iOS 12 Performance

25 July 2018

Apple:

Whether you’re using your iPhone or iPad, iOS has been enhanced for a faster and more responsive experience all around. Things you do all the time, like launching Camera and typing with the keyboard, happen faster than ever. And there are even more significant improvements when you’re doing a lot on your device at once. These enhancements improve performance on all supported devices, going all the way back to iPhone 5s and iPad Air.

It’s easy to gloss over this stuff as someone who buys new devices frequently, but if you’ve used the iOS 12 beta, the performance focuses of this release makes a difference — even on the iPhone X. The thing that I notice the most is the share sheet.

On iOS 11, pressing share meant waiting several seconds for the activity view controller to start rising up from the bottom of the screen. On iOS 12, the sheet displays instantly. Or at least, the appearance transition is instantaneous. The share sheet lazily loads the contents of its rows, so the OS feels responsive even if it hasn’t quite finished gathering all the third-party extension information that it needs. Occasionally, the sheet pops up and both the bottom rows are just displaying loading spinners. A beat later, the app icons and actions pop in. I assume this happens more often on slower hardware. Regardless, the difference is night and day. Showing something, and populating the complete data a couple seconds later, is so much better from a user experience standpoint than waiting for everything to be ready before starting to display the view.

The iOS 12 performance changes are a combination of these visual touch-ups and genuine speed optimisations. The share sheet is faster overall and presents its UI as soon as possible.

It’s sad that we ever got to a point where the keyboard can be shown 50% faster, but I’m thrilled to see these pain points addressed. It translates into meaningful, real-world, improvements. The overall reception to iOS 12 is going to be very positive because of it. It speaks volumes that performance is the first section on Apple’s iOS 12 features page.

The overhanging question about the focus on performance is whether it can be sustained. It’s great that these improvements are coming with this software cycle, but the impact is mostly moot if iOS 13 regresses and slows down older phones again. Apple has to make a concerted, ongoing, effort to maintain performance on all devices that the new OS versions support.

Ming-Chi Kuo Predicts Apple's Fall Hardware Announcements

12 July 2018

9to5Mac:

Here’s a roundup of what Kuo predicts Apple will ship this fall:

  • Per previous reports, three new iPhones includes an updated 5.8″ OLED model and a new 6.5″ OLED model, plus a new 6.1″ LCD model
  • Updated iPad Pro models with Face ID and no Home button with an updated 12.9″ version and a seemingly new 11″ version
  • Several Mac updates including chip upgrades for the MacBook, MacBook Pro, an iMac with “significant display-performance upgrades”, and finally the Mac mini
  • A new low-price notebook that Kuo now believes may not be called MacBook Air
  • Apple Watch updates with larger displays as previously reported, Kuo now specifies 1.57″ and 1.78″ screens with enhanced heart rate detection
  • Mass production for both AirPower and updated AirPods

I did a double-take when I saw that the Mac mini was mentioned at all, but I’m not singing Apple’s praises on this one quite yet. Kuo specifically states that the Mini will get a processor upgrade. A product that last got a refresh four years ago deserves more than a simple spec-bump. There’s a lot of creative potential for the Mini form factor. It should be like the hey-day of the iPod nano, where Apple would try out wildly-different styles with each generation. If there really are no fundamental design changes to the product, then the Mini will carry on being a neglected part of the lineup, just not so neglected that it is allowed to be on a modern processor architecture.

The new low-cost notebook with a Retina display sounds like a perfect replacement for the Air line, and Kuo is backing down from his previous allusions to this new laptop being branded as MacBook Air, but there is still unanswered justifications for how this new computer is differentiated from its 12-inch MacBook brethren. Based on the fact that Kuo says the 12-inch is getting a processor bump, it seems to me Apple will continue to position it as the ultra-portable. I do not think the $999 13-inch will go out of its way to compete on thinness and lightness; it will very much comprise an Air-esque form factor featuring a high-resolution glass-bezelled display. It’ll be interesting to see what ports it has.

The iMac update is perhaps the most intriguing part of Kuo’s rundown. He specifically points out a ‘display performance’ upgrade in addition to new processors. The iMac display is already best-in-class, and there’s no obvious next step. High frame rate 120Hz ProMotion is the most natural progression in theory. Technically, I’m not convinced we are there yet. The bandwidth requirements alone are a huge challenge. I’m all for surprises, but I would be flabbergasted if Apple can ship high-framerate 5K displays this year, in a mainstream consumer machine.

As far as the mobile lineup is concerned, everything sounds great. I love the 12.9-inch iPad screen but, man, it’s a tank. Shrinking its bezels down helps curb its overall footprint, and it will look stunning in the hand. All this year I’ve been imagining an iPad with four bezels that are as slim as the 10.5-inch iPad’s side bezels. The dreams are coming true.

