iOS 9 is Here!

Last Wednesday was the official release of iOS 9.  After updating a day late, I’m really liking the new version.  There’s lots to talk about, but I’m going to highlight my two favorite features: the improved Spotlight search and iPad Multitasking.

Spotlight
Spotlight has been moved to a new-old home, to the left of the first home screen.  This is where it was before iOS 7 (interestingly enough, however, you can still access Spotlight by pulling down from any home screen, but you won’t get as many suggestions).  Right at the top of the new Spotlight are “Siri Suggestions” – contacts and apps that iOS thinks you may want to use right now.  So far, they just seem to be recents, but Apple has said that these will slowly tailor based on your usage.  Check Twitter and Facebook every morning?  Those apps will show up at that time.  Under that is “Nearby” – a group of buttons for finding restaurants, gas stations, and the like.  These too will change based on whether it’s breakfast or dinner time.  Finally, underneath that are a few top stories from the News app, which makes its iOS 9 debut.  What’s cool is that you get all this information by just swiping into the Spotlight screen.  If you actually start to search, you’ll see similar results to what you’d have seen in previous versions of iOS.  Except for one major thing: you can now search the content in third-party apps right from Spotlight.  Dropbox, among others, has already added support for this feature, and I think it’s going to be super useful.

iPad Multitasking
Unfortunately, iPad multitasking is a little fragmented.  Let me break it down.  The iPad Air 2, iPad Mini 4, and the iPad Pro (so the newest model of each size), can truly run two apps at the same time.  This can be done either with both apps taking up half the screen or with more of a 3/4 split.  So that’s great, but I have an iPad Mini 2.  Well the iPad Mini 2, 3, and 4; the iPad Air 1 and 2; and the iPad Pro can also do what’s called “slide over.”  This is where one app keeps running in the background, and an iPhone-width app slides over it on the right hand side, taking up about 1/4 of the screen.  Like this:


This is useful, but so far not many apps have been updated for it (disappointingly, not even all of Apple’s apps support it.  Why doesn’t Music?).  Hopefully this will get better though.  The final feature of multitasking, which comes to the same models that get slide over, is picture in picture.  This is available both for video apps like Netflix and things like FaceTime, so that’s really cool.

The last thing I want to talk about is performance and battery.  I mentioned in my WWDC post that iOS 9 is available for all phones that got iOS 8.  I was hoping that this, coupled with the fact that Apple trumpeted iOS 9 as improving performance, would mean that iOS 9 wouldn’t slow my phone down.  So far, my phone has been about the same (hooray!), but my iPad is definitely slower (this makes no sense, they’re the same model year).  Still, this is better than the usual performance hit we’ve gotten used it.  So far, battery doesn’t seem to have taken a hit either.  I’ve yet to try out the new Low Power Mode, but I think that’s a good idea too.  All in all, I like iOS 9, and I hope developers continue to add support for all the cool new features.  ••

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Taking Action on Notifications

One of the first iOS 8 features I wrote about last summer was actionable notifications.  Basically, this feature allows notifications to have buttons that let you respond to them without even opening the app.  When I first saw this feature, it was in the context of banner notifications on the top of the screen.  I thought this was definitely a cool idea, but not quite an earth-shattering one.  However, once I realized that these actions are also available on the lock screen, I realized how much time this feature would actually save me.

Let’s go through a hypothetical situation here.  Let’s say I’m sitting in class and my phone is buzzing off the hook.  I’m not going to look at it in class, so when it ends, I have a bunch of notifications.  Let’s say I’ve got a text from my brother, asking me a question about church tonight.  I’ve also got 16 texts from a group message, a notification from WordPress that someone linked to my post, two emails about my scout troop, a Twitter mention, two Instagram likes, and a Snapchat.  (Of course, I rarely open my phone and see notifications from all of these apps at once, but for the sake of this example, I’ve named lots of apps which have notifications I can act upon.)  Let’s go through each of these one at a time:

First is the text from my brother.  Since Messages is an official Apple app, it can have much more functionality than Apple would allow a third-party app.  Because of this, I can swipe right on this notification and tap reply.  A keyboard then pops up right on the lock screen, allowing me to respond to the text (rest assured, random people who find your phone can reply to your texts only if you’ve turned this feature on).  The only thing that’s annoying about this is that iOS won’t let me use SwiftKey on the lock screen, because that keyboard requires full access, and I guess they don’t want it to run unless I’ve put my passcode in.

