OS Power Up?

My phone is running Android Oreo.

As I type this, my iPad is downloading iOS 11.

And I’m asking myself why. It’s not like either OS introduces new features on my years-old devices. Yes, there are security fixes. Those are important, certainly, and in both cases installing the entire update is the only way to get those fixes.

Okay, yes, some of my current disenchantment is depression brought on by looking at the current news. But still, why do we have to have major OS updates on an annual schedule?

Remember, Android and iOS upgrades are free. Google and Apple aren’t making any money directly off of them, and they’re spending a bundle to tout the new features. Sure, the iOS release is tied to the release of new iPhones, which is where Apple lives. But they’d sell just as many iPhone 8s and iPhone Xs if they came with iOS 10 point something.

For the record, it’s not just phones and tablets. OS X is doing the same thing. Windows is even worse–we’re getting two upgrades a year.

And every time an upgrade comes out, we get reports of bricked phones and scrambled computers, followed by the eternal reminder that “it’s impossible to test every combination of hardware.”

I’m not suggesting the OS vendors should stop upgrading their software. Just thinking the annual upgrade cycle might possibly have more downsides than up.

What about a slipstreamed approach: roll out new features year-round in a series of smaller upgrades that’ll be less likely to break things?

Of course there are problems there. Problems in design, development, and testing. I may not be doing much formal QA these days, but I haven’t forgotten that much about software development. But the approach works well at the application level. It’s worth a try at the OS level.

On a related note, remember a couple of years ago when I griped about software upgrades violating user expectations? I just found a nice example of not doing that in iOS 11.

For the past couple of iOS releases on iPad, swiping up from the bottom of the screen with four or five fingers has brought up the list of running apps. Quick and easy, and I’ve gotten used to it. (Windows users, think “Alt-Tab”.)

In iOS 11, Apple introduced a new “Dock”: a list of frequently-used and currently-running apps. You can pop the dock up over your current program by swiping up with a single finger. And swiping up a second time brings up the new-and-improved list of running apps.

But, and here’s the important thing, the four-finger swipe still works! Even though there’s now a new route to the task switcher, I can still use the old route.

Mind you, I wouldn’t be surprised if the four-finger gestures disappear in a later release, but at least my muscle memory is safe for another year.

WWDC 2017

Did you realize it was time for Apple’s WWDC again? I confess that I didn’t–but then, I’ve been somewhat distracted lately. What’s your excuse?

Anyway, the conference was actually last week–the keynote was last Monday–so I was tempted to sweep it all under the rug and move on. But since WWDC is my big opportunity to give Apple their dose of the mockery I direct at Google I/O, I’d better not skip it this year.

So what joy and laughter did Apple promise us for the coming year? (Hint: Remember last year when I said “Maybe we’ll get something radically new in ’17”? We didn’t.)

The leadoff announcement was the impending arrival of Amazon Prime Video in Apple’s TV app and on Apple TVs. OK, that’s pretty big for TV watchers–most people, in other words–so there’s some legitimacy in making it the first announcement, but they sure didn’t spend any time talking about it.

“Here it is. On to Apple Watch.” The big news there is a new watch face powered by Siri. It’ll use machine learning to determine what information you need, depending on where you are, what time it is, what your daily routines are, and so forth, and update automatically to include that data.

That’s a heck of a lot of information I’d rather not have on my wrist, but maybe that’s just me.

Other new faces include “Kaleidoscope” for when you don’t want your life on your sleeve, and–in a followup to last year’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse faces–several Toy Story characters.

More usefully, the health-related watch apps are being updated to encourage users to get more exercise. More guided workouts. Data exchange with gym equipment. So now your watch will know when you’re cheating on the treadmill by lowering the incline.

Moving on.

Last year’s “Sierra” macOS will be succeeded by “High Sierra”. And yes, Apple did actually make all the pot jokes on stage. Not that that’s going to protect us from everyone else making them too.

The name itself is a clue to the revolutionary features built into the new OS. None, that is. High Sierra is all about refining Sierra. It’s full of minor tweaks; the keynote is full of words like “improved,” “better,” and “enhanced”.

OK, there’s some new stuff under the shiny cover. A new file system that should be faster and more stable than the ancient HFS when dealing with large drives and large files. The default video encoding will move from the HD-optimized H.264 to the 4K-ready H.265 (aka HEVC)*.

* Be aware that older computers, especially those that can’t offload video decompression to the video card, struggle mightily with H.265. Suggestions that the change is a move by Apple to sell new computers to grandparents who want to continue watching those iPhone-captured movies of the grandkids may have some truth behind them.

High Sierra will run on every computer that can handle Sierra–but I’m sure Apple would rather you bought a new machine. Or several. So they’ve got new iMacs which will include, along with the usual improvements in capacity and power, dedicated hardware decoders for that H.265 video. Ditto for new MacBooks. Oh, and an “iMac Pro” which Apple is billing as “the most powerful Mac we’ve ever made.” Or, as Tim Cook put it, “really badass”.

Moving on to iOS.

Messages will now apparently be stored in the cloud, so they’ll be available on all of your devices. With your phone, tablet, and desktop all binging at you, you can be sure you’ll never miss another message.

Apple Pay is integrated into Messages, allowing you to send money person-to-person. Handy, as long as you only share checks with other iOS users.

