Archive

July 3, 2015

Clarifying the Apple Music DRM Situation

My apologies to Serenity Caldwell, writing for iMore,1 for liberally quoting her piece here, but I have complaints. Not with Caldwell, but with what this piece means:

Just like with the company’s iTunes Match service, Apple Music allows you to upload the music you own on your Mac to iCloud; from there, you can stream and download it using your iCloud Music Library to your other devices.

Apple’s upload algorithm for Apple Music works in two parts. First, it scans your library for any tracks that also happen to be in Apple Music, and matches those together—so when you download a copy of your song on a different Mac, iPhone, or iPad, you’re getting the high-quality 256kbps version from the Apple Music catalog.

Then, any songs it can’t match, it uploads directly to iCloud; when you download a copy of those songs on a different device, you’re getting the same file you had on your Mac.

This all sounds exactly like iTunes Match, with one tiny exception:

… you’re getting the high-quality 256kbps version from the Apple Music catalog.

Not the iTunes catalogue — the Apple Music one. iTunes lacks DRM; Apple Music has DRM. That’s the difference: it’s subtle, and it’s poorly-explained. iCloud Music Library is a completely different pitch to that of iTunes Match and iCloud Photo Library, despite sounding similar, if not identical.

Here’s what Apple says about iTunes Match:

With iCloud, the music you buy from the iTunes Store automatically appears on all your devices. And for music you haven’t purchased from iTunes, iTunes Match is the perfect solution, letting you store your entire collection in iCloud — even music you’ve imported from CDs or purchased somewhere other than iTunes.

And for iCloud Photo Library:

iCloud Photo Library helps you make the most of the space available on each of your devices by automatically storing the original high-resolution photos and videos in iCloud and leaving behind the lightweight versions that are perfectly sized for each device — taking up only as much space as needed.

Reading between the lines, these pitches sound like Apple is saying “Hey, don’t worry about your ever-increasing media libraries taking up way too much space on all your devices. Leave it with us, and we’ll keep it safe.”

Here’s the pitch for Apple Music:

Your entire library lives in iCloud when you’re an Apple Music member. First, we identify all the tracks in your personal collection and compare them to the Apple Music library to see if we have copies. If we do, we make them instantly available in iCloud across all your devices. If you have music that’s not in the Apple Music library, we upload those songs from iTunes on your Mac or PC. And because it’s all stored in iCloud, it won’t take up any space on your devices.

Sounds pretty much the same, doesn’t it? And it has a similar name to iCloud Photo Library, so you’d expect it to behave in a similar way. But it does not. Caldwell, continued:

So what gets DRM? Any matched track you download to another device. It gets DRM because the file itself is coming directly from the Apple Music catalog, which, as we established above, has DRM on it.

Uploaded tracks that you re-download will never get DRM, because they’re not coming from the Apple Music catalog.

So: tracks that are matched to the gigantic Apple Music catalogue will have DRM applied when you download them again, whether that’s to your iOS device, or another Mac that doesn’t have the song in its local library. Apple will just store, locker style, tracks that you upload, like a live bootleg recording or something recorded by a local band that isn’t on Apple Music (or the Beatles). This is almost identical behaviour to that of iTunes Match, with the exception that tracks are being matched to the DRM-laden Apple Music catalogue, not the DRM-free iTunes catalogue.

So this makes sense:

That said: Do not upload all your tracks from iTunes to iCloud, then delete the local copy on your Mac. If you do that, you’re getting rid of your original, DRM-free copies. And you’re leaving yourself without a physical backup of your data, which I never, ever recommend.

It’s probably a bad idea to be without a local backup of your music, but that’s almost what it sounds like with iTunes Match: store everything in the cloud, and you’ll have it available any time you want. It isn’t as risky because the files are DRM-free, and are of a good enough quality (256 kbps AAC) that most people really won’t care that they’re not the “original” files.

Apple Music and iCloud Music Library are pitched so closely, and the nuanced differences are not explained very well. Yet, these differences are incredibly important to know, because a normal person could reasonably consider their library to be safely off their computer, readily accessible when it’s needed, and largely recoverable if they were to switch to a different service.

This is an article that Serenity Caldwell should not have had to write. Not because of some of the FUDdier articles around,2 but because Apple should be more clear about the difference between Apple Music and iTunes. I would bet actual money that Apple wanted to — in essence — add these features onto the existing iTunes library, but were prohibited from doing so by record labels.

The reality is more confusing than that, and Caldwell’s article helps clarify it somewhat, but I still feel a bit lost in an array of very similar products. If this sounded simple to you before reading Caldwell’s article or mine — two libraries of music with two similar matching products that behave in differing ways — you seem to be one of very few.


  1. I have my reservations about linking to this page — or, indeed, anything from Mobile Nations: depending on the ads on the page, I’m seeing over 2,000 errors and 80,000 warnings generated by the advertising and analytics scripts on the site. iMore’s site continues to be a wart on the web, and it’s barely tolerable that this hasn’t been fixed. ↩︎

  2. Thanks to Cult of Mac for reliably being the serious counterpart to Gizmodo while retaining similar journalistic integrity↩︎

iTunes Disconnect

Earlier this week, I asked what the new iTunes Connect features are like for artists. Dave Wiskus happens to be both a musician and a writer, and answers pretty much all of my questions in this post. In short, Connect sounds clunky and overwrought, and there’s this:

I can see no way to invite people to follow us on Connect. I can share the link. I can even tweet about it. Yet there’s no way to know how many followers we have, encourage people to follow us, or directly engage with anyone who hasn’t already purchased a song from us on iTunes. That feels broken.

Indeed, it does. Based on Wiskus’ documentation, it looks like it lacks the litheness of Twitter, the scale and engagement of Facebook, and the demo tape feel of SoundCloud. I don’t quite know what to make of it yet.

And then there’s this:

[Update: I got an email from Trent Reznor this afternoon. Apple is aware of the growing pains and is working to address them.]

Damn you, Dave.

July 2, 2015

Shining a New Spotlight on Spotlight

Like Ben Brooks, I switched over to Spotlight from my “power user” search utility — in my case, Alfred — shortly after Yosemite launched, and I haven’t looked back since. It’s grown up a lot, and feels way, way faster than it ever did previously. It’s pretty much exactly what I need. I do still have it mapped to Option-Space, though.

EU Plans to Ruin Net Neutrality

Glyn Moody, Ars Technica:

A two-tier Internet will be created in Europe as the result of a late-night “compromise” between the European Commission, European Parliament and the EU Council. The so-called “trilogue” meeting to reconcile the different positions of the three main EU institutions saw telecom companies gaining the right to offer “specialised services” on the Internet. These premium services will create a fast lane on the Internet and thus destroy net neutrality, which requires that equivalent traffic is treated in the same way.

Awful news. This sets a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world.

iCloud Music Library Woe

A classic Apple cloud service launch. Have a backup.

Update: Reddit user OMGshNicholas (not me) says [sic]:

Apple music added the song “no better” by lorde into one of my playlists six million times. Now my iTunes crashes every time I open it. What. The. Fuck.

What the fuck, indeed.

DRM Is the Difference Between iTunes Match and iCloud Music Library

Kirk McElhearn:

When you match and download files from iCloud Music Library (without having an iTunes Match subscription), however, you get files with DRM; the same kind of files you get when you download files from Apple Music for offline listening.

This means that if you’ve matched your library with Apple Music and iCloud Music Library, you need to keep backups of your original files. If not, you’ll end up with files that you can’t play without an Apple Music subscription.

This is a really confusing aspect of Apple Music. iCloud Music Library has the same 25,000-song restriction as iTunes Match and does pretty much the same thing, so I figured it would behave similarly. Because of this, I thought iTunes Match would be made redundant by iCloud Music Library and be discontinued.

It doesn’t behave the same way, though: iCloud Music Library serves DRM’d versions of your music back to you regardless of where you purchased or ripped it from. But you can still add a $25 per year iTunes Match subscription to your $10 per month Apple Music subscription and get the same DRM-free behaviour. Apple doesn’t explain this very well, and I wasn’t able to test it because my library exceeds the limit (for now). I think that I’ll just be streaming music for now, and not relying upon Apple Music quite yet.

Update: Marco Arment:

I bet iTunes Match gets Google Readered within a year. Don’t get too attached…

This would explain why the details are a little fuzzy. If Match is getting phased out, it might be less confusing when the differences are not fully explained. But for someone who understands the difference, it also feels deceptive, if unintentionally so.

July 1, 2015

Assorted Thoughts and Observations About Apple Music

It’s only been a day since Apple launched their newest streaming music service, so the thoughts I have about it are fairly preliminary and would probably comprise several shorter posts. For convenience, they’re here in a bulleted list.

  • Listening to Beats 1’s first hour of broadcasting was the most fun I’ve had with a radio station in a long time. It’s pretty clear that Zane Lowe is stoked about its launch, and his enthusiasm is infectious. The other main DJs — Ebdo Darden and Julie Adenuga — are equally exciting. Their energy makes the difference between listening to the playlist and listening to the radio.

  • Launching with a little-known band feels like it harkens back to the days when Apple could serve an artist their career on a silver platter simply by being in an iPod ad. Those days have faded somewhat, with the company opting for far bigger names to close out their events — U2, Foo Fighters, and Elvis Costello, to name a few.

    In fact, the first hour and a half of Beats 1’s broadcast was a great blend of big-name artists and lesser-known acts. Sure, there were tracks from Dr. Dre, AC/DC, and Eminem, but Lowe also played songs by Courtney Barnett, Day Wave, and Wolf Alice.

    I think Apple is very honest and genuine when they say that they love music. I don’t think it’s marketing spin or a way for them to try to acknowledge the iPod’s role in their current success. In addition to the business case, the amount of attention they’re putting into all of the different facets of Apple Music is a reflection of this love and passion for making music listening better.

  • As I alluded to above, the presence of an actual engaged DJ is what separates a playlist from a radio station. It’s what’s missing from most actual radio stations these days, and what works so well with Beats 1. Not only does it create excitement, it also offers some continuity, or at least an explanation of why different songs are being played. Ebdo Darden played Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “Otis”, and then chased it with “Try a Little Tenderness” by Otis Redding. Why? Because “Otis” sampled Otis in a big way, and hearing that connection is important for understanding its context in the song. It allows listeners a way to appreciate the artistry and creativity of both artists.

  • On the other hand, Beats 1 doesn’t depart that much from terrestrial radio in ways it could on the internet. There are still too many station idents (“You are listening to Beats 1″) and ad breaks (though way shorter than typical radio stations).

    There’s also no profanity or objectionable lyrics. I understand that Apple wants to keep this family-friendly, and that some people just don’t want to listen to profane lyrics, but it does feel a little jarring to listen to Dr. Dre’s classic “Let Me Ride” with a bunch of the lyrics reversed because they contain references to drugs and violence. It numbs the song of its intentional bite.

    There are ways of doing a split stream, so an explicit stream can be broadcast alongside a clean stream, both live. Art isn’t always clean and family-friendly, and I think Apple’s insistence that it should be neuters songs that use less savoury lyrics for artistic effect.

    Darden, for example, played Jay-Z’s classic “99 Problems”. With the last word removed, the line “rap critics say that he’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’” has less connection to the lines that follow, wherein he dismantles the notion that he only talks about wealth and women. Similarly, the storytelling in the infamous second verse is harder to follow when some of the more profane lyrics are removed.

    Or you could take Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”, with the wonderfully crude chorus “I wanna fuck you like an animal”. Drop the protagonist’s spitting “fuck” and it becomes much weaker.

    You could argue that it’s the artists’ fault for including objectionable lyrics, but I think that there’s a valid case for profanity, and that “99 Problems” and “Closer” are accessible songs that make liberal use of it. Removing it from those songs — as with many, many others — neuters the artists’ intent.

  • All of the Beats hosts seem very excited that they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7. Did you know that they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7? Well they’re broadcasting to 100 countries worldwide, 24/7.

    Doing a worldwide live music station is a potential programming nightmare, though. When I was in high school, I worked in the sound booth for a local theatre company. One of the other technicians was a guy who used to work as a radio host, and he was telling me that the programming they had for different times of day was carefully controlled, particularly in the evening. Past midnight, internal policy dictated that the DJs couldn’t play anything by the Smiths, for example, because it would be just too depressing for anyone awake at that time of night.

    But it’s even simpler than that. When it’s 8:00 in Los Angeles, it’s 4:00 in London, and midnight in Tokyo. The music someone wants to listen to during their morning commute is probably different to the music they’d want to listen to during an afternoon commute or late-night partying.

    Understanding Beats 1’s role in your music listening is complicated. For some people, like those who get most of their new music from the radio already, it could be the first thing they put on in the morning and the last thing they listen to at night. But for someone like me, who more deliberately chooses music by my mood or time of day, it’s a little more like a place to go when I am more interested in simply having something to listen to. It’s complicated, and I’m not entirely sure what problem Apple is solving with this.

    It’s kind of cool, though, when I know that someone on the other side of the world is listening to the exact same thing that I am. It carries a buzz that’s kind of like the World Cup.

  • Having a library that’s a blend of my own, local tracks and those available through Apple Music is pretty much my ideal approach. It’s something that Spotify tried to do with its local library, but I’ve built my iTunes library over the past ten-plus years, and it’s more trouble than its worth to bring it over to Spotify. Now, though, that functionality is built-in.

  • I’m digging the new psychedelic colour scheme for the app icons on OS X and iOS. For real. I know it’s a bit garish, but it’s also fun and it doesn’t look ugly, I don’t think.

    If you wanted to read too much into it, you’d notice that it uses a similar magenta as the previous icons, plus some blue and some purple, both of which could be seen as representations of the two other aspects of the service, all blended together.

    But, as I said, that’s probably reading way too much into it.

  • Spotify, Rdio, and Pandora must have been dreading Apple’s entry into the streaming music business. By effectively bundling it into the built-in apps, it becomes almost a default choice. I know a few people who have already cancelled their Spotify subscriptions, and I might do just that too. I wonder how their user base will change, and whether they’ll sue on presumed antitrust grounds.

  • The Connect feature seems to be used far more than Ping was, but it also still feels overwrought and “heavy”, as least on my Mac. (I haven’t been able to try Connect on my iPhone yet because a new beta seed hasn’t been released.) It will be very interesting to see if artists actually continually post work-in-progress pieces, non-catalogue music, and those kinds of things. It isn’t like they haven’t been able to do that already, between YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. What compels them to post on Connect? Can an artist cross-post to other social services at the same time? If you know anything about the artist publishing tools for this, please get in touch.

  • The instrumental version of The Fragile is magnificent.

I have a lot more to say about Apple Music and all that it entails. It’s a big, comprehensive array of services and apps. More to come, I’m sure.

Apple Releases OS X 10.10.4

John Gruber:

OS X 10.10.4 shipped today, and as expected based on the developer betas, Discoveryd is gone, replaced by an updated version of good old mDNSresponder. At WWDC, word on the street was that Apple closed over 300 radars with this move. Not dupes — 300 discrete radars.

Three hundred individual bugs fixed simply by reverting to mDNSresponder shows just how flaky discoveryd really was. Shocking.

Also in 10.10.4:

Fixes an issue where a website could prevent the user from navigating away by presenting repeated JavaScript alerts in Safari.

From the bottom of my radar #18927527, thank you.

June 30, 2015

A Familiar Taste

The Apple PR force is out in full swing for the launch of Apple Music, but I’ve found most of the initial impressions lacking. Kory Grow’s interview with Trent Reznor for Rolling Stone, on the other hand, is far more interesting:

That aspect of treating music like art is important. And we’ve tried to do that everywhere that you come across music in Apple Music. When you listen to a radio station here, every song has been chosen by somebody. When your recommendations pop up “For You,” that wasn’t based on some tag that came into the system; it was based on editors sitting and saying, “We like this subgenre of hip-hop which branches off into these artists which branch off into these artists,” and paying attention to the actual behavior in the app. And we believe that the result ends up being something that feels better. It makes music feel more personal and it raises it up a notch into something what it deserves, rather than a big-box-retailer feel, like, “Here’s the stuff, pick what you want.” And some people will say that none of that matters, but it does to us and we are proud of the love and care that we are treating music with.

Genius — like most recommendation engines — is entirely based on a programmatic approach to finding similar music, and the effects of that have been plain to see. Artists are suggested based on the number of common downloads, similar band members, and similar genres. That’s really limiting, and a human curator can patch that gap. This is based on the Beats Music model, but it’s vastly more integrated in its Apple Music guise to create a kind of blended library between your local files and streaming songs. I’m looking forward to trying this out as soon as I can.

June 29, 2015

iOS 9, El Capitan, Safari Content Blockers, and Shit-Ass Websites

Developer Dean Murphy spent an hour tossing together a quick content blocking extension for Safari on iOS 9, testing it against iMore:

With no content blocked, there are 38 3rd party scripts (scripts not hosted on the host domain) running when the homepage is opened, which takes a total of 11 seconds. Some of these scripts are hosted by companies I know, Google, Amazon, Twitter and lots from companies I don’t know. Most of which I assume are used to display adverts or track my activity, as the network activity was still active after a minute of leaving the page dormant. I decided to turn them all off all 3rd party scripts and see what would happen.

After turning off all 3rd party scripts, the homepage took 2 seconds to load, down from 11 seconds. Also, the network activity stopped as soon as the page loaded so it should be less strain on the battery.

That’s a big difference, which means only one thing: iMore is another one of those shit-ass websites. John Gruber in 2011:

One article at TheNextWeb weighed in at over 6 MB and required 342 HTTP requests. 73 different JavaScript scripts alone. Absurd. I did a reload on the same page a few minutes later and it was up to 368 HTTP requests but weighed “only” 1.99 MB.

So how are we doing now, four years later? That same article is now 11.0 MB requiring 236 HTTP requests. (I turned off all of my desktop Safari extensions before running these tests.)

For their part, iMore didn’t ignore Murphy’s article. Rene Ritchie:

To answer the obvious questions, yes. Everyone here and at our network, Mobile Nations, saw it. Everyone here and at our network were also well aware of it, and have been working for months already to improve it. That we haven’t made it further, faster is an indication of how hard it is when you’re talking about websites visited by tens of millions of people, and companies that employ more than a dozen writers. Of course, everyone here is going to continue working to find better, smarter ways of solving the problem, because that’s our jobs. I’m sure other large websites are doing likewise.

His “response” article — which, I should point out, is entirely text-based, unlike a media-heavy review — weighs in at a whopping 14 MB with 330 requests. That’s one shit-ass website, largely because it’s bogged down by unnecessary tools.

As someone who operates a website with an advertisement served by JavaScript, you may see me as a hypocrite: on the one hand, I’m looking forward to a faster web via content blockers; on the other, I directly profit by a lack of script blocking. But the Carbon ad on the right doesn’t seem to have noticeably degraded performance on this site, and it’s a tiny static image in the sidebar.1

By contrast, a glance through the changelog of my blacklist clearly shows certain ad networks and utilities that are disrespectful to performance and, consequently, readers. With increasing amounts of web browsing being done on mobile devices — and with iOS devices occupying a significant chunk of the mobile web market share — the pressure is going to be on for the makers of inefficient scripts and utilities. With any luck, the web will be better for it.


  1. And, unlike most web tools, it doesn’t track you site-to-site, or even within this site. There’s a referral code on the end of the link so Carbon knows if someone clicks it, but that’s it. There’s no targeting, and no other funny business. ↩︎

Facebook Hired Seven Black People in 2013

Rupert Neite, of the Guardian:

The most recent EEO filing available shows Facebook hired an additional seven black people out of an overall headcount increase of 1,231 in 2013. At that time Facebook employed just 45 black staff out of a total US workforce of 4,263. Facebook’s black female headcount increased by just one person over 2013 to 11, and the number of black men increased by six to 34. There were no black people in any executive or senior management positions.

The United States is 12% black; California is 5% so.

Over the same period the company’s white employee headcount increased by 695. There were 125 white people holding executive and senior management positions at the firm.

That’s not even close to proportionate.

