Archive

October 20, 2014

Apple Updates iWork Suite

I’m still going through to see how many of the (many) bugs and feature requests I’ve filed in the past year have been taken care of, but Federico Viticci’s post on the update also pointed out that the apps have gained a new file format again:

Apple’s iWork apps for OS X had been criticized in the past for removing power user functionalities and introducing incompatibilities with their new file formats, and today’s updates confirm that Apple has been listening to its user base. The OS X updates to iWork feature various AppleScript and file format improvements – notably, files generated by the apps should play nicely with Dropbox and Gmail now.

In truth, it’s not actually a new format; it’s simply a zipped version of the previous format:

Nicks-MacBook-Air:Desktop nickheer$ file NewFormat.pages  
NewFormat.pages: Zip archive data, at least v2.0 to extract  
Nicks-MacBook-Air:Desktop nickheer$ unzip NewFormat.pages  
Archive:  NewFormat.pages  
 extracting: Index/Document.iwa      
 extracting: Index/Tables/DataList.iwa  
 extracting: Index/ViewState.iwa     
 extracting: Index/CalculationEngine.iwa  
 extracting: Index/DocumentStylesheet.iwa  
 extracting: Index/ThemeStylesheet.iwa  
 extracting: Index/AnnotationAuthorStorage.iwa  
 extracting: Data/Hardcover_bullet_black-13.png  
 extracting: Index/Metadata.iwa      
 extracting: Metadata/Properties.plist  
 extracting: Metadata/DocumentIdentifier  
 extracting: Metadata/BuildVersionHistory.plist  
 extracting: preview.jpg             
 extracting: preview-micro.jpg       
 extracting: preview-web.jpg         

Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it? This is pretty familiar — the difference between iWork ’08 and ’09 formats was pretty much the same thing. The big difference this time is that it still uses the totally impenetrable protobuf-encoded .iwa files.

iCloud’s Reliability and Trustworthiness

In introducing Time Machine at WWDC 2006, Scott Forstall made a really great point about how he doesn’t want to lose his most precious memories:

When I look on my Mac, I find these pictures of my kids that, to me, are absolutely priceless. In fact, I have thousands of these photos. If I were to lose a single one of these photos, it would be awful. But if I were to lose all of these photos because my hard drive died, I’d be devastated. I never, ever, want to lose these photos.

Forstall then talks about how Time Machine solves this by automatically backing up all your photos, along with everything else you keep on your hard drive. And that sounds great for eight years ago.

But it’s 2014 now; everything has migrated to “the cloud”. Sure, if you’re a bit controlling, you might feel a little uncomfortable that you don’t have the backups right next to you. What you lose in control, though, you gain in redundancy and offsite goodness.

If this is implemented well, it feels flawless and enables users to trust their most precious memories to it. But iCloud is so flawed so much of the time that nobody should realistically trust it. And that’s a problem in 2014.

Nate Boateng just experienced this first-hand by simply signing out of his iCloud account on his phone. Luckily, he has many copies of these photos; if he didn’t, he’d probably be crushed.

With Time Machine, you get the feeling that people at Apple truly use it to recover files when they accidentally overwrite them. It was like Scott Forstall wanted the feature so bad because something like the hypothetical situation he spoke about actually happened to him. But iCloud is the sort of product that comes across as though it’s something Apple knows it needs to have, but they’re not really that invested in it. I’m sure there are people at the company who actually care, but it comes across as lackadaisical and weak. I’m not certain anyone at Apple would entrust their photo library solely to iCloud.

October 17, 2014

The Retina iMac

Jaw-dropping. This is probably the first time I’ve considered going desktop-only (or, at least, desktop-primary) in about ten years. I do love the mobility of my Air, but this display is perfect. It’s also really reasonably priced — just $2500 to start, though you probably don’t want the base model.

I wish the Thunderbolt Display could be updated to this resolution. But, as Marco Arment explained, it’s probably going to be a long wait. You can’t even use the new iMac in target display mode, functioning as a really expensive Thunderbolt Display. Maybe the solution is to add a graphics card to the display itself; I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

John Siracusa’s OS X Yosemite Review

My favourite part of a new OS X release isn’t OS X itself; it’s Siracusa’s review of it. As comprehensive and as hypercritical as you’d want.

A few parts of this review really stood out to me. Regarding Safari:

The new address bar looks nearly identical to the one in Safari for iOS. On an iPhone, horizontal space is so constrained that the choice not to show the full URL is understandable. On an iPad, this is less true, but there’s an argument to be made for consistency. On the Mac, however, horizontal space is abundant, and pixel-for-pixel symmetry with iOS is decidedly out of fashion.

There are at least two other reasons to bring this interface to the Mac, however. The first is security. When the full URL is shown, it’s possible to fool users into thinking they are on a familiar website when they’re actually on a phishing site. One way to do this is by using a very long domain name that happens to begin with what looks like a legitimate domain name.

Unlike some others, I was not really that upset about OS X Safari’s iOS mimicry, but I hadn’t considered this angle. Smart.

Regarding Handoff:

To start, Handoff is proximity-based; it only functions when two devices are near each other. So there’s no concern that composing an e-mail on your iPhone while on vacation will cause an icon to appear next to the Dock on your Mac back at the office. Devices use Bluetooth low energy (BTLE) to discover each other. If you’re not within BTLE range (a few hundred feet, at most), Handoff is out of the picture.

This stood out to me in a different way — I’ve actually seen Handoff partially working from long distances. I’ve been kilometres away from my Mac and have seen the Safari icon appear on my iPhone’s lock screen — Safari is typically my frontmost app on my Mac anyway. I also have Power Nap enabled on my Mac, so my guess is that my Mac pings my phone when it wakes up every hour or so. This must occur over WiFi, unless I have the strongest Bluetooth signal in the world. However, I’ve never actually had a successful Handoff exchange at distance.

Another oddity: my building is one of many recovering from a massive power outage. I now have power, but fibre services are still down in my area. Last night, I was tapping out a text message on my iPhone — disconnected from my WiFi network — and the Handoff icon appeared beside my dock on my Mac. I tried clicking on it just to see if it would work, but the Handoff exchange couldn’t be completed. Bluetooth was active in this case, but WiFi was not.

Handoff’s technology seems extraordinarily complex, but it’s beautifully simple and almost boring in practice, and I love that.

Regarding iCloud Drive:

For starters, the actual location of iCloud Drive in the file system is carefully hidden. Command-click the window title or use the Finder’s Get Info command to try to get a real file path and you’ll see only “iCloud Drive” as the top-level location. You can’t even drag the iCloud Drive proxy icon from a Finder window’s title bar into a Terminal window to get a file path. Apple really doesn’t want people knowing where on disk the iCloud Drive data lives.

More weirdness lurks. At the top level of iCloud Drive, badged folders appear for each iCloud-enabled application. You can’t Get Info on these folders either; the Finder just beeps in protest.

As it turns out, everything is still under ~/Library/Mobile Documents/ in obscurely named subdirectories, but the careful subterfuge emphasizes Apple’s desire to keep iCloud Drive abstract. It is not just “a folder that syncs.” It’s not a folder at all; it’s “iCloud.”

Regarding Activity Monitor:

Earlier versions of Activity Monitor required a tedious mouse-over-and-wait action to see the URL associated with a Safari back-end process. The new Activity Monitor in Yosemite helpfully shows the URL in place of the unhelpful “Safari Web Content” process name.

Finally.

October 16, 2014

Why.I.Am

Roberto Baldwin,1 of the Next Web:

When you think wearables you don’t usually think international superstar or Salesforce. Push aside that old way of thinking aside because Black Eyed Peas frontman Will.i.am just unveiled his smartwatch the Puls at the Dreamforce conference.

Pronounced “pulse,” the smartwatch is voice controlled via a Siri type feature called Aneeda (get it? Aneeda. I need a…). It ships with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter (called Twitrist. get it? Twit wrist. Puns!), and Salesforce

“Our most personal device yet” vs. “Salesforce on your wrist”. Tough call.

But, he says “this is not a watch” instead it’s a cuff . Also, he says it has four kilowatts of DAF (Dope as Fuckness).

I was under the impression that Dope as Fuckness was measured in pascals.

Anyway, think anyone at Apple is worried about this one?


  1. Not, as it turns out, a brother Baldwin. 

October 15, 2014

Keynote Eve Jitters

Tomorrow, Apple will announce two new iPads1 and a gorgeous new Retina iMac, and launch OS X Yosemite and iOS 8.1. Apple’s been busy this year. But, as Michael Tsai’s quote roundup reveals, it hasn’t been smooth sailing — the buggy yearly iOS and OS X releases, in particular, have revealed a very rushed schedule.

This isn’t unprecedented, however. Before the first iPhone was released, Apple delayed the release of Leopard because they moved resources to finishing “iPhone OS” 1.0; when Leopard was finally released, it was a buggy mess. When they were working on the iPad, there were again significant issues in both the then-current Snow Leopard and in Lion, when it was released in 2011.

That Apple is working on yet another OS — Watch OS — isn’t a free pass for their declining software quality, however. While they were never perfect, the company has long been revered for its consistently-high quality bar. Now? Certainly not as much.


  1. When was the last time Apple leaked one of their own products? 

October 14, 2014

GT Advanced Executive Scheduled Shares to be Sold the Day Before the iPhone 6 Announcement

Juli Clover, Macrumors:

Shortly after GT Advanced missed its February payment, the company’s CEO, Thomas Gutierrez and its Chief Operating Officer, Daniel Squiller, set plans in motion to begin selling off stock. While the timing of their subsequent sales was subject to the schedules laid out in their trading plans, it is clear those plans were established after GT began having difficulties meeting its milestones.

Gutierrez set up a pre-arranged Rule 10b5-1 sale in March, which saw him selling more than 9,000 shares of GT Advanced stock on September 8, a day ahead of Apple’s iPhone announcement. Gutierrez also sold off stock throughout the year, netting more than $10 million before stock prices faltered after it became clear Apple was not using sapphire in the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Totally idle speculation on my part, but with tactics like these, I wonder if GT Advanced was juicing the rumour mill too. From the outside, this was a surprise, given GT’s well-known relationship with Apple. From the inside, though, it’s now becoming clear that the whole venture has been shaky for much of the past year.

October 13, 2014

Dropped

Geoffrey Goetz, GigaOm:

Like its many predecessors, iPhoto Web Journals were a way of personalizing an online gallery of photos. It was like creating a digital scrapbook in the cloud. With it you could add titles, insert comments, include maps, weather and other information intermingled with your photos. Users of journals would typically spend a good amount of time personalizing the delivery of their online photos by telling a story alongside their photos.

The problem this time around is that there was very little notice and there really is no recourse or action that can be taken to preserve your iPhoto projects. And unfortunately there is no easy fix for this. According to Apple’s own support page concerning the migration, “Photo Books, Web Journals, and Slideshows are converted into regular albums in Photos. Text and layouts are not preserved.” And thats it, no more iCloud scrapbooking per Apple.

Apple is also dropping support for their printed products with Photos for OS X. My dad is a goldsmith, and he uses iPhoto photo books for his portfolio — they’re well-printed, nicely-bound hardcover books that he can lay out himself and order on demand for a reasonable price. I told him that these products would no longer be available; he’s gutted.

October 10, 2014

Tilde.Club

You’ve probably seen various Tilde.Club links popping up on Twitter over the past couple of weeks. Paul Ford started it:

It was pretty late at night. I had two pieces due for Businessweek, so I should have gone to bed right then. No one would have held me to my promise. But look. The kids were in bed. It doesn’t take long to set up computers in the cloud. You can do it even when you’re one or two sheets to the wind. I booted up Amazon’s cheapest and weakest fragment of a cloud computer. You do this by clicking buttons in a web page. I logged in to my new computer, made a few user accounts, and fired up a web server. This computer ran a Unix-based operating system. It was located somewhere in Virginia.

I went to bed. When I woke up 100 people were asking for accounts.

This is so great.

October 9, 2014

Microsoft CEO Tells Women Not to Ask For a Raise at Women in Tech Event

Speaking of Microsoft and diversity, here’s Nitasha Tiku of Valleywag:

What Nadella apologists (including Nadella himself) don’t seem to get is that his language and phrasing are not the issue. The issue is that in an unguarded moment, the CEO of a major technology corporation said he thinks the current system is efficient and that women eventually get appropriately compensated, despite the persistent wage gap. That doesn’t even address getting a job offer from Microsoft, which is 70 percent male.

First, I’m linking to Valleywag, so I already feel dirty. Then, Tiku goes ahead and uses the word “apologists”. But beneath that film of grossness, this is damning. It’s also, strangely, honest — this is truly what is engrained in the culture of the industry in the Valley, in particular.

Happily, Nadella apparently saw the error in his words:

Toward the end of the interview, Maria asked me what advice I would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay raises. I answered that question completely wrong.

This, too, is refreshingly honest.

But all of this is lip service. It means only a fraction of actually doing something.

Microsoft Issues More Comprehensive Diversity Report

About a week ago, Microsoft released a diversity report more in line with the format of other tech companies. A guy named H. Parker Shelton not only tipped me off to this release, but added the numbers himself to scraped copy of my post, and emailed that to me. He edited HTML tables so I didn’t have to.

I have the best readers.

I’ve updated my tech diversity stats post to reflect these changes. Big thanks to Mr. Shelton for taking care of the hard work for me.

Wolpphire

This is entirely true. I’ve had this article in my “possible links” collection since it was published on September 10, titled “Analyst Who Cried Sapphire Takes Another Swing, Despite Whiffing on iPhone 6 Predictions”. It’s by Neil Hughes of AppleInsider.

I’ve had it kicking around for a while because I didn’t know what to do with it. It seemed silly and pathetic at the time, and I thought I could make fun of this hilariously out-of-touch analyst who says stuff like this:

He still holds hope that iPhone 6 cover screens will be made of sapphire, even after Apple’s announcement. In his latest note, he said GT’s output from its Arizona facility is “excessive,” and that it will “continue to be grown for iPhone 6 cover screens.”

In light of recent events, however, I’ve decided to let this pass, for three big reasons.

First, it seems kind of mean to make fun of a guy like this:

Margolis’s apparent transition to the “denial” stage of grief may be explained by his particular affinity for the GT-Apple partnership. His Twitter handle even reflects this: @Sapphirecover24.

I mean, come on — it’s kind of adorable, isn’t it? It must be pretty heartbreaking for this analyst, considering he was so bearish on GT Advanced.

That’s the second reason I’m sympathetic to this analyst: this came out of nowhere.

All of the iPhones in Apple’s lineup use sapphire, and their upcoming watch will use it for its display, with the exception of the Sport model. It’s also expected that the new generation of iPads, set to launch in a week, will have Touch ID sensors that will also use sapphire. If GT Advanced were Apple’s only sapphire supplier, they’d probably be at the peak of their output.

But the third reason is how wildly off-base AppleInsider’s Hughes is, not the analyst.

Sapphire supporters like Margolis believed and hoped that Apple and GT Advanced may have secretly discovered some sort of breakthrough that would allow Apple to build entire iPhone displays, and even iPads, made of the material this year, all while keeping up with overwhelming consumer demand for those products. They were convinced that sapphire was bound to make a big splash, thanks to a $578 million contract Apple had inked with GT, resulting in scratch-proof covers for the iPhone 6 and beyond.

You can almost feel the mockery through your screen. It’s just short of “Hey everybody, let’s all point and laugh at the stupid analyst.”

But it increasingly looks like the analyst — PTT Research’s Matt Margolis — wasn’t entirely batshit crazy. No, the iPhone 6 does not have and will not have a sapphire display.1 But, according to the Wall Street Journal, Apple was actually considering using sapphire for iPhone displays, possibly even for the 6:

As recently as a few months ago, Apple engineers were testing iPhone prototypes with a sapphire screen cover, according to the people familiar with the matter. By using sapphire as an alternative to hardened glass, Apple was hoping for a more scratch- and shatter-resistant cover for its flagship smartphones, they said.

In the end, Apple decided to scrap the sapphire screens for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus and stick with Corning Inc.’s heavy-duty Gorilla Glass.

Maybe the Journal is wrong, and AppleInsider should gloat, as Daniel Eran Dilger so frequently and unfortunately does. But I think this is a pretty depressing story all around: a promising and innovative company gone bankrupt, hundreds and perhaps thousands of people potentially losing their jobs, and a really sad analyst to top it all off. And Dilger is dancing on GT’s grave, because that’s what he does.

Back to AppleInsider’s Hughes for the final word, from a month ago:

To quote the legendary fictional detective Sherlock Holmes: “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

Indeed.


  1. I’m just talking about the iPhone 6 here, not necessarily the 6S, or whatever. 

October 8, 2014

The Magazine is Closing

It’s been a good two-year run, but Glenn Fleishman is shutting it down:

The Magazine will stop publishing its every-other-week issues on December 17, 2014, cancel all outstanding subscriptions, and automatically provide pro-rated refunds (either through Apple or directly) for subscriptions that continue past December 31, 2014. (We will be in touch directly with Kickstarter backers who subscribed via our Year One book campaign.)

No reason is provided; my hunch is that the subscriber count dropped precipitously. For a product philosophically opposed to advertising, that’s a death knell. I’m not sure about you, but my favourite article in the Magazine will always be “You Are Boring” by Scott Simpson. It was published way back in the fourth-ever issue; perhaps that’s telling.

Update: Glenn has elaborated on his “glog” that the shrinking subscriber count is, indeed, to blame. Unsurprisingly.

October 7, 2014

iOS 8 Adoption Stagnates

Aside from the myriad bugs in the past month, Stephen Hackett thinks that iOS 7′s significant overhaul might have dissuaded many from updating:

I think the shock of iOS 7 (what I have named the OMG I UPDATED MY PHONE AND EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT syndrome) is a factor as well. While iOS 8 is not drastically different to operate, the users who were surprised by iOS 7′s well-known UI changes are just the ones to be afraid of it happening again.

I think it may be the opposite: iOS 8 has very little in the way of immediately-apparent user changes, so what’s the incentive to upgrade?

October 5, 2014

On iPods, iTunes, DRM, and Lock-in, in 2014, for Some Reason

Mikey Campbell, AppleInsider:

According to plaintiffs, Apple allegedly stifled competition in the digital music space by implementing FairPlay DRM protocols that supposedly “locked” iPod users in to the iTunes ecosystem. By making songs purchased through competing services unplayable on iPods at the time, Apple is said to have dissuaded users from switching over to other platforms, specifically those built by RealNetworks.

This is like some kind of archaeological dig — a lawsuit by RealNetworks against iTunes DRM and iPods.

I have argued many times that companies in a market dominating position have a responsibility and an obligation to behave in accordance with a different set of rules than their underdogs. It doesn’t matter that they might have the best product — Google is the best search engine, while iPods were the best portable music players at their time. The market has decided that these should dominate but their dominance must mean more careful rules assigned to the companies responsible.

However, this suit seems farcical. Campbell, continued:

The case revolves around RealNetworks’ “Harmony” technology, a workaround for FairPlay DRM that allowed customers to buy songs through the Real’s music store and play them back on iPod. Apple responded by releasing a software update that, among other enhancements, disabled Harmony content.

Harmony was not a workaround for FairPlay; Harmony was a reverse-engineered version of FairPlay. In order to maintain their standing with record labels, Apple almost certainly had an obligation to ensure the security of FairPlay. I can’t imagine that their agreement with record labels did not involve updating their software to ensure FairPlay wasn’t compromised.

Why didn’t RealNetworks use their own DRM format instead of reverse-engineering Apple’s? They were probably worried that Apple wouldn’t buy a license to their own scheme, thereby enabling playback on iPods. This is a fair concern; Apple didn’t license anyone else’s music DRM schemes. Apple does license third-party DRM when it made sense — you’ll recall DRM-encumbered Audible books can be listened to on iPods and everything else Apple makes — and it might have made sense in RealNetworks’ case, provided that they ever made a case for it.

