What Makes an App “Mobile?”

Every time I go to Mint.com on my iPad, there’s a banner at the top of the screen. Taunting me.

Yes, I do have the Mint app installed on my device. No, I don’t want to use it.

The Mint app only has a fraction of the features available on Mint.com. It’s really disappointing. For the most part, I like Mint as a service, but it’s a rare occasion that I open their app.

But I’m not here to talk about Mint specifically. What I do want to talk about is something broader. I want to talk about what makes something a “mobile” app.

Six or seven years ago, Mint would’ve been a great app. These were the days that mobile apps were considered to be almost a satellite experience. A limited, on-the-go sort of experience. All the big features were on your computer, where you did real work, and the mobile app just had a few small, key functions that you might want to do from your phone. Doing real work on a smartphone was for addicts and Crackberries. No normal person would want or need to do work from their phone, right?

No one thinks this way anymore.

In fact, the paradigm has completely reversed. Instagram is a prime example: Instagram is an app first, and a website second. “Second” might actually be too generous a word. For years, Instagram didn’t even have a web view. Now they do, but it’s only that: a view. You can’t post to Instagram from a desktop computer, you have to use their app. Mobile is king.

In just a few short years, the focus has completely shifted. Twitter just killed their Mac app. 93% of Facebook’s daily active users are on mobile. And I’m willing to bet that the numbers for 18-35 year olds are even higher. Mobile isn’t going anywhere. Get used to it.

Mobile is king.

Stand Hours – My First App!

I’ve been reviewing apps here for a long time, but today I’m incredibly excited to announce that I’ve made an app of my own! Being an iOS developer has been a dream of mine for years, and I’m very proud of the app I’ve made. Please go check the app out and send me feedback on features you want added!

Stand Hours app icon Stand Hours – Download Now!

Stand Hours is an app I created that helps you live healthier by sitting less and moving more throughout your day. If you work at a desk (like me), or are in school and spend lots of time doing homework (also like me), this is an easy way to become just a little bit healthier each day. Getting up and walking around for even just one minute (at least 100 steps) during an hour counts as a stand hour.

Stand Hours reads your step data from the Health app, which means it works with any fitness tracker that supports Apple Health (including the iPhone’s built-in pedometer).

Stand Hours also gives you hourly reminders throughout the day to get up and move around.

In addition to reading steps from Apple Health, Stand Hours can (optionally) export your stand hours to Apple Health. Yes, Apple Health has a metric called “Stand Hours,” but that can only be used by the Apple Watch. Instead, this app can store your stand hours as ANY activity metric in Apple Health – such as an empty one that you don’t use. It’s a great way to see this data in the Health app, even if you don’t have an Apple Watch!

You can use the form below to submit feedback, request features, or report bugs. This app is still in early stages, so if you’ve got a feature you want added to the app I’m all ears! Thanks for checking it out.

You can view the Stand Hours’ privacy policy here. TL;DR, all data in the app stays on your device, we don’t collect or sell it in any way.
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Photos Saga Part 2: Photos for Mac

In my post last week, I talked about how I moved all my photos over from Dropbox to iCloud Photo Library.  What got me started on that topic, however, was the new Photos for Mac app.  As I said last week, Photos for Mac had been announced at WWDC last summer, but didn’t actually come out until just a few weeks ago.  After talking about iCloud Photo Library last week, I’m finally ready to talk about Photos for Mac.  There are some problems with the app, which will hopefully be fixed in future updates (is is, after all, version 1.0).  On the whole, though, it works really well, and I’m excited about it.

Open up Photos for Mac and the first tab you see at the top is the Photos tab.  If you’ve used photos on an iOS 7 device, this view will look very familiar.  All photos are shown, in reverse chronological order, divided into “moments” just like on iOS.  Also like iOS (that phrase is the key to this post), this is meant to be the main screen in photos, and it basically does what it promises.  No complaints here.

