November 27, 2014

Ars Technica’s iWork ’14 Review

It’s incredible just how much of a feature regression Pages experienced in the ’09-to-’13 update, going from an easy-to-use page layout machine to a barely-cutting-it word processor. It still doesn’t support page numbering on alternating sides, full OpenType features, or a useful contextual menu.

November 26, 2014

A Eulogy for RadioShack

Jon Bois, writing for SB Nation,1 shares some of his stories from his employment at the legendary prototypical American electronics retailer:

Most folks who have worked in retail are probably familiar with this. Once every couple months, we’d have to stay after hours and count inventory. The store computer would print out a novel of every single item we were supposed to have in stock, from TVs to transistors to batteries, and then we’d have to root through the entire store and make sure we had all of it.

This could mean staying until midnight on a good inventory, or staying until five in the morning, depending on how obsessive my manager happened to be. RadioShack could very easily have scheduled these regularly and in advance, as a courtesy to its employees, but RadioShack is a craven and unfeeling entity that issued what I can only describe as open contempt of those they employed. The higher-ups preferred to spring them on us with maybe a day’s notice.

That is a major violation of labor laws, but they didn’t care. Sometimes they’d call an hour before the store closed to let us know we were staying there until two in the morning. We could comply or be fired.

Great piece. Altogether unsurprising, too. Every time I went into a RadioShack, I felt overwhelmed by how cheap and nasty everything felt. Not compared to Apple; compared to the dashboard of a mid-’80s Chevrolet. It’s almost as if they genuinely wanted people to feel like they couldn’t buy anything more downmarket.

I once bought a quarter-inch-to-eighth-inch audio cable adapter from RadioShack. It cost me four dollars, I believe, which already felt a bit spendy for something that felt so light and plasticky in my hand. But it’s all they had, and I wanted to plug my headphones into my guitar amp, so I picked it up. I took it home, plugged it in, plugged my headphones in, played for a bit, and felt it was acceptable. Then, I unplugged my headphones, and pulled the entire adapter’s assembly apart with the connector.

I haven’t seen any RadioShack locations near where I live, but we have their replacement, called “the Source”. Same shit, different name.

  1. Which recently, I think, added some sort of bullshit contextual highlight-and-tweet Javascript. It’s baked into the site-wide scripts, though, so I can’t just add it to my JS Blacklist extension, which is a pity. I hope it doesn’t make its way over to the Verge

Android vs. iOS Start Experience

Privacy has its tradeoffs. While the setup process for a Nexus 9 requires just eight steps, the setup process for an iPad Air 2 takes 23. Most of those are for turning on individually-segmented features: iCloud, Find My iPad, iCloud Drive, and your Apple ID all require separate activation steps, for example. It gives the user more control, but it creates a much more cumbersome first-run experience.

Attack of the 50-Foot Save Sheet

Jason Snell:

It turns out — and thanks to Jon Gotow of St. Clair Software, maker of the excellent Default Folder X, for the answer to this — that there’s a bug in Yosemite that causes a sheet to grow taller by 22 pixels every time you use it.

This is such a weird bug, but so easy — and fun! — to reproduce. Just hit Cmd + S in this window, then hit Esc. Rinse and repeat until your Safari window is moving way off-screen to fit the enormous Save dialog.

Reminds me of that amazing Finder bug that Cabel Sasser found years ago.

November 25, 2014


The prosecution screwed up. The President’s speech was weak. The looting and violence is wrong. But the decision not to indict the officer responsible? That’s beyond reproach. I can understand bringing this case before a court and finding the officer not guilty, if that’s what the evidence shows. But refusing to admit that the officer could have possibly committed a crime in the shooting death of an unarmed person? I can’t understand that at all. It’s relatively common in cases like this involving an officer, though.

November 24, 2014

Homescreens in 2014

John Borthwick:

The degree that users are switching core Apple apps — calendar, email, tasks, notes etc. — with alternatives is something that interests me a lot. I discussed this in last years’ shareholder letter. Startups and companies other than Apple made significant inroads here in 2013. Fifty percent of people who have a mail app on their homescreens in the sample have a non-Apple mail app. For task-related apps the number is 57 percent, calendaring 46 percent, weather 44 percent, maps is 54 percent and for podcasting the number is 65 percent. The discovery process in mobile is still nascent, yet Apple has a huge advantage over other app developers by installing their default experiences and not letting carriers change them pre-sale. The large percentage of people going through the hassle of switching suggests that even in an iOS7 post-skeuomorphic world Apple’s apps are often not best in class.

On the contrary, I’m a little surprised that 50% of a sample skewed in favour of a technologically-literate user base continues to use Apple’s Mail app,1 and 54% use the default Calendar app. The users who are not using Apple’s default apps are likely splitting their vote across a wide variety of third-party apps, with the exception of Maps, which is probably almost universally Google Maps.

What that suggests is that Apple’s default apps are good enough for most people, most of the time. Tech-savvy users are using more specialized apps, but not nearly as much I had anticipated.

I see this in my personal circle of friends as well. The vast majority are primarily using Apple’s apps and other “default” apps, like the official Twitter client and the standard Facebook app. My more tech-savvy friends are using a mix of first- and third-party apps, or other alternatives — Facebook Paper over standard Facebook, for instance.

  1. I do, for what it’s worth. 

Calendaring Layouts

I think Lukas Mathis nails his critique of the new Android calendar app, with one minor quibble:

It’s now a «5 Day» view, because it only shows five days. This is confusing, because it means that the starting day in this view changes. Instead of always being Monday (or Sunday in the US), it’s now a random day. So in order for me to figure out what I’m looking at, I first have to take a second to recalibrate my brain. Okay, the leftmost day is now a Wednesday…

I’m one of the heathens who vastly prefers a dynamic week layout, with today plus the next few days; if it’s a Wednesday, the Monday and Tuesday probably don’t matter much to me. Today-plus-four or today-plus-six is how I’ve always had my calendar set up. It’s one of the things a computer calendar does vastly better than a paper one.

November 21, 2014

“The World’s Most Personal Distraction Device”

Shawn Blanc:

I mean, of course I’m excited about the Watch. The UI is unlike anything else out there right now, and there are going to be some really great apps and some really useful ways to use the device.

And yet it’s quotes like this one from Kevin Systrom that describe exactly what I don’t want in a watch:

Apple Watch allows us to make the Instagram experience even more intimate and in the moment. With actionable notifications you can see and instantly like a photo or react with an emoji. The Instagram news and watch list allows you to see your friends’ latest photos, follow new accounts and get a real-time view of your likes and comments.

This is exactly what a Watch app should not be, and it remains a mystery to me as to why Apple put this in their press release, especially when you consider the HIG:

Apps on Apple Watch are designed for quick, lightweight interactions that make the most of the display size and its position on the wrist. Information is accessible and dismissible quickly and easily, for both privacy and usability. The notification Short Look, for example, is designed to provide a minimal alert, only revealing more information if the wearer remains engaged. And Glances provide information from apps in an easy-to-access, swipe-able interface. Apps designed for Apple Watch should respect the context in which the wearer experiences them: briefly, frequently, and on a small display.

November 20, 2014

A Second Kryptos Clue

The New York Times:

Despite many attempts to decrypt it, the final section of the Kryptos sculpture remains unsolved. Jim Sanborn, the sculptor, told the New York Times in 2010 that the 64th to 69th characters, which read NYPVTT, will read BERLIN when decoded.

This week, Mr. Sanborn gave the Times a second clue: the 70th through 74th positions, which read MZFPK, will read CLOCK when decoded.

Twenty years of the best cryptographers in the world having a crack at a 97-letter puzzle, and it remains unsolved. Truly the contemporary Enigma, as it were.

Comments in the Age of Social Media: Recoded

Remember how Reuters dropped comments from their site last week? Today, Recode did the same. Walt Mossberg and Kate Swisher:

The biggest change for some of you, however, will be that we have decided to remove the commenting function from the site. We thought about this decision long and hard, since we do value reader opinion. But we concluded that, as social media has continued its robust growth, the bulk of discussion of our stories is increasingly taking place there, making onsite comments less and less used and less and less useful.

Progress, people. Progress.

November 19, 2014

Thoughts on WatchKit

It’s been less than two months since the Apple Watch was announced, and it won’t ship for several more months, but Apple is getting developers on the fast track by launching the Watch’s SDK, WatchKit, now. And it’s a real treat because it’s the first extended glimpse into the interface and what it means to develop for the Watch. After reading the documentation, what appears clear is that the Apple Watch will be like no other iOS device and no other smartwatch on the market.

