Showing all posts tagged ios:

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.

It's the little things

One of the things that make it most frustrating to use the web from an iPhone is form inputs. Reading the content is generally doable - and if not, there's always Instapaper. But form inputs are always a pain. Partly this is because they're over-styled, so you get stuck with fields that are either tiny or huge. Sure, testing that sort of stuff gets annoying fast. What about the stuff that is easy to do right, though?

One of the things the iPhone does is to show the user a different keyboard depending on the context. If the entry point is in an email address, the keyboard shows characters that are used in email addresses - the @ mark, dashes and underscores, and so on - instead of the space. If it's a phone number, you get a numeric keypad. This makes life much easier.

All of this is driven by the type of the HTML input element. Set it to email, tel or whatever, and let iOS do its thing. But no, nobody bothers to set their input element type, so iPhone users are switching back and forth, hunting and pecking, and all the time hating web developers so very, very much.

And that's just one tip for this useful list of
8 HTML Elements You’re Not Using (and Should Be)
. Go, and do ye likewise.

Apple opens up OS X Beta Seed Program

Apple has always made beta version of its operating systems (both MacOS and iOS) available to registered developers. What was not widely known is that there was also an invitation-only programme for non-developers to get access to pre-release versions of the OSen. This programme has now been opened up for anyone to join.

mavericks_x-9e0a3577ef5cc95c581f680824ca1947.png

Here is the link - but I hope you won’t sign up.

Why?

Remember iOS 7? Before the thing was even out, it was being lambasted in the press - including the mainstream press - for being buggy and even bricking people’s phones. It turned out that the “bricking" was simply the built-in auto-expiry of the beta versions. Non-developers who had somehow got hold of an early beta but had not kept up with newer version found out the hard way that betas expire after some time. Also, being beta versions, the quality of the software was - guess what? - not up to release standard yet.

In light of that experience, I do wonder whether opening up OS X even further is a wise move on Apple’s part. I really hope that I don’t have to read on the BBC next week that OS X 10.9.9 is really buggy and unstable, or something equally inane.

Microsoft Office - on an iPad? SACRILEGE!

If you follow tech news at all - and if not, why are you here, Mum? - you know that Microsoft finally got around to releasing Office for iPad.

Within hours of the launch, Word became the most downloaded application for iPads in Apple's app store.

The Excel and Powerpoint apps were the third and fourth most popular free app downloads, respectively, in the store.

Note that the apps themselves are free, but advanced functionalities - such as, for instance, editing a document - require an Office 365 subscription. A Home Premium subscription to Office 365 is $99 / £80 per year, which is a lot for home users. Fair enough, many Office users will presumably get the subscription through their employer, but many companies still don’t have subscriptions, so that is hardly a universal solution.1

In contrast, new iPads get the iWork apps for free, and even for older ones the price was hardly prohibitive - I think it was less than $10 per app when I bought them. Lest you think that the iWork apps are limited, I have successfully used Pages to exchange documents with Word, with change tracking too. Numbers also works well with Excel files, including some pretty detailed models. Keynote falls down a bit, mainly because the iPad is lacking some fonts, but a small amount of fiddling can usually sort that out too. I would assume that the fonts issue will bite PowerPoint on the iPad too, anyway.

The main thing though is that Office on the iPad is just too little, too late. Microsoft should have released this at least two years ago. By then it was clear that the iPad was the tablet in business. Far from the lack of Office killing the iPad, the lack of iPad support seriously undermined Office!

Anyway, I will probably never even download it, despite being an Office power user2 on my Mac. I think it will do okay, simply because of the critical mass of Office users that still exists, but Microsoft missed their chance to own the iOS productivity market the way they own that market on PCs.


A more detailed treatment of the pricing issue:

Apple makes their money on hardware sales. Therefore, they can give away iWork for iOS by baking its development costs into the overall iOS development costs.

Google makes their money on targeted advertising. Therefore, they can give away Google Drive because they’re scraping documents and tailoring ad content as a result. That’s pretty creepy, and might be against your employer’s best practices for confidentiality of information.

