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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.

Student iCloud Account Limits

25 March 2018

Bradley Chambers:

Managed Apple IDs are also not as private as regular accounts. The IT administrator can change your password or delete your account. They are useful because schools can roll them out to teachers and students to use with their Apple devices.

One key feature of these Apple IDs lack is iCloud storage upgrades. There is no way for the school or the end-user to buy additional storage. The accounts are limited to 5 GB each. The low storage total means that students can’t rely on iCloud Photo Library for media syncing (iPhone video to iPad for editing) without continually having to delete content. This limit will hinder a student’s ability to store large Keynote documents in iCloud Drive. If teachers have a managed Apple ID from the school, they will face the same limitations. Again, there is no way around this. These accounts simply do not support upgrades.

These are incredibly basic changes that are critically important to expanding the appeal of iOS deployments to schools. The 5 GB storage stinginess has been written about so much as a mainstream customer complaint, but at least it is possible to pay for more. Limiting school-managed accounts to 5 GB per user, with no expansion options offered, is just crippling. Of course, Tuesday’s event at a Chicago school would be the perfect venue to address these pain points but will they? These are not fresh complaints; the problems have existed for years.

There’s no way a student can be expected to get through years of modern schooling with a 5 GB storage drive. Pushing the free tier one level higher (making 50 GB standard for everyone) would probably be enough. Apple could make special exceptions for education deployments, but it’d be nice if 50 GB became the new baseline for all Apple hardware customers. Apple would still have plenty of up-sell subscription opportunities with the higher 200 GB and 2 TB tiers, that include family sharing perks.

WWDC 2018

13 March 2018

Apple:

When technology connects with creativity, incredible ideas come to life. This summer, we invite thousands of talented minds from around the world to join us and turn their ideas into reality.

Ever since 2013, the artwork and imagery for WWDC has been very abstract. Incongruous shapes, outlines, geometric patterns, cartoon heads. 2018 is my favourite ‘WWDC look’ probably ever. Launching the webpage plays a beautiful animation of iOS and macOS widgets popping out of the graph paper surface in three dimensions, as if they were carved from glass and stone.

Despite the monochrome colour palette, it is not dull. It’s beautiful. The Messages bubble is just sitting there with transparent sides with internal reflections that define cavities in the glass. The plus-minus stepper isn’t a uniform block of glass; the symbols engraved on top refract into the internal structure. The design is as abstract as ever and yet — at the same time — very relatable. I love it.

Now, it’s possible to see the use of depth, gloss and shadows and immediately make connection to real products. The iOS 7 sterile era of design is finally being washed away! Not so fast. Very rarely do invite graphics have anything to do with the product roadmap and I would not see this as a serious clue that major visual changes are mere months away.

This year, we are expecting an iterative iOS and macOS update with focuses on underlying unification of frameworks, performance and stability. I think we are due for an aesthetics update but I don’t take these renderings as evidence that it is happening. Maybe 2019.

Rumoured MacBook Air Changes

5 March 2018

9to5Mac:

Kuo says that he expects Apple to release a new MacBook Air “with a lower price tag” during the second quarter of 2018, meaning we should see it sooner rather than later. The analyst expects that the more affordable MacBook Air will help push MacBook shipments up by 10-15 percent this year.

For years, critics (including me) have complained that the stagnant MacBook Air does not represent $999 worth of value anymore. Whilst it is refreshing to hear news about the product being given serious attention and the rumour technically answers the criticism, it’s not following the spirit of what people wanted. Rather than modernise its screen quality and bezel design, they are apparently making it cheaper. It’s almost like Apple is doing everything possible to not put a Retina display on the MacBook Air.

Samsung Galaxy S9

27 February 2018

The Samsung Galaxy S9 is a straightforward update over the predecessor, it’s definitely in the same bucket as iPhone 8 as far as year-over-year change is concerned. The S8 was already leading the bezel-less design trend so external chassis changes aren’t really needed for the device to be competitive.

One flagship feature is Samsung’s Animoji ‘clone’ that strays way too far into the uncanny valley, using low-poly human models instead of cute cartoon animals. I really don’t think it is going to be received well. Apple’s strategy to bring 3D emoji to life is a much better approach. The brain is much more forgiving about a rendering of something that isn’t trying to look like the real world. Samsung’s “AR Emoji” will come across as creepy to some, and poor quality to most. Also, for some inexplicable reason, the UI for creating one of these ‘characters’ presents a paragraph of legalese to the user.

