Thursday, May 27, 2010
So while I respect Apple's reasons for being slow to adopt 3rd party app multitasking for the iPhone and - with up to 7 different APIs for developers to choose from to best suit their app - I'm very enthused about how Apple is implementing it, I'm getting anxious - if not foaming at the mouth - waiting for this feature to arrive.
It will be a great leap forward for the iPhone and its users. Take the example I used above with being able to pull up iTunes from any radio app. The possibilities for apps working with other apps in a symbiotic fashion are exciting and can only make the iPhone platform more appealing for developers and users alike.
So not only can I not wait for app-wide multitasking on the iPhone, I also can't wait to see how it expands the possibilities of what some of my favorite apps can already do.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
As for my take, the number of apps available for the iPhone was a Big Deal when the iPhone and app store were still reaching out to new customers. It was important to show that the app store had developers behind it and that it was a thriving ecosystem. Now after 2 years of having the app store and 3 years of the iPhone, I think it’s safe to say that Apple has achieved the respectability and market penetration it desired to call the whole iPhone ecosystem a success.
From here on out, the number of apps doesn’t really matter like it once did, and as John accurately notes it can only lead to ammunition for Apple’s mobile competitors as the Android ecosystem tries to catch up. Time for Apple to make another trademark maneuver and change the rules before the market catches up. Focus on the few remaining markets the iPhone hasn’t penetrated before settling in as the leader not in total market share, but in high revenue market share - just like where the Mac platform sits today.
In the meantime, I would like to see Apple diverst some of its attention back to the iTMS ecosystem (particularly AppleTV, NOW before GoogleTV makes it irrelevant), change MobileMe's iDisk to allow transparent access to you hub Mac's My Documents folder from any iDevice (just like DropBox), and maybe clean up the OS X GUI a little bit more. They are amongst the few significant holes in Apple's digital hub architecture, but like any hole left open it's just opening the door for a competitor to come in and exploit it.
Friday, May 21, 2010
I thought wrong.
Since the announcement, my desires have descended into frustration and is now borderline outrage. Before I had no problem sitting down in front of my hub Mac and spending 15 minutes (or more) organizing my 11 pages of apps. But now, forget it. I've given up on organizing my apps all together.
Being able to organize your apps in iTunes was a much needed step for the iPhone, but it always was a crutch solution. The real problem was that 11 pages of apps was just ridiculous. I gave up on scrolling past the 5th screen a long time ago and have now gotten quite comfortable using Spotlight to find the app I want. I'd say that's quite a pretty impressive behavior change coming from someone who still rarely uses Spotlight on the Mac.
So how's that working for me? Not as bad as you might think. The Spotlight search is awesome as I can find most apps just by typing in 3 letters. And it's smart too. When I was following the NCAA men's basketball tournament using CBS' March Madness app, I would just start typing "NCAA" and Spotlight found the March Madness app before I was finished typing, even though NCAA doesn't appear in the app name. Cool stuff!
Still, I find myself denouncing my iPhone more and more for not giving me a better way to organize my apps than trying to keep related apps (ex. news, sports, weather) together on the same page. How much longer can this behavior continue? Please Apple, don't make me find out. Give us iPhone OS v.4 sooner rather than later.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
I just went to Target, looked at what they had - which was about 12 printers all within all between $80 and $135 - and just went with the most expensive model. I tried to compare features, but they all seemed the same. Except this HP seemed to be the only one that supported wireless printing, something that I don't see myself needing but could be very useful in the future, in addition to several other features that I really don't think I need either.
But to really understand why I got this printer, you would have to have lived with my Canon i9100 for a while. I've had it for almost 7 years and even then I bought it used off of E-Bay as I was cheap back then. The appeal then was that Canon i9100 allowed you to print your own 17x9 prints. I had dreams of filling my walls with awesome prints of my awesome photos.
However the dream quickly led to reality, and it wasn't pretty. For example:
- Keep those ink cartridges fresh: there was nothing worse than starting one of those large 17x9 prints and watching white lines appear in the middle of the photo because at least one of the ink jets got clogged. At roughly 75 cents for a sheet of 17x9 paper and expensive ink, you could see your money go down the drain.
- Oh, and just because each color comes in its own cartridge means that you just have to change that much more cartridges. I swear the ink would evaporate if the printer sat.