Pixels and Performance

Without releasing any hardware, Apple has revealed the answer to a big mystery on that front: the display resolutions of both models of Watch. The 38mm one has a screen that’s 272 × 340 pixels, while the 42mm one measures 312 × 390 pixels. Based on the 1:1 graphic on the Layout page of the Human Interface Guidelines and my rough calculations, that works out to about 312 and 326 pixels per inch, respectively.

If I were a betting man, I’d have bet on a shared resolution, with the smaller one utilizing a trimmed version of the iPhone 6 Plus’ panel, and the bigger one getting the 326 pixel-per-inch panel used in iPhones since the fourth generation. Clearly — and surprisingly, to me at least — that’s not exactly the case.

But what’s not known is just what kind of panel the Watch will have; I’m interested to see whether it’s an LED or some kind of (AM)OLED, which would be Apple’s first.

Along with display pixels, the Human Interface Guidelines also reveal the different sizes of icons required by the system. As you might expect, with two different — and somewhat finicky — display resolutions, there are two sets of icon sizes required. The small Watch has 29-pixel Notification Centre icons, 80-pixel “long look” icons, and 172-pixel home screen icons; the big one has 36-pixel, 88-pixel, and 196-pixel versions of the same. Apple also provides a set of recommended stroke weights for the contextual Force Touch menu icons, with a single pixel of weight difference between the little Watch and the big one.

From the outside looking in, this seems needlessly resource-intensive and complex; two different resolutions with two different sets of icon sizes means a lot of work for designers and developers alike. But it also comes across as a certain level of care and dilligence. Apple didn’t simply trim down an iPhone; this is someting entirely new for them. It’s a complete reconceptualization of personal technology, and it’s going to take some effort for it to work well. 1

Indeed, the HIG is notable for where it differs from the recommendations in, say, the iOS HIG. From the Color and Typography page:

Avoid using color to show interactivity. Apply color as appropriate for your branding but do not use color solely to indicate interactivity for buttons and other controls.

In the equivalent iOS page:

Consider choosing a key color to indicate interactivity and state. Key colors in the built-in apps include yellow in Notes and red in Calendar. If you define a key color to indicate interactivity and state, make sure that the other colors in your app don’t compete with it.

Avoid using the same color in both interactive and noninteractive elements. Color is one of the ways that a UI element indicates its interactivity. If interactive and noninteractive elements have the same color, it’s harder for users to know where to tap.

There are other, more subtle, differences between the way different UI components are treated on each platform. The message here is clear: don’t just try to scale down your iPhone app.

Speaking of hard work for designers and developers, have you seen the Watch’s approach to animation? I’ll simply quote the HIG:

Create prerendered animations using a sequence of static images. Store canned animations in your Watch app bundle so that they can be presented quickly to the user. Canned animations also let you deliver high frame rates and smoother animations.

Let’s see that again in an instant replay:

Create prerendered animations using a sequence of static images.

I didn’t believe that this meant what I knew it meant, so I downloaded the “Lister” demo app to take a look at its assets. And I found a progress bar rendered as a circle, with each of the 360 frames of the animation in its own PNG image. It means exactly what you think it means: each frame is its own image.

There’s more curiousity at play, too: Maps embedded in apps are non-interactive, and app caches are limited to just 20 MB, or approximately 14 floppy disks.

All this adds up to a distinct impression that the Apple Watch is little more than a dumb notifications screen, which is what I — and so many others — have repeatedly stressed that we don’t want. Indeed, that’s basically what the Watch App Architecture document conveys:

When the user interacts with your Watch app, Apple Watch looks for an appropriate storyboard scene to display. It selects the scene based on whether the user is viewing your app’s glance, is viewing a notification, or is interacting with your app’s main interface. After choosing a scene, Watch OS tells the paired iPhone to launch your WatchKit extension and load the appropriate objects for running that interface.

As of right now, it’s write-only.

So why am I not worried? WatchKit is kind of like the “sweet solution” of the Apple Watch, only way better than that ever was. For now, Watch apps are limited to interactive notifications and Glances, Apple’s name for quick, focused information from a parent app. Watch apps require an iPhone to be present, paired, and nearby for them to run, because they’re basically just showing an extended UI projected from the iPhone.

Apple is promising “native” Watch apps later in the year, though it remains to be seen the extent of the processing that can be done on an Apple Watch itself. The limitations currently imposed on Watch apps are likely limited by the speed at which UI components and code can be transmitted from an iPhone to a Watch, not the processor inside the Watch itself. But I’m not sure it’ll be possible to leave the house with only the Watch, and not your iPhone, too. You may not need to take your iPhone out of your pocket, but it appears that you’ll be relying upon it for most connectivity and app data.

For now, though, WatchKit is limited to treating the Apple Watch as a way to show immediately-relevant information, and little more. So why would I be more optimistic about its chances? Or, at least, more optimistic compared to, say, the way I viewed the Pebble Steel or the Samsung Galaxy Gear — or, indeed, smartwatches as a category. I’m more optimistic because it feels like the iPhone all over again: Apple wasn’t the first to market, but they’re seeking to be the best. And everyone else will likely follow in their footsteps.

There’s a lot to pick through in this new territory, but Apple seems dedicated to making it as straightforward as possible for both designers and developers. Developers have extraordinary limitations — barely any options for sizing and placement of UI objects, and no subclassing of interface controllers, both which developers have previously relied upon to create customized interfaces. Designers have the luxury of a care package of PSD templates of icons, interfaces, and UI components.2 Oh, and the new system fonts.

San Francisco

Top to bottom: the standard character set, stylistic set 1 (which is just the alternate 6 and 9), and stylistic set 2 (which is just an open 4).
I remember reading all kinds of reactions to the Apple Watch, but the commentary from designers about the new typeface is what I remember clearest of all. In September, it didn’t even have a name. Plenty of people called it “DINvetica”, while others speculated that this was, indeed, Apple Sans. While it may be the final form of “Apple Sans”, its public name is San Francisco, harkening back to the old Macintosh days of typefaces with names like Chicago and Geneva. Indeed, it now occupies the namespace of Susan Kare’s original.

This is clearly something Apple has been working on for a very long time. Initial — and, dare I say, lazy — comments immediately rushed to compare it to Roboto. A closer look reveals more differences than similarities.

The San Francisco family comes in three styles, each in myriad weights. Display is to be used when text is 20 points or greater, while Text is to be used at smaller sizes. There’s also a Rounded style hiding in the SDK, but don’t tell anyone.3 There are also a few alternate numbers, shown at right, proper small caps, and a plethora of international and special characters. It’s a very comprehensive typeface family.

I compared it against two similar faces: DIN Next is a 2009 update of the venerable DIN 1451, and Roboto is Google’s house face. I threw Helvetica Neue into this comparison because it’s Apple’s current system face. All of these are the regular weights, and all are set at the exact same size, utilizing the fonts’ built-in kerning metrics. A few things are immediately apparent in this comparison:

  1. San Francsico Display is noticeably optimized for larger sizes. Strokes are thinner, and it’s a little tighter.
  2. The “DINvetica” reference couldn’t be more appropriate: the numbers look very similar to Helvetica’s, while the characters take inspiration from DIN.
  3. If Roboto looked a little gross before, it looks really gross in comparison to these. This is the newly-updated version of Roboto, not the old one with the Helvetica-knockoff uppercase-R. It looks way better than the old version, but it’s nowhere near as precise-looking nor as balanced as the others here.
  4. San Francisco Text — that’s the one for smaller text sizes — has similar metrics to Helvetica Neue. Not the same, but if you squint a little, kind of close enough, and closer still to the metrics of Lucida Grande. Perhaps this is eventually the new UI font for all Apple interfaces. It certainly would be more of a distinct signature face than Helvetica, and it would be more legible, too.

San Francisco is extremely exciting. Apple has released a number of in-house typefaces, even very recently — Menlo was released in 2009, and Chalkboard in 2003 — but this is the first comprehensive family to be released since 1984. It’s apparently still being worked on, but it’s in very good shape.4

  1. Sure, Apple’s not the first. But… 

  2. Just how long have we been asking for a PSD of the iPhone UI? 

  3. San Francisco Rounded isn’t shown here because it silently fails to install. 

  4. When you try to print a document with San Francisco, the tracking is absolutely enormous. This might be due to Dynamic Text features, or it might be related to a Yosemite bug for fonts with UPMs greater than 1000. San Francisco has a UPM of 2048. 