Next are the group texts.  If it’s not something I want to reply to, I can just read them all right there on the lock screen, and then swipe right and dismiss the most recent one.  Now the cool part happens: I don’t have to dismiss every text.  If I dismiss one text from a thread, all texts that came in before that also clear.  The assumption is that if you’ve read the most recent, you’ve read them all.  This is great, because sometimes I open my phone to 50 or more group texts.

After dealing with all the messages, I’ve got a WordPress notification.  Since most of my pingback notifications are from my own blog (which is a whole different can of worms I can gripe about), I just want to approve them right away.  Fortunately, I can swipe on the notification and tap “Approve.”  The only annoying part is that this doesn’t mark the notification as viewed in the WordPress app; messages, in contrast, are all marked as read when you dismiss the notification.

Now come the emails.  I was a Boy Scout for seven years, but I aged out last fall.  I’m technically an Assistant Scoutmaster, but I don’t really do anything in that post.  That being said, most of the troop emails don’t apply to me.  With actionable notifications, I can swipe on each notification and tap “Mark as read.”  And they’re gone.  This is also nice because, while my read states do sync between devices, this process can take a while.  So if I read an email on my iPad, then see it on my phone, I can easily mark it as read.

Now on to social media.  More than likely I want to favorite that Twitter mention, and I can do so right from the lock screen.  As for the Instagram likes, I can just dismiss them.  Like WordPress, these don’t mark as viewed in the Instagram app, but I can just clear them next time I’m there.

Now all I’m left with is the Snapchat.  The difference here is that you can’t do anything to Snapchat notifications on the lock screen (besides clear them), so I have to unlock my phone for this.  Since Snapchat focuses on pictures, there’s not much they can do with actionable notifications.  However, I’ve just gone from 24 notifications to 1, without even unlocking my phone.  That’s a major boost in efficiency, and even better, one that I can use every day.  ••

A Brief History of iMessage

Six months ago I didn’t have iMessage.  Sure, I had it on my iPod Touch, but I only ever used it a couple times to send photos.  Most of the time, I was using regular SMS texting on my old phone.  But then that changed when I got an iPhone last January.  Suddenly, I was exposed to the world of iMessage.  What is iMessage?  Basically, it’s Apple’s replacement for SMS.  It only works from one Apple device to another, but when it does work, it’s dramatically better.  Even more genius, Apple has managed to make sure that just about every iPhone owner uses iMessage.  So how did iMessage evolve in just four short years?  Let’s look at its history.

2011, iOS 5
iMessage was first announced at WWDC 2011, and right from the start it contained all the core features it needed to be a success.  The most important part of iMessage, in my opinion, is the way it handles picture messages.  SMS takes forever to send a picture, and then it’s a scaled down version.  iMessage sends pictures way faster, and at full resolution.  It even includes all the original metadata (date, location, etc.).  This is great.  Even regular texts send faster over iMessage.  It’s able to do this because it works over the internet (WiFi and 4G) instead of on regular phone service.  Because of this, it just works better than SMS.  Even at this early stage, iMessage also included the ability to send locations and contacts, as well as read receipts (the option to tell someone that you’ve seen their message).  So from the start, Apple created iMessage to be good.  But then they went in for the kill.  Using iMessage would be completely automatic and take place in the same app as SMS.  This meant that users would have to do essentially nothing to start using this service.  After that, their iPhone would automatically determine whether or not the recipient of a text had iMessage.  If they did, it would send an iMessage (colored blue).  If not, it would send a regular SMS (colored green).  There was nothing the user had to do.  This was genius.  Any other messaging app would have to force people to download it, then remember which app to use for each person they text.  But Apple got around that.