I’m also psyched by the details of the new watches. Kuo has been talking about 15% larger displays for Apple Watch Series 4 as early as March, but this time around he nails down exact dimensions; 1.57-inches and 1.78 inches. These numbers are easy to get mixed up because Kuo is referring to the screen diagonals. Apple markets the Watch as 38mm and 42mm but the size refers to the height of the overall case, bezel included. The current watches have a 1.34-inch and 1.53-inch screen, measuring diagonally. Assuming Kuo’s numbers are right, the new small watch will have a larger screen area than the current big watch.

These rumours are promising. I have complete confidence that Apple is not going to abandon the small watch market by making both of its watches physically 15% bigger. Watch customers are probably the most sensitive to form factor changes out of all of Apple’s products. When Apple moved from 4-inch to 5-inch phones, some people were annoyed that it would be harder to fit the phone in their pocket, or they’d have to start using two hands. With a wearable, if you make it bigger, it’s just not going to fit on people’s arms anymore. A bigger watch is not an inconvenience, it’s a practical alienation.

The screen size change has to be accompanied by a reduction in the surrounding bezels/chassis. A new look for the Watch is definitely due. The reality is, since the first model in 2015, the Watch design has only gotten worse (a couple millimetres thicker). Series 3 headlined LTE, Series 2 was swimming and GPS. Series 4 probably won’t have any major new feature like that. The bigger display obviously improves functionality, but the main appeal is cosmetics. This year, they are going to make the watch look different, modern, and new. I can’t wait.

Apple Maps Revamped

30 June 2018

TechCrunch:

The new version of Apple Maps will be in preview next week with just the Bay Area of California going live. It will be stitched seamlessly into the “current” version of Maps, but the difference in quality level should be immediately visible based on what I’ve seen so far.

Better road networks, more pedestrian information, sports areas like baseball diamonds and basketball courts, more land cover, including grass and trees, represented on the map, as well as buildings, building shapes and sizes that are more accurate. A map that feels more like the real world you’re actually traveling through.

Search is also being revamped to make sure that you get more relevant results (on the correct continents) than ever before. Navigation, especially pedestrian guidance, also gets a big boost. Parking areas and building details to get you the last few feet to your destination are included, as well.

The goals of this overhaul sound fantastic; accurate and richer maps with near-realtime updates to keep data fresh fed by Apple’s own ground truth fleet and anonymised data from iPhone users. Apple improving Maps with crowd-sourced iPhone data isn’t new per se, but the scope of this renewed effort is much, much, greater than anything they did before. The way Maps works today is basically Apple prettifying and packaging map tiles and POIs from a swathe of licensed third party data sources. This new initiative means Apple is making its own map tiles, literally from the ground up. It will maintain the source of truth for the first time.

Expect to see headlines of people spotting Maps errors that weren’t there before as Apple migrates over to the new system. The world is simply too large for there not to be some regressions. Theoretically, though, Apple’s modern Maps infrastructure will enable these errors to be corrected quickly. This highlights a critical element of this story. The pitch here is not just about a one-time maps upgrade, Apple is promising that Maps is now much more flexible to respond to ongoing changes in roads and buildings.

It all sounds great. The bad news is this rollout is going to be painfully slow. Apple says it will deploy the new Maps section-by-section, spanning all of the United States by the end of next year. It’s particularly bleak if you consider the possible timeline for an international launch. The Apple Maps LIDAR vans have been roaming the US since 2015. The only other country Apple has started to send its vans around is the United Kingdom. Based on their hesitancy with the US deployment, Maps 2.0 for the UK probably isn’t going to arrive until late 2019 at the very earliest. And I don’t need to point out that there are lot more than two countries in the world.

iTunes Remote Updated

26 June 2018

App Store:

iTunes Remote has been updated to add support for iPhone X. This update also includes an all-new look and feel on iPad and iPhone, in addition to stability and performance improvements. iTunes 12.7.5 is recommended for use with Remote 4.4.

Rising from the ashes, iTunes Remote has been updated with a new design and support for the latest device form factors. The icon is greatly improved. It went from a white roundrect with an inscribed circle and harsh geometric triangle to a simpler coloured gradient and neatly-rounded play symbol. It’s a nicer icon than the stock Music app now.

Sadly, that’s where my praise ends. iTunes Remote reeks of ‘five years old’ flat design. The structure of the app is still stuck in the past, a lookalike of the Music app pre-Apple Music. The tab bar is still there, the Now Playing interface is in a horizontal navigation stack, and even the Search bar doesn’t use the iOS 11 integrated style. This would be okay … if the app didn’t try to mimic the modern Music app in other ways. The Now Playing screen shadows the iOS 11 Music/Podcasts player UI but it’s only surface level. The transport controls don’t expand or shrink in the same way, the font sizes are wrong and Up Next is segregated into a separate modal. Don’t get me started on the iPad version.