Update: Angelica Coleman adds her experience from Dropbox, ironically, on Facebook:

I left Dropbox because as a black woman working on bettering myself, the tech industry doesn’t give a shit. Even with the skills to do more, if I had stayed at Dropbox, I would have always had the submissive role of serving others and never calling the shots. Why? Because a white manager didn’t want to see me do more.

There is a long way to go.

The Apple Watch Will Never Have a Killer App

And that’s okay. Ken Segall (via Federico Viticci):

If you need any proof, just look at the iPhone. We can all agree it started one of the biggest technology revolutions of our time. So … what’s the killer app?

Music? Banking? Fitness? Games? Email? Messaging? Camera?

That depends on who you are. Any one of those things, or a combination thereof, might be worth the price of admission. But what’s killer to one person is boringly insignificant to another.

Further, what you consider to be killer probably existed previously on your laptop or camera. Which means that the killer part of iPhone really isn’t an app — it’s the concept of the phone itself. One device that does all that stuff, and fits neatly into your pocket.

I’ve long thought that how the product is going to be used — its context — is a vastly more important part of software development than it has been given credit for. As the timespan of the product’s use decreases and the number of situations in which the product will be used increases, the impact of minor poor decisions becomes amplified.

Or, to put that another way, desktop software can be a little rougher around the edges than tablet software because you’re spending more time with it in more limited circumstances: usually on a desk, or on your lap. Smartphone software needed to be designed with more awareness of the context in which it would be used because it would be used for minutes, not hours, in vastly more varied situations. The Apple Watch is a distillation of software and hardware. It is strapped to you, so it goes pretty much wherever you go. It’s also physically smaller and used for significantly less time, so apps built for it need to be laser focused.

Consequently, it’s harder to determine its killer app. It’s stripped-down, and apps on the Watch are typically less feature-rich than their iOS or OS X siblings. But don’t mistake a lack of features for a reduction in usability; they are usable in far more places because of a reduction in features.

Ever since I’ve been using an Apple Watch, I’ve had people stop me in the streets, at the grocery store, and in elevators asking about it. What I’ve realized is that it is a difficult product to demo, which is odd because I use it all the time. I should know what to demo, but I find myself at a loss every time because it’s a product that can only really be demonstrated in the context of life. I usually resort to demonstrating the wrist raising gesture, though, because it is — in the words of my mother — “kind of freaky”.

We Need Detailed App Release Notes

Every time I open the App Store, I see a sea of updates with the generic “bug fixes and performance improvements” note, or some variation thereof. David Chartier has noticed the same, but for him, it isn’t merely irritating:

Developers, I know you have an internal list of these changes for each release. Withholding them from customers is wrong, lazy, and misleading, and it erodes trust with your users.

Please give us an accurate list of what’s new in each update so we can make an informed decision about whether to update.

What Chartier says is logical, but I doubt that most people look at app release notes before updating. In fact, I doubt most people look at them at all, because automatic updates are on by default. That’s a great convenience for most people, but a really crappy way to avoid being stuck with an update you don’t want.

I’d like to think most developers would be considerate to users and any escalation of permissions or the use of that information would be better documented than, say, a patch for a small feature not behaving correctly. But I want to know exactly what’s being changed with every update; I want to know what bugs are being fixed, so I can test my bug reports against updates with more knowledge. Far too many apps have joined the Facebook school of vague change logs.

Thanks to Ben Zigterman for surfacing this link for me after I forgot who wrote it.

June 26, 2015

It’s About Time

We did it in Canada about ten years ago, and it’s about time that the momentum of forty US states manifested itself in federal law. There is no straight or gay marriage in the United States — just marriage. There are a lot of new rights that come with this decision, but the right for two people to express their love in a binding way is beautiful. A true leap forward for humanity.

See Also: The full ruling (PDF), and Bloomberg’s timelines of other historic changes of mind.

A Significant AppleCare+ Improvement for Mobile Devices

Joe Rossignol for MacRumors:

Apple has updated the terms of its AppleCare+ Protection Plan for iPhone, iPad, iPod and Apple Watch to cover batteries that retain less than 80% of their original capacity within the extended warranty period, whereas it previously covered batteries that retained less than 50% of their original capacity. The change applies to AppleCare+ purchased for iPhone, iPad, iPod and all Apple Watch models on April 10, 2015 or later.

If AppleCare+ wasn’t a good deal before, it is now. While a drop below 80% capacity shouldn’t happen before two years of standard use, it’s not a rare occurrence either, as far as I can figure out. It happened to my MacBook Air after a year of standard usage, and I’ve seen very poor capacity on friends’ iPhones, too. This coverage now matches the Mac AppleCare rules, aside from covering only two years instead of three.1 Good stuff.


  1. Unless you have a Watch Edition. ↩︎

June 25, 2015

Our Half-a-Week Long National Nightmare Is Over

Taylor Swift has confirmed that all of her albums, including “1989”, will be available for streaming on Apple Music in a kind of implicit exclusive — other streaming services still offer the same library to free and paid subscribers. I have a hunch that Spotify and Rdio are working on a way to split their libraries between their tiers.

Microsoft Has a New Vapid Mission Statement to Replace Its Old Vapid Mission Statement

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in an internal email to employees:

Mission. Every great company has an enduring mission. Our mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. I’m proud to share that this is our new official mission statement. This mission is ambitious and at the core of what our customers deeply care about. We have unique capability in harmonizing the needs of both individuals and organizations. This is in our DNA. We also deeply care about taking things global and making a difference in lives and organizations in all corners of the planet.

Read that mission statement again:

Empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

“Every person”? “Every organization”? Sounds like the Microsoft of yore. “Achieve more”? Isn’t that kind of obvious for pretty much any company that makes tools or utilities? I can’t think of a company that would openly and unironically brag about making people achieve less. This statement means nothing. That’s par for the course for Microsoft, but it’s disappointing because Nadella is a very different CEO from his predecessor.

Update: Smart response from Tze-Ho Tan on Twitter:

Compare to Jobs’ for Apple in 1980: “To make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.”

I still think it’s pretty hollow, as any corporate mission statement seems to be, but there is a subtle difference. Jobs’ statement clearly specifies how Apple plans to make a contribution: “by making tools for the mind”. That qualifies the statement, and it becomes meaningful as a result. It’s not much, but it’s something.

June 24, 2015

A Disaster Foretold and Ignored

Patrick Barker:

On my home forum Sysnative, a user (wavly) was being assisted with a WU [Windows Update] issue, which was going well, aside from the fact that wavly’s WU kept getting disabled randomly. It was figured out eventually after using auditpol.exe and registry security auditing that the program that was responsible for disabling WU was Disable_Windowsupdate.exe, which is part of Samsung’s SW Update software.

SW Update is your typical OEM updating software that will update your Samsung drivers, the bloatware that came on your Samsung machine, etc. The only difference between other OEM updating software is, Samsung’s disables WU.

The BBC:

Adobe has released an emergency software patch for Flash after it found a serious vulnerability being exploited by hackers.

The company said it had evidence of “limited, targeted attacks” and urged people to update their software immediately. […]

This vulnerability – which enables hackers to take control of a computer – affects Windows, Mac and Linux systems.

Craig Timberg, in the Washington Post:

Your computers, [hacker collective LOpht] told the panel of senators in May 1998, are not safe — not the software, not the hardware, not the networks that link them together. The companies that build these things don’t care, the hackers continued, and they have no reason to care because failure costs them nothing. And the federal government has neither the skill nor the will to do anything about it.

[…]

The result was a culture within the tech industry often derided as “patch and pray.” In other words, keep building, keep selling and send out fixes as necessary. If a system failed — causing lost data, stolen credit card numbers or time-consuming computer crashes — the burden fell not on giant, rich tech companies but on their customers.

It isn’t working.

“Bravely Default”

Seth Clifford:

For years, I’ve eschewed using the default iOS apps in favor of third-party offerings, because maaaan, I always knew better. Apple’s apps are for regular people, and I’m a PowerUser™, maaaan. I’d configure all kinds of workarounds and extra steps because I wanted to wring every last bit of functionality out of my devices, and the basic starter apps just weren’t ever enough.

Something’s changed though–well, two things–in the past few years. I’ve lost my taste for fiddling a little bit, and the default apps Apple ships with its devices have gotten, well, better. Better than other things I could use? Not in all cases. But better… enough.

But:

Certainly I have specific pieces of my workflows that must remain more complex; OmniFocus is a great example. The complexity-to-ability balance is tilted way in favor of the amazing productivity gains it offers when life throws a lot of stuff at me. But that new Notes app looks hot. Dark Sky is cool, but I just end up opening Weather way more often. I’m rediscovering that using Reminders for very simple nudges can be highly effective outside of OmniFocus. Most shockingly for some nerds, I’m just using the built-in Podcasts app. Why? Because my use case is having a podcast show up, and me listening to it.

It’s interesting that Clifford called his decision to switch to mostly default apps “brave”. He’s kind of right — using the default anything amongst a tech-savvy audience is practically begging for an onslaught of confused @ replies and backlash.

Every so often, as with most nerds, I think about my workflow and reconsider my assumptions of The Way Things Ought To Be. Am I using the best Twitter client for me? Am I using the best calendar replacement, or is there a better one out there for my specific use case? And then I realize that I haven’t really changed much in my workflow in about five years because I’m largely doing similar stuff as I was then, albeit in different proportions. And that realization raises all sorts of other questions, but that’s an internal crisis for another time — first, I have different email clients to try.

What I’ve realized is that you should limit your exploration outside of default apps if:

  1. there’s an aspect of the app that you use all the time that is either not present, is woefully buggy, or is inadequate; and

  2. the app or its function is something you use constantly.

If it’s an infrequently-used app or you can live with its features, keep using the default. It’s probably fine, plus you get all of the benefits of the app being integrated with the rest of the system in some way. But if it’s an app that you use all the time and it’s driving you crazy, you may want to look into something else.

Take Clifford’s example of using the default Reminders app over OmniFocus for simple reminders. I don’t use OmniFocus at all — I only need simple reminder capabilities — but Reminders is woefully inadequate even for me, because it is my only todo list. I create reminders for specific dates and times a lot, and doing it in the Reminders app is a huge pain in the ass for something that should be such a lightweight function. It requires:

  • tapping in the blank cell to create a new reminder,

  • typing the reminder title,

  • tapping the little info icon to bring up the details view,

  • switching the date reminder to “on”,

  • using iOS’ still-a-little-clumsy date picker to assign a date and time, and

  • tapping “Done” to save it.

That’s too complicated. In Fantastical, I just tap the “new” button, type “remind”, then the title and time details in natural language, then tap “Done”. As this is something I do a lot, it saves me enough time and stress that I find the $5 I dropped on Fantastical a no-brainer. But I wouldn’t try anything else now because my grievances with Fantastical aren’t worth it. That’s really the tradeoff. Find one app that does what you need it to well enough that you can live with it, and stick with it. And, for a lot of people, that’s going to be the default.

June 23, 2015

Instagram Has a New ‘Explore’ Tab

Jessi Hempel, Wired:

First, Instagram will highlight trending places in a box across the top of the screen. The software will show you both the most attention-getting events (Houston flood; Bonnaroo concert) and also things that are close to you (Central Park concert; new restaurant opening). Second, users can scroll sideways to see curated collections of photographs that members of Instagram’s community team cull from the most popular Instagrammers’ feeds. This is where you’ll stumble across your kid skateboarders, say, or remote islands you’ll dream of visiting. Last, Instagram will highlight trending hashtags in the center of the screen, promoting the most popular tags. The bottom third of the screen will look much like it has, surfacing compelling posts, but Instagram’s new design will allow users to move seamlessly from one photo to the next, rather than returning to the Explore page between photos.

This is a huge shift for Instagram’s strategy. What once was Twitter, but for photos, is now — uh, *checks Twitter* — never mind, it’s still Twitter, but for photos. As Twitter has added features for trying to make billions of tweets topical, Instagram has done the same for its photos. Only one catch:

While Explore will initially be available only to US users, Instagram will introduce a more powerful search engine globally.

Yet again, an interesting new feature or product is only available to Americans. Nothing wrong with Americans, mind you, but as a Canadian, this is infinitely frustrating.

But you can now, at long last, search by location, so that’s good.

Google Launches Play Music

Elias Roman of Google:

At any moment in your day, Google Play Music has whatever you need music for—from working, to working out, to working it on the dance floor—and gives you curated radio stations to make whatever you’re doing better. Our team of music experts, including the folks who created Songza, crafts each station song by song so you don’t have to. If you’re looking for something specific, you can browse our curated stations by genre, mood, decade or activity, or you can search for your favorite artist, album or song to instantly create a station of similar music.

[…]

The new free, ad-supported version of Google Play Music is launching first in the U.S. It’s available on the web today, and is rolling out this week to Android and iOS.

I’m Canadian, so this doesn’t impact me in the least. It does, however, explain why I’m very excited for the launch of Apple Music. Unlike Google Play Music, Pandora, or iTunes Radio, Apple Music looks like it’s launching here, amongst something like 100 other countries. That’s unheard of in a contract-encumbered industry. It’s not the entire iTunes library available anywhere, but it’s going to be an impressive launch regardless.

June 22, 2015

I Knew You Were Trouble

Musicians may have won a victory against Apple’s onerous terms for their forthcoming Music service, but the floodgates of discontent have now opened. Kirk McElhearn clarifies who is (not) getting paid:

Apple, like most other people in this discussion, are a bit confused about their terminology; they don’t pay “artist[s],” they pay rightsholders. They make two payments: one for publishing, and one for performances. Clearinghouses for publishing rights then divvy up their share to songwriters, and record labels let some of their income trickle down to the actual artists. (Except, of course, with the smallest indie bands who actually contract directly with Apple, or any other streaming music service. Most indies go through aggregators, who distribute their music on streaming and download services, and who collect the income and pay it to individual labels.)

Charles Perry wants to know why app developers have been ignored for so long (via Michael Tsai):

So no one – not even Taylor Swift – is saying that Apple is breaking any laws. What Swift is saying, and what I agree with, is that it’s a bad deal for artists. Creators should be compensated for the use of their creations.

This debate is important to app developers because, whether we like it or not, digital music has been devalued – just as our digital creations have been. In just a few short years people have gone from paying tens of dollars for an album, to paying 99 cents for a single track, to paying pennies or even nothing to stream an entire library of music. This parallels in a rather frightening way the history of the App Store where, in an even shorter amount of time, mobile software that once sold for tens of dollars now is lucky to sell for 99 cents. Just as the music industry, now including Apple, has moved to an “all-you-can-eat” subscription model to bring down the per title cost of music below that 99 cent threshold, it now doesn’t seem unreasonable that a similar all-you-can-eat subscription model might be used to allow per title pricing of apps to fall below 99 cents as well.

Not only that, many developers feel obligated to provide free updates in perpetuity for that $0.99, or they risk the wrath of angering their users. Apple hasn’t made it easy for them: there’s no official way to offer upgrade pricing, nor is there a way to offer a free demo of iOS apps.

Esteemed photographer of many artists and bands Jason Sheldon points out that many of his contracts — including the one for shooting a Taylor Swift show — are just as anti-artist [sic]:

How are you any different to Apple? If you don’t like being exploited, that’s great.. make a huge statement about it, and you’ll have my support. But how about making sure you’re not guilty of the very same tactic before you have a pop at someone else?

Photographers need to earn a living as well. Like Apple, you can afford to pay for photographs so please stop forcing us to hand them over to you while you prevent us from publishing them more than once, ever.

It isn’t news that art gets shafted at its intersection with business, and I’m glad that we’re talking about it.1 As it has become easier for artists to make their work known, however, it seems as though we haven’t gained additional leverage over these contracts. It’s good that the Andy Warhol of music is able to influence change for the better, but it’s yet another reminder that a thousand indie artists won’t have the impact that Swift does. It is, quite simply, exploitative, and all parties involved know that.


  1. If you’re in Calgary between June 24 and July 27, come see my work. Reception is June 27 from 8 PM until whenever UAS decides to kick everyone out. ↩︎

iCloud Photo Library Can Consume a Lot of Data Over a Cellular Connection

Adam C. Engst at TidBits:

Luckily, unlike many people, I don’t have a data cap for my Time Warner Internet connection, so at least that wasn’t a problem for me, as it might be for you. Where I did run into trouble is with my iPhone, on which I’m using the Optimize iPhone Storage option to reduce the amount of data transferred and stored. Tonya, Tristan, and I now share 2 GB of data on our family plan, and before last month, we had never come close to using that much, since we’re still accustomed to having only 250 MB each. So you can imagine my surprise shortly after I enabled iCloud Photo Library when AT&T texted me to say that I was approaching my 2 GB limit. […]

There are no settings to prevent iCloud Photo Library from working over cellular, and while I disabled cellular data for the Photos app, that made no difference. I could turn off cellular data in general (and I did once or twice, but that’s a hard thing to remember every time you leave the house), but by the end of the billing period, AT&T had hit me with $30 of overage charges for two $15 blocks of 1 GB of additional data.

It doesn’t appear as though full photos are being uploaded — that should only happen over WiFi, or at least that’s what happens for me. But there should be more stringent limitations baked into iOS for how much cellular data any app may transfer. Even though LTE has the bandwidth to support broadband-level services, its users often don’t have broadband-level data caps.

June 21, 2015

To Apple, Love Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift:

I write this to explain why I’ll be holding back my album, 1989, from the new streaming service, Apple Music. I feel this deserves an explanation because Apple has been and will continue to be one of my best partners in selling music and creating ways for me to connect with my fans. I respect the company and the truly ingenious minds that have created a legacy based on innovation and pushing the right boundaries.

I’m sure you are aware that Apple Music will be offering a free 3 month trial to anyone who signs up for the service. I’m not sure you know that Apple Music will not be paying writers, producers, or artists for those three months. I find it to be shocking, disappointing, and completely unlike this historically progressive and generous company.

Swift is right — there’s no three month free trial where (almost) nobody gets paid in any other industry. During that trial, Apple should pay the artists. It’s as simple as that, and I don’t see how the company could view it any differently.

It is odd that Swift is only including “1989” in her boycott, though. I think it would be way more powerful if she and other artists were able to excise all of their works from Music until this is resolved. After all, the service is nothing without their work.

Update: Good news, everyone:

I [Peter Kafka] just got off the phone with Eddy Cue. I’m going to dump some notes in here, and then turn them into something more coherent in real time. Internet!

[…]

Cue says Apple will pay rights holders for the entire three months of the trial period. It can’t be at the same rate that Apple is paying them after free users become subscribers, since Apple is paying out a percentage of revenues once subscribers start paying. Instead, he says, Apple will pay rights holders on a per-stream basis, which he won’t disclose.

When Google’s Legal Team Becomes Your Legal Team

Jacob Appelbaum is one of the most prominent security researchers in the world, and one of the most outspoken defendants of a person’s right to privacy. So, naturally, he’s under some fairly extraordinary surveillance, with the government requesting access to everything, including his Google account, as collected by Bethany Horne in this Storify.

If you’re a regular reader,1 you know my stance on Google collecting all your information in a gigantic silo. But there’s one advantage to that: when they receive a wiretap or records request, their legal team scrutinizes it first. That probably goes for pretty much all companies; Apple’s legal department probably does the same thing. Having a multinational company’s legal team front-ending interactions with the justice department is pretty powerful.


  1. Thank you. ↩︎

June 18, 2015

Mike Ash Does Not Agree to Apple’s Terms

Mike Ash got an email from Apple about them automatically including his site’s RSS feed — among probably many, many others — as part of their new News app. His site’s feed is publicly available, so that’s cool with him, but there are some terms attached:

  • You agree to let us use, display, store, and reproduce the content in your RSS feeds including placing advertising next to or near your content without compensation to you. Don’t worry, we will not put advertising inside your content without your permission.

Apple didn’t get to be such a wealthy company by leaving money on the table, but automatically appending RSS feeds with ads seems gross to me. Aside from the philosophical objections one may have, it cheapens the experience a little. It feels like a product where some middle manager needed to justify the “bloody ROI”.

  • You confirm that you have all necessary rights to publish your RSS content, and allow Apple to use it for News as we set forth here. You will be responsible for any payments that might be due to any contributors or other third parties for the creation and use of your RSS content.

