Showing all posts tagged apple:

What about those new Macs?

The progression is so established, it's now entirely predictable. Several times a year, Apple puts on an event to announce their latest hardware or software product - if indeed that is still a valid distinction, now that our devices are basically spimes already.

Even before the event, the leaks begin. Soon they are coming thick and fast - and hot on their heels are the think pieces, decrying how this time Apple have really lost it, and what can they be thinking in Cupertino?

Finally, the day of the event actually arrives. The actual hardware is greeted with yawns - after all, nearly-final pictures of the products have been available for weeks. Any surprises are limited to software - and even then, extended and increasingly public betas mean that it is only minor software that is actually still new by the time it is officially unveiled. The TV app is an example of an announcement that Apple managed to keep the lid on. Ultimately this was possible because it had no leaky supply chain of physical parts and accessories, and also no need to make a beta available to developers.

Finally, as the last lingering effects of the Reality Distortion Field fade, the post-event hangover begins. That’s when the Macalope starts rubbing his hooves together in glee because of all the wonderful source material that people create just for him to make fun of.

This time around, the major criticism appears to be that Apple are not making enough different devices to satisfy different use cases. The two new MacBook Pro models (with and without Touch Bar) do not have enough RAM or enough ports, or they should still have older ports and SD card slots instead of going over wholesale to USB-C, or whatever. Oh, and while they were at it, Apple should also have updated all of their other computers.

Newsflash: this is how Apple has always done things, at least this century. Android users have always criticised the iPhone for its limited storage options and complete lack of expandability or external connectivity. None of that criticism has stopped the iPhone from taking basically all of the profit in the smartphone market, propelling Apple to being either the biggest company in the world or a close runner-up, depending on exactly when you make your measurement.

And I have yet to need to charge my iPhone 7 while also using the Lightning-to-TRS adapter that came in the box. I have also literally never used the SD card slot on any of my MacBooks over the years.

There was a time when Apple did offer many different options - and it was a massive disaster that almost sank the company. Seriously, check out this table just listing out all of the different models that Apple had under the Performa sub-brand, and how they mapped to the almost-but-not-quite identical “professional" models sold under different names.

That image is from Riccardo Mori, who adds the following bit of context:

Yes, it is a crowded space. The strategy behind this offering seems to be “Let’s try to cover every possible point of the spectrum, with regard to form factor, expandability, target audience, etc." This of course led to confusion, because there were some Macintosh models just as powerful as others, but coming in a different shape, or with one less card slot or expansion bay. And also because there were many Macintosh models delivering a similar performance. There was a lot of differentiation and little differentiation at the same time, so to speak.

On top of the confusion just within Apple’s own line-up, this was the period when you could also buy a legitimate and authorised Macintosh clone. In other words, Macintosh buyers could buy exactly what they wanted, and no two Macs were alike.

Apple nearly died from the results. Once Steve Jobs returned, applied the paddles, and revived the business, he set about rationalising the product line-up, to the point that people joked that "Steve hates SKUs".

So Apple didn’t update the MacBook Air with a Retina screen? Big deal - the computer you want is the MacBook Pro without Touch Bar (known as the "MacBook Escape" to listeners of ATP), which has basically all the good bits from the Air and upgrades everything else. That’s for a 13" screen size; if you wanted the 10" option, the MacBook (aka "MacBook One" or "MacBook Adorable") is your ultra-portable design choice.

YES, these are more expensive devices - again, if you’re surprised, you have not been paying attention. Apple’s products have always been positioned at the premium end of the market, with a price tag to match. It is important to note that those prices are generally not completely out of touch with reality. While you certainly can buy cheaper phones or laptops, once an Android or Windows device is specced up to the same power and size as the Apple equivalent, the price is usually not too far off the Apple option. Apple famously burns people with the price of upgrades to RAM or storage, but again, they have been doing this since I was a Mac tech in high school, literally twenty years ago. This has always been part of their business model; it's not some unwelcome surprise that they only just sprang on people now.

Fundamentally, Apple does not believe in giving people too many options. They are famously opinionated in their product design, and if you’re after ultimate flexibility - well, these may not be the products for you. However, they are the right products for very many people, Apple has made moves like this for a very long time; remember the howls of derision and outrage when they first announced the original iMac with no floppy disk drive? Or remember the MacBook Air - only USB and wifi? And look at it now - basically the default laptop for everyone, if you count its many imitators. These days, even famously brick-like ThinkPads come with dongles, because they’re too thin to accomodate all ports!

