Showing all posts tagged ios:

Thoughts about WWDC '17

First of all, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way; no new iPhone was announced. I was not necessarily expecting one to show up - that seems more suited to a September event, unless there were specific iOS features that were enabled by new hardware and that developers needed to know about.

We did get a whole ton of new features for iOS 11 (it goes up to eleven!), but many of them were aimed squarely at the iPad. With no new iPhone, the iPad got most of the new product glory, sharing only with the iMac Pro and the HomePod (awful name, by the way).

On that note, some people were confused by the iMac Pro, but Apple has helpfully clarified that there is also going to be a Mac Pro and external displays to go with it:

In addition to the new iMac Pro, Apple is working on a completely redesigned, next-generation Mac Pro architected for pro customers who need the highest-end, high-throughput system in a modular design, as well as a new high-end pro display.

I doubt I will ever buy a desktop Mac again, except possibly if Apple ever updates the Mac mini, so this is all kind of academic for me - although I really hope the dark-coloured wireless extended keyboard from the iMac Pro will also be available for standalone purchase.

What I am really excited about is the new 10.5" iPad Pro and the attendant features in iOS 111. The 12.9" is too big for my use case (lots of travel), and the 9.7" Pro always looked like a placeholder device to me. Now we have a full lineup, with the 9.7" non-Pro iPad significantly different from the 10.5" iPad Pro, and the 12.9" iPad Pro there for people who really need the larger size - or maybe just don’t travel with their iPad quite as much as I do.

My current iPad (an Air 2) is my main personal device apart from my iPhone. The MacBook Pro is my work device, and opening it up puts me in "work mode", which is not always a good thing. On the iPad, I do a ton of reading, but I also create a fair amount of content. The on-screen keyboard and various third-party soft-tip styluses (styli?) work fine, but they’re not ideal, and so I have lusted after an iPad Pro for a while now. However, between the lack of sufficient hardware differentiation compared to what I have2, and lack of software support for productivity, I never felt compelled to take the plunge.

Now, I can’t wait to get my hands on an iPad Pro 10.5".

I already use features like the sidebar and side-by-side multitasking, but what iOS 11 brings is an order of magnitude beyond - especially with the ability to drag & drop between applications. Right now, while I may build an outline of a document on my iPad, I rarely do the whole thing there, because it is just so painful to do any complex work involving multiple switches between applications - so I end up doing all of that on my Mac.

The problem is that there is a friction in working with a Mac; I need (or feel that I need) longer stretches of time and more work-like environments to pull out my Mac. That friction is completely absent with an iPad; I am perfectly happy to get it out if I have more than a minute or so to myself, and there is plenty of room to work on an iPad in settings (such as, to pick an example at random, an economy seat on a short-haul flight) where there is simply no room to type on a Mac.

The new Files app also looks very promising. Sure, you can sort of do everything it does in a combination of iCloud Drive, Dropbox, and Google Drive, and I do - but I always find myself hunting around for the latest revision, and then turning to the share sheet to get whatever I need to where I can actually work on it.

With iOS 11, it looks like the iPad will truly start delivering on its promise as (all together now) a creation device, not just a consumption device.

Ask me again six months from now…

And if you want more exhaustive analysis, Federico Viticci has you covered.


  1. Yes, there was also some talk about the Watch, but since I gave up on fitness tracking, I can't really see the point in that whole product line. That's not to say that it has no value, just that I don't see the value to me. It certainly seems to be the smartwatch to get if you want to get a smartwatch, but the problem with that proposition is that I don't particularly want any smartwatch. 

  2. To me this is the explanation for the 13 straight quarters of iPad sales drop: an older iPad is still a very capable device, and outside of very specific use cases, or people upgrading from something like an iPad 2 or 3, there hasn’t been a compelling reason to upgrade - yet. For me at least, that compelling reason has arrived, with the combination of 10.5" iPad Pro and iOS 11. After the holiday quarter, I suppose we will find out how many people feel the same way. 

Updating the Car

As I mentioned in my one-year review of my car, the one aftermarket upgrade I made was to swap the rather dated factory ICE for a CarPlay head unit. That modification is itself now about a year into its service, so it is also about due a review.

The reason for the upgrade is that the factory PCM 2.1 unit was really showing its age, with no USB, Bluetooth, or even Aux-in. In other words, Porsche were way ahead of Apple in removing the headphone jack… Courage!

This meant it was not possible to connect my phone to the car. Instead, I had a second SIM card which lived in the dash itself, and a curly-cord handset in the armrest between the front seats. Very retro, but not the most practical solution.

The worst part, though, was the near decade-old maps. While we do have some roads around here that are a couple of thousand years old, lots of them are quite a bit newer, and even on the Roman roads, it’s important to know about one-way systems and traffic restrictions.

