AirPlay Music Streaming Needs A Rethink

28 August 2015

Ben Lovejoy:

You don’t have to take my word for it that AirPlay needs some love: just go searching for newly-launched AirPlay speaker systems. The only company we could find showing one at CES this year was Moshi (watch out for a review by Zac Hall shortly).

Whether it’s manufacturers deciding that AirPlay is too unreliable to invest, or consumers unwilling to pay the price premium for a protocol that doesn’t give them everything they want, clearly there’s an issue. Apple needs to fix the reliability issues that appear to stem from flaws in the protocol itself, license it to manufacturers at a reasonable price and then give it enough PR that mass-market consumers get to know about it.

The AirPlay audio streaming technology is based on old protocols reaching back into the AirTunes days … it needs a revamp. The official Apple answer is to buy your own speakers and hook up an AirPort Express which is both clunky and prohibitively expensive.

The success of portable Bluetooth speakers says to me that there is a consumer desire for wireless music streaming in the home. I think Apple should re-engineer AirPlay as a WiFi protocol that requires an internet connection. This means it could also sync up with HomeKit and be controlled remotely, outside of the home network. Essentially, each AirPlay receiver would stream music from an iCloud / Apple Music server. This means individual devices do not have to manage the streaming work locally. A friend could stream a playlist at your house and leave with his iPhone in his pocket without interrupting the music. It’s the Chromecast model.

Making things based around an internet model simplifies so much. Apple could do some really intelligent things, like automatically silence speakers when you leave home. Couple a reworked protocol with some pretty speakers and you’ve got something good.

Apple Removing Smart Signs From Apple Stores

19 August 2015


With this Apple Store refresh next week, Apple will be pulling these aging iPad 2s from most of its stores. Instead of Smart Signs, Apple will begin pre-loading price information and product details onto display iPhones, iPads, and Macs themselves. Apple will use the new space to install more devices that potential customers can test on the show floor. The recently launched iPad mini displays for the Apple Watch will not be going away. Apple will also showcase iPhones with redesigned white display docks.

Some larger Apple Stores will retain a few Smart Signs as Apple conducts this transition. Sources say that, beyond the desire to feature more products on store tables and to replace the aging iPad 2s, Apple is removing Smart Signs because it found that the setup is confusing for some customers. Retail employees note that some customers were unaware that the Smart Signs were simply informational items and became confused when they could not fully use the device as a demo iPad.

The Smart Signs were a concept that sounded a lot cooler than how they were realised in stores. The information they provided wasn’t very smart, like a static microsite of some product specs. In contrast, the iPads that are attached to Apple Watch display units are truly smart with the second-display information keeping in sync with the current views on the Watch. These plaque displays are not going away.

The Smart Signs were also flawed by their physical dimensions, iPads are not that small. They are pretty big. It made the Apple Store look cluttered and tied up space that could be instead used for more real demo devices. Having a Smart Sign iPad accompanying an actual iPad was comical. Per Gurman’s report, Apple’s new solution is boring but in the end achieves the same result without the downsides, all things considered.

New Apple Wireless Keyboard And Mouse Leaked By FCC

16 August 2015


The images, unfortunately, do not show any notable new design details on the devices (save for what appears to be a small power switch on the top left side of the keyboard), but it would make sense for the accessories to be tweaked externally in someway. With new iPad-centric Bluetooth keyboard controls in iOS 9, perhaps the iPad-compatible Apple Wireless Keyboard will receive new special keys for access to iPad applications or features. As for the mouse, some readers have speculated that Apple could be using the new accessory to port Force Touch support over the desktop. Internally, however, the new input devices are certainly set for a significant upgrade: Bluetooth 4.2 Low-Energy.

I use an Apple Wireless Keyboard right now with my Retina MacBook Pro. My muscle memory likes the consistency between the keyboard on the laptop and the external keyboard at the desk. The layout and spacing isn’t identical but it’s close, closer than any other third-party keyboard for sure.1

This ‘updated’ keyboard isn’t earth-shatteringly different but it seems to be powered by internal batteries, rather than swappable AA’s. I assume the new one will charge by USB or something. From the FCC drawings, it looks like Apple has removed the circular barrel completely. As such, the keyboard will now sit flat which is disappointing — I like how the current one is naturally inclined because of the battery compartment.

