The Problem with App Store Pricing

After the Monument Valley pricing kerfuffle a month or two ago, there’s been a lot of talk about pricing on the iOS App Store.  Many people say that apps are undervalued, and that if an app isn’t $0.99 or even free, no one will download it.  To a large degree, I think this is true, but I have one more point to add: the Mac App Store isn’t any better.  Ironically, though, the Mac App Store has the opposite problem.

But let’s start with iOS.  I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like paying for apps.  Part of this comes from the fact that I’m just a student and I only work summers.  However, I think that my aversion to paid apps is a learned behavior.  I’ve owned an iOS device for about four and a half years now, and over that time frame, I’ve downloaded a lot of free apps.  Sure, some are awful, but many others are great.  This has resulted in an unrelenting mantra being drilled into my head: “Sure, this app costs $1.99, but I bet there’s a very similar one that’s free.”  (This doesn’t really apply to games, since most games are one of a kind.  However, most productivity apps have plenty of competitors.)  I’ve learned that a free alternative may not be quite as good, but at least it was free.  On the one hand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach.  There’s definitely nothing wrong with being thrifty.  The problems arise when we entirely rule out an app for no reason other than the fact that it costs money.  Developers could spend thousands of dollars making an excellent app, only to find that no one will pay even a few dollars for it.  This doesn’t seem fair, but unfortunately, that’s where we are right now.

The Mac App Store also has a pricing problem, but not the same one as iOS.  I’ve mentioned in a previous post that the Mac App Store is pretty disappointing.  Not the least of the reasons for this is the fact that very, very simple apps are often kind of expensive.  There was one app I looked up the other day that was supposed to mute the startup chime that goes off when you first boot up your Mac.  As far as I could tell, that was all the program did, yet it cost $2-$3.  I just don’t see why such a simple app should cost money.  To be fair, it’s more difficult (and less accepted by users) to put ads in desktop software.  This is especially true of a background program like the startup chime one I just mentioned.  How are they going to make money on advertising if I only open the program once, configure it, and never open it again?  Aside from this point, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mac App Store developers know that Macs are more expensive, and so they assume that people who own Macs have more money, and are willing to spend more on apps.

So if I had to give only one suggestion on how to fix each platform’s problems, what would it be?  For iOS, I’d suggest app demo periods.  There are actually a lot of people calling for this right now.  I have been burned before by paid apps that don’t work – or don’t work as well as I would have liked them too.  Allowing a seven day (or even three day) trial of the full version of an app would allow people to determine whether the app actually works.  Developers can sort of achieve this now by making the app free, but limited in features – an in-app purchase unlocks the full version of the app.  This approach works OK, but it can be confusing to people who thought the app was free.  On the Mac side, what I think is lacking is simply competition.  The point of my previous post was that there really aren’t that many apps on the Mac App Store.  This is a problem in and of itself, and by solving it, I think the issues with overpricing would (to some extent) even out on their own.

Meanwhile, if you have found a paid app that you enjoy, I encourage you to recommend it to your friends (and me, I’ll be your friend too).  This helps others with the uncertainty of paying for something they haven’t used, and it also encourages developers to make great apps by letting them know that people are willing to pay for them.  ••


OS X Yosemite Review

Last Thursday, Apple released the latest update to the Mac operating system, OS X Yosemite.  After using it for the past week and a half, I must say that I really like it.  Most of the changes were aesthetic, giving OS X a new, iOS 7-style look and feel.  In addition to these changes, we also saw some new features, most notably Continuity.

As you can see from the screenshots, much of the UI has gotten a flatter, more transparent look.  This is actually what I expected when I upgraded to OS X Mavericks last spring.  I bought my Mac used, and it was running OS X Mountain Lion when I got it.  Since I didn’t have a Mac when Mavericks came out, I hadn’t paid much attention to what it looked like.  Seeing the similarities to iOS 6 in Mountain Lion, I just assumed that Mavericks would have iOS 7-like graphics.  I was wrong.  This seemed odd and disjointed to me, and I’m glad that OS X and iOS are back on the same page visually.

Aside from the UI, the other really cool feature in OS X Yosemite is Continuity.  Continuity is actually a collection of features that makes the Mac, iPhone, and iPad work closer together.  For example, before Continuity, you could send iMessages (text messages to other Apple products) and do FaceTime calls (which, again, can only happen between Apple devices) on the Mac and iPad.  If you wanted to call or text someone with an Android, you’d have to use your iPhone.  Now, with Continuity, you can use your Mac and iPad to make calls and send texts to any number, as long as you do still have an iPhone.  The feature of Continuity that I’m most excited about though is called Handoff.  I talked about Handoff in iOS when iOS 8 came out last month, but now that the Mac can participate, Handoff is really going to be useful.  Basically, with Handoff, your devices are aware of what you’re doing on your other devices nearby.  This works over Bluetooth.  Say, for example, that you start writing an email on your iPhone, then decide that you’d rather not use that tiny little phone keyboard.  Normally, in order to switch to your Mac, you’d have to email the draft to yourself, then pick it back up on the Mac.  With Handoff, your Mac notices that you’re writing an email on your iPhone, and puts an extra “Mail” icon to one side of your dock.  This icon represents the draft you’re working on.  To move the draft to the Mac, all you have to do is click that icon, and you’re good to go.  This is really cool in principle, but I found that it doesn’t always work correctly in practice.  Still, I hope Apple irons out the kinks in order to make this new feature shine.

