Monday, April 23, 2018

Michael Rockwell’s Workflow Toolkit →

I discovered Michael Rockwell’s blog last week, Initial Charge (he’s also the creator of #OpenWeb). Upon perusing his site, I discovered ‘The Toolkit’, which is his list of publishing workflows for the … well … Workflow app.

I’m particularly fond of the ‘Push To Ulysses’ flow, which I even used to write this post. So meta. Here’s Michael’s description of it:

Push To Ulysses: When viewing a webpage in Safari, initiate Push to Ulysses from Workflow’s action extension. A new sheet will be opened in Ulysses with my template for publishing Linked List items. If activated with text selected on the webpage, that text will be placed in a blockquote within the body of the template.

There are quite a few more, so if you’re a web publisher, head on over and check them out.

The Subscription Age

If history has taught us anything, it’s that quite a number of folks don’t like to pay outright for digital content and services. Ever since the dawn of widespread Internet adoption in the 90s, people have always figured out ways to get content for free. From early peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Napster and Kazaa, to the more modern BitTorrent, and questionable streaming services such as Kodi. But now there’s a new age upon us. It’s an age so convenient that we’re willing to forego alternative means and pony up! Yes indeed, it’s The Subscription Age.

Read on

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Siri isn’t dumb, she’s less consistent

Everyone loves to hate on Siri. The common trope equates to her being dumb or not up to par with the other voice assistants (largely being Alexa and Google Voice Assistant). I believe this perception largely comes from Siri’s greatest opportunity for improvement: general knowledge. 1

Table Stakes

Let’s first address the table stakes among digital assistants — weather, sports, news, smart home functions, etc. I feel they all do these jobs equally well, with little differences.

For example: let’s say my living room Lurton Caséta dimmer is at 5%, but I want to raise it to 100%. If I tell Alexa to “turn on the living room lights”, Alexa is smart enough to interpret my intent as a human would and just raise the lights. A human might have more snark at first. Siri, on the other hand, does not understand my intent. If I issue the same command to her, she does nothing because the lights are already on. As if a child, she might as well be saying “the lights are already on, duh”. I must specifically ask Siri to “set the lights to 100%” or some variation.

It’s a little annoyance, and although I prefer Alexa’s handling of the situation, there is still feature parity here.

General Knowledge

By contrast, I feel this is the main area in which Siri lacks consistent feature parity with the others. Even in my own circle of friends and family, the questions that fail the most fall into this category. These are usually questions I would never ask Siri myself, since I know she can’t answer them accurately (if at all). Here are just a few examples, comparing Siri and Alexa.

Are tomatoes a fruit?

  • Siri: Wolfram Alpha results with no direct answer to the question.
  • Alexa: “Yes, a tomato is a fruit.”

What is the largest freshwater lake in the world?

  • Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web.”
  • Alexa: “The largest freshwater lake by area is Lake Superior, at 31,795.5 square miles.”

What time is Brooklyn Nine-Nine on?

  • Siri: “Sorry, I couldn’t find anything called ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ playing nearby.”
  • Alexa: “Season five of Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs on Fox Tuesdays at 9:30pm Eastern and 8:30pm Central.”

Now, I will say that Siri answered most of my general knowledge questions correctly (about 70% of them) as I was looking for the above examples. However, every time Siri doesn’t answer correctly or in an unexpected way, trust in the service takes another hit.

Siri’s negative perception will continue to increase until Apple addresses this area and others (hopefully in some capacity at this year’s WWDC). This isn’t Siri’s only problem, but I think it’s the biggest one. Severely reducing dumps to web searches (like above) is another one. As Siri and voice input are increasingly positioned at the forefront of new computing methods, the last thing Apple needs is to be thought of as behind. Does this all make Siri dumb? No. It makes her less consistent.


  1. General Knowledge. /salute 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Apple explains how Personalized Hey Siri works →

Apple’s latest entry into their Machine Learning Journal details how they personalized the Hey Siri trigger phrase for engaging the personal assistant. Here are a few interesting tidbits.