Fair enough.

  • If we receive a legal claim about your RSS content, we will tell you so that you can resolve the issue, including indemnifying Apple if Apple is included in the claim.

This is probably to protect Apple when a lawsuit is brought against third-party content, like if someone sued a writer on defamation grounds and named Apple because that story was available in News. And that makes sense; Apple should not be liable for stuff like that.

  • You can remove your RSS feed whenever you want by opting out or changing your settings in News Publisher.

And this is the brunt of it, because the email continues:

If you do not want Apple to include your RSS feeds in News, reply NO to this email and we will remove your RSS feeds.

As far as I can tell, these terms are broadly acceptable, with the exception of Apple selling ads against third-party content. But it also sounds like Ash is understandably upset that he’s being opted into these legally-binding terms unless he opts out. It probably wouldn’t hold up in court, but that question being raised should ring some alarm bells.

Update: Kevin Ballard in the comments:

[U]pon re-reading it, it seems like the Terms they’re saying applies doesn’t actually really legally bind you to anything. It’s not like a normal EULA where you’re being granted a license. They’re saying that these are the terms under which they (Apple) will operate, and if you aren’t comfortable with them, you can opt-out.

June 17, 2015

On Euphemistic Press Release Titles

I like to picture the offices of PR and marketing teams when there’s a giant corporate shakeup. There must be a fairly lengthy process of whittling the press release title down to the most anemic combination of words possible. Remember when Apple did that big executive reshuffle back in 2012? Here’s the title of that press release — one of the biggest executive and strategy decisions in the company’s history:

Apple Announces Changes to Increase Collaboration Across Hardware, Software & Services

It’s not wrong, but it’s also redefining the phrase “burying the lede”.

Here’s Microsoft’s equivalent, from today:

Microsoft Aligns Engineering Teams to Strategy

As if Microsoft were not strategic with their engineering teams before.

Anyway, here’s the seventh paragraph, after much preamble:

As a result of the organizational moves, Stephen Elop, Kirill Tatarinov and Eric Rudder will leave Microsoft after a designated transition period. Unrelated to the engineering restructuring changes, Chief Insights Officer Mark Penn has decided to pursue another venture outside Microsoft and will be leaving the company in September.

That’s a lot of high-ranking executives that are leaving. You may remember Stephen Elop from helming various companies and engineering their acquisitions, or his weird memo exactly eleven months ago following another intra-Microsoft reshuffling.

FCC Reminds AT&T It Was Insane to Offer Unlimited Data

Julia Greenberg, Wired:

I use a lot of data—and you probably do, too. American smartphone users, on average, consume 1.2GB of cellular data each month, according to a Mobidia Technology analysis last year. (Even more data is consumed over Wi-Fi.)

So it should come as no surprise then that AT&T and Verizon no longer offer the unlimited cellular data plans they once sold to new customers. Even so, AT&T promised those early customers who came to be thrilled at the luck of their unlimited data that they could keep their plans under certain conditions. But today, the Federal Communications Commission said AT&T didn’t keep its promise. Now the agency wants to fine AT&T $100 million for allegedly misleading consumers about what it actually means to have an unlimited wireless data.

There’s no way that AT&T could have predicted back in 2007 just how much data people would use in the future; that much is understandable. To keep offering plans marked “unlimited” but with a big fucking asterisk beside them is misleading, pure and simple. You know it, the FCC knows it, and — deep in whatever they have instead of hearts — AT&T knows it.

June 16, 2015

“On a Long Enough Time Scale, Everything Is a Fad”

Daniel Jalkut wrote what is probably the best counterpoint to Christopher Mims’ silly Mac-killing op-ed:

Why have people been so convinced, for years, that mobile is the future, while desktop computers are on the way out? What if mobile devices only fill the variety of temporary needs that arise from how we live today?

[…]

Years from now, I suppose it’s possible desktop computers will become obsolete, supplanted by mobile devices. But given the unpredictability of progress, I suspect we’ll look back at both classes of computing devices and chuckle about how silly it all seemed, before the advent of ______.

Guessing the future of a marketplace is brilliantly paradoxical. The amount of effort required for a company like Apple to bring to market a brand new product is so great that they need to begin planning it well in advance of when the market could be ready for it. But they don’t get to define the future; if everything goes okay, the market decides that. We are, in effect, in control of the future of technology, but only after being shown what it could potentially be. We can’t predict the future because we only have the present as a state of reference, but we do control the future.

Bug Writing Season

Rene Ritchie implores you to file your radars early this year:

With profound respect to everyone who ships pixels and bits, here’s what I’ve learned: When the first betas of OS X, iOS, or watchOS hit, there are still months to go before release. That means engineers have more time to work on fixes, so there’s a higher chance your particular bug will get fixed.

[…]

As later betas are seeded, and release draws near, Apple is forced to triage. Eventually, there’s only time to work on show-stoppers. The chance of a bug reported at that stage getting fixed, no matter how annoying, trends towards zero.

Ritchie has a good point. But filing bugs can range from a mild inconvenience to an enormous pain in the ass.1 Craig Hockenberry has a way to make it a little bit easier:

Now’s the perfect time to start using QuickRadar. As its name suggests, this project run by Amy Worrall, makes creating or duplicating bug reports much quicker. You’ll also find that a native Mac user interface is much easier to deal with than some web form pretending to be iOS 6.

QuickRadar is super nice. It runs nearly invisibly in the menubar, you can set up a keyboard shortcut to bring up a new radar window, and you can configure it to automatically duplicate the bug to the OpenRadar project.


  1. The number of times I’ve been asked to recreate data loss bugs in production operating systems is decidedly in the latter category. ↩︎

Ignoring Apple’s Fundamental Thinking

Christopher Mims wrote a widely-derided op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, arguing that Apple needs to drop the Mac line:

In the quarter ending in January of this year, a funny thing happened at Apple. The company took in the highest revenue for its Mac line ever, yet the Mac accounted for the lowest-ever proportion of overall revenue. Apple raked in $6.9 billion on 5.5 million Macs, just 9% of overall revenue. This would be a crazy thing to say for any other company, but Apple doesn’t need this revenue.

What the company does need, and like all ambitious companies occasionally strays from, is focus. If the iPhone is just coming into its prime, the iPad is an immature platform and the Watch is in its infancy. Yet Apple continues to invest in one-of-a-kind feats of engineering like the Mac Pro, which ships in volumes that are a rounding error on pretty much everything else Apple makes.

Even ignoring the Mac user story, Glenn Fleishman makes a compelling case for the Mac simply as a developer platform.

Apple will never again cede its future to other firms’ control. It’s why Apple makes its own chips, buys industrial-manufacturing firms that create special tools which it puts into its assembly partners’ factories, and even blows a wad of cash on a failed attempt to generate more sapphire screens.

And it’s why it has its own computer platform: 100 percent of software development for the iPhone, iPad, and Watch (and Mac apps) occurs on Macs. There’s no other way to assemble software for those devices. Even with the highest-end Mac hardware currently available, developers strain against the amount of time it can take to compile and test builds, whether in Mac-based emulators or when cross-loaded onto a developers’ test devices.

Meanwhile, the Macalope is typically direct:

Everyone is so concerned about Apple and its future. And for some reason that concern drives them to write this terrible anti-fan fiction. In effect, Apple’s power has driven them mad.

So Mims wrote a followup piece claiming that he was shocked — shocked! — that the tech press responded this way:

If we collected all the blistering heat generated by this week’s column on why Apple should phase out the Mac, I’m pretty sure it would be enough to power Apple’s headquarters for a month. Which is amazing to me, since I thought what I was saying was only a little bit controversial, and a natural extension of so many others’ reactions to last week’s Apple developer confab.

“There’s no way I could have known that suggesting the retirement of the original personal computer brand would make waves. Oh, please, don’t call it clickbait!”

Yeah, right.

Now, on the matter of the future: If Apple phased out the Mac, how would those who use it to get work done carry on? That’s the question filling up my inbox, and it’s one I wish I hadn’t cut answers to from the original piece.

I recognize this is probably an editor’s doing in order to fit the piece in the paper, but the web has no character limit. Mims could have extended the column on the web to include solutions to the obvious counterpoints; not doing so weakened an already weak piece.

Mims’ point is one that has been made countless times before, though with few titles as clickbaity as his WSJ article: that the computer is evolving, and that tablets will one day replace what we think of today as personal computers. That is, they may have similar form factors, but be using the same hardware as their mobile device counterparts:

It’s been clear since the debut of the iPad that Apple believes it will be the future of the PC. And countless PC makers have realized that, especially if people are going to use a tablet as their primary device, it needs to be able to snap into or easily connect to a keyboard and other input peripherals. Touch interfaces are great for certain tasks, but they’re just not enough on their own. If the iPad Pro isn’t a reasonable laptop replacement, suitable for the needs of 90% of the notebook-buying public, I’ll eat my hat.

Someone butter Mims’ hat and ready a sauté pan.

Indeed, sleuthing by one developer suggests that Apple is already laying the groundwork for developers to run OS X apps on the very same chips that are already in iPhones and iPads. Maybe we’ll get an iPad family that runs OS X apps without running OS X? Or “Macs” that only run iOS? Or, yes, I could be wrong about all this, and what this points to is OS X (i.e. Macs) that run on iPhone/iPad chips.

Mims hasn’t provided a timeframe prediction, only that “one day” we’ll be using laptops and desktops powered by ARM chips, running a hybrid of iOS and OS X. That much has been argued before, enthusiastically, and frequently. But what Mims has failed to articulate clearly is why the Mac brand needs to die for this to happen, instead of simply evolving to meet a new role.

Yet I still disagree. I doubt we’ll be using a hybrid version of iOS and OS X any time soon, with touch controls for when you’re using it on an iPad, and desktop controls on a laptop. I also doubt we’ll see Apple’s professional lineup move to ARM processors in the near future, though I could imagine something like the MacBook potentially using a high-end ARM CPU. But the MacBook Pro is still one of — if not the — best-selling lines of Macs Apple makes. They may have commoditized the Air, but the Pro still gets features first, it still sells extremely well, and it has a very distinctive core customer base. Yes, there are plenty of college students who buy a 13-inch MacBook Pro to browse the web on, but there are lots and lots of recording artists, drafters, designers, architects, movie editors, photographers, mathematicians, and physicists who require the kind of mobile power that the MacBook Pro provides in spades.

June 15, 2015

Spotify Rewind

Spotify is rolling out a sweet new feature called Rewind. Fletcher Babb, VentureBeat [sic]:

A man who appears to be a Spotify engineer posted the feature to Facebook post last night, revealing a public link to a mostly functioning new service.

Spotify did not immediately return a request for comment on the matter, but the Facebook post explains it best: “Ever wondered which artists you would be listening to if you were born in another time? Spotify can help you turn your music back in time (smile emoji), try it out!”

Apart from Babb’s awkward phrasing, and his inability to correctly link to the Facebook permalink, or to Spotify’s service itself, this is pretty cool. I took it for a spin with a few of my favourite artists — Refused, Deftones, and a third artist I can’t remember — and it returned some absolute jewels. The ’90s playlist was unfortunately obvious, with some Rage Against the Machine, Germs, and Incubus, but the ’80s playlist had stuff like Accepted’s “Monsterman”. It’s kind of fun, albeit limited.

Apple’s Increasing Localization for China

Mark D. Miller:

Most people in China get transportation by public transit. Having a mapping service in China without transit directions would be like having one in the US without driving directions. Apple hit this hard:

  • Apple developed transit directions for just 10 cities in the non-China world, but over 300 cities in China.

  • The non-China cities for which Apple has transit directions have a combined population of about 38M. Just the 9 listed cities in China have a combined population of over 130M.

In ways both explicit and implicit, Apple made enormous strides in their offerings to China. Having recognized the significance of China’s emerging middle class early, they’re farther ahead there than probably any of their Western competitors.

June 12, 2015

An Introduction to WebKit Content Blockers

New in Safari for iOS 9 and El Capitan is a content blocker-specific extension.

“But Nick,” you protest, “we already have extensions in Safari on OS X. And I already use content blockers like JavaScript Blacklist, to prevent the jackasses at Tynt and po.st from taking over basic functionality like copy and paste.”

Well, reader, there’s a good reason for introducing a new extension point. Benjamin Poulain writes on the WebKit blog:

The reason we are unhappy about the JavaScript-based content blocking extensions is they have significant performance drawbacks. The current model uses a lot of energy, reducing battery life, and increases page load time by adding latency for each resource. Certain kinds of extensions also reduce the runtime performance of webpages. Sometimes, they can allocate tremendous amounts of memory, which goes against our efforts to reduce WebKit’s memory footprint.

It is an area were we want to do better. We are working on new tools to enable content blocking at a fraction of the cost.

A while back, I was going to post this article about how AdBlock slows down your browser because it iterates through all the iframes on a page, running on each of them. I ultimately didn’t link to it because I think the author missed the point of why most people block ads: not because they’re slow, but just because they don’t want to see ads.

But I thought of it again after I heard about content blockers baked into Safari. I don’t use AdBlock, but I do use Steven Frank’s excellent ShutUp.css. The internet is much more peaceful without comments, but I also see a small performance hit on most modern web pages because of the number of iframes they contain.

This new extension point seems to smooth over these issues in a really nice way. Not only will this improve performance, I can now have ShutUp on my iPhone, too, and block the humungous JavaScript files so many sites use these days.

San Francisco UI and Compact

Apple has now released to developers copies of their new universal system UI type family, San Francisco. I’ve only done a little bit of digging into it but, so far, it looks like there are some significant updates and improvements compared to the versions released with WatchKit in November. There’s still no public copy of the rounded variant, however.

Apple’s Latest Product Is Privacy

Walt Mossberg, Recode:

Apple is clear in its belief that users are better off if personal data is stored locally as much as possible. The company makes settings for enhancing privacy relatively clear and easy for its customers. And some of this week’s new product demos were designed to show that local device data, like cloud data, can provide rich, helpful intelligence.

Yet Apple’s case isn’t impregnable. And it’s able to use privacy as a marketing point at least in part because that stance happens to fit its business model, and is harder to reconcile with Google’s.

Mossberg, to my eye, has this backwards: it’s not that higher privacy happens to fit Apple’s business model, but rather that their business model deliberately avoids violating or bending your expectations of privacy.

But I also think that I think I got this tradeoff between privacy and features all wrong. I was under the impression that the reason Google’s services work so well is because they have a consolidated privacy policy that allows them to blend data from almost every service they offer into one giant privacy-invading smoothie. They can then compare disparate pieces of data to try to determine what’s relevant to you now, and what can be done with that information.

Proactive search in iOS 9 demonstrates that it isn’t necessary to do that processing in the cloud, nor is it necessary to scoop up a ton of data to make these features work. If you get an email with a hotel booking, for example, it will suggest that booking in the calendar. This functionality does require scanning on-device email messages, but it doesn’t seem to leave the device, as far as I can tell. And because Apple’s business model doesn’t require them to know this kind of information, they really don’t care about it. What they do collect and store in the cloud is siloed.

June 11, 2015

Live with Phil

Marco Arment was at John Gruber’s annual WWDC live podcast recording and, oh boy, what a show:

But after a brief introduction from Merlin Mann and Adam Lisagor, John introduced, “and I shit you not,” Apple’s senior vice president of marketing, Phil Schiller.

Being familiar with John’s dry humor, I’m not sure most of the audience believed him. Many cheered. Some hesitated. For a few seconds, nobody walked out, and people started laughing, thinking they got the joke.

And then Phil Schiller really walked on stage.

There’s a lot to unpack with an appearance like this, and Arment does so expertly. Most important, though, is that it still felt like an episode of the Talk Show. After a few minutes of thinking “holy shit, it’s that great writer interviewing one of the most important product people in the world”, it settles in to a pretty familiar feeling. It doesn’t feel like PR; it feels human. You really need to listen to this episode.

Update: The video recording is now up, and the tension in that short pause described by Arment above is totally palpable.

Really Big Twitter News

Twitter’s Sachin Agarwal:

We’ve done a lot to improve Direct Messages over the past year and have much more exciting work on the horizon. One change coming in July that we want to make you aware of now (and first!) is the removal of the 140 character limit in Direct Messages. In order to make this change as seamless as possible for you we’ve included some recommendations below to ensure all your applications and services can handle these longer format messages before we flip the switch.

According to Jordan Novet at Venture Beat, this isn’t a removal of the character limit so much as increasing it to 10,000 characters. Still, that’s pretty big news. After all, you’ve replaced email in your office with Slack, right? Why not replace Slack now? Isn’t it getting old?

Oh yeah, and they also whipped their Dick out:1

Twitter, Inc. today announced that Dick Costolo has decided to step down as Chief Executive Officer of Twitter, effective July 1, 2015. Twitter’s Board of Directors has named Jack Dorsey, Co-­Founder and Chairman of the Board, to serve as Interim CEO while the Board conducts a search for Twitter’s next CEO. Costolo will continue to serve on Twitter’s Board of Directors, and Dorsey will continue to serve as CEO of Square, Inc., the payments and financial services company he co-­founded in 2009.

Costolo’s lead has made Twitter into a hulking developer- and user-unfriendly version of its former self. Meanwhile, Dorsey is mow heading both Square, which looked like it was getting a little shaky, and the now-public Twitter. The stock is up after-hours, though.


  1. Lowbrow? Sure. Roll with it. ↩︎

iOS 9 Is the iPad’s Graduation

Federico Viticci:

iOS 9 is going to be a watershed moment for iPad users. For many, the iPad is about to graduate from utility to computer. Apple is envisioning a future where users can do more with iPad apps without the inherent complexities of OS X – and they’re largely relying on developers to help build this future.

My poor second-generation iPad Mini won’t get the split-screen multitasking, but even the “slide over” secondary app functionality is going to be huge. The other night, I was browsing Apple’s dev site for things to keep an eye out for in my forthcoming review. Every time I found something, I swiped to bring up Notes, jotted down my observations, and went right back to browsing. It feels completely fluid.

Update: Dr. Drang thinks the new multitasking environment on the iPad is intriguing, too:

Until iOS 9. This fall, the iPad will graduate to an interface that can show two apps at a time. As important, I think, is the way multitasking is being handled. Unlike Mac users, iPad users won’t be dumped immediately into a multitasking environment. Those who prefer to use and see only one app at a time can continue to do so—the multitasking interface will stay out of their way and won’t confuse them.

But for those who need to refer to one app while working in another, Slide Over and (especially) Split View will be a godsend. And it’s seemingly eliminated one of the biggest problems with using Mac-like multitasking environments: window management. There are no windows in Split View, there are only parts of the screen, with one part wholly given over to one app and another part wholly given over to another. There’s no overlap and there’s no Desktop peeking out from behind. The only thing the user has to think about is the position of the dividing line between the two apps.

June 10, 2015

Apple Music’s Streaming Audio Quality

Chris Davies of SlashGear got a preview of Apple Music following Monday’s keynote. This little thing intrigued me:

Apple Music will be at 256 kbps. In comparison, Beats Music uses a 320 kbps bitrate, as does Spotify, while Tidal offers a high-bitrate option.

This isn’t quite the even comparison it seems to be because all of these services — and Rdio — use different encoding formats. Beats Music is, or was, using the MP3 format, along with Rdio. Spotify uses Ogg Vorbis, while Tidal is unclear about what file format its lossy tier uses (FLAC is used for its premium offering). Apple Music will be in the same 256 kbps AAC files used on the iTunes Store.

What’s important to note about comparing these services is that the AAC format is generally better at preserving sound quality than the MP3 format. This has something to do with a smaller block size for a more accurately-detailed compression, and better handling of higher frequencies. A good rule of thumb is that the bitrate of an AAC file sounds approximately equivalent to the next level up in MP3, so a 256 kbps AAC file sounds as good as a 320 kbps MP3. But, at that end of the audio encoding spectrum, you’re really going to have to squint with your ears to tell the difference.

Update: Bruce Houghton over at Hypebot added a particularly stupid comment to this news:

Apple Music will stream at 256kps or 20% below the 320kps industry standard usually delivered by Beats Music, Spotify and other music streamers.

