Showing all posts tagged ios:

In-App Drama

Everyone and their dog has followed the saga of Hey and Apple — but in case you missed some of the twists and turns, this is a decent recap from The Verge.

My own opinion can be summed up as follows: "Wait, a hundred bucks a year?1 For email? In 2020? Are you insane?" (We also discussed the Hey saga on the most recent episode of the Roll For Enterprise podcast.) In fact, I am far more interested in Bye, the Hey parody that promises to reply to all your email with insults.

That said, there are a couple of different aspects to this story that I think are worth looking at in more detail. One is the PR debacle that this whole saga has been for Apple, and the other is what any of it means for users.

PR Ju-Jitsu

The fact that all this drama went down in the week before WWDC, and at the very same time the EU opens antitrust investigations into Apple’s App Store practices, led many to wonder whether this could be some mastermind move to generate the sort of PR money can’t buy for an email app (because, again, email simply is not exciting in 2020. Ahem).

I don’t buy it. Oh, I am sure that the Hey team chose to launch the week before WWDC very consciously to get more attention, but they could never have expected Apple to approve their initial release, then reject a bug fix, and finally to be so ham-fisted in all of their subsequent moves. To be sure, David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH on Twitter, Hey and Basecamp cofounder) rode the PR wave masterfully, positioning himself as the David (ha!) to Apple’s Goliath. He was largely successful in this effort, judging by an entirely unscientific survey of my Twitter feed.

On the other hand, I am equally sure that Apple did not deliberately set out to pick a fight with a Twitter loudmouth in the week before the biggest event of their year. It does seem that they have been trying for some time to get more paid apps to use their own in-app-purchase (IAP) mechanism, and the reviewer(s) for Hey didn’t anticipate this level of blowback from one more enforcement decision in what is already a long list.

Apple PR did make some pretty heavy-handed and tone-deaf moves. At one point, a letter to Hey was apparently released to the press before it was sent to Hey, which is bad enough, but that letter contains language that DHH was easily able to present as a threat to his other apps in the App Store, which also do not use IAP:

Thank you for being an iOS app developer. We understand that Basecamp has developed a number of apps and many subsequent versions for the App Store for many years, and that the App Store has distributed millions of these apps to iOS users. These apps do not offer in-app purchase — and, consequently, have not contributed any revenue to the App Store over the last eight years. We are happy to continue to support you in your app business and offer you the solutions to provide your services for free — so long as you follow and respect the same App Store Review Guidelines and terms that all developers must follow.

To me this is not a threat, merely a statement of fact. Operating the App Store is not free, and Basecamp, by not offering IAP, has not contributed any revenue whatsoever to Apple.

Mob Tactics?

This is the key point: is Apple merely rent-seeking by attempting to extract their 30% cut from developers, or do they actually offer a service that is worth that overhead?

Ben Thompson has consistently been critical of the App Store’s regulations and their enforcement; in fact he goes so far as to consider it an antitrust issue, and made hay (or Hey) with this story:

I would go so far as to say that executives in the tech industry are more afraid of Apple in 2020 than they were of Microsoft two decades ago. App Store Review is such an absolute gatekeeper, and the number of ways that Apple can retaliate are so varied and hard to verify, that no one is willing to publicly breathe a word against the company — again, except for Basecamp. I wish I could prove this to you — the stories I have received the last few days tell the tale — but no one is willing to go on the record, to me or to regulators. The risk is too great, because Apple’s level of control, and willingness to use it, is so overwhelming. I wish I were exaggerating, but I’m not.

It’s certainly true that the App Store extracts rent from developers, but the key point is that it also adds substantial value. All of the coverage of Hey has focused on Apple and on developers, but I have not seen any significant discussion of the users’ point of view. Customers are more willing to engage with a single trusted intermediary like Apple than with vast numbers of unknown developers. Especially with subscriptions, which are notorious for being easy to start and difficult to impossible to cancel, Apple’s role in the process is invaluable.

