Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Now is the time for free iCloud storage to be increased

Yesterday, Apple made Messages in iCloud — a feature that was delayed for about a year — available to users via iOS 11.4. This solution is on par with Apple’s other cloud-based storage and syncing features such as iCloud Photo Library and iCloud Music Library. 1

With Messages in iCloud enabled, all your messages, including photos and attachments, live in your iCloud storage, which your iOS and (soon) macOS 2 devices read/write from and to. This is different than what we’ve been used to — completely independent copies of messages and attachments replicating to your iOS and macOS devices. If you’re wondering what the benefits are, Chaim Gartenberg from The Verge wrote a nice summary. In a nutshell: 1:1 syncing across all devices (including deletion), less local space use, and smaller local backups. It’s a great feature, and I didn’t have any technical issues with it during the betas.

Here’s the problem, though: as Apple further enables us to centralize our data in iCloud, the more of a joke the free 5 GB storage tier becomes for new customers, or existing ones that want to take advantage of these kinds of features. Take this latest one for example. I believe I text at a below-average rate compared to my friends and family, but with Messages in iCloud on, my Messages storage comes in at 4.4 GB. That’s almost the entirety of the free tier. I wonder how this shakes out for an average or above-average texter? I’m guessing 10GB and 30GB+, respectively?

Messages now takes up 4.4 GB of my iCloud storage.
Messages now takes up 4.4 GB of my iCloud storage.

We have rightfully complained about Apple’s free storage tier for ages, but with Messages in iCloud here and WWDC around the corner, now is the time to bump it up. I propose Apple make the new free tier 25 GB — half of the first paid tier ($.99 for 50 GB) — so the upgrade is still enticing and worthy. They can leave the existing tiers where they are (see below).

When my wife and I maxed out our 200 GB option, as an exponential amount of toddler photos will do, we had to jump all the way up to 2 TB, which is priced well at $9.99 per month. Was I ecstatic about it? No, but I have accepted it.

I bet a bunch of folks on the free tier that turn on Messages in iCloud will need to upgrade their storage. Will they fork out the $.99 per month? If we can barely get them to buy $.99 or $1.99 apps, I’m not so sure they will without a push.


  1. For branding purposes, I’m surprised they didn’t call it ‘iCloud Messages Library’. 
  2. Apple hasn’t released macOS 10.13.5 yet, which includes this feature. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

iOS 11.4 finally coming today with HomePod stereo pairing and AirPlay 2 →

From the Apple Newsroom:

HomePod, the breakthrough wireless speaker from Apple, now delivers an even more immersive listening experience throughout the home with support for HomePod stereo pairs and a new multi-room audio system in iOS 11.4. This free software update introduces the most advanced, easy to use, wireless multi-room audio system using AirPlay 2 to play music in any room from any room, move music from one room to another or play the same song everywhere using an iOS device, HomePod, Apple TV or by asking Siri.

It’s about damn time. Apple missed delivering on these core features when iOS 11 and HomePod first launched. The continued delay has been adding credence to the perception that Apple has been having issues with QA. I hope this is one of the last instances we see of Apple over-promising.

Granted this is a HomePod/AirPlay 2 press release, there’s no mention if the also-delayed ‘Messages in iCloud’ feature will be available in 11.4. I guess we’ll find out very soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

watchOS 5 wishlist: enable a Watch-first mentality

I love Apple Watch. I’ve had one on my wrist every day since the first model came out, and I think it will serve an even larger purpose in the Apple ecosystem as time goes on. In my Watch Series 3 review, I likened it to a high school graduate living above the iPhone’s garage. And we all know how fickle young adults can be; there is always room for improvement, with tons of promise. With WWDC around the corner, the major themes most in need of attention are apps, and the ability for Apple Watch to continuously handle more rudimentary or smaller tasks with greater ease than iPhone.