First of all, as discussed above, comparing different codecs on bitrate terms alone is idiotic. Second of all, comparing bitrates by percentage is meaningless. The implication seems to be that Apple Music streams are 20% lower quality than other services, but bitrate quality is not linear. It’s not even wrong; it’s just irrelevant.

Twitter Announced Shared Block Lists

Twitter’s Xiaoyun Zhang shares better news:

You can now export and share your block lists with people in your community facing similar issues or import another user’s list into your own account and block multiple accounts all at once, instead of blocking them individually. We also hope these advanced blocking tools will prove useful to the developer community to further improve users’ experience.

This should make it easier for both users and Twitter to keep tabs on organized groups of abusive and dangerous users. Smart move.

Abuses of canOpenURL to Be Blocked in iOS 9

Interesting post from Greg Pierce:

There are two URL-related methods available to apps on iOS that are effected: canOpenURL and openURL. These are not new methods and the methods themselves are not changing. As you might expect from the names, “canOpenURL” returns a yes or no answer after checking if there is any apps installed on the device that know how to handle a given URL. “openURL” is used to actually launch the URL, which will typically leave the app and open the URL in another app.

Up until iOS 9, apps have been able to call these methods on any arbitrary URLs. Starting on iOS 9, apps will have to declare what URL schemes they would like to be able to check for and open in the configuration files of the app as it is submitted to Apple. This is essentially a whitelist that can only be changed or added to by submitting an update to Apple. It appears that certain common URLs handled by system apps, like “http”, “https”, do not need to be explicitly whitelisted.

Didn’t catch that? Many apps use custom URL schemes. Right now, apps can randomly poll iOS using a huge list of canOpenURL scheme queries, and iOS will basically return a list of apps on the system that support those URL schemes. Since many schemes are very particular (like workflow:// for Workflow, uh, workflows), this is basically a list of apps on a user’s iOS device, which is kind of creepy.

But Twitter figured this out, and today, they announced they’re amping up the creepy. Kurt Wagner, Recode:

Twitter announced on Wednesday that its advertisers can use that app information to target users with ads. Marketers will be able to see the different categories of apps you have downloaded onto your phone as well as how recently you downloaded them in order to understand what you’re interested in.

This is opt-out, by the way, so turn off “Tailor Twitter based on my apps” under Settings. Better still, turn off all tailoring while you’re there — Twitter has demonstrated that they have little regard for your privacy. On the bright side, it seems like this kind of app-based targeting will only be possible for the next few months.

June 9, 2015

Stephen Hackett Reviews the WWDC Keynote

Not the contents of the keynote, mind you, but the keynote presentation itself:

The truth is that events like this seem crazy hard to pull off well, and while Apple generally does a great job, this year’s was a bit of a mixed bag. The pacing and length of today’s keynote was a bit of an issue, but the announcements were solid. The first 90 minutes were as good as Apple can be on stage, but the music section was just a wreck.

Make no mistake: these events are really hard to execute well; you will know this if you’ve ever watched one of their competitors’ product launches. And the first part of yesterday’s keynote was a well-done — albeit somewhat unremarkable — presentation. The two female executives were a great addition to Apple’s presenter roster; Susan Prescott, in particular, was great fun to watch and had a hilarious “I read ESPN for the articles” joke.

But then the Music part came, and it was a slow meander through too-long demos, unrehearsed executives, and a questionable appearance from Drake, who appeared to offer nothing solid from the perspective of the artist. Make no mistake: I want to hear what artists think about Apple Music; heck, I want to hear what Drake thinks about Apple Music, but his bit was almost entirely forgettable.

I also question the launch of this music service at a conference for developers. I understand that iOS 8.4 is being released alongside it at the end of the month, and Apple might not want to launch Apple Music alongside a new iPhone and iOS 9, but it could have waited three months. There’s nothing developers can do with Apple Music — they don’t even get an early preview launch. Which is fine. It seemed to dilute the presumed intent of the keynote, though.

June 8, 2015

Apple Music

Probably the most chaotic part of today’s keynote was also one of the coolest. If you haven’t watched the keynote, you should,1 then come back and try to honestly tell me that it didn’t feel a bit weird, jilted, and very un-Apple-y.

But it also felt joyous. It felt like a bunch of people who were genuinely excited about something. Apple’s clearly not the first to do a streaming music service, nor are they the first to put in some social stuff with Music — the bad “Ping 2.0” jokes were really flying on Twitter today.

I think that part of the chaos today came from how difficult it is to encapsulate such a comprehensive and far-reaching service. Reading the press release, it sounds like they wanted to say that the whole iTunes catalogue would be able to be streamed:

Apple Music is a revolutionary streaming service and app that puts the entire Apple Music catalog at your fingertips across your favorite devices. Starting with the music you already know — whether from the iTunes Store® or ripped CDs — your music now lives in one place alongside the Apple Music catalog with over 30 million songs. You can stream any song, album or playlist you choose — or better yet, let Apple Music do the work for you.

It comes close, but stops short of actually saying that it’s the whole catalogue, which makes me think it’s damn close to being so.

Then there’s the curatorial aspect of it, which was a trademark of Beats Music when it was launched, and probably the thing I’m most excited about. Shuffle is too random: if you have any kind of diversity in your music library, it’s a shit show. Genius is too algorithmic: it picks songs that you probably already play together, and it’s limited to songs you own. I’ve long wanted a way to pick a song in my library and get actual, human-tweaked recommendations for songs that I do and do not own. That’s what I’m hoping Apple Music can do for me.

Compounding the hurdle that Apple Music must climb is the sheer volume of music that gets released these days. As Trent Reznor alludes to in the intro video, there’s just as much music coming out of bedrooms and basements these days as is being made in recording studios. Some of it is crap, some of it is okay, and a little bit of it is truly special. I want to be able to dig that stuff up alongside the stuff I’ve already heard, and that which I’ve heard of.

If the curated suggestions are taking the manual transmission out of the car and replacing it with an automatic, Beats 1 is replacing your car’s controls with something more autonomous. It’s a 24/7 internet radio station with one host each in LA, New York, and London. That’s a pretty bold move, turning Apple singlehandedly into a broadcaster.

It’s just one channel,2 so your music tastes have to be very attuned to whatever they’re playing. It’s probably going to be something cool — the DJs they picked are all great — but if you don’t like what they’re playing, tough jam.

The last thing they’re bringing back are artist social features. I’m not sure these will be any more popular this time around, but we shall see.

Apple Music launches on June 30, but there hasn’t been any indication as to where it will be available, other than Beats 1 being in “over 100 countries”. Also not announced are any banner reasons to switch from a competing platform, really. Tidal has exclusives, and Spotify and Rdio have the user base. Apple Music has human curators and a radio station, which are both cool, but their beauty will be in their execution; they’re hard sells on their own. I’m excited to try Music nevertheless; it may make me switch from Spotify if the curatorial features are as game-changing as I think they’ll be.


  1. Stay tuned for the killer new Weeknd track at the end. Probably the best thing he’s done since the Balloons trilogy. Between this, and D’Angelo’s and Kendrick Lamar’s latest releases, I’m enjoying this funk/R&B renaissance. ↩︎

  2. For now? Apple Music Radio is described as “stations created by some of the world’s finest radio DJs. The new stations range in genres from indie rock to classical and folk to funk, with each one expertly curated.” What if there are a range of Beats stations in the future, too, with actual human hosts catering to a wide variety of tastes? ↩︎

Apple Merges Developer Tiers

Lots of big news from WWDC today, obviously, but this one stood out to me: the distinction between iOS and OS X developers is no longer. Both are one and the same account. If you have either of those developer accounts, you now have access to resources and tools for both; if you had both, the accounts are summed.

If you had a Safari developer membership, though, it’s a little more complicated:

In early fall, the new Safari Extensions Gallery for OS X El Capitan will go live. This gallery will be the safest and most reliable place for users to download Safari Extensions, as all extensions will be signed and hosted by Apple to ensure that they are safe to install. All updates to your existing extensions, must be submitted to the new gallery.

[…]

If you’re enrolled in the Safari Developer Program only, you’ll need to join the Apple Developer Program to submit your extensions to the Safari Extensions Gallery for OS X El Capitan.

The Safari developer program was free. Now it looks like you’ll need a membership if you want to distribute extensions more broadly and conveniently. If you’re cool distributing your extension in a more à la carte fashion, it looks like you can still do that, though it’s unclear if you’ll still self-sign.

Update: Also new is how the dev centre is counting registered devices. Previously, it was 100 iOS devices; now, it’s 100 of each product type: 100 iPhones, 100 iPads, etc.

June 6, 2015

The State of iOS: Addendum

I’ve realized that I have more to say about the current state of iOS. They’re just a couple of things, but they’re important to me.

Multitasking

I think that the slow rollout of background processing on iOS epitomizes the way Apple introduces big software features. They started small, with push notifications in iOS 3, and added limited multitasking to iOS 4. Then, in iOS 7, they added full background processing, thus presenting a more-or-less full multitasking experience. For developers who have been on the platform for a long time, this has allowed ever-greater possibilities while underscoring the need to be resource conscious.

While I like that the current implementation of multitasking keeps my phone fast and I don’t have to manually manage memory — not that you really have to do that on any platform — my experiences with Readdle’s Spark makes me wish that apps could spawn daemon processes. I’d like some way for a third-party app to declare that it is always running in the background with a small, memory-limited, higher-priority process.

This is likely only going to be “needed” by apps that are replacements for always-on system apps, like calendar or email apps. Therefore, a user-friendly way of implementing this might be to have a way to set third-party apps as defaults for certain categories.

This is more of a wishlist item that is produced from a culmination of my experiences with iOS over the years than it is purely an experience-driven review of multitasking, but this is something I’d really, really like to see.

iPad

I meant to say something about the iPad in my previous post, because I think it deserves its own section.

The iPad experience is, right now, stuck in a bit of a rut. The “big iPod Touch” paradigm has worked for a long time because there was a clear division between the 3.5- or 4-inch iPhone display and the much larger iPad. Even though they ran the same operating system and had broadly similar capabilities, the iPad felt completely different. It felt more powerful and capable, even if it wasn’t really so.

Now that the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus exists alongside the 7.9-inch iPad Mini, the line between the two platforms has become more blurred than ever. They still feel different, but not different enough.

When it was first released, the iPad felt like a product that you didn’t need so much as want. It’s a great way to browse the web and do basic computer stuff in bed, on the couch, or while kicking back on a patio. But the new MacBook shows that Apple’s laptop line is converging on it from the upper end, too.

Since the iPad not a “necessary” product in the same way a phone or a laptop are, it now feels squeezed between products that are awfully similar in a lot of ways. While nobody is likely to own an iPhone 6 Plus and an iPad and a MacBook One — as Marco Arment has dubbed it — I think it’s high time for the iPad to differentiate itself in some way.

My experience with iOS 8 on my iPad has been similar to my experience with it on my iPhone, and it feels like it should be more capable than it presently is. I love the web browsing experience on my iPad, but if I’m doing two things at once — for example, replying to texts or an email — I almost have to have my phone beside me for it to be a less clunky experience. Switching between apps one at a time feels slow, and they usually need to relaunch because the iPad has never had enough memory.

The rumour mill hints that the iPad’s OS will do some growing-up with iOS 9. I certainly hope so. It’s not a dead product category, or even a dying one, but I hope for a little boost of something new that expands its capabilities and really takes advantage of the much larger display and somewhat more powerful hardware.

June 5, 2015

A List of Questions for Apple Regarding the Upcoming Watch SDK

Jason Brennan (via Marco Arment):

Will I finally be able to connect and share moments with the ones I love all from the comfort of my own watch? Will more notifications buzzing on my arm finally make me feel important like I’ve always dreamed of? Will it at least get me more followers on Twitter? Jesus where is my Uber?

These and many of Brennan’s other questions will be asked and answered, many ignored, and some forgotten about at WWDC this year, only to be resurrected at next year’s event where Apple will hopefully bring back Stump the Experts specifically for those questions.

The State of iOS

The year after the release of iOS 7 was a mad dash for designers and developers updating their apps to make them fit with the new user interface language. Many developers took this time to reconsider how their apps should work, too, in a sort of conceptual, flow-oriented way. They could ask themselves questions like “Does this screen have the best layout possible?” or “Is this glyph as clear as it should be?” But there was comparatively little in terms of absolute new functionality. Yes, there were thousands of new APIs and new frameworks like SpriteKit. But the vast majority of innovations on the sides of both Apple and iOS developers came from strides made in UI design.

If iOS 7 tipped the scales a bit too much in the direction of the “how it looks” part of design, iOS 8 went directly for “how it works”. In addition to the plethora of new features available to end users — Health, predictive text, Continuity, and iCloud Photo Library, to name a few — iOS 8 also dumped onto developers colossal new capabilities unprecedented on the platform, in the form of App Extensions. Because these APIs were so new to iOS, few developers were able to put together really effective ways of using Extensions while I was working on my review. But, over the last eight months, we’ve seen enhancements to apps that we could only have dreamt about previously.

September’s release of iOS 8 — and my launch-day review — only told half the story of the current version of the operating system. This is the second half of that story.

iOS 8, Revisited

It’s only really possible to understand how one really uses an operating system after the novelty of its newness has worn off, and we are well past the honeymoon period here, people. We’re on the cusp of the introduction of an updated version of iOS. How’s iOS 8 holding up?

Messages

The headlining new feature in Messages was the addition of disappearing audio and video messages. When I was using prerelease versions of iOS 8, I was curious to see what kind of adoption these features would have when the general public got their hands on the OS. And, many months in, I have yet to receive a single intentional audio or video message from my iPhone-using friends, though I have received a number of accidental audio clips because the gesture used to send them is sometimes a little finicky.

The lack of video messages doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. While iMessage may be one of the world’s most popular messaging services, everyone I know uses Snapchat to quickly send photos and videos. Unlike Messages, which sends giant photos and full-res HD video, Snapchat heavily compresses everything. It looks a little shitty, even on a tiny phone screen, but it’s fast and doesn’t eat up your capped data plan.

But I haven’t sent or received a single audio message, and that’s not what I expected:

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.

Nothing about the execution seems flawed to me, less the easy-to-trigger gesture to send these recordings. I don’t think my friends are especially rude, either. Perhaps it’s just easy enough to decide whether to send a text message or make a phone call, and there isn’t much wiggle-room in between.

Keyboard

I have complaints.

I’ve been using the soft iOS keyboard since 2007, so I’ve become acclimated to its rather unique characteristics. When Apple changes something about it, I notice. And, oh boy, have I noticed some changes.

The most significant change, by far, is the introduction of predictive typing, dubbed QuickType. Appearing in a strip above the main keyboard area are three cells guessing at what you might type next. Sometimes, it’s pretty clever: when given an a or b choice in a text message, for example, it will display both a and b as predictive options. I like that.

What I don’t like is what this has done to autocorrect. I’m not sure if it’s entirely a side effect of the predictive typing engine, but autocorrect’s behaviour has changed in iOS 8 and it drives me crazy.

When the QuickType bar is enabled, the autocorrect suggestion will appear in the middle cell of the bar instead of as a floating balloon above the word, as it has done since the very first version of iOS. I find this far too subtle. Even more subtle is the way you ignore the autocorrect suggestion: since the bubble doesn’t exist for you to tap on to ignore it, you tap on the leftmost cell of the QuickType bar with your verbatim spelling. And that feels really weird to me.

This behaviour is something I never got used to, so I turned off the predictive keyboard days after publishing my review in September. This brings the keyboard back to a more iOS 7-like state, with classic autocorrect bubbles. But I still think something’s going on under the hood with the autocorrect engine. I can’t prove it, but suggested corrections have become substantially worse after I upgraded to iOS 8, and I’ve heard similar stories from others. I’m not sure my perception matches reality; it might simply be confirmation bias. But it feels like I’m getting worse suggestions than I did previously.

Apple also still has yet to fix the awful shift key added in iOS 7.1. I’ve heard rumours that the iOS 9 keyboard’s shift key has been redesigned. We’ll see.

In better news, the emoji keyboard was significantly improved in iOS 8.3, with an infinitely scrolling palette instead of siloed sections. It makes a lot more sense, and it’s a welcome change. Unlike its OS X counterpart, however, it doesn’t provide search functionality, nor does it include a full extended character palette. It would be great if a future version of iOS included these features, especially on iPad.

Camera

I take a lot of pictures on my phone; therefore, I’m almost certain that I’ve used very few new iOS 8 features more than manual exposure compensation. Oh, sure, the iPhone still has the best ratio of photo quality to the amount of effort required to take it. But now you can put in a hair more effort in a simple way, and get a hell of a better photo out of it.

One of the things I discovered through using this feature all the time is that it’s possible to layer exposure compensation with focus lock or HDR. This means it’s possible to capture far better images of high-contrast scenes, like sunrises and sunsets, or live concerts. It’s also possible to abuse this feature to create excessively over- or under-exposed scenes, which can be used to interesting effect.

Like its slow-mo counterpart, the new time-lapse video feature isn’t something that anyone I know of — save Casey Neistat — uses very often, but is great to have when you want it. It’s the kind of feature that seems unnecessary most of the time, but when you need it, you probably don’t want to dig around for a third-party app. It’s better to have it built-in. The results are excellent, rivalling — in practical terms — the kind of results I get doing something similar on my DSLR without doing the kind of work that a DSLR time-lapse requires.

Photos

The biggest enhancement to Photos in iOS 8 was iCloud Photo Library. I covered my experiences with iCPL in my review of Photos for OS X; here’s an excerpt:

Uploading [gigabytes of] photos on my home broadband connection took what I imagine is a long time, but I’m not certain exactly how long because it’s completely invisible to the user. It runs in the background on your Mac and on your iPhone, when you’re charging and connected to WiFi. I can’t find any setting that would allow you to do this over LTE, but I’m not sure why you’d want to — photos taken on my 5S are something like 2-3 MB apiece. (I’m aware that this paragraph is going to sound incredibly dated in a few years’ time, for lots of reasons.)

And this is primarily what sets iCPL apart from backup solutions like Backblaze, or other “automatic” photo uploaders like Google+ or Dropbox: it’s automatic and baked in at the system level. Dropbox can’t do that because it can’t stay running in the background, or spawn daemons to do the same. On a Mac, it’s a similar story. Because Power Nap doesn’t have a public API, competing services can only sync while the Mac is awake. iCPL, on the other hand, can take full advantage of being a first-party app with full private API access, so it continues to sync overnight. Nice, right?

In short, it’s a pretty nice multi-device backup and syncing solution for your photos and videos. One thing I neglected to mention in that review, though, is an obvious caveat: it’s an Apple-devices-only black box. So if you’re in a mixed-device household, or you are reasonably skeptical of putting all your photos in one cloud, iCPL is probably not for you.

You can now search your Photos library, too, by location — including “Nearby”, which is a nice touch — title, description, and other metadata. Much of this information is weirdly only editable in other applications, like any of Apple’s OS X photo apps; you can’t categorize photos in this fashion on iOS. I’ve found that it’s still way too much work to try to tag even some of my photos with extended metadata. If this functionality is actually to be used by a significant user base, it needs to be far less work and far more automated.

Health

Here’s a feature I was really interested in using over a great deal of time. My iPhone has a record of pretty much every step I’ve taken since August, and that paints an intriguing snapshot of my life since then. On a daily or weekly basis, I can identify my sedentary desk job with peaks of activity surrounding it, then a sharp spike in my weekend activity. Over the course of the past several months, I can see exactly when winter hit, and a rise since the beginning of May when it started to get warm again.

Of course, these sorts of data points are expected. You could probably draw a similar activity graph based purely on guesswork, without needing to record each individual step. But the collected aggregate data feels meaningful specifically because it is not guesswork. You carry your phone and, if you have one, your Apple Watch with you pretty much everywhere, so it’s probably one of the best ways to gather data on your physical activity.