- 17x9 photos are a little wider than your typical 4x6, and if you frame your photos are carefully as possible this could have a dramatic affect on your prints
- Also while 17x9" was a nice wide print, good luck finding any frames that can fit them.
- Back when I first got the printer, most of my photos had been shot on a 3 megapixel camera. Even though 3 megapixels are more than enough for good 4x6 prints, printing them up to 17x9 often meant the prints were blurry when viewed up close.
Ultimately it became apparent that this was the kind of printer for someone who runs their own photo labs. Someone who prints every day. So it was with great sadness as I watched this printer drain my pocketbook with every $50 set of ink cartridges (and that was off of eBay, retail price would be $78 + tax!). Actually I didn't realize it, I denied it. But in the last year even I could not ignore the fact that the printer couldn't produce any color besides red and black accurately and having to run the printer utility to unclog the print head before almost every use. I finally had to admit that I not only needed a new printer, but this printer has been one of the worst investments I've ever made.
I briefly considered getting another Canon 17x9 printer. But with their current model running $450 on Amazon, knowing that I can comparably sized prints from Walgreens or Sam's Club for well below $20 and remembering how much hassle the i9100 was, I gave up the dream.
So here am I with a new printer in front of me ready to be setup this weekend. Will I finally be able to print my own prints when I need them now? Will I still have to replace ink ever few months even if I haven't been using the printer? Stay tuned, I'm excited to put an end to one of my worst chapters in home electronics and open a hopefully much happier new one.
Tuesday, April 20, 2010
I've been wanting folders on my iPhone almost as long as there has been an app store. It's not just that I keep filling my iPhone up with apps - my iPhone is filled right now and I've deleted several dozen apps off my iPhone in the past couple of years. It's about organization.
I like to keep several different apps that present the same information in different ways. For example, for general news I usually use USA Today's very polished iPhone app. But sometimes I like to use Google News, and some other times AP News, and still other times the NY Times. I like the diversity and being able to try out different sources.
I can easily dedicate separate screens for all my sports apps, weather apps, music apps, arcade games, brainteasers, etc. I have far more apps than Apple has screens for. While Apple tried to help by upping the number of home screens to 11 with iPhone OS 3.0, it was Pyrrhic victory. I don't even scroll past the 6th screen anymore, I hit the home button, scroll one screen left to the spotlight search, and start typing in the app name. It works really well and I have to say, maybe Apple did this on purpose to get me to use the spotlight search. OK, probably not, but it's worked out well for me.
So thank you Apple for finally getting us folders on the iPhone. Hands-down my favorite new feature, even though it is long overdue.
This is the feature that everyone on the Internet seemed to be talking about. And almost every one of them said it was needed because they listen to Pandora and hated having to stop the music just to check their e-mail, send a text message, etc. Seriously, it really did seem like that. Then a few weeks ago I started to have the same problem - not with Pandora because I rarely listen to it but with several other radio apps I use (WunderRadio, KCRW, and my beloved but late WOXY).
So finally Apple will give us multitasking. Actually, 7 different flavors of multitasking. Don't worry, for us they will all taste the same, the different varieties are for the developers to choose which option will work for them. One flavor is specifically aimed to keep music playing in the background when you switch to another app, just like the iPod app already enjoys. Another flavor will be aimed for applications like Skype that just need to sit in the background until summoned.
This is seriously cool. Apple's reasons for withholding multitasking until now - fear of complicating the user experience, a lack of available RAM in earlier iPhones and the potential energy consumption from letting too many apps run around just to name a few - do make some sense. Without an elegant way to manage multiple running applications, the iPhone's trademark simplicity could be compromised and battery life could be severely reduced. In concept at least, it appears that Apple has found a balancing point between all these issues.
Most importantly, if you have friends who are Droid fanatics like I do you can finally tell them to shut up already. And if they still give you flack, be sure to point out how many task manager apps there are in the Android app store. And how many of those sell like hotcakes. But only if they throw the first stone, don't be that guy who brags about all his phones' cool features. Not only is just the wrong thing to do, but also because in 6 months the Android will roll out some cool feature that the iPhone can't touch.