But this is predicated on the necessary inclusion of DRM. If the songs did not have DRM, they could be played on iPods without any hiccups. Therefore, the claim in the suit that Apple actively prevented the playback of music acquired from non-iTunes sources is completely ridiculous. Should all companies be required to license all DRM formats? I’m surprised this suit has been going on for ten years, and that it has not yet been dismissed.

October 2, 2014

iPhone 6 Looks

Khoi Vinh:

If there’s a single thread that runs through nearly every piece of Apple hardware, it’s conviction, the sense that its designers believed with every fiber of their being that the form factor they delivered was the result of countless correct choices that, in totality, add up to the best and only choice for giving shape to that particular product. Apple hardware has always looked utterly convincing because they have always been brimming with conviction.

Looking at these two iPhone 6 models, I can’t truly bring myself to believe that that’s the case.

I’ve now seen a large number of iPhones 6 in the wild, as well as played with one briefly, and I couldn’t figure out what was bugging me about its industrial design. Vinh articulates it beautifully. The iPhone 6 is a very nice product; a worthy entry in Apple’s aluminum-and-glass motif. But it doesn’t feel nearly as confident in its own skin. Design is about making the right compromises, but the iPhone 6 feels compromised.

Don’t get me wrong — every iPhone has been compromised in order to make all the radios work. The original iPhone had a black plastic piece on the back, while the iPhone 3G(S) (and 5C) had their backs made entirely out of plastic. The 4(S) had its antennas moved to the exterior to avoid marring the beautiful mirrored sandwich hardware, but there were occasional attenuation issues with this setup. The 5(S), meanwhile, has glass “windows” at the top and bottom of the back.

In that vein, the 3G(S) and 5C were, perhaps, the most honest and straightforward, but those models all feel distinctly less premium than any other iPhone. The plastic seams on the iPhone 6 are simply a continuation of this theme, but they feel somehow weaker and less confident. It feels almost as if the radio engineering team got an all-aluminum case to start, then cut away just enough metal to allow for radio passthrough.

It’s not ugly by any means; it’s one of the nicest iPhones to have shipped so far. It’s just not as beautiful as, for instance, its predecessor; despite its far better build quality, it feels almost less precise than my 5S. It’s achingly close to an industrial design I can love, but it’s not there yet, I don’t think.

“Fanboys, I Weep For Your Souls”

Dan Lyons linked to Business Insider’s overview of the Apple Watch show-off event in Paris, writing:

This is Apple in 2014, post Steve. Fanboys, I weep for your souls.

I know Lyons is going for the easy troll here, but I’ve seen a similar sentiment since the Apple Watch was rumoured, and escalating since its launch. Yes, at its core, the Apple Watch is a computer, but the intent of the product is a watch. Watches are fashion accessories. That’s what the Pebble either misses or, if you believe their marketing materials, consciously avoids. Why wouldn’t Apple choose to associate with fashion designers and fashion houses to launch the product?

September 30, 2014

The Story Behind the Cube

Vicky Ward, New York magazine:

Who came up the idea of placing a 30‐foot square glass cube — the world’s “smallest skyscraper” — in the middle of the GM Building plaza? In that lightbulb moment, an unused basement that had caused headaches for its owners for more than 40 years morphed into what is arguably the most famous retail space in the world.

Holder Lovejoy

Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said on Tuesday that new forms of encryption capable of locking law enforcement officials out of popular electronic devices imperil investigations of kidnappers and sexual predators, putting children at increased risk.

“It is fully possible to permit law enforcement to do its job while still adequately protecting personal privacy,” Holder said at a conference on child sexual abuse, according to a text of his prepared remarks. “When a child is in danger, law enforcement needs to be able to take every legally available step to quickly find and protect the child and to stop those that abuse children. It is worrisome to see companies thwarting our ability to do so.”

This is an awfully similar line of attack to that from the FBI, and it’s just so played. If our values must be significantly compromised so as to treat us all as criminals, then they’re not values — they’re hobbies.

Besides, it’s not as if encrypted information is making it impossible for law enforcement to do their job. All of the cases that Cyrus R. Vance Jr., in an op-ed for the WaPo, complains would be made unsolvable by this encryption would indeed be solvable. This encryption just makes it less likely that the rest of us won’t have as much of our stuff scooped up by snoops.

Windows X

With so many of these newfangled smartphone OSes and lawsuits about who’s ripping off who, it can make one long for the good ol’ days of making fun of Windows for copying various features from the Mac. You know, “Redmond: start your photocopiers”, and all that jazz. And what a day to do it with the launch of Windows X.

*scrunches brows; checks old timey newspaper print*

Wait, it’s Windows 10? Not X?

Could have fooled me. Tom Warren covered Microsoft’s launch event for the Verge:

There’s a new universal search in the start menu that pulls in results from the web, and Microsoft is also talking up its “task view,” which helps users master Windows’ multitasking features. It looks fairly similar to Expose in OS X and allows users to set up different desktops for work, home, and other usage scenarios, switching apps between them at will.

Neat.

“It illustrates for Windows we have to address a breadth of users,” Belfiore said, moving on to show a big improvement to the command prompt: it now supports paste.

Paste on the command line? Sweet.

But Microsoft isn’t abandoning touch input. Belfiore said the Charms bar from Windows 8 has been carried over to Windows 10 with improvements of its own. “We want to support those Windows 8 users who have touch machines and getting a lot of benefit out of them.” For convertible devices like the Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro, Microsoft is adding a new Continuum mode that aims to make the frequent switch between tablet mode and laptop mode more seamless.

Continuity, erm, Continuum sounds swell.

For real, though, I’m just teasing. Windows 10 sounds like a smart turnaround from the disaster that is Windows 8. Too bad it’s not going to ship until “late 2015″, a full three years after the release of Windows 8.

Google and the Right to Be Forgotten

Jeffrey Toobin wrote a great piece about the obfuscation of information on the internet in the New Yorker. This part, in particular, stood out as poignant, though:

In Europe, the right to privacy trumps freedom of speech; the reverse is true in the United States. “Europeans think of the right to privacy as a fundamental human right, in the way that we think of freedom of expression or the right to counsel,” Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, said recently. “When it comes to privacy, the United States’ approach has been to provide protection for certain categories of information that are deemed sensitive and then impose some obligation not to disclose unless certain conditions are met.” Congress has passed laws prohibiting the disclosure of medical information the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, educational records the Buckley Amendment, and video-store rentals a law passed in response to revelations about Robert Bork’s rentals when he was nominated to the Supreme Court. Any of these protections can be overridden with the consent of the individual or as part of law-enforcement investigations.

There are some who will view the decisions of European courts to be vast overreaches of judicial authority. However, it is imperative to consider the immense power that Google has with its search engine and its dominance of that market. Companies and people in positions of greater power and reach should have different and greater levels of responsibility. If they don’t create that responsibility for themselves, it’s up to the law to step in and correct that oversight.

September 27, 2014

How to See Your iOS 8 Health Data

Anand Sharma:

Most people right now have no idea what that mysterious new app on their home screen is supposed to do. Even having read all the documentation, I was pretty confused about what was going on.

For a few days I thought the Health app was just totally empty and wasn’t recording any data yet. I thought that it was waiting on a future update and needed yet-unreleased apps in order to start to populate any data.

In its current guise, Health creates such a poor first impression for users. It’s completely blank at first boot, despite collecting walking data, and there’s little indication that the Medical ID should be filled out. It’s a really weird app from Apple, who normally provide some kind of indication of why the app is useful.

September 26, 2014

Most OS X Users Safe From Shellshock

As iOS is based on OS X and shares its Unix underpinnings, I wonder how vulnerable it is. Based on its careful sandboxing model, I would anticipate that it’s fine.

September 25, 2014

Oodbye

There’s a new social network in town, one which MarketWatch’s Therese Poletti is calling a “Facebook killer“, which, on its own, is a hilarious notion. Its big draw is that it doesn’t have targeted ads and is a sort of lowercase-l-libertarian community. But, as Andy Baio explains — on where else but Ello itself — there’s a lot that the manifesto on the home page isn’t telling you, like their banking of a $435,000 round of seed funding from a venture capital firm:

The Ello founders are positioning it as an alternative to other social networks — they won’t sell your data or show you ads. “You are not the product.”

If they were independently-funded and run as some sort of co-op, bootstrapped until profitable, maybe that’s plausible. Hard, but possible.

But VCs don’t give money out of goodwill, and taking VC funding — even seed funding — creates outside pressures that shape the inevitable direction of a company.

A social network with no ads that wants to charge users money for small features in an attempt to recoup what will likely become millions of dollars in venture capital money? Good luck with that. (Remember Path?)

Giant Gaping Security Chasms

If you subscribe to a bunch of security mailing lists, as I do, you’ll know that there are all sorts of small-to-medium-sized security bugs made public every day. Rarely, though, are two massive holes made public on the same day. First up is Craig Hockenberry’s explanation of a way nefarious developers could watch and log keystrokes in in-app browsers in their apps:

Changing the content of a web page is a good thing when it’s done to make a page more readable or accessible. Handling keyboard events can also guide a user through a complex form or make viewing a slide show easier.

These are not inherently bad web technologies. The problem is that an iOS app has as much access to these technologies as the developer of the web page.

Then there’s the “Shellshock” bug in Bash, explained here by Huzaifa Sidhpurwala:

Like “real” programming languages, Bash has functions, though in a somewhat limited implementation, and it is possible to put these bash functions into environment variables. This flaw is triggered when extra code is added to the end of these function definitions (inside the enivronment variable).

Troy Hunt has a much more detailed explanation, should you want one.

These bugs have two things in common: they’re in technologies that have widespread use, and they’ve been around for ages. Both of these factors make the bugs extremely severe. My web host is among many that has, thankfully, patched their copy of Bash already. It would be so sweet if Apple were to roll a fix for their UIWebView bug into an iOS update, too. What a nightmare.

iOS 8.0.1 Workaround for Loss of Cell Service, Touch ID

As far as fuck-ups go, yesterday’s iOS 8.0.1 update was a biggie, with users of iPhones 6 reporting lost cellular service and Touch ID functionality. QA is complicated, but it’s embarrassing to see such basic and core services broken by a relatively small update. How was this not caught earlier?

Even the workaround has its issues. Apple, in the linked support document, recommends downgrading to iOS 8.0 until 8.0.2 is ready in a few days. But downgrading will also make Health stop working, presumably because of the HealthKit fixes in iOS 8.0.1 causing compatibility issues. Bizarre.

September 24, 2014

Bendghazi

Hey, here’s a weird idea: if you have a $600-plus pocket computer, treat it well and don’t sit on it. Crazy talk, I know.

September 22, 2014

First Weekend iPhone 6 Sales Top 10 Million

When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone back in 2007, he set first year sales expectations at 10 million units, or 1% of the mobile phone market at the time. They’re now doing that in a weekend. Goes to show just how big the market has become, now that all phones are smartphones. That is a hell of a lot of phones for one company to sell in that amount of time.

September 20, 2014

Ars Technica’s iOS 8 Review

And if you still can’t get enough reading about iOS 8, Andrew Cunningham did a brilliant and very in-depth job. I think his is somewhere in between my review’s subjectivity and Rene Ritchie’s more objective take. Great stuff.

Rene Ritchie’s iOS 8 Review

If you can’t get enough of reading about iOS 8, dig into Rene Ritchie’s excellent (and even longer-than-mine) review. He covers some things that I don’t — HomeKit isn’t something I was particularly interested in talking about because I couldn’t use it first, for example, but Ritchie does a great job explaining it. A really great, more objective read.

iOS 8 Review Updates

I wrote approximately 15,000 words to review iOS 8. Yet, I inexplicably forgot a couple of things that I wanted to talk about. I have had notes about these things since June, and I intended to include them. I’m just a bit of an idiot.

I’ve updated the review, but these are the salient parts, for your convenience. On performance and battery life:

My hardware is admittedly very recent; until a week ago, I was on the very latest and greatest iOS devices. So it comes as no surprise that iOS 8 has been buttery smooth on both of my devices, with only the faintest whiff of lag in some animations on my iPad.

Unfortunately, on older hardware like the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2, iOS 8 is really slow. Based on what Ars Technica is reporting, I imagine that those devices barely qualified for an update on Apple’s terms. One hopes that performance may improve in a future update.

Battery life seems to be equal to that of iOS 7. I haven’t noticed a significant improvement nor worsening. Your mileage may vary.

On Siri:

The most significant improvement to Siri is that it now displays its interpretation of your dictation in real time. It works so well that I completely forgot about it when I initially published this review, but it’s there, and it’s really great. To turn on live dictation shows that Apple is clearly far more confident in the speech recognition abilities of Siri this year. It’s really, really nice.

On the Tips app:

There’s a host of new functionality in iOS 8, and some of it is a little tricky to find — consider the additional gestures in Mail, or the swipe-to-send-audio gesture in Messages. Apple has therefore provided a built-in app to provide you tips on how to use iOS 8 better. It’s a really simple app, with little video hints, sort of like those that play on the screens behind the Genius Bar at an Apple Store.

Apple promises that they’ll push out new tips regularly, and they offer push notifications if you’d like to be alerted to new tips.

For those keeping count, by the way, Apple has added four new default apps — Podcasts, iBooks, Health, and Tips — that cannot be removed from the home screen, except to be nestled into the folder where you already keep Newsstand and Game Centre.

And about Settings:

There are two great new features in the Settings app. First, every app on your phone now gets a menu in Settings, regardless of whether the developer puts the app’s settings in the Settings app. This makes it way easier to get at an app’s settings for typical app functions, like notifications, cellular data usage, privacy, and so forth. This can be a little confusing if an app also has options within the app for changing its settings. Perhaps this is some sort of giant nudge from Apple.

iOS 8 also brings the power consumption shaming menu from Mavericks. You can now see what apps are using the most of your battery life under General, Usage, Battery Usage. Unlike Mavericks, these are not real-time results; you can select usage from the past 24 hours, or the past seven days. In some instances, there will be an explanation for why an app is consuming extra battery power. For example, Tweetbot consumed 21% of my battery life in the past 24 hours, but that’s because I apparently kept using it when my phone had a low signal. Mail and NYT Now, on the other hand, can blame their power consumption on background activity.

This isn’t necessarily as definitively shaming as you might think, though. Apps that you use most will, obviously, consume more battery power than apps you use less frequently. In the past seven days, my home and lock screen usage is at 18%, but that’s because I kept getting notifications and replying to them from the lock screen. Par for the course.

But if you notice an app near the top that you use infrequently, that’s a good indication that it’s inefficient. It would probably be more useful to have a weighted list that takes into consideration the amount of time the app is being actively used versus the amount of energy it consumes.

September 18, 2014

Austin Mann Reviews the iPhone 6 Plus’ Camera

Okay, he reviewed it in Iceland, which is a bit like cheating for any camera review. But I’ll be damned if these are some of the best photos I’ve seen from any smartphone. Hell, these look better at typical viewing size than the photos from some point-and-shoots.

The improved low-light photography is what I’m really interested in, though. A few weeks ago, I went out stargazing with a couple of pals, and it was spectacular. To the west, the faint glow of the city lights; to the east, nothingness. Facing south was incredible: we saw the full band of the Milky Way streaking across an expanse that looked like it had more stars in it than sky. The calm was occasionally punctuated by the odd lightning strike in the distance.

Then, we turned around to face north, and were surprised to see an extremely vibrant band of Northern Lights, dancing across the sky. We stood in awe; though, because we’re photo geeks, we tried to take a couple of pictures on our phones. I had my 5S, and the best shot I got all night was this one:

Shot with AvgCamPro, unedited.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine has a Nokia Lumia something-or-other and managed to get this gorgeous shot and this other pretty good one. I am very jealous of the camera in that phone.

Anyway, Mann’s review is great and you should read it like I did: with a gaping jaw.

Apple: Privacy

Google and Samsung, Apple’s biggest competitors, can’t write anything like this. Everything, including their privacy policy, is spelled out in plain English, and it seems as though they’ve improved their already-strong stance on privacy even in just the past few months.1 Take this, for example:

Your iMessages and FaceTime calls are your business, not ours. Your communications are protected by end-to-end encryption across all your devices when you use iMessage and FaceTime, and with iOS 8 your iMessages are also encrypted on your device in such a way that they can’t be accessed without your passcode. Apple has no way to decrypt iMessage and FaceTime data when it’s in transit between devices. So unlike other companies’ messaging services, Apple doesn’t scan your communications, and we wouldn’t be able to comply with a wiretap order even if we wanted to. While we do back up iMessage and SMS messages for your convenience using iCloud Backup, you can turn it off whenever you want.

And if you store your message using an encrypted local backup, as I do, there’s apparently no usable record of those messages on Apple’s servers. Am I a drug dealer? A human trafficker? A cynic? A conspiracy theorist who thinks Apple is willingly in bed with the government to influence our conversations and control our minds? No, no, no, and no. I just don’t think anyone else has any business reading my messages.

Not only do they tout their built-in privacy capabilities, Apple also provides a series of tips for users to strengthen their security. It’s very comprehensive and easy to understand. Apple has made it very simple for users to ensure the security of their devices and their data, because security tools are only good if people will actually use them.


  1. Though it’s not as though there hasn’t been impetus for that. I wonder if this site would have materialized in the same way had a series of celebrity iCloud accounts not been hacked. 

September 17, 2014

iOS 8: The Pixel Envy Review

The Pixel Envy Review of iOS 8

Here we go again.

iOS turned seven years old this year. For the vast majority of its life, it was an operating system that followed the philosophy of its parent company: slow progress; a steady roll. Last year, Apple used a major systemwide redesign to simultaneously contemporize the operating system and create a kind of conceptual reset. It was version 7.0, but it felt a little like a 1.0, and carried with it the best and not-so-best elements of that connotation. But while much of the coverage centred around the way iOS 7 looked, I don’t think it was a mere aesthetic change. By asking developers to consider carefully the most important elements of their apps, Apple initiated a spark of reinvention.

The opportunities created by iOS 7 were largely conceptual in nature, however. For a more comprehensive difference in the way developers are able to approach the OS, there need to be a number of core changes. That’s exactly what iOS 8 delivers. In addition to a bevy of enhancements to existing capabilities, there are substantial platform-overhauling improvements under the hood.

It is for this reason that I will be writing a review of iOS 8 in two parts. The first part, which is what you’re reading now, is a review of the first-party aspects of iOS. It is truly a review of iOS 8, not apps built for iOS 8. The second part, which will be released in weeks-to-months, is a review of what is possible when third-party developers get ahold of the thousands of new APIs available to them.

This is what I have gleaned from using iOS 8 every day since June 2 on my primary (and only) iPhone 5S and my Retina iPad Mini.

Contents

  1. Compatibility
  2. User Interface
    1. Home Screen
    2. Recent Contacts
    3. Control Centre
  3. Notifications
  4. Spotlight
  5. Safari
  6. Notifications
  7. Messages
    1. iPhemeral (Groan)
    2. Media
    3. Details
    4. Group Chat
  8. Maps
  9. Camera
  10. Photos
    1. iCloud Photo Library
    2. Photo Management and Editing
  11. Continuity
    1. Handoff
    2. Phone Features on Your Not-iPhone
    3. Mobile Hotspot
    4. AirDrop
    5. Hitting the Bluetooth Limit
  12. iCloud Drive
  13. Keyboard
  14. App Extensions
    1. Sharing
    2. Actions
    3. Third-Party Storage
    4. Photo Editing
    5. Notification Centre Widgets
    6. Keyboards
    7. Extensions, Overall
  15. App Store
  16. Health
  17. Miscellanea
    1. Mail
    2. Touch ID
    3. Weather
    4. Siri
    5. Tips
    6. Settings
  18. Conclusions

Compatibility

iOS 8 is one of the most compatible releases of the operating system, dropping support only for one device: the iPhone 4. I, unfortunately, don’t have my iPhone 4S to test on, but I hear that nearly all of the big features of iOS 8 are on all supported devices, including the iPhone 4S and newer, the iPad 2 and newer, and the current-generation iPod Touch.

