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.

Apple, Again

So Apple had its usual multimedia extravaganza to promote their forward-thinking, innovative iOS and iPhone releases. Apple’s taken a lot of hits lately for their lack of innovation, but I think today sets the record straight. Just look at what all they announced:

  • The way forward is through new sales. All of the apps in their iWork suite will be free. To anyone buying a new iOS device, anyway. Current customers don’t matter, Apple is looking forward to the new customers and rewarding them with Keynote, Pages, Numbers, iPhoto, and iMovie.
  • iOS 7 will be available to all on September 18th. Hey, they’re looking a whole week into the future! It’s got all kinds of unique features like a convenient Control Center and Notification Center. Nothing like those on any Android phone! Well, OK, maybe there is, but iOS’ versions have that futuristic “flat” look! Yeah, I’m exaggerating here, but frankly iOS has been commentated to death already. There isn’t much here that we haven’t known about since the first beta.
  • That ancient iPhone 5 is dead, dead, dead. It’s being replaced by the exciting new iPhone 5C, the even more exciting iPhone 5S, and the absolutely thrilling iPhone 4S. Wait, what?
    • The iPhone 5C is (as Ars Technica put it) essentially identical to the iPhone 5 but plastic instead of aluminum. The big excitement is that it will be available in thrilling new colors: blue, green, red, yellow, and white. Oh, and its front-facing camera will have better low-light performance than that old iPhone 5. Prices starting at $99. Pre-order starting Friday, available a week later. Again, looking forward.
    • (Turning the snark mode off for a moment. Mostly.) The 5S is where the innovation really shines. Brand new 64-bit CPU (“The only phone with a 64-bit CPU”), up to twice as fast as the previous generation. iOS 7 has, of course, been fully updated to support 64-bit code while retaining full backward compatibility with existing 32-bit apps. In the long term, this will be a big win in terms of speed and capability. In the short term, we’re going to see a flood of customer complaints about apps not being updated to 64-bit versions, even in cases where there’s no value in it. A new “motion co-processor” will handle the accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass without the CPU needing to get involved. Opens up possibilities for context-sensitive and activity-aware apps. Major enhancements to the camera (bigger pixels, wider aperture, larger image sensor) combined with OS updates that pretty much boil down to “you don’t need to know a thing about photography to take pretty pictures”. A lot of the changes amount to taking multiple pictures at once and then the OS choosing the best of them, because it knows what effect you were going for better than you do. And then there’s that famous fingerprint reader in the home button. No more passcode and no more typing your password to buy something from the iTunes store. Just put your finger on the button. Very slick. Of course, if you share your phone, you’re screwed. It’s going to be a lot harder to share a finger than it was to share a passcode. Lior, I’m sure you’ll be happy to sacrifice a finger to the cause, right? Snip it off, preserve it in plastic, and pass it around to the team… At least you can use the same finger for multiple phones. Oh, and let’s not forget that you fingerprint data is encrypted and stored locally on the phone, never uploaded to Apple’s servers. That means the NSA can’t get your fingerprint. Uh… unless they arrest you and take your phone away. But they wouldn’t do that, because the fingerprint is only decryptable via the TouchID software on your phone. They can’t possibly crack that encryption, right? And if they can’t, nobody else can either! This phone is so cutting edge and futuristic that you can’t even pre-order it. It’ll be available on September 20th and you can order it then!
    • And that spiffy new iPhone 4S is free-with-contract. Because in the future, there’s still going to be a demand for a slower CPU and a lower-resolution screen. Apple’s got you covered, future retro enthusiasts!
  • The future of music is its past! The show ended with an appearance of Elvis Costello, whose long career is a clear indication that he’ll continue to produce cutting edge music for years to come. Look, Apple, I love Elvis Costello as much as the next guy, but if you’re trying to establish relevance and forward-thinking, he’s probably not the right choice. How about showcasing a new group, somebody on the edge of success, or at most just enough of a track record to show they’re not a one-hit wonder?

As you may have gathered, I wasn’t hugely wowed by Apple’s announcements. Yes, the 5S is a significant step forward, but it’s going to take some time for developers to catch up to its capabilities.

In Apple’s defense, though, I was pleased to see that they’re not following the current Android trend of ever-larger phones with ever-larger camera pixel counts. They may not be blazing new trails, but at least they’re not tramping down the same trail as everyone else.

Box Cat

I’m trying something new today: a cellphone game review. Wish me luck!

The game is “Box Cat” from Noodlecake Studios, and it’s categorized on Google Play as “Arcade & Action”, quite different from my normal choice of untimed puzzle games. I prefer to think that this will allow me to bring a fresh perspective to today’s review, rather than leading me to review all the wrong things.