On the other hand, the last time Apple tried to be flexible and accomodate too many different user populations, it almost killed them. Is it any wonder that they are doubling down on what worked?

Anyway, this is all academic for me as I’m not due to replace my "Early 2015" MacBook Pro for another year or so, so I will get to see how this Touch Bar thing works in practice - and then get the improved and updated second-generation Touch Bar.


UPDATE: Right after I posted the above, I came across an interview with Phil Schiller in the Independent. The whole thing is worth a read, but this line is particularly illuminating:

We know we made good decisions about what to build into the new MacBook Pro and that the result is the best notebook ever made, but it might not be right for everyone on day one. That’s okay, some people felt that way about the first iMac and that turned out pretty good.

That’s exactly it: Apple made decisions about how to make the best product in their opinion, while recognising that the result may not be perfect for everyone. The opposite of this approach would be that ridiculous - and mercifully stillborn - Project Ara phone design.

A Conversation about AppleTV

A frustrating conversation with AppleSupport over Twitter DM:

Me: I can't enable Siri on my AppleTV, despite language & locale being set to en-US. Is this because my iTunes Store account is tied to the Italian Store?

@AppleSupport: If your Apple ID is tied to the Italian Store, then Siri won't work for your Apple TV as it's not available in Italy at this time.

Me: Why? The whole OS is in English, and I only want Siri to speak English. Plus it works on iOS; why make tvOS different? It should key off language & locale, not where my credit card bills are sent.

@AppleSupport: If the feature isn't available to a specific country, then any Apple ID connected to the country will not be able to access the feature when it's used on the Apple TV. You can keep an eye on this article to see when Siri will be available for Italy under the 'Here's where you can use Siri' section: apple.co/1ppjfUB1

Ugh. This is classic Apple, not giving any explanation.

My assumption is that the limitation is precisely because my Apple ID ties me to the Italian iTunes Store, and to its catalogue. I have complained before about the problems this causes. The way this would affect Siri would be me saying: "Hey Siri, please play The Godfather" and Siri not being able to find it - because in the Italian iTunes Store it’s listed as Il Padrino.

The obvious solution is to let people choose which iTunes Store they want to purchase from, but I suspect this will never happen, for two reasons. One is that Apple is presumably constrained by the licenses from the content owners only to specific countries. In the same way, DVDs (remember DVDs?) were locked to specific regions, and multi-region DVD players were grey-market items.

The other reason is that mine is an edge case, shared only by a relatively small number of expats and other deracinated cosmopolitans. Edge cases that affect Apple employees and their testers get addressed quickly, as John Gruber and Serenity Caldwell discussed referring to the use case of multiple Watches connected to a single iPhone. Anything that does not affect those users? Wait and hope.

We saw the same thing around the initial roll-out of Maps, with high quality data for the Bay Area, and problems elsewhere. The first version of the Watch arguably had the same issue, with one entire physical control dedicated to a feature that was only useful to people all of whose friends were Watch users - not the best idea for a product whose appeal at launch was unclear, and most of whose buyers would be the first adopter in their circle of friends.

I suppose this is almost the definition of a first-world problem, but it’s still frustrating to me when Apple stumbles on something this easy to fix.2


  1. From that page: "Siri is currently available on Apple TV (4th generation) in these countries and languages: Australia (English), Canada (English, French), Germany (German), France (French), Mexico (Spanish), Netherlands (Dutch), Norway (Norwegian Bokmål), Japan (Japanese), Spain (Spanish), Sweden (Swedish), UK (English), US (English, Spanish)." Seriously? Dutch and Norwegian before Italian? NL population is 16.8 M, NO population is 5 M, and Italy is nearly 60 M - not counting Italian-speaking Switzerland. Maybe there’s less AppleTV penetration, but it’s not exactly a small market, and Siri has been able to speak Italian almost since launch. 

  2. My other pet peeve: the Control Center on iOS should allow users to 3D-Touch the wifi and Bluetooth controls to select networks and devices respectively. Especially for Bluetooth, the extra step of going into Settings > Bluetooth and waiting for the device to connect adds annoyance and friction when I just want to listen to a podcast or some music. 

Flattering Apple

It’s long been obvious that other phone1 manufacturers largely follow Apple’s lead. Phones used to look like all sorts of things, but now they all look like iPhones.