Update: Ars Technica’s Andrew Cunningham points out that iOS 8 is particularly poor on the iPhone 4S because many of the new features require a screen of greater height.

In fact, the biggest compatibility issues with iOS 8 are likely to be based on which Mac you own. The Continuity features require Bluetooth 4.0 and Yosemite, which means you need to own a relatively recent Macintosh.

As I said above, I’m testing this with an iPhone 5S and a Retina iPad Mini, plus a mid-2012 MacBook Air running Yosemite on the public beta stream.

Performance

My hardware is admittedly very recent; until a week ago, I was on the very latest and greatest iOS devices. So it comes as no surprise that iOS 8 has been buttery smooth on both of my devices, with only the faintest whiff of lag in some animations on my iPad.

Unfortunately, on older hardware like the iPhone 4S and the iPad 2, iOS 8 is really slow. Based on what Ars Technica is reporting, I imagine that those devices barely qualified for an update on Apple’s terms. One hopes that performance may improve in a future update.

Battery life seems to be equal to that of iOS 7. I haven’t noticed a significant improvement nor worsening. Your mileage may vary.

User Interface

With last year’s major overhaul of the entire OS, it’s completely unsurprising that the UI changes in iOS 8 are generally very minor. The rows in the Favourites tab of the Phone app have less padding, Playlist titles in Music now use smaller bold text, and the Bookmarks icon in Safari is now a more literal than abstract interpretation of what a book looks like.

Home Screen

There are, as anticipated, virtually no changes to the home screen of iOS 8 as compared to iOS 7. It’s still the same grid of icons, and nearly all of the icons are, to my eyes, exactly the same. Passbook has, of course, gained a red stripe at the top for the credit cards it will now hold, if you have an iPhone 6 (Plus) or an Apple Watch. The Music icon has also changed its gradient — it’s basically a flipped version of the previous version. Other than that, virtually identical.

While I didn’t expect any changes to the home screen in iOS 8, I was surprised at the fairly large selection of new wallpapers. In addition to the “underwater rays” image that was set as the default for the betas and the new default space-themed photo in the release version, there are fifteen brand new wallpapers available. Most are of flowers isolated on either plain black or white backgrounds; a couple are space themed, while the rest are nature themed. There’s a lot of snow going on in these new wallpapers, which is both pretty and quite chilling.

But there are no new dynamic wallpapers at all, which is peculiar. It’s not that anything was promised, but it feels almost forgotten with all of the new static images. All of the available dynamic wallpapers are the same animation in seven different colour schemes. A couple of the new still wallpapers — the “underwater rays” one, for example, or the bouquet — could easily be non-distracting dynamic wallpapers. It’s a small thing, but it’s a feature that feels neglected.

Notably, the Podcasts and iBooks apps, formerly requiring separate App Store downloads, now come pre-installed.

Recent Contacts

When you double-click the home button to enter the multitasking view, you’ll now see your friends’ faces across the top of the screen; or, if you’re understandably a bit lazy with your contact management, you’ll see their initials. At first, you’ll see your recent contacts, in order of last contact left-to-right. If you scroll to the left, you’ll see your favourite contacts, right to left. Tap on a dot and you’ll be able to contact them by phone, FaceTime, or send them a message.

It’s an implementation that I find a bit odd, but also a feature that I’ve unexpectedly used a lot. I’m not sure why it feels odd — it’s a screen where you can see your most recent apps, so why not see your most recent contacts, too? It makes sense academically, and I use it a lot, but it feels confused.

Control Centre

iOS 7.0 vs. iOS 8.0. Also: iPhone 4S vs. iPhone 5S; AirPlay vs. AirDrop; Joy Division vs. the Underachievers.
Old vs new Control Centre

Control Centre was a great addition to iOS 7; in iOS 8, it receives almost no new features, but it does get a makeover. It’s now a dark-on-light sheet, with clearer icons and more apparent on/off states. The content “underneath” the sheet still dims when Control Centre is active but, happily, it now un-dims when you change the brightness so you get a much better idea of what you’re setting it to.

The very few new features afforded to Control Centre are related to iTunes Radio: you can now see the number of skips remaining, and there’s a new “Buy” button if you’d like to keep the song currently playing. Other than those additions, Control Centre remains great at doing what it does: making it quick and easy to toggle frequent settings, open frequent apps, and control your tunes.

Notifications

As of iOS 5, notifications no longer interrupted every damn thing on your phone with gross modal popups, and it was glorious. But, for many, simply being notified about stuff on their phone in a less intrusive manner was not enough. “Why wasn’t it possible to interact with these notifications, too?”, they wondered. Say you receive an email that you know you’re going to delete anyway. Why was it necessary to tap on it, switch to Mail, tap the trash icon, double-click the home button, and return to what you were doing?

In iOS 8, notifications gain this much-requested functionality and a whole lot more. Sure, you can now tap to immediately delete an email, but you can also immediately reply to text messages without leaving the app you’re in. Developers can use this power, too: Facebook, for example, could allow you to Like or comment on something without having to open their app. And you can do all of this from the lock screen and Notification Centre itself as well, which is very handy.

I’ve found that it’s necessary to be more acutely aware of how precisely you can tap on small things onscreen while trying to interact with notifications inline, though. The buttons on an email notification banner are just 27 points tall, significantly shorter than the 44-point minimum Apple recommends for tap targets. An errant tap just outside of a button will switch to the app that sent the notification. This is the expected behaviour on iOS 7, but it feels more irritating on iOS 8 because this is exactly what was being avoided by attempting to use the buttons on the notification.

It gets more tricky when replying to text messages. While it would be antithetical and, therefore, somewhat silly to compose a lengthy text from a quick reply box, it is maddening that an understandable stray tap can erase an entire message. Here’s the play-by-play:

  1. See notification of new message appear at the top of the screen while using the phone.
  2. Swipe downward on it to reveal the quick reply box with a send button.
  3. Tap out a full reply on the keyboard at the bottom of the screen.
  4. Move thumb up and across half the display to the send button in the upper-right like trying to span a river of lava, because tapping in the empty space between the keyboard and the send button will dismiss the notification and erase all traces of the message.

I have mistakenly lost more than a handful of messages in this way. The problem is created through a combination of a considerable physical distance between interactions, and a small tap target. And this was on my 5S; I imagine this would be quite challenging on the iPhones 6 unless you invoke Reachability.

Despite its occasional frustrations, it’s a very useful piece of functionality that I’ve wanted for a long time. My nitpicking is just that: nitpicking. I love what is possible already with interactive notifications, and I’m very excited to see what developers do with them.

Notification Centre itself receives some great improvements in iOS 8. The Today view’s weather widget now has an icon to represent current conditions, and it appears to more reliably display the current temperature rather than the forecast. The curious and often confusing “Missed” tab has also been removed, leaving just “Today” and “Notifications”. Finally, third parties can now build widgets for use in Notification Centre — more on this later.

One final observation. With Control Centre now using an icy white background instead of the mid-grey it used before — neither light nor dark — Notification Centre remains the sole use of an overlay sheet with a dark background. The very dark background isn’t bad so much as inconsistent. I’m sure there’s a really great reason why Notification Centre doesn’t adopt the same icy white background as Control Centre, but I’m struggling to think of what that reason could be. Perhaps I’m arguing out of pure principle, but I can’t see why Notification Centre is so special and unique that it requires an inverted colour scheme.

Spotlight

The most notable change to the home screen comes by way of Spotlight. Formerly relegated to searching through your phone, Spotlight is now also a powerful search engine. You can almost think of it as the return of Watson or, if you prefer, Sherlock.

Depending on where you live, Spotlight will now display top hits or good guesses for websites, apps, items in the iTunes Store and iBookstore, locations nearby, news, and movie times. I’ve found everything but the latter two items to be functional where I live.

Spotlight is still accessed by the same gesture of swiping downward on the home screen, though it now blurs the icons behind it. This animation is perfectly smooth every time on my iPhone, but occasionally sluggish on my iPad. Start typing, and results from both your device and the web will rapidly appear. It’s extremely convenient to be able to search for, say, “coffee” and have a list of local coffee shops pop up without having to open Maps or Yelp.

It’s important to be extremely precise with your typing. Spotlight appears to perform no spell check, autocorrect, or even search approximation. Typing “beas” will suggest the Beastie Boys, but if you keep typing and make a mistake — “beass”, for instance — it will have no clue what you’re trying to type. And, like I said, there’s no autocorrect. Bizarre.

I’ve noticed that it will sometimes only search your local device on the first try — trying the query again will reset Spotlight and it will make the proper web-wide search. It’s also not always the smartest search engine, either. Typing, say, “Indian food” will, indeed, find Indian restaurants near me, but typing “Egyptian food” will only suggest the Wikipedia article for Egyptian cuisine, despite there being an Egyptian restaurant a block away. Typing “coffee” will find nearby coffee shops, but typing “cafe” will suggest CafePress. When it works, it’s extremely nice; when it doesn’t, it’s opaque and baffling.

It’s also a sensitive and delicate flower. Searching nearly any band will show suggestions on iTunes, but try typing a band with profanity in its name (Fuck Buttons, Fucked Up, Holy Fuck) and it’ll pretend it can’t hear you. Oh, it knows perfectly well what you want because it’ll find local results for that, but it absolutely will not search the web, iTunes Store, or Wikipedia for those phrases. I understand that Apple wants to be friendly to parents and kids, but my iPhone is registered to my Apple ID, so they also know my age. Can’t they just assume that I did not accidentally type “Fuck Buttons” into Spotlight and that I would actually like to read their Wikipedia article and buy some music?

Safari

To think that Safari started life in 2003 as a simple frame around the web is to consider just how far our expectations have come for what a frame around the web should do. It now runs on our iPhones and iPads, not just our Macs; it’s vastly more powerful underneath while retaining an interface of simplicity. In iOS 8, it gets far more powerful while retaining a virtually identical user interface.

For a start, the Spotlight functionality above is available within Safari’s address bar. That means you can bypass your search engine of choice — be it Google, Bing, Yahoo, or, now, DuckDuckGo — and go straight to Wikipedia, or Maps, or a high-ranking website. While that’s very handy, there are also iTunes Store and iBookstore suggestions that appear whenever you type the name of media available on either store — this feels a bit more like a sales push rather than a helpful suggestion.

The iPad version of Safari has been significantly upgraded to be nearly on par with its Mac counterpart. Instead of relegating bookmarks, shared links, and the Reading List to a popover, there’s now a sidebar on the lefthand side which is far more intuitive for triaging all those links. There’s also the great new interface when you tap the button to see all of your open tabs on your iPad, and all that are open on your other devices. It’s the same UI as is used in Yosemite, and it makes the browsing experience feel much more powerful while also making it easier.

Safari on iPad.
Safari on iPad

The iPad version of Safari has also gained a feature from the iPhone version: when scrolling, the address bar now retracts. You’d think that it wouldn’t make much of a difference on such a large screen, but it makes web browsing that much more immersive. With just the tiniest bit of window chrome at the top of the display, the feeling that you’re holding the web in your hand is made more prominent.

There are also a couple of slightly hidden functional improvements. Safari now includes the ability to request the desktop version of a site if you’ve been redirected to a stupid mobile- or tablet-”friendly” version — OnSwipe, I’m looking at you. Tap on the address bar and scroll up to see the “Request Desktop Version” button. Tap it and it will change this user agent string…

Mozilla/5.0 (iPad; CPU OS 8_0 like Mac OS X) AppleWebKit/600.1.4 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/8.0 Mobile/12A365 Safari/600.1.4

…into this:

Mozilla/5.0 (Macintosh; Intel Mac OS X 10_10) AppleWebKit/538.44 (KHTML, like Gecko) Version/8.0 Safari/538.44

Magical.

Since it’s just a user agent switcher, this trick doesn’t work for responsive sites which are dependent on viewport or device width. However, it works well on the more pesky kinds of “mobile optimizing” plugins.

Finally, if you’ve been mourning the death of RSS, you’ve been mourning too soon. It’s back, baby; once again, there’s an RSS reader built into Safari. On any site with an RSS feed, tap the sharing icon and you’ll see a new option: “Add to Shared Links”. Tap that, confirm it, and you’ll get the latest updates to your favourite websites alongside links shared by friends on Twitter. I feel obligated to point out that this poky little site has an RSS feed, so you could try this feature out right away. I’m just saying.

Messages

iOS’ messaging client has seen very few changes since iOS 5, when iMessage was introduced. The mobile messaging landscape, however, has evolved dramatically in that time. On the surface, iOS 8′s myriad new features in this app sound fantastic, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

iPhemeral (Groan)

One of the most significant developments of the past several years has been the introduction of ephemeral messaging services like Snapchat. Instead of assuming users want to keep their messaging history forever, there’s now a setting to delete messages after either thirty days or one year (or you can keep all messages forever, like some kind of hoarder).

There’s also a Snapchat-esque way to send expiring photos, and audio, and video clips. If you thought Snapchat’s implementation of photos was bare-bones, you’ll be surprised to know that iMessage is even more stripped-down. You can’t even choose whether or not for the flash to come on, let alone select a filter.

iMessage audio UI
These ephemeral clips are sent with a really simple thumb-based gesture, which is both very clever and a little tricky to find. Tapping on the audio icon — which replaces the “Send” button until you type any text — will prompt you to instead press and hold the button to send an audio message. However, if you tap on the camera icon on the other side, you’ll be presented with the photo picking sheet — the gesture to send a quick photo or video remains hidden unless you know about it.

The obvious comparison is, of course, to Snapchat. For reference, Snapchat photos are typically about 50–100 KB, while a ten-second video clip is about 1 MB. I couldn’t get pixel dimensions or codec details, but “Jonicraw” on the XDA Developers forum has successfully used video of 240 × 352 pixels, with a tiny 192 kbps bitrate (I doubt that figure, by the way). Whatever the case, it’s tiny and the quality is pretty crappy, but it’s fast.

Unlike Snapchat, iMessage doesn’t compress images and videos like crazy. Photos are 1,080 × 1,920 pixels, resulting in files of about 250–350 KB, depending on the photo. Videos are, naturally, much larger: I filmed a ten second clip and it weighed a full 19.4 MB. And this, I think, is where this feature falls hard on its face. Snapchat video looks like shit, but it’s fast to send and uses very little data. It’s an ephemeral message, after all, not a work of cinematic art. Apple’s implementation of ephemeral messaging, on the other hand, is a full HD video, uses twenty times as much data, and takes a comparatively long-ass time to send even on LTE.

The ephemeral audio feature is pretty intriguing. Snapchat is great for disappearing text, photos, and videos, and it has seen plenty of competitors try to jump in that space. But I could only find a single Snapchat-for-audio app: Wickr. Unlike the App Store, Google Play makes its install base figures public, and Wickr has 50,000–100,000 downloads. By comparison, Snapchat has 50,000,000–100,000,000 downloads. Wickr simply isn’t that popular.

I don’t understand why not, though. Leaving a brief audio message is a great way of sending a message that’s more personal than a text message, and less interruptive than a phone call. Apple has executed many aspects of this feature remarkably well, too. The resulting audio files are tiny and heavily-compressed — typically less than 1 KB per second — making them perfect for a simple voice message that sends and receives quickly. When the other end receives the message, they don’t have to interact with the notification at all. They can simply raise their phone to their ear and the audio message will play. They can respond in a similar manner, like they’re just taking a phone call. Or, as mentioned above, you can press and hold on the button in Messages to record audio, then flick upwards to send it.

This gesture-based interaction sounds really great on paper, but in practice, I’ve found it more of a mixed bag. It’s a difference of how the iPhone is ideally used versus how I actually use it. Both of these gestures are easily triggered unintentionally. If you give your screen a wipe with your sleeve while Messages is open, for instance, it can trigger the mic-flick gesture. Similarly, I occasionally triggered the raise-to-speak gesture while simultaneously lifting my phone from my pocket while unlocking it. I’m sure that, with practice, the way I use my iPhone will change to accomodate these gestures — I already remember to avoid wiping my display while Messages is open. But it’s something to get used to, and made it feel less like these particular gestures were doing work for me than I work was doing for my iPhone.

Media

Most recent photos in Messages
Speaking of the photo picker sheet (work with me here), it, too, has received a very nice upgrade. Remember Neven Mrgan’s suggestion of adding a “Last Photo Taken” option to the sheet? A number of apps, including Tweetbot implemented just that, but Apple has taken it one step further by showing you the most recent photos you’ve taken. Like the instant photo sharing above, it will send immediately if you tap “Send n Photo(s)”. You must tap “Add Comment” if you want to include a text message with the image, even if you’ve already entered text into the compose box. It makes sense, as the label doesn’t say “Insert n Photo(s)”, but I have occasionally remembered this only after sending the photo separately from the textual comment. You are probably smarter than I am, though.

Messages details view

Details

One of the nicest new features is the killer Details view. If you’ve already set up location sharing with Find My Friends, you’ll see where a contact is. You can also send your current location to any contact, regardless of whether they have iMessage. I’ve found this feature extremely useful in the past couple of months of testing, letting my friends know where I am in a crowd, or showing them how far away I am from where we’re meeting up. You can now enable Do Not Disturb on a conversation-based level, so if one of your contacts is being a little noisy but you need to keep notifications on for everyone else, you can. Finally, there’s an infinitely-scrolling grid of all the media you’ve ever sent or received with that contact.

Group Chat

Group messaging in Messages has always had so much promise, yet failed spectacularly on extremely basic things — things like, say, leaving a group thread. It’s an incomprehensible omission that has been remedied in iOS 8, along with the ability to kick others out of a chat.

The killer Details view above is really great for group chat, too. Because it integrates basic location information for people within a thread, you could set up specific group threads for your family, or your drinking buddies, or whatever your friend groups are. You might even already have these group chats set up. Then, you could easily see where those friends are, or where your family members are.

These group chat enhancements are a long time coming, but they’re totally worth the wait.

As far as the rest of Messages goes, it is like I said: a mixed-bag of changes. Details view is great, while video messaging completely misses the mark. Quick photo and audio messaging are nice to have in a first-party app, but don’t feel nearly as essential as the new photo picker sheet.

Maps

Apple made just one big announcement regarding Maps in iOS 8, which is that it has vastly improved support and cartography in China. That’s really great to hear, but I don’t live in China. “What’s in it for me?” he asked, selfishly ignoring the world’s biggest population.

Well, it turns out that there have been a slow series of improvements over the past year to Maps. Belgrade, my example city from last year, has finally gained the river Apple denied the existence of. But, while Apple has been busy adding nature back where it belongs, Google has improved their already-better data. Even at a high zoom level, it’s apparent that Google clearly has better mapping data in Belgrade (and, it must be said, much of the world).

Belgrade in Google Maps
Belgrade in Apple Maps
Belgrade in Apple Maps, zoomed

Here in Calgary, I’ve found significantly fewer data problems. Many of my longest-standing reports have been resolved in the past year, and it’s clear that Apple has invested a lot of time and effort into bringing the service up to the expected standard.

Maps problem report
When you do find and report an issue, you’ll now be offered the opportunity to attach a photo, and to allow Apple to contact you via your Apple ID email address should they have any questions.

There are also kinda-sweet Flyover “tours” of select major cities around the world. Wherever you see a “3D” icon beside a city, you can tap to start a Flyover tour of notable landmarks in that city. Because it uses Flyover’s automatically-generated 3D mapping, it’s not actually like flying over a city in a helicopter, unless that city was recently inhabited by giant lizard monsters. It’s kind of cool, but also a bit corny. It’s the kind of feature that will be fun on a snowy Sunday afternoon, but it’s probably not something you’re going to play with on a regular basis.