Microsoft doesn’t make money on iPad hardware sales, nor do they scrape Office documents for ads. Therefore, they charge you money to use their software beyond the basics. Makes sense to me.

Makes sense to me too.


  1. Of course Microsoft may still make more money on Office this way by avoiding rampant piracy on the PC side. The question then becomes: what does this do to their market share? Part of the ubiquity of Microsoft was driven by wholesale piracy, especially among home users. 

  2. Well, Word and PowerPoint, at least. Us marketing types don’t use much Excel, as a rule. 

Platform wars are here again

This is great! It's like I'm back in my teens…

Twenty years ago I was having religious arguments with my friends about MacOS versus Windows. Some of these arguments even degenerated into snarking at each other in HTML comments inside school websites we were building… Fun times.

The thing is, for some reason we felt, in line with more professional and supposedly mature pundits, that the debate was about far more than which was the correct number of buttons on a mouse, or whether menus should be attached to the top of the screen as opposed to the tops of windows. No, we also had to pull in numbers, and not just megahertz or megabytes, but user numbers. Of course, as a Mac user, I felt this was unfair, because usually the Mac came out well behind in all these metrics. Subjectively, the 200 MHz PowerPC 604e machines I was playing around with at the time, running MacOS 7 and 8, certainly felt faster than the 200 MHz Pentium boxes with Windows 95, but that's hardly a benchmark. Still, it was funny that we were all so invested in our choices that instead of saying "huh, you like that flavour? good for you!" and getting on with it, we had to argue the point endlessly. Admittedly, cooperation was made harder by trying to develop websites together, because stuff that worked at home would break on my friend's machine and vice-versa, and not just when he used that blasted marquee tag either.

Now the same thing is going on again, except now it's iOS versus Android. Plenty of people seem to feel the need to pile on any mis-step by Apple or by iOS developers and point out the superiority of the "open" Android platform. I don't get this reaction at all. For one thing, many of these Issues, which look potentially fatal to Apple at the time, are tempests in tiny teacups. See for instance Mapsgate. I never had any problem with the new Maps, but then again, I'm hardly a power user. I did check out a few points of interest at the height of the brouhaha, just out of curiosity, and I didn't see any issues. Metro stops were in the right place, villages were correctly labelled and had all their streets, and directions were sensible.

If anything, the new Maps app was an improvement in the one area for which I rely on it most: traffic. See, in my commute there are a couple of points where I can go one way or another, depending on traffic. If traffic's moving, I just stay on the ring-road, but if it comes to a halt, it sometimes makes sense to take an alternative route via surface streets. The alternative routes can also get grid-locked, though, so what I do is to bring up Maps and check what traffic looks like in my immediate surroundings. The old Google-powered Maps app would take so long to load data that even the crawling traffic would carry me past the relevant turns, so I had to guess and hope. The new Maps app loads up almost instantly - on the same phone, with the same carrier - and lets me make an informed decision.

So one reason I'm still on the Apple side of the barricades twenty years and two platforms later (Classic MacOS > OSX > iOS) is that my subjective experience is still better than the alternatives. The funny thing is that this feels very familiar in another way too. For all the Sturm und Drang in Gizmodo comment threads, I only know one (1) passionate Android user. I know many who don't even know that their phone is running Android! I think this also explains those statistics that show that despite representing a relatively small percentage of the market, iOS devices still account for the vast majority of web traffic: iPhone and iPad owners bought their devices deliberately and use them a lot. Many Android users simply wanted a phone (often not even a smartphone) and ended up with an Android device by default. They never connect their phone to wifi, or install apps; they might use built-in Facebook clients and what-not, but many don't even do that.

Android and iOS simply serve different markets. As I suspect that I would not be happy with Android devices (especially to replace my iPad), many Android users have no wish to spend several times more to get an iPhone which is (for their use cases) no better. Can we just move on now, instead of hyper-scrutinising every breath an Apple executive takes and every move Apple's stock makes?