The last thing I want to talk about is speed: OS X Yosemite seems slower than OS X Mavericks.  Believe it or not, I’m actually willing to cut Apple some slack here.  As operating systems advance, they are designed to be run on computer hardware that is advancing as well.  This means that new software will always be slower on old hardware.  Another thing to consider is that all new Macs now ship with solid state hard drives, so Apple engineers are creating software that is designed to be run on a computer with a solid state.  My Mac does not have a solid state, so it’s bound to be an extra little bit slower than newer Macs.  Even with this speed decrease, in general, I’m happy with OS X Yosemite.  There weren’t too many huge changes, but on the whole, the operating system seems to be getting slowly better.  Now all we need to do is convince Apple to start naming their operating systems after national parks in Georgia, instead of California.  How does OS X Kennesaw Mountain sound?  ••

Apple’s October Event

Apple made a big splash last month with their September event (which I covered both before and after), and now they’re hoping to do the same with their second major event of the fall.  Last Thursday, Apple had their October event, during which we saw updates to their iPad and Mac lines.  There weren’t many big surprises at this event; most of the new advances were pretty much expected.  Still, Apple has released some cool new hardware and software that I’m excited about.

Apple unveiled the iPad Air 2 and the iPad Mini 3 on Thursday.  The iPad Air 2 is slightly lighter and thinner than the iPad Air, but the iPad Mini 3 has the same dimensions as the Mini 2.  The iPad Air 2 also has a new processor chip and several camera improvements, but the iPad Mini 3 remains the same as the 2nd generation in both those respects.  This seems odd to me, but I guess the full-size iPad has higher sales, so Apple pays more attention to it.  Both new iPads do, however, include Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint reader.  They also both come in the new color gold (similar to the iPhone), in addition to the silver and Space Gray models.  One other interesting note: Apple will continue to sell the original iPad Mini for $249.  When this model first launched two years ago, it started at $329.  Apple was widely criticized for not offering a $200 or $250 model, but they stuck to their guns.  Last Black Friday, we saw original iPad Minis going for around $200, but now there’s finally a $250 iPad that doesn’t require braving Black Friday.

Apple unveiled several new Mac models on Thursday, including an iMac with a Retina 5K display, which has a 5120 x 2880 resolution (to put it into perspective, 1080p HD is 1920 x 1080, and 4K is 3840 x 2160).  There was also a new Mac Mini, with a reduced (but still high) starting price of $499.  The new version of the Mac’s operating system, OS X Yosemite, was available to download the same day as the event.  This surprised me; I didn’t think Yosemite would be available for another 7-10 days.  You can be sure that next week I will have a review of this new operating system.

iOS 8.1
Apple also announced iOS 8.1 on Thursday.  This is the next update to Apple’s mobile operating system, and it will be available Monday.  The update will include some new photo features, in addition to one old one: the “Camera Roll” photo album is back (it was replaced with “Recently Added” in iOS 8.0).  Apple says that it has listened to user feedback from iOS 8 and used it to help create iOS 8.1.

Apple Pay
Apple Pay was announced last month, but we weren’t told exactly when it would be released.  Now we finally have an official date: Apple Pay will launch alongside iOS 8.1 this Monday, October 20.

That’s about it.  The October event is never quite as big for Apple as the September event is, since the iPhone is a much more pervasive product than the iPad or Mac.  Still, I’m excited about what I saw at this event.  I’m most excited about OS X Yosemite, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.  As a general rule, I usually get more excited about software updates from Apple, as opposed to hardware updates.  The new iPads are cool and everything, but updating my OS is free; updating my iPad would cost me $500.  ••

First Thoughts on iOS 8

A few months ago, when iOS 8 was first announced at WWDC, I wrote about a couple iOS 8 features that I was really excited about.  iOS 8 finally came out last Wednesday, and so far I’m pretty impressed.  iOS 8 certainly isn’t anywhere near as ground-breaking as iOS 7 was, and it does have its share of new bugs.  Still, I think iOS 8 is really cool.  Now that it’s officially released, I thought I’d write about how those features I wanted actually work in practice.