Another headline feature is the new camera which can physically change apertures based on lighting conditions. This sounds clever, and it’s certainly novel for a phone, but I’m hesitant to praise it until reviewers post photo comparisons. On the video side, Samsung is touting ‘Super Slow-mo’ video recording.

Samsung describes this as 960 FPS video, but it’s not that simple. For starters, the frame-rate is limited to 720p resolution. More significantly, the phone can only actually record at 960 FPS, for 0.2 seconds. It’s not like a normal slow-mo capture that can shoot for minutes. The S9 lets you capture a moment that lasts a fifth of a second in real world time and replay it as a six second slow-mo video.

This isn’t a useless capability, you could get some cool shots of bottle corks popping for instance, but branding it as ’960 FPS’ really stretches the truth. The phone simply can’t record 960 frames over a second. It irks me. This isn’t intended to be a one-dimensional post bashing Samsung, I would be just as upset if Apple pulled the same stunt.

Apple Music First Impressions

15 February 2018

When I got my HomePod last week, the setup cards prompted me to start an Apple Music trial. Despite launching in 2015, my free three months of Apple Music had not been used on my Apple ID. I am not invested in music; I don’t have eclectic tastes or favourite artists. I like anything in the charts. As a family, we buy a few compilation albums a year and that’s about it. We are content with sharing that library and listening to some stuff from YouTube.

This means, on price alone, it didn’t represent value. Our yearly spend on music is in the region of £40-50. A single Apple Music subscription is £10 a month or £120 a year. You can buy a year upfront and save £20. Either way, it’s not cheaper than our total bill from casual album purchases.

It gets worse when you consider Family Sharing. iTunes purchased can be shared for no additional charge. A family Apple Music plan is £15 a month, £180 a year. iTunes music can be shared limitlessly, it’s DRM free after all. Apple Music family tier covers six people; a little awkward for our seven-person family but workable.

All these evaluations were made before the HomePod existed of course. When I got mine, I knew I couldn’t give it a fair shot without going all in, at least giving Apple the satisfaction of finally consuming my 3 month subscription gratis.

HomePod can work with your iTunes Match library but it really does benefit from the subscription access to any song in the world. HomePod is a natural device to start an automatic personalised playlist and just let the music wash over you all day long.

I’m relatively happy with the service. Apple Music did not ruin my library of downloaded albums in iTunes. If anything, it was almost too conservative. iCloud Music Library uploaded a sizeable chunk of my library that it really didn’t need to do, including some tracks that I’m pretty sure originated from iTunes Store. For unknown reasons, these songs were not detected by the Apple Music matching algorithms. I have started manually deleting the ‘uploaded’ tracks and bringing them back to my library by adding them from the Apple Music directory.

Outside of complaints I have with the Music app (and Apple’s iOS designs) as a whole, the ‘For You’ and ‘Browse’ sections are nicely arranged. I thought I knew what Apple Music offered from my journalistic interests, but I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and breadth of curated playlists available. I think I’m Apple Music’s ideal customer in terms of my music interests; mainstream pop. Most of the recommendations are on point.

My biggest disappointment, and complaint, does not come from the smart side of Apple Music. It’s the content directory that is a let down. It’s stuck in the past, just like the iTunes Music Store. The archaic concept of a standard album and a deluxe album are still in use. It’s a digitisation of a physical CD inventory, not a modern reset.

If I stumble across ‘Shake It Off’, there’s a good chance the Music app will tell me I don’t have it in my library. I do, it’s on the Taylor Swift album ‘1989’. Of course, my library contains songs from ’1989 (Deluxe)’, not ‘1989’. This is stupid and the duplication should have died away long ago. A ‘Deluxe’ album has no need to exist on an unlimited music streaming service.

These artefacts of compact discs show up again when looking at an artist page. What a human would think of as an artist’s albums, and what Apple Music lists, are completely different. EPs, singles, specials, deluxe, originals are all shoehorned under one name ‘Albums’. There is no way to filter these out. This really makes finding what you want hard. When you know what you want to find, all this backwardly organised catalogue gets in your way.

There has to be a better method than packaging everything up with the same ‘album’ label. This is not a hard problem, I thought to myself. In fact, it’s already been solved … by Spotify. As you have probably noticed by now, I have included a graphical illustration of Apple Music’s biggest flaw alongside this article. If you can’t see it, your browser isn’t wide enough. If you are reading outside of a browser, like RSS, this probably won’t show up for you either. Use a browser. I encountered this exact scenario in my first day of using the service. I did not fabricate it.