But Health is not a great way to actually view a lot of that information. Steps are charted, for example, but the y-axis only has minimum and maximum markings, so it’s not possible to see precisely how many steps you took on any day but today. Maybe that’s a good thing; maybe, as Federico Viticci alluded to, it isn’t necessary to precisely document everything, because ten, or twenty, or fifty steps in either direction isn’t actually going to make that much of a difference. But it’s not easy to estimate, because the axis’ scale varies day-to-day, especially if you have an erratic activity cycle.

The next level of granularity can be found by tapping on the chart, then tapping on “Show All Data”. This turns it from a level of detail that is incomprehensible because it is lacking detail into a level of detail that is incomprehensible because it offers far too much detail. This view is a simple table of every step you’ve taken, grouped into activity “sessions”, as best the system can discern it. For me, it displays — after taking many minutes to load — brief stints of seconds-to-minutes of activity, with tens-to-hundreds of steps. Tapping any given cell will allow you to edit the number of steps. That’s it. This is the same view as the calorie counter, or calcium intake, or sleep tracker, or any of the other HealthKit functions, but it simply doesn’t scale well to the number of steps taken in a day.

HealthKit

The trouble with Health is that it doesn’t actually do anything with the information it collects. Sure, I can see that I took about 11,000 steps yesterday, but is that good? Does that mean anything? Health feels like it’s only a dashboard and settings panel for a bunch of third-party functionality by way of HealthKit. Apple explains the framework thus:

HealthKit allows apps that provide health and fitness services to share their data with the new Health app and with each other. A user’s health information is stored in a centralized and secure location and the user decides which data should be shared with your app.

In a nut, it’s a unique, specific, and secure centralized database for health and fitness information.

I spent some time with a few different apps that tap into HealthKit, including Strava, Lifesum, UP Coffee, Human, and Sleep Better. I’m not going to review each app individually, but there are common strokes between many of the HealthKit apps: most require some kind of manual data entry, and this can be tedious.

If you want reasonably accurate meal tracking with Lifesum, you need to enter every single food item you eat. That can be hard if you cook most meals yourself using fresh or raw ingredients, and don’t eat out at chain restaurants. (I’m not being preachy or elitist; it’s just my lifestyle.) Not all ingredients or meals will have all nutritional data associated with them, so it’s not entirely accurate or helpful for tracking specific intakes, like iron or vitamin B12.

Similarly, tracking my caffeine intake with UP Coffee requires me to manually input my caffeinated beverage consumption. That’s somewhat easier than meal tracking because I typically drink coffee fewer times per day than I eat.

But apps that are able to more passively collect this data, such as Sleep Better or Strava, are naturally much more intuitive because using them doesn’t feel like data entry or labour. I understand the limitations of meal tracking and how monumentally difficult it would be to automate something like that, but the side effect of manual data entry means that I’m less likely to follow through. Since I’m at a healthy weight and average fitness level, I suppose that tracking this information is less compelling than it would be for, say, someone with health or fitness goals.

I looked for apps that could provide some recommendations based on my HealthKit data. Aside from apps that remind me to stand up every so often, there’s not a lot that I could find on the Store, though I suspect there are legal reasons for that. I also looked apps that could provide this data to my local health care provider, but I can’t find any hospital or clinic in my area that has an app with that functionality.

Health and HealthKit haven’t radically transformed my life or made me healthier, but they have made me more aware of my activity levels, my food intake, and my sleep habits. Moreover, some apps have made it downright fun to keep track of my activities. I feel pretty good when I see I’ve walked 20,000 steps in a day, or that my sleep was 90% efficient. I bet if I combined this with an Apple Watch, I’d have a fantastic time ensuring I stay physically active, like I’m being coached.

Continuity

Perhaps the most silent improvement to iOS 8 is Continuity, a set of functions that use WiFi and Bluetooth to make working between iOS and OS X hardware more seamless.

Cellular Over WiFi and Bluetooth

Some functions allow non-cellular devices to bridge to the cellular network via an iPhone, thereby allowing you to send and receive text messages, make and receive phone calls, and create an instant personal hotspot. The latter isn’t new, per se, but it is vastly enhanced. Previously, you had to fish around for your phone, open Settings, toggle Personal Hotspot to “on”, and type the password on your Mac. A true ordeal. Now, you can just select your phone from your Mac’s WiFi menu, even if Personal Hotspot isn’t on.

I’ve found these technologies useful roughly in the order in which I’ve listed them. I send and receive texts all the time on my Mac, and it’s wonderful. Sometimes, I’ll be trying to organize a gathering with a few friends, some of whom use iPhones, and some that do not. It’s very nice to be able to switch between the conversations as each person replies, and not have to pick up my phone to answer messages from the non-iPhone users. My biggest quibble is that the read status of text messages is not synced, so messages I’ve read or deleted on my iPhone remain “unread” on my Mac.

I have made and received phone calls on my Mac, too, and I actually quite like it. It’s very nice to be able to chat on the phone the same way I take FaceTime calls, for example. The biggest limitation, for me, has been the lack of a keypad on OS X, which means I can’t buzz people into my apartment from the comfort and convenience of my Mac.

The always-available personal hotspot function is something I have used only a couple of times, but has been effortless and seamless each time. It’s kind of like my WiFi-only iPad has transformed into the WiFi and cellular model, or my MacBook Air turned into that 3G-capable MacBook Pro prototype. Better than either of those two, though, is that I don’t have to buy an extra cellular data plan. It’s not like my phone didn’t have this functionality before, but making it so easily accessible is a very nice touch.

Handoff

The final bit of Continuity technology is Handoff, which allows you to start a task on one device and continue it up on another. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s something Apple tried to do in 2011 with iCloud Sync, kind of. You could start bashing out a document in Pages on your iPhone on your commute, then open Pages on your laptop at work and open the document from iCloud. Apple even bragged that the text insertion point would be in the same place.

Unlike iCloud Document Sync, which was just a document syncing model, Handoff is an activity syncing model.

Handoff is much more clever. Basically, if you have devices signed in with the same iCloud account, an activity that you start in the foremost app on one device can be picked up in the same app on another device. That means you can find directions in Maps on your Mac, then grab your iPhone, slide up on the little Maps icon on the lock screen — opposite the Camera shortcut — and now your directions are loaded onto your iPhone. Seamless, in theory.

In practice, I’ve found Handoff to be significantly less reliable than its other Continuity counterparts. I can almost always send text messages from my Mac and answer phone calls, but transferring a webpage from my Mac to my iPhone is a dice roll. It will go for days without working, then behave correctly for a while, then not work again, in precisely the same conditions. I’m at a complete loss to explain why.

When it works, though, it’s pretty cool. I can start reading an article on my Mac, then realize it’s getting late and hop on my iPad in my bedroom, and it’s right there. It’s a subtle and quiet feature, but it’s very impressive. When it works.

AirDrop

It always struck me as bizarre that iOS devices and Macs both had a technology called AirDrop, but they behaved completely differently and didn’t work with each other. As of iOS 8 and Yosemite, the madness has ended: AirDrop works the same way on both platforms, and you can share between both kinds of devices.

And I must say that it works pretty well. I AirDrop stuff all the time to my friends, and between my own devices. It’s an extremely simple way of instantly sharing pretty much anything to someone nearby, and I do mean “instant”: whatever you share will open automatically on the receiving device. If that’s not necessarily what you want, you can share via Messages or something; there is, as far as I know, no way to change this behaviour.

Spotlight

Oh boy, here’s something I love. Spotlight has been turned from a simple and basic way of searching your device into a powerhouse search engine.

Spotlight integrates itself into iOS in two ways: the now-familiar yet still-hidden swipe-down gesture on the home screen, and in Safari’s address bar. Search results powered by the same engine are also available via Siri. The engine surfaces recently-popular or breaking news stories, Wikipedia articles, suggested websites, and items from Apple’s online stores.

In practice, this means I can go directly to the stories and items that are immediately relevant, bypassing the previously-requisite Google search or typing Wikipedia’s address into Safari. If I’m curious about something these days, I just type it into Spotlight, and it usually finds something I’m looking for.

A Brief Word on Apple’s Increasing Self-Promotion

Back in iOS 5, Apple began an increasing encroachment of self-promotion within their mobile OS by adding an iTunes button to the Music app. It was a small tweak, but a gesture that signified that they wanted to push additional purchasing options into the OS. In the releases since, the self-promotion opportunities within iOS have only increased.

As I mentioned above, items in Apple’s online stores lay in amongst the results delivered by Spotlight. If I search for “Kendrick Lamar”, it will present me with an iTunes link as the top hit, not the Wikipedia bio I — and, I’d venture a guess, most people — would be looking for.

iOS 8 also has a feature that suggests apps from the App Store based on your location. Passing by a Starbucks? If you don’t have the Starbucks app on your phone, you might see a Starbucks logo in the lower-left corner of your lock screen — the same place where a Handoff app usually appears.

Along a similar plane is the rise in non-removable default apps. As of iOS 8.2, Apple added six compared to iOS 7: Podcasts, Tips, Health, iBooks, FaceTime, and Apple Watch. There 31 total apps on a default iPhone running iOS 8.2 or higher that the user cannot remove, and every single person I know with an iPhone has a folder on one of their home screens where they stash at least half of these default apps. These are not tech-savvy people; they do not read Daring Fireball nor do they know what an API is. But they know this sucks.

We all put up with tech company bullshit. When you throw in your hat with Google, you know that the reason they’re really good at “big data” things is because they’re mining your information along with everyone else’s to built comprehensive associative databases. When you buy into Apple’s ecosystem, you know that their primary income source is in your purchase of their products and service offerings. It makes business sense to integrate prompts for those offerings into an operating system with a reach in the hundreds of millions. It’s marketing that the company controls and for which they do not pay a dime.

Yet this constant reminder that I’m using an Apple OS on an Apple phone with constant reminders of Apple’s services and “oh, hey, look: they make a watch now” is grating. I wouldn’t mind it so much if there were a way to reduce the impression of pretty much any of these pain points individually, but it’s limited. There’s some relief: you can disable suggested apps on the lock screen, and screenshots of iOS 8.4 suggest the Store button is being removed from Music. I’m not suggesting Apple throw away their self-promotional activities entirely, but I think it would be prudent to evaluate just how many of them are tolerable. It’s stretching the limits of user-friendliness.

Third-Party Extensibility

Much in the way that iOS 7 was kind of a soft reboot for the OS — iOS 1.0, 2.0, if you like — iOS 8 is the 2.0 “developer” release. Apple delivered in spades at WWDC last year, with new APIs that allow for the kind of inter-app operability and deep integration that makes the OS better for developers and users alike.

App Extensions

App Extensions have completely and fundamentally changed the way I use iOS. That’s this section, in a nutshell. There was a lot of major news at WWDC last year, from an entirely new programming language to a full OS X redesign, but App Extensions are among the most significant enhancements. And, as in my review last year, I want to tackle each of the six extension points individually. Kind of.

Sharing and Actions

I’m going to start with these two in conjunction because there seems to be little understanding or consistency as to how they are distinct. To me, Sharing extensions should mean “take this thing I’m looking at and send it to another app”, while Action extensions should mean “do something to this thing I’m looking in-place”. Or, perhaps Share should mean “pull up a dialog for me to take further actions on this thing I’m looking at”, and Action extensions should mean “take this thing I’m looking at out of this app and into another”.

But even with my fuzzy understanding, there are seemingly no rules. Pinner and Instapaper both have modal-type Share extensions, but adding a todo to Things with its Action extension also pulls up a modal sheet. Meanwhile, the Bing translation Action translates in-place on any webpage. Both kinds can accept the same kinds of data, as defined by the developer via MIME type, and both amount to doing stuff in one app via another.

The best way I can think of distinguishing between the two types is that a Sharing extension always displays a modal interface overtop an app, while an Action may or may not.

In any case, I’ve found both kinds of extensions extremely useful. Where previously a host app had to decide whether to allow sharing to another app, now the client app gets to make that decision, for the most part. It makes more sense: you decide what mix of apps go on your device, and those apps should defer to your choices. Now, I get to decide what goes in my Share sheets. I can even — surprise, surprise — turn of some of Apple’s defaults. Don’t use the default Facebook or Twitter integration? No problem – just flip the toggle off and you won’t see them. (This, unfortunately, doesn’t apply to Action extensions, so you’ll be seeing that printer icon everywhere whether you like it or not.) Want to see some third party Sharing extensions, but not others? Just flip their toggles. You can also sort your Share and Action extensions in any order you’d like.

That brings me to the biggest problem with third-party extensions: newly-installed extensions are completely undiscoverable. There is no visual indication when an app is updated with Share or Action extension support, and extensions come disabled by default. You will only figure it out if you scroll right to the end of your row of extensions, tap the “More” button, then scroll through the list. The only other way that you may find out is if the developer has included it in their update notes and you bother to check the changelog, which you won’t since you, like most people, probably have automatic updates enabled and haven’t seen the Updates tab of the App Store in, like, forever. Even with all the time I’ve been using iOS 8 and apps have been supporting it, I’m still finding new extensions in Share sheets.

What’s fantastic about Share sheet extensions is that they make any old app that uses the default sharing API feel instantly tailored. It means developers don’t have to support every bookmarking service individually, or pick and choose the ones they want to support; they can just tell the sharing API to handle it. I use Pinboard and Instapaper; you may prefer Pocket, Pinterest, or whatever new thing A16Z is investing in. That’s a lot of different sharing APIs to support. Even the login experience is far better for users, who now only have to sign in once with the client app, instead of each app individually.

I simply can’t say enough good things about Sharing and Action extensions.

Today Widgets

I can, however, say far fewer good things about the widgets that can occupy the Today view in Notification Centre. Generally, this isn’t Apple’s fault; rather, it’s the problem of developers wanting to use a new feature, but not having a solid justification or considered concept for doing so. This mindset has led to the creation of widgets such as Dropbox’s, which displays the last three files that were updated, or Tumblr’s trending topics widget. Then there are widgets like the NYT Cooking widget that suggests meals to cook, which sounds great in theory, but makes no sense as a random-access widget.

None of these widgets account for the ways normal people use Notification Centre. I’ve found that widgets that succeed in the Today view are conceptually similar to WatchKit apps: at-a-glance information that requires little interaction. Human’s widget, for instance, displays your current progress to 30, 60, or 90 minutes of daily activity. It requires no user interaction and is just informative enough.

Apple’s own widgets can be hidden in the Today view, too, with the exception of the date at the top. That creates an excellent opportunity for third parties to create more specific interpretations of those widgets. For example, I don’t drive to work, so Apple’s estimated commute time widget is useless to me. I do, however, wish to know when the next train is arriving, so I keep Transit’s excellent widget in my Today view. Similarly, Apple’s weather reading sometimes doesn’t show current conditions. The Fresh Air widget, on the other hand, always does, and it forecasts the weather for calendar events.

But while the best Today widgets display low-barrier glanceable information, none of them feel particularly instantaneous. This is due in large part to their standby state; or, more specifically, it’s due to the time it takes to recover from their standby state. Today widgets are required to be low-power, low-memory kinds of deals which only refresh when the users is viewing Notification Centre. While that makes sense, iOS only refreshes widgets when the animation that shows Notification Centre is fully complete. So: you drag from the top of the screen to show Notification Centre, see glimpses of cached information as you drag the sheet down, see a flash of every widget refreshing, then you can interact with any of them. It only takes a couple of seconds, but it makes for a user experience that is rougher than it should be for timely widgets like these. It would feel a lot more instantaneous if Today widgets, or at least the first few, refreshed as Notification Centre is being activated, rather than at the end of the activation.

Furthermore, widgets refresh when you scroll to bring them into view. I have Fresh Air at the top of my Today view, and Fantastical just offscreen below it. If I invoke Notification Centre, Fresh Air will refresh; when I scroll, Fantastical will refresh; then, when I scroll back up, Fresh Air will refresh again. This behaviour is apparently something that iOS does, and something that developers cannot control.

Finally, though Apple provides several of their own Today widgets, there doesn’t seem to be an agreed-upon set of visual interface rules. Most widgets respect the same left-side padding of the default ones, and many have similar typographic and hierarchical treatments, but then you get the odd monstrosity like Yahoo’s Weather widget or the aforementioned Tumblr one.

Today widgets should feel like smooth, passive ways to get small snippets of timely or location-related information. Instead, they come off a little janky. They’re a real missed opportunity for some developers, and a kludgy add-on for most. Hopefully the Watch will force the kind of focus demanded by widgets in iOS.

Photo Editing

Photo editors on iOS are kind of my thing. I’ve used all of the popular ones and, though I’ve settled on a workflow that I like, I keep a bunch of others on my iPhone just in case. Yet, after nearly nine months of the possibility of extensions to Apple’s default Photos app, just two apps on my phone — Afterlight and Litely — have such an extension, and I’ve tried a few dozen of the most popular ones. Even my beloved VSCOcam doesn’t have a Photos extension, despite being used in the demo of this API at WWDC. (I reached out to VSCO for comment on this, but I haven’t heard back from them.)

As for the apps that do have an extension for Photos, well, they’re okay. I find that they’re really hidden — instead of residing in the palette of editing tools at the bottom, there’s a little ellipsis in the upper-left corner of the app. Tap on it, then tap the extension you’d like to use, or tap More to see if any other extensions have been installed since you last did this — Photo extensions are hidden and disabled by default, like Sharing extensions.

It’s hard to give a generalized take on what Photo extensions are like, or typify their experience, but I’m going to try to do that. In order to do so, I had to go grab a few more apps. I downloaded Fragment, which does some rather trippy kaleidoscopic effects, and Camera+, which pained me to download because I think John Casasanta is kind of an asshole. But let’s not dwell on the past.

The extensions from both Fragment and Litely are somewhat lighter-weight versions of their parent apps, while Camera+ and Afterlight provide near-full experiences. That’s kind of cool to have in an extension: nearly running one app inside of another. You can make your edits, then tap Done, and the photo will be saved in-place in a flattened state; there is no granular undo post-save, nor is there a way to modify the applied edits. The original copy of the photo is saved, however, so you can revert entirely, but this, of course, destroys all of the edits made to a photo.

I’m struggling to understand the practical purpose of this extension point as it is right now. The full app is still required to exist somewhere on your phone; even if they’re buried in a folder somewhere, they must exist. Perhaps an ideal world would require you only to open Photos any time you wanted to make an edit, and future versions of the API will allow for nondestructive editing between several extensions. But I don’t see the power of this yet. It seems too hidden for average users, and not powerful enough for people who wish to have a full post-production environment on their phone or tablet.

Keyboards

There are some things I imagined Apple would never allow on iOS; third-party keyboards are among those things. Yet, here we are, with third-party keyboards supported natively in iOS, before the introduction of a third-party Siri API, for example.

I have tried pretty much all of the popular third-party keyboards for iOS — Fleksy, Swype, SwiftKey, Minuum, and so forth — running them for days to weeks at a time. And the keyboard that has stuck with me most has been — [dramatic pause] — the default one, for a singular reason: it’s the only one that feels fast.

Sure, pretty much all of the third-party keyboards you can find have a way better shift key than the default, and plenty are more capable. But I don’t type one-handed frequently enough to get a use out of a gestural keyboard like Swype; most of the time, I find these gestures distracting. Third-party keyboards also don’t have access to the system’s autocorrect dictionary, which means that developers need to build in their own autocorrect logic and users need to train the new keyboard. I didn’t think this would be as frustrating as it turned out to be. Third party keyboards also can’t automatically switch languages depending on which Messages conversation you’re in, which is something I don’t use, but plenty of people I know do.

But, as I wrote above, the main reason I stuck with the iOS keyboard is that it’s the fastest one. It launches immediately when it’s called and key taps are registered as fast as I can type with my two thumbs. That’s not to imply that I don’t have complaints with the default keyboard — I do, or have you not been reading? — but it’s simply the best option for me. And, judging by the people I’ve talked to, it’s the best option for most of them as well. Like me, they tried the most popular ones and, like me, most of them are back with the default.

The ones who have stuck with third-party keyboards have done so for reasons I didn’t necessarily think of. Kristap Sauters, for example, has found that SwiftKey is far better at swapping languages dynamically: he can start a sentence in one language, type a word from another, and it will detect this change better than the default. This is not a feature I would have found because it isn’t one I use.