Siri will have a more “natural and expressive” voice–and an optional male voice as well. She (or he, I suppose) will also function as a translator. That should be very entertaining, given the well-known limitations of machine translation.

Lots of tweaks and improvements similar to macOS. I do like the addition of “Do Not Disturb While Driving” which will detect when you’re in a car and block most phone features. Yes, you can turn it off if you’re a passenger, which means you can also turn it off if you’re driving, but at least it requires you to take a few extra steps if you want to text behind the wheel.

And there’s new iOS hardware as well. An updated iPad Pro. This one has a 10.5 inch screen, right in between the sizes of the original iPad Pros. Apparently the old 9.7 inch model is going away, but the 13 inch model will stick around, albeit with some hardware updates to keep it at par with the 10.5 inch model.

More iOS changes, specifically for the iPads. A new dock for app switching, lots of drag and drop functionality, simplifications for the Slide Over and Split View multitasking modes. And–holy cow!–a new “Files” app that will apparently give direct access to the file system. It’s not clear how extensive Files is–whether apps will continue to have totally sandboxed storage, for example–but even a limited step in the direction of letting you control where files are stored is a big concession on Apple’s part.

Ooh, built-in machine learning-based handwriting recognition. I wonder if it’ll handle cursive as well as printing.

Most iOS devices that run iOS 10 will get 11. The exceptions seem to be the iPhone 5 and 5C and the iPad 4.

And, finally, there’s the HomePod.

As the name implies, it’s a iPod for the home, i.e. a smart speaker. Don’t think of it as a competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home. It’s got some ability for home automation and the like, but it’s optimized to play music. Think Sonos on steroids (and with a pumped-up price to match).

As I said earlier, nothing revolutionary. But there are a lot of good tweaks coming, especially if you’re in the market for a new machine anyway.

WWDC 16

Did you all find Google’s announcements at last month’s Google I/O as underwhelming as I did? When you undercut the biggest news (what’s coming in Android N) by releasing a beta before the conference, it does detract from the on-stage excitement. Just sayin’.

Apple, on the other hand, has been harkening back to days of yore, when secrecy was the rule. But yesterday was the opening of WWDC 2016. Shall we see if they were hiding anything exciting, or if there weren’t any major leaks because there wasn’t anything to leak?

Yes, that was a rhetorical question.

The keynote was organized by operating system, so I’ll take the same approach.

  • WatchOS It’s faster. It does background updates. There are new faces, limited handwriting recognition, and a task list. Apple’s somewhat bi-polar attitude towards privacy rears its head: there’s a new app called “Find My Friends” that “takes advantage of background updates to make sure I always have the latest locations for my friends and family.” Terrorists, take note: probably not a good idea to install this app to keep in touch with the rest of your cell. Your watch can now call 911 in an emergency–and send emergency contacts and location data. Let’s hope that function can’t be triggered by software.

    This one’s kind of cool: the workout app is being optimized for wheelchair users, with customized notifications (“Time to roll” instead of “Time to stand”) and wheelchair-specific exercises.

    And then they lose all the cool by announcing an app for deep breathing exercises “to help you deal with everyday stress”. No guys, the “medical community” has not “embraced deep breathing”. The alternative medicine community is pushing it alongside acupuncture, homeopathy, and the rest of the scientifically nonsensical garbage in their arsenal. *sigh*

  • tvOS Apps. Lots of apps. A new iPhone version of the Remote app that will let you control the Apple TV with Siri. Installing apps to you iPhone or iPad will also put them on your Apple TV. No word about whether there’s a way to turn that off if you don’t want that hot new productivity app on your TV.

    Single Sign-on sounds nice: log in once and every app that supports the functionality will pick that up. Except for the app developers who are going to have to explain to their customers why they can’t use Single sign-on on their TV to log into their bank account on their iPhone.

  • OS X macOS Yes, in the interest of brand consistency, OS X has been renamed. Closer integration between your computer and your other Apple devices is the big thing here. Auto-unlock when your Apple Watch or (maybe) iPhone is close to the computer. Copy/paste between devices. iCloud to share files between computer and mobile devices–and to allow you to share your Desktop folder among multiple Macs. Better rethink that NSFW wallpaper of your significant other.

    Apple Pay for online shopping. Set up the transaction on your desktop, then authenticate it with your iPhone or Apple Watch. Shrug. If it’s even slightly more secure than typing your credit card number, it’s a win, but not exactly earthshaking.

    And [trumpet sound effect] Siri on the desktop. Because, of course, Microsoft has Cortana, and Apple can’t afford a personal assistant gap.

  • iOS And, of course, Apple’s bread and butter. A new lock screen that comes on when you pick the phone up so you have a chance to read your notifications before you unlock it. Hopefully it won’t trigger in your pocket often enough to run your battery down. And, naturally, you can do more in the way of responding to those notifications from the lock screen. Is it really that much of a pain to unlock the phone before you can reply to a text?

    Siri and Autocorrect are having a baby: Quick Type. Because having Siri tell you what to type isn’t at all scary.