After my trial began, I wanted to get all of Ed Sheeran’s albums into my personal library. I went to Search. I typed ‘ed sheeran’. It found his profile. I tapped the link to See All albums. I was promptly presented with a very long list of things that no human would describe as his ‘albums’. 57 individual items. It is good that all of this content is available on the service, but it should not be misappropriated as an album. With the Music app’s presentation of large artwork for each, two per row, it took me a while to scroll through and dig out what I actually was looking for. What made this harder was Sheeran’s publisher chose near-identical artwork for content released around the same time. You need to squint to find the actual albums in the sea of miscellany. It really was like Where’s Wally.

I was disappointed. The sheen of the Apple Music experience vanished. A few hours later, I thought to myself someone really should do a better job at this. Intrigued, I loaded up Spotify. Lo and behold, Ed Sheeran’s albums page is as you would expect. Humane.

The Spotify screenshot is long gone off the top of the viewport. The Apple Music equivalent scroll view is (probably) still on screen.

Bloomberg Details Apple's Revised Software Development Strategy

13 February 2018

Bloomberg:

Instead of keeping engineers on a relentless annual schedule and cramming features into a single update, Apple will start focusing on the next two years of updates for its iPhone and iPad operating system, according to people familiar with the change. The company will continue to update its software annually, but internally engineers will have more discretion to push back features that aren’t as polished to the following year.

It sure looks like this is a case of the feedback loop working. The Apple community complains about software quality, the executive team reviews procedures and makes structural changes. It sounds like engineering will now have less pressure to ship features within the one-year cycle with more flexibility to take their time and potentially push work that is lagging behind to the following year. Do a few things well. Time will tell if this strategy succeeds; it could backfire if too much stuff gets punted to the next release.

As an outsider, I think it’s hard to really assess whether these changes are meaningful rather than empty, ambitious, words. However, I’m glad the way it is portrayed in the Bloomberg report indicates it is a deeper shift of philosophy rather than a one-time focus for iOS 12 followed by a return to the status quo.

In other new tidbits in this report, Gurman says Animoji will come to FaceTime, there’ll be a new Stocks app, and Siri will be more deeply integrated into Spotlight. The cross-platform app project is still on track apparently, which will easily represent the biggest change to macOS in five years. watchOS and tvOS aren’t mentioned in this article; it was previously stated that the development plan for these OS’s had not changed from the norm.

Major iPad-specific changes are seemingly delayed until 2019. This doesn’t bother me too much, obviously people want stuff as soon as possible but the point of this whole exercise is that resource tradeoffs must be made, but I hope they can fit in some minor tweaks to the multitasking model. It’s crazy to me that you can swipe from the right on iPad and be in a state where nothing happens. Literally nothing. If an app isn’t in Slide Over, it should present a recent apps list window as a navigational fallback.

Confirm With Side Button

5 February 2018

9to5Mac:

Originally, the purchase prompt window in iOS 11 would say “Double Click to Pay” in the upper-right corner next to the side button. Once you did that, the Face ID authentication prompt would appear. While this process was seamless in terms of design, it drew criticism from many users who said it wasn’t very intuitive.

With iOS 11.3, however, Apple has added a new prompt that appears before the Face ID process begins. At the bottom of the purchase window, you’ll now see a “Confirm with Side Button” instruction with an accompanying graphic.

Apple is extremely consistent with how it describes user interactions. A tap means to touch the screen. Firmly press means a 3D Touch gesture. A click is a depression of a physical button. This language is applied universally across Apple marketing and support documentation.

Nevertheless, this terminology is used so much interchangeably in common speech that the strict Apple definitions are easily forgotten. You need more than a change of wording to cause a pattern interrupt that forces the brain to break out of its primed touchscreen behaviour and think about doing something other than taps and swipes.

I saw plenty of people on Twitter confused by the ‘Double Click to Pay’ screen when iPhone X was new. The UI failed to express intent, despite the animated white indicator which slides in and out to imitate pressing in the side button at the exact point of the screen where the physical button is located.

This interface was actually first used on Apple Watch. When you go into the Wallet app directly, and select a bank card, the same text appears with the same animation sized to match the watch’s side button. Given the response to the very-similar iPhone experience, it probably confuses just as many people on watchOS too in percentage terms; the difference being that the number of times this UI is seen is far less as it’s more buried in a less-used operating system.