This is part of Apple’s modus operandi: they are never the first into a particular field, but they do tend to refine it, if not define it outright. They didn’t make the first personal computer, but they did make the one that influenced all the others. They didn’t make the first MP3 player, but can you even name one apart from the iPod? In the same way, they didn’t make the first mobile phone or even the first smartphone - but they refined both form and function in a way that instantly made everything else obsolete.

Some manufacturers of Android handsets at least make an effort to differentiate themselves, but most are pretty shameless, even copying advertising and packaging. However, most of the time they do at least go to the effort of tracing over Apple’s designs onto their own paper. Now Samsung has just given up, and submitted a patent application (for removable watch bands) which actually includes Apple’s own drawings of an Apple Watch!

This sort of thing goes on all the time - seriously, there are entire blogs just dedicated to documenting instances of Samsung shamelessly copying Apple.

Things have finally got to the point that a group of eminent designers has filed an amicus curiae brief documenting and explaining the negative impacts of this practice.

Well done to them, and I hope it helps. I don’t wish Samsung any ill, but the Android world needs its own identity. By all means copy ideas from Apple - every desktop GUI around (and many that are dead) follow conventions first set by Apple in the original Lisa and Macintosh2. The execution of the idea needs to be original, though.

I’m not saying there need to be gimmicks; if that sort of thing were useful, we’d all be using Windows phones, with those Live Tiles and dockable apps. I just wish there were more recognition that Apple makes choices for reasons, and others may wish to make different choices for different reasons.


  1. In 2016, they’re no longer smartphones, they’re just phones. 

  2. And of course Apple took ideas from Xerox PARC, and so on - but Apple took those ideas and adapted them to a vision that they already had, rather than just slavishly copying what the researchers at PARC had been doing. 

Send In The Clones

Since my last post rehashing ancient IT industry history seemed to go over well, here’s another one.

In that previous post, I used the story of the HP acquisition of Mercury and its rumoured impending spin-off as a cautionary tale about handling acquisitions correctly. There is never any lack of “fantasy M&A" going on in this industry, but one of the longest-running figures is Apple.

I’ve actually been a Mac user long enough that I can remember when the rumour of the week would be, not about whom Apple should buy, but about who was going to buy Apple. Would it be Dell? Would it be Sony? Would it be Silicon Graphics? Would it be Sun? Would it be IBM?

Twenty years later, that catalogue is ridiculous on the face of it. Only one of those companies even still meets the two core criteria, namely a) existence, and b) being a PC manufacturer. However, in the mid-90s, things were not at all rosy at Apple, and management was getting desperate. How desperate? They approved a programme that licensed the MacOS to other manufacturers, who could then make and sell their own fully-legal and -compatible MacOS computers.

As it happened, I had a front-row seat for all of this. In the mid-90s I was still in high school, but given that in Italy high school is a morning-only affair, I took on an afternoon job at the local Apple reseller. Unbeknownst to me, they had also just signed up to be the Italian reseller for UMAX, one of those MacOS clone makers (also known as SuperMac in the US).

UMAX had already been around for a while, and had made a name for themselves with a range of scanners that went from consumer-grade to very definitely pro-grade. The most expensive machine I dealt with was a $25k A3 flat-bed scanner with 9600 dpi optical resolution. Photographers and other graphic artists from all over Italy were already dealing with this company, so the value proposition of a cheaper Mac for their work was pretty obvious.

Where things got exciting was when performance of the UMAX machines started to overtake that of contemporary Macs. This was in the days of the Motorola/IBM PowerPC CPU, and Mac performance was already starting to suffer compared to contemporary Intel chips. Therefore, when UMAX brought to market a dual-604e motherboard, available with not one but two screaming-fast 200 MHz CPUs, this was big news - not least because they not only undercut the price of the equivalent PowerMac 9600, but beat it to market as well.

(Embarrassingly, I blew up the very first one of those machines to come to Italy. It had a power supply with a physical switch to change from 115v US-style power to the full-strength 230v juice we enjoy in Europe. I did check the switch before plugging in the cable, but BANG! Turned out, the switch was not properly connected on the inside of the PSU… Luckily, all that had blown was the power supply itself, not the irreplaceable motherboard, and we got it swapped out in double-quick time and nobody ever found out… until now.)

Anyway, this was all great fun for me, still in high school and all, and everyone was doing very well out of the arrangement - except for Apple. The licensing fee for MacOS that they were receiving did not even come close to replacing the profit they missed out on from all the lost sales of Apple hardware1. As soon as Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he killed the programme. UMAX was the last of the cloners to fall, managing to secure the only license to ship MacOS 8 (everyone else’s licenses ended with System 72), but the writing was on the wall. UMAX switched to making Wintel PCs - a market they since exited, reverting to their core strength of imaging products.