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My solution for these problems was to swap the PCM 2.1 system for a head unit that is basically just a dumb screen driven by an iPhone, with no functionality of its own beyond a FM tuner. The reason is that I change phones much more frequently than I change cars, and upgrade the software on my phone more frequently than that.

The specific device is an Alpine ILX-007, and I am quite satisfied with it. It has a decent screen, which seems to be one of the key complaints people have about other CarPlay systems. There is occasionally a little lag, but I assume that’s software rather than hardware, since it’s not reproducible. It did crash on me once, losing my radio presets, but that’s it.

Upgrades

Adding this system to my car has been a substantial upgrade. I have all my music, podcasts and so on immediately available, I can make phone calls, and there is even a dedicated button to talk to Siri. I use this a lot to add reminders to myself while driving, as well as obvious stuff like calling people.

Siri also reads messages that come in while the phone is in CarPlay mode, which is occasionally hilarious when she tries to read something written in a language other than English. On the other hand Siri handles emoji pretty well, reading their name (e.g. "face blowing kisses"), which is very effective at getting the meaning across - although it’s a bit disconcerting the first time it happens!

Contrary to my early fears about CarPlay, it works perfectly with my steering-wheel controls too, so ergonomics are great.

The main win though is that my in-car entertainment now benefits from iOS upgrades in a big way. In particular, iOS 10 brings a redesigned Music screen and a major update to Maps.

Show me around

The Music screen used to have five tabs, which is way too many to navigate while driving. The new version has three tabs, and is generally much clearer to use. I don’t use Apple Music, and one of the things that I hated about the old version was that it would default to the Apple Music tab. The biggest reason why I don’t use streaming services like Apple Music is that the only time I really get to listen to music is while I’m out and about. That means either in aeroplanes, where connectivity is generally entirely absent, or in the car, where it is unreliable and expensive. Therefore, I only listen to music stored locally on my phone, but I had to switch away each and every time I launched the Music app. iOS 10 fixes that.

The biggest change iOS 10 brings to the CarPlay experience is to Maps. Many people have pointed out that Maps will now add a waypoint when the iPhone is disconnected from the car, so that drivers can easily retrace their steps to their parked car. I have to admit that I have never lost my car, but it’s good to know that it’s, say, ten minutes’ walk away when it’s raining.

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There are also updated graphics, which are much clearer to read in a hurry. These are not just limited to pretty icons, though; there is actual improved functionality. Previously, users had to switch manually between separate Overview and Detail modes. Annoyingly, there was a significant gap between the greatest zoom on Overview and the widest area on Detail. Also, Detail did not include traffic alerts, while Overview by default showed the entire route, not just currently relevant parts, so a typical journey required a fair amount of switching back and forth between modes.

The new Maps zooms gradually over the course of the journey, always showing current position near one edge of the screen and destination near another edge. This is much more useful, allowing the driver to focus on alerts that are coming up rather than being distracted by ones that are already passed. There is also more intelligence about proposing alternate routes around congestion.

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And yes, Maps works perfectly well for me, thank you. I would probably use it anyway given that, as the system-level mapping service, it plugs into everything, so I can quickly get directions to my next appointment from the calendar or go to a contact’s home or office address. The search could still be better, requiring very precise phrasing, but contrary to Maps’ reputation out there, landmarks generally exist and are in the correct place.

I am on record as an Apple Maps fan even in the early days, and it’s improved enormously since then. Don’t believe the hype, give it a go.

The integration is a big deal, as I saw last Wednesday. I was supposed to meet a colleague out and about, so I used Messages to send him my current location. To be extra sure, I chose the actual restaurant I was in, rather than just my GPS location. All my colleague needed to do was to tap on the location in the chat to be routed to my location. Unfortunately, he is one of those who prefer Google Maps, so he eyeballed the pin location and entered that in Google Maps. Unfortunately for him, the location he eyeballed turned out to correspond to a chain, and Google in its eagerness to give a result (any result) gave him the location of the nearest branch of that chain, rather than the specific location I was near.

It all worked out in the end, after a half-hour detour and a second taxi trip…

Trust the system, it works.

The System Works

This is exactly why I got a CarPlay unit in the first place: so I would get updates in the car more frequently than every few years when I get a whole new car. So far, that’s working out just perfectly. The iOS 10 upgrade cleaned up some annoyances and added convenient new features without requiring me to rip out all my dashboard wiring. I won’t consider another car without CarPlay support.

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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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!

In which I make a Discovery

Everyone who cares probably knew this already, but I just discovered something cool with iOS multitasking.

If you have an iPad Air 2 or an iPad Pro, you can run two apps side by side on the screen. I was doing this so that I could listen to music via YouTube while twittering, because Apple in their wisdom mute Safari if it's backgrounded. You have to do proper multi-tasking, not just slide-over, which is why this only works on those two models.