The change introduced in iOS 11.3 hopefully adds clarity to the interaction. It adds an icon of an iPhone X with an arrow pointing to the side button, alongside text that reads ‘Confirm with Side Button’. That should be enough to nudge people into doing the right thing.

iOS 12 Rumoured To Prioritise Bug Fixes Over New Features

1 February 2018

Axios:

Apple has shaken up its iOS software plans for 2018, delaying some features to next year in an effort to put more focus on addressing performance and quality issues, Axios has learned.

Software head Craig Federighi announced the revised plan to employees at a meeting earlier this month, shortly before he and some top lieutenants headed to a company offsite.

Pushed into 2019 are a number of features including a refresh of the home screen and in-car user interfaces, improvements to core apps like mail and updates to the picture-taking, photo editing and sharing experiences.

On Twitter, I joked that people are probably happy to hear that Apple is focusing on bug fixes and performance enhancements over raw features, until you hear about what has been shelved to make it happen. A new home screen is basically what everyone who says ‘iOS is boring’ wants. I’d like to see it get some attention, not for novelty but because the current rigid grid is of a different era. The fixed row and column layout worked great on 3.5-inch and 4-inch screens but now that device displays are at least 5 inches tall, the screen would benefit from a rethinking. The base behaviour of icons filling from the top left goes against design guidelines to put important interface elements within reach of a user’s fingers.

If you conducted a poll of iPhone customers whether they want a new Springboard or a raft of performance and reliability improvements, no question the result would be in favour of the former. ‘New and shiny’ is addictive and tough to turn down. This is a classic case of the customer not always being right. The current home screen concept is not broken or offensive. For the most part, it still serves its role as a simple, easy to use, switchboard to opening apps.

A perception that iPhones are buggy, slow and unreliable is something that hurts the Apple brand if it persists, affecting all of Apple’s products. This notion, whether it is real or not, has to be addressed. A lot of this falls to marketing to explain and inform the state of play; the iPhone battery throttling saga is an example of where PR messed up.

Some responsibility has to be borne by the engineering group. iOS and macOS have a variety of issues that impact various subsets of the user base. Headlines of Apple software quality being poor are reinforced in a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ manner. Everybody has their own little problems to keep the story kindling on. Is it worse than any other year? Only Apple has the answer to that question but it doesn’t really matter.

An undercurrent of dissatisfaction has built up to a point where it demands proactive attention, amplified by an unfortunate string of software problems seen in the last quarter of 2017. The best way to tackle a perception is to make changes to the products. Fix bugs. Work on small things that have previously been too far down the list to get around to in the face of a release schedule pushing for X new features. Make slow things faster. Make things faster that nobody complained about being slow before.

Collectively, people have short memories. A few months of seeming stability will appease the angry people and quell the negative narratives with changes that are disproportionate to the current outcry. Dedicating time to performance and reliability is a thankless job but it will do the trick.

Long term, I don’t know how Apple prevents this same cycle of happiness, discontent, and anger, from happening again without deeper structural changes in organisation and management. Like, how is software quality affected when iOS 13 reverts back to a release where employees are stretched to deliver new features?

HomePod Launching February 9 Without Multi-Room Features

25 January 2018

Apple:

HomePod, the innovative wireless speaker from Apple, arrives in stores beginning Friday, February 9 and is available to order online this Friday, January 26 in the US, UK and Australia. HomePod will arrive in France and Germany this spring.

The HomePod was presented at WWDC as a Sonos competitor first, Echo competitor second.

Everyone has different accounts of how well Siri works for them, but I think it’s fair to say that it is at least up to par on the fundamental things that people use the current generation of smart assistants for (weathers, timer, music control). I also think Siri beats out Google and Amazon in terms of interacting with smart home accessories using natural language, dependent on the user having HomeKit compatible equipment. No AI assistant is close to good enough yet; AI is a burgeoning field and there is a long roadmap for Siri, Alexa and the innominate Google Assistant to grow. I am hopeful that Apple can be at the leading edge of the space, despite Apple letting Siri languish as a largely unchanged feature for years since its original 2011 debut.

Pre-empting the reviews, the biggest barrier to HomePod competing with the other smart cylinders is simply the prohibitive price. If you just want a faceless assistant in your living room, the HomePod isn’t really a good option because you are paying for features (speaker quality) that you probably don’t care about.