All of my playing was done on the Android version on a 2013 Nexus 7 (although I did a quick test on a two-generations-out-of-date Samsung phone to confirm that there were no gross abnormalities or unacceptable lack of response). There’s also an iOS version. The iOS version is $1.99, but Android users get a bargain, as that version is a dollar cheaper.

Perhaps the best one-sentence description of Box Cat is that it’s “Frogger” in reverse. The graphics support that notion: they hearken back to the days of 8-bit arcade graphics: blocky and cute. In Frogger, the goal was to get your frogs across a busy street without being run over. In Box Cat, the goal is to allow your cat to frolic in the street, smashing the oncoming cars into each other. That’s right, Box Cat is solid and strong enough to send a two-ton car spinning across five lanes of traffic. Not too surprising, I guess, since Box Cat is almost as big as the cars. Unlike Frogger, there’s no “splat” if you miss your timing.

You can control Box Cat in two different ways: with on-screen buttons and by tilting the device. I found that tilting worked well on the Nexus, but was very sluggish on the phone. I suspect that’s specific to the phone, though, as using the on-screen buttons was quite responsive.

There are three different game modes:

In Adventure Mode, Box Cat has specific tasks to accomplish: hit a car of a particular color or a certain number of cars, collect a certain number of coins, and so on. He* needs to meet your objective and then smash a “boss” truck before a timer runs out.

In Survival Mode, Box Cat is defending a stretch of road. He has to smash all of the cars that come along. The game ends when the timer runs out or three cars sneak past.

In Rush Hour Mode, there are twice as many lanes of traffic, which makes it much easier to rack up high-scoring combinations of vehicles by bouncing one into another. Box Cat’s goal is to score as many points as possible before the timer runs out.

* For purposes of the review, I’m assuming Box Cat is male. I don’t think I’m sexist here: as far as I’m concerned, women are just as free to play in traffic as men are. My assumption is strictly because Box Cat is a big, yellow feline whose looks remind me of Rhubarb.

The music is appropriate for the graphics, and if you fall in love with it, you can download the whole soundtrack as a “name your own price” digital album. My apologies to the composer, though. I think even the most dedicated devotee of 8-bit chiptune music would agree that it goes from cute to annoying much too quickly.

As expected, I suck at the game: I over-control and zip from one side of the screen to the other, I lock my focus in the center of the screen and lose track of what’s happening at the edges, and I absolutely can’t master the control for “Dash” mode (required to take out the boss truck in Adventure mode). Let me emphasize that those are NOT faults with the game: I have exactly the same experience whenever I play arcade-style games.

Despite my failings, though, I had a good time playing with Box Cat and will be keeping him on my gadgets. IMNSHO, well worth the price. One word of advice, though: If there is anyone within 50 feet of you while you’re playing, turn off the background music.

Cat Selfies

My ex-boss demanded more cat posts. Apparently there isn’t enough information about and pictures of cats on the Internet already.

It seems that she’s not the only one who feels that way. Humans, it seems, just can’t keep up with the demand for cat pictures.

Two developers are working to fix this serious deficiency.

Acceleroto has released Cat Selfie for iOS devices, while Snapcat has Snapcat for Android.

Both apps serve the same purpose: they allow your cats to take their own picture, saving you time and effort.

The Android app is the better deal at this time. Not only does it have the ability to upload photos directly to EyeEm, Facebook, and Twitter–capabilities the iOS app lacks–but it’s also free, unlike the iOS device.

Cat selfies are apparently a thing. A quick Google search shows well over a million results for “cat selfies”. News to me; I guess I’m behind the curve again. So, in the interest of remedying my ignorance, I installed Snapcat on my phone and turned it over to Yuki for a test run. Yes, for the record, my phone does have a screen protector.

Both apps work in much the same way: the screen displays a moving red dot (or, in the case of the iOS app, a “bouncing ‘flaming laser'”, which sure sounds like a moving red dot to me). You turn on the phone, launch the app, and walk away. You cat will chase the dot and the app will take a picture every time the cat touches the screen. That’s the theory, anyway. As we all know, the difference between theory and reality is that in theory there is no difference.

Yuki’s first two attempts ended in failure when he flipped the phone over onto its face. Not only did that not result in a picture, but it meant he couldn’t chase the red dot anymore. Once he figured that out, though, things got a little better.

The first conclusion we can draw is that Yuki sucks as a photographer:
Yuki-1

In all fairness to The Floof, though, his efforts are no worse than a lot of human’s selfies I’ve seen. Also, note that the app does not use the camera flash, something that isn’t made clear in the documentation. I turned the lights up and gave Yuki a second chance.
Yuki-2

He did a little bit better. The second picture in particular is quite amusing, but it still has some problems with blurring around the edges that can’t all be chalked up to his fur.