I am becoming more and more impressed with the quality of Apple Maps. They didn’t add transit directions, nor have they introduced indoor maps (though those are coming soon) — for where I live, there are no new headlining features this year. It’s clearly not as good as Google Maps is in much of the world, but the data quality has been substantially improved to the point where I think people in many parts of the world can start to trust it. That’s a really big deal.

Camera

Apple’s approach to photography has always followed a script of trying to get the best results with the absolute least effort on the part of the person pressing the shutter. Of course, they’d love to add some features for more advanced users, but in a way that doesn’t add complexity to the UI for regular users who just want to take a picture. So, while Camera looks exactly the same in iOS 8, it’s learned some great new tricks.

Tapping to focus looks the same, but if you scrub upwards or downwards, you can now change the exposure of the image. You can even press and hold to lock focus, then scrub to change and lock the exposure. While the image processor in the A7 generally does a good job at finding the correct exposure for an image, sometimes you just want it to be a little more or less than its assumption. Apple’s implemented a very simple interface for that, and I’ve used it tonnes.

There’s also a great timer mode for perfect group shots. You can set the timer to either three or ten seconds; when the timer hits zero, it will take a burst of ten photos on devices that support burst mode. That way, you should ideally end up with a photo where nobody’s blinking.

Finally, if you have slow motion video, it’s natural to have the complementary time lapse video mode. In my testing, it appears to run at about 15× real time speed, and it looks really good. As with any time lapse, you will have to keep this approximate-fifteen-times figure in mind, though: as video recording uses a lot of power, remember a minute of time lapse video will require fifteen minutes of heavy CPU use. But the results speak for themselves — it’s a full HD video, and the fact that it’s possible to shoot, edit, and upload this all from your phone never ceases to amaze me.

Of critical importance, though, is that all of this functionality was added and the Camera’s UI is virtually unchanged. It’s more powerful, yet instantly familiar to anyone who will be upgrading from iOS 7.

Oh yeah, and you can take panorama photos with an iPad now. People now take pictures with their iPad all the time, but it still looks ridiculous. I reserve the right to cringe a little whenever I see someone taking a panorama photo with their iPad.

Photos

iCloud Photo Library

It’s so easy to take loads of photos on any digital camera; it’s equally easy to take so many that you quickly lose track, forget to look at them, or forget to back them up. We’re now using our phones as our digital cameras, and they have far more powerful software and way better connectivity than any basic digital camera. So, naturally, they should be way better at editing and backup. There are loads of iPhone apps that take care of the editing part; backing up, though, is a bit stuck.

If you rely on the built-in Photo Stream, you only have access to your 1,000 most recent photos — nowhere near enough for the serious photo nerd. You can turn to a third-party solution, like Dropbox, but this requires an entirely separate app and service, and its photos are not available in the built-in Photos app. And then you switch to your iPad and you need to manually download those photos to show them to your friends. What you want is a way to effortlessly back up every photo you take, and have it available on every device.

iCloud Photo Library is, ostensibly, the mend for your woes. It’s as simple as it sounds: every photo you take, stored in iCloud. Unlike Photo Stream, iCloud Photo Library occupies your iCloud storage space, though Apple is blessedly less stingy with their new pricing tiers. While you still only get 5 GB of free storage, upgrading to 200 GB is just $4 a month, while 500 GB is just $10, and 1 TB is $20. The only stinginess I feel is with the 20 GB plan, which is $1 a month. While I understand that Apple is a business and shouldn’t leave oto much money on the table, it feels like nickel-and-diming to charge $12 per year for a relatively modest storage bump.

Minor gripes with iCloud pricing aside, iCloud Photo Library looks like it will be a very slick feature, and one that I — like so many others — have wanted for a very long time. Unlike Photo Stream, iCloud Photo Library stores all of the photos you shoot in the mysterious “cloud”, otherwise known as an enormous data centre somewhere in North Carolina. “Server Farm Photo Library” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, though. It’s designed to be virtually seamless, require zero input on the part of users, and allow them to feel like their memories are safe and protected.

I’ve told you all of this great stuff about iCloud Photo Library, and it truly appears to be a good service. But, weirdly, though Apple was touting it extensively at WWDC, they were absolutely silent about it at the iPhone 6/Apple Watch event earlier this month. In fact, if you enable it in Settings, you’ll see that Apple considers it a “beta”, and they’ve removed all references to it from their website. According to a press release from last week, the feature won’t even work until October, even if you turn it on in Settings.

If Apple really doesn’t consider the service ready for prime time, it’s a noticeable change of tone from earlier this year. It’s a cautious approach to such a critical online service, complete with a reminder to back up your photos before you flip the switch to turn it on. Apple hasn’t had the best success with online services; I hope they can get this one right, because I will use the hell out of it.

Photo Management and Editing

Formerly just an envelope around basic photo organization, Photos in iOS 8 has been upgraded to be a powerful and extensible photo management and editing app. It’s like iPhoto without so much cruft. In fact, Apple is so confident in the abilities of Photos that iPhoto won’t even launch on iOS 8.

To start with, there are some very capable automatic controls for improving a photo’s light and colour, and for converting it to black and white. The “light” control, for example, is actually a mix of exposure, highlight, shadow, brightness. contrast, and black point levels, algorithmically mixed to change the scene’s overall light. It’s kind of a magic trick to be able to so quickly and easily be able to improve a photo’s light and colour so much without the photo looking artificially enhanced. Of course, if you’d like, you can always fine-tune each of the individual controls, but most people are going to be really happy with the largely-automatic settings.

The cropping tool has also been significantly enhanced. It now does automatic horizon detection to straighten your photo. Surprisingly, it doesn’t use any sort of gyroscopic data, but rather tries to find the horizon through an algorithmic and visual process.

Continuity

At WWDC in 2011, Steve Jobs introduced the concept of iCloud by explaining that all devices now operate on an equal plane. No longer is the Mac the hub of your digital life; this role has now been occupied by the cloud. So, he explained, it made sense to “demote” the Mac to the same level as the iPhone and iPad. And it kind of worked — the last thousand photos you took with your iPhone or iPad would be available on all your devices; you could redownload iTunes content on any device without penalty; your iTunes library could live in the proverbial cloud. All good things.

But this approach has always felt a little half-assed. Take iCloud Tabs, for example, introduced with Mountain Lion and iOS 6. You could, theoretically, start browsing for something on your Mac, then hop onto the couch with your iPad and pick up where you left off. This required you to tap the little iCloud icon in Safari on your iPad, find the tab that you want (assuming it has synced, which has traditionally been something of a crapshoot), tap on it, and pick up there. Wouldn’t it be great if you could seamlessly jump from Safari on your Mac to Safari on your iPad without those extra manual steps? Hell, wouldn’t it be great to do this in every app that has iOS and OS X counterparts?

Or perhaps you have friends who still call you using the telephone, or text using SMS. You’ve been able to pick up FaceTime calls and iMessages on your Mac, but you’ve had to switch to your iPhone to take standard cell calls and text messages. Isn’t that such a hardship?

Well, alleviating these and other weird inconsistencies are part of Continuity, a set of technologies that allow your Mac and iOS devices to talk to each other in a much more comprehensive way. Best of all, if you have the requisite hardware, software, and typical configuration, it’s virtually invisible to set up. Your iOS devices need iOS 8, and your Macs need Yosemite; everything needs Bluetooth 4.0, and everything needs to be signed into the same Apple ID. Got all that? Great — Continuity technologies should, as the saying goes, just work.

There is one caveat with this section in particular: this is going to feel like a bit of a dual review of iOS 8 and Yosemite, the latter of which is currently in public beta and won’t be out until sometime this fall, probably in October. This is a “tentpole” set of features, so I’m sure they’ll make the cut, but just keep that in mind.

Handoff

Apple calls the ability to seamlessly move between your different Apple devices — including your Macs, your iPhone, and your iPad — “Handoff”. When it works — and it does regularly and almost flawlessly with my iPhone 5S, iPad Mini, and MacBook Air — it’s a beautiful thing. I can walk into my apartment while drafting an email on my iPhone and pick it up on my Mac. I can start messaging a friend on my iPad, then grab my phone and head out the door while continuing the conversation.

You invoke Handoff when you notice a small icon in the lower-left of the lock screen. Slide it upwards — of course, enter your passcode or scan your finger — and you’ll be directed straight into the app. It works similarly in the other direction, too: an icon will pop up to the left of the Mac’s Dock. Click on it, and you’ll open the app from the iOS device.

Handoff on a Mac.
Handoff on a Mac
Handoff is inconsistent with the way in which it will continue previous activities though. In the email example above, the email draft will be continued with the text insertion point in exactly the same place, as you might expect. But Messages won’t pass along the text you’ve typed so far in one app, and Safari won’t jump to the same scroll position. That said, it’s not a significant drawback — you’re probably not drafting A Tale of Two Cities in a text message — but it is something I noticed over the past few months.

Handoff mid-open.
Handoff mid-open
One surprising omission is any sort of iTunes Handoff. I wouldn’t necessarily expect it for, say, music, but I’d appreciate being able to hand off movies or podcasts.

It will be interesting to see how third party apps integrate Handoff, too. I’ve been testing the new version of Pinner, my favourite Pinboard client, and its Handoff integration is especially interesting because it doesn’t have an equivalent Mac app. So, if you’re reading one of your bookmarks in the app, you’ll be able to continue reading on your Mac in Safari — it just passes the URL along. Clever.

Phone Features on Your Not-iPhone

So some of your friends don’t have an iPhone? Or you actually make real phone calls? With Yosemite and iOS 8, you can now make and receive calls and text messages anywhere, though the latter feature won’t be here until October. It’s as simple and seamless as you’d like. Text messages behave exactly like iMessages, and phone calls behave like FaceTime Audio calls.

The mic and speaker used for a phone call automatically switches to the device you’re using. You can start the call on your Mac, then touch the green bar on your iPhone to switch to it. As best as I can figure out, though, you can’t go the other way.

There is one major limitation to making or taking phone calls using your Mac: there’s no way to show a keypad on OS X. This means I can’t buzz people into my apartment from my Mac, and you can’t phone anything with a phone menu without touching your iPhone. Once you use the keypad, the audio will, of course, switch to your phone. For typical calls, though, it’s very convenient.

The audio quality is hit-or-miss, however. I’ve taken a number of calls through my Mac using the mic on top of my Thunderbolt Display and most times, the other party has asked whether I’m in a tunnel or being held captive in a cell in a former Soviet Bloc country.

SMS messaging from your Mac or iPad is just like using iMessage. It’s almost completely seamless — the only indication that you’re sending text messages is the presence of green chat bubbles instead of blue ones. Unfortunately, during my testing, it was also about as reliable as iMessage: that is, not always good enough. Keep in mind that I’m describing a feature that has yet to be enabled on either platform, and I anticipate that its reliability will be improved by launch.

Mobile Hotspot

Personal Hotspot on a Mac running Yosemite
Personal Hotspot on Yosemite
You park yourself and your steaming mug of Yirgachefe on the comfy chair at the local café. You pull out your MacBook or WiFi-only iPad because you, like me, don’t really want to give your cell company more money than you absolutely have to. You discover — shock! horror! — that there’s no WiFi here. You grab your iPhone out of your pocket and go through the routine of opening Settings, tapping on Personal Hotspot, turning it on, and typing your long alphanumeric password in order to get on the internet. Then, when you’re done, you should remember to turn off Personal Hotspot, just to be safe.

What a pain in the ass.

Personal Hotspot on an iPad
Personal Hotspot on an iPad
Now, you can select your iPhone’s connection on your Mac or iPad just like any other WiFi network. The menu will show you your phone’s signal strength and its remaining battery, and you don’t even have to turn Personal Hotspot on manually. And, if you have iCloud Keychain enabled, you don’t even have to type in the password.

AirDrop

Introduced in OS X Lion, AirDrop was a technology that allowed users to “drop” files onto another Mac on the same network. In iOS 7, Apple added AirDrop to the iPhone and iPad, allowing you to send photos, locations, and other stuff to another iPhone or iPad. But, despite the two technologies sharing a name and a concept, they weren’t interoperable. Want to send a photo to a friend’s nearby Mac from your iPhone? Email it to them. Lame.

In iOS 8 and Yosemite, the two things named AirDrop are now one thing named AirDrop, and it works simply and invisibly. You can send files between any combination of iPhones, iPads, and Macs. What kinds of files? I’ve found that this is largley dependent on whether your sending from iOS device or from a Mac. A Mac can receive anything and, in theory, send anything, while an iOS device is much more limited. When you send a file from a Mac to an iOS device, one of three things will likely happen:

  1. If you send a photo, a video, a website, a Maps location, or a contact card, the iOS device will automatically open the file in its respective default app. Note that this list does not include audio files. This is the same behaviour as in the previous iOS AirDrop implementation.
  2. If you send any other kind of file and the iOS device has any apps that supports the file’s MIME type, it will suggest apps with which to open the file.
  3. If you send a file that the iOS device cannot open, it will tell you that it requires an app from the App Store, and try to provide you a list of apps that support that MIME type. It will also send a “declined” notice to the Mac. I tried sending all kinds of stuff to my iPhone — Quartz Composer plugins, Xcode workspaces, Macintosh services, system preference panes, and so forth. As you’d expect, almost no apps are available that support those MIME types, with the surprising exception of Quartz Composer plugins, which are apparently “supported” by various messaging applications and PDF editors.

Receiving a link.
Receiving a link with AirDrop
Receiving an openable file.
Receiving an openable file with AirDrop
Receiving an unknown file.
Receiving a file that requires an app with AirDrop

 

Hitting the Bluetooth Limit

So what’s the catch? Well, Continuity is reliant upon Bluetooth, specifically the 4.0 “low energy” standard. Unfortunately, if you have a fairly tech-heavy setup — you’re reading my silly blog, so you probably do — you’re likely going to run into the practical limits of Bluetooth. While the standard officially supports seven connected devices, Apple’s own support document says that the practical limit is “three to four devices”. The peripherals Apple ships with their Macs are typically wireless, so your keyboard and mouse or trackpad are two devices. Add your iPhone and iPad to that and you’ve hit the practical limit, and it sometimes shows. I’ve very occasionally seen spotty and unreliable Bluetooth connections on one or more of my connected devices, including my wireless keyboard and trackpad.

What this means is that I have needed to restart some or all these devices or reset their Bluetooth connections every so often in order to get Continuity features to function correctly. It’s rare, but it sometimes happens. If you run into this issue, my troubleshooting recommendation is to reboot everything, turn on Bluetooth one device at a time, and hope for the best.

iCloud Drive

iCloud was a bold vision for the future of cloud storage. While Dropbox, SkyDrive, Google Drive, and other providers were essentially building a remote version of a (My) Documents folder, Apple thought that they could do better. What people wanted, they thought, was seamless syncing between devices on a per-app level. Start a project in Pages on your iPad, pick it up later in Pages on your Mac, and make last-minute edits in Pages on your iPhone. That was the dream.

But the reality is that not everyone uses the same app on every device. The app you use to edit Markdown documents on your iPhone might be different to the one you use on your Mac. The app you use on your Mac might not even have an iOS counterpart. Therefore, a siloed solution is simply not sufficient for the way people actually use apps.

Apple has eased up on its grand vision with the introduction of iCloud Drive. Now it’s possible for any app to access any other app’s documents on any device. Oh, sure, Apple suggests an app-based folder structure, but you don’t really have to use it — you can make your own folders and store stuff at the root level without issue, though I’m not 100% certain if it’s a good idea to delete the individual app folders.

At launch, though, iCloud Drive has a big problem: its document syncing model is entirely incompatible with the “old” iCloud storage used in Mavericks, and Yosemite isn’t launching until next month. And iOS 8 prompts you to use iCloud Drive during the setup process. And there’s no way of reverting this choice. It almost certainly won’t delete your data, but you will not be able to sync documents between an app updated for iCloud Drive and an app not yet updated. For example, if you use Byword on your Mac and iPhone and Metaclassy updates the iPhone app before Yosemite’s release, and you move your documents to iCloud Drive, you won’t be able to get at them on your Mac. Oh yeah: you also probably have automatic app updates enabled.

I think this is a short-sighted way to launch such an important feature. Apple already doesn’t have the greatest reputation for cloud services; if they break users’ expectations on document syncing, shit will absolutely hit the fan. This seems like something that should only be rolled out when its Mac counterpart is good and ready.

Keyboard

First things first: the emoji keyboard is now enabled by default. You’ll see a little smiley face to the right of the punctuation switcher key instead of a globe icon if it’s the only secondary keyboard enabled. 👍.

They keyboard is one of the features of any smartphone that users will interact with most, so any change made to it is going to have a significant effect across the system. Therefore, it’s imperative that these changes must have their effects considered. The fiasco over iOS 7.1′s confusing shift button — stubbornly and unfortunately retained in iOS 8, by the way — demonstrates just how carefully updates to the keyboard must be approached.

It is this level of care that one would hope Apple has utilized when adding predictive typing to the stock keyboard in iOS 8. In essence, predictive typing, um, predicts what words you’re most likely currently typing or about to type and suggests them, so you can simply tap on one instead of writing it out in full.

Apple calls their predictive keyboard QuickType. To facilitate it in iOS 8, Apple has added a row above the standard keyboard with three boxes in it. Each box contains a word or, occasionally, a phrase that the keyboard thinks you’re likely to be currently typing or will want to type next; tapping on one will insert that word or phrase, followed by a space. Simple, right?

Things get a little more complicated when you’re midway through typing a word. The middle cell displays the best guess as to what you intend to type, while the righthand cell is a second option. The box on the left sometimes displays the current progress on the word between quotation marks, signifying that it will insert this text verbatim. At other times, though, it’s another full word or phrase option.

It’s pretty smart in unexpected ways, too: even though tapping a word inserts the word followed by a space, adding punctuation after the word doesn’t require you to remove the space first. Even the double-tap-spacebar-to-add-a-period shortcut works with a double-tap of the spacebar; that is, the addition by QuickType of a space after the word doesn’t make this shortcut a single tap. It tries to fit into your learned touchscreen typing habits.

So, how does this work in practice? Well, that really depends on your typing style. If you’re a slow touchscreen typer but a fairly fast reader, you’re probably going to like the predictive keyboard. It’s also pretty handy if you’re trying to one-hand type while carrying a bag or something. It’s much less nice if you’re someone who’s used to typing on an iPhone and seeing the little autocorrect balloons appear to let you know what word is going to be swapped out. See, when predictive typing is enabled, the middle cell with the word highlighted blue becomes the indicator of what the replacement word will be. The leftmost cell, with the word between quotation marks, is your way of cancelling the insertion of the word in the middle cell. I found it to be far too subtle, and a frustrating experience as a result.

I also didn’t find it made my typing any faster: I’ve used Apple’s touchscreen keyboards since I bought an iPod Touch soon after they launched in 2007, and I’ve become fairly adept at using them. The predictive stuff was a real curveball for me. I really tried using predictive suggestions regulalry and frequently. But, in practice, the unreliable nature of the suggestions oftentimes meant that I would keep using the keyboard normally and hope that I could catch the weirder suggestions before they were inserted, something that’s more challenging without the much more obvious autocorrect balloon. But there were a few times I was thankful to see it, like when I was carrying groceries with one hand and trying to add a reminder before I forgot.

It’s supposed to be quite a clever keyboard, too. Apple claims that this keyboard learns about the way you write to different people and within different apps. In reality, either I write pretty much the same everywhere, or any differences produced by this feature simply aren’t that noticeable. In fact, I’ve found it noticeable that it doesn’t learn what I type to different people — if I start a sentence to pretty much anyone with “I”, it predicts that I want to tell them that I love them. Damn you, autocorrect.1 I also found that it wasn’t very good at siloing the language that I use in Messages from the language I use in Mail. I occasionally write in CHOCKLOCK in Messages, and I’ve found that this has leaked into Mail and other apps, though I’m not sure why I’m complaining.