1.  Actionable Notifications
In iOS 7, if you got a banner notification at the top of the screen, you could tap it to see the text message, email, or whatever it was.  However, that would switch you into the messages app, and after you replied you would have to switch back to whatever app you were using before you got the text.  With iOS 8, you can swipe down on a notification to get actions for it.  This means a reply screen for a text message, and “Mark as Read” and “Trash” buttons for emails.  This is really useful, and I’m looking forward to seeing what third-party developers will do with this new feature.

2.  Hands-Free Siri
This feature works more or less exactly as promised, though you’ll have to first enable it in Settings -> General -> Siri.  When your iOS device is plugged in, you can say “Hey Siri” to activate it.  You can then tell Siri to play music, text someone, or set a reminder.  There was also a little extra thought put into this feature that makes it really useful.  Normally, when you tell Siri to set a reminder, it says “Here’s your reminder” out loud but doesn’t actually say the text of the reminder out loud.  This was fine before, because you had to be holding your device to use Siri in the first place.  When using hands-free Siri, however, Siri will read the text of the reminder out loud to you.  This little bit of extra thought puts Siri’s new usefulness over the top.

3.  Continuity
The main part of continuity I want to talk about here is a new feature called Handoff.  With Handoff, all your devices are aware of what you’re doing nearby on your other devices.  If you’re looking at a website, typing an email, or looking up directions, Handoff broadcasts your activity to your other devices via Bluetooth.  If you, say, start writing an email on your iPhone, then realize you’d rather use the keyboard on your Mac, you simply walk over to your Mac, click the Mail Handoff icon on the dock, and your draft is magically transferred.  Handoff won’t work on the Mac until OS X Yosemite is released next month, but for now I tested it between my two iOS 8 devices.  I started an email on my iPod, then picked up my iPad, and a mail icon appeared both on the lock screen and in the multitasking menu.  Swiping up on the lock screen icon or tapping the page in the multitasking menu brought the draft up on the iPad.  Pretty neat!

The final feature I mentioned last summer was the possibility that the iPad could run two apps at the same time, side by side.  This was never announced by Apple as a feature, but someone digging through the iOS 8 beta found the code required to do it.  There’s been no mention of this feature in iOS 8 so far, but it’s possible that Apple will release an iOS 8.1 later on, maybe after the new iPad models come out next month.  If this becomes a feature, the iPad’s usefulness, especially as a productivity tool, will go through the roof, and I know there are many people who will be very, very happy about that.  ••

Predictions for Apple’s September 9th Event

I’m guessing you’ve heard by now, but Apple is having a huge event this Tuesday.  It is widely believed that Apple will release the iPhone 6, but what else does Apple have up its proverbial sleeve?  Here are my predictions.  Be sure to check back here Tuesday for a special follow-up post detailing what I did and didn’t get correct, as well as any other surprises I might have missed.

It’s expected that the iPhone 6 will be announced at this event (though it probably won’t actually become available for purchase for another 7-10 days).  But perhaps a better term to use here would be iPhone 6es.  It is widely rumored that we will be seeing multiple, different-sized models of Apple’s popular smartphone.  The most recent models (5, 5c, and 5s) have all have a screen measuring 4″ diagonally.  I expect a 4″ iPhone 6, in addition to a 4.7″ model.  The other number floating around the internet is 5.5″, which does sounds awfully big.  I’m not sure how this one is going to play out, buy my guess is that the 5.5″ model is going to happen.  As for the “-c” product line, I don’t think we’re ever going to see that again.  My prediction is that Apple will simply continue to sell the iPhone 5s as a cheaper option.

iOS 8
After seeing it announced last June at WWDC, I definitely think iOS 8 is going to launch at this event.  Like the iPhone, it probably won’t go live until a week or so later, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get an official date Tuesday.

If Apple’s behavior last year is any indication, I don’t think we’ll see any new iPads at this event.  Assuming that they’re sticking to a pattern here, there will be another event in October, at which we will see new iPads.

Like the iPad, I don’t think we’re going to see any new Mac software or hardware at this event.  Most likely, we will see the release of OS X Yosemite, as well as some slightly improved Mac hardware, at another event later this fall.

This one is tricky.  It’s been rumored for quite some time now that Apple will be entering the wearables market.  What’s unclear is whether the device will be a Pebble-style smartwatch, or a Fitbit-style activity tracker (or, most likely, some of both).  Given Apple’s new Health app that will be pre-installed in iOS 8, it’s not a crazy thought to think that this device could have a large health focus.  What’s odd is that we have seen zero hardware leaks for this device.  None.  This is really, really unusual – especially compared to the wealth of iPhone 6 hardware leaks.  Either Apple has seriously cracked down on secrecy or… the iWatch may be coming later, or not at all.  Even still, I’m going to say yes to this one.  I think the iWatch is finally going to be announced, though it’s possible it won’t ship for another couple months.