Looking slighter wider, what is the point of this app existing. Remote controlling your Mac’s iTunes app makes little sense in an era of AirPlay 2 and HomePod speakers. Also, Apple now has three separate places to find ‘media remotes’. There’s the iTunes Remote app, Apple TV Remote app, and the Apple TV Remote platter in Control Centre. Each of these tread on each other’s toes in different ways, but there’s not one app for everything either. It is messy. Before today, I was assuming iTunes Remote had run its course and was heading towards extinction. With this update, I just don’t know what the roadmap is here. Apple isn’t normally prone to carrying around legacy baggage.

3D Touch Discoverability

16 June 2018

Eliz Kılıç:

Not all of these buttons can be 3D Touched. How are you supposed to know which is which? The only possible thing you can do is try 3D Touch and remember it. And to make things worse, 3D Touch is not a gimmick anymore. You need to know you should be pressing hard on the “4 Button Control” to access “Personal Hotspot” or “AirDrop” toggles.

Now that we know what the problem is, here is my solution. Like we did with the link texts years ago on the web, we should visually distinguish 3D Touchable buttons.

3D Touch is hard to discover. Simple as that. It’s been three years since Apple debuted pressure-sensitive screens and I still have conversations with my family about how to access what should be simple features … features that just so happen to be gated behind a firm press gesture.

Apple’s usage of 3D Touch throughout the system is inconsistent. that they artificially wall off features with 3D Touch gestures, when they aren’t needed at all. In Control Centre, you should be able to long-press on the platters to open them up. There’s no reason for this action to rely on pressure. Another case of this kind of misappropriation is the ‘Clear All Notifications’ button in Notification Centre. A long-press could serve the same job, and it doesn’t. That’s weird.

In the Mail app example, peek and pop previews do necessitate a sensitivity to pressure. You apply less pressure to display the preview, and press harder to commit the navigation. You couldn’t do this with a simple long press. The question is then is it a problem that many users won’t ever think to do this. I’d say it’s not, Peek and Pop is merely a shortcut and not essential. The primary action, viewing the email, is always available with a simple tap. A shortcut behaviour does not warrant a permanent visual indicator. The email summary cells can be swiped left or right too, but we don’t reach to put an arrow glyph on either side of the screen to hint at all possible actions. It’s just there if you need it.

A third class of problem is cases where the same on-screen elements respond to pressure and long-press interactions. I’ve observed that human dexterity is not as good as you’d think a modern species would be, and it’s hard for people to apply the correct amount of force. As such, elements supporting both long-press and pressure-based behaviours are frustrating to use. The gestures clash way too often in practice; users accidentally press in on the screen and cancel their long-press, for example. On the iPhone, the obvious example of this is the app icons. You can long-press to make the icons jiggle and enable icon re-arrangement, or force-press and show quick actions.

Ideally, these situations should be avoided altogether. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen too often in iOS. For the Home Screen editing, I think Apple should provide an escape hatch to smooth out 3D Touch misfires; with quick actions visible, some sort of button in the corner of the screen to jump into jiggle mode.

All this to say there are better ways to make 3D Touch more approachable than to put little decorations on every UI element that responds to pressure. Remove the places where 3D Touch is an unnecessary gimmick, and refine the interactions where it is actually useful. Find ways to bring important features that are currently ‘hidden’ behind 3D Touch actions into the main interface on screen — rather than add repetitive, redundant, visual affordances that most users would be blind to anyway.

watchOS 5 Hands-Free Siri Without 'Hey Siri'

6 June 2018

Apple:

Raise to speak. You no longer need to say “Hey Siri.” Just raise your wrist. You can also use shortcuts for the things you do every day — like ordering your morning coffee at Philz.

There’s a lot to digest this week, but this particular feature announcement keeps coming to the front of my mind. Here’s the pitch: you speak a question and it answers, no hot-word required. Really.

I’m fascinated by it. It’s one of those things that sounds like it would be far too risky for Apple to do it. How does the Watch determine if you are actually talking to it, or just raising your wrist — checking the time — and talking to someone else? The possibility for false positives seems very high and there is a big cost when the system gets it wrong; presenting a modal Siri response is a very intrusive interface action. I’m honestly shocked it passed approval by Apple’s privacy tsars. Even if they can correctly analyse utterances and determine intent reliably, this feature will mean the watch has to record and upload far more audio to the Siri servers than ever before.

Maybe I’m missing some clever trick that makes an implementation obvious. As described, it is bordering on magic. Given Siri’s patchy track record of intelligence, I can’t blindly trust them on this one. Raise to Speak is not available in the first beta of watchOS 5, so this will have to play on my mind for a few weeks longer.

Samsung Vs Apple Patent Retrial Rules In Apple's Favour

25 May 2018

Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. won $539 million from Samsung Electronics Co. in the final throes of the companies’ U.S. court struggle over smartphone technology, seven years after the start of a global patent battle.

Apple sought about $1 billion in a retrial of a case that originally produced a verdict of that amount in 2012, while Samsung argued it should pay only $28 million this time.