One of the smart things the keyboard does is present options: if someone texts you asking whether you’d like to order pizza, pasta, or salad, it will put “Pizza” in the first cell, “Pasta” in the second, and “Salad” in the third. The upper limit to these suggestions is obviously three — if there are more, it will display the first three detected items; with just two options, the third cell will suggest “I’m not sure”.

It’s also impossible to get it to suggest profanity. I tried using the above trick, but I replaced “pizza” and “pasta” with “fuck” and “shit”. Even then, I couldn’t get it to suggest either expletive. This is obviously an extreme (and stupid) case. But even milder expletives — damn, dammit, and crap — will not be suggested, even in appropriate contexts on a device where the owner has dutifully and painstakingly trained autocorrect to retain profanity. I’m not arguing that these should be the most prominent suggestions at every opportunity, but if I type “I feel like shi”, the correct suggestions are likely not “she” and “ship”, especially when QuickType is supposed to be contextaully-aware.

If you want, there are a couple of ways to turn off the predictive keyboard. You can temporarily disable it by swiping downward on the predictive bar itself, which will shink and leave behind a small “handle” that you can drag to show the predictive options again. I found myself triggering this hiding accidentally more frequently than intentionally. For a more permanent solution, pressing and holding on the keyboard switcher icon will show a small menu with a toggle switch. Or, of course, it can be turned off from the Settings app.

Of course, this would be a bigger problem if you were absolutely restricted to Apple’s system keyboard. In iOS 8, you are not. In fact, there are a whole bunch of ways that third-party developers can insert themselves into various parts of your system. Finally.

App Extensions

I’m struggling to think of a single feature requested as much in recent years by developers and users alike as the ability for different apps to share common data, and to access the data of other apps. Due to its tightly locked-down security model, there has been little support for this in iOS; the solutions for doing this have so far been kludgy. Some apps have used custom URL schemes and base 64-encoded files to enable this on some level, while others have agreed to use third-party frameworks. These workarounds are obviously just that: workarounds. They have significant drawbacks — low file size limitations, requirement of common support, and so forth — that should not be present in software developed in 2014.

Frankly, these workarounds shouldn’t even need to exist; an operating system based on OS X should be able to handle inter-app data sharing in a secure, manageable, and non-scary way. Yes, there are obvious security benefits to using an operating system that’s totally locked down, but there are obvious convenience benefits to using a more app-friendly OS. But perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Perhaps it is possible to have an OS that allows inter-app sharing of all kinds of data while retaining robust security. At least, that’s what Apple wants to demonstrate with iOS 8 and App Extensions.

There are six flavours of extensions afforded to developers:

  • Sharing
  • Actions
  • Third-party storage providers
  • Photo editing in Photos
  • Notification Centre widgets
  • Keyboards

That’s a big list of six, with a lot of possibilities. I’ve had first-hand experience with a few of these categories, and have seen the others in action. But this review’s conceptual heart is about iOS 8 itself, not third-party apps, so this part will be relatively brief and not a review of third-party apps using these APIs — that comes in part two of this review. For now, let’s break them down one-by-one, starting with basic sharing.

Sharing

Say you, like I, use Instapaper, and you read the New York Times. You’re browsing through the NYT Now app on the train and you come across a really fascinating article about a linguist critiquing restaurant menu descriptions. Just then, the train pulls into your station, so you need to quickly save the article for later reading. You could try to remember to do that, but you’ll probably forget, so you tap the Sharing button and you’re presented with two options: save it to your Reading List, or save it within the NYT Now app. Neither of these are preferable, because you use Instapaper as a place to dump articles you want to read later.

So what do you do? Well, if you’re like me, you first fill out the NYT Now’s feedback form requesting support for Instapaper for the nth time, which is the smartphone equivalent of writing a nasty letter. While you wait for them to manually add it, you copy the URL, open the Instapaper app, and save it manually. Meanwhile, you glance over at the passenger next to you who’s using a Nexus 5 and see her save stuff to Pocket from a bunch of different apps. Jealous?

In iOS 8, the developers of Instapaper, Pocket, Pinboard apps, and so on can now add their own sharing button to the share sheets of any app, both first- and third-party. It’s installed systemwide by tapping on the “More…” button of the share sheet from any app that would support the extension and simply flipping the switch. There is no indication, however, that a new extension has been installed and can be enabled.

You can place the button in whatever position you’d like, and even turn off system sharing options other than Messages and Mail, for some reason. Unfortunately, as of the golden master, the button likely won’t stay where you put it because there’s a longstanding bug that drops third-party sharing buttons to the end of the row.

Share extension
Share extension
Share extension

That aside, the button will now be available in first- and third-party apps that provides data the extension supports. It’s a feature that I, among many, have long wanted, and it’s very pleasing to finally have this capability.

Actions

There’s a second row of icons on a share sheet, too: Action buttons. These are differentiated from Sharing buttons by the way in which they use data. While Sharing buttons copy data from the host app into a receiving app or service, Action buttons enable another app to manipulate data in a host app. For example, you may use a Sharing extension to add something to a third-party to-do app, but you might use an Action to look up some highlighted text in a dictionary Apple doesn’t officially support. The former is copying content elsewhere; the latter is manipulating content in-place.

Actions and Sharing extensions do have a lot in common, though. They’re installed in a similar way and are invoked by similar means. But both Actions and Sharing extensions have a common drawback: they are only accessible via the Share sheet, which means that they’re not supported in apps that don’t have a Share sheet.

Mail's link actions
Say you’re really clever and subscribe to Dave Pell’s excellent NextDraft newsletter. You open the day’s edition in Mail, see a link you’re interested in, but realize that you don’t have time to read it immediately. Mail, unfortunately, doesn’t have Share sheets — why would it? Oh, sure, if you press and hold on that link, you’ll see an option to add it to your Reading List, but no third-party apps can modify this menu. Truthfully, it’s only a couple of tap to open the link in Safari and add it to your third-party reading app from Safari’s Share sheet, but it still feels like the system is more limiting than it should be. I know: I asked for a pony, I got a pony, and I’m complaining about not getting a horse. But this limitation was one that I forgot about until the first time I tried to share a link from Mail with a third-party extension and only then became cognizant of its vastly different menu.

Third-Party Storage

Apple “generously” provides 5 GB of free iCloud storage, but what if you prefer another service like Dropbox or SkyDrive? Sure, Dropbox has a great API for third-party developers, but what if you’d like to use its files in one of Apple’s apps, or another app that doesn’t have Dropbox integration?

Well, the third-party storage extension in iOS 8 is about to be your new best friend. Any app that supports iCloud Drive will also support third-party storage services with this system extension — requisite support for iCloud Drive is, indeed, the catch here. But near systemwide support for third-party storage options means that you can store your stuff with the provider of your choice and still use many of the apps you love. Put another way, the selection of apps you can use is now largely independent of the storage services it supports. That’s an all-around great thing.

Photo Editing

Fellow photo nerds: this is a big one. The App Store has some of the best photo editing apps available on any platform, mobile or otherwise. Each of these apps typically import a photo from your Camera Roll — perhaps even copy the photo into the app’s own library — and create a copy of the file after you save it. If the app doesn’t have its own library, it’s going to be a lossy copy of the file, locking all of your edits down.

In iOS 8, app developers can now add their own editing tools to the first-party Photos app. In addition to Apple’s own filters, for example, VSCOCam could potentially offer their far nicer ones for quick photo enhancement without having to open another app. I’ve only seen the developer demos of this, so I’m not sure what the limitations of the extension are. Presumably, it would be very difficult or nearly impossible to build all of the capabilities of VSCOCam, say, into a mere extension.

Happily, this isn’t necessary. In iOS 8, apps that edit photos can now edit the same file in place, nondestructively. That should mean no more lossy copies of the same file just to adjust the perspective in SKRWT before applying filters in VSCOCam.

Notification Centre Widgets

Editing Today view
At long last, the concept of widgets comes to iOS. Oh, sure, Steve Jobs called the Weather and Stocks apps “widgets” when he introduced the iPhone in 2007, but they’re apps, really. Notification Centre widgets are truly “widgets”, insomuch as they are an omnipresent way to view short snippets of information, much like the widgets of Dashboard, Konfabulator, and so forth.

These widgets all live in the Today tab in Notification Centre. They can be placed in any order between the Today Summary/Traffic Conditions, and the Tomorrow Summary, all of which are locked to specific positions when enabled. Unlike a hypothetical widget on the home screen, the visibility of Notification Centre can be toggled easily, and they’re accessible from within any app, and also from the lock screen.

When you install an app with a Notification Centre widget available, you’ll see a small badge below the “Edit” button at the bottom of the Today view. Tap it, and you’ll be able to activate and place the widget. While I prefer this approach to, say, a modal dialog that tells you every time an app update includes a widget, I think that this subtle indication will be missed by some users. Be prepared for developers including “What’s New” screens in their apps with steps to install their widgets.

Keyboards

I expected most of these extension types eventually in iOS, but I really, honestly, never expected this one: iOS users can now install third-party keyboards systemwide, and even run them exclusively, in place of any first-party keyboard.

Once you’ve downloaded an app from the App Store that contains a keyboard, you can add it through the familiar keyboard Settings screen, where there’s a new section titled “Third-Party Keyboards”. You can drag your new keyboard to the order you’d like, and use it from any app.

You’ll also see a warning that third-party keyboards can see everything you type. This sounds dumb and obvious, but it’s something I hadn’t fully considered before. Sure, you type “lol” on your keyboard, but you also type your credit card data, username and password combinations, and so forth. Surely any third-party keyboard that has extended network access would be a goldmine for hackers. Fortunately, this isn’t the case — selecting password fields and similar input areas will automatically bring up the system keyboard instead.

There are other limitations to third-party keyboards that you might not expect. For example, because they can’t draw outside of the keyboard area, they can’t offer inline ways to manipulate text. Third-party keyboards also cannot offer dictation because App Extensions can’t use the microphone.

What they can offer, though, ranges from the obvious to the wildly creative. There are, of course, gesture-based keyboards like Swype coming to iOS, and keyboards that promise to offer better autocorrect or smarter prediction capabilities. But there are more creative uses for third-party keyboard support, too. PopKey, for example, is a “keyboard” of animated GIFs. Then there’s TextExpander, which has used crazy hacks to try to enable systemwide support; TextExpander snippets can now, erm, expand in every app by way of a TextExpander keyboard.

And I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty excited by what I’ve seen so far in terms of shift key readability.

Extensions, Overall

You’ve probably noticed some common threads between the six kinds of App Extensions. They require a containing app, for a start — there’s no way to install just an extension — and, according to the rules of the App Store, the containing app must have some functionality itself beyond simply being a container for an extension. All extensions are also disabled by default, and require a user to manually enable them, often with subtle or even no indication that a new extension is available.

There’s one more aspect of App Extensions that I find fascinating for its possibilities, but also its potential for confusion. If you use third-party apps as system app replacements — Mailbox instead of Mail; Fantastical instead of Calendar; Chrome instead of Safari; Weather Line instead of Weather — it’s now plausible to make these apps feel more like defaults without official support from iOS to change default apps. You can send stuff to Pinboard or Instapaper instead of Reading List; you can use third-party apps to manage and edit your photos without cluttering up your photo library with duplicates.

Unfortunately, in most instances that I can think of, it’s still going to be clunky. For instance, Mailbox could offer a Sharing extension; unfortunately, there’s no way to hide the default Mail app on a share sheet. Google could add an “Open in Chrome” systemwide extension, but links will still open in Safari by default. Alternative weather apps could include their own Notification Centre widget, too, but users will have to turn off the entire Today Summary widget, which also includes calendar information.

All told, App Extensions are huge. Obviously. They’re arguably the single most important enhancement for developers since the introduction of the SDK in 2008. I could not be more excited to see what will be done with these APIs.

App Store

The App Store has been in rough shape for a while. Really rough shape. Sure, it has a whole lot of apps, and they’re downloaded a lot, and some developers around the world are reaping the rewards. But with 1.2 million apps in the store, it’s a gigantic pain in the ass to find anything, especially with the slow side-scrolling search introduced in iOS 6. Apple has tried to mitigate this by building collections of apps around certain themes, but it only goes so far. It, too, doesn’t hide the lack of obvious and significant features for developers and users alike. Apple is committed to proving that they’re not ignoring the feature requests. The App Store in iOS 8 is a big update — one of the biggest since its launch.

For a start, vertical scrolling is back, and I couldn’t be happier. Not a lot needs to be said about how clunky and slow the side-scrolling search UI was, and I’m glad this has been fixed. Trending searches are also displayed, so you don’t even have to type the names of some of the hotter new apps. It’s really sweet.

There are some great new user-facing features in the Store. Developers can now define app bundles, so users can purchase a whole set of apps. For example, an entire productivity suite makes sense being sold both as individual apps and as a bundle. If a user has purchased apps in the bundle, they can buy the bundle at an appropriately discounted rate.

There’s also a new middle tab. Apple seems to use the middle button in the App Store’s tab bar as a sort of playground; you’ll remember that last year, it was the fantastically useless “Apps Near Me”; the year before, it displayed Genius recommendations.

This year, a whole bunch of stuff all comes together in a very convenient way in the Explore tab. Here, you’ll find apps popular near you, in case you actually used that feature, as well as a directory of popular and featured apps, and Apple’s themed collections of apps.

The UI in this section is really interesting. Apple’s chosen a sort of vertical accordion that allows you to rapidly triage different app genres to find what you’re looking for. The “breadcrumbs” appear vertically stacked at the top of the screen, so you can always head up a level or two. This UI choice does, unfortunately, break both jumping to the top of the list by tapping the status bar, and the swipe-from-left gesture.

Unlike previous “middle tabs”, I’ve actually found myself using the Explore feature, though I’m not entirely sure why. It offers almost nothing on top of the standard Categories browser that you can get to from the top-left of the Featured tab — in fact, it seems to offer less. But perhaps that’s the point: it’s a more focused and less overwhelming way to browse the App Store.

There are some great new developer-friendly tools, too. In addition to standard image screenshots, developers can now add video previews to their apps’ listings. Apple’s even built a really slick way to record these — just connect your iPhone or iPad to a Mac running Yosemite, start a new QuickTime video recording (confusingly, not a new screen recording), and select your iOS device from the camera selection dropdown. Once you do, the device will get a clean status bar with no carrier, a full signal, a full battery, and the famous “9:41″ time. This isn’t added as an overlay — it’s actually changing it on the device, meaning you can take still screenshots using the same trick so you don’t have to muck about in Photoshop to get a really nice status bar.

Finally, Apple is at last offering an official and clean way of allowing much broader beta testing. You may recall that they acquired Burstly, makers of TestFlight, in February. TestFlight has retained both its name and a similar icon and is now the official way for Apple developers to distribute betas. Previously, anyone you’ve wanted to beta test your app would have to have their devices’ UDIDs added to the developer portal, to a limit of 100 individual devices per year. This has been a nightmare for developers, especially those in a large organization who will have a significant number of internal testers.

Now, up to 25 people, each with up to 10 devices, can be added as internal beta testers. They will receive any build of any app, regardless of how buggy it is. Apps for internal testing won’t have to go through the app review process. In addition, up to 1,000 external users can now receive beta copies of an app. These copies must comply with App Store rules and regulations, and developers can attach notes to the update to let testers know where they should focus their attention.

If you were reading carefully, you probably noticed that I switched from explaining about how developers had to add test devices to test users. It’s true: Apple now allows developers to add users by Apple ID or email address, not by device. This makes so much more sense. It’s more likely that you’ll want to distribute beta copies of an app to a person, not just a device, and they should be able to run the app on all of their devices.

The new App Store features are huge for both developers and users, but I anticipate it’s not enough. There’s still no opportunity for developers to do basic things like set an upgrade price, for example. It’s a big overhaul, but I anticipate that it’s not going to be quite enough for everyone. What is there, however, is really very good. I think it’s going to make a lot of developers happier, and make the browsing experience way better for users.

Health

Spot the days when I work an office job.
Between the Mx series of coprocessors in iPhones, and the release of their first wearable, Apple is making a huge push to try to get us to be more active and improve our health. By making us aware of how much physical activity we currently get in a day and enabling developer access to this information (with our consent), Apple hopes that we’ll get off the couch, if not to be as much of a fitness nut as is apparently Tim Cook. There are two components to this in iOS 8: the Health app, and HealthKit.

Health is an interesting sort of app from Apple. Out of the box, it does pretty much nothing at all. There’s a lot of data the app can glean — calorie intake, body fat, cycling distance, number of times fallen, manganese intake, and so forth — but it all requires additional hardware.

Happily, there’s a little bit of functionality that does work right away: there’s a step counter, a card that shows your walking and running distance, and a Medical ID card. If you have an iPhone 6 or 6 Plus, you’ll also be able to use the cards for flights of stairs climbed, and cycling distance.

I’ve found the step counter to be moderately accurate. It’s nothing like one of those pedometers you’d get in a box of Special K, but you can still sometimes fool it by shaking your phone as you sit on your ass. Because you presumably carry your iPhone nearly everywhere with you, though, it’s a much better approximation of the number of steps you take in a day, and how far you walk.

Turns out that writing a really in-depth review of an operating system is not the most physically-demanding activity.
Health step data
Oddly, the step counter displays its collected data in an overly verbose manner, to the point where it’s almost comical. It’s just slightly removed from having a separate entry for each step taken, and it seems like it should do a better job of collecting that data. Letting me know that I took two steps a few seconds ago, and two steps a few seconds before that, is not entirely useful. The collated data is, however.

The Medical ID is a very smart feature. You can fill in pertinent information like an emergency contact, blood type, height, weight, birthday, and whether you’re an organ donor. If you get knocked unconscious, a first responder can access the Medical ID from the “emergency” button on the passcode pad. In addition to allowing you to call 911, 999, and other emergency numbers, iOS 8 will also allow you to call your Medical ID emergency contact without unlocking the phone. I think this is a very smart, very conscious feature. It’s not something you’re going to use all the time (I hope), but it’s something you’ll be able to set up and forget about, and it might have your back one day.

But that’s all Health really does when you launch it: count your steps, measure how far you cycled, and allow you to make an emergency Medical ID. The other functionality is unlocked by way of third-party hardware — and, soon, the Apple Watch — and HealthKit, Apple’s framework for developers. Unfortunately, as of writing, there’s no hardware that yet supports this functionality, so I have had nothing to test here. I’m looking forward to revisiting this in several months.

In the interim, if you’d like, you can always manually enter the amount of riboflavin you consume.

Apple also stresses that the app is very protective of your privacy, keeping everything very locked-down. They’ve set rules in the App Store to prevent developers from selling data gleaned through HealthKit. I think I experienced just how protective Health is while beta testing iOS 8, in fact: when I restored my iPhone from my beta backup to upgrade to the GM, all of my Health data was not restored. My Touch ID setup was also not restored; Apple has previously clarified that Touch ID data never leaves the device. These were the only two things that had no restored data after the backup finished syncing. Curious.

I’m not a big fitness buff, but I’m very excited by the prospects of Health and HealthKit. It’s another piece of iOS 8 that will reveal itself as more developers build stuff for it, so it’s a bit of a waiting game. For now, though, it’s kind of cool to know that I took nearly 16,000 steps on Sunday just from running some regular errands.

Miscellanea

Mail

The workhorse productivity app that is Mail receives some modest but worthy enhancements to inbox management and composing.

In iOS 7, Apple added some Mailbox-ish swiping gestures to reveal buttons “below” table cells. In iOS 8, you can now swipe all the way right-to-left to immediately delete or archive a message. If you’re a Mailbox user, you might find the friction coefficient of this gesture a bit tricky to get used to. Occasionally, I found myself unintentionally deleting messages when I meant to flag them. Once you get used to the friction of the gesture, though, it’s as nice of a way to manage your inbox as it is in Mailbox.