The best third-party keyboards for my usage are those that do not try to replace the default alphanumeric one, but rather try to do things it can’t. Popkey, for example, is a ridiculous animated GIF library, but it’s smartly packaged as a keyboard so you can reply to text messages and emails just so. David Smith’s Emoji++ is another great third-party keyboard that effectively replaced Apple’s segmented emoji keyboard prior to 8.2, but it was Sherlocked with iOS 8.3.

I’m not sure whether the issues I have with third-party keyboards are the fault of iOS’ implementation, or the keyboards’ developers. Whatever the case, it’s enough to prevent me from using a non-default keyboard on a regular basis.

Documents and Files

iOS now has an exposed file system! Kind of.

Technically two extension points, Document and File providers allow for an app to identify itself as a place where other apps can send and receive files. iCloud Drive is an example of a file provider, but now third parties like Dropbox can provide documents to an app that supports it. So you can store your Pages documents in Dropbox instead of iCloud Drive, and have a similar level of synchronicity between your Mac and iPad.

Better still is Panic’s creative interpretation of this capability. You can open documents and files from Transmit in other apps, and since Transmit is an FTP client, that basically means that you can open any file you have access to in supported apps. That’s amazingly powerful.

This isn’t a type of extension with which I’ve spent a great deal of time. I’m not Federico Viticci, and I don’t have his automation prowess. But for power users or people who use their iPad as more than a kick-back-and-read device, it seems pretty great.

Notifications

I find it fascinating how iOS and OS X are built by the same company at the same time, but often do not share features; or, at least, their feature additions come at different rates.

The push notification API is the perfect example of the staggered rollout and feature incongruence across Apple’s operating systems. Though notifications existed since the beginning of the iPhone, they were modal and weren’t opened up to developers. By the time iOS 5 rolled around in 2011, notifications became far more scalable with the introduction of Notification Centre; it took until 2012 for them to be brought into OS X to replace, for most developers, the venerable Growl. In 2013, OS X notifications gained inline actions and replies, but iOS remained stubbornly without either.

So it was a relief when iOS 9 brought actionable notifications to Apple’s mobile platform. Onstage, they demoed archiving an email, replying to an iMessage, and the third-party potential of — for instance — liking a wall post on Facebook. This left me with the impression that I‘d be able to reply to third party notifications inline, too. But it turns out that third party developers don’t have access to the inline reply API, which is a real bummer.

Interactive notifications are fabulous otherwise, though. I suspect my email open rate has gone down dramatically since I can just deal with new messages as they arrive in both Mailbox and Spark, the two email apps I typically use. I use the “fav” button in Tweetbot notifications frequently as well, and Fantastical’s “snooze” feature for reminder notifications is perfect.

Unfortunately, plenty of third-party developers still haven’t added interactive notifications to their apps. Facebook’s Paper app doesn’t have them, nor does NYT Now, where I could imagine saving a breaking news story for later reading. On the other hand, perhaps it’s best that most developers don’t seem to be trying to shoehorn this feature into apps where it doesn’t belong.

I’m looking forward to further improvements in this space. Ideally, developers will be able to add inline replying, and perhaps they’ll even be able to draw their own custom UIs in notifications — Fantastical could, for example, present snooze options inline. There’s so much potential for notifications, especially in conjunction with the Watch.

The State of iOS

Apple’s mobile operating system has matured into an incredibly robust platform. They’ve spent a lot of time over the past two years rebuilding parts of the OS to make it last another seven or eight years, and things are coming up Milhouse.

But the last two years of defining an entirely new visual design for the platform and an updated functional design have also clearly taken their toll. There have been bugs — a lot of bugs. After several months with iOS 8, I’ve gotten used to some of its little foibles. I learned not to tap the space between the keyboard and the notification area while replying to a message, until that was fixed nearly 300 days after first being reported as a bug in the earliest iOS 8 betas. I learned all sorts of things that I shouldn’t do, and ways of troubleshooting core parts of the OS that really shouldn’t need troubleshooting.

It’s been a really rough ride for developers, too. As a plethora of new capabilities were given to third parties, the app review team found widely varying interpretations of the new API usage guidelines. Things which were perfectly fine in one app already sold in the store may not be okay in a different app. Inconsistent rejections hampered developers this year and eroded their confidence in the platform.

There’s a lot for Apple to do this year. They always have a long todo list, but this year’s feels more urgent than most. Apple’s sales have never been better, but the confidence of developers and users feels a little shakier than it has for a while, for both iOS and OS X.

I am excited, as always, for Monday’s keynote. I can’t wait to see what new things developers get to take advantage of, from really big things — like a Siri API, perhaps — to littler things. One thing is for certain: there’s no shortage of things for Apple to do with their platforms. Every year, I feel the same way, no matter how robust and mature their platforms get: they’re just getting started.

June 4, 2015

Saying “No” to Surveillance

Edward Snowden, in an op-ed for the NY Times:

We are witnessing the emergence of a post-terror generation, one that rejects a worldview defined by a singular tragedy. For the first time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we see the outline of a politics that turns away from reaction and fear in favor of resilience and reason. With each court victory, with every change in the law, we demonstrate facts are more convincing than fear. As a society, we rediscover that the value of a right is not in what it hides, but in what it protects.

Incredibly well stated.

The events of the past two years have made it clear that members of the US government were knowingly lying to or misleading the American people about the nature of their intelligence programs. This week’s victory, albeit a small one, in passing the USA FREEDOM Act would not have occurred without Snowden’s disclosures. The USA PATRIOT Act1 would have been re-signed without a second thought or a word of debate had Snowden not made the disclosures he did.

I know it doesn’t exactly work this way, but this evidence should justify a full pardon. This debate needed to happen, and it clearly wasn’t going to unless such disclosures were made. They may have been unauthorized, but they were wholly necessary.


  1. These acronyms are stupid. I will continue to capitalize them in this fashion to illustrate this. ↩︎

NSA Secretly Expands Cross-Border Internet Spying

Hey, remember yesterday when I somewhat cynically tempered your expectations over the USA FREEDOM act?

For practical purposes, this does not limit the surveillance capabilities of the U.S. government much, especially since the NSA programs exposed by Snowden have likely not been curbed, and there’s no way of knowing their standing until the next Snowden comes along.

Well, big news: the next Snowden has come along and his name is, uh, Edward Snowden. Charlie Savage, et al., report for the New York Times:

Without public notice or debate, the Obama administration has expanded the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance of Americans’ international Internet traffic to search for evidence of malicious computer hacking, according to classified N.S.A. documents.

[…]

While the Senate passed legislation this week limiting some of the N.S.A.’s authority, it involved provisions in the U.S.A. Patriot Act and did not apply to the warrantless wiretapping program.

Many of the NSA programs exposed by Snowden operate under similar legal jurisdiction as this one, so the USA FREEDOM Act doesn’t apply to them, either.

[A sad trombone and slide whistle play as a gigantic “Mission Accomplished” banner unfurls behind the President.]

On Privacy and Service Offering Quality

John Gruber reacts to Tim Cook’s privacy-oriented speech from Tuesday, and Thomas Ricker’s response:

Apple needs to provide best-of-breed services and privacy, not second-best-but-more-private services. Many people will and do choose convenience and reliability over privacy. Apple’s superior position on privacy needs to be the icing on the cake, not their primary selling point.

The argument being that Apple, or any tech company, should not have to choose between offering great services and protecting user privacy.

I’ve alluded to this before, but I’m not sure Apple can provide a Google-equivalent quality of cloud service while keeping things private. Take, for example, one of the most impressive features of Google Photos: its ability to catalogue and tag the contents of your photos automatically, without requiring any intervention on the user’s part. They search “cat”, and they get all the pictures they’ve taken of cats. Magic.

To do this, they need a lot of information on what cats look like from every conceivable angle, in a wide range of lighting conditions. The good news is that Google has billions upon billions of users’ image searches of cats. They’ve crawled the web for the past fifteen years and found a whole bunch of pictures of cats based on the alt and title tags of the images, their captions, and the content around them on the originating page.

While they haven’t released details on exactly how their image recognition tech works, it’s reasonable to guess that Google has been tracking a user’s image search for “cat” to the images they click on. The results that get more clicks — in aggregate — are probably going to be the most accurate representation of the search term. Google can therefore take the knowledge garnered from billions of searches a day on myriad search terms and create a way for their Photos product to detect the subject matter of user images.

We have, in simple terms, been providing Google with keywords and an indication of their accuracy for years, which they can use across all of their services.

Apple struggles with this kind of machine learning prowess because they don’t operate services in the same way that Google does. They don’t analyze user-provided data in aggregate; they often even keep a single user’s information siloed across multiple services. Google, by contrast, governs most of their services under a single privacy policy that allows them to blend all data collected under this policy. This allows them to offer a breezy first-run experience and services that require multiple kinds of data cross-referenced and associated with one another.

Google Now is the perfect example of such a service. It mines your email, calendar, location, todos, Google’s collected search data, and other information to try to guess what you will need to see at a given moment. If you are at the airport at 14:39 and you have a plane ticket in your Gmail for 15:48, it can identify a flight number and show you whether your flight is on time or not. Word on the street is that Apple is going to compete with Now, but without the kind of deep integration and cross-comparison that Google’s consolidated privacy policy allows, I’m curious to see how Apple could implement something in a privacy-friendly way.

Maps is another example. Google’s data is, generally, better than Apple’s1 because it’s been around for a while, it’s free to use, and they’re able to check their data against pages they’ve crawled. They also sent out a bunch of cars to verify data and take Street View pictures. Apple partnered with a bunch of other companies to build their data index, but it’s hard to compete against Google crawling the web every single day for all kinds of information that could be used to bolster map results.

I’ve gotten this far without talking about the money aspect. It is in Google’s best interests to be accurate and create an index that is as robust as possible which is cross-referenced on a per-user basis, and in aggregate. The more they understand, the more relevant ads they can sell.

Apple doesn’t have such an incentive, and that’s a value I cherish. But this is not an excuse for creating worse products. I want the very best, of course, and Google is the high watermark for almost every web service. But I fear that it is unrealistic for Apple to improve their machine learning capabilities and web service quality without relaxing their firm stance on privacy. I’m not sure what I worry about more: that Apple’s service quality will suffer, or that I will have to give up a little bit of my privacy to prevent it from doing so.


  1. If you disagree with this in your area, that’s fair. I’d still be willing to bet you that search is way, way better in Google Maps. ↩︎

June 3, 2015

Managing Expectations

On Monday, Recode’s Dawn Chmielewski and Peter Kafka reported that Apple’s upcoming television and streaming service isn’t ready for a WWDC announcement. Now, today, Brian X Chen of the New York Times reports that the new Apple TV hardware won’t be at WWDC either:

The company planned as recently as mid-May to use the event to spotlight new Apple TV hardware, along with an improved remote control and a tool kit for developers to make apps for the entertainment device. But those plans were postponed partly because the product was not ready for prime time, according to two people briefed on the product.

Apple seems to be doing pretty well with managing expectations.

I haven’t noticed the removal of any TBA-type sessions from this year’s schedule, so it looks like the rumoured SDK might still be a go. A support document still refers to the third-generation1 Apple TV as the hub for HomeKit, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see further functionality rolled out soon.


  1. “Or later”. ↩︎

PayPal Is Opting Into Being a Dick

Yoni Heisler, BGR:

Ahead of its planned split from eBay, PayPal is planning to roll out a new terms of service agreement for its customers which would allow the company to pepper its userbase with robocalls and text messages. What’s more, the updated terms of service would allow PayPal to contact users at either their designated phone number or even an undisclosed number PayPal managed to obtain through other means. Set to go into effect on July 1, PayPal’s updated user agreement is not an opt-in type of deal, which makes it all the more worrisome.

I’m sure there’s someone out there who is dying to receive automated phone calls at a number which is unlisted yet PayPal managed to uncover, but that person is not me, nor anyone I know. But, hey, can you expect anything better from PayPal?

U.S. Congress Begins Retooling Surveillance Powers

The Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, with some better news for your privacy:

The USA Freedom Act represents the first legislative overhaul passed in response to the 2013 disclosures of former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who revealed the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone “metadata” and the legal rationale for it — the little-noticed Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, passed in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The new legislation places additional curbs on that authority, most significantly by mandating a six-month transition to a system in which the call data — which includes call numbers, times and durations — would remain in private company hands but could be searched on a case-by-case basis under a court order. One supporter, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), described the legislation as “the most significant surveillance reform in decades.”

Can we clear something up to start? “USA FREEDOM” is apparently an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Fulfilling Rights and Ending Eavesdropping, Dragnet-collection and Online Monitoring”, which is at least as mangled and forced as the USA PATRIOT Act’s “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”. American lawmakers need to stop this. It isn’t clever.

There’s a lot to like in this bill, aside from its name. FISA courts, processes, and decisions are now much more accessible, and there are more stringent requirements for gaining phone records. But it also makes Section 215 and “roving” wiretaps valid until the end of 2019. For practical purposes, this does not limit the surveillance capabilities of the U.S. government much, especially since the NSA programs exposed by Snowden have likely not been curbed, and there’s no way of knowing their standing until the next Snowden comes along.

Tracking FBI Spy Planes

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that the Cessnas some Americans have seen flying counterclockwise for hours above their cities are, indeed, FBI surveillance aircraft. FAA regulations make it plausible to track these flights in real time, if you know the tail numbers. But the FBI is apparently in the process of scrubbing a lot of their records from popular flight trackers — the aircraft mentioned in this Reddit comment apparently hasn’t flown in nearly a year. According to the same commenter, grain of salt implied, several of their aircraft are now sharing tail numbers.

It’s understandable that new surveillance methods are required as technology changes, but a federal agency flying a plane overhead equipped with technology to intercept cellular calls seems more intrusive than it could possibly be worth. Or, at least, until the FBI produces evidence otherwise, if they can.

June 2, 2015

Tim Cook Speaks on Encryption and Privacy

Matthew Panzarino, TechCrunch:

“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

[…]

It’s a masterful stroke of speechifying. As I’ve mentioned before, by taking this stance (which I do not believe to be disingenuous, their profit centers support it), Apple has put all other cloud companies in the unfortunate position of digging themselves out of a moral communications hole to prove their altruism when it comes to user data.

I’m not saying that Cook is correct in brutalizing the motives of companies like Google or Facebook — but it does craft a strong portrait — because Apple is safer and ‘not interested’ in your data casts a cloud (ahem) of doubt over pretty much every other company in its league.

Thunderbolt 3 Uses the USB-C Connector

This is awfully compelling. USB-C kind of replicates a lot of Thunderbolt’s functionality, but in a worse way. This allows for the full PCI-e spectrum of things to connect via the same cable that provides power and two 4K video streams. In Apple terms, a next-generation Thunderbolt Display paired with a next-generation MacBook could connect via a single cable and output to a 5K Retina display while being charged from that one cable. That sounds pretty much perfect.

Speaking of Business Insider and Respect

When I linked to Matt Gemmell’s excellent “Respect Metrics” piece yesterday, I said:

Whenever I go to a site that is nothing more than endless rewrites of other people’s posts wrapped in teaser headlines and served alongside endless ads, related content, modal lightboxes, “toasters”, and a hundred different sharing options — I’m looking in your direction, Business Insider and the Verge — I internally question whether the site is actually proud of its authors’ writing.

I’m not sure this was fair to Business Insider. Why would I suggest they limit their contempt of writers to those on their payroll?

Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke, of the Observer:

“Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” by Bloomberg BusinessWeek technology reporter Ashlee Vance, which came out last month, became the source for many BI stories about the eccentric tech billionaire. Although the practice of pulling juicy material from a book or longer article and making a story out of it isn’t unique to BI, the number of stories that originated in Mr. Vance’s book was notable.

“Everyone will do a post or two, but BI takes it to the next level,” Mr. Vance told the Observer. “They were serializing the book in lots of little posts.”

As Bloomgarden-Smoke reports, Vance asked Business Insider to stop a couple of times, and then they began redirecting posts based on the book to Amazon. Except it’s far from altruistic, because this story

http://www.businessinsider.com/elon-musk-quotes-success-book-2015-5

redirects to

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0062301233/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0062301233&linkCode=as2&tag=thebusiinsi-20&linkId=FESV2NZEEZ4INJDH`.

Among all the crap in that URL, I’d like to direct your attention to this: tag=thebusiinsi-20. Not only did they pull stories en masse from Vance’s book, they are now redirecting those links to an Amazon referral page. Slimy, even by Business Insider’s low, low standards.

June 1, 2015

Respect Metrics

Matt Gemmell:

I have a list of metrics that I automatically – even subconsciously – use when visiting a web site, to determine whether it’s worth my focus. Am I just a pair of eyeballs, or is this author really speaking to me? Have they given due thought to showing their work in the best light, or just thrown it up there? You can tell a lot about how a site’s author, or owning company, feels about you by how they balance the various tensions of design, content, monetisation, functionality, audience retention, and more.

Whenever I go to a site that is nothing more than endless rewrites of other people’s posts wrapped in teaser headlines and served alongside endless ads, related content, modal lightboxes, “toasters”, and a hundred different sharing options — I’m looking in your direction, Business Insider and the Verge — I internally question whether the site is actually proud of its authors’ writing. In short, does the publication respect its writers? In most cases, the answer is “no”. And if it doesn’t respect its writers, you can bet it doesn’t respect readers, either.

New on Netflix: Ads

Jason Koebler, Vice:

For now, the company is primarily experimenting with the HBO model of pitching its own original programming to viewers. The company is only showing trailers for shows like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards — it has not attempted to sell third party ads, and the company told me that, for the moment, only specific users in specific markets are seeing ads.

[…]

It’s worth noting that, though Netflix hasn’t had any ads so far, it has the potential to deliver much more targeted ads (which can be sold for higher rates) than a standard cable company. Netflix has a detailed history of every show you’ve ever watched, meaning it can infer your interests and so on.

One of the key selling features of Netflix was its lack of ads. You plop down on your couch in front of your Roku, Apple TV, or your computer, and fire up the show or movie you want to watch. It’s a compelling pitch. Now, they’re bailing on that. And they could potentially — as pointed out in a style of FUD that Vice does so well — combine the frustration you feel when sitting through an ad break with the disgust you feel when you realize just how targeted the advertising is.

The Reporting Around Asus’ ZenWatch 2 Has Been Appalling

Vlad Savov kicked things off at the Verge by speculating on the use and nature of the appropriated crown on the righthand side of the device:

Like the Apple Watch, the ZenWatch 2 has a metal crown, which gives you “a new way to interact” with the Android Wear interface. Asus hasn’t yet detailed the specifics of how this will work, however, and Android Wear doesn’t have the same software support as Apple has for scrolling with the digital crown in its own Watch. So this seems likely to just be an external button.

Pure speculation — Asus’ press release never claimed that this button could be anything more, but nor did it clarify precisely what it would do. Upon clarification, Savov made a subtle change to that paragraph. See if you can spot it:

Like the Apple Watch, the ZenWatch 2 has a metal crown, which gives you “a new way to interact” with the Android Wear interface. It initially seemed as though this would work like the digital crown on Apple’s watch, however it turns out to simply be a power button with a fancy title.

The speculative text has magically vanished.

But it didn’t vanish fast enough for publications like Fortune, who suck up other sites’ writing like blue whales swallow krill. Reporter Robert Hackett felt so bold that he titled his interpretation of Savov’s article “This Company Just Copied the Apple Watch’s Best Feature”: “this company” being Asus, “copied” not really happening, and this headline format reaching the point of parody back when the Onion launched ClickHole.

Oh, yeah, and the watch is oddly reminiscent of the Apple Watch in a great deal of ways, least of all in the slow-motion product porn shots of the bands that you can buy with it, but let’s leave that aside for now.

May 29, 2015

Diversity and Visibility at Google I/O

Selena Larson, the Daily Dot:

Google’s event demonstrated the stark difference between Google I/O and Apple’s Worldwide Developers conference, which will take place in a couple weeks. Apple rarely, if ever, features women or people of color onstage to represent its company, as I’ve written about time and time and time again.