Today, a handful of dedicated people still build “hackintosh" computers from commodity parts, and then try to force OS X3 to run on them, with varying degrees of success. However, there is no officially sanctioned way of running OS X on any hardware not sold by Apple.


So, given this history and the results for Apple, why exactly do people feel the need to advise Apple to license iOS? Both the Macalope and Nick Heer of Pixel Envy have already done the hard work of eviscerating this wrong-headedness, but I couldn’t resist getting my own blow in.

First of all, iOS runs on its own system-on-a-chip (SoC) - currently, the A9 and A9X. Sure, this is based on the industry-standard ARMv8 architecture, but with substantial refinements added by Apple, which they would presumably be even more reluctant to license than iOS itself.

So let’s say Samsung or whoever either licenses the SoC design, or builds their own (not a trivial exercise in itself), install iOS, and sell the resulting device as the iGalaxy. Where are they going to position this frankenphone? It can’t be priced above Apple’s own offerings unless it brings something novel to the table.

What could that be? Maybe some device that spans the gap between Android and iOS? Well, here too, history can be our guide.

Back in my UMAX days, we did sell one very popular accessory. Basically it was a full-length PCI card with an entire x86 chipset and its own Intel CPU on it. Seriously, this thing was the biggest expansion board I have ever seen - the full width of the motherboard, so wide that it had a special support bracket in the case to prevent it sagging under its own weight. It also had its own CPU fan, of course, so it took up a fair amount of vertical space too. This allowed owners to run Windows on Intel side by side with MacOS on PowerPC, sharing a graphics card and input devices. Mind-blowing stuff in the mid-Nineties!

So in that vein, could a cloner conceivably sell a handset that could run Android apps natively side-by-side with iOS ones? Frankly, I doubt it. These days, it’s easier to emulate another platform, or just carry two phones. Maybe a few developers would be interested, but the market would be tiny.

It used to be the case that if you wanted a large phone (I refuse to call it a “phablet") you had to go with Android, because iPhones came in one size only. These days, Apple sells phones in a variety of sizes, from the small iPhone SE, through the standard iPhone, up to the iPhone Plus - so I can’t see the form factor being enough of a draw for people to go with a third-party device.

The only variable that’s left is price. Any iOS clone manufacturer would have to substantially undercut Apple’s cheapest devices to get sales. To do this, they would cut corners. By giving the device less RAM, or a non-Retina display, or less storage, or whatever, the cloners could lower the price point enough to get the initial sale - but Apple would be stuck with the horrible customer satisfaction issues from running on this below-par hardware.

That last point is particularly problematic because Apple’s entire business model is predicated upon taking, not the whole of the smartphone market, but the most profitable slice of it. One important consequence of this is that iOS is also the most profitable market for developers, because iOS users by definition have money to spend on apps. This is a virtuous circle for Apple, as the richer app ecosystem draws more users, which draws more development, and so on.4

If users - many of them first-time users, who are tempted into trying iOS by new low-cost clone devices - have a terrible experience, never buy apps, and replace their iOS device with an Android one as soon as they get the chance, that virtuous cycle turns vicious fast.

And that’s not even getting into the strategy tax Apple would be paying on other decisions. To cite another rumour that’s doing the rounds, could Apple drop the headphone jack from their own devices if there were cloners still manufacturing iOS devices that featured it? Maybe they could - but the decision would be much more fraught.

Bottom line, there is no iOS license fee that the cloners would pay that would also compensate Apple for both lost sales of their own hardware and for the wider market impact.

Apple tried this once, and it nearly killed them.

Can we please stop bringing up this idiotic idea now?5


  1. For more context from 1997, see here and search for “Why Apple Pulled the Plug". 

  2. What, you thought confusing name changes to Apple’s operating systems were a new thing? Hah. 

  3. See what I mean? Are we supposed to call it macOS already, or is it still OS X for now? So confused. 

  4. And of course Apple takes its cut from the App Store, too. 

  5. Of course not: when it comes to Apple, we’re always fighting the same battles

It’s Tough to be King

So what’s it like to live with the AppleTV? Have any of my complaints been addressed?

In a word: no.

I still don’t have access to Siri, for no good reason that I can determine. A couple of attempts to get a response from @AppleSupport over Twitter did not go anywhere.

In fact, things got even worse, as a software update added "hold to dictate" prompts everywhere, which of course do nothing for me.