(Seriously, Apple totally cribbed the gesture from Mailbox.)

Mail options
There are some additional options when you swipe either right-to-left or, now, left-to-right on a message. You can now choose to flag messages, mark them as (un)read, or set an additional trashing gesture. The last one is a bit peculiar: it’s something you can add to the left-to-right swipe, and includes this note:

Accounts that include Archive as a default action for swiping left will offer Trash for swiping right.

Mail drafts
I’d like to think that I’m not particularly dumb, but it took me a long time to figure out what the hell Apple means here. Basically, if the account typically archives by default, this will display a trash button (and full-swipe gesture); if it trashes messages by default, it’ll display an archive button.

Finally, when you’re composing a message, you can now drag the top of the message down to temporarily place the message in draft mode to get at your inbox. Then, tap or drag the bar with the message subject at the bottom to return to your draft. This is super handy for being able to copy/paste another message’s content into an email.

Touch ID

Formerly limited to being able to unlock your iPhone and make purchases from the built-in stores, Touch ID authentication is now open to third-party developers. It works pretty much as you’d expect as a user: if you want access to something, you plunk your finger on the home button. Easy magic.

In addition, Touch ID now works in more places. You know how you could use Touch ID to unlock your iPhone, but if you had waiting notifications, you had to type in your passcode? That always felt like a cop-out to me — a wasted opportunity. In iOS 8, that’s fixed. Swipe on a notification, put your thumb on the home button, and let Touch ID do its thing. It is a little more awkward than unlocking your iPhone with your fingerprint normally because your thumb has to go from swiping on a notification to the home button, but it’s a minor issue.

Update: Apparently, this was always possible in iOS 7, but I never figured that out. No joke. Because the screen always prompted for a passcode, I always typed my passcode in; I never tried my thumb. I wish I was joking about this. I’m supposed to be good at this stuff. Thanks to Benjamin Esham and Ben Sargent for pointing this out.

Weather

Weather app in iOS 8
The big news in iOS 8 is that weather data is now provided by the Weather Channel instead of Yahoo. Apparently, the Weather Channel has far more robust data because a longer forecast and extended weather data is available, as you can kind of see in the screenshot on the right.

Still can’t? Take a guess as to how you view that information.

The correct answer? Scroll the app vertically. There is absolutely no indication that this is possible. Even when you are scrolling, no scrollbars appear. It’s a totally opaque interface that I didn’t realize was there until I discovered it by accident. The crazy part is that Apple already solved this problem with horizontal scrolling in the same app: the grid is such that it’s impossible to make it appear as if you cannot scroll the day’s forecast horizontally. If only the vertical grid offered smoething similar.

I’ve found the Weather Channel’s data to be fairly accurate, certainly moreso than Yahoo’s. It’s still not as great as Forecast.io, for example, but it’s really very good. I did notice that a few of the cities I have in the app — London, Paris, Tangier — were not fully recognized when I upgraded from iOS 7. Current weather conditions and the associated animation for those cities was not displayed. I resolved the issue by removing and adding back those cities.

There’s one more awesome little thing: now that there are Notification Centre widgets on OS X Yosemite, too, Weather syncs your cities between the two platforms. Nice.

Siri

I have amended this section to reflect live dictation, which I entirely forgot about. That’s how well it works.

It is perhaps a little bit odd that I’m placing the flagship feature of a three-generations-ago iPhone into the “Miscellanea” section, but Siri clearly wasn’t a major focus of this release wasn’t as much of a focus for this release as were other parts of the system. There are a couple of extremely nice additions, though.

First up is Shazam integration. If you invoke Siri in a room when there’s music playing but you don’t say anything, Shazam will kick in and try to identify the song. It works as well as Shazam does, which is to say about 80% of the time.

I’m a little bit surprised that Apple is using Shazam when they must have a decent internal song matching program — it’s how iTunes Match works, after all. There must be a good reason for choosing a third-party app; I just can’t think of it.

Also, when you connect your iPhone to a power source, Siri will enter a passive mode where you can say “Hey Siri” without touching the home button. I’ve tried using this while cooking to read me my text messages and set timers, and I’ve had only moderate luck with it. Sometimes I feel like a complete idiot while standing there shouting “Hey Siri” at a small lump of unresponsive metal and glass. It’s typical Siri: when it works, it’s magic; when it doesn’t, it’s deeply frustrating.

Update: The most significant improvement to Siri is that it now displays its interpretation of your dictation in real time. It works so well that I completely forgot about it when I initially published this review, but it’s there, and it’s really great. To turn on live dictation shows that Apple is clearly far more confident in the speech recognition abilities of Siri this year. It’s really, really nice.

Tips

There’s a host of new functionality in iOS 8, and some of it is a little tricky to find — consider the additional gestures in Mail, or the swipe-to-send-audio gesture in Messages. Apple has therefore provided a built-in app to provide you tips on how to use iOS 8 better. It’s a really simple app, with little video hints, sort of like those that play on the screens behind the Genius Bar at an Apple Store.

Apple promises that they’ll push out new tips regularly, and they offer push notifications if you’d like to be alerted to new tips.

For those keeping count, by the way, Apple has added four new default apps — Podcasts, iBooks, Health, and Tips — that cannot be removed from the home screen, except to be nestled into the folder where you already keep Newsstand and Game Centre.

Settings

There are two great new features in the Settings app. First, every app on your phone now gets a menu in Settings, regardless of whether the developer puts the app’s settings in the Settings app. This makes it way easier to get at an app’s settings for typical app functions, like notifications, cellular data usage, privacy, and so forth. This can be a little confusing if an app also has options within the app for changing its settings. Perhaps this is some sort of giant nudge from Apple.

iOS 8 also brings the power consumption shaming menu from Mavericks. You can now see what apps are using the most of your battery life under General, Usage, Battery Usage. Unlike Mavericks, these are not real-time results; you can select usage from the past 24 hours, or the past seven days. In some instances, there will be an explanation for why an app is consuming extra battery power. For example, Tweetbot consumed 21% of my battery life in the past 24 hours, but that’s because I apparently kept using it when my phone had a low signal. Mail and NYT Now, on the other hand, can blame their power consumption on background activity.

This isn’t necessarily as definitively shaming as you might think, though. Apps that you use most will, obviously, consume more battery power than apps you use less frequently. In the past seven days, my home and lock screen usage is at 18%, but that’s because I kept getting notifications and replying to them from the lock screen. Par for the course.

But if you notice an app near the top that you use infrequently, that’s a good indication that it’s inefficient. It would probably be more useful to have a weighted list that takes into consideration the amount of time the app is being actively used versus the amount of energy it consumes.

Conclusions

This is a huge review of an operating system update that has yet to fully materialize. The amount of extensibility offered to third-party developers is unprecedented on iOS, and I am looking forward to seeing what they do with it.

Despite it being a huge review, there’s a lot I didn’t have time to discuss. There’s now support for travel time in Calendar appointments, and huge accessbility improvements that deserve their own article. Voice Memos has an entirely new UI that’s really quite nice. There’s a huge new iCloud feature targeted towards families, allowing parents to authorize their kids’ purchases.

But I’ve covered all I wanted to talk about in this review, and I think you’ll agree that this is an enormous iOS update. Over the past few years, we’ve seen Apple slowly lay the groundwork for a big leap forward in software and services. We — users and developers alike — are now reaping the rewards.2 Even if you’re not buying a new iPhone this year, you, iOS 8 is a big enough leap forward that you won’t feel like you’re missing anything.

That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with it. I’ve pointed out a number already, and I’m sure we’ll hear more reports as users update. It’s not without its flaws and its bugs. But I think iOS 8 is the biggest iOS release for users and the most exciting opportunity for developers since iOS 2.0. It’s really that big of a deal.

The second part of this review will be a lengthy consideration of what the new APIs in iOS 8 have enabled. I anticipate I’ll publish it in a few months’ time, but it may be sooner or later depending on the software landscape.


  1. On the plus side, there’s an interesting almost-poetry to the phrases and sentences predictive typing will construct if you just keep tapping the middle cell. 

  2. Yes, developers, I am keenly aware of how buggy and broken Xcode is this year and how painful it is to develop for many of iOS 8′s new APIs. 

September 16, 2014

John Gruber’s Initial Thoughts and Observations Regarding the Apple Watch

This is a masterful piece; probably one of Gruber’s best. The pricing of the Watch intrigues me, particularly this part:

I think Apple Watch prices are going to be shockingly high — gasp-inducingly, get-me-to-the-fainting-couch high — from the perspective of the tech industry. But at the same time, there is room for them to be disruptively low from the perspective of the traditional watch and jewelry world. There’s a massive pricing umbrella in the luxury watch world, and Apple is aiming to take advantage of it.

This is true, but there was a similar story in the luxury car world. Back in the early 2000′s, your choices for a large luxury automobile were quite boring. At the less-expensive end, you could buy a Lexus LS-series for about $60,000; they were nice cars, but fairly uninteresting. Or, you could be a traditionalist and buy one of the Audi A8, the Mercedes S-class, or the BMW 7-series. Nothing wrong with any of those, but they were all eye-poppingly pricey and a bit too traditional.

Volkswagen decided that they could compete in this space, so they built the Phaeton. It was priced between the Lexus and the Audi, but was far more technologically advanced than anything out there. Apparently, Volkswagen’s then-chair Ferdinand Piëch created a list of ten criteria the car must excel at, and this was a tall order:

Allegedly, the then-VW boss insisted that the Phaeton’s four-zone air-conditioning could maintain a 22 degrees Celsius cabin temperature after eight hours driving at 300km/h in 55 degree heat; and that its torsional body rigidity should exceed an impressive 37,000Nm per degree.

The Phaeton was arguably the most advanced car to exist in 2002. But, though it slotted into the price gap left in the luxury car market with something far superior to anything else, it failed spectacularly. Volkswagen simply didn’t have the brand cachet to compete in the luxury car space. If you’re dropping near-six-figures on a car, you’re probably going to want the badge to reflect that.

Apple faces a similar hurdle in the watch space, though not to the same degree. They clearly have some luxury brand cachet, and they’re definitely not going to be competing directly with Rolexes and Pateks, so they don’t need nearly that much. The “Edition” is clearly going to sell far fewer models than either of the other two,1 but I’m curious to see if we’ll see one on Jay-Z’s wrist, for instance. It’s a big, bold move for Apple.


  1. I’d wager that the Sport will sell more than the Edition and Watch combined 

September 15, 2014

Anger Over Songs Of Innocence

Marco Arment nails it:

The damage here isn’t that a bunch of people need to figure out how to delete a (really quite bad) album that they got for free and are now whining about. It’s that Apple did something inconsiderate, tone-deaf, and kinda creepy for the sake of a relatively unimportant marketing campaign, and they seemingly didn’t think it would be a problem.

There’s one further point I’d like to add as to why this felt so wrong: a music library is a deeply personal collection. It is the whole sum of your life’s soundtrack. It has songs that played while you were laughing with friends, crying alone, making out with your significant other, cooking, cleaning, falling asleep, waking up, working, walking, and so much more. As we are able to take increasing amounts of music everywhere with us, we are increasingly experiencing our lives alongside a soundtrack. Songs of Innocence is an unwelcome wart on my life’s soundtrack. It has inserted itself into my library near albums of far greater importance to me. It feels like a violation of something I cherish.

Here’s a thought exercise: what if it wasn’t a U2 promotion, with their fairly vanilla, insipid tunes? What if it was a band with a bit more bite, like Deftones, or a thirtieth-anniversary reissue of Hüsker Dü’s excellent Zen Arcade? What if it was a tie-in with Run the Jewels’ new record? I wouldn’t have a problem with any of these options, but I suspect many would take offence at being pushed an album with profanity or — shock! horror! — a pointed opinion. I would, however, have a problem with the principle of it. As much as I love Run the Jewels, their new record won’t be added to my iTunes library until I do it myself.

September 14, 2014

On Death and iPods

Mat Honan, Wired:

Nobody had seen anything like it before. It had a 5GB hard drive packed into a device the size of a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t even know anyone was making hard drives that small. To get through all your songs, it had this wheel that let you click and click and clickckckckckckckckckckck your way through thousands and thousands of songs.

It cost $400. Out of my price range, by a long shot. (I was a junior editor at Macworld trying to pay rent in San Francisco.) But I saved and saved until I could afford one.

Suddenly, they were everywhere. White earbuds on the bus. White earbuds on the plane. White earbuds on every street I walked down, in every city in America. Sometimes you’d go to a party, and the host would leave the iPod hooked up to the speakers, so everyone could take turns DJing. Click the wheel and rock the party.

This day was bound to come eventually, but the quiet death of the Classic is a truly saddening moment. The iPod cemented Apple as the purveyor of cool, and you were immediately mad cooler if you owned one. I felt immediately cooler with my silver Mini, and then my ridiculously oversized (for the time) 60 GB Classic. A friend of mine owned a third-generation iPod — the one with the wheel and the four touch-sensitive buttons across the middle, below the screen. I had friends with Nanos when they were first released, and other friends with Shuffles. Even if you didn’t own an iPod by 2006 or so, you could quickly name ten people you knew with one. And the ads have become totally iconic.

I’ve long harboured a suspicion that the iPod Classic would be discontinued as soon as the iPod Touch got 128 GB of storage, though, and I think this is the year that happens.

Every product line has a lifespan, though. The iPod’s was long — 13 years — and it’s still going. Just not with the one that started it all.

September 11, 2014

iPhone 6 Displays Demystified

If you followed the rumour blogs prior to Tuesday’s Apple event, very little about the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus came as a surprise to you. The one thing that is surprising is the way in which the 6 Plus handles scaling. It is, as many predicted, a 1,242 × 2,208 pixel interface, but the display itself is 1,080 × 1,920 pixels, so the interface is scaled down to fit. Pixel-perfect scaling of @2x interface elements was already going to be a challenge, but the display itself is not pixel-perfect. It’s “better” in a numbers game against the iPhone 6 and it may look alright at 401 pixels-per-inch density, but that feels like a significant compromise.

September 10, 2014

SwiftKey Keyboard for iOS

I don’t know about you guys, but I’m pretty stoked to be able to tell whether my shift key is active or not.

“Historical”, My Achtung Ass

Remember ABC’s use of the word “historical” to tease Apple’s keynote? Remember how I got suckered into this, but also reminded you that the last time Apple hyped something to this extent it was the Beatles on iTunes?

Should have seen the U2 thing coming:

“U2 has been an important part of Apple’s history in music and we’re thrilled to make ‘Songs of Innocence’ the largest album release ever,” said Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services. “We get to share our love of music today by gifting this great new album to over half a billion iTunes customers around the world.”

That’s why ABC called it “historical”, and likely not without some prodding.

Gotta wonder if this has a similar arrangement to Samsung’s giveaway of Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, too. Samsung, if you recall, bought a million copies of the album, thereby qualifying it for top 40 charts. Did Apple “buy” 500 million copies of Songs of Innocence? While we’re at it, is U2, as Mitch Bartlett so eloquently put it, a band or a business?

Sure, it’s “historical” for 500 million people to own a single album all at the same time. But there’s a huge difference between 500 million people buying an album and 500 million people being given an album. We buy albums we like or might potentially like, from artists that we already know or look interesting. I wasn’t planning on buying this record, yet I now own it. That’s weird, and not in a “pleasant surprise” kinda way.

It’s like when Radiohead released In Rainbows, or Saul Williams released “Niggy Tardust”, or Nine Inch Nails released “The Slip” for as much as you want to pay — even free. They didn’t push it to my phone or your iPad. As a result, they felt less like marketing ploys and more experimental and genuine. And, as a result of that, I have purchased all three albums, and I suspect many others have done the same.

As for the U2 album itself, it’s pretty typical U2. Once you’ve heard anything from All That You Can’t Leave Behind onward, you’ve heard everything they’ve done in that time period. They call this record “very personal“, but they also said that about their previous effort. It’s not bad so much as consistently uninteresting.

Unexposed Edition Field Notes

Field Notes:

Here’s what we can tell you: each “Unexposed” pack features three 5.5-inch x 3.5-inch 48-page memo books in an opaque black sleeve.

We won’t ruin the surprise by giving away any more than that, except to say that each pack contains three of the six memo books that make up this edition. So, there are 20 different possible combinations. Which combination you receive is left up to chance. You don’t know what you’ll get, and neither do we! But we’re confident you’ll enjoy them.

I’m ordering a pack of these because of the accompanying film alone.

Stepping Off

Macworld senior editor Roman Loyola was laid off today, along with much of the rest of Macworld. Truly terrible news.

Jason Snell also quit today:

Last December, after several corporate leadership changes, and with budget cuts looming on the horizon, I decided I couldn’t go on. My newest set of bosses persuaded me to stay give them a chance. So I continued to work and ponder my next move.

Then another leadership shift occurred, the sixth in 24 months. The new bosses were actually my old bosses, and they knew exactly how I was feeling about my job and the prospect of going through more painful changes. To their great credit, they allowed us to end our relationship amicably. I thank them for their support and their generosity.

Just awful news all around.

September 9, 2014

The First Product-Launch Keynote

Waiting patiently — desperately, even — for my frankly legendary take on today’s exciting launch? Amuse yourself in the interim.

September 8, 2014

“A Day to Remember”

Then again, the last time I remember this much pre-announcement hype, it was about the Beatles on iTunes. So, you know, a reminder not to lose your shit just yet.

Understanding Apple’s Mastery of the Media

Speaking of Apple and the media, Mark Gurman’s extensive explanation of the way the company plays with the press is required reading. Linking to it is, I assume, grounds for not receiving any more of the press invites and sweet scoops that I never got anyway. C’est la vie.

Apple’s really good at pushing buttons behind the scenes and, of course, great at working the press post-launch. But I think the aforementioned “historic” teaser on ABC is unprecedented. I’m sure it’s ABC who used the word “historic”, not Apple, but how often does a teaser that strong come along about Apple, and what prompted the use of that word?

ABC News Teases Report of ‘Historic’ Apple Announcement

I know the American news media has a tendency to blow things out of proportion, but something about this is different. My Spidey sense tells me that tomorrow’s announcements are going to change the course of the company in a big way.

The Elephant Outside of the Frame

The photographer Errol Morris once gave an excellent lecture wherein he explained the concept of a hypothetical elephant outside of the frame. The idea of this is whether a photograph — often considered prime proof of an event — can be honest if it doesn’t include all available information. Put another way, is there anything just outside of the framed area that might be relevant or pertinent?

Anyway, I only bring this up because Amazon reduced the price of the Fire Phone from $200 to $0.99 today, and I made Jeff Bezos a graph of Fire Phone sales for his next presentation:

Amazon Fire Phone sales

September 7, 2014

“What Smart, Efficient Design Looks Like”

The main way Samsung’s Galaxy Alpha is differentiated from the iPhone 5S is that its faux antenna breaks are on the top and bottom instead of on the sides. Also, it says “SAMSUNG” on the front, just in case you forget what phone you’re using. I wouldn’t blame you, though.

September 4, 2014

Joan Rivers

Another one of my very favourite public figures has passed away.

“My parents just didn’t like me. Till I was 9, my mother was trying to get an abortion. That sticks with you. That hurts. She said to her doctor, ‘Is there any possible way to get rid of this thing?’”

Twitpic is Shutting Down

More Twitter-is-now-behaving-like-a-huge-company news. Noah Everett:

We originally filed for our trademark in 2009 and our first use in commerce dates back to February 2008 when we launched. We encountered several hurdles and difficulties in getting our trademark approved even though our first use in commerce predated other applications, but we worked through each challenge and in fact had just recently finished the last one. During the “published for opposition” phase of the trademark is when Twitter reached out to our counsel and implied we could be denied access to their API if we did not give up our mark.