Based on observation, I believe I use my Watch on an above-average frequency because I see the inherent value of a Watch-first mentality. In other words, Apple Watch should compel you to use it first over any other device for a subset of tasks. And those tasks have to work every time — not some times or most of the time — every time. It has to be a consistent experience that builds trust. What follows is a list of barriers I feel are in need of being addressed in order enable said mentality.

Enable developers to build better apps

Developers have increasingly been pulling their Apple Watch apps in droves for about a year. Major ones of note include Google Maps, Slack, Amazon, eBay, and Instagram. The reason must come down to low utilization and the reduced feature set offered by Apple’s WatchKit. Let’s face it though: who needs to make purchases from their wrist or scroll a tiny version of their Instagram feed? Google Maps and Slack are the only ones I mentioned that have a more useful place on a wrist computer, but I digress.

Marco Arment wrote the perfect piece on this subject, summarizing why “developing Apple Watch apps is extremely frustrating and limited”. Here’s the crux of it:

Developing Apple Watch apps is extremely frustrating and limited for one big reason: unlike on iOS, Apple doesn’t give app developers access to the same watchOS frameworks that they use on Apple Watch.

Instead, we’re only allowed to use WatchKit, a baby UI framework that would’ve seemed rudimentary to developers even in the 1990s. But unlike the iPhone’s web apps, WatchKit doesn’t appear to be a stopgap — it seems to be Apple’s long-term solution to third-party app development on the Apple Watch.

Marco suggests fixing this situation in one of two ways:

One solution is for Apple to reimplement all of its own Watch apps with WatchKit instead of their internal frameworks, which will force them to fix WatchKit’s many bugs and dramatically expand it.

The much better solution, and the one I hope they take, is for Apple to expose its real watchOS UI and media frameworks to third-party developers, as it has done on iOS.

I’m not a developer, but I can understand the limitations at play here. Just the other day, I was complaining that after four watchOS iterations, Watch apps are still almost never perfectly in sync with their parent iOS app. For instance: I have been using the amazing task manager app Things 3 for a few weeks, and while I have five tasks scheduled for ‘Today’, the Watch app shows none of them. I don’t place the blame on the developer because I see this happen so often across many third-party apps. Apple needs to get its act together here. Watch Series 3 and beyond is powerful enough to run real apps, which I’m hoping is what we’ll see at WWDC.

Podcasts

With the introduction of Apple Watch Series 3 with Cellular, Apple enabled its Music and new Radio app to function purely off the device’s LTE radio. Many of us thought they would follow suit with their Podcasts app, but that sadly hasn’t been the case. I think the stars may finally be aligning for this to happen in watchOS 5. This has been a long-time coming. Delaying this any further will be incredibly confusing as more people are consuming podcasts than ever before.

Related to my point above about enabling developers to build better apps: Apple should also explicitly give developers the tools to build their own podcast and music apps on Apple Watch.

UI Improvements

Apple has consistently improved the UI on Apple Watch ever since its introduction. I expect this trend to continue as time passes and Apple further understands how people use the device. Here are a few areas I’d like to see improvement in.

Additional Watch Faces

I’m sure Apple will introduce a few new stock Watch faces, and I really have no recommendations or anticipations for those. I only hope for continued improvements of existing ones like the Siri face, which I use 90% of the time due to its versatility.

Now, I’m of the mind that Apple will not allow just any third-party developer to create completely unique Watch faces. What I can see is Apple partnering with specific brands to make new faces available in the App Store. This would be similar to the Hermès or Nike watch faces that are only available on their respectively-branded Apple Watch models, but I’m talking about ones that would be available for all. For example, a couple brands or institutions I’m thinking of would be: colleges, professional sports teams, movies and TV shows, etc.