1 Apple’s wireless accessories are overpriced for what they are but hey … some things never change.

Apple Online Store And Are Now One And The Same

8 August 2015


The biggest change to this new design is the decision to remove the Store link from the main navigation bar at the top of the screen. The bar had become crowded in recent months with the addition of the Watch, but it’s an interesting decision to remove that store rather than one of the other products.

Instead, the ability to shop for Apple gear has been integrated into each product page. As before, a “buy now” button appears on the page for each model. A shopping bag button has been added beside the search button to allow customers to quickly manage their bag, favorite items, Apple Store account, and more.

I had rather embarrassingly ignored the separation between Apple’s online website and its online store. I had always overlooked the amusing inelegance of a fragmented website for a company that prides itself on integration and simplicity.

Anyway, with no fanfare, Apple updated its site on Thursday to bring both parts together into one site. When you go to buy something now, you don’t get carted off into the ‘store’ subdomain to actually make a purchase. Everything happens from the same combined interface which means your basket is now visible from any page too, in the header. Neat and tidy.

On Twitter I quipped about what happens to the website on keynote day. How does the store go down when the whole site is the store? There’s a part of me that thinks this transition means the iconic ritual of ‘We’ll be back soon’ on new product day will never happen again. I can see how Ahrendts would think it was dumb and can it.

Reviews Welcome

5 August 2015

I pushed a major update to Bingo Machine in early July and it didn’t quite have the impact on sales that I wanted. This update was long overdue — it was the first update to the app in over three years. It added iPhone 6 (and iPhone 51) support, new modern aesthetic appearance, simplified design as well as brand new UI localisations into Spanish and French.

I wasn’t really expecting the new version to increase sales, maybe a one-day bump, but I didn’t expect sales to fall through the roof. Which is what happened. Daily sales dropped from double digits to single digits. This obviously was worrying. Reception to the app has been good and it doesn’t have game-breaking bugs as far I can tell.

So why did sales evaporate? I don’t know. That’s the most frustrating thing. The blank wall that is iTunes means I can’t get detailed analytics; the App Analytics offered in iTunes Connect is very limited and doesn’t give a good picture of where sales originate from.

My only guess is that the lack of reviews for the new version has caused it to fall off in top charts. If I knew for certain, I’d love to write this post as an angry attack at Apple or a enumeration of my failings. Sadly, it’s just a guess.

Here’s what we are gonna do. I hate just asking people to review something out of the blue. Instead, I’ve made Bingo Machine 3 free for a limited time. Free for 48 hours. Download it (or in modern App Store nomenclature, ‘Get it’), play around, reviews welcome. Please make sure ratings are honest and fair, I am not asking for people to post fake reviews in return for a giveaway.

Much appreciated. I’ll let you know if it turns my sales trajectory around.

1 Now that’s embarrassing.

Ed Bott On Windows 10 'WiFi Sense'

4 August 2015


If you know you’re in my Skype contacts list feel free to park in front of my house with your Windows 10 PC. But you’ll have to bring your own Wi-Fi, because Wi-Fi Sense won’t let you connect to my network. That option is off by default for every network, as you can see by the Not Shared status message under each one.

And you have to very consciously enable sharing for a network. It’s not something you’ll do by accident.

For those not clued in, WiFi Sense is a feature in Windows 10 that shares WiFi network passwords with friends if you explicitly request to share the password of a particular network. WiFi Sense has been part of Windows Phone for a while but, naturally, nobody cared.

In his piece, Bott correctly addresses the fact that the sharing service does not happen without permission as some tech sites misreported when this blew up. However, it does have a security hole.

The person who gives permission does not have to be the WiFi network owner. Any person who is (or has) connected to the network can enable the sharing. This is the opening for abuse as the control of the setting is heavily diluted amongst clients. It might not be obvious why this is a problem.

A mostly harmless example is a coffee shop that gives the WiFi password when you buy something. With WiFi Sense, it is incredibly easy for someone to accidentally enable sharing and then all Windows users can free-ride on the internet without paying the cafe a cent. Similarly, in a residential setting, a hypothetical friend comes round to use my WiFi on his Windows 10 laptop. My entire block can now access my internet without ever talking to me without me even being told it was happening. It’s not out of the question that this then blows through my monthly data cap and I get foot with a costly bill. I’m sure you can extrapolate to find some more criminal examples.