Unfortunately we do not have the resources to fend off a large company like Twitter to maintain our mark which we believe whole heartedly is rightfully ours. Therefore, we have decided to shut down Twitpic.

Guess we have to get used to the formerly-friendly Twitter becoming a bully. Shame.

Twitter Timelines Are Going to Change in a Big Way

Yoree Koh, Wall Street Journal:

This is related to Twitter’s larger aim to better organize its content—to separate the interesting and timely tweets from the noise. Twitter has already begun tweaking the timeline where tweets appear—most notably (and controversially), by introducing tweets from accounts users haven’t chosen to follow.

Twitter’s timeline is organized in reverse chronological order, a delivery system that has not changed since the product was created eight years ago and one that some early adopters consider sacred to the core Twitter experience. But this “isn’t the most relevant experience for a user,” Noto said. Timely tweets can get buried at the bottom of the feed if the user doesn’t have the app open, for example. “Putting that content in front of the person at that moment in time is a way to organize that content better.”

Twitter has always had a bit of a shaky business model, especially if you look at the way it was used in about 2008 or 2009. I understand that these changes will allow users to Engage with Brands™ and therefore drive Twitter’s revenue, but this is ultimately a really shitty move for users. A Twitter timeline is a user’s rolling guide to the day, as viewed through the scope of their interests and time. That much is absolutely central to the Twitter experience, and should be sacrosanct for the company. It’s too bad that they don’t see it that way.

September 2, 2014

Notes on the Celebrity Data Theft

Nik Cubrilovic:

What we see in the public with these hacking incidents seems to only be scratching the surface. There are entire communities and trading networks where the data that is stolen remains private and is rarely shared with the public. The networks are broken down horizontally with specific people carrying out specific roles, loosely organized across a large number of sites (both clearnet and darknet) with most organization and communication taking place in private (email, IM).

This is frightening. It’s not just celebrities who are targeted, but the accounts of women — almost exclusively — of any level of fame, or lack thereof.

What I was trying to say earlier and did not entirely elaborate on is that this subculture is a product of a culture that objectifies women and their bodies. It turns intimate images into currency for a particular group of men who see what they’re doing as a challenge, or as a threat vector. It would be irresponsible to equate this to the physical act of rape, but, on some level, it works toward a similar psychological trauma. It’s less typically violent, but it is no less a violation.

(Please avoid reading the comments on the linked article.)

Update: Edited to clarify that rape is not always a violent act.

The Great Naked Celebrity Photo Leak of 2014

Roxane Gay, in an editorial for the Guardian:

It’s not clear what the people who leak these photos hope to achieve beyond financial gain and a moment of notoriety. I suppose such impoverished currency is enough. The why of these questions is hardly relevant. These hackers are not revealing anything the general public does not already know. BREAKING: beneath their clothes, celebrities are naked.

What these people are doing is reminding women that, no matter who they are, they are still women. They are forever vulnerable.

I’ve seen a handful of people (read: men, typically) on Twitter suggest that weak passwords were at fault here. That’s like saying that a lack of a deadbolt on the door of the women’s locker room is invitation enough for people (read: men, typically) to creep around in there. There are others stating that celebrities shouldn’t back up their nude selfies, or take nude photos at all. Again, this is entirely wrong.

If you are a man — especially a white male — and a member of the general public, you’re probably not going to be targeted to have your most intimate photos or text broadcast to the world. If you’re a woman — and especially a public figure — there are assholes who feel entitled to your most intimate photos, and think that it’s fair game for them to be in the public realm. Not only is this criminal, it’s morally bankrupt. There is absolutely no excuse for anyone to view these photos, or for them to be leaked in the first place.

Given enough time, anyone can crack Jennifer Lawrence’s password, but, really, nobody should even be trying to. We should respect everyone’s right to privacy equally.

August 30, 2014

SansAnandTech

Anand Lal Shimpi:

I’m 32 now. The only things that’ve been more of a constant in my life than AnandTech are my parents. I’ve spent over half of my life learning about, testing, analyzing and covering technology. And I have to say, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

But after 17.5 years of digging, testing, analyzing and writing about the most interesting stuff in tech, it’s time for a change. This will be the last thing I write on AnandTech as I am officially retiring from the tech publishing world.

I wish Lal Shimpi the very best, but I’m going to miss his fastidious, detailed, unique take on the tech world.

August 27, 2014

“Wipe My Ass With Your Feelings”

Nilay Patel is grouchy:

Today, my friends at Vox.com published a terrific 5,000-word feature about the legacy of the Sopranos, framed around one very exclusive piece of reporting: series creator David Chase told reporter Martha Nochimson whether Tony Soprano dies at the end of the show, a question that fans have debated endlessly in the decade since the series famously ended on a hard cut to black.

It’s terrific, and the Vox.com product team engineered a fantastic presentation where the screen blacks out before the reveal. It’s everything a feature on the internet should be: thoughtful, concise, exclusive, and interactive.

But because the headline was phrased in the form of a question — the question of the entire series — Jake Beckman, who runs the Twitter account @savedyouaclick, decided that it wasn’t worth it. He “saved you a click” and tweeted the reveal.

This is bullshit.

No it isn’t.

If the article is so dependent on the teaser headline that a single tweet can bust the whole thing up, then Beckman did save people a click. If the article is not dependent on the teaser headline and it can stand on its own, why use that particular headline? It attracts clicks, but at the cost of feeling a little trashy.

Put another way, imagine if the Wall Street Journal redesigned their paper to look like the National Enquirer. Would you find it as trustworthy?

August 25, 2014

Facebook to Reduce Click-Bait Headlines With This One Weird Trick

Khalid El-Arini and Joyce Tang of Facebook:

So how do we determine what looks like click-bait?

One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook. If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.

Facebook’s tracking code makes this sort of thing possible, which seems both more useful to me than serving me ads, and edging closer to the creepy line. But this serves to reiterate the point Zeynep Tufekci made in her article about the algorithms used by Twitter and Facebook to highlight stuff we might be interested in: what makes this code ideal to decide what is important to us? There’s a lot of responsibility inherent to a deployment of an algorithm update used for user feed selection and sorting, but it increasingly feels as though it’s not being given the respect it deserves by Facebook and Twitter staff.

August 22, 2014

Samsung’s Ice Bucket Challenge

This is a pretty slick ad: take a very current “viral” thingy and spin it in a short time to point out a great advantage Samsung’s product has over its competitors’. And they apparently gave a very generous donation to charity, so it’s good all around, right?

Gruber notes two things, though: it’s more like a promotion of the Galaxy S5 rather than truly dedicating itself to the charitable cause, and the status bar changes midway through the ad. Regarding the former point, I don’t see how this is much different than the Product Red campaign and its associated products. Regarding the latter, I would hope that this is due to a filming error or something. But knowing how unscrupulous Samsung has been in the past with regards to their ads, I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole thing were faked.

PS: If you want a better ice bucket challenge video, Jeremy Clarkson’s kids have you covered (NSFW language, obviously).

August 19, 2014

Your Twitter Timeline Is More Than Just Tweets From People You Follow

Dan Frommer, Quartz:

In addition to the basic, essential definition of a Twitter timeline — “all Tweets from those you have chosen to follow on Twitter” — plus retweets and ads, there’s a new section:

Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.

In most cases, these seem to be tweets favorited, but not retweeted, by people you follow.

The official Twitter apps and website are becoming increasingly worse; it’s no wonder users are flocking to third-party apps.

Ferguson and Police Militarization

Speaking of Ferguson, here’s John Oliver’s thorough, thought-provoking and — occasionally and blessedly — hilarious take on the shameful reaction by the police department and public officials so far.

August 18, 2014

What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson

Zeynep Tufekci:

Maybe, just maybe, there can be a national conversation on these topics long-ignored outside these communities. That’s not everything: it may be a first step, or it may get drowned out.

But at least, we are here.

But I’m not quite sure that without the neutral side of the Internet—the livestreams whose “packets” were fast as commercial, corporate and moneyed speech that travels on our networks, Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms but my own choices,—we’d be having this conversation.

There are already a lot of conversations surrounding the tragic and complex problems in Ferguson, but plenty more need to happen. The White House has pledged to investigate the militarization of local police, for example. But it’s worth asking how many of these conversations would be happening had the algorithms that inform our conversations selected otherwise.

August 15, 2014

California Über Alles

Peter Christiansen commenting on Hacker News on my little ditty about diversity:

I wish they would have included demographics for the Bay Area, not just the USA. From Wikipedia – 52.5% White, 6.7% non-Hispanic African American, 23.3% Asian, 10.8% from other races, 5.4% from two or more races, 23.5% Hispanic or Latin. (Incidentally, this almost exactly matches Apple’s numbers, except for Hispanic). Comparing tech worker demographics to Bay Area demographics, It’s kind of a chicken vs egg about whether the demographics precede the jobs or vice versa, but given how geographically concentrated the tech industry is, this seems like a bad oversight.

This was by far the most common critique I received about the piece: why did I compare tech company demographics against the US as a whole, and not just California?

While it’s true that the American West Coast has typically had a much higher Asian population than, say, Cleveland or Mobile, it’s hard to say whether it has grown disproportionate to the rest of the United States, as records have been pretty poorly kept. This is what Christiansen alludes to in his comment: is the tech industry responsible for the demographics of the Bay Area, or are Bay Area demographics fairly represented by most of these companies?

Apple on Diversity

Khoi Vinh on Apple’s (and others’) employee diversity figures:

[M]ost retail employees are likely part-time and/or relatively low wage earners; what would these numbers look like if they were segmented so that we can see how well Apple’s diversity initiatives are faring for full-time workers earning over $100,000 a year? Or full-time workers earning more than $200,000 a year? I suspect the numbers would then look less encouraging, maybe even starkly different from what’s being reported here.

Vinh makes a good point — employees in “leadership” positions are universally more white than employees in tech or non-tech; similarly, they’re also typically more male than non-tech (though not more male than tech workers). The stereotype is that Silicon Valley is run by white men; these figures are the proof.

August 13, 2014

Diversity of Various Tech Companies By the Numbers

With Apple’s report today (finally), major tech companies have all published information about racial and gender diversity. I thought it might be useful to run the numbers and compare them against the demographics of the United States as a whole, for reference. All data is as-reported from each company.

Update: As of October 3, 2014, Microsoft updated their diversity report to be more in-line with the way other tech companies publish their stats. A huge thanks to H. Parker Shelton for adding those stats to my tables for me and emailing me the results, so I don’t have to dick around with HTML tables at about midnight on a Thursday.

Gender Diversity

Almost all available data in this selection of companies solely reports a male/female split. Yahoo is the only company that has an “other/not disclosed” option.

Update: Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have retail operations which are not made distinct from the corporate side. (Thanks to Krishnan Viswanathan for pointing this out.)

Ethic Diversity, USA
Category White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
USA Overall 79.96% 4.43% 15.1% 12.8% 1.61% 1.15%
USA Workforce (PDF) 80.5% 5.4% 15.3% 11.1% 1.6% 1.2%
Ethnic Diversity in Tech Positions
Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
Apple 54% 23% 7% 6% 2% 8%
Facebook 53% 41% 3% 1% 2% 0%
Google 60% 34% 2% 1% 3% <1%
LinkedIn 34% 60% 3% 1% 1% <1%
Microsoft 57% 35% 4% 2% 1% <1%
Twitter 58% 34% 3% 1% 2% 2%
Yahoo 35% 57% 3% 1% 1% 2%
Ethnic Diversity in Non-Tech Positions
Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
Apple 56% 14% 9% 9% 3% 9%
Facebook 63% 24% 6% 2% 4% 1%
Google 65% 23% 4% 3% 5% <1%
LinkedIn 63% 26% 5% 3% 3% <1%
Microsoft 70% 14% 8% 6% 1% <1%
Twitter 60% 23% 3% 4% 5% 5%
Yahoo 63% 24% 6% 3% 2% 2%
Ethnic Diversity in Leadership/Executive Positions

The “USA” row uses the “management occupations” data from the BLS document above, as a rough and imperfect approximation of the broad US national trend.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
USA (PDF, pg. 24) 85.7% 5.1% 8.8% 6.9% N/A N/A
Apple 64% 21% 6% 3% N/A 6%
Facebook 74% 19% 4% 2% 1% 0%
Google 72% 23% 1% 2% 1.5% <1%
LinkedIn 65% 28% 4% 1% 3% <1%
Microsoft 72% 21% 4% 2% 1% <1%
Twitter 72% 24% 0% 2% 0% 2%
Yahoo 63% 24% 6% 3% 2% 2%

Analysis

Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a white twenty-something Canadian who graduated from art college. Analysis of statistics of racial and gender diversity at American tech companies is not exactly my strongest suit. But, hey, you’ve made it this far. I want to be as fair as possible to everyone represented in these stats. If there’s a problem, please let me know.

  • As noted above, the data available from all companies only reports a male/female split. While it would be imprudent for an employer to ask for more information, it does misrepresent individuals of other genders.
  • It will come as no surprise that all of these companies are boys’ clubs, particularly tech workers and those in leadership roles. This is one of the biggest issues facing the tech industry right now.
  • Stereotypes are proving quite strong with the significant over-representation of those of Asian descent at all companies surveyed.
  • Black employees are, on the other hand, significantly under-represented. Like the under-representation of women in tech companies, this suggests a much larger and more overreaching issue. I’d argue that this is another of the biggest issues facing the tech industry.
  • Only a single data point was typically made available in a given category. Microsoft was an exception, showing how their diversity has changed over the past few years. I think it would be valuable for the surveyed companies to release similar data from past years. I mention this not because I want a feel-good kind of statistic, but because I’d like to see if progress is, indeed, being made, and at what rate.
  • Generally, only ethnicity and gender data was provided by the companies surveyed. As several of the reports stated, diversity is so much more than just these two genetic features. It would be inappropriate for employers to ask about sexual orientation, childhood household income, and so forth, but these qualities are part of what shapes internal diversity. Poor families — or even most middle-class families — can’t afford to send their kids to Stanford.

August 12, 2014

Opinionated Software

Guy English:

[B]eing opinionated isn’t the goal. Being useful is.

Being opinionated and shipping the truest form of your vision of software doesn’t assure success. I understand the amount of heart, soul, concentration and perseverance it takes to ship a piece of software that really makes you proud and hits all of the marks you’d set for yourself and your team. It can be a really great piece of software.

That doesn’t mean it deserves to be a hit.

I agree with English, but developers who do release “opinionated” software have got to be aware that the more specific they make their software, the smaller the market gets. If you’re a developer and you’re putting out a sweet new app that’s “opinionated” and you don’t recognize that you’re therefore limiting your market, you’re lying to yourself.

What It Was Like to Do Surprise Improv With Robin Williams

Chris Gethard, writing for Vulture:

But this show also stresses me out. Because I now organize it, I put a lot of pressure on myself to put together the best possible casts. So I am always bothering the improvisers who are on Saturday Night Live, the writers from Colbert Report, and the guys from Conan’s staff to come do it. And they’re busy people, and I hate being the one that bothers them each week with my dumb text messages begging them to come do this show, because not only am I being very annoying, it’s also a weekly reminder that I’m not quite where I want to be. I would like to be the person who gets annoyed, not the person who does the annoying.

And on this night, I’m in the back of the theater, tired and stressed out by all this self-defeating thought, exhausted by it before the show even begins.

And Robin Williams walks into the green room.

August 11, 2014

Robin Williams

There are probably half a dozen things that I’m thinking of posting today, but this rose right to the top of the queue. It isn’t often that the death of a public figure really gets to me, but this is one of those occasions. It’s like losing your best friend; Robin Williams often felt like everyone’s best friend. It’s a tragic way for a brilliant mind to go.

August 10, 2014

Ten Years of the Impulsive Buy

Impulsive Buy editor-in-chief Marvo who, like Madonna, has no apparent surname, is celebrating ten years of reviewing mostly junk food:

Here are other numbers that might interest you: 3,306 posts, 1,671 reviews, and 30 pounds gained over the past 10 years. Man, if only I took pictures of my belly every day for the past 10 years, it would’ve made a great YouTube video. And when I say “great,” I mean “gross.”

The Impulsive Buy is one of my very favourite regular reads. Congratulations to Marvo for ten years of showering clothed and brushing your teeth with wasabi in the name of making the best grocery reviews on the web.

August 9, 2014

Researching Link Rot

Maciej Cegłowski will be using a large pool of Pinboard’s bookmarks to gather data on link rot, and I’m pretty excited for the results. I know of things I’ve bookmarked from just a couple of months ago that have already been moved, and things that I’ve bookmarked from ten or more years ago that are still around at the same link. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that links from 2007-2011 or so are frequently rotted, probably due to rapid changes in site architecture best practices during that timeframe.

This post also illustrates how to research user data without being a dick about it. Cegłowski is upfront, is going to ensure that links are not associated with user names, and is offering a clear, simple way to opt out.

The Lie Behind 1.2 Billion Stolen Passwords

Pretty good counterpoint to both the New York Times’ story on this and Brian Krebs’ post. Krebs has more to lose here: the Times is a mainstream publication, but Krebs’ credibility in the computer security industry has been astonishing so far.

The other credible media-friendly security dude Bruce Schneier is also not convinced:

I don’t know how much of this story is true, but what I was saying to reporters over the past two days is that it’s evidence of how secure the Internet actually is. We’re not seeing massive fraud or theft. We’re not seeing massive account hijacking. A gang of Russian hackers has 1.2 billion passwords — they’ve probably had most of them for a year or more — and everything is still working normally. This sort of thing is pretty much universally true.

August 8, 2014

Unprepared

About a week ago, I spent my first night in my first apartment. It was a big change — moving out of the house I grew up in, with the same view outside my room all my life. It was equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking.

I’ve had a pretty late bedtime for as long as I can remember. So, on my first night in my new place, I decided to head to bed at about 1:00 AM. I put some flannel pants on, washed my face, grabbed a glass of water, and then went to brush my teeth.

And I had no toothpaste.

Where does one find toothpaste at 1:00 on the Sunday of a long weekend in downtown Calgary? There’s a 24/7 convenience store chain here called Mac’s, and I’m pretty close to one of the more famous locations in Calgary: the lovingly-dubbed “Crack Mac’s”, for its rather specific clientele. It’s not dangerous, really, but you’ll often find people nodding off or completely fucked-up just outside its front door.

I changed into proper clothing, popped into Crack Mac’s, and looked around for toothpaste. Couldn’t find any. I asked the clerk who — and I shit you not — was fully Jamaican, “could you please show me where the toothpaste is?”

He takes me to the place I had already been looking. “Looks like we’re out, mon,” he said, “but there’s another location nearby. You know it, mon?”

So I began walking the eight-or-so blocks to the other Mac’s location downtown. About halfway there, a police car drove by, and I couldn’t help but think of how they would not believe a single word of this story so far, should they have stopped me to ask: I’m looking for toothpaste at 1:00 on a Sunday and a Jamaican guy just told me to head in this direction. What’s the matter, officer?

I got to the other store, found what I was looking for, put all $2.51 of it on my Visa — because cash is for chumps — and walked home, the new proud owner of a tube of toothpaste.

“Unprepared” is right.

August 7, 2014

Schiit Happened

Really good post from Schiit Audio’s Jason Stoddard over on the Head-Fi forums (via Marco Arment). It’s ostensibly about the sales effect of a review in an “old media” publication, but this part struck me more:

Or, if someone says, “We can’t convert new audiophiles,” laugh louder. We absolutely can. We just need to get more attention in the mass media. And continue our inroads on sites where younger people discover stuff, like Reddit.

And that can be done.

But it won’t be done with $40,000 preamps, $3,000 USB cables, and $500 magic pucks. It won’t be done with aspie-level obsessive in-fighting about formats and provenance. It won’t be done with religious fervor to spread the word about the One True Sound or the One Perfect Measurement.

It’s too bad the term “audiophile” has been hijacked by technological homeopaths. It’s time to take it back.