NSA Reform Stalls

Dustin Volz, National Journal:

Senate Republicans blocked legislation Tuesday that would limit the government’s sweeping domestic spying powers, dealing a massive blow to the post-Snowden efforts to reform the U.S. surveillance state.

At a final vote of 58 to 42, nearly every Democrat and four Republicans voted for the bill, the USA Freedom Act, but it failed to clear the 60-vote threshold necessary to move forward in the upper chamber. Its defeat almost certainly means that any reforms to the National Security Agency will have to wait until next year, when Republicans take over the Senate.

With nearly every Republican voting against this bill, what are the chances that any real reform will occur next year when they’re in the majority?

November 18, 2014

Uber Executive Suggests Digging Up Dirt On Journalists

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed:

A BuzzFeed editor was invited to the dinner by the journalist Michael Wolff, who later said that he had failed to communicate that the gathering would be off the record; neither Kalanick, his communications director, nor any other Uber official suggested to BuzzFeed News that the event was off the record.

Keep the “off the record” defence in mind as you read what Uber SVP Emil Michael said at the event:

Over dinner, [Michael] outlined the notion of spending “a million dollars” to hire four top opposition researchers and four journalists. That team could, he said, help Uber fight back against the press — they’d look into “your personal lives, your families,” and give the media a taste of its own medicine.


Michael was particularly focused on one journalist, Sarah Lacy, the editor of the Silicon Valley website PandoDaily, a sometimes combative voice inside the industry. Lacy recently accused Uber of “sexism and misogyny.” She wrote that she was deleting her Uber app after BuzzFeed News reported that Uber appeared to be working with a French escort service.


He said that he thought Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who followed her lead in deleting Uber and was then sexually assaulted.

This is so incredibly offensive. Sarah Lacy responded on PandoDaily (skip the comments, obviously):

Unless forces more powerful than me in the Valley– or even Washington DC– see this latest horror as a wakeup call and decide this is enough. That the First Amendment and rights of journalists do matter. That companies shouldn’t be allowed to go to illegal lengths to defame and silence reporters. That all these nice words about gender equality in tech aren’t just token board appointments every once in a while. That professional women in this industry actually deserve respect. That they shouldn’t be bullied with the same old easy slurs about bitchiness or sexual objectification. That deep scary misogyny in a culture isn’t something that you hire a campaign manager to “message out” of a founder, nor is it something you excuse as genius at work. That there is a line someone can cross, even amid an era where the Valley believes founders can never be fired.

That last line seems a little prophetic now. Uber’s CEO went on Twitter to apologize for Michaels’ behaviour but, as Mashable’s Todd Wasserman reports, didn’t fire him. Atrocious, but expected in Silicon Valley. And that’s what’s so depressing about this story: it’s par for the course.

November 17, 2014

Ads in Firefox’s New Tab Page Are Live

Darren Herman of Mozilla:

For users with no browsing history (typically a new installation), they will see Directory Tiles offering an updated, interactive design and suggesting useful sites. A separate feature, Enhanced Tiles, will improve upon the existing new tab page experience for users who already have a history in their browser.

Tiles provides Mozilla (including our local communities) new ways to interact with and communicate with our users. (If you’ve been using a pre-release Firefox build, you might have seen promotions for Citizenfour, a documentary about Edward Snowden and the NSA, appearing in your new tab in the past few weeks.)

Tiles also offers Mozilla new partnership opportunities with advertisers and publishers all while respecting and protecting our users. These sponsorships serve several important goals simultaneously by balancing the benefits to users of improved experience, control and choice, with sustainability for Mozilla.

Translation: “We know these ads are gross, but being forever dependent on Google is worse for us. Also, we’ve just found out that it’s really difficult to make money while giving away for free our software and its source code. Also, check out this ad for a movie about the NSA being creepy as shit while we collect your browser history to tailor ads to you.”

“Or Maybe It’s Just a Malware Infested Serbian Honeypot”

While I merely complained about the use of undetectable ad tracking tags used by AT&T and Verizon, “John Gordon” actually checked out the opt-out steps:

AT&T does have a great sense of humor though — here’s the opt out link you’re supposed to visit while on AT&T’s network:

AT&T Adworks –

Yeah, an IP address. I think it’s legit, fwiw the footer says “AT&T’s intellectual property”…

Interestingly enough, AT&T has a support article on their website about phishing:

The good news is that you can avoid scams by looking for telltale signs that indicate when a site is fake or an email is phishy. The next time you are not completely confident that you are on a legitimate website or that an email you received is valid, check for these signs:

Uses an incorrect URL – If you are used to going to your bank via a regular address and the address of the site you land at is not the same name, you can be confident that you are not at the real site. Always double check to make sure that the site address is accurate. You can also hover your mouse pointer over a link in the email to verify that the link is directed to the same site that the email came from.

So, in short, be on the lookout for scams that look legitimate, and legitimate sites that look like scams. And it’s still a big mystery to some that people actually fall for this stuff.

Apple Releases iOS 8.1.1

Some welcome improvements in this update, including (finally) a fix for the Share sheet extension reordering bug, and some nice performance improvements for older hardware.

Update: Federico Viticci noted a couple of edge cases to setting and maintaining Share sheet extension reordering. The systemwide nature of Share sheet extensions is simple to understand for everyone, but might feel heavy-handed for power users. On the other hand, setting them on a per-app basis would be a huge pain in the ass.


Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Watchville for iOS pulls in news stories from top watch blogs with cheeky names like Perpetuelle and Haute Time. That includes hands-on reviews, buyer’s guides, and feature posts that will titillate timekeepers, whether they consume through the app’s Reader Mode or view the original articles through Watchville’s internal browser.

Collectors can synchronize their watches to the exact time using the app’s Atomic Clock. Little bell sounds count down the last five seconds of each minute so they can listen for just when to punch in the crown. And if their timepieces show the moon phase, they can set that too.

If it all sounds wildly esoteric, that’s kind of the point. There’s a small, diehard, but very lucrative community that Watchville wants to appeal to.

I don’t anticipate this market is shrinking, either. I wonder how such a market will react to the Apple Watch, particularly the Edition model. The timelessness of luxury watches is a huge part of their appeal; constant iteration, on the other hand, is part of technology’s appeal.

November 14, 2014

Code Names of the Surveillance State

Trevor Paglen presents “Code Names of the Surveillance State,” a video installation in Metro Pictures’ upstairs gallery composed from more than 4,000 National Security Agency (NSA) and Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) surveillance program code names. Projected onto four walls as an endlessly scrolling series of columns, the code names are deliberately nonsensical, often droll and sardonic words or short phrases without discernable connection to the programs they designate. “Bacon Ridge” is an NSA installation in Texas, “Fox Acid” an NSA-controlled Internet server designed to inject malware into unsuspecting web browsers, and “Mystic” a program to collect every phone call from the Bahamas.

Paglen’s works are not explanatory documents of his subjects; instead, they are revealing and eerie evidence of the US government’s vast secret surveillance apparatus. His installation is as enigmatic and seductive as is his photographs of drones, black op programs, spy satellites and military “black sites.” Within the installation the code names are subtly suggestive of the clandestine programs they represent, just as Paglen’s photographs, shot from great distance using specially devised photographic equipment, reveal isolated facilities and distant objects in the sky as untethered and dreamlike aberrations.

If you’re in New York City and you don’t go see this — it’s on until December 20 — I will be deeply saddened. This looks incredible. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wish I had more time to devote to art making.

AT&T Stops Using Undeletable Phone Tracking IDs

Julia Angwin, Pro Publica:

AT&T says it has stopped its controversial practice of adding a hidden, undeletable tracking number to its mobile customers’ Internet activity.

“It has been phased off our network,” said Emily J. Edmonds, an AT&T spokeswoman.

Here we have a case of AT&T actually doing the right thing. They get criticized so frequently for so many reasons, so I think it’s important to point out when they do something good and ri—

*mimes touching earpiece*

What’s that? Oh.

Edmonds said AT&T may still launch a program to sell data collected by its tracking number, but that if and when it does, “customers will be able to opt out of the ad program and not have the numeric code inserted on their device.”


Google Glass Future Cloudy

Sarah Mcbride, Malathi Nayak, and Alexei Oreskovic, Reuters:

After two years of popping up at high-profile events sporting Google Glass, the gadget that transforms eyeglasses into spy-movie worthy technology, Google co-founder Sergey Brin sauntered bare-faced into a Silicon Valley red-carpet event on Sunday.