2012, iOS 6
The most important iMessage feature to come to iOS 6 focused on the iPad.  From the start, your iPhone could send iMessages from either your phone number or the email address for your Apple ID.  However, your iPad could only use the email address (“because it’s not a phone,” was the original argument I guess).  However, that all changed with iOS 6.  Now, you could receive iMessages sent to your phone number on any device.  This, like the bundling of iMessage into the existing Text app, reduced the friction and effort required of users to almost zero.  Good move, Apple.

2013, iOS 7
iOS 7 didn’t bring many feature updates to iMessage, it mostly focused on the look at feel of the Messages app.  There were, however, a few new features to make it easier to view sent images or the contact information of the person you’re talking to.  However, like much of iOS 7, the Messages app mostly just got a visual facelift.

2014, iOS 8
iOS 8, on the other hand, added lots of new features to iMessage.  Most of them focused on group messaging.  iMessage has always supported group messaging, but it hadn’t gotten much special attention until now.  iOS 8 allows you to rename, mute, or leave group messages, to make sure you don’t get stuck receiving dozens of notifications from a group you don’t care about.  This is really helpful.  As someone who spends a lot of time in group messages, these improvement are all more than welcome.  iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite also gave the Messages app new abilities regarding, ironically, SMS text messages.  With these updates, you can now send SMS messages from your iPad and Mac, as long as your iPhone is on.  This can be a little buggy, but it is nice whenever I have to text a green bubble friend from my computer.

2015, iOS 9
According to Apple’s iOS 9 Preview page, there aren’t any earth shattering new features coming to iMessage this fall.  However, there could be plenty that we don’t know about yet.  Perhaps the coolest thing we know about as of now involves improvements to Siri.  In iOS 9, if you’re looking at an email, webpage, or iMessage, you can say, “Hey Siri, remind me about this when I get home.”  Siri will then create a reminder for what you’re seeing on screen.  The entire reminder is essentially a link; clicking on it takes you back to what you were looking at before.  Definitely useful!

So as you can see, iMessage is actually pretty complicated (especially for something that’s so simple to use).  The smartest thing Apple did with iMessage, though, isn’t in the list above.  Apple made iMessage exclusionary.  Now that I’m used to iMessage, regular SMS feels archaic and obnoxious.  I have no idea if my Android friends got my messages, I can’t send them photos easily, and you can just forget about sending videos.  I’ve heard more than one person I know say that they don’t want to switch to Android because they’ll miss out on iMessage.  That’s the kind of feature that Apple does best: one that’s so good that you’d never leave their ecosystem because of it.  ••

A Week with Continuity

One of the biggest new sets of features unveiled by Apple last fall was called Continuity.  This set of features focused on making iOS devices and the Mac work better together.  In turn, the biggest part of Continuity was Handoff.  Handoff is a way to streamline workflows involving multiple devices.  Suppose you’re sitting in front of your Mac reading a web site, and you have to get up and do something.  It’d be nice if you could continue reading the website on your iPhone, but it’s such a pain to try to find that exact page again.  With Handoff, you can just swipe up on a little icon on your iPhone’s lock screen, and the webpage is automatically there.  This trick, which works over Bluetooth, also applies to many other apps, including Mail, Maps, and even third-party apps that have implemented the feature.  It sounds really useful, but until last week, I hadn’t really ever used it.

