Showing all posts tagged apple:

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.

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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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Apple Watch

Since I’m in the US this week, I thought I’d go check out an Apple Watch.

You can’t just rock up at the Apple Store though - you need to make an appointment beforehand through Apple’s concierge service. I duly did this, and was greeted at the door by a blueshirt - by name!

The device itself was pretty cool - I particularly like the Watch with the Milanese Loop band - but the try-on experience was underwhelming. The watch you get to strap on is running a canned demo video, which is not interactive in any way. To test the applications, you have to use the Watches that are in the display units with the iPad controllers.

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The problem with this experience is that it doesn’t let you try the features I was most interested in: Glances, and the Taptic Engine. I was really curious about these two, and in fact I still am, since I didn’t get to check out either one.

Both of these features relate to notifications. The Taptic Engine is what generates the “tapping" sensation on your wrist that tells you that you have a notification in the first place. It can also be used for other things, such as giving you silent navigation directions. Meanwhile, the idea of Glances is that when you receive that notification on the Watch, you can rotate your wrist towards you, and the Watch wakes up and displays the notification on the screen. At this point you can either rotate your wrist away again, in which case the notification is dismissed, or start interacting with it in whatever way is appropriate.

Based on everything I’ve read and heard, I expect the main value of the Watch to be in its ability to help wearers process notifications. If you can take a quick look at your wrist to see whether a notification requires your immediate attention or not, that is much less disruptive (and rude!) than getting your phone out, unlocking it, and so on. However, I can’t tell how good the Watch actually is at doing that on the basis of a canned demo reel or interacting with stored notifications!

I have also seen some comments that the watch is sometimes slow to display the actual, y'know, watch face. The screen is off when you're not looking at it, but it's supposed to turn on when you rotate your wrist to look at the watch. This was something else that the try-on experience doesn't allow you to test.

I really hope Edition buyers get a more complete experience. Maybe I should have tried for that instead? I was after all conspicuously the only person in the Apple Store wearing a blazer…


If nothing else, one good thing that has come of the Watch is that Apple has redesigned its UK power adapter.

I really hope that when the Watch launches in continental Europe, that plug also gets redesigned. The US Apple power adapter, with its folding prongs, is definitely the best to carry around. The UK & European1 versions always seem like afterthoughts in comparison, sticking out and catching on things.


  1. Heavy fog in the Channel; Continent cut off. 

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:

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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.

Advertising

Sorry, sorry, just a little something in my eye…

There, I'm back. Isn't it noticeable that even if all the logos were covered, like some TV shows do, we would still know right away that this is an Apple ad?

Partly it's that they have the confidence not to fall back on speeds and feeds, like many other manufacturers. They remember that people don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

But mostly it's because this ad was obviously made by a real human being, someone who cares. This is why Apple ads actually get views on YouTube - 1.6 million for the video above, as of this moment.


UPDATE: Someone still didn't like the ad, though - and got righteously skewered by the Macalope for their pains.

No ad Apple produces will be considered up to the standard of the serial jerks who judge Apple ads. And every year someone proves that for us.

I should really wrap up some alfalfa or something for the Macalope, given the amount of entertainment the Horny One has given me over the years.