I don’t care about the monetary value of this stuff. I’m sure Samsung and Apple don’t either; lawyer fees of an eight-year long legal case of this magnitude must already sum into the hundreds of millions of dollars. What Apple argued is that the infringement covers the full value of the copycat phones, not merely the value of the constituent components that cause the infringement. The jury sided with Apple on that, and I do too.

What’s great about this lawsuit is that it has dragged on for so long, the industry landscape has changed so much. Modern Samsung phones do not try and look like an iPhone at all. They have their own brand, their own style. A Galaxy S9 does not look like an iPhone 8 or an iPhone X. They are distinct offerings, and that’s great. In fact, whilst almost all other Android phone manufacturers have jumped on the notch screen design to leech off of the iPhone X’s curtails, Samsung defiantly treads a different path.

Google Upgrades Its Cloud Storage Tiers

16 May 2018

9to5Google:

All Google accounts receive 15GB of free storage, with the first paid tier starting at $1.99 per month for 100GB. Under “Google One” this is not changing, but there is a new 200GB tier for $2.99. Meanwhile, instead of getting only a terabyte, $9.99 a month now provides 2TB of storage.

The upgrade to two terabytes on the $9.99 plan matches what Apple has offered for a while, and the 200 GB plan is priced the same. Google users can also now share their storage plans with up to five family members. I use Apple’s family sharing which shares our iCloud storage with up to six people.

I think it’s noteworthy that the Google Drive paid plans aren’t cheaper than the Apple offerings. In fact, Apple’s cheapest paid plan is $0.99/month for 50 GB whereas Google’s first paid tier is $1.99 for 100 GB. Clearly, Apple isn’t price-gouging its premium users. Where Google continues to lead is in the free tier. Versus iCloud’s infamous 5 GB, Google accounts get 15 GB for free on top of other perks like unlimited photo uploads in Google Photos. What makes this even more maddening is Google will give this storage to anyone, regardless of whether they have bought Google hardware or not.

Apple currently lets anyone trial iWork for iCloud with a 1 GB storage bucket. If you associate the Apple ID with an Apple device, it gets upgraded to 5 GB. If you buy a second-hand iPad from 2013, you can get 5 GB. If you buy a brand new $1000+ iPhone X, you get 5 GB.

There are some asterisks attached to Google’s free offering, whether that is resolution caps on photos and videos, data-mined ads, or whatever else. It’s all insignificant. There’s no way to reconcile this apart from saying Apple is too stingy to free cloud users — remembering that free users make up the majority of iOS device users. It’s saddening that the premise of an article I wrote in 2014 continues to hold.

I really, really, hope Apple sorts this out. Student Apple IDs now get 200 GB for free as a concession to the education market. You can argue over what is a fair number but at this point, I’ll take anything. If Apple only made the $0.99 tier the new free offering, giving away 50 GB to every Apple customer, it would make a huge difference.

iOS Design Inconsistencies Across Apple's Apps

7 May 2018

This has been bugging me for a while — definitely since iOS 11 was unveiled last June and probably before then. I have no clue what Apple’s strategy is with their iOS app icon sets, other than to resign myself to the truth that there isn’t one. For simplicity, I’m focusing on just the share icon in this post (what Apple formally calls the ‘action’ button) but these criticisms apply much more widely.

iOS 7 infamously introduced 1px line icons for toolbars with geometric, boxy, shapes. Like all of iOS 7, this was a controversial shift from what came before it, but Apple did apply it consistently. Every bar icon in every app was transmogrified into this house style. The share button was simplified to a square with an arrow pointing out of it; this remains the system default today. Regardless of what you thought about the sterilisation, the pixel strokes complemented the restrained shadows and super-thin font choices of the original iOS 7 design.

Community response to this radical redesign was very split; I recall hating most of it. It didn’t seem like Apple was dead set on it either. Over time, Apple retracted some of these things. The font became less whisper-thin, popovers and other logical layers incorporated real drop shadows. The synergies with the icon set began to disappear.

There was divergence from the beginning with the Notes and Reminders apps, which inexplicably retained paper background textures. To further the realism, a letterpress effect was applied to the bar icons. You can see the normal share icon above third from the left, and the Notes version with inner shadows at the end-but-one position in the row.

Then, in iOS 9, Apple began to re-introduce pill buttons to iOS — buttons with background platters to indicate you can press them down — as well as bolder fonts in some new apps like Maps and News. They also emboldened some of the icons to match; you can see the Maps share button glyph on the far right of the collage. Apple made a whole new typeface, San Francisco, and it became the global system font. Weirdly, most icons and glyph were not changed at all despite a premise of iOS 7 being that the icons were supposedly symbiotically decided to match the typography.

iOS 10 added the Home app. It adopted what appeared to be the modern app appearance; bolder fonts aplenty and bubbly accessory tiles replete with filled, rounded, icons. In the toolbar, the ‘add’ and list symbols use thicker line weights. Still, most of the default suite of apps didn’t change.

iOS 11 pushed this further with several apps getting new tab-bar icons in the rounded style. Yet, other icons were not emboldened even with the same app. The Photos app has bubbly tab bar glyphs now, but if you tap into an image all those action icons are the same as what was present in iOS 7.