Subtle hint for Apple: if the system language is English, and Siri supports English, Siri should be enabled.

Apart from that, the thing has been - fine. It’s a substantial update from the Apple TV 2 which I had before. Even the new remote (despite having one button - the voice prompt - that is completely useless to me) is better than the previous one. People complain that it’s too easy to end up holding it upside down, because it’s symmetrical, but in my experience the combination of the rougher surface of the touch pad and the double-height volume control is enough to keep me oriented.

Text input is terrible, but that’s pretty much inevitable without a keyboard - and that’s when I turn to the Remote app on iOS. I think it’s a safe enough bet that Apple TV owners will also have at least one iOS device lying around.

I can’t really comment on the games; I tried out a few, but the sad fact of the matter is that I’m just not that much of a gamer any more. Sure, Alto’s Adventure is fun, but if I hadn’t already owned it for iOS, I doubt I’d have bothered. I tried out a few racing sims, and didn’t even finish the free levels.

This probably says more about me than about the Apple TV’s capabilities as a gaming console. I’ve never been a console gamer in the first place; I was always a PC guy, preferring big sprawling RTS and sim games. The problem I have is not that those don’t translate to iOS (or tvOS), it’s that they require hours-long play sessions, and I just don’t have plural hours to spend gaming any more.

For my purposes - streaming from my local iTunes library, from the iTunes Store, and from YouTube - the Apple TV is fine. Most of the exciting cord-cuttery stuff isn’t available in my geo, and there just aren’t that many other categories of apps that make sense on a TV as opposed to on a phone or a tablet.

So what are you saying?

It’s not a flop, it’s a very capable fourth-generation device. It’s not transformative, but not every device has to be.

I am also coming in with low expectations, because even if Apple had somehow negotiated deals with content owners, I am certain that I would not have access to them in Italy. Seriously - we don’t even have visual voicemail over here. Forget about HBO or any of that stuff. Even what we do have, like Netflix, is crippled.

Much like iTunes and Apple Music, it’s perfectly fine for what it does. Could it be better? Sure. Should we demand more from Apple? Absolutely. But calling it a flop, a failure, a mess, an embarrassment? That’s going too far.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some YouTube to watch on my Apple TV.

Quick Text Shortcuts

I tend to assume that things I know are obvious and widely known, and so I don’t often bother to document them. However, I noticed that a couple of different people did not know this particular very useful trick, so I thought I would share it here for anyone else who might find it useful.

The trick (I refuse to call it a “hack", or even worse, a “life hack") is useful if you often need to type the same snippets of text on an Apple device, whether it’s an iPhone, an iPad, or a Mac. You can do this using only built-in tools from Apple, with no need to install additional components or mess with anything under the hood.

On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Keyboard > Text. Here you can create the shortcuts that will be useful to you. You should have one defined already, which replaces “omw" with “On my way!".

Simply click the + button at the bottom of the window to add your own snippets. I have a couple for my phone number and email address, so that I can simply type “mynum" or “mygmail" to have those appear, with no fear of typos.

This is of course even more useful on an iPhone, where the small keyboard can make it frustrating to type when you can’t rely on autocorrect - and doubly frustrating to type phone numbers in the middle of other text. On an iPhone (or an iPad), go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Text Replacement, and then tap the + to enter your own snippets.

The cherry on the cake of usefulness is that the text snippets will sync over iCloud, so any snippets you set up on one of your devices should be available on all your other devices too.

Enjoy!

Apple Bottom Drawer

There has been a long-running complaint that equipping the entry-level iPhone with only 16GB of storage is not only cheap, but wrong-headed because owners will have a bad user experience. Most of the time, the example people bring up is operating system upgrades, with people forced to stay on older iOS releases because they don’t have enough free space to perform the upgrade1.

As per their usual tight-lipped policy, Apple has not said anything about precisely why it is that they continue to keep the 16GB models around. The general assumption has been that the idea is to offer a (relatively) low entry price for the iPhone range to get as many people as possible through the door.

url.png

Today, though, I overheard a conversation that illustrated a different reason why Apple might want to increase the storage in that bottom-tier device sooner rather than later. Someone recommended an album, someone else searched for it on iTunes, hit “Buy" - and was told that they did not have enough space. When storage limits are preventing sales, this is a problem.