I’m tired of writing that same story. It shouldn’t need to be written. It should be obvious to companies that representing diversity onstage at major tech events is important, as it not only reflects upon the company but also the people who use its products. Google, for its part, regularly features women as prominent speakers at events. Apple just hasn’t caught up yet.

The kicker here is that Apple, according to their self-reported stats, is actually more diverse in both gender and ethnicity than Google, even in executive positions. Yet Apple’s keynotes remain solidly male and white, with the (refreshing) exception of Christy Turlington Burns at the Watch launch keynote this spring (white, not male), and the occasional appearance by Eddy Cue (male, but of Cuban descent).

Why not get Angela Ahrendts onstage to talk about retail progress, or Lisa Jackson to talk about environmental initiatives? Both of those are often covered instead by Tim Cook anyway, so it’s a great opportunity to show off the diversity at Apple.

Readdle’s Spark

I’ve been using Spark for a couple of weeks and it’s absolutely magical. It includes a lot of my favourite things from other apps; it has snooze filters and the ability to pin messages, well-formatted conversation chains, Share sheet availability within the app, and a Share sheet extension for when you want to email something using Spark from another app. It also has some very nice ideas of its own: an integrated heuristics engine that figures out how relevant a message is to you, and places it in the appropriate category for you to check later. You can even set up your preferences to only notify you when you get an email that’s more personal or important.

But because all of this processing — including notifications — is done on-device, it means the app needs to be running in the background for these features to work. Unfortunately, on my iPhone 5S, I often found Spark getting kicked out of the background processes, which meant I stopped receiving email notifications until I opened it again. While iOS is, ultimately, to blame for this, it tempers Readdle’s vision for the app. If there were a way for iOS apps to spawn daemon processes or elevate their importance, this vision would be unimpeded.

Most impressive, I think, is that Readdle has managed to innovate in a really interoperable way. Email is a decades-old technology that hasn’t really changed at the server level. Because Spark is only available on the iPhone (with a Watch extension), it means that actions it takes on a message cannot change the way that message displays in your desktop email app. They’ve been very clever with this. Pinned messages — probably my favourite thing in Spark — are just flagged messages with a different context and a different way of displaying in the app. It’s a subtle but powerful contextual shift that more precisely defines how you’ll use that feature.

I’ve linked to Federico Viticci’s review because I think it explains very well why you should try Spark. A taster:

When Apple introduced Mail for iPhone in 2007, they bragged about its desktop-class approach to email on a portable device. Today, being “desktop-class” is almost a liability for apps.

Our smartphones and tablets have a much deeper understanding of our schedule, files, location, contacts, and most used apps than they did eight years ago – a knowledge certainly superior to any desktop computer. To truly reimagine email – for many, still an essential component of a daily workflow – a mobile client would have to bring the intelligence and versatility of a mobile-first world to the stale nature of email protocols.

It’s a well-written review for an app that I really like, and want to use more often. It feels much closer to a replacement for Mail, especially with its Share sheet extension, but iOS’ limitations prevent it from fully getting there. Which is a shame, really, because it’s good. You should really give it a try.

May 28, 2015

Apple Operations Chief Jeff Williams at Code Conference

Jeff Williams sat opposite Walt Mossberg in the big red chair at Code Conference yesterday. Dawn Chmielewski of Recode recaps:

Williams seemed to hint at Apple’s interest in the automotive market in his response to one question about what the company plans to dow [sic] with its huge cash hoard.

“The car is the ultimate mobile device,” Williams said, quickly adding. “We’re exploring a lot of different markets.”

Williams said that the deciding factor in choosing new businesses is not the opportunity for revenue growth, but rather “which ones are ones [in which] we think we can make a huge amount of difference.”

Watching the video from the event makes this look, indeed, as unprompted and off-the-cuff as it’s been written here. Someone in the audience asked if there are any industries or product categories Apple was interested in exploring, and Williams just blurted out “well, the car is the ultimate mobile device”. That’s not a hint; that’s a statement.

Google Photos

Lots of big news from today’s big Google I/O kickoff presentation. Their new photos product called, uh, Photos is a mix of impressive and a little creepy. It is, therefore, very Google-y, as Stephen Levy’s interview with Bradley Horowitz makes clear:

We heard from our Google Plus photo users that we had great technology, but they didn’t want their life’s archive brought into a social product, any social product. It’s more akin to Gmail — there’s no button on Gmail that says “publish on the Internet.” “Broadcast” and “archive” are really different and so part of Google photos is to create a safe space for your photos and remove any stigma associated with saving everything. For instance, I use my phone to take pictures of receipts, and pictures of signs that I want to remember and things like that. These can potentially pollute my photo stream. We make it so that things like that recede into the background, so there’s no cognitive burden to actually saving everything.

This is similar to the way I’ve been using iCloud Photo Library. I take a crapload of pictures, and they’re all stored off-device in a private library. One big difference between iCPL and Google Photos is that the latter allows unlimited storage for free, with some caveats: photos must be less than 16 megapixels apiece and video is limited to 1080p. Also, all of the stuff you upload with the free plan is compressed; this is in addition to whatever compression your phone or camera already applies. That’s worrying, but Google’s examples make it look okay.1

And then there’s the obvious cost of the free version: your privacy. If you’re fully on board with Google’s services, you already supply them with every email you send and receive, everything you search for, every location you look up, and — soon — the purchases you make. In accordance with Google’s privacy policy, much of this information is blended together, attached to your profile, and served back to you as ads.

Levy asked Horowitz about that in his interview:

Is that information in photos siloed, or is that going to be available to enhance my Google experience in other products?

The information gleaned from analyzing these photos does not travel outside of this product — not today. But if I thought we could return immense value to the users based on this data I’m sure we would consider doing that. For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user.

If they can offer product information based on detecting the contents of your photos, they can serve you ads based on that too. It’s as simple as that.

As we’ve learned from Aran Khanna’s exploration of Facebook Messenger or any of the Snowden leaks, a few disparate points of data gleaned about a person can be associated with one another to build a much more powerful, more comprehensive look at their life.

Serenity Caldwell, iMore:

All of that said, I’m not advising people against signing up for Google Photos. Google has a lot of admirable technical goals, and it genuinely believes this kind of mass data-gathering will help achieve those goals. But that comes at a cost: The company may not be able to get the vast userbase numbers it needs to make its search services best in class without making those services free. And if they’re free, Google has to pay for them in another way. Right now, that way is advertising.

I would love to see this kind of innovation from a company that charges for it with money, not data. But this kind of innovation really only works with the kind of accelerated user and data growth that comes with a free offering and a looser sense of what crosses the creepy line. That’s okay — it’s a choice that people can make. But, though this innovation is tempting, I’m not sure it’s for me. I can’t entrust all my data to a company that is trying to use that information to advertise to me. That feels wrong to me.


  1. Google has a paid tier that allows you to store original-quality files. Despite it being a paid product, Google is still using gleaned information for advertising purposes. ↩︎

May 27, 2015

Proactive

Mark Gurman has been strategically drip-feeding all sorts of juicy iOS 9 rumours over the past couple of weeks, but this is the first one that’s really caught my attention:

After several years of quiet development, Apple is readying a major new iOS initiative codenamed “Proactive,” which will leverage Siri, Contacts, Calendar, Passbook, and third-party apps to create a viable competitor to Google Now for Android devices. Like Google Now, Proactive will automatically provide timely information based on the user’s data and device usage patterns, but will respect the user’s privacy preferences, according to sources familiar with Apple’s plans.

As an evolution of iOS’s Spotlight search feature, Proactive is the fruit of a long-term initiative that involved the acquisition of small app developers, and integration of core iOS apps. It will also work with Apple’s Maps application to display personally relevant points of interest using an augmented reality interface, and integrate with a third-party Siri API codenamed “Breadcrumbs”.

Google Now is perhaps the most impressive feature of Android. Its ability to weave together disparate pieces of data in an attempt to predict what information a user needs immediately is, so far, unparalleled on any platform. It’s a feature I’ve wanted on iOS, and it looks like my wishes might come true this year.

This is another in a series of improvements to iOS that indicates that Apple is becoming more comfortable with a more personalized iOS. Apple may have reduced the amount of character of the visual interface with iOS 7, and they may have issues with jailbreakers trying to customize their devices, but they’re increasing the amount of personalization that can be generated with deep data integration.

Judging by this rumour — and Gurman’s others — and the heavily-redacted schedule, this is going to be a very impressive WWDC.

May 26, 2015

Un-discoveryd

Benjamin Mayo, 9to5Mac:

After many complaints from the developer community about poor networking performance on Yosemite, the latest beta of OS X 10.10.4 has dropped discoveryd in favor of the old process used by previous versions of the Mac operating system. This should address many of the network stability issues introduced with Yosemite and its new networking stack.

The discoveryd process has been subject to much criticism in recent months as it causes users to regularly drop WiFi access and causes network shares to list many times over, due to bugs.

There are two weeks until WWDC, where Apple will probably introduce OS X 10.11. While that won’t be released to the public until, most likely, autumn, 10.10.4 isn’t publicly available yet either. That means that developers, at least, have been using and complaining about discoveryd for about a year, and it’s still busted for consumers.

Furthermore, I haven’t heard a compelling reason for discoveryd’s existence. It must be “better”, in some way, because I can’t think of another reason why Apple would task their engineers with rewriting the networking stack. I always assumed it was to unify iOS and OS X and to enable Continuity features, but those seem to work just fine under mDNSresponder.

Given the importance of WiFi to Apple’s computer strategy, particularly since the consumerisation of the MacBook Air in 2010, I am surprised discoveryd shipped at all.

Vox Media Acquiring Recode

It’s disappointing that benchmark journalists like Mossberg and Swisher needed a buyer like Vox to gain a decent audience. I am not looking forward to the Chorus-fication of Recode, or the slow infusion of Vox’s particular brand of retelling other publications’ stories.

“Let’s Get the Calories as Quickly as We Can”

Brian X. Chen reports for the New York Times on the rise of meal replacement powders in Silicon Valley:

At the office, Mr. Melocik stashes one Schmoylent jar in the refrigerator and takes the other to his desk. From 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., he sips from the first jar for breakfast, and the second for lunch. He consumes about 14 fluid ounces of Schmoylent each day so he can focus on coding instead of grabbing a bite to eat

“It just removes food completely from my morning equation up until about 7 p.m.,” said Mr. Melocik, 34, who has been following his techie diet since February.

Boom times in Silicon Valley call for hard work, and hard work — at least in technology land — means that coders, engineers and venture capitalists are turning to liquid meals with names like Schmoylent, Soylent, Schmilk and People Chow. The protein-packed products that come in powder form are inexpensive and quick and easy to make — just shake with water, or in the case of Schmilk, milk. While athletes and dieters have been drinking their dinner for years, Silicon Valley’s workers are now increasingly chugging their meals, too, so they can more quickly get back to their computer work.

I’m not sure about you, but I cringed while reading this article. Nothing about this lifestyle appeals to me, from the vastly extended workdays to the avoidance of having to eat at all costs. Don’t get me wrong: I like my job and I want to be successful in my field. But this rapidly-expanding “hustle” culture is an abhorrent characteristic of Silicon Valley, Calgary, and plenty of other regions. Nothing you do at work is important enough to replace taking basic care of yourself, which includes taking leisure time away from work. The amount of overtime hours one accrues should not be a source of pride. There are other, better things to do.

May 25, 2015

When Stephen Fry Met Jony Ive

Stephen Fry copped an exclusive interview1 with Jony Ive for the Telegraph, first announcing his brand new job title:

When I catch up with Ive alone, I ask him why he has seemingly relinquished the two departments that had been so successfully under his control. “Well, I’m still in charge of both,” he says, “I am called Chief Design Officer. Having Alan and Richard in place frees me up from some of the administrative and management work which isn’t … which isn’t …”

“Which isn’t what you were put on this planet to do?”

“Exactly. Those two are as good as it gets. Richard was lead on the iPhone from the start. He saw it all the way through from prototypes to the first model we released. Alan has a genius for human interface design. So much of the Apple Watch’s operating system came from him. With those two in place I can …”

I could feel him avoiding the phrase “blue sky thinking”… think more freely?”

“Yes!”

Jony will travel more, he told me.

This segment of the interview has been used to prop up a fresh batch of the Jony Ive “deathwatch” posts and tweets. Russell Ivanovic:

So crazy idea: a year from now Jony Ive resigns from Apple. This promotion/vice president thing could be preparing for that?

Jeffrey Grossman:

Maybe I’m just paranoid, but Jony Ive being promoted to Chief Design Officer sure feels like the start of phasing himself out of Apple.

Seth Weintraub’s interpretation post for 9to5Mac even has “jony-ives-leaving-apple” as its slug, which, I think, is a bold implication.

There’s no question that this is a big, multifaceted step for Ive. He’s both gaining more responsibility by becoming a C-level executive,2 but he’s doing fewer tasks he doesn’t want to do. Therefore, he gets to do what he does best, and have the opportunity to spend more time back in the UK, where he seemingly feels more comfortable.

Similarly, there’s also no question that Jony Ive will not be at Apple forever. That much is obvious. I don’t think this necessarily marks the beginning of a short term transition for him away from the company, but I do think it helps define what he enjoys about working there, and equally what he does not enjoy. A move like this potentially gives him more incentive to stay at Apple for longer, not less. It’s a better compromise between his desires and the company’s.


  1. I must say that these interviews feel increasingly less exclusive. Steve Jobs used to grant a rare but powerful interview to one of a choice selection of publications, playing the role of Apple spokesperson extraordinaire. He was, of course, one-of-a-kind in this role.

    These days, it feels as though there’s been a concerted effort to get Ive to replace Jobs in the vast majority of interviews as the passionate spokesperson, with Cook adding his occasional corporate-level take. I think it works pretty well. Both of them are smart people who think before they speak. It’s a different tone, absolutely, but it better reflects the Apple of today. ↩︎

  2. Whether his compensation will now have to be disclosed is a matter for Apple and, ultimately, the SEC to decide. Expect the usual raft of hot takes and thinkpieces as to whether he is earning too much or way too much. ↩︎

Google I/O 2015 Preview

Ron Amadeo of Ars Technica takes a few guesses on what Google I/O 2015 could bring. If even half of these ideas come true, I take that as a further sign that the mobile operating system landscape is slowly converging, which makes sense: everyone wants pretty much the same things out of their smartphone. The differentiator between mobile OSes is increasingly in the interpretation and execution of those expectations.

May 23, 2015

Just Smart Enough

Shawn Blanc shares his Apple Watch observations:

Apple Watch certainly could be distracting if you let it. But that’s easily avoided by not installing too many apps or allowing too many types of incoming notifications. Where Watch differs from iPhone is that the former is not very good at being a passive entertainment device.

While you can install apps such as Instagram and Twitterrific on your Watch, using them is like reading the news on a postage stamp. Doable but not delightful.

And that sounds like a good thing.

In case you’re wondering: no, I do not have an Apple Watch. I did not order one, and I don’t think I will for a while, for various reasons. I want one, but I have greater priorities. But it sounds like a more conceptually refined interpretation of the smartwatch, and the first one that actually sounds like a delight to use because of its limitations, not in spite of them. I’m looking forward to the day when I will get to experience it for myself.

May 22, 2015

Uber Gets Dirtier

Nina Strochlic, the Daily Beast:

The Americans with Disabilities Act was voted into law in 1990 to ensure equal rights and prevent discrimination of people with disabilities. Under the ADA, transportation providers are required by law to accommodate wheelchair users if the equipment can fit in their car.

But Uber has launched a war to make itself exempt from the anti-discrimination law.

In three ADA-related cases over the past eight months, in California, Texas, and Arizona, Uber has been slammed with lawsuits that allege the company discriminates against blind and wheelchair-using passengers. The suits demand Uber abide by the ADA, but Uber claims that because it’s a technology company, not a transportation service, it doesn’t fall under the ADA’s jurisdiction.

What a load of crap. Even Uber’s lawyers must have felt dirty delivering their argument.

The Best Calendar App for Mac

Chris Bowler sings the praises of Fantastical:

After reviewing the contenders, Fantastical 2 is the choice to make. I’ve long been a fan of Sunrise and came into this review with a predilection to sticking with what was working for me. And while this would likely still be true if this comparison included the original Fantastical, the changes with version 2 of Flexibits’s flagship offering have won me over.

The original Fantastical for OS X was the best option for quickly adding and reviewing calendar entries. Version 2 keeps all its advantages while adding the functionality of more robust calendar applications.

For me, $50 is a hard impulse buy for most things, but when Flexibits launched the second version of Fantastical for Mac, I bought it in a heartbeat. It’s that good. My only complaint with it (and, in fact, almost all calendar apps) is that it locks scrolling to the familiar week or month paradigm, rather than letting me see two weeks from one month, and two from the next. But that’s a small issue; both the iOS and Mac versions of Fantastical are absolutely magical.

May 21, 2015

You Do Not Have to Make a Watch App

Not that many people own an Apple Watch yet. If you’re a developer or a UI designer, you should probably buy one, or at least get one in your office that you can wear for a week straight, so you can figure out how you use it. You should perhaps consider an Apple Watch app if you have a compelling case for one. But you do not have to make one.

Times Advertisers to Pay Print-Equivalent Rates

Dominic Ponsford, PressGazette:

Times advertisers are to begin paying the same rate for display advertising in the title’s tablet edition as they do in print.

The agreement, reached with a number of key ad agencies, is being seen by insiders as a major breakthrough in terms of making money from digital journalism.

Website advertising is typically offered at a fraction the price of print. Advertising rates on page-turning tablet editions has also so far lagged behind.

But I thought that tablets were dead?

May 20, 2015

Spotify Adds Video and Pace-Matched Running Playlists

Video is kinda big; they’re taking on Netflix, and this is sort of the spiritual successor to the original Joost.

But I’m really interested in these new pace-matched playlists. Jordan Crook, TechCrunch:

The new Spotify also has a brand new “Running” feature that taps into the many sensors of your phone (accelerometer, gyroscope, etc.) to figure out the pace at which you’re running and serve you a playlist with the perfect BPMs in each song. Plus, the playlist is still centered around your established tastes.

But going beyond timing out the music so that it matches the beat of your feet against the ground, Spotify is also creating a new format of music, wherein the composition actually changes and rearranges based on your pace.

Apparently, an Apple engineer prototyped this last year. This would be a great Watch feature.

From Switzerland to San Francisco

Me, a month ago:

What’s the over/under on iOS 9 and OS X getting San Fransisco as a universal system font?

(The one thorn in this theory is OS X: it just changed to Helvetica Neue. Would Apple do two system font changes in two years? I don’t necessarily think they’d be dissuaded from it; I suspect the main reason OS X doesn’t use San Fransisco today is because it wasn’t finished in time, or they wanted to debut it on the Watch.)

Mark Gurman, with a brand new rumour:

Apple is currently planning to use the new system font developed for the Apple Watch to refresh the looks of iPads, iPhones, and Macs running iOS 9 “Monarch” and OS X 10.11 “Gala,” according to sources with knowledge of the preparations. Current plans call for the Apple-designed San Francisco font to replace Helvetica Neue, which came to iOS 7 in 2013 and OS X Yosemite just last year, beginning with a June debut at WWDC.

Apple’s regulatory filings for the Watch are partially typeset in San Francisco. The keycaps of the 12-inch MacBook are set in San Francisco. Publicity and marketing materials are still, by and large, set in Myriad Pro (typically the lighter-weight variant).1 It’s not quite the One True Font I thought it might be from the outset, but it’s getting there.

When it was released with WatchKit, I tried San Francisco as my OS X system font and found it even harder to read than Helvetica Neue. I suspect this is because the version I used was optimized for the Watch; I have hope that the version used on OS X will be optimized for that system, including for non-Retina displays. I’m very excited to see how this works.

I suspect San Francisco will be fine on the iPhone because it has a similar-density display as the Watch, with similar physical text sizes.