There are limits to who receives the shared password, usually limited to the person’s Skype or Facebook friends, so it’s not like the whole world can suddenly join in. Still though, it’s the principle. It’s just weird that the network owner does not get ultimate control over this.1

1 There is one way, add ‘_optout’ to the end of your SSID network name. I hope you agree that’s not something you can reasonably expect people to do. I shouldn’t have to dirty up my network name to prevent something I never asked for or consented to share private details about my network.

Mozilla Complains About Default Web Browser Changes In Windows 10

1 August 2015


am writing to you about a very disturbing aspect of Windows 10. Specifically, that the update experience appears to have been designed to throw away the choice your customers have made about the Internet experience they want, and replace it with the Internet experience Microsoft wants them to have.

When we first saw the Windows 10 upgrade experience that strips users of their choice by effectively overriding existing user preferences for the Web browser and other apps, we reached out to your team to discuss this issue. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in any meaningful progress, hence this letter.

If you only read the first two paragraphs of Mozilla’s letter, you’d think Windows 10 would have removed the option for users to change the default browser at all a la iOS. That’s not the case, though. With the new version of the OS, Microsoft has made it so that third-party apps cannot directly change the default apps settings for a range of activities, including choice of browser. That means that Firefox cannot make itself the default browser in one click, as it could in previous versions of Windows. It has to follow a system-defined series of steps, as explained here.

What Firefox can do is ask the OS to open a system dialog that includes default browser settings. The user can then interact with the system dialog and select Firefox as the default browser.

In this open letter, Mozilla present this change as an abhorrent violation of freedom. What they conveniently omit from their statement is that this is actually a huge improvement in user security. In previous versions of Windows, having the ability to become the default browser without user invention made way for really easy phishing attacks.

Just make an unscrupulous app that resembled a browser, set that as the default without the user knowing, and steal all their passwords, browsing history and account information that they subsequently typed into the fake app. It’s phishing at a software level.

Even ignoring the exposure to malware, letting individual apps be responsible for shared settings is generally always a bad idea. The OS cannot exert any control over how the option is presented. A crafty app could just make itself the default without ever prompting the user. A good analogy is how Location Services work on iOS; the only way for third-party apps to use location information is to let the system ask the user through a standardised popup dialog.

The centralisation means that the only person that can change the setting is you, the user. It’s an unambiguously better system that Mozilla is sadly trying to spin as an attack on freedom and openness.

Top Gear Trio Sign With Amazon Video For New TV Series

30 July 2015


Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are reuniting to create an all-new car show, exclusively for Amazon Prime. The show will be produced by the trio’s long time executive producer Andy Wilman. On working with Amazon, Jeremy Clarkson said “I feel like I’ve climbed out of a bi-plane and into a spaceship.” The first show will go into production shortly and arrive exclusively on Amazon Prime in 2016.

Not a surprise that Clarkson, Hammond and May made a deal with an online network for a new series … but signing with Amazon is an unexpected twist. I really thought Netflix would want Top Gear as a flagship new media programme. Really interested to see whether this turns out to be good or not, I would guess Amazon can give them an even bigger budget than what the BBC could. Hopefully, it’ll be the same show I know and love to watch, albeit dropping the Top Gear brand.

Google To Move Away From Requiring Google+ To Use Google Services

27 July 2015


So in the coming months, a Google Account will be all you’ll need to share content, communicate with contacts, create a YouTube channel and more, all across Google. YouTube will be one of the first products to make this change, and you can learn more on their blog. As always, your underlying Google Account won’t be searchable or followable, unlike public Google+ profiles. And for people who already created Google+ profiles but don’t plan to use Google+ itself, we’ll offer better options for managing and removing those public profiles.

You’ll see these changes roll out in stages over several months. While they won’t happen overnight, they’re right for Google’s users—both the people who are on Google+ every single day, and the people who aren’t.

The only way I can read this is as an admission Google+ didn’t take off in the way it wanted it to, despite being mandatory to use other popular Google products, namely YouTube. Google now focusing Plus on the small niche discussion communities where it is doing well (which are good) and leaving things like YouTube as independent, separate, products.

Although the company has been discretely signalling this transition for a while, like Google Photos being positioned as a standalone offering, this blog post is confirmation that the dream of Plus as the persistent glue that connects your Google life together is indeed over.