[…] Unintended activations occur in three scenarios – 1) when the primary user says a similar phrase, 2) when other users say “Hey Siri,” and 3) when other users say a similar phrase. The last one is the most annoying false activation of all. In an effort to reduce such False Accepts (FA), our work aims to personalize each device such that it (for the most part) only wakes up when the primary user says “Hey Siri.” […]

I love the candidness of the writers here. I can also relate to the primary scenario. Let’s just say I’ve learned how often I say the phrase “Are you serious?”, because about 75% of the time I do, Siri thinks I’m trying to activate her. It’s fairly annoying on multiple levels.

On Siri enrollment and learning:

[…] During explicit enrollment, a user is asked to say the target trigger phrase a few times, and the on-device speaker recognition system trains a PHS speaker profile from these utterances. This ensures that every user has a faithfully-trained PHS profile before he or she begins using the “Hey Siri” feature; thus immediately reducing IA rates. However, the recordings typically obtained during the explicit enrollment often contain very little environmental variability. […]

And:

This brings to bear the notion of implicit enrollment, in which a speaker profile is created over a period of time using the utterances spoken by the primary user. Because these recordings are made in real-world situations, they have the potential to improve the robustness of our speaker profile. The danger, however, lies in the handling of imposter accepts and false alarms; if enough of these get included early on, the resulting profile will be corrupted and not faithfully represent the primary users’ voice. The device might begin to falsely reject the primary user’s voice or falsely accept other imposters’ voices (or both!) and the feature will become useless.

Heh. Maybe this explains my “Are you serious?” problem.

They go on to explain improving speaker recognition, model training, and more. As with all of Apple’s Machine Learning Journal entries, this one is very technical in content, but these peeks behind the curtain are highly interesting to say the least.

One thing I didn’t see note of was how microphone quality and quantity improves recognition. For instance, Hey Siri works spookily-well on HomePod, with its seven microphones. However, I assume they aren’t using Personalized Hey Siri on HomePod, since it’s a communal device with multiple users, so the success rate may be implicitly higher already. Either way, I wish my iPhone would hear me just as well.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

watchOS 4.3.1 suggests future support for third party watch faces →

Guilherme Rambo for 9to5Mac found some interesting code in watchOS 4.3.1 that hints at third party watch faces:

[…] 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:

The log message in the image reads:

This is where the 3rd party face config bundle generation would happen

Not surprising that Apple may already have dormant support for this, but I’m wondering how they’d handle it. I think there are two schools of thought. On one hand, Apple Watch could use third party watch faces to spice things up a bit. It may even spur further interest in Apple Watch apps as a whole.

On the other hand, I’d say watch faces make up at least fifty percent of a watch’s brand. That’s any watch, not just a smart one. Apple is very careful and precise about any kind of customization with the potential to alter their branding. For instance, you can’t change the look of the home or lock screens on iOS. At most, you can change the wallpaper, and that’s it.

What I could see Apple doing is meeting us somewhere in the middle by opening up Apple Watch faces development to a small number of artists or institutions. In a sense, they’ve already done this with Nike and Hermès, the difference being those faces are only available with their associated unique hardware. I can see an extension of this kind of partnership to include accomplished artists, colleges, and the entertainment industry.

Imagine an official collegiate Apple Watch face, or maybe one by your favorite musical group. I know I’d buy a few. I would expect these faces to have equal functionality (complications what whatnot) as the stock ones.

I really don’t think Apple will let just anyone create a face for Apple Watch. It’s just too risky for their branding. If you’ve seen the some of the terrible third-party faces available for other smart watches, you wouldn’t want just anyone building Apple Watch faces either.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Apple offers extended three year repair program for iPad Pro Smart Keyboards →

Jordan Kahn for 9to5Mac:

Apple has launched a new extended repair program for its Smart Keyboard for iPad Pro, allowing customers experiencing certain issues with the product to receive repairs or replacements from Apple for three years after the device is purchased. Apple informed its retail staff and authorized service providers of the new policy in an internal memo obtained by 9to5Mac (pictured below).

The program covers the Smart Keyboard for both the 9.7-inch (Early 2016) and 12.9-inch (Late 2015) iPad Pro models, and applies to keyboards experiencing certain Functional Issues, including: sticking/repeating keys, sensor issues, problems with the keyboard’s magnetic connector, connection issues, and unresponsive keys.