Oh sure, I tested it out when the feature first launched, but that was about it.  The biggest reason was probably that I was afraid leaving Bluetooth on (something  don’t usually do) would drain my battery.  Also, the feature was a tad buggy when it first came out.  However, I decided that it was only fair to test Handoff the way it was meant to be used, always on, in day-to-day life.  So last week, I flipped on all my Bluetooth switches and… didn’t do anything special.  I just used my devices like I normally did, waiting to see if use cases would pop up. Going into this experiment, I expected one of two things to happen.

The Good One
I was hoping to discover that Handoff was wildly useful.  That all of a sudden, my workflows would get easier and my switches between devices would be less painful.  I was hoping that I could actually switch devices more, since moving to the iPad would now be easier than just dealing with the tiny iPhone screen.  This was my best case scenario.

The Bad One
At worst, I thought maybe Handoff wouldn’t be useful at all.  Part of the reason I never turned it on before was because I couldn’t think of that many times when I’d use it.  I mean sure, I could think of a few, but would that justify the feature?  More importantly, would my battery life suffer from leaving my Bluetooth on?  This was actually what I was most afraid of: that my battery would drain and I wouldn’t even use the feature anyway.  This was my worst case scenario.

So what happened?  Actually… not much.  This surprised me.  One the one hand, I didn’t use the feature a whole lot.  On the other hand, my battery didn’t seem to drain any faster either (maybe a little bit, but not much at all).  I was expecting a more decisive conclusion, but I just didn’t get one.

So since I’m unsure whether it fits into my workflow, let’s ignore the fact that I didn’t use the feature much and just look at the feature itself.  When Handoff works, it’s downright magical.  Just this morning, I was working on my Mac when I needed to call a number in an email message.  I pulled up the email on my Mac, and a few taps later it was right there on my iPhone where I could tap the number to call it.  It worked really well.  On the other hand, there are times when Handoff is disappointing.  I was texting someone on my iPhone, and I wanted to send them a screenshot I had just taken on my iPad.  After a while, this screenshot would have synced over iCloud Photo Library, but that process isn’t instantaneous.  I opened up my iPad and was pleased to see the Messages app appear in the Handoff corner.  Yes!  I swiped up, but then was disappointed to see that, while it had taken me to the correct person in messages, it hadn’t transferred the text that I had already typed out on my iPhone.  Less than magical.

Honestly, then, I’m still on the fence as to whether I’m going to leave this feature on.  It’s really cool when it works, and maybe over time my workflow will adjust to implement this more often.  For the time being though, it’s sort of underwhelming.  On the other hand though, there aren’t really any downsides to leaving it on, so I guess I might as well.  I’m curious as to where this feature will go in the future.  Hopefully, both Apple and third-party developers will continue to implement and improve this feature in more apps.  Until then, however, I’m still a little unsure.  ••

WWDC 2015 Recap

In case you missed it, last week was Apple’s annual World Wide Developers Conference.  The highlight of the week was the main keynote, which took place Monday morning.  Unfortunately, I had to work during the keynote, but I watched most of it later in the week.  There were four main topics in the keynote: OS X, iOS, watchOS, and Apple Music.

OS X
First up was the latest version of the Mac operating system.  Named El Capitan (for a landmark in Yosemite national park), Apple said that this update would focus on “Experience” and “Performance.”  Basically, what this means is that it’s a relatively minor update, one that will focus more on bug fixes and small features than large ones.  I think this is good; it’s a welcome rest from the breakneck update pace we’ve seen – and suffered from – over the past few years.

iOS
Next up (as to be expected) was iOS 9 – to be available this fall.  There’s a couple key parts to this update.  First are some features focusing on “intelligence.”  These includes improvements to Siri, but also a brand new Spotlight search function.  This replaces the current search in iOS, but also tries to proactively serve you apps and information it thinks you might need right then: everything from the apps you use each morning to news stories relevant to your location.  The next huge feature focuses on the iPad.  The iPad is finally getting a split screen view – the ability to run two apps at once.  This is huge, but unfortunately it’s not available on all iPad models.  iPads from the previous two years can run one app full screen and have another app at iPhone width “slide over” from the side.  The iPad Air 2 can also run two apps simultaneously that each take up half the screen.  Hopefully this will greatly improve productivity on the iPad.  There were two more quick things that are important.  First, iOS 9 will only take 1.3gb to download, instead of last year’s ridiculous 4.6gb.  The final thing wasn’t even mentioned in the keynote, but I think it’s super important: iOS 9 will be available to all devices that have iOS 8.  Normally, Apple drops one old model each year; I’m hoping this change means that iOS 9 won’t slow down older devices as much.