So, maybe the pattern is tab bar icons are rounded, but toolbar icons should stay as geometric line representations? The dramatic overhaul of the Podcasts and App Store in iOS 11 disagree. They have modern tab bar icons and modern glyphs. In fact, they have share icons that are not just curved shapes, but also two-tone. The arrow is opaque blue whilst the box is a lighter, desaturated, colour. See this in position 2 and 5. These are the only apps to have this variation of icon style currently.

Incredibly, that’s not the end of the story. iBooks in iOS 11 upgraded all of its toolbar icons to be bolded and rounded. This results in the first share icon in the row, which is my personal favourite. It’s bringing the essence of iOS 7 into a more sane balance of simplicity and elegance. It creates an icon that is more inviting, friendlier and visually more pleasing.

You may be wondering what the white-on-black icon is. That’s the share icon from Clips, from the 2.0 version released post iOS 11’s debut. It brings yet another genetic mutation into the mix; bold and round, but not as round as the other round iOS 11 icons. This might be my second favourite of the bunch; it’s also the one that reminds me the most of the iOS 6 era. I’m ignoring the differences in colour palette for all of these comparisons of course, it’s perfectly acceptable for each app’s tint and theme to influence the icon’s appearance.

My gripe is there is no consistency, no structure or logic to this. Apps introduced later sometimes use rounded icons, sometimes not, sometimes create all-new custom glyphs of their own. Incredulously, you could open flagship apps like Messages, Mail and Safari1 and have no idea Apple was even playing with bold icons as a conceptual change. These apps adopted the iOS 11 large bold navigation bar title formats, but their icons and glyphs have stagnated for more than four years at this point.

All the icons I’ve showed you here are from Apple’s built-in default apps. I expect them to set the standard for the iOS design language … but the reality is far from a perfect point. It’s scattershot, it’s a mess of competing visions. I couldn’t say what Apple’s human interface team wants the share icon to look like, let alone the structure and experience of iOS apps as a whole. Everything is in disarray.

1 Forgive me some narrative license: the controls in the Safari address bar have been given bolder line stroke weights in the last couple of years. Don’t bother looking anywhere else.

Apple's Q2 Earnings Report

2 May 2018

Apple:

“We’re thrilled to report our best March quarter ever, with strong revenue growth in iPhone, Services and Wearables,” said Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. “Customers chose iPhone X more than any other iPhone each week in the March quarter, just as they did following its launch in the December quarter. We also grew revenue in all of our geographic segments, with over 20% growth in Greater China and Japan.”

If you followed a through-line of iPhone sales between today and two years ago, raw units sold have gone nowhere. If you compare back to 2015, the strength of the iPhone 6 cycle results in an even worse headline compare: iPhone devices sold are down about 15% since then. What keeps Apple’s financials in check is sustained rises in average revenue per phone. It’s really impressive that iPhone X continues to be the most popular model. This time next year, I predict that year-over-year unit sales rise but total revenue grows disproportionately less, with the mix shifting back towards Apple’s normal iPhone ASP levels as customers favour the cheaper 6.1-inch LCD phone. Don’t forget that Apple’s normal ASP levels are only ‘normal’ relative to Apple itself; the rest of the smartphone manufacturers would roll over if they could achieve anything close to that.

This quarter is definitely a case of over-bearish analysts dragging down expectations. I was surprised to see Apple’s guidance for next quarter is also comfortably above consensus estimates. What’s particularly interesting to me is reconciling the reports of weakened component demand with the stable sales, especially looking at Samsung’s OLED smartphone panel factory underutilisation. Did Apple expect the iPhone X to do even better than it did?

AirPort Axed

30 April 2018

The discontinuation of the AirPort router line is one of those tricky Apple topics where I struggle to see a clear-cut ‘correct’ reaction. There are plenty of reasons to be upset and plenty of reasons to justify Apple’s decision making, and I do not think there is an obvious winner of the debate.

WiFi is critically important to all of Apple’s products. If you are using an Apple product at home, you are using a WiFi router, probably all day long. And what do most Apple customers use? A free/bundled router from their broadband provider, built to be as cheap as possible with little care for elegance or usability. There’s a magnetic compulsion to the market for the company that wants to control the entire customer experience with integrated devices that make using them all simpler. The Time Capsule also had a compelling secondary use as a plug-and-play disk backup device, and the Express helped extend the AirPlay music streaming ecosystem.

However, how much can Apple really effect these markets? The scope in numbers of customers is enormous, but establishing what Apple can do to differentiate itself from the bargain-basement routers from the cable company and the existing third-party WiFi router manufacturers is much harder. The biggest problems with WiFi are configuration and setup.