Apple's 'Why iPhone' Web Campaign

25 July 2015


Every iPhone we’ve made — and we mean every single one — was built on the same belief. That a phone should be more than a collection of features. That, above all, a phone should be absolutely simple, beautiful, and magical to use.

A lot of people are put off by this kind of direct advertising, especially as Apple generally goes for something more subtle. Shot on iPhone is a perfect example of a sophisticated campaign that has strong implicit meanings without saying anything outright and it works well. Sometimes, though, you just have to tell people things directly which is where advertising like ‘Why iPhone’ exists. Also, you can’t sell the iPhone on camera quality alone which is a major disadvantage to the Shot on iPhone ads, they only relate to people interested in good photography.

In general, I think the idea of this new campaign is fine … but this web page is sloppily made. The fake iPhone has some weird jerky animations (see how the Passbook credit cards slide in) and features a Safari icon that doesn’t match either iOS 8 or iOS 9.1 Even the written copy is awkward. I highlighted one example on Twitter. You can consider the use of very informal language as a stylistic decision but the repetition of the word ‘sneak’ is just bad writing. Here’s another awkward example from the third ‘page’ of the site:

What that means is, you don’t actually have to know what that means. All you have to do is use it to see that taking photos and videos on iPhone is really. Flippin’. Amazing.

Formal or informal, “flippin’ amazing” is not something I would deem appropriate for Apple ad copy.

1 The page also uses scroll-jacking which I hate. Unfortunately, Apple’s web team seems to love it at the moment.

Twitch Starts Transition From Flash To A HTML5 Video Player

23 July 2015


Today’s redesign moves half of the video player – specifically the controls – from Flash to HTML5 and Javascript. The video itself is still in Flash underneath the controls. However, this is an important step to releasing the much-anticipated full HTML5 player.

You’ll begin to see the new player on channel pages first. As previously mentioned, this is a gradual roll out. If you are not part of our initial pool of users, please be patient as we release the redesigned player at a steady pace.

This piecemeal milestone has no real world advantage but at least signifies a start of a transition. What’s weird, though, is that Twitch will serve users HTML5 video today. Just visit a streamer’s page in Safari on iOS or Mac (with no Flash installed) and it shows a working <video> tag. Some of the nice Twitch-branded UI is missing but the actual crucial activity, the playback of the stream, works flawlessly. It’s been like this for as long as I can remember.

iOS 9 Apple Watch Interactive Animated Achievements

20 July 2015

These are so cool on iOS 9 (and watchOS 2). Rather than being prerecorded videos, the trophies are rendered in realtime as 3D objects so you can flick and swivel them around with your finger. The material lighting is fantastic and it’s super responsive even on the Watch — I assume its using Metal under the hood.1 Many of the achievements are also engraved with your name to add that splash of personalisation.

It also makes me more motivated to unlock all of the other possible achievements just so I can see what they look like as fully 3D objects. I’ve seen some argue that these achievements are inconsistent with the flat design of the operating system. Sometimes though, you have to break the rules. This is a nice dash of skeuomorphism to add some real flair to the experience. Imagine that these achievements were merely flat 2D drawings. It wouldn’t be as fun nor as endearing.

1 Troughton-Smith says just plain OpenGL, as Watch doesn’t support Metal (obviously).

The New iPods

16 July 2015


Apple® today introduced the best iPod touch® yet and unveiled a new lineup of colors for all iPod® models, including space gray, silver, gold, pink and blue. The ultra-portable iPod touch features a new 8 megapixel iSight® camera for beautiful photos, an improved FaceTime® HD camera for even better selfies, the Apple-designed A8 chip with 10 times faster graphics performance for a more immersive gaming experience, and even better fitness tracking with the M8 motion coprocessor.

The iPods are the runt of the litter nowadays. That being said, today’s iPod touch update uses up-to-date internals like an A8 processor and an 8 megapixel camera. Whilst it still isn’t getting the design attention it probably should get by Apple, the body and case are unchanged, this iPod touch refresh is substantial enough that you don’t feel bad about buying one anymore. It is about as fast as an iPhone 6 and will be supported by the app ecosystem for many years.