    Photos can now show you a map of where your photos were taken. I can see that being useful. It would sure make organizing your vacation pictures easier–especially those ones you took through the plane’s window somewhere between Sedalia and Seattle. Oh, wait, that’s me. There are improvements in facial recognition and a new “Memories” tab that sounds like it’ll show images related to the one you’re currently looking at. Automatic slideshow creation. Hmm. That’s more worrisome–do you really want your phone automatically creating a slideshow of all 200 pictures you took at last night’s concert?

    Maps will expand last year’s “Nearby” feature to give you “proactive suggestions based on calendar events or your normal routine”. So it’ll offer you directions to the restaurant you’ve been going to for lunch every day? That’ll be handy. Hey, traffic data! Because nobody’s ever done that before.

    UI tweaks in Apple Music. Thrills. Oh, wait, now it can display lyrics. “Death of the mondegreen predicted. Film at 11.”

    Am I the only person who didn’t know that Messages was the single most popular app on the iPhone? I’m sure those of you who use it will be happy to hear that not only will emoji be three times larger in iOS 10, but the OS will provide emoji suggestions as you type in addition to suggesting words and phrases.

Well.

I hope you’re as excited about what Apple will bring us this Fall.

No, let me amend that. For Apple’s sake, I hope you’re more excited than I am.

Looks like it’s something of a consolidation year for both Apple and Google. Maybe we’ll get something radically new in ’17.

A Bushel of Apples

Yesterday, of course, was Apple Day. Not only did Apple announce new products, but there’s been an interesting development in the battle over encryption.

Let’s start with the new goodies.

Nothing really new for the Apple Watch–unless you like changing the band. We’ve got a set of woven nylon bands coming in a variety of colors. Forgive me if I find that less than enthralling.

Apple TV gets an OS update to include, among other things, Live Photos support. I guess that explains why Apple has been running iPhone commercials focusing on Live Photos recently. (To refresh the memory of those of you who don’t have an iPhone, Live Photos are short, looped movies: you take a photo, and it moves. Basically, it’s the high-resolution, high-color version of an animated GIF.)

There’s a new iPhone coming, the SE. Hardware is similar to the 6S, but with a four-inch screen. Consider it a 6S in a 5S form-factor. Kudos to Apple for catering to those of us who think holding a six-inch slab of glass and metal up to our ears is pretty darn silly.

And on a similar note, we’re also getting a smaller iPad Pro. I’m a little dubious about that. I’ve tried using my Nexus 9 for serious work (writing, naturally), and found it a bit cramped. I have to think the new iPad Pro would be similarly constrained. And let’s not even think about typing on a keyboard scaled down to be the cover for a 9.7 inch screen. I still remember trying to type on a netbook. It wasn’t fun.

There’s a new iOS, of course. 9.3 brings us “Night Shift”. It knows when local sunset is, and starts removing blue tones from the display. Everyone seems to be going nuts for this idea that limiting blue light in the evening will help you sleep better. If I’m not mistaken, all of the excitement comes from a single study that hasn’t been replicated yet, and I have to wonder just how over-hyped the findings are. But in any case, if my iPad starts removing blue tones from videos after dark, I’m going to lose sleep, because I’ll be too busy swearing at it (hint: removing the blues from the Mariners’ uniforms are going to leave them looking peculiar). (Later note: Yes, it can be turned off or changed to a clock-based schedule instead of following the sun.)

Finally, there’s a new framework for application development, CareKit. It builds on last year’s ResearchKit, which is designed to help create medical research applications. CareKit is for apps to help individuals with medical needs. Examples mentioned at the Apple event include post-surgery recovery and monitoring of Parkinson’s Disease. Although they didn’t say so, I suspect that it’s closely tied into the HealthKit framework for fitness apps.

It sounds like there are some interesting app possibilities in CareKit, but there are some significant privacy implications as well. Which, of course, brings us to Apple’s squabble with the FBI.

During the Apple event, Tim Cook reiterated Apple’s belief that they “have a responsibility to help you protect your data and protect your privacy.” In other words, Apple would not give in and obey the court order to write a crippled version of iOS for law enforcement.

Shortly after that, the FBI asked the judge in the case to cancel today’s hearing, saying that they believe they have a way to break into the phone in question without Apple’s help, and they want time to test their method.

It’s unclear where they got the technique. The NSA, perhaps? In any case, if the idea proves out, I imagine they’ll drop the case against Apple, rather than risk a precedent being set that would prevent them from making similar demands for backdoors in the future. And, no doubt, the next version of iOS will include a fix for whatever bug allows the FBI access to the phone.

Stay tuned for free baseball!

Applesauce

Back in June, Apple held its annual developers’ conference, with sneak previews of the autumn software releases. Here we are at the nominal beginning of fall, so it’s time for them to remind us about the software and update us on their hardware plans.

Spoiler alert: There aren’t a whole lot of surprises.

The Apple Watch has a outrageous 97% customer satisfaction score. I’ll just note in passing that there’s a well-documented psychological tendency for people to convince themselves they like something they paid too much for: a way to convince themselves that eating peanut butter for every meal for six months is worth it. Not that I’d ever suggest the Apple Watch is overpriced.

Anyway, WatchOS 2 is coming, and with it is the ability to run apps on the watch, rather than on your iPhone with the watch as a secondary display. Yes, now you can have Facebook Messenger on your wrist. Are you excited? How about iTranslate: talk to your wrist and hear what you said in more than 90 languages. Hopefully you can select one of the 90+, rather than having to sit through the whole list… We’ll find out on the 16th.