The AirPort devices were really good at this; you can create a network and connect to the internet with an AirPort Extreme without leaving the iPhone Settings app. And yet, these tasks are not common routines for normal people, I mean — by definition — setup only happens once. When WiFi is working, is using an AirPort product better than something from TP-Link or Netgear? Not really. AirPort range and performance will certainly beat out the freebie products but higher-end third-party (but still cheaper) equipment would generally benchmark the same or better than Apple’s offerings. As the AirPort line has languished over the last half-decade, the products have been trounced by the competition, especially as mesh systems become more popular. Even with a fresh investment, I struggle to see what Apple could today that was meaningfully ahead of the market.

Even in AirPort’s heyday, they weren’t very popular. Normal people don’t like paying for things they already have. I’ve seen plenty of people just make do with what they’ve got, in spite of crippling network black spots that I could never put up with. Apple could make the best router that ever existed and they still wouldn’t sell that many of them. Not only is that not great business, it also doesn’t help make the case that AirPort improves the experience of using iOS devices if nobody will have one in their house.

Of course, the premise of the Time Capsule is (ironically) a relic of the past. iCloud is a much better solution all-round to getting users to back up data regularly. Time Capsule was always a Mac-only accessory, too. iCloud has been Apple’s only answer for iOS data backup for a while. Now, it’s time for the Mac to formally join that party (perhaps with a full-disk iCloud Time Machine backup feature in the next macOS release).

The Express also doesn’t hold its weight as a router; I think Apple should offer an AirPlay 2 repeater but drop the WiFi stuff and make it really cheap, at least half off the $99 price tag of the ‘new’ 2012 AirPort Express. This product may indeed exist in the near term — merely without AirPort branding.

This leaves the AirPort Extreme standing on the legs of easy setup, simple iOS-integrated settings, and a pretty box. It’s a tough call but I think I see Apple’s argument for ending its life. I hope Apple launches some kind of partner program to integrate third-party router configuration into iOS WiFi Settings, giving them the primary benefit of what the AirPort line offered. Think AirPrint but for WiFi routers.

Maybe one day, the company will take another stab at it when they have a really good idea, when they can envision something that only Apple can do well. I think six years since the last update of any kind shows they were out of ideas, or at least weren’t motivated to continue it, for the time being.

For a few years, I had been repeating the same ultimatum when people asked about the fate of the AirPort product range: update it or kill it. At least, this AirPort announcement means Apple has finally divorced itself from one of its skeletons in the closet. Next up on the firing line, iPod touch, MacBook Air or Mac Mini?

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

25 April 2018

9to5Mac:

This game is a particularly bad case of the free-to-play mobile game stereotype. After the first three scenes, you run out of Energy and cannot progress the story without waiting at least fifteen minutes. You read that right.

The game gives you one free Energy gem every 3 minutes and 20 seconds. To unwrap the vines, you need 5 gems. So that’s fifteen minutes of doing nothing. You have no option but to sit on this screen; the game literally doesn’t let you do anything else. You can’t escape the ‘adventure’ until it completes. A force-quit and restart takes you back to the same scene. There’s an ominous eight-hour timer ticking down at the top of the screen; who knows what that does.

I know this isn’t exactly a new trend, but the new Harry Potter game is a tentpole example of just how bad the mainstream iOS ‘games’ market has gotten.

The character creation and intro/tutorial were actually pretty cool. I was ready to be impressed. It’s very on-rails but the music is nice, they have voiceovers from some of the film cast and the visuals look great on the ultra-wide iPhone X display. You can move through environments by panning horizontally with your finger. The developers even implemented a variant on the normal iOS bouncy scrolling, with a slight camera rotation if you tried to pan beyond the extreme edges of the scene. There’s high production value here. I appreciated the attention to detail.

And then I hit the paywall. Less than ten minutes in, you are presented with a scene that you cannot progress without waiting up to half-an-hour, or fishing for your wallet. Even if you opt to do the former, the ‘game’ lets you do nothing else but wait for it to give you a free gem every three and half minutes; you need 5 total to continue on with the game. You cannot quit the scene. If you force-quit and relaunch the app, it takes you back to the same place with no escape. It’s like you are doing jail time for not handing over your cash. The Devil’s Snare setting makes for an amusing allegory.

Who knows how many times in the course of the game’s narrative that you hit one of these paywalled situations. This is one of the things that irks me the most. There’s no visibility into how much you should expect to pay. There’s technically no upper limit on what you could spend. Who knows whether the game will ‘generously’ give out free gems ad-infinitum. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a point in the game where it stopped distributing the freebies.

Of course, if you do choose to pay to speed up the time lockout, the game doesn’t let you buy the blue gems that you need five of. You have to buy a bag of different virtual (pink-coloured) currency, with prices starting at $0.99 and going steeply upwards. In game, you convert pink gems into the blue gems which you can then actually use to do what you wanted to do in the first place.