I’m going to skip next to the third tab at the top, Albums.  Albums is a much more complicated view, but I like the way it works.  At the top of the screen are several auto-generated albums.  This includes “All Photos” (similar to moments but not divided up by time), as well as “Panoramas,” “Videos,” “Slow-mo,” and so on.  This is a nice way to group photos of a particular kind.  Beneath these are the user-created albums.  These include regular albums and smart albums.  Regular albums are just what you’d expect, a collection of photos that you’ve put together.  These albums sync to all your devices over iCloud.  Smart albums automatically include all photos that fit a set of criteria, say, “Date is 4/29/15” and “Camera Model is iPhone 5s.”  Smart albums are great for organizing lots of photos; for example, I have a screenshots album that includes all files with “.png” in the name.  What’s frustrating, though, is that smart albums don’t sync over iCloud, so you can’t view them on iOS.  (Oddly enough, you actually can see them in a browser on iCloud.com.  What the heck?)

Another section of the Albums screen is Faces.  This allows you to tag the faces in your pictures, Facebook style.  To start, click on one of the detected faces at the bottom, and then type in a name.  Photos then shows you a group of pictures and asks you to confirm which ones are of the same person.  As you go, Photos also automatically adds faces that it’s (apparently) more sure about.  This is a cool way to organize photos, but, like smart albums, you won’t be able to view them on your iOS devices.  Another organization feature that has issues is geotagging.  Photos for Mac will let you see photo geotags, but you can’t add them manually.  This seems ridiculous, why should I have to use another app to do that?  The other thing that’s annoying is there’s no master photo map to see geotags; the only way (that I know of) to see a map is to go a photo’s moment and click the location there.  This then pulls up a map of the location.  You can zoom out in moments to see “collections” or “years” and then view a map of that group (which is much larger), but this still seems odd.  I feel like there should be a “Map” option from the albums screen.

Now I can finally get to the second tab at the top of Photos: Sharing.  iCloud Photo Sharing has been around for a few years now, and from what I can tell, it hasn’t been updated in a few either.  iCloud Photo Sharing has obviously been designed for a pre-iCloud Photo Library world.  Here’s how it works: when you share photos, they begin uploading into a shared album.  They stay there forever, and they don’t count against your iCloud storage.  Basically, they operate entirely separately from your iCloud Photo Library!  This really needs to be updated.  After going on that backpacking trip a few weeks ago, I wanted to share some photos.  However, even though they had already uploaded to my iCloud Photo Library, I had to wait for them to reupload to iCloud Photo Sharing!  This is ridiculous.  If I want to share files that are already in Dropbox, the process of creating a link is instantaneous.  Apple really needs to work on reconciling iCloud Photo Library and Photo Sharing to work better together.

The final tab of Photos for Mac is Projects, which allows you to create and order prints, photo books, cards, and other items, Shutterfly-style.  This is a neat feature, but I don’t see myself using it much.

The last thing I want to talk about is Windows support.  There is no Photos app for Windows, so you can only see your photos in a native app on iOS and OS X.  You can, however, view your photos in a browser on Windows by going to iCloud.com.  This works well enough, but it’s a little slow.  Also, you can’t view shared albums on Windows at all.  This is odd; it seems like allowing iCloud Photo Sharing on Windows would actually drive customers to the Mac.

I think that about wraps it up.  Photos for Mac is miles ahead of what I had before, and so far I’m super happy with it.  I hope that Apple will continue to improve both the app and iCloud Photo Library as time goes on.  Apple seems to be serious about wanting to be the home for your photos, and if they keep it up, I think they just might succeed.  ••

March App Review: Writing Aid

App: Writing Aid
Developer: Benjamin Mayo
Price: $0.99
Platforms: iOS

I’ve mentioned Writing Aid before, both offhandedly and while discussing my favorite Notification Center widgets.  Since I’ve talked about it so much, it seemed fitting to go ahead and do an official review.  Writing Aid starts as a very simple dictionary app that’s been stripped of a lot of unimportant features to make finding definitions as simple as possible.  Then, however, Writing Aid adds a few unique features that really make it shine.

But let’s start with the dictionary.  It’s pretty straightforward, and I love how opening the app puts your cursor right in the search box.  Searching for a word is easy and quick, and the definitions are good.  For many words, there’s a bar along the top that continually scrolls similar words, like a thesaurus (see image 3).  This is really useful.  My only (very minor) complaint is that it doesn’t work offline, but that’s not that big of a deal.