  1. Apple still typesets their brands in Myriad everywhere they use them, with the exception of the Watch. Even the new MacBook, with its San Francisco keycaps, has a Myriad-set “MacBook” insignia below the display. This could simply be a legacy thing, or it could be for consistency with the rest of the MacBook line, but I think the Watch might be the only product where its marketing materials use the same font as its UI. ↩︎

May 19, 2015

A Letter to Mark Zuckerberg Regarding Internet.org

67 human rights, technology, and other groups have written to Mark Zuckerberg regarding Facebook’s suspect plans with their Internet.org initiative:

It is our belief that Facebook is improperly defining net neutrality in public statements and building a walled garden in which the world’s poorest people will only be able to access a limited set of insecure websites and services. Further, we are deeply concerned that Internet.org has been misleadingly marketed as providing access to the full Internet, when in fact it only provides access to a limited number of Internet-connected services that are approved by Facebook and local ISPs. In its present conception, Internet.org thereby violates the principles of net neutrality, threatening freedom of expression, equality of opportunity, security, privacy and innovation.

This comes from a very similar train of thought as the concerns previously raised by Mahesh Murthy.

May 18, 2015

Hearst Magazines Update Newsstand Apps

D.B. Hebbard, Talking New Media:

There are the typical complaints about the fact that the apps are free to download but then you must buy the issues (sorry, you have to pay to read most consumer magazines); then there are the complaints about the Newsstand (can’t find the app once it has been downloaded).

Hearst’s apps tell us a lot about magazine readers: many are older and just not comfortable with the whole app experience of in-app purchases, or the way digital publications are navigated. That’s a shame, because Hearst’s digital editions are fairly good (app bugs aside).

I don’t think this is isolated to Hearst’s audience. It’s time to say goodbye to Newsstand.

Apple Has Reportedly Shelved Their TV Plans

Daisuke Wakabayashi, Wall Street Journal:

Investor Carl Icahn said he expects Apple Inc. to introduce an ultra-high-definition television in 2016. But after nearly a decade of research, Apple quietly shelved plans to make such a set more than a year ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

Apple had searched for breakthrough features to justify building an Apple-branded television set, those people said. In addition to an ultra-high-definition display, Apple considered adding sensor-equipped cameras so viewers could make video calls through the set, they said.

Ultimately, though, Apple executives didn’t consider any of those features compelling enough to enter the highly competitive television market, led by Samsung Electronics Co. Apple typically likes to enter a new product area with innovative technology and easier-to-use software.

Wakabayashi’s sources are notoriously months behind, but this move — if true — doesn’t surprise me in the least. I’ve long thought that Apple brings a lot more to the table with their services and an inexpensive accessory box than they would by building an expensive, large television set in a category that has razor-thin margins. That remains true as long as there’s nothing compelling they could build into an actual television set that requires the set itself.

Gene Munster must be gutted.

How Richard Stallman Does His Computing

For someone like me, Stallman’s methods are very restrictive and convoluted, requiring a level of sacrifice that isn’t very realistic for me. But it says a lot about our modern web when such a challenging set of rules must be in place in order to preserve our privacy. And, yes, I’m fully aware that my website contains a localized analytics script and an ad network code. On a related note, turning off JavaScript is probably one of the most straightforward ways you can protect your privacy online.

Apple Working on Watch Updates

Mark Gurman’s report made me think of something I hadn’t before: how will Apple Watch updates be delivered? Will they be like iOS or OS X, with a major new version every year? Will they be tied to iOS updates and releases? Or will they be released on a more loose and fluid schedule, linked to nothing more than Apple’s whims?

May 17, 2015

Testing the New MacBook with Windows 10

Alex King (via Michael Tsai) found that the new MacBook draws the animations in Windows 10 really smoothly, but struggles with some animations in OS X:

Because Apple does not cap Mission Control at 30FPS or something else, and because inertial scrolling and Space-switching more frequently operate at 60FPS, it is reasonable to assume that Apple expects Mission Control to be able to reach 60FPS too. Thus, framerates in the high 30s and low 40s stick out.

Until thorough benchmarking is completed by me or someone else, I think the best way to put it is this: Task View often runs at 60FPS, while Mission Control never runs at 60FPS.

I think pretty much all Mac users — from owners of poky Mac Minis through high-end iMacs — have experienced super slow Mission Control animations. It’s just not a well-built animation.

It’s worth noting that Exposé never seemed to suffer from a similar problem on any Mac excluding the lowest-end products, and that was running on far worse hardware than what we have today. In fact, a fair amount of OS X’s animations are significantly slower than the Tiger days. I’m not sure what’s causing such a substantial performance degradation, but I hope remedying it is a focus of iOS and OS X this year.

May 16, 2015

The Rise and Fall of Silk Road

If you haven’t been reading Joshuah Bearman and Tomer Hakuna’s excellent reporting of the Silk Road saga, you’re missing a jaw-dropping story. The second part has just been posted, and it’s riveting.

May 15, 2015

Tools Don’t Solve the Web’s Problems

Peter-Paul Koch:

The web definitely has a speed problem due to over-design and the junkyard of tools people feel they have to include on every single web page. However, I don’t agree that the web has an inherent slowness. The articles for the new Facebook feature will be sent over exactly the same connection as web pages. However, the web versions of the articles have an extra layer of cruft attached to them, and that’s what makes the web slow to load. The speed problem is not inherent to the web; it’s a consequence of what passes for modern web development. Remove the cruft and we can compete again.

Oh, yes, please.

This happens on the client side from the inclusion of Javascript frameworks, external plugins, analytics scripts,1 giant images, and so forth; each of these requires a DNS query, a download, and potentially rendering. This cruft also exists on the server side from related content and similar extraneous database lookups. It gets worse: the creeping of this cruft coincided with the rise of the responsive web, which means that all this crap gets served over your metered cellular connection.

Somewhere in my Pinboard,2 I have a series of links to Stack Overflow threads where someone asks a question solvable with basic CSS, yet the top-ranked answer involves a jQuery plugin or two, and a custom script. It’s atrocious.

But this cruft keeps creeping in because typical web connections are — broadly speaking — getting faster, so it’s somehow okay in the minds of some to send increasing amounts of data. Actual, real speed in lieu of client-side caching seems to no longer be a priority. And that’s why the web is slow: not because Facebook is doing anything that special, but because few people put in the effort to make it fast.


  1. If you have Ghostery installed, you know just how many tracker scripts are on so many websites. ↩︎

  2. I need to start using tags again. ↩︎

Don’t Wash Tennis Balls

Back when iOS 7 was released, I criticised the use of text strings as buttons:

Both [iOS and OS X are] used by people all over the world, and will set their device to one of the dozens of interface languages available. To accomodate the peculiarities of each language, interface elements containing text need to be flexible, and this flexibility gets compounded with additional text-based elements.

You’d therefore imagine that distinct symbols with clear meanings would be a smart way to bridge this gap. If they’re clear shapes, their function can be made obvious, and they likely need no localization.

Thomas Byttebier raises a good point:

[An] icon can often replace a long descriptive group of words. As screens get smaller, this is much welcomed. But herein lies the design trap, because most icons are unclear. They make people think. What good has a beautiful interface if it’s unclear? Hence it’s simple: only use an icon if its message is a 100% clear to everyone. Never give in.

I entirely agree with him, less his assertion that “the best icon is a text label”. It’s extraordinarily challenging to design an icon that will be read as an action — like “compose” or “refresh” — for an audience of people who range from the very tech-savvy to the novice, in hundreds or thousands of unique cultures. Different audiences will interpret icons in myriad ways, many of which the designer may not expect.

But it’s almost possible. The pictograms that are used in pretty much every airport worldwide are proof of this, but even they often accompanied by a text label in a mix of languages, so there can be no ambiguity. The consequences of an airport with ambiguous signage are significant: missed flights, frustration for already-stressed travellers, and so forth. The consequences of an ambiguous icon on a social network might be less significant, in the grand scheme of things, but ease of use should not come at the expense of trying to show off or be different.

Fight for the users.

May 14, 2015

Snooping on Facebook Instant Articles

John Gruber piqued my curiosity:

I’m intrigued by the emphasis on speed. Not only is native mobile code winning for app development, but with things like Instant Articles, native is making the browser-based web look like a relic even just for publishing articles. If I’m right about that, it might pose a problem even for my overwhelmingly-text work at Daring Fireball. Daring Fireball pages load fast, but the pages I link to often don’t. I worry that the inherent slowness of the web and ill-considered trend toward over-produced web design is going to start hurting traffic to DF.

I had to take this for a spin to find out how fast it is. Instant Articles are aptly named — they load really fast. I tested a series of articles from Facebook’s various publishers — including from the Atlantic, the New York Times, and Buzzfeed — and found that most content loads near instantaneously, including high-resolution imagery. Videos were the only exception, which sometimes exhibited a few tenths of a second of lag before autoplaying on my 50 mbps home connection.

But even videos loaded faster than pretty much any page on Pixel Envy. My site is pretty damn fast, but not compared to Instant Articles, which is a little ridiculous given that this site is nearly entirely textual.

What’s enabling this super speed? It’s all within the iOS app, so there’s not a lot of information an idiot like me can cull, but I ran a session through Squid and collected the logs. Nearly everything Facebook delivers is sent over HTTPS, so I couldn’t cache its data or see many specific loading events. Nevertheless, here are the logs for a Buzzfeed “article” about grown men playing with kittens, and some article from the Times.1 A few observations:

  • All of the article content is hosted on Facebook’s servers, including text, images, and video. Ads, on the other hand, are either provided by Facebook or through whatever network or exchange the publisher likes. In the case of Buzzfeed, that’s Moat; in the case of this Times article, it’s the newspaper itself serving the ads.

  • To get things to load fast, Facebook doesn’t appear to use tricks beyond what you might expect: mighty data centres located all around the world, and compressing the hell out their assets. It also loads media lazily. But there’s probably some other, more invisible stuff going on. I poked around the app bundle and didn’t spot anything obviously exciting to my eyes.

  • Facebook automatically loads all content — including video — by default. That seems like a rather generous assumption on the part of Facebook, given that most people are probably on metered plans. You can turn this off under the More tab, in Account Settings, then in Videos and Photos, then under Auto-play.

  • As Gruber says, far too many sites are over-complicated with gigantic photo banners and megabytes of Javascript. I’m optimistic that, if nothing else, this step by Facebook will encourage web developers to once again focus more on the speed and size of what they build.


  1. There’s also a bunch of crap from various backgrounded services. Ignore those lines; they’re just there for completeness. I did remove one confidential line, however. ↩︎

May 13, 2015

Big, Dumb Pipes

Dennis K. Berman, Wall Street Journal:

When Steve Jobs released the first iPhone in June 2007, Apple Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. were worth almost exactly the same in the public markets: About $115 billion.

What came over the next eight years was one of the greatest transfers of power and wealth in corporate history. Mobile phone operators — who had been brutish, intractable gatekeepers to the customer — were turned into Apple’s lackeys.

The customer was still spending money with the carriers, but now she was spending far more with Apple. Today Apple is worth about $735 billion, nearly double that of Verizon and AT&T Inc. combined. The carriers still love to romance the “power of the network,” but this has the feel of a crumbling empire, vainly proclaiming its domain over places long overrun.

Facebook and Google are worth more than Verizon or AT&T, too, and Amazon is pretty close. Remember how terrified carriers were of becoming dumb pipes? It’s happened; it was inevitable. And now carriers are finding creepyreally creepy — ways to try to salvage what leverage they have left.

The Future of Digital Advertising

Frightening post from Ben Thompson, framing both yesterday’s Verizon-AOL news and Facebook’s Instant Articles:

There’s no need for me to dwell on the Facebook news; I covered it at length in March in an article called The Facebook Reckoning. In that piece I noted a significant problem with Internet advertising: ad inventory is ever-increasing, which means the rates for an undifferentiated ad spot are ever-decreasing; the best way to combat that trend is through better ads, better placement, better targeting, and better measurement.

[…]

This is why the deal makes so much sense: AOL provides the technology to target individuals instead of content, and Verizon the ability to track those individuals — at least the over 100 million customers they already have — at arguably a deeper level than anyone else in digital advertising (for non-Verizon customers, AOL’s ad platform is still useful, albeit not as targeted; rates would be commensurately lower). The talk of this mashup joining Facebook and Google to form a “Big 3” of digital advertising is not unrealistic.

I certainly hope it doesn’t play out like this.

May 12, 2015

A Different Take on the Liveliness of the Mac App Store

Gabriel Hauber:

Sam Soffes said that he only sent out a couple of tweets about Redacted to announce its launch, although the app fortuitously did end up on Product Hunt and apparently got quite some attention there. The result – halfway decent first day sales. The app itself is rather simple and other apps with quite similar functionality already exist on the store.

This tells me that with a bit of effort and a good product, it shouldn’t be that difficult to generate a half-way decent revenue on the Mac App Store alone. And when you add direct sales into the mix, it looks even more attractive.

Maybe there’s a fair amount of confirmation bias here, but I don’t think the Mac App Store works as a more-or-less upscaled version of the iOS App Store. I buy little one- or two-dollar apps on my iPhone all the time, but I rarely buy new software on my Mac. It’s not as lively an ecosystem, probably because a Mac app is expected to be orders of magnitude more capable and complex than an iOS app.1 It’s also probably true that OS X and Mac apps aren’t evolving nearly as fast as their iOS counterparts.

Mac app developers do have one major advantage over iOS developers: they can offer their apps for sale in both the Mac App Store — with some exceptions — and as a standalone download. The App Store potentially offers a much greater promotional value, but at the price of the infamous 30% cut of all sales.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of how valuable the Mac App Store is to third-party developers. My guess is that it’s a good opportunity for scaled-up iPhone apps and little utilities, but has more of a neutral effect for apps with a power user audience.


  1. And probably also because, as Hauber points out, tens of millions of iPhones and iPads get sold every quarter, compared to “only” a few million Macs. ↩︎

May 11, 2015

From Reading List to Pinboard

Ben Brooks’ Pinboard usage mimics my own:

The change for me isn’t that notable on it’s own, but I have made a conscious effort to not only save read later links to Pinboard, but to also save all bookmarks to Pinboard, thus giving me a much better archive of things I read on the web. That’s truly the nicest feature of the entire move: I now have one repository to search — and that I thought was worth mentioning.

NYT Now What?

The New York Times Company:

The new version features a fresh look and improved card designs to help readers catch up even faster. Screenshots of the new cards can easily be shared with friends. Content is updated around the clock, and the app now highlights new stories since your last check-in.

NYT Now’s popular Morning Briefing now comes with an alert feature to notify users as soon as it’s ready.

I really like the sound of these features. I regularly check the app throughout the day, so any indication of what’s new is helpful to me, and the morning briefing notification feels kind of like you’re living in a movie where you need your mission dossier. Only one problem:

Fans of NYT Now rejoice: The Times’s news app — designed to get you caught up on the most important and interesting stories — is free starting today.

Why is this a problem? Brian Krogsgard explains:

I wonder, is it really worth me keeping my subscription when 90% of the Times articles I read are from what is now a free app? Likely not.

Unless, of course, they cheapen the app content.

[…]

Starting this morning, the app showcases a big sponsor link, so I guess that’s how they plan to monetize it. Furthermore, I presume they anticipate they can get folks addicted enough to want full access — and of that goal, I am quite skeptical.

I’m a Times subscriber, so launching the app to find a Delta ad larger than the NYT Now logo on the splash screen offended me a little this morning. I want to feel like I’m reading the New York Times, not Delta’s newsletter. Of course, subscribers can sign into the NYT Now app, but I’m unclear whether that gives me less of a “freemium” experience, or whether it just lets me sync my saved articles.

There’s always the standard Times app that I could use instead, but it doesn’t have the impression of speed that NYT Now does. It feels like the entire paper, which is nice on a desktop, but a little heavy for a phone. The standard app is also buried in Newsstand, and it can’t be taken out. NYT Now is still winning for me — the new app looks and feels great, and it still does what I want it to (despite curated and recommended stories from other sources being blended into the main feed, rather than being under a separate tab). But it’s kinda hard to choose between the two, as neither are now ideal for their purpose.

May 9, 2015

“My Dad, My Mentor”

Erin Lee Carr, daughter of David Carr, in Glamour:

I was in the passenger seat as my dad steered our family’s SUV in the direction of my first internship, at Fox Searchlight Pictures. He ignored the car wedging into our lane and turned my way. “Who’s your supervisor?” he asked. “Who’s head of the company? What films of theirs do you like?”

I mumbled something about how I’d loved the acerbic side of Juno, which the studio had put out about a year earlier. My dad shook his head, lit a cigarette, and said, “No one is going to take you seriously if you don’t take the job seriously. Do your fucking homework.”

Redesigning Overcast for the Apple Watch

Marco Arment’s first attempt at a Watch app wasn’t perfect, but he has a new version of Overcast out that, he thinks, is a vast improvement:

Trying to match the structure of the iOS app was a mistake. For most types of apps, the Apple Watch today is best thought of not as a platform to port your app to, but a simple remote control or viewport into your iPhone app.

My initial app was easier to conceptualize and learn, and it closely matched the iOS app. But it just wasn’t very good in practice, and wasn’t usually better than taking out my phone.

The new app is a bit weird and polarizing, and has a learning curve, but it’s great in practice if it fits your preferences. (Just like the Apple Watch.)

Arment did nothing inherently wrong with trying to be on the Watch on day one, but this goes to show just how different its interaction model is compared to a phone. Only after using it did Arment discover how he was using it, and I imagine that’s the same for pretty much any app.

There’s a lot of pressure to be first on a new platform, but there are lots of great reasons to wait to experience the product first before trying to ship something.

May 8, 2015

The Numbers

Abdel Ibrahim:

Today, Executive Editor at The Verge, Deiter Bohn, posted his in-depth review of the LG Watch Urbane, LG’s second round-screened smartwatch, which sells $349 dollars. I read the review, which highlighted the various pros and cons of the product as reviews tend to do, and then I noticed something interesting at the end of the article: A 7.3 overall score.

I wondered how that compared to their Apple Watch review, so I did a quick Google search (don’t bother using The Verge’s built-in search function — it’s horrible) and noticed that editor-in-chief Nilay Patel gave Apple Watch an overall score of an even 7.

The problem is that the Verge — as with so many other sites — attempts to assign a seemingly objective numerical ranking to an inherently subjective practice. The numbers make it sound like the site, as a publication, would more readily recommend the Watch Urbane over the Apple Watch, if only by a slight margin. In actuality, the review paints a different picture:

I wish I could say that the Urbane is the perfect Android Wear watch, but I can’t. It may be that there is no such thing, there are only different watches for different people. That’s why I called the Urbane a cipher for Android Wear: it perfectly encapsulates how divisive wearable technology can be. I’m also hard-pressed to believe that it’s worth the $349 asking price — the materials and technology aren’t that much better than the G Watch R, which is $100 less. The Urbane is for people who love big, shiny watches, and I’m clearly not one of them.

In comparison, here’s how Nilay Patel summarized his Apple Watch review:

There’s no question that the Apple Watch is the most capable smartwatch available today. It is one of the most ambitious products I’ve ever seen; it wants to do and change so much about how we interact with technology. But that ambition robs it of focus: it can do tiny bits of everything, instead of a few things extraordinarily well. For all of its technological marvel, the Apple Watch is still a smartwatch, and it’s not clear that anyone’s yet figured out what smartwatches are actually for.

If you are willing to go along on that journey, then you’ll enjoy the Apple Watch.

Sounds like a recommendation, if a hesitant one.

Naturally, the two reviews are from different writers, but it’s a confusing mix of an attempt at objectivity and subjectivity. If you relied upon the Verge’s numerical rankings as a sorting criteria for picking a smartwatch, you’d end up with a Pebble Steel, which scored an 8.5 out of 10. It’s nowhere near as capable as an Apple Watch, but it was also released six months ago, so its ranking is kind of irrelevant now.

To summarize, then: the numerical scores only give the illusion of objectivity, don’t match the content of the review, and don’t have lasting value. So why do they exist? When I read a review, I want the reviewer’s opinion; if I’m in the market for a smartwatch, which one do I buy? It sounds like Dieter Bohn recommends I don’t buy the Urbane. Which should I buy? Sounds like Nilay Patel thinks the Apple Watch is the best on the market. That’s all I need to know.

Previously:Recommended by 4 Out of 5 Dentists”.