He’d left his pair in the car, Brin told a reporter.

Bet he didn’t leave his phone in the car, though.

November 13, 2014

The A8X’s GPU

Ryan Smith, AnandTech:

[It] has become clear that with A8X Apple has once again thrown us a curveball. By drawing outside of the lines and building an eight cluster GPU configuration where none previously existed, the A8X and its GXA6850 GPU are more powerful than even we first suspected. Apple traditionally aims high with its SoCs, but this ended up being higher still.

The numbers here are just off the charts. The iPad is aching for software features that can really take advantage of performance like this.


From Microsoft TechNet:

This security update resolves a privately reported vulnerability in the Microsoft Secure Channel (Schannel) security package in Windows. The vulnerability could allow remote code execution if an attacker sends specially crafted packets to a Windows server.

This security update is rated Critical for all supported releases of Microsoft Windows.


When this security bulletin was issued, Microsoft had not received any information to indicate that this vulnerability had been publicly used to attack customers.

No time to gloat; this is properly scary. This remote code execution vulnerability exists in pretty much all versions of Windows since 95, and it requires almost no user interaction beyond using Internet Explorer to go to the wrong website. And it’s about to get scarier because that last line — the bit about it not being used in the wild — has just changed.

Patch up.

November 12, 2014

Comments in the Age of Social Media

Reuters recently turned off comments on their articles, perhaps realizing that they’re not exactly a bastion of considered thought. However, there was a curious paragraph in executive editor Dan Colarusso’s announcement:

We value conversation about the news, but the idea of comments on a website must give way to new realities of behavior in the marketplace.The best place for this conversation is where it is open to the largest number of participants possible.

Translation: the best place for this conversation is as far away as is possible from Reuters properties.

Twitter’s New Mission Statement

Yoree Koh, Wall Street Journal:

[Twitter CFO Anthony] Noto, who led and emceed most of the all-day event, also read out Twitter’s new strategy statement, which he admitted was a mouthful: “Reach the largest daily audience in the world by connecting everyone to their world via our information sharing and distribution platform products and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.”

“I struggle to read it every time,” Noto said.

There are word salad mission statements, and then there’s this jumbled pile of meaningless spew. Let’s take this bit-by-bit:

Reach the largest daily audience in the world…

It reads as though they were forced to jam into the statement the worldwide, real-time intent of Twitter, so that’s why this phrase has every buzzword.

…by connecting everyone to their world…

Two instances of the word “world” separated by just five words makes my head whirl.

…via our information sharing and distribution platform products

What the hell is a “platform product”? Why both? What separates these “platform products” from other “information sharing and distribution platform products” like email?

…and be one of the top revenue generating Internet companies in the world.

My guess is that they wrote the first bit of the statement, then realized their investors might get a bit testy when they didn’t include money. Also, another “in the world”? Was this statement written by Jeremy Clarkson?

It’s also 80 characters longer than a tweet, which should be the new benchmark for mission statements, especially Twitter’s.

Ars Technica’s Android “Lollipop” Review

Judging by Ron Amadeo’s review, it seems that this update is a big refinement across the board. As iOS 7 was to iOS 6, Android 5 is to Android 4.x: a universal revision, aiming to provide consistency and structure across the OS. And, as iOS 7 took cues from Android at the time, Lollipop takes some cues from iOS: the lock screen, in particular, looks like a lightly-skinned version of iOS’.

But who cares? All mobile OSes are basically converging towards the same point, each taking inspiration (and often more) from their competition. Until something brand new in either software or, more likely, hardware comes along to really shake things up, we’re probably going to be seeing more of the same push towards refinement, not revolution. And that’s okay.

November 10, 2014

Ted Cruz’s Net Neutrality Take Isn’t Just Dumb, It’s Dangerous

Kate Knibbs, Gizmodo:

Corporations can be just as tyrannical as corrupt federal administrations, and we have been in danger of ISPs controlling and corroding the flow of information through the internet in a way that would be detrimental to everybody. This is not a case of government scope creep. This is a case of the executive branch of the government taking a stand in an attempt to preserve an endangered freedom.

The only thing net neutrality would slow down is the speed at which you’re getting fucked, and that’s something everyone in Congress should agree on.

Yeah, yeah: Gizmodo. But this is a perfect response to Sen. Cruz’s bile.

President Obama on Net Neutrality

From the President’s prepared remarks:

The rules I am asking for are simple, common-sense steps that reflect the Internet you and I use every day, and that some ISPs already observe. These bright-line rules include:

  • No blocking. If a consumer requests access to a website or service, and the content is legal, your ISP should not be permitted to block it. That way, every player — not just those commercially affiliated with an ISP — gets a fair shot at your business.

  • No throttling. Nor should ISPs be able to intentionally slow down some content or speed up others — through a process often called “throttling” — based on the type of service or your ISP’s preferences.

  • Increased transparency. The connection between consumers and ISPs — the so-called “last mile” — is not the only place some sites might get special treatment. So, I am also asking the FCC to make full use of the transparency authorities the court recently upheld, and if necessary to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet.

  • No paid prioritization. Simply put: No service should be stuck in a “slow lane” because it does not pay a fee. That kind of gatekeeping would undermine the level playing field essential to the Internet’s growth. So, as I have before, I am asking for an explicit ban on paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect.

This isn’t in any way about changing the way the internet works; it’s about retaining the way the internet has always worked in the face of increasing corporate influence.

Unfortunately, it seems as though some people have got it into their heads that the internet should be regulated not by the government but by corporate interests. These uncompromising beliefs have polarized an issue that, frankly, is something that should be immune to polarization. The overarching principles of net neutrality are generally agreeable and not something most people would debate; it is the idea that government would set rules around this that seems to frighten people, which is unfortunate. The government already sets rules that prohibit other utilities from discrimination; why would the internet be any different?

More unfortunate is the unlikelihood of any regulations being passed on this extremely important issue. Now that Republicans — overwhelmingly those who not only disagree with net neutrality regulations due to a market solutions-based philosophy, but who summarily reject anything the Obama administration proposes — control both the House and Senate, the likelihood of a bill becoming law is extraordinarily slim. If such a bill were to be proposed, it’s likely that it would become a watered-down, corporate-influenced version of such a bill that doesn’t actually set net neutrality boundaries, but rather reinforces the ability for ISPs to jerk their customers around. Though, that’s probably true regardless of the party in charge — telecom companies routinely donate large amounts of money to candidates from both parties.

Remember, too, that though this debate is taking place largely in the United States, its effects will be felt worldwide. The US exerts massive influence on the way other countries will follow. As Voltaire reminds us, this power doesn’t come without responsibility.

iCloud Drive Stumbles

David Sparks:

I don’t know what to think about Apple and the cloud at this point. I think this is really important to Apple’s success (and my ability to get the most out of their products). Nevertheless, they keep stumbling. I know what they are doing at this massive scale is hard. However, Apple’s secretive nature combined with these obvious problems makes it appear they just don’t care, which I don’t think is true but nonetheless frustrating when it interrupts my flow. I suspect the truth is that the iCloud team is pedaling like mad and don’t want to publicly acknowledge these problems but instead just fix them.

I want to believe that iCloud’s reliability is getting to a point where us nerdier types can comfortably recommend it to our friends and family. But the bungled launch of iCloud Drive combined with quiet changes and backwards incompatibility puts at risk much of the cloud services goodwill Apple has been trying to salvage.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take iCloud to become reliable, but it will almost certainly be shorter than the amount of time it will take me to feel comfortable relying upon it. And I should be able to rely upon it. While I may feel that my local storage is more secure, the truth of the matter is that it cannot compete with server farms mirrored worldwide. Though I could pick up some Amazon storage or use Dropbox, an OS-integrated solution makes far more sense to me if it were done right.


When I was a little younger, I used to spend an awful lot of time hanging out on IRC in small rooms of like-minded people. I’ve made a lot of acquaintances and a few friends in that way. Over time, those relationships moved over to Twitter. While the friendships continue, it’s more passive, and a little harder to keep a discussion going. While I’m not one to hope Twitter goes away, I see the value in a platform more tailored to conversations.

For the past week, I’ve been testing an interesting new app called Wulu that promises that and, for the most part, seems to deliver. They describe it this way:

WULU is a place for real people and real conversation.

Just pick a trending topic and we’ll pair you with other people looking to talk about the same thing.