This is a classic psychological misdirection that helps to bury the true cost. You aren’t spending real money, you aren’t spending the virtual currency that you paid for. You are spending this adjacent sum. The indirection makes it harder for people to think about exactly how much a particular action is costing them.

Playing ‘Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery’ ultimately constitutes a sequence of cutscenes, managing three different in-game currencies and topping up your balance with real-money purchases. I use the word “playing” very lightly indeed. Add on to all of this, this game is clearly targeted at younger audiences, and I start to feel a little sick. This is a game that Apple is featuring. I want the App Store to enforce stricter rules on what freemium games are allowed to get away with.

Third Party Watch Faces Referenced In watchOS 4.3.1

15 April 2018

9to5Mac:

Currently, only Apple can provide watch faces, while some of them have content from Pixar and Disney. The reasons for the lack of third party faces can be many, including Apple’s desire to control the experience and branding as much as possible.

Code found on watchOS 4.3.1 suggests this could change in the future. A component of the NanoTimeKit framework, responsible for the watch faces, implements a developer tools server that’s probably designed to communicate with Xcode running on a Mac. One of its methods has a very interesting log message

I’m all for it. I think Apple has shown that customisation and individual personality are major selling points of the Apple Watch for customers. In the Apple Watch’s debut keynote, Tim Cook said as much: “it’s incredibly customisable, so you can find one that reflects your personal style and taste”. In the hardware, you have thousands of chassis material and band combinations to choose from. watchOS has a surprisingly plentiful number of interface options, with different modes for Dock, alternative Home Screen layouts, and countless complications and appearance styles for the faces themselves. A third-party Watch clock face store is the next big frontier in this space.

Opening up the primary interface of the Watch fits the themes of the platform. Whereas the lock screen and home screen of iOS remain uniform and locked down, with basically no user customisation opportunities beyond setting a wallpaper, watchOS has forged a different path. It makes sense that wearable devices are more adaptable. They are more personal.

What’s really fascinating about this rumour from a technical perspective is how will third-party faces be developed. What is the toolkit? The WatchKit frameworks are far too limited to support the rich, diverse, and dynamic interactions that a good Watch face would require. WatchKit is just not suited for making a clock face, at all. The introduction of a clock face SDK has to come with a new UI framework for watchOS. Something that is far closer to UIKit in freedom and flexibility. And — fingers crossed — this would be available for developers to use in Watch apps as well as clock faces.

As optimistic as I am, approach code references like this with some hesitation. A log message in a codebase does not necessarily indicate an imminent later-this-year release. This could be an engineer simply thinking ahead for plans that might not play out for a few more major releases. It doesn’t confirm that third-party clock faces are coming with watchOS 5. It does heavily imply that they are on the roadmap, somewhere on the list of todos, and Apple is serious enough about it that engineers are already thinking about how to make it work.

Mac Pro And Apple's Pro Workflow Team

9 April 2018

TechCrunch:

“We’ve been focusing on visual effects and video editing and 3D animation and music production, as well,” says Ternus. “And we’ve brought in some pretty incredible talent, really masters of their craft. And so they’re now sitting and building out workflows internally with real content and really looking for what are the bottlenecks. What are the pain points. How can we improve things. And then we take this information where we find it and we go into our architecture team and our performance architects and really drill down and figure out where is the bottleneck. Is it the OS, is it in the drivers, is it in the application, is it in the silicon, and then run it to ground to get it fixed.”

It feels a bit weird virtually clapping along to the sentiment that the biggest company in the world now knows what its customers want. It’s certainly interesting that rather than questionnaires or soliciting phone calls, Apple is actively hiring these creative professionals in-house. (You have to think at least one of these team members has already complained about the MacBook Pro’s keyboard reliability.)

I guess the danger here is that you tune too heavily towards the workflow team’s base of talent, which is currently composed of video artists, animators and music technicians. Requirements from other fields — of which the ‘pro’ market is very vast — may be de-prioritised or ignored entirely. Software development comes to mind.

Regarding the 2019 thing, it’s unfortunate but I was not surprised. At the 2017 roundtable, they explicitly said ‘not this year’. I took that to mean maybe a sneak peek at WWDC 2018 and a release in December, at the very earliest. These latest comments basically imply the same internal timeline, although now I think the chances of a June preview are even slimmer. I bet Apple is targeting a WWDC 2019 launch with the leeway to drop back to the fall, if deadlines slip.

Instagram Removes Watch App

3 April 2018

9to5Mac:

Despite dramatic improvements to Apple Watch speed, some high profile apps have been actively pulled from watchOS over the last several months. Instagram is the latest major app to disappear from Apple Watch as part of today’s iPhone app update.

There’s no mention of the Apple Watch app being pulled in the release notes which only mentions the typical bug fixes and improvements, but updating to version 39.0 on iPhone removes Instagram for Apple Watch when paired.

