it's made for Android 4.0 and up, it can only serve just under 41 percent of Android devices as of this writing, and that's if they ever learn about Carbon. But it can serve as an example of what can be done on a platform that supposedly puts design behind "cheapness."

A short list, then, of what makes Carbon a great Twitter client for people with Android phones. Not social media marketing professionals or brand managers, and not tablet users, as tablets aren't accommodated yet. But people who use Twitter to check in on the day's news and gossip, on friends using Twitter, and on whatever else is going on, this is what they might appreciate:

Holo-themed (a.k.a. modern Android), consistent-looking app

Google provides three preferred themes for Android developers. Any developer can make any Android app look pretty much any way they would like, however, and Twitter made their client look a lot like the iPhone/iPad version that came before their Android client.

Twitter on Android

Switching from Android functions and modern Holo apps into Twitter is a bit jarring. Can you deal with it? Sure you can. But I see app styling as similar to street and instructional signs in a city. Consistency lends a feeling of guidance, confidence, and confidence to guess where you're going and what comes next, while entropy and variability imply that, while the locals know what they're doing, you're own on your own.

Carbon on Android

Carbon is a fully Holo-themed Android app. Whether or not its slightly futuristic, robotic, and dark-hued looks appeal to you, you can see them as part of a whole on some half of Android phones today.

Putting the user needs ahead of branding or policy

Twitter used to show previews of Instagram photos, but no longer, following a weird "best for our users" sparring match. Carbon could care less about those fights. It shows previews of Instagram photos, YouTube links, and some web links, right in your stream. Twitter shows some of those previews on its own app, but only after you tap on a tweet.

The standard Twitter user can stand to see some rich media in their feed, because they are following only 102 people, and the majority are following about half that.

Smart notifications

Here's a feature of Android 4.1 and later that not enough developers implement: smart, interactive notifications. That is, not just pinging a user with text that someone replied or mentioned them on Twitter, but, from that very notification, offering buttons to instantly reply or retweet or otherwise interact with someone they can even see in the image.

Smart notification from Carbon on Android

Gestures used judiciously

I agree with John Gruber at Daring Fireball: gestures are a handy option for certain people, but not the primary way to navigate any app. There's a nice benefit when many apps use the same gestures (like the now nearly universal "pull down to see new stuff" motion), but when it doesn't work, or it gets confusing, it's a bad experience.

Carbon uses gestures as a kind of shortcut for those who need them. If you're fiendishly updating your stream every few minutes, you can pull down from the very top to refresh, and use two fingers to skim to the top of your timeline. The whole timeline tilts, too, to register and recognize your insatiable demand for more, more text from people.

Carbon's tilt view for timeline refreshing

Pulling from the left edge of the screen brings up the switcher for multiple accounts. That's not something everyone will use, obviously, but those who do need to monitor and tweet from multiple names will find that always-on access convenient.

Little things

  • The conversation view in Carbon is just great. The tilting and transparency of the initial tweet, after you've pulled up the responses, is clever, but the reverse-chronological view of the following tweets is smart.

  • The option of using the "Last Taken" photo when adding an image to a tweet seems like a really smart time-saver.

  • It's much more apparent which account you're tweeting from while writing, and how to switch to a different account, than with Twitter's own app.

  • This might be a simple thing left out of the app in its early release, but I like it: the notification settings are dead simple. Carbon checks every 15 minutes, rather than the instant or 5-minute defaults of Twitter. You can turn mentions or message notifications on that 15-minute recurrence on or off, and that's it.

  • Filters, and lots of them. Specifically, you can keep multiple filters running for usernames, hashtags, or keywords. TweetDeck offers filters, but only one running at a time on Android. Carbon filters as many things as you want out of your timeline. For those of us with friends who can get obsessive about sports, Apple announcements, the weather, and more, it's a handy feature when it's needed.

  • Little animations, data points, visual cues, and highlights that grow on you, even over the space of a few minutes.

Maybe Carbon will never need to "discuss" its need for more than 100,000 users with Twitter, because the market for third-party Twitter clients with design and interface flair is too small. But bravo to the makers of Carbon; it's a great app that shows us what can get done when a third-party developer loves the possibilities of a platform.

Read more of Kevin Purdy's Mobilize! blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @kevinpurdy. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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