If Apple were to let any developer create a custom Watch face, I’d expect it to be heavily templated. I’d argue the watch face makes up at least 50% of the design/brand of a watch (not just smart watches). I don’t anticipate Apple ever compromising their brand or performing essentially a ‘design review’ for truly custom watch faces, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

Replace the Watch Face Edge Swipe

watchOS 4 added the ability to switch between watch faces with a left or right edge swipe. This still perplexes me, because each face is typically slow to load in this manner. As you swipe between them, Apple Watch has to load each face’s unique UI, complications, animations, etc., resulting in a janky process that is slower than the original method of force touching, scrolling a list of your cached faces, then loading the one you pick. I still do it the latter way because it’s a better, faster experience.

I propose Apple either remove this gesture or replace it. I think some interesting things could take its place, in theory. Perhaps a left edge swipe could show the Home screen, while a right edge swipe could show the Dock, fitting in with Apple’s increasingly buttonless world of gestural navigation.

Home Screen and Dock

In watchOS 4, Apple introduced an option for the home screen that displays all your installed apps in a list, as opposed to the often-disliked honeycomb arrangement. They also changed the Dock interface to a vertical arrangement of apps you last used. In watchOS 5, I propose Apple tweak these further.

By default, the Dock will display the last eight applications used with a large app preview. Here’s the problem, though: because the frequency in which I use my Watch is less than other devices, I never remember which of the eight applications are even in my Dock at one time. Therefore, I’m typically always going back to the list view by pressing the Digital Crown.

You can change the Dock to show your favorite applications instead of recent ones, but either way, the large app previews make it a bear to scroll and quickly get into your desired app.

I think Apple should:

  1. Make the list view the new Home screen default. Everyone I show it to loves it way more than the honeycomb. The whole honeycomb situation seems to have missed the mark, both from a usability perspective and a branding/marketing one. Jony Ive himself said the square screen and Digital Crown were perfect for scrolling lists. Why use touch-and-drag here?
  2. Leave the Dock functionality as is, but make it a list view and remove the huge app previews. This would move me to only allow my favorite Watch apps to show here, therefore truncating the main Home screen list view — a sort of folder, if you will.

Grab Bag

Now for a few other things that get on my nerves.

Custom notification sounds

I mean, come on. This is another thing that’s way overdue. It baffles me that notification sounds don’t already mirror iPhone settings. Audio is a huge part of UX. It would be extremely helpful to differentiate notifications just from the ping on your wrist.

Visually speaking, if you think managing notifications is hard on iOS, try it on screen that’s quite a bit smaller. iOS notifications UI and UX need to be addressed before improvements trickle down to watchOS, but I had to call out the distinction.

Better radio priority/switching

Right now, all Watch models hang on tightly to your iPhone via Bluetooth as their primary data connection. This means that if you’re just a little too far from your iPhone, you’re gonna have a bad time. Siri will stall, dictation fails, iMessages don’t go through … you get the picture. This happens to me most when I’m at home and have left my iPhone in another area of the house. Apple should improve the radio priority to use a known Wi-Fi network first, perhaps on Series 3 and beyond due to battery concerns.

If nothing else, they should at least improve the Watch’s ability and rate of switching to Wi-Fi or cellular if the Bluetooth connection to iPhone is degraded.

Add a Drumming Workout Type

This is a bit of a self-serving ask, but it would be great if the Workout app specifically supported drumming. Right now, I’m using the ‘Other’ workout type to track my practice, and while I’m sure the calories are a bit elevated than reality, the “steps” count is hilarious. Apple Watch must think every stroke of the drum head is a step.

Conclusion

So, that’s it. As Apple Watch becomes more capable and independent, I’m certain more of a Watch-first mentality will emerge. Like Matt Birchler’s wishlist, I think mine is relatively modest. Make sure you read his, by the way. He’s also a big Apple Watch proponent.

Suffice it to say I’m excited to see how this awesome little wrist computer evolves at WWDC and beyond. What are your suggestions for improving watchOS? Let me know what you think!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

The joy of Micro.blog

Long-time developer Manton Reece created Micro.blog last year, a network of independent microblogs based on the foundations of the open Internet. I’ll let the front page of the site explain itself:

Today’s social networks are broken. Ads are everywhere. Hate and harassment are too common. Fake news spreads unchecked.