watchOS
Apple also unveiled the latest version of the Apple Watch software: watchOS 2.  This version will allow developers to create native apps that run on the Watch.  Previously, developers could only create apps that technically “ran” on the iPhone and projected their interfaces to the Watch.  This was a cumbersome, temporary arrangement, one which meant that all third-party apps were pretty slow.  Apple is finally giving developers what they were promised last year.

Apple Music
The last part of the keynote was dedicated to Apple’s new music streaming service: Apple Music.  This service will replace both iTunes Radio and Beats Music.  For $9.99/month, you get unlimited streaming of everything Apple Music has, including many playlists handmade by music experts, not algorithms.  This was one of Beats Music’s key selling points, and Apple is making sure that it doesn’t go away.  The second part of Apple Music is an enormous, worldwide radio station called Beats 1.  This is set up like a traditional radio station, with DJs and interviews as well as music.  It will be broadcast from three studios worldwide (in LA, New York, and London).  I’m actually kind of excited to try Beats 1; it sounds intriguing.  The final part of Apple Music is called Connect.  This is almost like a social network for music artists.  Connect allows artists to post photos, videos, lyrics, and even demos directly to Apple Music.  Fans can follow artists to get access to this bonus content.  Apple seems convinced that this is the next big way for people to follow their favorite artists, but I’m not sure that people will adopt it in place of Twitter, Instagram, and the like.

So as you can see, Apple had a lot to talk about last week.  They released updates to their big three operating systems, and also unveiled their new attempt in the music streaming industry.  Unfortunately, there were no updates to the Apple TV, but I’d still say we still got plenty of cool new stuff.  I guess we’ll just have to hope again for a new Apple TV next year.  ••

Why the iPod Touch Continues to Make Apple Money

♦ This post is one of the Best of 2015 ♦


Ah, the iPod Touch.  I remember how badly I wanted one in middle school, and how excited I was when I got one in 7th grade.  Back in those days, the iPod Touch was about the coolest gadget a kid could have.  Nowadays, though, it seems like every kid over 10 has an iPhone.  However, the iPod Touch continues to pay off in spades for Apple.  Why?  Indoctrination.

What does indoctrination have to do with the iPod Touch?  Easy.  Apple marketed the iPod Touch as something for kids, and parents bought it (literally).  Honestly, it was a good device for kids: it allowed them to do most things that an iPhone could do for around $200 flat.  Not super cheap up front, but there were no expensive monthly bills to deal with.  Kid friendly?  You bet.

After that, however, is when things got interesting: all those kids grew up.  They grew up and, like their parents, wanted smartphones.  And what kind of smartphones do you think these kids wanted?  iPhones of course!  Having already been indoctrinated into Apple’s ecosystem – the apps, iMessage, Game Center, and so on – they didn’t want to leave.  Apple continues to see these benefits to this day.  Most of my friends in high school and college used to have iPod Touches, but now they have iPhones.  The iPhone is well established as the gold standard; almost everyone agrees it’s simply the best you can get.  Sure, Android still has a substantial presence, but the iPhone remains in the lead.