Which makes sense, but I like to think of it as short, real-time conversations among four like-minded people. Just four: no more, no less.

Now, full disclosure: one of the creators of the app, Andrew Turnbull, emailed me to tell me about it, and to inquire about purchasing sponsorship space on the site. I get loads of emails like this, and I ignore most of them, but Wulu seemed interesting. I declined the sponsorship, but told him I’d check out the beta and see if it interested me. And it’s earned a space on my first home screen, so I think that tells you all you need to know.

The app also has another interesting angle: it was developed right here in Calgary. So I met Andrew for coffee (well, tea) yesterday and got to know a little more about the intent of the app. He reiterated that the real-time aspect was very important, so that’s why there’s no archived chats. He explained that double-tapping on a comment in a thread would “nod” that comment — sort of like a thumbs-up; each nod equates to a point, and there’s a leaderboard to see how many nods you and others are getting. Andrew explained to me that this encourages productive conversations, rather than spam. (There’s a “report inappropriate” button on each user’s profile to combat the latter.)

To reiterate: I wasn’t paid for this post, and not even encouraged. I’m just a fan of the app and wanted to let you, my dear readers, know about it. It’s definitely a 1.0; there are some things that aren’t entirely sorted out. Topics, for example, are currently set manually by the founders, with Google News, and trending Facebook and Twitter topics as guides. But it’s a really good start. You should check it out.

November 9, 2014

The Future of Unison

Cabel Sasser:

Unison — our excellent OS X app for accessing Usenet Newsgroups and the many wonders and mysteries contained within — has reached the end of its road after years of faithful service.

Unison’s end is bittersweet. The market for a Usenet client in 2014 isn’t exactly huge. But if you know Panic, you know we do our very best to never drop things awkwardly — we like to leave our apps in a good place for our (very) valued users.

Frankly, I’m surprised that Unison has survived this long. How many people — aside from a few nerds like myself — actually use Usenet in a year beginning with “2″?1 And, yet, it soldiered on, until now. This is a textbook example of how to discontinue an app in a way where nobody really loses.

  1. There are two major ISPs in Calgary, and I deliberately chose the one that offers Usenet access. Because, of course, I totally like talking to people in a 1980s way. That’s why. 

November 6, 2014

Amazon’s Echo Chamber

Dustin Curtis:

People buy hardware that fits into their lives, and becomes part of how they identify themselves to the world. If you want to sell hardware, you have to be in fashion, like Samsung was two years ago, or like Apple has always been. Amazon is incapable of understanding fashion, because it has no taste, and its hardware is completely unfashionable and tasteless.

The Great Bitcasa Data Purge

I hadn’t heard of Bitcasa until I started reading about this euphemistically-named “new storage infrastructure”, and the woes it’s creating for users. What a mess.

(Via Jason Scott.)

Amazon Echo Amazon Echo Amazon Echo

Darrell Etherington, TechCruch:

Amazon has a new product that doesn’t really have any current equivalent form any other tech company – a connected speaker called Echo that’s always-on, listening for commands that its virtual assistant can then respond to with information or by triggering a task.


Amazon notes that it only listens when you say the activation word, which appears to be “Alexa” by default.

So it’s always listening, then.

And I wonder if this, like the Fire Phone, will simply be a conduit to buying stuff from Amazon. If it can be hooked up home-wide and it’s not pushy about filling your Amazon cart, it could be a slick Jarvis-esque product. If it’s just gonna suggest new albums to buy when you tell it to play music, it sounds pretty weak. In either case, I’m not sure I’d buy one; Amazon simply isn’t a great hardware company.

November 5, 2014

Matias Duarte and Bullshit

Marco Arment:

Google’s use of their Android sharing icon in their iOS apps has nothing to do with “open” nonsense and everything to do with Google asserting that they know better.

Apple shamelessly pulls the same move — see, for instance, every Windows app they’ve ever made — but they don’t patronize us with bullshit justifications.

I went to art school. I’ve seen people dream up some conceptual nonsense to fit whatever piece they threw together the night before. I can smell bullshit.

If you want to stay “on brand”, just say so. That’s why the new Google Maps looks the same on iOS and Android: all Roboto all the time, “material” design, and a vertical ellipsis to denote “more” in the toolbar.

(And by “their Android sharing icon”, Arment means Alex King’s sharing icon.)

Too Much Encryption Killed BlackBerry, According to a Former NSA Lawyer

Jemima Kiss, reporting for the Guardian:

[Former NSA general counsel Stewart] Baker said encrypting user data had been a bad business model for Blackberry, which has had to dramatically downsize its business and refocus on business customers. “Blackberry pioneered the same business model that Google and Apple are doing now – that has not ended well for Blackberry,” said Baker.

He claimed that by encrypting user data Blackberry had limited its business in countries that demand oversight of communication data, such as India and the UAE and got a bad reception in China and Russia.

That’s the best you’ve got, Baker?

Encrypting user data was and, in fact, has always been one of the highlights of the BlackBerry product range. It’s why the Pentagon has ordered boatloads of them, as recently as earlier this year. It’s one of the features former NSA chief Micheal Hayden praised:

Mr. Hayden said the BlackBerry has “baked in a heightened level of security from the beginning” and has an “inherent advantage” over other devices, but: “I bought an iPhone. What more can I say?”

So the US government and its most secretive factions praise the BlackBerry’s ability to encrypt data and have showered them with impressive contracts as a result.

Let’s look at Baker’s other claim: that this level of secrecy has resulted in limited adoption in places that demand less encryption, and that the increased security on iPhones and Android phones will cause their demise. Like Baker, we’ll start in India, where the iPhone has just had its best year of sales yet:

Apple has sold more than a million iPhones in India since its current fiscal year started in October, a major milestone for a company that wasn’t serious on the South Asian market until a couple of years ago.

The company didn’t reveal its India sales data, but industry research agencies put it at 1.02 million between October 2013 and August 2014. Sales are likely to reach 1.1 million units by the time Apple’s fiscal year ends on September 30.

A million phones in a country of a billion people doesn’t sound like much, but India is a developing nation. A majority of those phones are the 5S model, too — this report came out before the iPhones 6 were released there — which support more robust encryption that previous models.

How about the United Arab Emirates? While some iPhone functionality, like FaceTime, is disabled there, iPhones occupy three of the top five most-used smartphones in the country. A third-party company also launched a gold-plated iPhone in Dubai, which allegedly made Justin Bieber cry.

But back to Baker’s premise: was BlackBerry killed by too much encryption? No. They simply failed to keep up with the iPhone and, subsequently, Android phones that had big multitouch displays and a much better user experience. People simply bought the better product.

Intelligence agencies sure are scared shitless that they can’t read our text messages, though, aren’t they?

November 4, 2014

Verizon Injecting Perma-Cookies to Track Mobile Customers

Not content with ruining journalism, Verizon has decided to put some effort into maintaining the shitty reputation of ISPs and cellular carriers. Jacob Hoffman-Andrews, of the EFF:

Verizon users might want to start looking for another provider. In an effort to better serve advertisers, Verizon Wireless has been silently modifying its users’ web traffic on its network to inject a cookie-like tracker. This tracker, included in an HTTP header called X-UIDH, is sent to every unencrypted website a Verizon customer visits from a mobile device. It allows third-party advertisers and websites to assemble a deep, permanent profile of visitors’ web browsing habits without their consent.

Unfortunately, by signing the extremely long Verizon service agreement, you’re also agreeing to the very long privacy policy, of which a subsection does enable Verizon to be this creepy (emphasis mine):

We collect information about your use of our products, services and sites. Information such as call records, websites visited, wireless location, application and feature usage, network traffic data, product and device-specific information and identifiers, service options you choose, mobile and device numbers, video streaming and video packages and usage, movie rental and purchase data, FiOS TV viewership, and other similar information may be used for billing purposes, to deliver and maintain products and services, or to help you with service-related issues or questions. In addition, this information may be used for purposes such as providing you with information about product or service enhancements, determining your eligibility for new products and services, and marketing to you.

This is buried way down in Verizon’s sub-sub-agreement, almost as though they hope nobody reads these things. Worse still, as the EFF points out, the header is part of all your traffic over their network, is specific to your device, and can be sniffed by anyone. Creepy.

Should I Call 999 for a Whambulance?

Robert Hannigan, the head of the GCHQ — sort of the British equivalent of the NSA — wrote an op-ed in the Financial Times:

Terrorists have always found ways of hiding their operations. But today mobile technology and smartphones have increased the options available exponentially. Techniques for encrypting messages or making them anonymous which were once the preserve of the most sophisticated criminals or nation states now come as standard.