In order to see how much of the problems were unique to Yuki, I tried to enlist the other cats. Kaja, despite her reputation as a mighty huntress showed no inclination to attack the red dot, though she was happy to watch it for several minutes. Rhubarb and Watanuki were sharing a sunbeam in the living room. They too were happy to watch the dot in amicable peace, but showed no inclination to move, let alone lift a paw to chase it. Kokoro initially declined my invitation to show off her artistic talents, as her stomach was feeling somewhat unsettled. She was far more interested in purging herself of a hairball than taking pictures. Even once her primary concern was remedied, she was more interested in the empty food bowl than the phone next to it.

So the final score is four cats with no interest in photography and one who’s interested but unskilled. Perhaps he’ll improve with practice.

Next time: Apps to help your cats to write music. Oh, wait, there don’t seem to be any. Market opportunity! Any app developers who want to fill the niche? Drop me a line. I’ll be happy to organize a feline QA team.

Apple WWDC

Last week was pretty depressing, especially towards the end of the week. I’m going to try to keep it a bit lighter this week, but the universe being the perverse place that it is, I fully expect a major disaster of some sort that will totally blow my plans to shreds. Until the universe starts slinging tire irons at our metaphorical kneecaps, though, cheerful is the word.

Let’s start with some updates on the wonderful world of Apple as revealed in this morning’s WWDC keynote. I’m getting most of my information from Ars Technica, and I highly recommend them if you want additional details on anything I talk about. Note that I’m not going to talk about iCloud and OS X as I don’t particularly use either, so I’m not in a position to comment on the usefulness of the updates.

Correction: One comment specifically on OS X. Apparently Apple has run out of cats. All of the versions from 10.0 (“Cheetah”) to 10.8 (“Mountain Lion”) were named after big cats, but the 10.9 release is “Mavericks” (for the California surfing spot, not the Dallas basketball team). A shame, really, but it does offer some room for fun and speculation. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that next year’s release (whether it be 10.10 or 11.0) will be named “Emeryville” in view of Apple’s close relationship with Pixar.

Moving right along…

Apple has officially announced their much-rumored streaming music offering. “iTunes Radio” will, according to Ars, be built into the upcoming iOS 7 (more on iOS 7 in a moment) and be available through AppleTV and iTunes for OS X. Not making it available for Windows iTunes users seems to make no business sense. Other venues are reporting that it will be available when Mavericks is released; I suspect Ars misunderstood or misreported. At the moment, this comes off as a “me too” play from Apple – it doesn’t seem to offer customers anything they don’t already have, but if Apple can do a significantly better job with its new music recommendation functionality that the current players have, there’s a potential for major migrations away from Pandora, Spotify, and others.

On the iOS 7 front, the biggest news in terms of number of words spent is actually the least significant in terms of functionality. Everyone is reporting on the new “flattened” UI. This is a change that makes little or no practical difference to customers, but will make work for developers who will now need to implement a new set of UI elements to stay consistent with the overall look and feel. Such good times!

On the brighter side, developers will no longer have to worry about the iPhone 3GS as iOS 7 will only be available for the iPhone 4 and newer. Over on the iPad side, original iPad users were not brought in from the cold – they’ll remain stuck on iOS 5. All other iPad users will be able to upgrade to iOS 7 when it comes out in the fall.

And speaking of updates, the App Store will now automatically update apps instead of nagging users to upgrade. If Apple implements this as the only configuration, it’s a big win for developers, who will no longer need to support multiple versions of their apps at once. If it’s optional behaviour, there’s likely to be little change from the current situation, as users who don’t like to update will just turn off the automatic updates and continue to ignore the nags.

More small changes that seem like they could actually be useful for users: the iCloud keychain will act as a password manager, suggesting secure passwords and sharing them across customer’s Apple phones, tablets, and desktops. This sort of functionality has been available from third-parties for years, but baking it into the OS should increase adoption and make at least a small boost in online security. Photos and movies can be shared from inside the Photos app and can be shared via an ad-hoc wifi connection (no need to tap phones together as on Samsung’s Android phones). Safari now has a scrollable tab interface, as well as what appears to be an integrated RSS reader. That could actually be very handy with the demise of Google Reader.

Ooh, here’s an incredibly useful change: Siri now has an optional male voice! How thrilling! (Seriously, there are useful Siri changes, including integration of Wikipedia and Bing search results, but that was too easy a target to resist…) I’m a little surprised Apple hasn’t started cutting deals for celebrity voices as on GPS units. Granted that the larger vocabulary would be a bit of a barrier, but I’d be willing to bet that a core vocabulary could be defined and implemented, and less common words could be handled with the current synthesized approach.

What else? I’m not seeing a whole let else. I’m sure my former cow-orkers are busy installing the developer beta of iOS 7 as I write this. Hey, gang, chime in and let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed that we should be looking forward to.

Until we hear from that old gang o’ mine, I’ll rate iOS 7 as “nice, but not earth-shaking”.