I was already pretty happy with my solution, devoting untold amounts of innovation and computing horsepower to wasting time more efficiently than ever before - and then I clicked on a link in Twitter, and a whole new world of possibilities opened up to me.

Now normally if you click a link in Twitter for iOS when it's running in full-screen mode, the linked page opens in an embedded mini-browser, which is of course the Wrong Thing.

If on the other hand you click a link while Twitter is running side by side with Safari, the linked page opens directly in a new Safari tab!

Amazing, right? Right?

Okay, this is a pretty niche use case, but it makes me unreasonably happy. I hope this post is useful to someone else, too.

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.

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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. 

More Thoughts on Ad Blocking

Last week brought iOS 9, and with it the long-awaited support for ad blockers in Safari.

I am not really comfortable with the idea of blocking ads; while it was more or less a requirement to block the worst excesses a decade or so ago if you wanted any sort of usable web experience, on the desktop at least that is no longer the case. It's an open question how much of this is due to adtech providers giving up on their most obnoxious tricks, how much to features like popup-blocking being built in to all major browsers, and how much to ad blocking on the wetware - simply ignoring most of the ads that are served to me.

It's another story on mobile.

Part of the problem is the ad networks themselves. Print publications generally carry significant amounts of advertising, but because it's controlled by the publisher, the ads that make it into the magazines are typically relevant to readers and in line with the rest of the content. For an example of a magazine that gets this right, pick up a copy of Monocle. The ads are for the same sorts of brands that also come up in the editorial content, they are tasteful and well presented, and generally in line with the high production values of the rest of the magazine. The same goes for their advertorials - sorry, branded content: relevant, unforced, clearly signalled, and often actually interesting in their own right - at least if you're a Monocle reader.

Now name the last time you had an experience like that on the web.

You can't - because hardly any web sites choose their own ads. They all sign up with one or several of the big ad networks, and they will serve you whatever they feel is relevant - to their customers, regardless of what you are reading or watching at the time. This disconnect can lead to idiotic consequences, with the same products stalking you around the web even once you've already bought them, or even been prevented from buying them!

So how do we get out of this situation? Micropayments for content do not look like a practical solution, so what can be done to avoid either beggaring online outlets or giving up on protecting our eyeballs and cellphone bills from the worst excesses of advertisers?

If ad networks are the villains - can they also be our saviours? What if they started policing their own ads better, enforcing "polite" ads? At a minimum:

  • No auto playing audio or video

  • No movement or resizing

  • No pop ups

  • No redirects (I see this on mobile, presumably as a side effect of evading pop up blockers on desktop)

  • No faking UI elements (pretending to be an OS message)

  • No excessive size, measured as a percentage of the actual content

I would have no problem whitelisting that network. In fact, if they made a blocker that only allowed through ads that respected such a code of conduct? I'd install that blocker!

Pity it'll never happen. Instead, we will get some sort of buggy-whip-maker protection rule, and we'll just keep muddling along.


Image by Pablo GarciaSaldaña via Unsplash

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.

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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.

Problems that only affect me

It seems that iOS 8.3 changed something in the way multiple keyboards are handled. If you don't know, you can add keyboards to iOS from Settings > General > Keyboard. This is worth doing even if you only type in one language, because it's how you get access to the Emoji keyboard. Enabling multiple keyboards adds a little "globe" key between the numlock and dictation keys:

skitch.png

Simply tap that "globe" key once to switch to the next keyboard in the list, or hold it to see a menu and select the keyboard you want.

The advantage of having multiple keyboards is that it enables predictive text to work in other languages. It also allows you to choose alternative layouts, e.g. AZERTY for French, QWERTZ for German, or QZERTY for Italian - but I find that confuses me more. Luckily, iOS lets you set all keyboards to use QWERTY.

Now, here's the problem. Before 8.3, if you had a primary keyboard (generally corresponding to your locale), you could switch to another language to type some text. The next time you hit the key, as long as it was within a reasonably short period of time, it would switch you back to your default keyboard. This is great for me, as I type mainly in English, but switch to other languages several times a day.

With 8.3 this behaviour has gone, and the "globe" key always switches to the next keyboard in the list.

This change is probably invisible to almost everyone, and only a minor irritant for those few of us who use multiple input languages frequently, but it is surprisingly annoying when you are used to the old way of things.

I can even understand the rationale, as I have seen people get confused by why the switcher would sometimes go to the next keyboard but at other times revert to the default - but the solution there is to give us preference settings to disable the behaviour entirely or change its timeout. I don't even mind if it's turned off by default, as long as I can turn it back on - but that's not the Apple way.

Sigh.