I’m glad to hear this warranted a real repair program. The Smart Keyboard is great, but I have experienced the unresponsive keys issue a few times. It’s usually resolved by reconnecting the keyboard, but it’s annoying and breaks my flow. I should take mine in.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Wired’s ‘4 Best Smartphones’ list omits iPhone X

Wired published a list of ‘The 4 Best Smartphones Money Can Buy In 2018’ earlier today, crowning Google Pixel 2 as ‘the best overall’, while ommitting iPhone X.

Jeffrey Van Camp for Wired:

There are a lot of good reasons people may choose iOS over Android, but right now Google’s Pixel 2 and larger Pixel 2 XL are our picks for best overall smartphone. Google has made it super easy to buy its flagship phones unlocked, and all Pixel phones get security and software updates direct like clockwork.

Well kudos to Google for doing what Apple has always done. I still wouldn’t go near a Pixel phone. Google is way too early of a hardware manufacturer to be trusted (privacy reasons aside).

Jeffrey on the exclusion of iPhone X:

While we love the spiffy iPhone X, let’s get down to brass tacks: the cheaper iPhone 8 (and iPhone 8 Plus) are virtually identical in the ways that count.

Define ‘ways that count’. If he means specific components, then yes, there are core similarities. However, there are also core differences in terms of components (i.e. TrueDepth camera system and edge-to-edge screen). These components result in the individual user experiences of both models being radically different. There are even key UI elements that are different. If Jeffrey is saying these aren’t ‘ways that count’, then he’s missing the big picture. iPhone X isn’t just the future, it feels like the future. iPhone 8 is likely the last iteration of a tried-and-true 11 year old design. Let’s not pretend its going to be sticking around forever like the headphone jack. 1

While I think iPhone X is for everyone, not everyone may be ready for iPhone X. But to omit it completely is folly. In truth, iPhone 8/8 Plus and iPhone X all deserve to be on this list.


  1. Jeffrey also groans at the lack of a headphone jack across both Pixel and iPhone. 

I am jealous of the new (PRODUCT)RED iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus →

From the Apple Newsroom:

Cupertino, California — Apple today announced iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus (PRODUCT)RED Special Edition, the new generation of iPhone in a stunning red finish. Both phones sport a beautiful glass enclosure, now in red, with a matching aluminum band and a sleek black front. The special edition (PRODUCT)RED iPhone will be available to order online in select countries and regions tomorrow and in stores beginning Friday, April 13.

Seems like Apple is on an “official” cycle with these (PRODUCT)RED iPhone special editions. This year, though, the cover glass is the way it should always have been (black, not white).

Red and grey are my favorite colors, so I would kill for an iPhone X in this scheme, but I’m sure the investment wouldn’t pay off (literally) for Apple. Red is a polarizing color enough. Lumped together with the general hesitation for iPhone X alone, 1 you probably wouldn’t have a winning combination.

No, us iPhone X users are left with a new (PRODUCT)RED leather folio case, instead. Looks nice. Too bad I hate cases.


  1. You know, lack of home button, price, ‘the unfamiliar’. 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Redesigned Mac Pro coming in 2019 →

Last year, in a move of unprecedented transparency, Apple invited a few journalists and bloggers to their campus to discuss the future of Mac Pro (as well as admit some mistakes in the current iteration’s design).

Matthew Panzarino from TechCrunch was recently invited back to be provided with more details, including their targeted year of release (2019). Here are the highlights from his meeting, focusing on how Apple’s new Pro Workflow Team is shaping the future of Mac Pro.

Tom Boger, senior director of Mac Hardware Product Marketing:

“We want to be transparent and communicate openly with our pro community, so we want them to know that the Mac Pro is a 2019 product. It’s not something for this year.” In addition to transparency for pro customers, there’s also a larger fiscal reason behind it.

Makes sense. It wouldn’t be cool for organizations to spend tens of thousands of dollars upgrading to iMac Pros, only for a potentially more desirable Mac Pro to be close behind.