One obvious quibble would be to ask how many owners of entry-level devices spend significant sums in the iTunes Store (or would do if they had the free space available). This overlooks the fact that these days, a significant number of iPhones are actually corporate-owned or at least -funded. Because the owner is not the user, it is not possible to infer the user’s purchasing power or willingness based on the device they have. Companies may well opt for limited storage because that’s all that is required for work purposes, even though employees would be willing to fill additional space with personal data, given the chance.

Bottom line: it’s high time for the bottom storage tier to move up to 32GB. I would also argue that when they do this, Apple should eat the difference and not raise prices, because their margin is big enough and the parts cost is so small. The improvement in user experience would pay for itself in Tim Cook’s beloved “customer sat", without even allowing for increased revenue per user (ARPU) as people are able and willing to fill up some of that free space.


  1. Yes, I know that you can also upgrade by plugging into iTunes without needing the free space, but these days, many iPhone owners don’t come from the iPod experience and would not necessarily think of that. Many of them in fact don’t even have iTunes installed, or may not even own a PC or Mac in the first place. 

Apple TV Siri Annoyance

I finally got hold of my new Apple TV. The timing was not ideal, as it arrived on Monday - but I had left early on Monday morning for a week-long trip abroad, so I only got to set it up on Friday morning. I wasn’t exactly worried about spoilers, though, so I went ahead and read many of the early reaction reviews. My reaction was similar to what Michael Rockwell describes:

Reviews of the new Apple TV started showing up on Wednesday of last week with deliveries of the device starting to arrive on Friday. I wholeheartedly expected to see overwhelmingly positive reactions from reviewers and owners in my Twitter timeline. But what I saw instead was a barrage of complaints about what I'd consider to be relatively minuscule pain points about the experience.

url.png

The complaints I have seen focus mainly on text input. The issue is that all the letters are on a single row, so you end up swiping left and right a lot to enter text. This is somewhat mitigated by the super-easy initial setup, where the Apple TV simply asks you to place your phone near it and picks up your Apple ID, wifi settings, and so on from the phone. Inexplicably, it made me enter my Apple ID password again to set up Home Sharing, though, and the input process was indeed mildly annoying. However, at least in password fields the numbers and punctuation marks appear on a second row, and you can go up and down between rows without having to scroll all the way to the end, so IMHO it’s no worse than any other on-screen text input method. Also, you don’t really enter a lot of text after the initial setup process, so the pain is pretty contained.

On the old Apple TV you could get around the pain by using the Remote app on iOS, which then let you use your iPhone, or even better, your iPad’s soft keyboard to enter text. Unfortunately, the Remote app has not yet been updated to support the new Apple TV.

My own complaint is different. No matter what I do, Siri remains stubbornly disabled.

It seems that Apple have only made Siri available on the Apple TV in certain countries. At time of writing, the list is as follows:

  • English (Australia, Canada, UK, US)

  • German (Germany)

  • French (France)

  • Spanish (Spain)

  • Japanese (Japan)

I gather that this limitation is because they want to train Siri to pronounce media titles and artists’ names correctly for each locale. However, the way they have implemented it is, as I stated in my hot reaction tweet above, bullshit1.

I spent some time attempting to fool the Apple TV into enabling Siri by setting language and region combos that were supported, disabling Location Services, and so on. Nothing I tried got past it - it seems to be going exclusively by the country of the iTunes Store account, so I can choose whether to have Siri or the Store, but not both.

Why can’t big companies understand that some people live in Region A, but want their media from Locale B? If I set everything up to be in en-GB, you don’t need to worry about Siri mangling anything, because it will be speaking the Queen’s English2.

Unfortunately Apple is not new to this particular brand of bullshit1. The iTunes Store forces users to register to the country where their credit card bills are sent. This means that all the catalogues, curated selections, promotional offers and whatnot are specific to that country. In my case, I consume most of my media - books, films, music, etc. - in English, and so the front page of the Italian iTunes Store is utterly useless to me.

url.jpg

It gets worse, though. Sometimes something is not available to me for no apparent reason, even though it is in the UK or US iTunes Store, and available in Italy from other (legal) sources. There is of course never any explanation of why this might be. A few times I have asked writers if they could shed any light (thinking of ongoing international rights negotiations, that sort of thing), and none have yet had any answer - although all have been unfailingly polite and usually suggested alternatives.

The worst, though, is the subtle differences. Animation movies in general, and Pixar movies in particular, are often available in the iTunes Store with only one audio track, which is the Italian dub. If you buy the DVD you get the original English as well, but Apple in its wisdom will only sell you the dub - even though almost every other film in the Store has multiple audio tracks.