The user experience is better because of Apple’s aggressive curation of the App Store experience, and users are more willing to take a chance on apps because of that curation, and because of the established trust relationship they already have with Apple.

Friction Is Traction

It’s easy for DHH to say that Apple is interposing itself between him and his customers. He would rather have a direct relationship with them, and keep the 30% for his bottom line. In his view, the App Store and IAP add unnecessary friction to the smooth transmission back and forth.

Here’s the thing, though: friction is not just a negative. If we remove all friction, we also lose all traction. Intermediaries like Apple add both friction and traction. The way they justify their 30% cut — the friction that DHH complains about — is by offering traction: the technical underpinnings of the App Store — hosting, payments, marketing, and so on — but also by enabling developers to take advantage of the trust that Apple has built up with its customers.

I am happy to have my credit card on file with Apple, so buying an app (or a book, or a film, or music back before I subscribed to Apple Music) is a one-click process. One of the reasons I trust Apple with my credit card is because they let me see and manage my subscriptions in one place, and they let me cancel them and even offer refunds of purchases simply and quickly. I have bought thousands of euros through Apple if you add up apps, books, and media; if I had had to register for each one of those purchases, and ask myself "do I trust this vendor not to scam me or just make my life difficult in some way?", I would not have bought nearly as much.

The restrictions that Apple imposes on iOS — no side-loading of apps outside the App Store, sandboxing of individual apps, Apple ID login — may annoy developers and power users, but they also lower the barrier to installing new apps, because those apps cannot mess up anything else, either deliberately or on purpose. People who have experienced Windows are trained to be extremely reluctant to install new apps; no such caution is needed on iOS, in large part due to Apple’s oversight.

None of this is to say that the App Store experience is perfect for users. I could definitely use better search, as scammy developers seem to be winning this round against Apple and have made searching within the App Store almost pointless. The review process itself needs to be more aggressive in my opinion; especially with my eldest now using the App Store, I have discovered a whole lot of scammy IAP practices! Even then, though, the parental controls built into iOS beat anything Google offers.

Hey Hey, Bye Bye

Personally I hope Apple gets a fright and figures out a better way to continue to give me what I like as a user, without developers feeling ripped off. And regardless, there is no way I am dropping a hundred bucks a year2 on email.


  1. And it turns out, shorter account names cost even more: "Ultra-short 2-character addresses like ab@hey.com are $999/year, and 3-character addresses like abc@hey.com are $349/year." I mean, genius business model, charge whatever the traffic will bear and so on, but I just can’t even. 

  2. In fairness, Hey are hardly the only ones at the super-premium end of the email market. Superhuman charges $30/month to improve your Gmail experience, although this review is pretty uncomplimentary

Note taking

It’s been ten years since the launch of the iPad, so it seems appropriate to reflect back on what effect it has had. The two best retrospectives that I’ve read are by Federico Viticci and Steven Sinofsky.

Personally, I’ve owned three iPads; the original squared-off one was more a proof-of-concept than a fully-fledged device, but I loved it to bits, and hung onto it until the first Retina iPad came out. Again, that was perhaps an early release and was quickly superseded, but I hung onto it until the Pro 10,5 tempted me with its keyboard cover and Pencil. Now I’m just waiting for the current Pro to be refreshed, especially as my keyboard cover appears to have died.

The input devices, whether keyboard or stylus, are what I really wanted to talk about in this post. My work involves a fair amount of note-taking, whether in a meeting, during a presentation, or while brainstorming, on my own or in a group. I find the iPad to be the ideal device in all these situations, but before explaining why, I need to take a step back.

Many people will tell you that there are all sorts of cognitive benefits to taking notes using pen and paper as opposed to an electronic device. Most articles you will find online link back to this study published with the Association for Psychological Science. I don’t have access to the actual paper, but here’s the abstract:

Taking notes on laptops rather than in longhand is increasingly common. Many researchers have suggested that laptop note taking is less effective than longhand note taking for learning. Prior studies have primarily focused on students’ capacity for multitasking and distraction when using laptops. The present research suggests that even when laptops are used solely to take notes, they may still be impairing learning because their use results in shallower processing. In three studies, we found that students who took notes on laptops performed worse on conceptual questions than students who took notes longhand. We show that whereas taking more notes can be beneficial, laptop note takers’ tendency to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in their own words is detrimental to learning.