To justify the higher price, the music side of the HomePod story has to be very good, close to excellent even. Based on whispers, I think it’s going to impress normal consumers and audiophiles with industry-leading sound in its form factor class. Whether the appeal of premium audio is too niche is another matter. I also prefer how the HomePod looks as an object compared to Sonos’ latest speakers, the Echo cylinders and Google’s Home Max. The best sound in the prettiest package. That’s a pretty good sales pitch.

However, there’s more to competing with Sonos than having the best standalone compact speaker. A big draw of Sonos is that you can stream music through your whole home with multiple speakers in different rooms all synced up to the same audio stream. The HomePod was intended to have exactly these capabilities; multi-room playback and the ability to use two HomePods as a stereo pair. Both of these features are not shipping at launch. This undermines the product substantially as you can’t reasonably compete in the modern home audio market without multi-room synced music, I’d bet the average Sonos owner has more than one speaker for instance. Apple knows that these are critical elements of the product’s appeal; you don’t have to scroll that far down the HomePod page to see them advertised, albeit with ‘coming later this year’ banners.

These drawbacks dilute the original concept that Apple laid out at WWDC and the 1.0 will not fulfil the vision of a true smart Sonos replacement. I’m sure there’s an interesting behind-the-scenes story on why AirPlay 2 has caused them so many internal setbacks. It’s embarrassing to announce a product, then delay it, then release with a stripped down offering of features from what they originally sold people on.

My guess is that when Apple made the decision to delay HomePod into early 2018, they thought that the multi-room AirPlay 2 stack would be ready to go with just a few more weeks of work. It has since transpired that it is actually going to take months to finish it up, and a product manager made the call to ship the HomePod as is, without these features. Note that if you are only buying one unit, you aren’t actually affected by this. Ideally, multi-room will be ready for the holiday season and Apple can encourage everyone that owns one to take advantage of it.

All that being said, I am glad Apple is making this product and I am optimistic it will be a beloved item for people that stretch their wallets to buy it. Whether it will be a commercial business success, with millions of units sold, is a different matter entirely. HomePod straddles the line between a standalone product and ecosystem accessory.

Apple Will Let Users Disable Throttling On iPhones With Degraded Batteries

18 January 2018

9to5Mac:

Apple had already said that a future iOS update will give users more insight into the state of their battery. In an interview with ABC News, Tim Cook was asked for his take on Apple slowing down iPhones with degraded batteries. He revealed that the developer beta including these features will be released next month, with a public release to follow after.

Moreover, he says that this forthcoming update will give users the option to disable the throttling to maintain normal CPU performance but be at risk of unexpected shutdowns.

In the long run, I hope Apple can ship iPhones with batteries that are able to deliver peak energy loads for many years. Battery tech is slow, who knows how long this will take to come to market, but that’s the obvious ultimate solution even if it’s a far-off goal.

The short-term response from Apple to apologise for poor communication, promise to add better battery health statistics to iOS and discount battery replacements felt like a solid counter to the criticism and seemingly assuaged most of the people who were upset — including myself.

I struggle to see the motivation for Apple to go further and make the behaviour optional. The existence of this setting, which will be available in a iOS developer beta released next month, is a contradiction of what Apple said in the public apology letter. The letter intelligently argues that the throttling was put in place to improve the user experience. With that context taken as truth, this revelation from Cook is essentially an announcement of a feature that users can enable to make their experience worse.

Apple has made a name for themselves as the company that makes hard decisions and believes in them. That philosophy is arguably the reason they have been so successful as a brand. Historically, Apple has made controversial design choices and backed them with conviction in the face of public outcry. Headphone jacks, optical drives, Adobe Flash. It bears the brunt of the criticism because the company believed that they would ultimately be right. (And they were.)

In this instance, making the throttling behaviour optional feels like the easy way out, not the best way. It will certainly stop the lawsuits dead in their tracks and silence the vocal minority, but is it the best move for the iPhone as a product? I’m not convinced. Every new setting comes at a cost. Apple is putting the burden on customers to make a choice that I don’t think people should have to worry about.

Sharing Links From iOS Twitter Appends Garbage To The URL

10 January 2018

There’s been a change to the official Twitter app in the last few months that affects anyone who tries to share a URL from inside the app. Using the standard activity view controller, recognised as the system share sheet, the Twitter app surreptitiously appends some query string parameters to the original URL.

The query parameters are effectively garbage to end-users that have no utility to anyone but Twitter itself. There’s honestly not much Twitter can do with it either apart from some very coarse tracking of user behaviour.