On Apple’s ‘Pro Workflow Team’:

Now, it’s a year later and Apple has created a team inside the building that houses its pro products group. It’s called the Pro Workflow Team, and they haven’t talked about it publicly before today. The group is under John Ternus and works closely with the engineering organization.

On how Apple is capturing workflows of professional creatives:

So Apple decided to go a step further and just begin hiring these creatives directly into Apple. Some of them on a contract basis but many full-time, as well. These are award-winning artists and technicians that are brought in to shoot real projects (I saw a bunch of them walking by in Apple Park toting kit for an on-premise outdoor shoot). They then put the hardware and software through their paces and point out sticking points that could cause frustration and friction among pro users.

Now this is commitment. This isn’t just a partnership or collaboration. Apple is paying these people for their time — the people who do this type of work for a living. I can only imagine the outcomes will be magnificent for everyone (non-pros included).

On fixing issues discovered during workflow capture:

This kind of workflow analysis has enabled Apple to find and fix problems that won’t be solved by throwing more hardware at them. An in-depth analysis of how workflow is affected by the whole stack of hardware and software has, Ternus says, helped them to really understand the pain points. He stresses that it’s not just Apple’s applications that they’re testing and working to help make better. Third-party relationships on this are very important to them and the workflow team is helping to fix their problems faster too.

On making the new Mac Pro modular by design:

“As we said a year ago, working on modular was inherently a modular system and in looking at our customers and their workflows obviously that’s a real need for our customers and that’s the direction we’re going,” says Boger.

“Well, it’s a need for some of them,” adds Ternus. “I want to be clear that the work that we’re doing as a part of the workflow team is across everything. It’s super relevant for MacBook Pros, it’s super relevant for iMacs and iMac Pros and in the end I think it helps us in dialogue with customers to figure out what are the right systems for you. […]

Translation: all our Macs are great, even if you don’t need modularity.

Matthew’s comments on Apple’s strategy here:

[…] In this case it’s heartening to see that there is a straight line between the pros that Apple has hired, the conversations it’s having with contractors who come in to contribute and proactive action taken on products. The work of the Pro Workflow Team is directly affecting the development of the new Mac Pro. And the iMac Pro, Final Cut Pro and macOS.

And:

[…] As depressing as it has been to see professionals believe that Apple was getting ready to give them up, I find this an interesting and exciting thing to watch. It is very, very hard for a company like Apple — whose reputation is built on myth building — to admit that it was mistaken. And it’s even harder to then change course with billions of dollars’ worth of revenue at stake.[…]

Overall, this sounds like excellent news for professional creatives. As I said above, regular consumers can only stand to benefit from the Pro Workflow Team’s finding as well, as software tweaks may trickle down. As for me, I just can’t wait to see what the thing looks like. 1 Even though Apple is feeding us a lot of details ahead of time (for them anyway), I think this will give the grand reveal even more intrigue. To quote Phil Schiller: “Can’t innovate anymore, my ass!”


  1. Hopefully not like a trash can. 

Apple hires John Giannandrea, Google’s AI chief →

Jack Nicas and Cade Metz for The New York Times:

Apple has hired Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, a major coup in its bid to catch up to the artificial intelligence technology of its rivals.

Apple said on Tuesday that Mr. Giannandrea will run Apple’s “machine learning and A.I. strategy,” and become one of 16 executives who report directly to Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook.

And:

“Our technology must be infused with the values we all hold dear,” Mr. Cook said Tuesday morning in an email to staff members obtained by The New York Times. “John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.”

Now this is a huge hire. Apple must have ponied up big time, but I’m sure a guy like Giannandrea wouldn’t jump ship only because of money. Apple must have let on just enough about what he’s going to be working on for it to be worth it.

The note about privacy is a stark difference between how Google and Apple handle user data. The perception of Apple as lacking in AI/ML is mostly attributed to their hard privacy stances, whereas Google is more cavalier with user data. It’s going to be a hard problem for Apple and Giannandrea to solve, but all good things come with time. Apple is essentially saying we can have exceptional AI/ML and keep our privacy. That’s exactly what we need.