Suitable Disruption

“E.W.”, the Economist:

People who value disruption and unconventionality are more likely to interpret these signals positively. They work where deviations from the norm are lauded, and the interpretation says as much about the viewer as the wearer. But as waves of hoodie-wearing 20-somethings flood companies, sartorial deviation is poised to become the new norm. When everyone wears a T-shirt to lectures and board meetings, how do you tell who is truly innovative and who is just posing?

I’m not sure how many of you had a group of punk rock fans in your junior high school, but I did. They were my favourite group to hang out with because they listened to the best music, but you wouldn’t know it based on the way I dressed. Or, for that matter, the way I dress now. But there were also those in the school who did the opposite: they had a bunch of chains and patches, but they couldn’t tell the Dead Kennedys from Fear.

Does it really matter? Can someone dressed in a suit not pitch venture capitalists nearly as effectively as someone who looks like they rolled into the meeting directly from their futon? Does someone who’s wearing Chucks automatically get a 10% bonus because they’re “unconventional”? The big question: should anyone make their investment decisions based on the cut of the investee’s jeans?

August 5, 2014

Russian Gang Amasses Over a Billion Internet Passwords

David Gelles and Nicole Perlroth, New York Times:

A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses, security researchers say.

The records, discovered by Hold Security, a firm in Milwaukee, include confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, ranging from household names to small Internet sites. Hold Security has a history of uncovering significant hacks, including the theft last year of tens of millions of records from Adobe Systems.

I’m hoping that this is just the setup to yet another Die Hard film.

“It’s Not A/B Testing. It’s Just Being an Asshole.”

Tim Carmody on Kottke.org:

We all buy in to Facebook (and Twitter, and OKCupid, and every other social media network), giving them a huge amount of personal data, free content, and discretion on how they show it to us, with the understanding that all of this will largely be driven by choices that we make. We build our own profiles, we select our favorite pictures, we make our own friends, we friend whatever brands we like, we pick the users we want to block or mute or select for special attention, and we write our own stories.

[…]

This is why it really stings whenever somebody turns around and says, “well actually, the terms you’ve signed give us permission to do whatever we want. Not just the thing you were afraid of, but a huge range of things you never thought of.”

It’s an inherent problem in the way that the social web works today. Experiments with exchanging less personal information and therefore being less susceptible to these kinds of activities, like App.net, have proved largely unsuccessful. So far, we have elected to sacrifice more of our control in exchange for no-monetary-cost services. What’s the point at which we — the user base — will collectively decide to back away?

August 4, 2014

I Want It, and I Want It Now

Liz Gannes of Recode is writing a multipart series about instant gratification services for physical products and services. The first article, posted today, is full of examples of all kinds of services that will deliver goods to you on demand:

[J]ust last Monday, a mobile medical-marijuana delivery startup called Eaze launched in San Francisco. Not only was Eaze open for business, it was open for business 24 hours a day.

Bootstrapped by an early Yammer employee, Eaze’s site promises delivery to our office in seven minutes. I don’t have a medical marijuana card myself, but my friend Joey at our co-working space does, so I get permission from the bosses to subsidize a minimum order of “Berry White,” described as a “mix of legendary White Widow and Blueberry strains.”

We submit Joey’s doctor’s letter at noon, and are verified by 1:20 pm. We place our order via mobile Web on Joey’s iPhone.

A black Lexus pulls up outside the office 42 minutes later. We have been told to have cash on hand, because Eaze’s online payments system isn’t fully in order yet.

Our “caregiver” — a guy named Loreno who says he found the Eaze gig on Craigslist — opens the trunk and sorts through piles of Tupperware to find the baggie of Berry White. Joey gives him our $40, and instant gratification is delivered.

It’s both odd and perfect that this example of instant gratification — this particular version of which has been around pretty much since all kinds of instant communication methods were invented — is now legitimized.

4Chan Conceptual Artwork Reaches $90,000 on eBay

Sarah Cascone, Artnet:

Online message board 4chan, notorious for its irreverent sense of humor, has spawned what is either a bizarre art project or a massive flipping of the bird to the art world: a photo of a 4chan post, being auctioned as art on eBay. The auction item, Artwork by Anonymous, reads “Art used to be something to cherish. Now literally anything could be art. This post is art.” The existentialist musing could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, with bidding rapidly approaching six figures and just under seven hours left to bid.

I’m not sure whether this piece deserves a proper critique, or even if it can be taken seriously enough to warrant one. As an artwork, it reads like a second-year student’s work, produced just after they learned about dadaism. As a statement, it’s played.

But its presentation — a photograph of an anonymous message board posting that automatically deletes itself after inactivity — speaks volumes: it’s a captured version of something designed to be temporary. It’s a moment captured in time that would otherwise likely be overlooked. It’s a bold statement that’s completely unoriginal, presented within a fairly original contextual framework.

It’s not a very strong piece on its own. But with a potential price tag of $90,000 attached, it becomes an extremely strong statement. It’s, at the very least, intriguing.

August 3, 2014

Macintel: The End Is Nigh

Interesting speculative “Monday note” from Jean-Louis Gassée:

Furthermore, it looks like I misspoke when I said an An chip couldn’t power a high-end Mac. True, the A7 is optimized for mobile devices: Battery-optimization, small memory footprint, smaller screen graphics than an iMac or a MacBook Pro with a Retina display. But having shown its muscle in designing a processor for the tight constraints of mobile devices, why would we think that the team that created the most advanced smartphone/tablet processor couldn’t now design a 3GHz A10 machine optimized for “desktop-class” (a term used by Apple’s Phil Schiller when introducing the A7) applications?

Today’s ARM chips are decidedly optimized for mobile usage because — spoiler alert — that’s where they’re used. But, while the architecture of the chip was decidedly built in favour of mobile and low-power usage in the beginning, today’s ARM chips are a completely different species. Imagine what kind of power an A-series chip could turn out if it were not encumbered by the power constraints of a smartphone (or a tablet, at the highest end of the available mobile power envelope).

August 2, 2014

No Permission Necessary

Robert McGinley Myers:

The remarkable thing about the internet is that you don’t have to wait, you don’t need anyone’s permission to put your creative work out in the world, you can just do it.

I’m just getting around to reading Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think” — I’m about halfway through — and Thompson has devoted a large chunk of the first half of the book to almost exactly this. Myers and Thompson are, of course, not the first to notice the magic of having a largely-democratic widely-accessible platform.1 But it’s something that cannot be overstated: no matter how much crap gets produced and released as a byproduct of so many people having access to the tools, there’s so much more amazing stuff being written, filmed, photographed, recorded, and made every day.

July 31, 2014

Roboto Puffery

Thomas Phinney busts up a Wired puff piece on Roboto, but makes a much greater, more valuable point near the end:

Now, if Google/​Android and Apple want to claim that they are making their UI font choices for design reasons, that’s fine. But when they (or Wired) start touting the awesome legibility of their choices, I have to call them out on it. Nonsense.

Yosemite’s switch from Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue1 is obviously controversial. It may create some consistency on Apple’s platforms, but at the cost of being less legible at UI sizes, even on a high-resolution display. No matter how much I like the way it looks, I can’t deny the decrease in legibility.

In addition, it’s strange how Phinney himself confuses “design” and “aesthetics”. If Apple were to choose a UI typeface for design reasons, it wouldn’t be Helvetica. Where’s Apple Sans when you need it?


  1. Actually, a slightly customized variant. 

Square Adding EMV Chip Support

I took the liberty of rewriting Wired’s headline for this article — “Square Bets Big on Next-Gen Credit Card Tech” — because the rest of the world has used EMV cards for at least several years.

Square’s implementation is as you would expect from a team fronted by former Apple hardware designers: elegant in its simplicity. It’s not as nice as the current reader, mostly because of all of the additional hardware required to read chip cards, but it’s certainly more refined than a chip-equipped PIN pad.

This looks really promising to me as Square tries to up their international game. Not only is this going to mean greater security for Americans, it’s going to allow more international users to feel more comfortable using Square to pay for stuff.

July 29, 2014

How the Sausage Gets Made

Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt, quoting an anonymous former IDC researcher:

Even the growth rates are fiction. The fudge is in the “others” category, which is used as a plug to make the numbers work out. In fairness, we did do survey work, calling around, and attending white box conferences and venues to try to get a feel for that market, but in the end, the process was political. I used to tell customers which parts of the data they could trust, essentially the major vendors by form factor and region. The rest was garbage.

Colour me surprised.

Apple Hit With Location Services Class Action Suit

Paul Carr of Pando Daily, quoting from Chen Ma’s suit:

…Plaintiff alleges that while using her iPhones, including her current iPone [sic] 5S, she was not given notice that her daily whereabouts would be tracked, recorded, and transmitted to Apple database to be stored for future reference. She was not asked for and thus has not given her consent, approval and permission nor was she even made aware that her detailed daily whereabouts would be tracked, recorded and transmitted to Apple database.

Apple, in the Terms and Conditions that Ma agreed to when setting up her iPhone:

By enabling Location Services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to the transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of your location data and location search queries by Apple and its partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based and road traffic-based products and services.

It’s not going to be this cut and dry — these things never are — but this seems so frivolous to me. This is the most interesting part of this suit:

According to belief and information, Plaintiff further alleges that Apple has released and disclosed the above described private information of iPhone users to third parties, including but not limited to US government who, according to information, has made more than 1,000 information requests to Apple.

Isn’t this legal effort better directed towards the NSA who issued those information demands? National Security Letters are essentially orders, not mere requests.

July 28, 2014

Needs Must

Number of instances of selected words and phrases from a 1,560-word article by the Verge’s David Pierce, entitled “7 Things the iWatch Needs to Do if Apple Wants to Win”:

  • need: 29, excluding title
  • should: 12
  • has to: 2
  • have to: 2
  • going to: 10
  • could: 2
  • think: 3, two instances of which are from a quote
  • believe: 0

But you know what? Perhaps there’s some substance to this. Let’s take a look at the seven things the iWatch “needs to do” if Apple would like to “win”. Whatever the hell that means.

It has to be a watch. First, tell the time. That’s the ballgame. It’s why the Pebble Steel, despite its remarkable lack of functionality, is the best smartwatch currently on the market.

Even the Nike FuelBand — Pierce quotes Tim Cook’s praise of it at the top of the article — tells the time. But the iPod Shuffle has been super successful without a screen. I think it’s more likely than not that the hypothetical Apple wearable will sport a display and will tell the time, but who knows?

My iWatch should be MY iWatch. As time goes on, Android Wear’s inability to let developers build custom watch faces frustrates me more and more. Apple should take note: any watch made mostly from a screen ought to be infinitely customizable. If I can’t choose my own watch face or download one from the App Store, Apple blew it.

Actually, I’m a little stumped on this one. After all, it was acceptable to launch the iPhone without a native SDK because it was an entirely new platform.1 A wearable product would be something new, but it might not be an entirely new platform (that is, it could conceivably run an iOS variant).

But if you were only able to use, say, a selection of ten watch faces that came with the device and there were no additional faces available for download, would that be blowing it? How many sales would Apple forego if that were the case?

Personalization is about more than just software, too. Apple needs to conform to standards: include swappable watch bands or get out.

Yeah, Apple’s known for ensuring that they stick purely to existing standards. They’ve never had any success with introducing their own standards.

It has to be part of a bigger connected picture. Apple’s always been uniquely good at building devices that work well on their own and better together, and the iWatch needs to be the best example yet.

No, Apple’s not going to make an iWatch that plays nicely with your Android phone or your Windows PC. That’s fine. What it needs to do is build a device that is powerful and useful in its own right, and becomes even more so when it’s paired with other Apple devices.

This, I agree with. It makes complete sense. Remember Apple’s early-2000s “digital hub” strategy? As much as the proverbial cloud is the replacement for that, the iPhone is the new local hardware hub. It’s your instant messenger, your news reader, your iPod, your casual gaming machine, your satellite navigation unit, your camera, and your phone. And it’s always on you.

At the same time, I’d think that an Apple wearable could stand on its own. Joggers would appreciate not needing to take both their iPhone and wearable with them.

I should be able to use Evernote for taking notes, Lyft for calling cars, Spotify for music, Google for maps, and anything else I choose. A watch is personal; it’s not good enough if it doesn’t work the way I do.

Good luck with that, Pierce.

It needs a killer app — and a lot of other ones.

[…]

But at first, the iWatch also needs a single primary raison d’être, a reason for being in the first place. […] The iWatch needs a single revolutionary story Apple can tell about what it is, why the world needs smartwatches — and why they need this one.

Agreed. That’s what Apple’s really good at, which is what Pierce appears to be hinting at:

No other manufacturer has figured out how to sell their smartwatches, how to convince users they need one. Apple needs to get it right.

But this is entirely backwards. The meeting for any product like this wouldn’t start with Schiller standing up and saying “Hey, guys, let’s build a watch!” but rather a problem. For example, that could be a question of whether fitness tracking devices are as good as they should or could be. Only after the product goals are established does it take shape.

Take the development of the iPad, too. Steve Jobs:

It began with the tablet. I had this idea about having a glass display, a multitouch display you could type on with your fingers. I asked our people about it. And six months later, they came back with this amazing display. And I gave it to one of our really brilliant UI guys. He got scrolling working and some other things, and I thought, ‘my God, we can build a phone with this!’ So we put the tablet aside, and we went to work on the iPhone.

This is an idea that can be traced back to a speech Jobs gave in 1983:

Apple’s strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes. That’s what we want to do and we want to do it this decade. And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers.

The iPad was born from this idea; the idea was not grafted to fit a 10-inch piece of glass. It’s a subtle but critical difference.

It should do things for me, and make it easy for me to do things too.

I like things. And stuff.

Whether I’m opening apps, making phone calls, or just turning on Airplane Mode, I’ve come to rely mostly on Siri.

Siri’s cool, but you rely upon it to open apps? Really? Okay.

Apple can’t win without good battery life. There’s only one spec that can singlehandedly prevent the iWatch (or any smartwatch) from ever being mainstream: battery life. A device that lasts a day or less is going to be forgotten on the bedside table one morning, the habit lost, the device returned.

I agree that it should have great battery life, but I disagree that it needs more than a day of typical battery life. Most people I know who wear a wristwatch take them off before bed, including myself. Remember that cellphones used to last a week or more on a single charge; now, we’re accustomed to plugging them in every night or so.

Most of the time, the iWatch should do nothing. It should sit forgotten on your wrist, alerting you only when there’s something worth paying attention to. And that won’t be every notification, every alert, every message. The iWatch needs tools to be finely tuned, and needs to be smart enough to tune itself to show me only what I need to see right now.

Entirely agreed.


  1. It wasn’t, however, acceptable to launch the “sweet solution” Apple promised at WWDC 2007. By the way, if you haven’t seen that keynote recently, check it out. It’s, uh, not great, to say the least. 

No Skin Thick Enough

Brianna Wu, in a guest article for Polygon:

The industry is currently in the midst of a massive cultural shift. There’s a growing disconnect between the nearly half of gamers that are female, and overwhelmingly male population of games journalists and game developers.

When you wonder why women aren’t rushing to fix that balance, remember this is the fucking emotional and even physical minefield they’re signing themselves up for. Growing a thicker skin isn’t the answer, nor is it a proper response. Listening, and making the industry safer for the existence of visible women is the best, and only, way forward.

This is a tough read. I can’t begin to imagine what women are subjected to on a daily basis in any context. This is just a small look at an obviously more enormous problem.

July 26, 2014

The Apple Backdoor That Wasn’t

Violet Blue, ZDNet:

When Apple explained the diagnostics toolset and published a detailed support document, Zdziarski said that Apple’s acknowledgement of its not-secret developer tools only proved him right, and that this meant Apple was admitting to his claims of making iOS vulnerable to authorities’ snooping by design.

Zdziarski says he “doesn’t believe for a minute that these services are intended solely for diagnostics.”

And with one word — “believe” — we have the nut of what’s becoming a big problem in the state of security and journalism for everyone.

July 24, 2014

Pedro de Noronha “Might Become Obsolete in Three Years”

Pedro de Noronha, in an interview with CNBC:

Pedro de Noronha, managing partner at hedge fund Noster Capital, said he was unsure about the Silicon Valley-based company’s long-term potential.

“I need to know where a company is going to be in 5-to-10 years. I mean look at Apple, a company we all admire…I don’t know where they are going to be in three years,” Noronha told CNBC in a TV interview.

“It’s a very competitive landscape. They might become obsolete in two-to-three years, as we’ve seen with dozens of technology companies.”

Or space aliens that look like poodles but are the size of elephants may pop up in three years. You just don’t know.

That’s why I’m bullish on poodles the size of elephants.

Topolsky Leaving the Verge

Fresh scuttlebutt. Apparently, Nilay Patel will be returning to take over as Editor in Chief, after his recent brief stint at Vox. Topolsky, meanwhile, will be going to Bloomberg. I doubt the direction of the Verge will change substantially because of this change of editorial staff — Patel has been at Topolsky’s side since the Engadget days, so his editorial direction will likely be similar to Topolsky’s. If there are substantial changes, I think they will be more due to external factors or for traffic reasons, not because of this change of staff. Unfortunately.

Update: Here’s Patel’s official announcement post on the matter.

July 23, 2014

Yosemite Public Beta

Apple’s going to be posting a public beta of Yosemite tomorrow for members of their AppleSeed OS X Beta program (which has, confusingly, not replaced the standard invitation-only AppleSeed program). As best as I can recall, this is the first time Apple has released a public beta of OS X since Mac OS X, well, Public Beta. It’s probably going to be the same build as the current developer build, which is still somewhat buggy, but nowhere near as bad as it was before. I wouldn’t yet use it in a high-risk production environment, but it’s stable enough that you can put it on a machine that gets used mostly for web and email stuff.

July 22, 2014

Stickers, Scratches, and Dings

Jeff Carlson:

What caught my eye, aside from the glimpse of the old six-color Apple logo at the end, was the fact that each sticker is clearly on a different, real machine. It would have been easy for Apple to position one blank MacBook Air in front of the camera and then digitally add the stickers. But no: each sticker is affixed to a different MacBook Air. You can tell by watching the bottom edge, which shifts slightly, and also by the scratches and dings that appear on some models.

Apple is getting better at showing their products in non-showroom condition. Consider the iPhone cases in the “… Every Day” ads, or the iPads in cases in the “Your Verse” spots. But these are super used MacBooks. They’re in worse exterior condition than my (admittedly babied) seven year-old MacBook Pro. But this is clearly how they’re intended to be used. I’ve heard a fair number of people complain about the use of aluminum, and how it doesn’t stay “perfect”. That’s the point.

Also interesting to note is the third-party customizability Apple is showing in a lot of their ads as of late. Whether it’s apps, or cases, or stickers, it seems like they’re getting more comfortable with the idea that people will use these products every day, and not necessarily with the default setup. (Though, I don’t think I’ve seen any ad that features apps that replace the defaults.)

Canvas Fingerprinting

Julia Angwin, reporting for ProPublica:

First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.

[…]

Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.

“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.

Clever.

And wrong. Consider the two main ways you may attempt to avoid being tracked by advertisers on the internet:

  1. using the Do Not Track setting in your browser; and,
  2. changing your browser’s cookie settings to block third party cookies.

The first setting is completely optional for advertisers to follow, rendering it effectively meaningless. The second setting does not impact this fingerprinting scheme in any way, which means that this is similar to Google’s workaround for Safari’s default setting to block third party cookies, for which they were fined $17 million.

So how do you opt out of this? Well, cookies are back in style:

He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development. The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.

In essence, you’re not opting out of the collection of your data, but instead hoping that AddThis won’t use the data it collects for anything other than internal research. Which is soothing, isn’t it?

Written daily by Nick Heer in Calgary, and around the world.

Pixel Envy is on Twitter, and has an RSS feed. I care about your privacy.

© 2014 Nick Heer.