Moving from the wrist to the forklift, Apple’s got the iPad Pro. It’s 12.9 inches diagonally. 12.9. I complain about the awkward size of a nine-inch tablet, and the iPad Pro is more than a third larger. Let’s face it: this isn’t going to be competing with other tablets. Apple clearly sees it as a laptop alternative, as witness their claim that its CPU is “Desktop-class”. And it only weighs 1.57 pounds. (Hint: the original iPad weighed 1.54 pounds, and it was very hard to hold for more than a few minutes.) But Apple doesn’t really expect you to hold it. It’s obvious that they expect you to set it on a desk. With an external keyboard. Oh, and and “Apple Pencil”–that’s a stylus to those of us who believe that pencils should be filled with graphite. So, if you want a small laptop that runs iOS, the iPad Pro is your baby. Starting at $799 in November. Plus $169 for the keyboard and $99 for the styluspencil.

If that’s a bit steep and/or heavy for you, there’s also going to be an iPad Mini 4–think iPad Air 2 in the Mini form-factor. Although they didn’t say so, I presume that the Mini 4 will be able to handle the full multitasking capabilities of iOS 9.

As expected, Apple announced a new Apple TV box. Television, it seems, is no longer about shows. It’s about apps. Sorry, that doesn’t make any sense to me. If I want apps on TV, I’ll hook my iPad to the set. I use the TV to watch TV. But then, we all know I’m an old curmudgeon.

Anyway, aside from the obligatory app store, the new Apple TVs have a remote with a “touch surface” (I believe most of us would call it a trackpad and a microphone for voice control. Yup, Siri’s in your TV now. All part of “tvOS”. Because Apple didn’t have enough operating systems already. Branding aside, tvOS is a variant of iOS. “Universal” apps are no longer just iPhone and iPad, now they can include an Apple TV version as well. No wonder iOS 9 only installs the portion of a universal app that’s relevant to the device. If you can’t wait to play games and shop from your TV, you can get your fix in late October.

Of course there are new iPhones. What would September be without new iPhones? This is an odd-numbered year, so just as the Giants won’t win the World Series, Apple won’t introduce a major phone upgrade. We’re getting the 6s and 6s Plus. Apparently the most important new feature is that they come in “Rose gold” in addition to the usual silver, gold, and “space gray”–at least, that’s the first feature Apple announced. They also have “3D Touch”, meaning they can tell how hard you press and behave differently for different pressures. Main use seems to be to let the user preview apps or functions and take action without actually opening the app–for example, read an e-mail and delete it without opening the Mail app.

What else? Faster Touch ID, 50% more pixels in the camera. The camera can now take 4K video. Better buy a new TV that can handle 4K–although it’s worth noting that the new Apple TV boxes don’t do 4K. Oh dear. The new phones can use the screen as a flash for selfies. I guess it’s the logical next step after using your phone as a flashlight. “Live photos” include a little pre- and post-photo information, so you can get a bit of movement. Sounds like the old 3D prism images that move when you look at them from different angles.

Apparently Apple recognizes that the “s” phones aren’t major advances. Prices will be the same as the current 6 and 6 Plus are now. The old ones will get a $100 price cut. Or you can buy on an installment plan directly from Apple and trade up to the newest phone every year. I’m sure the carriers are thrilled with that. Preorders open this weekend, phones will be out on the 25th.

If you’re not planning to buy a new device, but want iOS 9, it’ll be out on the 16th.

All in all, Apple’s announcements are what everyone expected. If you’re married to the Apple infrastructure, you’re excited. Otherwise, it’s largely a shrug.

I can’t see the Apple TV taking a big chunk of the market away from the Rokus, Fire TVs, and Chromecasts of the world, given the cost and the continued availability of the previous generation Apple TV at half the price. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the future of television is apps. I hope not.

And I really don’t see the iPad Pro taking significant market share away from the low-end Windows laptops or the low-end MacBooks. The iPad Pro isn’t that different than Microsoft’s Surface tablets in terms of capabilities relative to it’s laptop and desktop counterparts, and Surface is barely a blip on the public’s radar.

Equal Time for WWDC 2015

I’m all about equal time–when it suits me, of course. Just because I can look at issues from all sides doesn’t mean I will. But as it happens, today I’m in a fair-minded mood, and since I did a quick take on the announcements coming out of Google I/O a couple of weeks ago, here’s equal time for Apple’s WWDC.

  • First up we’ve got the next version of OS X, El Capitan. Many of the changes are minor–the focus of the release is on stability and appearance. Among the more notable advances are steps toward natural language searching in Spotlight and a new split screen mode where two programs can be automatically sized to fill the screen without overlapping. Most of the work, though, has been behind the scenes: programs should launch faster, run faster (if they use the GPU), and hopefully crash fasterless often.

    By the sound of it, Mac users will appreciate El Capitan, but it’s probably a good thing Apple no longer charges for OS upgrades, as there doesn’t seem to be enough there to drive adoption if users had to pay. It’s in developer beta now; public beta will start in July, and release will be in September or October.