I should admit up front that I fully agree with this study’s conclusions, based on my own empirical experience.

Laptops Are Not Good For Notes

The study examined students who took notes on laptops and compared them to students who took notes longhand. These two tools represent fundamentally different modes of thinking, and so it’s not surprising that the results are different. Laptops are linear, constraining users to interfaces that assume sequential text entry. They are great for editing, and for composition of certain types of content, but not great at enabling non-linear jumps and exceptions to structures. More complex options like mind-mapping software add cognitive load without guaranteed benefits. I certainly find I spend more time futzing with the map, especially when trying to follow someone else’s train of thought, than actually taking notes!

Distraction – and the Suspicion of Distraction

The study I mentioned above dismissed distraction as a concern, and certainly if you’re motivated, you’ll find ways to avoid distractions. I will note in passing that iPads are better than any laptop for avoiding distraction, simply because they default to showing a single app taking up the whole screen. Sure, you still get notifications, but those can be filtered out more easily than on a laptop. Almost equally important, though, is the perception of distraction on the part of onlookers. The open laptop screen creates a barrier between speaker and note-taker, where it’s usually not possible for the speaker to know whether their counterpart is distracted by something else.

I actually ran into this back in the day. In the early years of the century I was the only person I knew using a stylus-equipped smartphone, a Sony-Ericsson P800 (and later a P990), and I would sometimes also use them to take notes in meetings.

The handwriting recognition was actually pretty decent (although I’ve never used an Apple Newton to compare the two), so this system worked pretty well. The one drawback was that I would get funny looks from other people in the meeting, and in fact once a more senior colleague told me to "stop playing with the phone" and demanded to see the screen before he would believe I wasn’t playing a game or something!

Write and Forget

The reason I was going to the effort of taking notes using a fairly rigid handwriting recognition system on a small screen is that, while it required a bit of effort in the moment, it made my life easier after the meeting, when I could quickly send notes via email, copy them into a CRM (Siebel or Salesforce), and search them and collate them with other interactions in the past.

Doing that with notes on paper is kind of hard. Notes that start life in electronic form make it trivial.

Back to the iPad

The iPad is the perfect device for all of these reasons and more. Using the Pencil, I can take notes freeform, without worrying too much about context. I can circle things, draw arrows, insert diagrams, and even drop in a photograph I took of a speaker’s slide – and then write and draw on that.

By taking notes like this, I keep all the cognitive benefits of taking notes on paper, but all the notes I take can also be tagged and searched, so that I can easily refer back to them and link them together. An additional benefit is that it’s trivial to share those notes with others after the fact.

Finally, I can do all of this with the iPad flat on the table, without creating a barrier between me and someone I’m speaking to. If we’re face to face, we can even start sketching together, as we might have done in another age with the proverbial cocktail napkin.

The one thing that’s missing, in fact, is a collaborative version of this way of working. I’ve been in group meetings where we use a Google Doc as a combination of note taking and back-channel communications. This approach works best when there is one dedicated note-taker, who is advertised as such, so the speaker is comfortable with their constant typing. Other participants can then dip in and out as needed. It is possible to join in from an iPad, but it’s not ideal, and I would love something like a flexible shared canvas with textual notes pinned to it. Send me a beta code if you decided to build this, won’t you?

The User-Unfriendly Web

Why I love Reader mode in Safari – a tale in two screenshots.

Before:

I have to scroll down more than an entire screen to see even the first line of the text. This design is actively user-hostile.

After:

Much better! I still have the title and the sub-heading, but I can see the image and the first paragraph of the text. Result.