I can’t praise Apple’s efforts on the Nano and Shuffle, though. Same internals, same software, different coloured cases. The Nano is a booby trap in Apple’s lineup primed for unwitting parents to buy as ‘nice’ Christmas gifts. The 16 GB Nano is overpriced for what it is, sold for $149 a pop. For $50 more, you can get a brand new 16 GB iPod touch. Seriously.

At least the Shuffle holds a distinct place in the range as a clip-on sports MP3 player. The same can’t be said for the iPod nano. The Nano is a mediocre imitation of the Touch in every way, but priced almost as much as the more powerful sibling.

Apple Using Major Networks To Negotiate On Behalf Of Local Broadcasters

14 July 2015

New York Post:

Apple’s discussions with ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox initially foundered over the tech giant’s desire to offer on the soon-to-launch service local live TV feeds streamed on any Apple device, sources said.

But networks don’t control affiliate feeds. So Apple CEO Tim Cook’s team asked the networks to obtain those rights — instead of having Apple chase those rights around the country itself.

Only Apple could get arrangements like this. This is the kind of thing where Apple’s competitors don’t stand a chance. They simply don’t have the market power to negotiate on these axes.

Another great example is shown through Apple Pay launching in the UK. Apple motivated merchants into hanging Apple Pay signs before the service even launched, has banks paying out their own marketing budget to advertise Apple Pay in newspapers and got Transport for London to promote Apple Pay heavily on the tube network. Mobile payments services have existed for ages, especially in the UK, but no one has managed to achieve this level of attention.

On How Flat Design All Looks The Same

12 July 2015

Eli Schiff:

In Fall of the Designer Part III, I noted how Twitter apps were becoming visually homogenized to the point that they were virtually indistinguishable. I could not have imagined it could go further. Following a recent update by Twitter for their native iOS client, it seems all three apps might as well have been designed by the same person.

Schiff doesn’t say this explicitly but the implication is that flat design is so constricting that the only possible outcome is homogeneity in application design. Certainly, the era of flat design makes it really easy to be lazy. You can make a ‘flat’ app with very little work that gels with modern appearance expectations and looks good, relying on copious whitespace and large typography.

I hate how this has transpired. It is true that the current ecosystem inlcudes a lot of apps that look similar. The important distinction is that it doesn’t have to be this way. The flat world is not constricting. You can make a wide variety of visual styles and colour schemes work. In the skeuomorphic world, it was incredibly easy to create a distinct visual style — just pick a different texture.1 It’s harder to do original refreshing aesthetics in a flat world (because the tendency to use white is so great) but it is possible. Developers need to work harder to achieve it.

If you want hard examples, the first place to look is the system apps themselves. I think Apple does a pretty good job about offering diverse user experiences in its own apps. Camera uses yellow and black reels, Messages has chat callouts with vivid gradients, Game Center has weird bubbly things and Weather has a vast array of rich backgrounds. Apple isn’t perfect by any means — apps like Videos and Phone are quite lacking in differentiation.

One of the biggest offenders for blandness post-iOS 7 is apps that are basically white scrolling timelines with navigation bars where the only real self-expression comes through a single tint color for interactive elements. In a past life, developers could employ an arsenal of ornamentation (shadowing, gradients) to make these kind of apps stand out.

1 There was a period where the community went overboard with grey linen though — don’t forget that.

The iOS and OS X Public Beta Program

10 July 2015


The Apple Beta Software Program lets you try pre-release software and provide feedback to help us make it even better. In this guide you will find information on the latest beta releases and how to get started. Check back regularly for updates.

The public beta program is still strange to me. The seeds as they stand are still quite buggy but in obvious self-evident ways, ways that don’t need hundreds of thousands of ordinary users to test the OS and report back. If Public Beta members do report bugs, I am sceptical that they bring up new issues that Apple’s internal QA team or the developer community hasn’t already found at this ‘early’ stage in the cycle (seed 3).

Also, I’d love to see data on how many people running the public betas even bother to use the Feedback Assistant at all. I think most people that join do so just to be part of the ‘cool’ club running prerelease operating systems. They don’t have the motivation1 nor technical knowledge to post useful bug reports.

Running a public beta program is a huge endeavour, especially when you consider the additional costs on Apple Support when something goes wrong, for what I see as little upside.

1 Heck, most developers don’t bother reporting bugs either.

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