  • Over on the iOS side of things, we’ll be getting iOS 9. Oddly enough, the focus there is also on speed and stability. There are a few new features and significant enhancements to get excited about–or worry about, if you share my usual concerns.

    Siri, for example, is becoming “more proactive”. I gather this includes things like searching your e-mail for clues to identify unknown callers and telling you when it’s time to leave for an appointment. Hopefully the latter feature will take local conditions into account. Google’s version of this doesn’t; I frequently get reminders that it’s time to leave when I’m already on the road–or even parking at my destination.

    Here’s a nice touch: the iOS keyboard will now show lowercase letters when appropriate. Not bad, Apple, it’s only taken nine versions to fix that particular misfeature.

    If you have an iPad Air 2, the most exciting announcement about iOS 9 is that you’ll be getting honest-to-gosh side-by-side multitasking. Those not-quite-so-lucky folks with the original iPad Air, iPad Mini 2, or iPad Mini 3 will get limited multitasking, with the ability to slide an app into a sort of sidebar. Everyone else is still stuck with the current background multitasking we have today. Oh, wait, there’s also a “picture in picture” mode where you can have a small video window running on top of your main app. That should be nice for my colleagues in QA: keep an eye on the game while you test. No word on what’ll happen when your main app needs to display embedded video, to say nothing of full-screen video.

    Finally, iOS 9 is going on a diet, and it’s forcing apps to do the same. iOS 8 takes something over 4.5GB of your device’s precious, non-expandable storage. iOS 9 will trim that to less than 1.5GB. Even better, Apple is introducing several technologies that should, if all used together, reduce the size of apps by (I’m pulling numbers out of the air here) 30-70%. QA alert: One of the changes, “Bitcode,” will shift the compilation of the app from the developer to Apple. That means your customers will always download an app built with the latest compiler–you can no longer assume that the app they’re running was compiled with the same set of compiler updates and fixes as the app you tested. Have fun with that, gang.

  • Of course we’re getting a new OS for the Apple Watch as well. WatchOS 2 will give developers access to all of the watch’s spiffy hardware features and let them build apps that run on the phone, making them much more useful if your phone’s battery dies. Hooray, I suppose.
  • Moving beyond operating systems, we learned that Apple is open-sourcing their Swift language. Of course, open source comes in a variety of flavors. Don’t expect Swift to become a wide-open free-for-all. I’m quite sure that Apple is picturing something similar to Python, with themselves in the role of Benevolent Dictator for Life. How responsive they are to the needs of developers outside of Apple will play a major role in determining how long it will be before the language gets forked.
  • Then there’s the announcement we all expected: Apple is getting into streaming music. As every review hastens to assure us, Apple Music doesn’t offer anything that existing streaming services don’t already give us. It’s very much a “me too” play at this point, and only Apple’s massive base of iTunes users makes it practical for them. Assuming it survives, though, I expect it will evolve in some unique directions.

    Actually, Apple Music already offers one small but important distinguishing feature. Like everyone else, Apple has personalized recommendations. Unlike other services, however, Apple’s version isn’t completely machine-generated; it incorporates playlists curated by actual human beings. We’ll have to wait until the launch June 30th to find out the truth of the rumor that all curators will are required to include at least one non-skippable U2 track on every “For You” playlist.

WWDC ’14

It’s June again, and you know what that means. No, not time for nude horseback riding. I mean, I guess you could do that if you want, but it’s not what I had in mind. No, it’s June, and that means the world’s attention is squarely on WWDC, Apple’s annual developer conference. For those of you who don’t care about Apple or Apple products, WWDC is when Apple typically announces what’s coming in the next major release of their computer and mobile operating systems.

Last year, the big news for OS X was that Apple had run out of big cats, and new versions of the operating system would be named for locations. I went out on a limb, and predicted that this year’s release would be “Emeryville”. I’m delighted to announce that I was absolutely… What? Oh, darn. Sorry, this year’s release is “Yosemite”. Note that the version number is 10.10, meaning this release is officially known as “oh ess ten ten dot ten”. It’s got a nice beat, but I don’t think you can dance to it.

Moving on.

Aside from the new name, what is Yosemite bringing to the desktop and laptop user? Lots of visual cues taken from last year’s iOS 7 release. Transparency. Slimmer fonts. Flattened icons. Other than that, most of the changes seem to be aimed at users who also have an iPhone. Apple is touting “Continuity,” a package of enhancements to help integrate iOS with OS X: text messages can be relayed from an iOS device to your desktop, and the desktop can now place phone calls over an iPhone, as long as the iPhone is on the same local network. Handy, maybe, but not exactly earthshaking–which may be just as well, given ongoing concerns about seismic activity in California…

As has become the case in recent years, most of the excitement is over on the iOS side. Apple is billing the upcoming enhancements to iOS 8 as being focused on “inclusion”. Let’s take a quick look.

Users can respond to notifications without leaving their current app. The keyboard is now context-sensitive, learning words and phrases that users frequently use and offering them as suggestions. Great, not only will I still have auto-correct changing my emails to gibberish, the keyboard will be learning the gibberish and writing incoherent messages for me. A great time saver: I won’t have to do any work to confuse the heck out people. Oh, and apparently Apple is opening up the keyboard API to allow third-party keyboards to replace the default keyboard. Fans of Android “swipe” and “chording” keyboards can look forward to Apple ports.