What is even better is configuring Safari to use Reader mode automatically on offending websites:

Just a pity I can’t do that on iOS; the setting is only available in the macOS version of Safari. Still, a guy can dream…


UPDATE: I was wrong! It is in fact possible to do the same thing on iOS; just hold down on the Reader Mode icon.

Not especially discoverable, perhaps, but very useful. In fact, since I found out about this, it turns out that the same thing works on desktop Safari.

Benefits of Integration

One of the most powerful memes in tech is the Innovator’s Dilemma. Professor Clayton Christensen’s theory posits moves from integrated products to modularised ones, driven by waves of innovation at different levels. The world of tech swings regularly between these poles of integration and modularisation. Sometimes the whole industry moves at once, as in the ongoing move away from modular desktop computers and towards all-in-one laptops, tablets, and hybrids of the two, with modularisation moving to other levels of the stack. At other times competing models are in play at the same time, with little agreement as to which is better.

Apple is often cited as a counter-example, the archetypal integrated company that defies the conventional wisdom of modularisation exemplified by the infinite variety of the Android platform. One counter-counter-example that often comes up is Maps, and I would like to take a moment to explore (sorry – not sorry) this point.

From launch, Apple Maps was derided as not just a failure, but an actively wrong and misguided choice by Apple. It even gets brought up as the ultimate negative example, as in this M G Siegler piece about Instagram data: "The data makes Apple Maps look like a pristine globe of information". Google had mapping and navigational data that were objectively better, the thinking went, so Apple should simply continue to adopt this external module within their own platform, regardless of consequences.

There is a philosophical aspect to this debate, of course, which may have more currency today than it did at the time. As the famous adage goes, if you’re not paying, you’re the product. Certainly with Google Maps, gathering and analysing users’ personal data was very much a key goal of Google’s, both for the altruistic reason of improving mapping and routing data, and for the more irritating one of contributing to the ever more detailed profiles it keeps of all of us in order to pitch us en masse to advertisers.1

Apple had never been entirely comfortable with this situation, and exacted large payments from Google in return for its privileged position within iOS.2 With the launch of iOS 6, Apple deprecated the use of Google’s data as a source for the built-in Maps application.

Note that Google’s own Maps app was never banned from Apple’s iOS or from its accompanying App Store.3 The difference between the systemwide Apple Maps and Google Maps (or any other third-party mapping app, for that matter) was the integration with all other apps that needed mapping data. In much the same way that tapping on a link would open the built-in Safari web browser, tapping on an address would open the built-in Apple Maps app. Using a third-party web browser, mapping app, or chat/IM or email client, required explicit action by the user each and every time.

Apple’s Walled Garden… Orchard?

Some users objected on grounds of principle to the deep integration of first-party apps and the consequent exclusion of third-party ones. Windows desktop operating systems had trained users to install any number of third-party utilities and widgets, either as replacements for system components or to extend native functionality. iOS did not work this way.

Apple had always preferred an integrated approach, producing both its own hardware and its own operating system ever since the original Apple ][, and complementing that with suites of its own applications. In the 90s I had an Apple StyleWriter printer attached to my Macintosh LC, which I interacted with through an Apple monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Displayed on that monitor was a ClarisWorks document, which was of course owned by Apple as well. Sure, it was possible to run Microsoft Office, and even (for a while) Internet Explorer. In fact, in the doldrums of the early 2000s, after the demise of Cyberdog, Apple’s first attempt at a web browser, and before the rise of Safari with OS X, Microsoft’s was the best browser option on the Mac.

This moment of dependence on third parties had its benefits – keeping the company alive at a very difficult time, for instance – but robbed Apple of ultimate control. As owners increasingly expected to be able to personalise the behaviour of their Macs with custom extensions, those systems became increasingly unstable. The introduction of OS X addressed many of those issues by replacing the creaking foundations of classic Mac OS with the Darwin kernel, but still gave users quite a lot of control. When it came time to launch iOS, however, Apple’s pre-existing philosophical bent towards opinionated design combined with the very real limitations of the hardware of the day to produce a "walled garden" where only Apple’s apps would run. The original iPhone did not even have an App Store; instead, Apple envisioned that third-party functionality would be provided through web apps (never mind that EDGE connectivity was not really up to the job, even in 2006).