It’s unrealistic for governments to shut down all spying and intelligence operations, but why should Apple and Google make it any easier for creepy agencies to peek into and record our everyday communications?

Besides, it’s not as though the new security measures in iOS 8 are uncrackable. Apple’s just not going to do — and, in fact, can’t do — the job of a law enforcement official seeking to extract the data from a perp’s phone.

Hannigan, again:

However much [technology companies] may dislike it, they have become the command-and-control networks of choice for terrorists and criminals, who find their services as transformational as the rest of us. If they are to meet this challenge, it means coming up with better arrangements for facilitating lawful investigation by security and law enforcement agencies than we have now.

Presumably, Hannigan was getting close to the word limit offered to him by the Times, because it cut off the rest of this paragraph. Which, I assume, was to read: “For example, we could stop the bulk collection of data from global internet traffic.” Pity this got cut off in the final version though.


But privacy has never been an absolute right and the debate about this should not become a reason for postponing urgent and difficult decisions.

Act before you think. Shoot first and ask questions later. That’s what they say in Texas and, as it turns out, in Cheltenham.

As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the spectacular creation that is the world wide web, we need a new deal between democratic governments and the technology companies in the area of protecting our citizens. It should be a deal rooted in the democratic values we share. That means addressing some uncomfortable truths. Better to do it now than in the aftermath of greater violence.

That’s how Hannigan actually ends this thing: with a taunt. Ridiculous.

November 3, 2014

Verizon Is Launching a Tech News Site That Bans Stories on U.S. Spying

It’s telling about this site’s popularity that the three most recent stories on Sugarstring’s homepage were published 6, 10, and 12 days ago. Its Twitter account may have 75,000 followers, but StatusPeople estimates that 17% of them are fake and 29% are inactive, as of September 3. It also looks like a totally generic knockoff of ReadWrite and the Verge. What an exciting entrant into the world of churnalism.

November 2, 2014

Amazon Unclear on Diversity

This week, Amazon released their workplace diversity figures, and they’re, well, a little sketchy. The Rainbow PUSH Coalition, as quoted by David Streitfeld in the Times:

“Their general work force data released by Amazon seems intentionally deceptive, as the company did not include the race or gender breakout of their technical work force,” the statement said. “The broad assumption is that a high percentage of their black and Latino employees work in their warehouses.”

I’m not sure about malicious, but Amazon’s figures are certainly less forthcoming than the figures from other companies. Amazon, like Microsoft, seems to be masking their male- and white-dominated workforce. Apple, too, does not break out their retail employees from their corporate employees; one might reasonably guess that, in the current employment environment, their retail employees are more likely to be women or minorities than their corporate employees. Diversity statistics which break out different divisions within the company would be much more revealing for all tech companies.

November 1, 2014

The Internet’s First Family

Stephan Thomas wrote a great profile of Metafilter for Hazlitt Magazine:

People connect to each other here, is what I’m saying. They get to know each other and they treat each other well. If Twitter is people you don’t know at their wittiest, and Facebook is people you do know at their most mundane, then MetaFilter, I would say, is a family of strangers.

Trent Reznor Is Doing Something at Apple

Joe Levi interviewed Trent Reznor for Billboard. Reznor answered a question about his role at Apple:

Beats was bought by Apple, and they expressed direct interest in me designing some products with them. I can’t go into details, but I feel like I’m in a unique position where I could be of benefit to them. That does mean some compromises in terms of how much brain power goes toward music and creating. This is very creative work that’s not directly making music, but it’s around music.


Let’s Talk About Money

Over the past few years, I’ve let this site run at a loss. It’s not super expensive to host, but it’s not super cheap either. But I’d like to change that. I’m not going to be writing for profit or for my only job at any point in the near future, but I’d like to offset the costs of hosting the site. I think that’s fair.

To do so, I’ve joined the Carbon Ads network. There’s a tiny, tasteful ad in the sidebar. Just one, though, and that’s all you’ll see.

Writing here has never been about money, but I’ve always liked to be reasonable about my costs in everything I do. You will see no negative changes here — I won’t be doing clickbait headlines, listicles, or any of that other crap to drive up page views and impressions. I just want to offset some of my costs here. Perhaps I’ll even write a little more regularly, something which has fallen by the wayside a bit.

I’m running this as a little experiment, and we’ll see how it goes. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know.

Thank you, as always, for reading.

October 31, 2014

Police Can Require Cellphone Fingerprint, Not Pass Code

Elisabeth Hulette, of the Virginian Pilot (via Steven Frank because, really, why would I be reading the Virginian Pilot?):

Judge Steven C. Frucci ruled this week that giving police a fingerprint is akin to providing a DNA or handwriting sample or an actual key, which the law permits. A pass code, though, requires the defendant to divulge knowledge, which the law protects against, according to Frucci’s written opinion.

You may disagree with this — I know I do — but this argument actually makes sense. A workaround for this, if you’re interested, is to simply shut off your iOS device before the police seize it; it will require the passcode when it wakes.

90% of Mobile Transactions in the US Are Made at a Starbucks

John Cook, GeekWire:

[J]ust how important is mobile technology for the Seattle coffee retailer?

Consider this: Starbucks said today that roughly 16 percent of its U.S. sales now occur through a mobile device, with the company now handling about seven million mobile payments each week. It also controlled about 90 percent of all mobile payment transactions last year.

You’ll notice that Starbucks is not a CurrentC partner.

A Week With the Retina iMac

Shawn Blanc:

When I’m standing here, using the iMac, I keep thinking about how it’s all about the screen. But what’s crazy is that the screen is only half the story. Inside this iMac just so happens to be one of the fastest Macintosh computers on the planet. Take away the Retina display and you’ve still got an incredible machine. But you don’t have to take away the display. With the Retina iMac you’ve got your cake and you’re eating it, too.

Like Shawn, I’ve always had a laptop as my main machine, hooked up to an external display when I’m at my desk. But, also like Shawn, the amount of time my MacBook Air actually leaves my desk has dwindled to the point where a desktop is starting to look more favourable. The Retina iMac makes that kind of decision much, much easier. This is the first time in as long as I can remember where I’ve considered giving up the “freedom” of a laptop that I have but don’t actually exercise for a desktop. And what a desktop.

Tim Cook: “I’m Proud to Be Gay”

Tim Cook, in a special for Bloomberg Businessweek:

While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now. So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.


I don’t consider myself an activist, but I realize how much I’ve benefited from the sacrifice of others. So if hearing that the CEO of Apple is gay can help someone struggling to come to terms with who he or she is, or bring comfort to anyone who feels alone, or inspire people to insist on their equality, then it’s worth the trade-off with my own privacy.


October 29, 2014

A Translation of MCX’s Hastily-Written Blog Post from PR-Speak to Plain English

You may recall this weekend’s discussion of a new mobile payment solution called CurrentC. Though it won’t launch until next year, its exclusivity agreement prohibits retailers who will be implementing it from using any other pay-with-your-phone tech, including Apple Pay.

This set off the kind of public relations shitstorm that makes me excited for blog posts like this one, from MCX — CurrentC’s parent company — CEO Dekkers Davidson. And now, akin to Weird Al, here’s an Anglicized version of this PR disaster, vaguely in the style of John Gruber.

Does MCX Require its Merchants to Only Offer CurrentC?

MCX merchants make their own decisions about what solutions they want to bring to their customers; the choice is theirs. When merchants choose to work with MCX, they choose to do so exclusively and we’re proud of the long list of merchants who have partnered with us.


Importantly, if a merchant decides to stop working with MCX, there are no fines.

We do not consider a lack of refunds of deposits or penalty fees to be “fines”.

Back when the MCX merchants first got together, it was in response to a market that lacked a viable mobile wallet that would benefit both consumers and retailers. Today, we believe that need still exists, and our working group is getting ready to reveal a solution that is different from other mobile payment options in many important ways.

We live in a state of perpetual denial about what features are most important to consumers, and are desperately trying to convince ourselves that QR codes really took off. That’s what makes us different: we use QR codes. None of your near-field bullshit.

What Are the Facts Around Consumer Privacy?

Our Lawyers Made Us Phrase This Section Title in an Evasive and Weird Way.

Consumers’ privacy and data security are our top priorities. CurrentC will empower consumers and merchants to make informed decisions regarding how information can be shared through our privacy dashboard.