The first unique feature is what I’m going to call meaning search.  This is basically a dictionary search in reverse: when you know the meaning but can’t quite think of the word.  In the screenshot above (image 4), I searched “blue green” and got words such as “teal” and “aqua.”  Searching “person in charge” gives “head,” “guard,” and “caretaker.”  Pretty neat.

The second cool feature is the one I talked about last week, the Notification Center widget.  Every day, the widget shows you a new word and its definition.  The widget is useful, simple, and concise (read: excellent).  This is actually the reason I bought the app; I only later realized what a good dictionary it was.

In conclusion, Writing Aid is a simple app that, right off the bat, does what it promises.  After delving a little deeper, we can see that there are also some more complicated features that work great as well.  My only complaint would be that there’s no iPad version, but in reality I wouldn’t use it very much at all.  I don’t usually have my iPad with me when I’m writing, whereas I always have my iPhone.  I guess the app is fine the way it is.  ••

The Unrealized Potential of the Mac App Store

Pretty much all smartphone platforms have their own app store.  This provides a unified place to find and purchase applications for one’s device.  This is really nice; it makes finding software easy.  Apple pioneered this approach with the iPhone App store (which launched in 2008), and followed with the Mac App Store (in 2011).  When I first got a Mac last spring, I was really excited to use the Mac App Store.  My other computer runs Windows 7, which doesn’t have any sort of app store (the closest thing I have there is CNET).  It sounded really great to not only have a unified place to find apps, but also a unified way to update them (similar to iOS).  In practice, however, I haven’t used the Mac App Store much.  The reason?  The selection is pretty disappointing.  There just aren’t many good apps there.  The couple of times I’ve gone to the Mac App Store looking for something I’ve come away disappointed.  Subdividing this problem of selection, I’ve determined two major reasons why the Mac App Store has such as small assortment of apps.

1.  Sandboxing
Sandboxing is required for all apps on the Mac App Store.  Sandboxing is a term that many people have never heard used in a software context (only in a children’s playground one).  Basically, sandboxing means that each program is completely isolated, in its own “sandbox,” if you will.  The benefit of this is that apps can’t meddle with other apps.  For example, Microsoft Word can’t go over and, say, wreck Firefox’s awesome castle.  This sounds good in principle, until you realize that apps can’t work together either.  Maybe Firefox wanted Word to help with his castle.  The final problem is that apps can’t use common operating system resources that other apps might use too.  Microsoft Word wouldn’t be allowed to play on the swings, because it might hog them and not give Firefox a turn.  Bad analogies aside, sandboxing is something Apple is big on.  They are only now starting to take a step back from sandboxing in iOS with extensions.  Going back to the Mac, many apps simply can’t make themselves available on the Mac App Store, since they require advanced functionality that they can’t have while sandboxed.  This is really a shame, and it means I only have two App Store apps (Microsoft OneDrive and Apple’s Xcode) actually installed on my Mac right now.

2.  Pricing
This is just a pet peeve of mine.  I (like most people, I assume) like free software.  I almost never pay for software; there’s almost always a free alternative out there.  It may not work quite as well, but at least it was free.  The Mac App Store is not a good place to find free software.  For example, the other day I was looking for a way to change the date taken in a photo.  I don’t have iPhoto, and since Apple’s going to replace it with a (free!) “Photos” app in the next year, there’s no reason for me to spend $15 on it.  Searching online, I found a program called “Photo Date Changer.”  This program basically exists just to change the date on photos.  I thought, “Perfect, just what I need.”  This program is on the Mac App Store.  $8.  There is no way I am going to pay $8 for a program that just changes the date on a photo.  I have a theory as to why Mac App Store apps are more expensive.  The reason is that Macs are more expensive.  I guess developers assume that someone willing to spend more money on a Mac is willing to spend more money on software.  I, however, am not.

In conclusion, I hope the Mac App Store gets better.  Maybe Apple will start to open up sandboxing as they have done in iOS.  Maybe, as time goes on, more and more apps will become available on the store.  I hope this happens, but I’m not sure that it’s going to.  Fortunately, there’s always CNET.  ••