Play Nice In The Sandbox

Apple did eventually relent and allow third-party apps to run on iPhones, but always in a very controlled manner, with strict sandboxing preventing apps from interfering with each other. This separation also prevented apps from interacting with each other at all, to the point that copy&paste functionality only arrived on iOS with 3.0, released in 2009, and was heralded as a major innovation when it did.

Even then, Apple maintained strict control over core functionality, giving users no ability to replace the standard web browser, email client, to-do list, and more. The Maps app was also part of this list, but used third-party data from Google for its functionality. Tensions had been brewing over this arrangement for a couple of years already, with Google introducing turn-by-turn navigation on Android only, but they came to a head in 2012. What Apple did with iOS 6 was to replace the Google back-end to Apple Maps with its own home-grown data.

For Apple, the creation of its own mapping and routing data from scratch was a monumental undertaking, which unsurprisingly ran into some issues, especially in the early days. However, very soon I found the data to be perfectly usable in the real world, even where I live, very far from Silicon Valley, with all that entails.

That positive overall opinion does not mean that there were no annoyances. Apple Maps’ search function is very finicky, expecting names of streets and businesses to be entered exactly as written, and with an irritating tendency to provide a result, any result – even if it happens to be somewhere completely different, thousands of miles, several national borders, and sometimes even an ocean or two away. Surely some basic heuristic should be able to figure out that if I don’t specify that I want a far away result, I’m probably expecting one within a few tens of kilometres at most? This behaviour has improved over time, but is still present to a certain extent.

All apps have their foibles, and these days, the Big Three mapping services – Apple Maps, Google Maps, and Waze – are pretty close in their usability. Head-to-head comparisons reveal that Apple Maps gives the most accurate estimates of arrival times, while Waze over-promises the time savings from its shortcuts. As more and more people use Waze, those "shortcuts" are causing congestion on the suburban streets that drivers are being guided to use in place of the gridlocked highways.

So Do I Want Modular Or Integrated Maps?

Very few people make detailed comparisons of map data and navigation instructions. The main benefit people are looking for is usability. Can I tap on an address and get directions? If I connect my phone to my car, does it offer to give me directions to the next appointment in my calendar? Can I text my spouse with a detailed ETA based on actual traffic conditions?

In the modular world, such integration is harder to achieve, simply because each one of the different modules offers slightly different features, or different implementations of common features. Also, modules are constantly changing and evolving at different paces, or even disappearing entirely.

Google is the main advocate for the modular approach, and indeed often produces several competing apps and services for the very same functionality. Google Maps and Waze are increasingly overlapping with each other, for instance. Google Play Music and YouTube Music are equally hard to disentangle. And it seems that every other month brings either the launch of a new Google chat service, or the demise of one of the existing ones. In this situation, users are expected to swap modules around on a regular basis – and if the new module doesn’t offer the same functionality as the old one, or does so in a way that is different and breaks your workflow – well, tough!

For myself, I find the Apple approach preferable. When I invoke a voice assistant on my phone, I am happy to know that it’s Siri, not Alexa or Cortana or whatever Google’s assistant is called, and that my personal data are not being added to some advertising profile that is of no use to me – but that’s another rant for another day. Meanwhile, everything just works; iOS knows who my next calendar appointment is with, and that person's contact card has their office address – and so Maps can suggest a route to that address, as well as letting me easily tell my counterparts when I will arrive. Doing this with modular services is not impossible, but it takes more effort than the average person wants to deal with, while exposing them to a series of trade-offs, precisely because of the lack of separation between apps.

When it comes to maps, though, I have to add one last caveat: your mileage may vary (still not sorry).