If the user commits to sharing the URL without amending the link, Twitter can see that its iOS app was the origin of the engagement if that URL is posted publicly.

Query parameters are just plain text. They can’t snoop in iMessage conversations or your private email. If someone re-shares the link to a public website or social network post, then theoretically Twitter knows that at some point that URL was made from its iOS app.

Here’s an example of an URL that Twitter mangled when I shared my profile in the Twitter app to the Messages app.

http://twitter.com/bzamayo?ref_src=twcamp%5Eshare%7Ctwsrc%5Eios%7Ctwgr%5Ecom.apple.UIKit.activity.Message

Focusing on the query string only, the bit after the question mark, the weird percent signs look scary but that’s just an artefact of forming a valid URL. The entities can be easily decoded to give a relatively human readable result:

ref_src=twcamp^share|twsrc^ios|twgr^com.apple.UIKit.activity.Message

It’s not hard to see here what information Twitter is trying to attach to the original URL; the action came from a share sheet on iOS, and it was shared to the Messages app extension. The bit after the ‘twgr^’ is the activity type of the particular share action selected.

Whilst there isn’t a directory of activity types to lookup, it’s not hard to track them down as they start with the app bundle identifier. Apple provides a bunch of built-in ones with the com.apple.UIKit.activity prefix and third party apps tend to use obvious names. If you share to Bear, the string will literally contain the words ‘Bear-iPhone-Sharing-Extension’. One of the more obtuse ones I’ve seen is com.tinyspeck.chatlyio.share … but a quick Google search reveals that it represents the Slack sharing extension.

The fact that the last component changes dynamically based on what action the user selects feels invasive if you don’t know what’s going on at the API level. Users are told that the activity share sheet is managed by Apple so instinctively it feels like being able to grab the activity type is nefarious.

In reality, this is very easily achieved. As part of the activity provider API, the system asks for content to share for each sharing extension the user has installed. The Apple framework openly passes the activity type to the app. Twitter simply takes the base URL it wants to share and appends the ‘garbage’ before returning.

If you are interested in the technical implementation, here’s a working code snippet. Even if you are not a programmer, the brevity highlights that there isn’t anything fancy going on here.

The important thing to note here is that the mechanism is innocuous and uses valid APIs provided by Apple. Twitter is not exploiting private APIs to achieve this. A cursory look at the app review guidelines suggests to me there are no grounds for Apple to scold Twitter (or any other app) for doing it.

My personal stance is that this is annoying but does not violate user privacy. Importantly, Twitter cannot append arbitrary information to its URLs system-wide; it is confined to cases where users share something from inside the Twitter app itself. I don’t really see a justification for Apple to amend the guidelines to disallow it. I just take it as another reason not to use the official Twitter app.

Apple Investors Push For Better iOS Parental Controls

8 January 2018

Think Differently About Kids:

Based on the best available research, enhancing mobile device software so that parents (if they wish) can implement changes so that their child or teenager is not being handed the same phone as a 40-year old, just as most products are made safer for younger users. For example, the initial setup menu could be expanded so that, just as users choose a language and time zone, parents can enter the age of the user and be given age-appropriate setup options based on the best available research including limiting screen time, restricting use to certain hours, reducing the available number of social media sites, setting up parental monitoring, and many other options.

There’s definitely a debate about how much parents should oversee their child’s usage of technology and in what form, whether guidance should be through advisory discussions, active enforcement with software restrictions, or a combination of both. I do not want to speak for the validity of the research cited in the linked open letter.

On Android, it is possible to download a parental controls app. You have to sign your privacy away to a third-party service that you can’t really trust but it is possible. The locked-down sandboxed security model of iOS means an aftermarket app cannot get low-level enough to override app launches and stuff like that.

This means the onus is on Apple to provide functionality like allowing access to apps during specific time windows or keeping an activity log of open apps so parents can see what their child has been up to.

I think Apple should offer these features and leave it up to the discretion of individual families as to how they are used, if at all. The fact that iOS has a Restrictions feature already says to me that Apple does not hold a principled stance against parental controls, just the current offering in iOS is lacking.

I would expect that any parental guidance features introduced in a future iOS would make it abundantly clear when they are used. Apple would not let parents secretly spy on their kids. Apple already does explicit signposting for phones that are being managed by an enterprise deployment system which has the potential for administrators to track the device location and supervise usage. Enforced Parental Controls would get similar labels.