Much like Facebook, you’ll be able to see, at a glance, just how much data we collect about you. You will have very little say, however, in how that data will be used.

By the way, we noticed you recently purchased a 24-pack of Charmin and a box of Wheaties, so we hope you enjoy 10% off Glade-brand products with this coupon.

What Are the Facts About Data Security?

On the data security side, the technology choices we’ve made take consumers’ security into account at every aspect of their core functionality. We want to assure you, MCX does not store sensitive customer information in the app. Users’ payment information is instead stored in our secure cloud-hosted network. Removing this sensitive information from the mobile device significantly lowers the risk of it being inappropriately disclosed in a case that the mobile device is hacked, stolen or otherwise compromised.

Please ignore today’s unfortunately coincidental news.

The cloud is impenetrable! Clouds are like fortresses, or adamantium, or fortresses made of adamantium.

Please ignore today’s unfortunately coincidental news.

In the event that our “cloud-hosted network” is breached, please take solace in knowing that it wouldn’t be just your banking information that would be compromised, but everybody’s. Everyone’s a winner.

Please ignore today’s unfortunately coincidental news.

We look forward to continuing to work hard to develop our app. There will be more to come in the weeks and months ahead and we can’t wait for the time when we can show you more about CurrentC and its benefits. Until then, we’ll stay hard at work.

We’ll keep trying desperately to pretend that Apple Pay doesn’t exist.

PCalc’s “Featured” Calculator Widget Isn’t Allowed in the App Store Any Longer

This is a profoundly stupid decision by Apple. James Thomson, PCalc’s developer, was apparently told that “Notification Center widgets on iOS cannot perform any calculations, and the current PCalc widget must be removed.” That, despite Apple’s own app review guidelines and extension programming guide (PDF) making no mention of this restriction. The App Store editorial team must not be aware of this rule, because PCalc is currently featured as an example of iOS 8′s extensible Notification Centre feature — this is what inspired my use of the word “profound” above.

It’s not the rules themselves that are necessarily a burden on app developers. It’s Apple’s store, so they get to set the rules. But it’s seemingly-arbitrary stuff like this that makes developers lose sleep at night. Thomson clearly spent a great deal of time and care building this extension, and now that’s gone to waste with unfortunately characteristic indifference from Apple. And it’s not like PCalc was rejected outright — Apple allowed it in the store for the past month and a half before pulling it for violating a rule that doesn’t even exist.

It can’t be that Apple doesn’t want interaction in widgets — Strava’s widget allows you to start and stop a session. It can’t even be that calculations aren’t allowed, unless it only pertains to iOS for inexplicable reasons, as Yosemite includes a calculator in its default Today widget bundle. If it’s either of these things, Apple ought to better explain their expectations before developers waste hours doing stuff that’s allowed, only to be summarily rejected for new and unwritten rules.

October 28, 2014

Profit Margin of Error

Arik Hesseldahl, of Recode:

The latest report from the research firm IHS, due later today and shared exclusively with Re/code, shows that the base model of the iPad Air 2, the 16 gigabyte Wi-Fi version, which sells for $499, costs $275 to build, exactly one dollar higher than the previous base model. The top-end model, the 128GB LTE version, which sells for $829, costs $358.

Why is this being reported as though it were factual? These reports do not factor in research and development, nor do they account for software. Anyone worth their analysis salt knows that these reports are, at best, a rough estimate.

October 25, 2014

CurrentC, Not PrivaC

John Gruber:

And the reason they don’t want to allow Apple Pay is because Apple Pay doesn’t give them any personal information about the customer. It’s not about security — Apple Pay is far more secure than any credit/debit card system in the U.S. It’s not about money — Apple’s tiny slice of the transaction comes from the banks, not the merchants. It’s about data.

They’re doing this so they can pursue a system that is less secure (third-party apps don’t have access to the secure element where Apple Pay stores your credit card data, for one thing), less convenient (QR codes?), and not private.

Bingo. Josh Constine, over at TechCrunch:

CurrentC notes it may share info with your device maker, app store, or developer tool makers. Oddly, it will collect health data. Precise location information is used to verify you’re at the retailer where you’re making a transaction, and if you opt in it can be used for marketing or advertising. CurrentC notes that you can opt in to be able to capture and store photos in the app for a hypothetical visual shopping list or other features down the road.

After his investigation of the app, Aude told me “CurrentC borders on the creepy line” due to it pulling health info. He also that found that its Terms Of Service leaves high liability for fraud to the user if someone else is able to get access to a user’s phone and make CurrentC payments.

Let me get this straight: a group of retailers — including Michaels, Lowe’s, and Target, all of which have had significant security breaches in the past year — are trying to launch a payment system based on QR codes and a steady hand, and want to access significantly more data so your purchase history can be sold to advertisers. Good luck with that.

October 24, 2014

Samsung Knox Stores PINs in Plain Text


Samsung phones, like the Samsung Galaxy S4, are shipped with a preinstalled version of Samsung Knox. Samsung advertises Knox with the following:

“KNOX Workspace container improves the user experience, providing security for enterprise data by creating a secure zone in the employee’s device for corporate applications, and encrypting enterprise data both at rest and in motion. KNOX Workspace container provides users with an isolated and secure environment within the mobile device, complete with its own home screen, launcher, applications and widgets for easier, more intuitive and safe operation. Applications and data inside the container are separated.”

Searching around the internet to find specific information about Samsung Knox were not satisfying, as Samsung Knox is not open source. This was the reason to investigate Samsung Knox a little bit and lead to this analysis. Also today I read an article that the US government certified the use of Samsung Knox for their work and this was the reason to publish my analysis.

This sounds like something that’s definitely FBI approved.

Update: Link added. Whoops.

October 23, 2014

The Race to Archive TwitPic

Pierre Chauvin, for the Globe and Mail:

Right now, a collective of Internet archivists and programmers is trying to do the impossible: save more than 800 million pictures uploaded to the Twitter photo-sharing service Twitpic before they disappear down the memory hole after the company’s scheduled shutdown on October 25.

For this group of digital librarians, saving a bunch of stranger’s pictures is about keeping alive a key piece of our digital culture.

TwitPic was huge for the first years of Twitter’s life, until the official image hosting service was launched. Its shutting down has been a botched affair; it deserves better. Another valuable contribution to history from the Archive Team.

October 22, 2014

Yosemite, Spotlight, and Privacy

Concerns about the amount of information transmitted to Apple in standard usage of Yosemite first surfaced a few days ago. To be fair, it looks like a lot of stuff that Apple is collecting: an analytics ID, kinds of email addresses, Spotlight searches, and so forth. Sounds pretty scary. But Russell Brandom of the Verge and Michael Tsai have both done a great job of reducing the amount of FUD in these claims. Brandom:

But on closer inspection, many of the claims are less damning than they seem. There’s already a public privacy policy for the new feature, as well as a more technical look at the protections in the most recent iOS security report. That document breaks down five different kinds of information transmitted in a search: the approximate location, the device type, the client app (either Spotlight or Safari), the device’s language settings and the previous three apps called up by the user. More importantly, all that information is grouped under an ephemeral session ID which automatically resets every 15 minutes, making it extremely difficult to trace a string of searches back to a specific user. That also makes the data significantly less useful to marketers, since it can’t track behavior over any meaningful length of time. And most importantly, the data is transmitted over an HTTPS connection, so it can’t be intercepted in transit.

And Tsai:

Cook frames it as Apple not needing your information because it isn’t monetizing it, but there are definitely cases where having more information would help Apple improve the user experience—at the expense of privacy. It is not always possible to maximize both.

Also of note: the fact that this Washington Post article even got published. If it were nearly any other company, an article like that probably wouldn’t be warranted. That’s not because the Post wants to target Apple or anything, but because Facebook, Google, and others collect this kind of information routinely. Apple is one of the few Silicon Valley companies to care to such an extent about user privacy. Any breach of that is considered noteworthy. By contrast, the expectation of most other tech companies is that they will take as much analytics and user data as they can get away with.

Gruber’s New iPads Review

Perhaps I was a little unfair in calling the iPad Air 2 an iterative update. Gruber’s review is convincing me otherwise. The combination of big upgrades, like to the SoC and display, and little enhancements, like the thickness and Apple SIM, are much greater than the sum of their parts:

I think the sort of person who prefers the Mini form factor is less likely to be using their iPad in the ways that the iPad Air 2 is improved. (Anecdotally, most iPad photographers I see in the real world are using 9.7-inch iPads, not the Mini.) And the sort of iPad users who are pushing the performance limits of the platform are the sort of people who’ve preferred the 9.7-inch models all along. In short, I think the Mini really is more of a pure consumption device, and the Air is more of an alternative to a MacBook.