There’s a better way: a network of independent microblogs. Short posts like tweets but on your own web site that you control.

Micro.blog is a safe community for microblogs. A timeline to follow friends and discover new posts. Hosting built on open standards.

I joined a few weeks back and am really attracted to the simplicity of it. There are no frivolous practices, unnecessary gimmicks, or anything like that. The content is yours and yours alone. What you see is what you get. It reminds me of the earlier days of the Internet, where everything was more whimsical and less threatening than the current status quo. When it comes to free services, we have sadly come to expect a gimmick, trade-off, or worse in exchange for our data. Micro.blog’s opposition to this idea simply makes it a joy to use.

Upon signing up, you can either have them host a blog for you for only $5 a month or you can publish to your own site, while content is mirrored to your Micro.blog profile via RSS. Taking it one step further, Micro.blog can also cross-post individual RSS feeds to Twitter and Facebook, eliminating the need for third-party services to do so. 1

Since I already have my own blog, I opted to publish everything solely here. It took quite a bit of adjustments with WordPress, but I have my Micro.blog posts displayed here on the site exactly how I want them. You’ll always find my latest status posted in the sidebar, right under the One-Tech Mind logo. Go ahead and click on the ‘Microblog’ header for my full stream of status updates. I am @Starman on Micro.blog, so you can follow me there, or you can subscribe to the RSS feed of my status updates directly. These status updates are not present on the main site feeds, since I know not everyone will want to see these in their RSS reader.

Manton’s team hasn’t stopped there, either. They recently introduced microcast support, a straightforward and open way to create and publish a bite-sized podcast.

There are also quite a few apps in which to use Micro.blog with. The main ones are Micro.blog for posts, Wavelength for microcasts, and Sunlit for photos. There are even quite a few third-party apps that work with Micro.blog. In fact, a new one came out today called Icro, and it shows a ton of promise.

While Twitter threatens to remove critical features third-party developers have used to build their apps, Micro.blog’s attitude on the matter is the complete opposite. Because of this and the reasons I mentioned above, I am really looking forward to what Micro.blog and the community creates moving forward.

More info on Micro.blog.


  1. This is free with a $5 hosted micro blog. Otherwise, it’s a $2 per month add-on. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

All apps must support iPhone X resolution starting in July →

From the Apple Developer site:

Starting July 2018, all iOS app updates submitted to the App Store must be built with the iOS 11 SDK and must support the Super Retina display of iPhone X.

Apple is very generous when it comes to enforcing new standards, such as this. I won’t pretend to know the complexities that are managing the design of an app with a significant user base, but using apps that still aren’t updated for iPhone X is a glaringly bad experience. For instance, the Roku, Ring, and Alexa apps were only recently updated to support the Super Retina Display. Up until then, I used to twinge every time I had to launch one of them.

Alexa now available as a default assistant on Android →

Redditor itsallaguesswork discovered a new setting on his Pixel 2 this weekend that allows the selection of a default smart assistant. Most notably, Alexa is one of the new choices. Simply download the Alexa app and select your preference in the appropriate settings menu (depending on your device). Once done, you can invoke Alexa by name or by holding the home button.

Google Pixel 2 settings menu. Credit: Redditor itsallaguesswork
Google Pixel 2 settings menu. Credit: Redditor itsallaguesswork

This is a small change, but one that could potentially have huge ramifications. Starting today, Alexa has essentially escaped the confines of the living room and can be triggered on a phone without the hassle of diving into an app. It will be interesting to see how many people switch from Google Assistant and Bixby.