🖼️ Photos by Capturing the human heart., Mike Enerio, and Alexander Popov on Unsplash


  1. Once again: no, Google does not "sell our data". What it does sell to advertisers is access to certain audiences, defined by their interests, demographics, etc. It is not in Google’s interest ever to sell the data themselves; those are Google’s crown jewels, and they make most of their money by renting access to the product – but never selling the actual data. 

  2. An arrangement that continues today, with Apple being handsomely compensated for keeping Google as the default search engine within iOS. 

  3. Until iOS 12 Apple Maps was the only mapping app allowed to use CarPlay, though. 

Apple Abroad

I am broadly bullish about Apple’s purchase of digital magazine subscription service Texture. I do however have concerns about Apple’s ability and willingness to deliver this service internationally. This concern is based on many past examples of Apple rolling out services to the US (and maybe UK) first, and the rest of the world only slowly, piecemeal, and according to no obvious or consistent logic.

Subscription hell is a real problem, and it creates a substantial barrier for users considering new subscriptions. Even if the financial element were removed, I have had to adopt a strict one-in, one-out policy for podcasts, because I simply don’t have enough hours in the day to listen to them all. (It doesn’t help when The Talk Show does one of its three-hour-long monster episodes, either.) Add a price component to that decision, and I’m even more reluctant to spend money on something I may not use enough to justify the cost. I would love to subscribe to the Financial Times and the Economist, but there is no way I could get through that much (excellent) writing, and they are pretty expensive subscriptions.

On the other hand, the idea of paying for one Netflix-style sub that includes a whole bunch of magazines, so that I can read what I want, seems pretty attractive on the surface. Even better if I can change the mix of consumption from one month (beach holiday) to the next (international business travel) without having to set up a whole bunch of new subs, with all the attendant friction.

Here’s the problem, though. Apple has form in releasing services in the US, and then only rolling them out internationally at a glacially slow pace. I realise that many commentators may not be aware of this issue, so let’s have a quick rundown, just off the top of my head.

News

Apple’s News app is still only officially available in the US, UK, and Australia. Luckily this restriction is pretty easy to fool by setting your iOS device to a region where it is supported, and there you go – the News app is now available on your home screen. Still, it seems an odd miss for what they regularly claim as a strategic service.

Siri on AppleTV

I have ranted before about the shameful lack of Siri on AppleTV, but this issue still hasn’t been resolved. Worse, the list of countries where Siri is available on AppleTV makes no sense. What concerns me, obviously, is the absence of Italy, especially when much smaller countries (the Netherlands? Norway?) are included, but there are other oddities. For instance, French is fine in France and Canada, but not in Belgium. Why? Quebec French is far more different than Belgian French. Also, Siri works just fine in way more countries and languages than are on that list, so it’s far from obvious why it’s not available on tvOS.

The worst is that it is not possible to get around this one, as the restriction is tied to the country where the user’s Apple ID is registered, and that in turn is tied inextricably to the credit card’s billing address. Short of registering a whole new credit card, if you live outside one of the blessed countries, you’re not going to be able to use the Siri remote for its intended function. Given that nobody likes that remote, and fully 20% of its button complement is dedicated to Siri, this limitation substantially detracts from the usage experience of what is already a pretty expensive device.

Apple Pay in Messages

As with Siri on tvOS, this is a weird restriction, given that Apple Pay works fine in many countries – but is not available in Messages. I could understand if this were a banking restriction, but why not enable payment in Apple Store vouchers? Given my monthly spend, I’d be happy to take the occasional bar tab in store credit, and put it towards my iCloud, Apple Music, other subscriptions, and occasional apps. But no, I’m not allowed to do that.