What allowed Apple to completely take over this market?  I think it’s in part because of Apple’s previous dominance with the iPod in general.  And with the iTunes Store.  They had already set themselves up as the go-to for media players; it was only a natural jump to a touch screen.  More than anything though, Apple won this market because they tried.  It’s not like Android couldn’t have done anything about it.  Android phone manufacturers simply didn’t see the value in creating touch screen media players.  They did exist; I remember reading about a couple of them.  However, they never got off the ground the way the iPod Touch did, mostly because they were never pushed very hard.

Maybe Android didn’t see the long-term value in the market.  Actually, I don’t know for sure if Apple did either; maybe to them it was just a good product in the short-term.  But whatever the reason, Apple invested a lot into the iPod touch from around 2007-2012.  However, that has begun to change.

As I’ve said, I see fewer and fewer iPod Touches these days.  More and more I just see iPhones, being held in increasingly smaller hands.  And since we didn’t see an iPod revision last fall (which would have been on par with the previous two-year update cycle), it would seem that the iPod Touch has just about breathed its last.  But it had a good run.  In fact, it had a great run; one that put the next member of the relay team – the iPhone – a few extra strides further ahead of the competition.  ••

The S-Cycle for Software

Have Apple software updates seemed a bit… rushed lately?  With both iOS and Mac OS X on yearly release cycles, we seem to be getting more quirks and bugs than I’d like.  When this topic is brought up, the solution always seems to be to just do big software releases every two years, or do small pieces throughout the year, instead of having a monolithic update every 12 months.  However, I suggest that Apple’s software team do what their hardware team does: use the s-cycle.

What is the s-cycle?  The s-cycle is the way Apple releases their iPhones.  For example, the iPhone 4 (2010), then the iPhone 4s (2011), then the iPhone 5 (2012), then the iPhone 5s (2013), and so on.  People say, “Well the software team needs to get it together, because the hardware team releases a new iPhone every year with no problems.”  But they really don’t.  They really only release a totally new iPhone every two years, and then release a small update the years in between.  This is the s-cycle.

And it seems to work great.  People still get excited about the -s models, and it’s less demanding on the hardware team, which allows them to make something truly great every two years.  I think that this is what Apple should do with iOS and OS X.

Let’s focus on iOS here.  Suppose that only every other version of iOS had big changes.  The other years would just include some minor updates, and maybe one new headline feature.  But instead of making the -s year the same for the iPhone and iOS (because those years would be a little boring), maybe they could alternate.  That would mean that this fall, we’d get the iPhone 6s (a minor update), and iOS 9 (a big update).  Then next year, we’d get the iPhone 7 (a big update) and iOS 9s (a minor update).  iOS 9s could just include the new features required by the new iPhone hardware, things like Touch ID and Apple Pay, but not much else.  This would allow the software team to slow down a bit, pay more attention to quality control, and make the features they do add really count.

The main problem I see with this alternation is that it’d be sort of confusing.  Because of this, maybe it’s better to just keep calling it iOS 9, 10, 11, etc., but then apply the principle of the s-cycle.  (Another thing: say “iOS 9s” out loud.  Exactly.)  The last thing you want to do to your customers is confuse them – confusion kills excitement.

And that excitement is why Apple should continue to do something every year, instead of every two years.  Why?  Simple psychology.  When something happens every year, people remember it.  Around September, people know that there will be a new iPhone and a new iOS update.  Releasing iOS every two years makes things more complicated.  Come September, people will have to try to remember whether there was an update last year, and whether they should be excited for an update this year.  This sounds trivial, I know, but you want people to be excited about your brand, not hesitantly excited.  You also don’t want to let down the people who thought this was an update year but it wasn’t.  This same psychology also applies to, oh I don’t know, say, weekly blogs and the like.

As you can see, adding an s-cycle to Apple’s software production could slow down the sometimes-breakneck train we call iOS.  Don’t get me wrong, I love new features as much as the next guy, but the last two iOS updates in particular (7 and 8) have been enormous.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with dialing back iOS updates just a little bit, especially if they can do it in such a way that still appears to be a yearly update.  Hey, it’s worked for the iPhone.  ••