A hypothetical build-your-own Apple Upgrade Program

As I recently wrote, subscriptions are the norm these days, whether they are for goods, services, even applications. As much as I don’t love signing up for new ones, there is a theoretical one I would sign up for in a heartbeat. The iPhone Upgrade Program has spoiled me, and now I want more.

iPhone Upgrade Program

Apple introduced its own iPhone Upgrade Program in 2015 with iPhone 6S. The promise? After 12 payments or equivalent, you become eligible to trade in and upgrade to the latest model iPhone. AppleCare+ is also baked in as part of your monthly payment, which is a nice convenience. Having been part of the program since its inception, I am largely satisfied with it, despite how Apple mishandled the first upgrade cycle from iPhone 6S to iPhone 7. It is a huge boon for early adopters and the impatient (read: me). It is also a marked improvement over the hassle that comes with selling your old iPhone to buy a new one.

Apple fine tuned the upgrade process for the iPhone 8/8 Plus/X cycle, which resulted in an even bigger advantage to those in the program. I was able to become pre-approved for the upgrade and select my preferred model of choice days before pre-orders. At 12:01 on pre-order day — or as I call it, iDay — it was simply a manner of a couple taps, and the device was secured for pickup on launch day. Sure as hell beats scrambling like a mad man to enter payment info and whatnot. It turned an anxious, frantic experience into something seamless. It just worked.

Financing is in the form of a small, no interest loan. Apple parters with Citizens One to handle credit approval and loan management, but I would like to see the financing method changed for what I’m proposing.

Apple Upgrade Program

So, here’s my pitch: a build-your-own Apple Upgrade Program for those that are dedicated to having the latest and greatest of Apple’s main offerings: iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.

Enrollment & Scope

To enroll, you’d choose up to four devices from the following categories:

  1. Any iPhone
  2. Any Apple Watch
  3. And iPad
  4. Any Mac or MacBook, with exception of iMac Pro and Mac Pro. These devices are more niche, so I wouldn’t include them.

All devices would come with the benefit of AppleCare+, using the existing appropriate terms and limits for each (e.g. accidental damage replacement).

Instead of a loan, I propose it should function more like wireless carrier financing. You’d still need to run your credit, but you wouldn’t take out a loan for the products you’re buying. You would just pay Apple directly each month via iTunes billing for a total of 24 months. Apple could slap an early termination fee on the agreement and call it a day.

So, as an example, let’s use my current slew of devices that fit into the applicable categories: iPhone X (64GB), Apple Watch Series 3 with cellular, iPad Pro 10.5-inch with cellular (64GB), and 2016 MacBook Pro 15-inch with Touch Bar (base model). Total for all of these devices, plus AppleCare+ equates to approximately $5,000 before tax. 1 In the context of my proposed upgrade program, that shakes out to 24 payments of about $208. Remember, that’s all interest free. Sign me up, already! I’d much rather pay Apple directly than some credit card company.

Side note on the topic of credit cards: the Apple Rewards Card from Barclay has been a good solution for the time being, since they offer deferred interest financing promotions.

During enrollment, Apple could offer perks and/or upgrades for its growing and maturing services (i.e. iCloud storage, Apple Music). Perhaps they could even include an additional 10GB of iCloud storage for each device added to the plan (+40GB max). Apple’s measly 5GB free tier has always been a bit of a head-scratcher, so this would be a conservative step in the right direction.

Upgrading and Adding Devices

Upgrading would be very similar to the iPhone Upgrade Program. Once you’ve made 12 payments or equivalent, you’d be eligible to upgrade to the latest versions of the devices you have, if and once they are available.

You could theoretically add to your plan at any time if you don’t have a device from a specific category. Eventual upgrades for added devices would also be held to the 12-minimum-payments threshold or equivalent (off cycle from your other devices).

Benefits

An upgrade program of this nature would be mutually beneficial. Diehards and early adopters get what they want, and Apple provides the utmost encouragement for folks to stay within their ecosystem.

And look, I’m not saying every single device release is going to be universally loved by everyone (looking at you, current-gen MacBook Pro). Nor am I saying you should upgrade to new versions blindly. Being in the program doesn’t mean you must upgrade, it just means you are in the best position to do so.