Hey, there’s a new public API called “Healthkit”! (I keep reading it as “Heathkit”–talk about a blast from the past…) The intent of Healthkit is to allow manufacturers of fitness apps and gadgets to easily integrate their products with iOS and share date between apps. Nice, especially if you have multiple health-related devices and/or want your iPhone to nag you about your lack of exercise and high blood pressure.

In addition to “Healthkit,” we’re also getting “HomeKit,” an Apple-designed set of protocols for home automation. We talked about this last November. I had some serious concerns about the desirability of hooking all of my gadgets, including the home security system, into my smartphone. By making the functionality part of the OS and opening it up to third parties, Apple is doing nothing to make me feel better about the whole process. Remember that security is only as good as its weakest link. If an attacker can compromise any of the devices linked this way, they’ve got a path to everything else on the system. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that HomeKit is going to be a very popular target for attackers.

More inter-app communication. Currently, apps can register themselves as able to open specific kinds of files (for example, an app can register as handling pdf files, and other apps can then offer to open pdf files in that app). There aren’t a lot of details on the new functionality so far, but it sounds like apps will be able to register kinds of actions, such as “upload file” or “share image” to be included in the existing context menu.

Oh, hey, another new API! This one is for the TouchID sensor. Third-party apps will be able to use the 5s fingerprint sensor for logins. Hey, former cow-orkers, I’m betting that the first negative review of your apps complaining that you don’t support the sensor will show up about five minutes after iOS 8 is released. (Now that I think about it, given how easy it is to get a beta these days, you may start seeing the complaints even before the release.)

I said Apple is positioning the iOS 8 release as being about inclusion, and that’s arguably true. It’s also about “catch-up”. Many of the non-Continuity features are things that Android and Windows Phone have had for some time already. I’m more impressed with what’s coming in iOS 8 than I was about what we got in iOS 7, but that’s not saying a lot.

Still waiting for Apple to bring us another truly revolutionary innovation.

The Alphabet Post

A Is For Apple

As promised, a few thoughts on Apple’s “a lot to cover” show.

Taking things more or less in the same order Apple announced them, let’s start with OS X Mavericks, the latest iteration of the other operating system: the one that doesn’t run on mobile devices. I can’t comment on the content changes to the OS, as I just don’t use OS X enough, but the early reviews do seem positive. What I found interesting about the announcement was the price. The price of an OS X upgrade has been dropping for the past few years, and now it’s hit bottom. Well, technically, I suppose Apple could start paying users to upgrade, but I’m having trouble coming up with a business model where that would make sense for them. I’m sure the price would have hit zero eventually, but I suspect their hand was pushed a bit by Microsoft releasing Windows 8.1 as a free upgrade. Apple has gone one better than Microsoft by making it a free upgrade for anyone using OS X; Microsoft is still charging those using XP, Vista, and Windows 7 for the upgrade. Granted that the situations aren’t exactly parallel (for one thing, you have to do a clean install, not an upgrade from XP and Vista to Windows 8), but it’s definitely a selling point for Apple that will help them push users to upgrade; historically OS X migration has moved much more slowly than iOS upgrades.

Moving on, we’ve got the new MacBooks. New CPU, longer battery life, slightly lower prices, Retina screens across almost the entire product line. Nothing even close to earthshaking here. This is all about keeping up with the Windows laptop world.

The fancy, redesigned Mac Pro announced back in June will finally go on sale in December. Good news for those wedded to the workstation line, but largely irrelevant to the rest of the world — other than anyone who can’t resist the case design, which Ars has correctly noted is more than a bit reminiscent of a Dalek.

The iLife and iWork software suites have been updated and are now free with the purchase of new Apple hardware. Not a big surprise, considering that they’ve been giving iWork to all purchasers of new iOS devices since last month’s iPhone launches. Apple is moving more and more toward giving away the software and making their money on the add-ons. And why not? It worked well with iTunes: give away the software, make your money selling music, videos, books, and apps. So now they’re pushing the strategy down one level. Expect other developers to follow suit, dropping the purchase price for apps and pushing in-app sales. This is going to bite some of them in the ass, though. Apple has a solid policy against in-app sales for physical items or anything that can be used outside of the app. They’re currently in “discussions” with British media retailer HMV over their iOS app which enabled MP3 downloads that could be used by any app on the device. Look for more such “discussions” in the future.

And then there are the iPads. Much to everyone’s surprise, the new iPads got a new name: iPad Air. Way to simplify things, Apple. More importantly, the new models are much lighter. If you’re interested in a tablet somewhere around the ten-inch mark where weight is a serious concern, it’s well worth a look at the iPad Air. It’s clearly the lightest device in that class. Add in that very high resolution screen, and it makes a good case for being worth the usual price premium over the Samsungs and Nexuses (Nexii?).

The other big surprise was the iPad Mini finally getting a Retina screen. Oh, wait. That wasn’t much of a surprise. But it’s now official, so moving on. The Mini isn’t as much of a contender in its class (7-8 inch tablets) as the Air is in the larger tablet space. It does take the resolution lead, albeit only by a small margin over the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire HDX 7. But it’s also the heaviest small tablet out there and this is a niche where one-handed operation is the rule. 1.4 ounces may not sound like much, but when you’re trying to read on the subway, you notice the difference surprisingly quickly. The A7 processor should make it competitively fast, but the price tag, almost twice that of the Nexus 7 and HDX 7, is going to drag it back.