Just to be clear, this is not only Apple’s problem. Another recent offender is OpenTable. OpenTable does not operate in Italy, so reasonably enough, the app is not available in the Italian App Store. However, I spend a lot of time in regions where OpenTable is supported, and web apps on a phone are a faff, so I jumped the fence and got the app on my phone anyway. When I fired it up though, all it would do was to give me a snippy message about only being available in certain countries - despite the fact that I was standing in the middle of the capital city of one of those countries, within stone’s throw of a dozen restaurants that supported OpenTable.

I ended up eating at a restaurant that did not accept OpenTable, and enjoyed an excellent meal without their help.

Michael Rockwell is bullish about the software gremlins in the new Apple TV getting fixed soon:

I have high hopes, though. In a few short months, after Apple's shipped a software update or two, we'll no longer have quite as many criticisms to talk about. What we'll be left with is a well-crafted software platform that could revolutionize the way we think about our TVs, in much the same way the App Store has changed how we think about our telephone. As long as developers build incredible software and Apple continues to focus on improving the experience for users, this is going to be a big deal.

I wish I could be equally bullish about the bullshit1 regional policies being addressed equally soon, or indeed ever.


  1. Sorry about the swearing, but this really is bullshit. 

  2. Also known as “English (Traditional)" - as opposed to the “English (Simplified)" they have in the colonies… Don’t be afraid of the U, Americans - it won’t bite you! 

None

Crystal Will Not Kill Media

There’s been a lot of talk about content blocking lately, in the run up to the public release of iOS 9 with its built-in support for content-blocking Safari extensions. Straight from the horse’s mouth:

Content Blocking gives your extensions a fast and efficient way to block cookies, images, resources, pop-ups, and other content.

This is something people have been doing on the desktop for a long time. I used to run ad blockers myself, but as I wrote,

I feel that [ad blocking] meets my moral definition of theft. Companies put out content with the expectation of being paid for it, so it seems churlish at best for me to enjoy the content but refuse them the chance to make a fraction of a penny from their advertisers off my enjoyment. There is a line, but nowadays I am more likely simply not to visit offending sites than to try to bypass the ads.

click.jpg

Jean Louis Gaséee believes that the consequences of widespread ad blocking will be disastrous for media companies.

This is going to be painful for those whose ad-supported business model is in danger of breaking. There will be blood.

I think that may well be true. The current state of ad tech is not ideal, but it’s what we have, and what a lot of people are paying the bills with. However, while we have become used this state of affairs on our desktops, it’s a different story on mobile. On even a single-digit-Mbps home broadband connection, the additional impact on a page load of the ads, analytics and tracking muck is not hugely significant. Our fixed connections are fast and not really metered on a scale where we are watching the individual megabytes.

Neither of those factors holds true on mobile devices. There, connections are slow, unreliable, and strongly metered. Dean Murphy has created a pre-release iOS content blocking extension, and his benchmarks are eye-opening.

On average, pages loaded 3.9x faster with Crystal and used 53% less bandwidth. Just by having Crystal installed, I saved a total of 70 seconds and 35MB of data on these 10 pages.

On mobile, that’s huge. Everyone will want to install Crystal (or similar extensions) for those sorts of gains.

This is without even getting into some of the other aspects of ad tech. Privacy is the obvious one, although for most Muggles it doesn’t seem to be a huge priority. Nevertheless, if you want to scare yourself you can try using the Lightbeam add-on for Firefox to see just how much tracking is happening behind the scenes of even major web properties. That has been true for some time on desktop, though, and hasn’t caused any widespread outrage.

What is different on mobile, apart from connection speed and bandwidth constraints, is the interaction itself. Ads on the desktop take up a relatively small proportion of the screen real estate. On mobile, ads can take up the entire screen when loading the front page of popular web sites. Users have to scroll down an entire screen just to get to content!

In addition, users have been running their own content blockers on their wetware for a while now. I don’t even see standard ads any more, because I have developed reflexes that cause my eyes to scan right by them without ever taking them into my conscious awareness. To force their way past this problem, ad tech developers (one rung up from actual malware developers IMHO) have come up with all sorts of schemes, from interstitials, to CSS-based “popups" that hover in front of the content, to things that zoom out if you inadvertently roll your mouse cursor over them, and no doubt even more heinous variations are in the pipeline right now.

The thing is, on the desktop these things are only moderately annoying. I don’t have Flash installed on this machine, which already cuts down on the potential irritation, and the rest I deal with by simply not visiting especially grating web sites.