- Game Center
I don't want to get to deep into this because I plan to blog about this separately. But here's a tale of two games. I downloaded a game, Words Free, based on reputation and it's reasonable, impulse shopping-friendly price (free!). This Scrabble knock-off was a winner simply because I was playing against real people and it was fascinating to me to build an impression of someone just because of the words they played. Similarly I downloaded Monopoly a couple of weeks later expecting the same experience. Sadly I was crushed when I fired up the game and saw that there was no playing other players beyond your living room or wi-fi network. It almost goes without saying that the computer AI was no match for a real person, and after about 5 games I gave up on this app.
As inexcusable as it is to me to not incorporate Internet play on an iPhone board game, now Apple will truly make it inexcusable for all developers.
- Enterprise Features
While I won't be using these directly, anything that brings me closer to my dream of accessing my work e-mail on my iPhone is a pretty big deal.
Unlike a lot of people, I have no problem with iAd (except for the name, anybody else getting tired of the i-names yet?). I accept that advertising, even in-app advertising, is necessary for many apps to survive. At least iAd gives advertisers a chance to make the typical in-app ad for more friendly. Being able to click on an ad and not have it open a Safari window is already a 1000% better than how it works today. If more ads were fun and tied in with the app you're using, everybody wins.
- Local Notifications
To me this is part of multitasking. Apps that are in the background can notify you when they need attention. Uhm, yeah what else are they going to do, bounce up and down on a dock?
- Custom Backgrounds
Another bragging point for Droid users and jailbreakers. Nice, especially in conjuction with folders, but nothing worth high-fiving about.
- Enhanced E-mail
Probably will be useful, but it really doesn't stand out to me. Maybe I need more e-mail accounts?
Well this just makes too much sense not to happen. Of course if you buy iBooks for your iPad you should be able to have them on your iPhone. And of course if you have an iPad you'll only read these iBooks on you iPhone only if your iPad is 1) out of battery life 2) left at home or 3) being used by another family member.
- Fast App Switching
Also part of multitasking, when you switch back to an app that you had previously opened, it will reawaken in the same state as you left it. Well duh, that how it should work. This isn't a feature, it's a right.
- 5x Digital Zoom
This is a joke, right? No "finally" here, the iPhone still doesn't get an optical zoom yet Apple is bragging about a built-in digital zoom?
- Other Stuff
Gizmondo has a very good run down of at least a couple other dozen features that are too small to mention on their own, but they are almost all pretty good. In particular I'm interested in the ability to create your own playlists in the iPod app, which is an interesting change of pace from Apple's philosophy to do most if not all of your organizing on you hub Mac and not on your cloud devices (iPhones, iTouchs, iPads). Hmm, could an album creator be far behind for the iPhone's Photos app? Please Apple, please?
Finally, what other things should the next version of the iPhone have? While writing this article I came up with a few:
- Add basic photo editing tools to the Photo app, much like Apple did for video in last iPhone software revision
- Rename the photo app to iPhoto, then try adding more features from the desktop version to the iPhone version. At least let me sync my iPhoto slideshows to my iPhone through the Photo app, and not store them as movies in my desktop iTunes library.
- Trimming video in the Camera app is great, but would it be too much to ask for some cropping tools too?
- Optical zoom and better low-light photography for the phone. OK, the zoom is hardware and this was a software-only announcement, but it really is time for an optical zoom on the iPhone.
Have your own wishes? I'd love to hear them so please drop them off in a comment below.
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Justifiying his iconoclatic stance, chief information officer (CIO) Ravi Simhambhatla told The Register "I don't want to cater to one hardware or one software platform one way to another, and Flash eliminates iPhone users. This year is going to be the year of the mobile [for Virgin]."
Ravi goes on to explain that once the standard is ratified, the Virgin American airline website will also move to HTML5. I'll bet that statement brought a lot of smiles to some folks at Cupertino and Mountain View, CA.
The most important point in the article however is not that Flash is evil or open-technologies are inherently superior, it is the importance of understanding what your customers want, determining and weighing the pros and cons of the available technologies and then making the best possible choice.
Ravi nails it in this one succint quote: "Flash is really, really good, but as long as you can keep the hardware controlled...If the hardware you are trying to put your product on isn't [controlled] then Flash is questionable."
In Virgin's case they decided that Flash wasn't the best choice for their website, based on Flash's performance, its inability to reach iPhone users, and how it played a limited, nearly inconsequential role on their existing website. But before anyone declares Flash dead, note that Virgin Airlines will use Flash for their upcoming check-in kiosk system based on its ability to provide a rich interactive experience in a controlled environment.