B Is For BART

Looks like I was a bit off in my predictions about the length of a BART strike: I was expecting something closer to a week than the four days we actually got. Not that I’m complaining. Having BART out of operation is a royal pain, especially for anyone who normally uses it to go someplace other than downtown San Francisco. None of the alternatives are of use if you’re commuting between two points in the East Bay. Fortunately, Maggie was able to telecommute, but I’m sure she was in a minority. The newspaper was full of reports of people who slept at their desks in San Francisco or had their normal hour commute stretch to three or four hours.

So now there’s a settlement. Of course, the proposed contract still needs to be ratified by the unions and BART management. My gut reaction is that all parties will accept the deal, but it’s not exactly a sure thing. One BART director has already gone on record as opposing the deal, and nobody is offering odds one way or the other on the union membership’s opinion. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, calls for a legal ban on transit strikes (which would presumably also cover AC Transit, who are just beginning their 60 day cooling-off period). Even if legislation passes, it’s not going to remove the possibility of a BART shutdown. Workers could still strike illegally. It’s happened in New York; it could happen here. Even without a strike, a “work slow-down” could be just as devastating. BART’s rather elderly computer systems struggle to cope on busy commute days. Imagine how badly they could be snarled if even a few drivers called in requests for maintenance checks at every stop, or took their trains out of automatic control, citing “safety concerns”.

Still, the current system clearly isn’t working. As several commentators have pointed out, the previous contract included as “no strike” clause. The unions ignored it on the grounds that the contract was expired, although they insisted that all other provisions, especially those related to pay, should remain in effect. It’s a wonder management didn’t retaliate in kind and ignore the clause that forbids them from hiring replacement workers until the unions go on strike. Heck, for all we know, they might have. Reports on Saturday’s fatal accident are that the train was being used to train replacement drivers. Rumor has it that the trainees were managers who had previously been drivers, but BART hasn’t confirmed that. Could they have been new hires?

I don’t know how to fix it, but let me suggest one place to start: The contract is 470 pages long. Four hundred seventy. Most of that is apparently what they refer to as “work rules”, the codification of thirty years of “how we do it here”. Those rules were a major point of contention in the negotiations, and the incorporation into the contract has limited both sides’ ability to propose changes. According to ExecuRead, the average reading speed for technical material is approximately five minutes per page. That means that the typical BART worker is going to need around 40 hours — a full work week — to absorb the contents of the contract he’s signing. Estimates of average salaries for BART employees vary wildly. I’ve seen as low as $60,000 and as high as $80,000. Even by going by the lowest value, that’s $1100 per employee, or — very conservatively — $2,750,000. Does that sound like overkill to anyone else? OK, I’ll grant you that we can amortize the amount across the four years of the proposed contract, but that’s still almost $700,000 a year being spent just on reading the damned document.

Cynically, I doubt anyone is actually reading what they’re committing themselves to — that’s what lawyers are for, right? — but maybe I’m pessimistic.

My advice, and take it for what it’s worth, is to amend the contract to remove the work rules and replace them with a notation that employees are subject to the rules as documented separately. This is the same process by which other businesses include employee dress codes and similar organizational practices and procedures. The potential gains are clear: contract negotiations can focus on pay and benefits, which are quite contentious enough; meanwhile the work rules can be updated independently of the contract, making it easier to keep them in sync with a rapidly-changing technical and regulatory environment.

C Is For Critters

The last item for today is a heads-up for those of you who enjoy the Friday Cute Critter posts. For the next month or so, I’ll be taking a break from posting pictures of our crew and bringing you a special feature: “Meet the Neighbors”. Join me tomorrow, won’t you?

You’re Searching For What?

Well, that’s no surprise.

The number one search on Google today is for iOS 7. Because there’s such a small number of sites with any information about Apple’s latest OS, and there’s been little, if any, public discussion of the new features, the release date, or how to install it, the public has an insatiable need for all the details today.

Seriously, WTF? IOS 7 articles have been swamping the Web for weeks, and it’s only now that it’s available to install that people are searching for it? Over five million searches today and it didn’t even make 50,000 yesterday to crack the top searches list.

Can we add procrastination to the list of society’s ills, along with short attention spans and leaving baseball games before they end?

In other search-related news, yesterday “Grand Theft Auto 5” was number four on Google’s list — and “GTA 5 Cheats” was number six, with nearly as many searches.* Today, “GTA 5 Cheats” has moved up to number five, but the game itself has dropped off of the list. I conclude that the people who don’t cheat at video games are busy downloading iOS 7 today. Presumably the cheaters are Android users.

* Am I the only one who finds it amusing that the number five search was another automotive simulation: “NASCAR”?

What else is going on in the wacky world of searching?

The number two search today is “Scott Eastwood”. Clearly, there’s great interest in topless males — more than in topless females, as January Jones is well behind at number seven. Maybe it’s just breast exhaustion? Yesterday searchers were deeply into Christina Milian’s nipple-revealing tank top, after all. They were also eagerly hunting for intel on Emily Ratajkowski, nude star of Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video.