On mobile devices, these things are horrid. My wife, normally a sweet and well-mannered person, was reduced to incoherent rage this morning when an ad on a web site she was attempting to visit on her phone kept redirecting her to another site. This was no doubt intended as some sort of grey-area pop-up spawning thing, but iOS simply interpreted it as a straight redirect. Result? That website may have got the one visit and its ad-load, but it will never get another from either of us.

Bottom line? I will continue not to run content blockers on my Mac, but on iOS, I’m installing Crystal as soon as I get my hands on iOS 9.

After the initial period of pain, I don’t think it’ll even be as bad for publishers as they think it will be. I have no doubt that there will be disruption, and some of it will be painful. Some web sites will go down, and while my rational response is that they will be getting their comeuppance for a crappy business model, I do feel sympathy for the writers who will be out of a gig through no fault of their own.

My point is different: as with much of this Big Data nonsense, I have a sneaking suspicion that nobody is actually using any of the data that are collected. My personal experience bears this out. Sure, the gathered data are used in some limited sense, but no truly innovative deep analysis is carried out that you could not have done on the subscriber rolls of the Readers’ Digest back in the day. Dumber web advertising will do just fine without all the tracking and analytics that are de rigeur these days.

Relax and enjoy the resurgence of simple banner ads.


Image by kazuend via Unsplash

Wishing for a Wish List

Why does Apple hate wish lists so much?

The wish list is the main thing I miss since I fell out with Amazon and moved all of my media buying over to iTunes. Amazon not only has great management of its wish list, allowing you to sort it any way you like and highlighting deals, or sharing it with friends and family as suggestions; it also uses the contents of your wish list as inputs to its recommendation engine.

Over the decade or so that I used Amazon regularly, its recommendations grew to be uncannily accurate, alerting me to new books or albums that I might be interested in. The algorithm involved was clever enough to recommend not only new works by artists I had already bought from in the past, but also works by other artists I had not previously encountered. This was driven by their ability to identify that "other people who bought X also bought Y", based on their insight into all of our purchasing histories.

Of course this is a critical feature for Amazon, which explains why they spend so much time and effort on refining it. In fact, it was only when they messed with my wish list that I left in a huff.

I had continued to buy from Amazon’s UK site after leaving the UK, because with free shipping within the EU, it made no difference, while it allowed me to keep that all-important wish list history. A few years later, however, Amazon in their wisdom decided that many items would no longer be made available to ship outside the UK. Instead of simply tagging the items with a notice, they simply removed the items from users’ stored wish lists. In my case, this meant I lost nearly half of my wish list items.

I use wish lists as a way to spread out purchases or remind me of items that are due to come out in the future but that I am not committed enough to pre-order right away (or which may not yet be available to pre-order). Deleting half of my wish list in this high-handed way was enough for me to quit a triple-figure-per-month Amazon habit cold-turkey.

This coincided with the move to a new house, where even our existing media collections were overflowing the shelves once we had finished unpacking. The time was therefore ripe for a move to electronic content only, and given that I was cross with Amazon, Apple was the only real alternative.

It’s been a couple of years now, and I have not regretted it in any way. I adapted very quickly to reading on the iPad, and music and the occasional film are of course super-easy. There is only one glaring problem, and that is the utterly inconsistent handling of wish lists on the part of the Apple store apps.

iBooks app on iPhone - note lack of wish list button

The fact that it’s plural “apps" is a bit of a problem in its own right, actually. I have a Music app to listen to music, that I buy in the iTunes Store app. That is where I also buy videos, that I then watch in the Videos app. But if I want to buy books, I have to do that in a special tab of the iBooks app.

Historically this makes sense - iBooks came along much later than the rest of iTunes. But why the weird inconsistencies in when I can add something to my iTunes/iBooks wish lists? iBooks on iOS won’t allow this, but iBooks on the Mac will. On the other hand, iTunes on the Mac won’t let me add an album to my wish list, but the iTunes Store app on iOS will.

Same screen in iTunes Store app on iPhone - note "Add to Wish List" button

This is why I have a file in Notes with iTunes Store links to items that I wanted to add to my wish list, but couldn’t because I didn’t have access to the specific device that would let me do that at the time.

Workaround

This is admittedly a pretty minor niggle in the grand scheme of things, but I think it’s philosophically important for Apple to fix this inconsistency. It lies right at the heart of the iTunes ecosystem, and creates an unexpected and annoying discrepancy between MacOS and iOS platforms, and even between different devices on iOS.