So today I congratulate Virgin Airlines for their pragmatic approach to incorporating technology for the benefit of their customers. Not that I think they'll need it. Usually when companies make informed technology decisions instead of "going with the flow" or following a prevalent ideaology, the customer wins. And happy customers almost always turn into repeat customers. That's how to do business.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Wow, roughly 1/4 of all humans have access to the Internet? Over 80% of e-mail is spam? FaceBook page views outpaced MySpace by over 10:1?
One question it didn't pose was with FaceBook and YouTube serving up so many page views and videos, respectively, when will either of them start turning a profit (if ever)?
Thursday, February 25, 2010
We all know the annoyance of Web ads written in Flash or videos played through Flash that do everything possible to get our attention, no matter how much we want to just get on with the task that got us to this site in the first place. Not to mention the fact that Mac and Linux users can speak to the fact that Flash likes to suck your processor dry of cycles while those Flash-saddled pages are open on your Web browser.
Up until recently, Web surfers had no power in controlling these less-than-user-friendly uses of Flash. Then just a couple of months ago I discovered a life-changing plug-in for Safari called ClickToFlash. This 524KB download is a plug-in to WebKit - the HTML parsing engine behind Safari and many other Mac OS X apps that support Web page displays - and it's job is simple. Any page you view that has Flash on it will suspend those Flash programs from running until you give them the okay.
The results are liberating. Flash programs are no longer automatically loaded, their space on the page reserved with the image to the right appearing. For those times you really do want to see the Flash ad, just click the word "Flash" and that ad you selected loads up immediately.
Sounds easy enough? It is. And its not just Safari users who are in on the fun. There's a similar plug-in called Flashblock for Firefox and Chrome that performs the same function.
I'm not naive enough to believe that obtrusive uses of Flash are going to disappear anytime soon. But with these two plug-ins the power has changed hands from Web designers, who could dictate that their content be viewed with Flash, to users who can choose if it's worth loading Flash to view that content. Hmm, letting the user have some control on the presentation of the content. Was that not one of the original intentions of World Wide Web?
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
During the anticipation and hype overload that preceded the arrival of the Apple’s iPad, one of the most important questions for me was would the iPad expand its palette of applications beyond those of the lightweight and portable iPhone and iTouch apps with those that have previously only been available for desktop computers? With Apple itself releasing iPad-oriented versions of its iWork applications, the answer is a clear “yes.” But the real long-term question is not will normal, casual computer-using people be adding the iPad or similar devices to their existing desktop and laptop equipped home. Rather it will be whether this new generation of computing appliances will supplant the traditional microcomputers of the last 25 years in these users lives. As groundbreaking as the iPhone was in redefining how people could interact with their cell phone, it is the iPad where Apple has truly laid the foundation for changing how the average Joe will interact with computers in the not too distant future.
Of the many reasons for the success of the iPhone, few will argue the importance of how simple the device is to use. Especially when compared to the interface of all cell phones ever released up to that point in time. Cell phones before the iPhone might be the only electronic devices ever to be more of a hassle to use than a microcomputer. So while technology pundits, bloggers and fanboys all found their own reasons to decry the iPhone for not having this or that future or for being too limited compared to their desktop or laptop computers, Apple didn’t care. They had already learned that the key to the iPhone’s success was not in appealing to the technorati. The iPhone had to be a device that catered to everyone, from mom and dad to the teenager and possibly even grandparents. (Pets need not apply.) Considering that the majority of the computer-using world still finds the typical desktop computer too confusing, the tried and true desktop GUI paradigm - even after over 25 years of refinement – was not a viable option.
The result of Apple’s quest for an interface that was simple enough for anyone to pick up and use immediately can be traced to two features. The first was replacing the mouse and keyboard inputs of traditional computers with touch-based input. The results were immediate and obvious, especially for a portable device: convenient, quick, and - by allowing people to control this cell phone and computer rolled-into-one through actual physical contact instead of a mouse, keyboard or stylus - intuitive. Whether through selecting items with a finger, scrolling through lists with simple finger swipes, or resizing images with pinch gestures, the whole iPhone experience can be summed up best in one word – natural. I’ve yet to find anyone who finds interacting with a desktop OS as “natural”, except for comparisons that something is “more natural” than another.