It looks like the world’s interest in the Washington Navy Yard shooting has faded. Yesterday’s number one search, “Aaron Alexis”, has fallen off of the list completely today. Did I mention “short attention spans”? I did? Oh, good.

Now that I think about it, three of today’s top ten searches are for specific celebrities, and another three are for movies and TV shows. Can we also add “celebrity obsession” to the list?

I was hoping that the above were American problems, but unfortunately not. The top three searches in the UK are “iOS 7”, “GTA 5 cheats”, and “Tour of Britain”. At least the British are interested in a bicycle race. That’s something.

Canadians: “iOS 7”, “OC Transpo”, and “Ottawa Citizen”. Apple leads a bus/train accident and a murder by an order of magnitude. And Scott Eastwood is in there at number five. Scott, pleas put your shirt back on, so Canadians can get back to cheating on video games.

In Japan, iOS 7 is trailing slightly behind pop group AKB48 for the public’s attention. Go, Japan, go!

And in India, iOS 7 is drawing five times as much attention as actor Dilip Kumar.

“I blame society” has become a cliché, and doesn’t really work as an excuse for aberrant behaviour today, so let’s try a different theory: clearly Google is broken. Please join me in attempting to fix it by spending the rest of the day in using it the way it was intended: searching for cat videos. Just watch out for Nyan Cat.

Apple Bites Developers and Customers

Apple is trying to throw a bone to users of its older devices. The bone is more of a boomerang that’s going to bounce back and hit users and developers in the back of the head.

A number of sites are reporting today that Apple has made a change to the iOS App Store such that if a user tries to install an app on a device that can’t support it, they’ll be offered the option of installing an older version of the app.

As an example, consider my first generation iPad. It cannot be upgraded to any version of iOS newer than 5.1.1. Now consider app X, which was originally written for iOS 4, and then was later updated to require iOS 5 in version 2.0; in version 3.0 it was again updated to require iOS 6. The latest and greatest enhancement to version 3.5 requires iOS 7, but 3.5 isn’t in the store yet, since iOS 7 won’t be released until tomorrow.

If I had tried to install X before Apple’s App Store change, I would have gotten a message telling me that it was not compatible with my device and that I needed to upgrade to iOS 6 — which I can’t do. Today, if I try to install it, I’ll get a message telling me that version 3.0 isn’t compatible with my device and offering me the option of installing version 2.0 instead.

Sounds like a nice, customer-friendly change, doesn’t it? Most of the sites reporting on the change are certainly describing it that way. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Consider that there was a reason why app X was updated. Developers don’t enforce a requirement for a particular version of iOS just because they can. They enforce it because the app uses an operating system function that isn’t available in earlier versions of the OS. So when iOS 6 came out, the developers of X started using some spiffy new feature — let’s say they started using the Passbook functionality to support gift cards. That functionality is only available to iOS 6 users, thus the restriction of X version 3.0 to iOS 6.

As a user, I may or may not understand that restriction — there’s a lot of feedback in the App Store that suggests that I don’t. So when I hear about the cool new gift card feature, I go to X’s page to install the app. I get a generic message that tells me I have to install an older version. It doesn’t explain what I don’t get by installing the older version, so I go ahead and install it, and I can’t find the gift card feature. What do I do? I immediately go back to the app store and post a one star rating, possibly with a helpful review that says “This app sucks. Gift card functionality is missing. Don’t use!”

Wait, it gets even better. Suppose I didn’t care about the gift card feature, but I like some of the features that are present in version 2.0. I keep the app on my iPad and use it for a couple of weeks, and then I discover bug: the app crashes if I try to use it after 5pm on Thursdays. (I’m assuming a lot here: most users aren’t going to go much beyond “the app crashes”. But I’m being generous.) Since I’m being generous, I report the bug to the developers directly instread of just leaving bad feedback in the App Store. Now the developers have a choice. They can:

  1. Tell me that version 2.0 isn’t supported any more. Now I’m pissed off. They lose a customer and I leave lousy feedback.
  2. Do the research to figure out why the app crashes on Thursday evenings and it turns out it’s only present in 2.0. Now they have a choice: do they fix the bug and release a version 2.1 for just those of us who can’t upgrade to 3.0? That’s going to increase development and testing time, so probably not. Again, I’m pissed off.
  3. Maybe they do the research and discover that it’s also present in version 3.0. At least now the time they spend doing the research and fixing the bug (and QA testing the fix) benefits their current customers. But they still have to decide whether to do a 2.1 release.

One more scenario: Many apps that require communication with a server turn off the communication for versions that have aged beyond a certain point. Consider our app X again. The makers were planning to turn off support for version 2.0 when 3.5 goes live in the App Store tomorrow. Apple has no way of knowing that they’ve turned it off, so when I come to the store this weekend and install the app it launches, but can’t connect to the server and I can’t use it. Hopefully the developers included a polite message in the app explaining that the version I’m trying to use is too old and I need to upgrade, but since I can’t upgrade, I’m pissed again.

What’s the poor developer going to do now? Apple pushes developers to adopt new OS functionality as quickly as possible, but this new App Store feature is going to punish them if they do.

No matter what, the result of Apple’s “customer-friendly” move is pissed off customers, and in many cases, additional work for developers.

Thanks, Apple.