That’s a big claim, but there’s probably enough in the Air 2 to warrant it. It’s a pretty impressive update on the hardware, all things considered.

But, despite the great hardware, the iPad lineup is aching for software improvements. Last year’s iPads can do everything that this year’s iPads can, with the exception of Touch ID and Apple Pay. Yes, the Air 2 has a better user experience — it’s faster and much nicer to hold. It’s certainly a much better product than the iPad 3 or 4, which is a more appropriate comparison for most people who will upgrade. But I can’t help but wish for far greater capabilities to go with the far greater hardware.

October 21, 2014

5.5 Million Macs

Speaking of Apple’s quarterly results, how about those Mac sales figures? The iPad may be weak right now, but never have so many Macs been sold in a single quarter.

This is fascinating, especially when you consider that Macs — particularly the MacBook lines, which have traditionally been the strongest sellers — haven’t really been updated this year. Both received only relatively minor spec bumps and pricing adjustments. The back to school promotion was also the same this year as it was in previous years. I can’t think of a specific impetus for such a surge; the surge simply exists. As I said: fascinating.

iPad Air 2 Benchmarked

While Apple is currently busy with their slightly depressing iPad sales figures for the sixth quarter in a row, the iPad itself is stronger than ever, and by a huge spec margin. The iPad Air 2 scores as well on Geekbench tests as an early 2011 MacBook Pro.

Even better, Apple doubled the iPad’s RAM, which should mean that you’ll be able to keep more than three Safari tabs in memory at the same time.

In all seriousness, the embargo has lifted and the early reviews are very positive. Nilay Patel, the Verge:

Pick up an iPad Air 2 and you’ll immediately understand why Apple pursues that thinness with such single-minded zeal. It’s so, so thin: 18 percent thinner than the older Air, and even slightly lighter. It’s hard to believe that there’s a computer back there, let alone a computer as powerful than the laptop computers of just a few years ago. If there is anything magical about this new iPad it is this, this feeling of impossibility. The Air 2 makes the original iPad look and feel archaic, like a horrible monster from a long-forgotten past.

It’s decidedly iterative, but the display seems to be significantly improved. It’s now laminated, which I’m sort of surprised hasn’t happened before.

What’s different about the iPad Air and Mini this year is that they are different. Last year, Apple made a big point about how the Air and Mini were identical aside from the size of the display.1 This year, the Mini simply gets a gold model and Touch ID. That makes the $299 iPad Mini 22 the bargain of the century. Touch ID is really, really nice, but it isn’t worth $100 to me. You may disagree.

The iterative iPad improvements this year combined with several lacklustre quarters for the product aren’t going to give investors much confidence in its future, but I still think there’s a place for it. The hardware improvements in the Air 2 will hopefully make way for powerful software enhancements in the future. It’s not going away any time soon; Apple has just had its priorities elsewhere for the past year, and it shows.

  1. Though, reviewers found the display gamut of the Mini to be much, much lower and the SoC to run slightly slower, but never mind that. 

  2. Apple sorely needs a better way of differentiating iPad models, especially if they do, indeed, launch the large 12.9″ model next year. Imagine a lineup in 2016 that consists of iPad Mini 3, 4, and 5, iPad Air 2, 3, and 4, and iPad Air Plus 1, 2, and 3. Maybe they’ll give people a free aspirin when they enter a retail store to make their selection. 

iTunes 12’s New Interface

Federico Viticci of MacStories really doesn’t like the new iTunes’ UI:

I don’t understand most of the changes that went into the iTunes 12 interface: from the lack of a sidebar to the new tabs for navigation and separation of media types and iTunes Store, I feel completely lost using the new iTunes.

Neither does Marco Arment:

Of all of the complaints people had about iTunes… is anyone ever asking them to dramatically revamp the window layout and hide everything?

I, oddly, disagree. I actually think the new iTunes UI is extremely effective. I think the separation of views based on media type makes a lot of sense, and that the sidebar was never really a great idea in such a complex app. When you’re browsing through movies, for example, you probably don’t need to see your music playlists. The two live in separate realms.

Of course, the tenability of having so many media types shoehorned into iTunes over the years is a different matter altogether. I’ve previously argued — and I stand by this — that the all-in-one solution is the least worst option for iTunes. It’s not the best, but it would be more convoluted to have separate apps for managing music, movies, apps, and podcasts, for buying all of those things, and for syncing them. That’s too many things. The isolation of iBooks into its own app in Mavericks is a good illustration of just how confusing this is: iTunes syncs books, but you buy and manage them in iBooks. Confusing.

October 20, 2014

Apple Updates iWork Suite

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Because this iWork update isn’t available for Mavericks users, iWork files created on Yosemite are backwards incompatible. There is a setting to change this, but then you lose Dropbox compatibility.

iCloud’s Reliability and Trustworthiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 17, 2014

The Retina iMac

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

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

John Siracusa’s OS X Yosemite Review

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

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

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

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

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

Regarding Handoff:

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

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

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

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

Regarding iCloud Drive:

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

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

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

Regarding Activity Monitor:

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


October 16, 2014


Roberto Baldwin,1 of the Next Web:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 15, 2014

Keynote Eve Jitters

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

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

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

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

October 14, 2014

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

Juli Clover, Macrumors:

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

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

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

October 13, 2014


Geoffrey Goetz, GigaOm:

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

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

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

October 10, 2014


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

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

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

This is so great.

October 9, 2014

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

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

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

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

Happily, Nadella apparently saw the error in his words:

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

This, too, is refreshingly honest.

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

Microsoft Issues More Comprehensive Diversity Report

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

I have the best readers.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

October 8, 2014

The Magazine is Closing

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

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

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

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

October 7, 2014

iOS 8 Adoption Stagnates

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

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

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

October 5, 2014

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

Mikey Campbell, AppleInsider:

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

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

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

However, this suit seems farcical. Campbell, continued:

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

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

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

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

October 2, 2014

iPhone 6 Looks

Khoi Vinh:

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fanboys, I Weep For Your Souls”

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

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

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

September 30, 2014

The Story Behind the Cube

Vicky Ward, New York magazine:

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

Holder Lovejoy

Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

Windows X

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

*scrunches brows; checks old timey newspaper print*

Wait, it’s Windows 10? Not X?

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

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


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

Paste on the command line? Sweet.

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

Continuity, erm, Continuum sounds swell.

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

Google and the Right to Be Forgotten

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

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

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

September 27, 2014

How to See Your iOS 8 Health Data

Anand Sharma:

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

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

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

September 26, 2014

Most OS X Users Safe From Shellshock

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

September 25, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

Giant Gaping Security Chasms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

iOS 8.0.1 Workaround for Loss of Cell Service, Touch ID

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

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

September 24, 2014


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

September 22, 2014

First Weekend iPhone 6 Sales Top 10 Million

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

September 20, 2014

Ars Technica’s iOS 8 Review

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

Rene Ritchie’s iOS 8 Review

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

iOS 8 Review Updates

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

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

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

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

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

On Siri:

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

On the Tips app:

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

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

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

And about Settings:

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

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

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

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

September 18, 2014

Austin Mann Reviews the iPhone 6 Plus’ Camera

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

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

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

Shot with AvgCamPro, unedited.

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

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

Apple: Privacy

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

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

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

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

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

September 17, 2014

iOS 8: The Pixel Envy Review

The Pixel Envy Review of iOS 8

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

User Interface

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

Home Screen

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

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

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

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

Recent Contacts

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

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

Control Centre

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Safari on iPad.
Safari on iPad

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

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

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

…into this:

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


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

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


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

iPhemeral (Groan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Messages details view


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

Group Chat

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


iCloud Photo Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Management and Editing

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Phone Features on Your Not-iPhone

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile Hotspot

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

What a pain in the ass.

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


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

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

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

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


Hitting the Bluetooth Limit

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

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

iCloud Drive

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

App Extensions

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

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

There are six flavours of extensions afforded to developers:

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

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


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

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

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

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

Share extension
Share extension
Share extension

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


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

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

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

Third-Party Storage

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

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

Photo Editing

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

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

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

Notification Centre Widgets

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Extensions, Overall

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

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

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

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

App Store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Touch ID

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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