Apple now enforces that any new app update must use the ‘native’ APIs for watchOS, where the app logic runs on the watch itself. This has been the model since watchOS 2. The watchOS 1 era relied on an app model where third-party code ran as an extension on the iPhone, with every user interaction requiring message passing between watch and phone over Bluetooth, if anyone has forgotten. This basically means any Watch app from 2015 that has been unmaintained can no longer reside on the App Store.

In a move that surprises almost no one, Instagram opted to ditch its Watch app entirely rather than dedicated it engineering resources to ‘modernise’ it. I expect this will be the path many developers pick, continuing the exodus of Watch apps from the store, a trend that we’ve seen for the better part of a year at this point.

I don’t want to repeat all my arguments about why WatchKit sucks; the archives exist for a reason. Simply, I love (and use) good Watch apps and WatchKit prevents developers from making good watch apps. I don’t blame these companies from abandoning watch ecosystem at the moment. If Apple doesn’t provide something better, these apps are never coming back.

For the companies that do want to stay on Watch, there is going to be a dearth of investment at least until WWDC. I think there’s a non-zero chance we see a majorly new Watch development platform in June. At least, I wouldn’t recommend to any of my clients that we start building a WatchKit app today, just in case there is a new framework in the wings.

Another facet to this story that people don’t really talk about is that you need a Watch app to offer custom Apple Watch notification interfaces for your app. The notification controller is embedded inside the Watch app binary, so if you don’t have a Watch app, you can’t provide Watch users with custom-designed alerts. This means that along with the Instagram Watch app, Watch users also lose the pretty Instagram notifications. Repeat for the other high-profile apps that have left the Watch App Store in recent months.

watchOS falls back to the generic system alerts, which lack personality, flair and functionality. It also hinders glanceability of using the Watch. Custom colours and branding allow your brain to easily discern what kind of notification you are looking at without reading the text. You’ll have to squint more at generic alerts to parse out what the device is telling you.

At a minimum, Apple needs to decouple this in watchOS 5 and allow apps to provide notification interfaces independently of a WatchKit app. People are going to say that losing custom notifications is not a big deal, but it really is. There’s a reason almost every system app uses a custom presentation for their notifications.

The Sixth-Generation iPad

30 March 2018

Apple:

Apple today updated its most popular iPad with support for Apple Pencil plus even greater performance, starting at $329. The new 9.7-inch iPad and Apple Pencil give users the ability to be even more creative and productive, from sketching ideas and jotting down handwritten notes to marking up screenshots. The new iPad is more versatile and capable than ever, features a large Retina display, the A10 Fusion chip and advanced sensors that help deliver immersive augmented reality, and provides unmatched portability, ease of use and all-day battery life.

At the event this week, Apple heavily pushed this as the iPad for education. If you escape Apple’s carefully crafted PR bubble, though, I don’t think the statement holds its weight. This is the iPad that education will lean towards buying en masse, but it’s not really designed for education use.

The new entry-level iPad is not that different to the model it replaces, the first $329 iPad from a year ago. The new model adds Apple Pencil support and upgrades the SoC to the A10 chip. These changes don’t address what schools want; ruggedness, reliability, lower prices. The Pencil stylus has some potentially cool uses for student learning but how are schools with stretched budgets expected to shell out a hundred dollars for an accessory that can’t even clip onto the tablet for safekeeping. These things are prone to getting lost and damaged.

If Apple truly made an education iPad, it would take on a different form. Maybe the edges of the device would be rubberised to protect against drops. It could have permanent ridges for a screen cover to attach, in a way that is more permanent and secure than the Smart Cover magnets. Maybe it would be made of plastic to bring the price down a bit lower.

The new iPad is a great update for general consumers. I cannot wholeheartedly say that Apple is going out of their way to address the needs of the education sector.

Look at what Logitech did with the Crayon. This is an Apple Pencil at heart, it uses the same sub-pixel precise technology, wrapped in a shell that is designed to be handled by a haphazard child. Unlike the Pencil, the Crayon can’t roll around a table because it is a more squared shape. The Crayon is made of rubber and plastic, it doesn’t have an exposed Lightning connector, the cap remains attached at all times, the delicate nib is protected by a rubber surround and can’t be replaced without the use of a special tool that presumably only teachers and the school IT department would possess.

Whereas the Pencil pairs to a specific iPad over Bluetooth, the Crayon uses a single RF frequency that allows it to connect ad-hoc to any iPad sixth-generation in proximity to it. A teacher can walk round a classroom of iPads and annotate someone’s work using a single Crayon, and then instantly move on to the next student and do the same to their iPad. That’s a major usability benefit for a classroom setting.

Oh, and the Crayon is $49, half the price of an Apple Pencil. The Crayon is a digital stylus for education. It incorporates what schools desire from a tablet stylus and ticks almost all the boxes.

The new iPad is cool and great all-rounder but I think there’s plenty of scope for Apple to make an iPad SKU that is even more different, a design that prioritises the needs of schools as a top objective, the iPad equivalent of the Crayon.