The second is that in lieu of the traditional desktop and file system that a user would use to navigate a traditional computer GUI, the iPhone dispenses with these and instead offers just 11 pages of icons. These icons are either programs or URLs that open in mobile Safari, and the only customizations the user has is to organize which page the apps appear on and their order on each page. Even then the pages follow very specific, unbreakable rules:
- No more than 16 apps on any one screen
- All apps fall into a 4x4 grid
- The apps line up starting in the upper-left, filling each row with its maximum of 4 apps before wrapping to the next row
Some people would say that this is too limiting and that they should have more control…like they do with their computers. But they are missing the point: the iPhone is not for technology geeks who want to be able to customize as much as possible. The iPhone is built for all the people who don’t. And guess what, there’s a lot more people who fall into the latter category than the former.
In my eyes the most significant way in which the iPhone breaks with the traditional desktop GUI paradigm is through its hiding of the file system from the user’s view. You may have noticed that the iPhone doesn’t allow the user to so much as view its file system, let alone decide where to open or save files within it. Compare to this to computers, where management of the file system is an ongoing task, or perhaps struggle, depending on your point-of-view. Like the home screen, the iPhone makes a compromise: it assumes that what the user misses out on by those times where accessing the file system would be helpful is more than made up for by all the times the user doesn’t have to worry about the file system. The shocking result for even for a GUI veteran like myself is that after using the iPhone for a couple of years, I don’t seem to miss the file system one bit.
The iPhone has banked that the lack of file system access would lead to a better overall user experience. I think it’s hard to argue against its success. iPhone apps know where to open and store their documents unbeknownst to the user. As long as they can get to that data quickly and easily, they never care.
Maybe this works so well because so many applications only access data files that they created. I don’t really care where FaceBook stores my username and password or where Notes stores my notes, as long as those programs know where to get the data from, I’m happy. If I need to open a saved video in VideoNinja, the program will show me what videos I have to choose from. I don’t know where the files are on the file system and I have no choice on where to save them or load them from, but it doesn’t matter because here, less choice = simplicity. This model works so well yet I haven’t read anyone who really appreciates how easy it works. Like any great interface, it works so well you don’t even realize it. Or put another way, the interface stays out of the user’s way.
Apple is now bringing this simplified computer interface model from the portable world of the iPhone to the iPad, a device that more in common with a laptop or even a desktop computer. The significantly larger screen means the iPad will be capable of displaying applications previously best suited to the desktop, such as word processors and spreadsheets. While professional level applications like Final Cut Pro are not coming to the iPad – proving that desktop computers still have their place – the iPad is focused on performing those functions that most people do most of the time. Functions like Web surfing, e-mail, social networking, media viewing and sharing. In short the iPad is built from the ground up as an entertainment device. It leaves the content creation to the desktop world…for now.
By focusing on the average computer user – both on what the user wants to do and how to let them do it quickly and easily – the iPad is positioned to truly be the computer that finally lives up to the often-recited “for the rest of us” selling point. As scary as it first sounds, the average computer buyer doesn’t need most the choices and capabilities that have defined home computers since the original Apple II. More importantly, they don’t want the accompanying responsibilities that come from all those choices and capabilities. While Netbooks have been around for a couple years trying to reach for the same audience, all they are offering are the same capability overload of a traditional computer wrapped in the same GUI running on cheaper hardware at a cheaper price point. While it has been a win for casual computer users who can get an Internet-ready laptop at a previously unheard of sub-$500 price, the user experience is still stuck in the computer dark age.
There are several issues with the iPad that I haven’t addressed that prevent it from fully replacing a typical computer in one’s household. Almost all those issues revolve around the fact that Apple built the iPad as a cloud device and by all appearances you will still need a traditional computer acting as your “digital hub” (as Apple likes to call it) to get the most out of you iPad. But credit Apple for recognizing that the vast majority of computer buyers want a simpler way of interacting with a computer with less maintenance and focusing on just the abilities they use most. And for recognizing that those computing abilities are better enjoyed in our hands while sitting on the living room couch than sitting in the office staring at a stationary monitor.
There will probably be a place for desktops for many years to come, but they will most likely become almost exclusively used for prosumer and professional level work. For the rest of us, we’ll wonder why the computers of old made us work so hard for so little. Or maybe, just like what the iPhone did to traditional cell phones, we’ll have adapted so quickly to this new GUI paradigm that the iPad will have started that we’ll simply forget how it use to be.