Essentially: if I’m going to give Apple a decent amount of money every so often for devices in these product categories, I just want an easier and more convenient way to do it.


  1. On a totally unrelated note: my wife is awesome. 

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Vlad Savov reviews Koss Porta Pro Wireless headphones →

Vlad Savov, resident audiophile for The Verge, published a review of the new Koss Porta Pro Wireless headphones — a modern update of the classic fan favorite. Here’s what he thinks:

I’ve had a pair of the new wireless Porta Pros for the past couple of weeks, and the quickest way I can summarize them is to say that they’re fundamentally the exact same Porta Pros above the wire. That’s mostly a good thing, though it does make the addition of a Bluetooth connection look and feel like an afterthought that’s been tacked on.

Thoughts on the design:

[…] Descending from each headphone is a black cylinder that either dangles aimlessly or gets pushed up by my collar, in both cases serving to make me look dorkier than usual. […]

And:

Even if I could forgive the dangly dongles on the wire connecting the two halves of the Porta Pro Wireless, the one thing I absolutely can’t abide is the pulsating blue light that’s emitted from the headphones when they’re on. Embedded in the remote control on the right side of the wearer’s head, this light is way too bright and, tragically, it can’t be switched off. This is more than a mere cosmetic issue: I’m unable to watch movies in a dark room with these Porta Pros without being distracted by their blinking searchlight. Koss says it’s looking into the issue, though it feels like an obvious oversight not to have addressed it before release.

Sound quality:

Sound quality from the Porta Pro Wireless a little less refined to my ear, more coarse and less detailed than the original Porta Pros. But this is a difference of only slight degrees — Paul happens to think the Porta Pro Wireless are just as awesome and amazing as the originals.

I love my original Koss Porta Pros. I remember using my Dad’s for the first time and being blown away by how amazing these simplistic-looking headphones sound — especially for the price.

With the wireless version, it sounds like Koss made a few design mistakes. I agree with Vlad on the connecting wire. Why not build the necessary electronics into the headphones themselves and avoid the eyesore? Koss could have stayed true to the classic design while accounting for the modern necessities. I can’t think of any other over-the-head Bluetooth cans that have a connecting wire.

That said, I’m tempted to pick up a pair of these for comparison with the original wired Porta Pros. After all, the price is just as compelling.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Apple: My request for all the data it had on me was eye-opening →

Jefferson Graham for USA Today:

It took eight days for my data to arrive from Apple, from a European office that is handling the privacy requests. After making the request, the iPhone maker first asked for my street address, phone number, the serial number of the iPhone, and other personal information before releasing it. This compares to Google and Facebook’s data dump. They asked no questions, and the results arrived swiftly-Facebook within minutes, and Google within hours.

Apple’s file on me took longer but was lightweight – a testimony, according to the company, of how little it collects and stores on its individual users.

And:

What Apple didn’t share with me is all the questions I’ve asked the Siri personal digital assistant, queries it gathers to make the artificial intelligence smarter.

The company says the data wouldn’t tell an individual user anything, since it’s not associated with him or her. Your Siri requests – “Show me how to get to PF Chang’s,” or “What year was Steve Jobs born?” go back to Apple – but it uses a random identifier to mask your identity. So a Siri search for the closest Chipotle restaurant will only tell Apple that a user requested the data, but not associate it with me.

There are people out there who hate Apple products and services, but damn if their privacy stance isn’t world-leading. There’s absolutely no debating that fact.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

iOS 11.4 beta enables AirPlay control via Siri

Zac Hall from 9to5Mac discovered an awesome new feature I’ve been clamoring for in the latest iOS 11.4 Beta. You can now ask Siri to AirPlay content to your Apple TV and/or HomePod, including multi-room audio playback!

This is a feature I have always thought Apple should implement to make the initiation of AirPlay even quicker, so I’m very excited. Hope it stays in through the final release.