TV app

Returning to the TV theme, if you’re outside a fairly short list of countries, you are still using the old Video app on iOS and tvOS, not the new TV app. Given that the TV app was announced in October of 2016 and launched at the end of that year, this is a pretty long wait. It’s especially annoying if you regularly use both the iTunes Store and a local iTunes library, as those live in separate places, especially in light of the next item.

iTunes Store

Even when a service is available, that doesn’t mean it’s the same everywhere. One of the most glaring examples is that I still can’t buy TV shows through the Italian iTunes Store. I’m not quite sure why this is, unless it’s weird geographical licensing hangovers. Cable TV providers, Amazon, and Netflix all seem to have worked out licensing for simulcast with the US, though, so it is possible to solve this.

Movies are another problem, because even when they are available, sometimes (but not always!) the only audio track is the Italian dubbed version, which I do not want. Seriously, Apple – literally every DVD has multiple audio tracks; could you at least do the same with Movies in the iTunes Store?

And sometimes films or books simply aren’t available in the Italian store, but they are in the US store. It’s not a licensing issue, because Amazon carries them quite happily in both countries. A couple of times I have asked authors on Twitter whether they know what is going on, but they are just as mystified as I am.

It Works In My Country

There is a more complete list of iOS feature availability out there, and I would love if someone were able to explain the logic behind the different availability of seemingly similar functionality in certain countries – and the different lists of countries for seemingly identical features! Right now, Apple’s attitude seems to be a variation of the classic support response, “it works on my machine": “but it works in my country…".

And that’s why I worry about Apple’s supposed Texture-based revamp of Apple News: maybe it gets locked down so I can’t have it at all, or maybe it’s neutered so I can’t access the full selection of magazines, or some other annoyance. I just wish Apple would introduce an “International" region, where as long as you accept to do everything in English, they just give you full access and call it good, without making us jump through all these ridiculous hoops.

What's A Computer?

So there’s an Apple ad for the iPad Pro out there, which is titled "What’s a computer?". It’s embedded here, in case you’re like me and don’t see ads on TV.

tl;dr is that the video follows a young girl around as she does various things using her iPad Pro, signing a friend’s cast over FaceTime and sending a picture of it via Messages and so on.

It’s all very cute and it highlights the capabilities of the iPad Pro (and of iOS 11) very well.

However, there is a hidden subtext here, that only young people who grow up knowing only phones and tablets will come to think of them as their only devices in this way. Certainly it’s true of my kids; I no longer have any desktop computers in the house, so they have never seen one. There is a mac Mini media server, but it runs headless in a cupboard, so it hardly looks like a “computer". My wife and I have MacBooks, but they’re our work machines. My personal device is my iPad Pro.

My son actually just started computing classes in school this year, and was somewhat bemused to be faced with an external keyboard and mouse. At least they’ve moved on from CRTs since my day…

A Second Childhood

There is another group of users who have adopted the iPad enthusiastically, and that is older people. My mother used to invite me for lunch, and then casually mention that she "had some emails" for me to do. She would sit across the room from the computer and dictate to me, because she never felt comfortable doing anything on the infernal machine herself.

Since she got her first iPad a few years ago, she has not looked back. She is now a regular emailer – using the on-screen keyboard, no less, as I have not been able to persuade her to spring for a Pro yet. She surfs the web, comments on pictures of her grandchildren, keeps up with distant friends via Skype and Facebook, and even plays Sudoku.

That last point is particularly significant, as for people who grew up long before computers in homes, it is a major shift to embrace the frivolous nature of some (most?) of what we do on these devices.

None of this is to say that I disagree with Apple’s thesis in the ad. When it comes to computers, my own children only really know iPads first-hand. They see adults using laptops occasionally, and of course spending too much time on their phones, but they don’t get to use either of those devices themselves. As far as they are concerned, “computer" might as well mean "iPad".

I just think that they should do a Volume Two of that ad, featuring older people, and perhaps emphasising slightly different features - zoomed text, for instance, VoiceOver, or the many other assistive technologies built into iOS. Many older people are enthusiastic iPad users, but are not naturally inclined to upgrade, and so may still be using an iPad 2 or an original iPad mini. A campaign to showcase the benefits of the Pro could well get more of these users to upgrade - and that’s a win for everyone.

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).

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

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!