Apple TV
I’ve talked before about how awesome the Apple TV could be (thought it’s still pretty great as it is), but I don’t think we’re going to see anything about it at this event.  I’m hoping that there will be a major Apple TV update at an October Apple event, but I think doing something drastic now could steal the iWatch’s thunder.

After Apple’s purchase of Beats by Dr. Dre, everyone is expecting Apple to do something big with Beats (or something at all, really), potentially in the streaming music market.  That being said, I don’t think we’re going to see anything significant about Beats at this event, or even this year.  I do hope Apple makes a new bid into the streaming music business, but I think it’s going to take them a while to work that out fully.

Sadly, I think the iPod’s days are over.  Based on Apple’s current time frame, we ought to be due for new models this year (we got them in 2012 and 2010), but I don’t think it’s going to happen.  Granted, I think Apple is going to continue selling the iPod, but I think we have seen the last of new iPod models.  If, however, I am wrong, and we do see new models, I really, really, doubt we’ll see them again in another two years.

The Death of 16gb
This is really just a vain fancy of mine, but I hope the iPhone 6 doesn’t come in 16gb models.  16gb is feeling increasingly small, and I think it’s time for the $200 iPhone to come with 32gb of space.  Let it go, Apple.

The Great Unknown
The best part about this event is that, even though I’m pretty confident about much of what’s written above, there could be something entirely new and amazing that I have no idea about.  It’s all up in the air right now.  Be sure to come back here Tuesday for my follow up post to hear exactly what happened.  Better yet, why not subscribe so the post comes directly to your inbox?  That way, you can be the cool person around the water cooler (or on Facebook, there’s plenty of share buttons below) – the one who already knows all about that mythical iPhone 6 that everyone’s been talking about.  ••

Three iOS 8 Features I Want Right. This. Second.

Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference ended just over a week ago, and during the conference we saw some new stuff about iOS 8, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system.  Apple likes to be really secretive about new hardware, but it has to be a little more open about software because third-party app developers have to be in on the loop in order to ship iOS 8 software along with the actual OS.  Because of this, we saw a lot of stuff about iOS 8 during WWDC.  After I got the lowdown from the excellent, I’ve compiled a list of my top three picks.

1. Actionable Notifications
I’m guessing you’ve been here: You’re in Safari, reading some article online.  Suddenly, you get a text message, and a banner pops up at the top of the screen.  You read the text and decide to respond to it right then, so you tap the banner.  iOS then takes you out of Safari and into Messages; then after you reply, you have to switch back to Safari.  Most of us take this for granted: that’s just how iOS has always worked.  But with actionable notifications, you can swipe down on that notification and a keyboard pops up.  You haven’t switched apps, this is just an overlay over whatever you’re currently doing.  After typing your reply, the overlay disappears, and you’re right back to Safari.  Nifty, huh?  (I’m not sure if I described that very well, so here’s a picture from TechHive/MacWorld if you’re confused.)

2. Hands-Free Siri
Google has recently made a big deal of the “OK Google” line.  On certain Android phones, you just say those words and the Android virtual assistant pops up, no button pushing required.  As of iOS 8, the iPhone will have a similar feature.  As long as the phone is plugged in (as a battery life consideration), saying “Hey Siri” will activate, well, Siri.  I think this is a cool idea, especially if your phone is charging on the table across the room, and you want to have it, say, play some music.

3. Continuity
Continuity is a feature that will tie your iPhone, iPad, and Mac closer together than ever before.  There are lots of different parts of Continuity, but I’ll only mention a few here.  One feature is called Handoff, which allows you to, for example, push an email draft from your iPhone to your Mac.  This is great if you decide you’d rather use a real keyboard for that email.  Sure, you could have just emailed it to yourself, but that’s a pain.  Continuity will also allow you to accept phone calls and send SMS on your Mac or iPad, basically routing things through your iPhone.

As a bonus, I’ve got one more feature that isn’t official yet, but is rumored.  I really hope the iPad will be able to run two apps side by side, at the same time.  I don’t think Apple should even bother allowing this on the iPhone, it’s just too small.  But the iPad is a different story.  It would be really nice to be able to use Mail and Notes (or other combinations of apps) at the same time, instead of switching back and forth.  So, for all you Apple engineers out there who I’m sure are reading this, could you please get on that?  Thanks, I appreciate it.  ••

My First Mac

2014 is the 30th anniversary of the Apple Macintosh Computer.  At the beginning of the year, Apple launched an online campaign asking people to tell about their first Mac.  Also on Apple’s website are these really cool stats about how people have used their Macs over the years.  At the beginning of the year, I didn’t have a Mac.  Having recently got one, however, I’d like to tell my story.

I’ve always used Windows PCs, and I’ve always been happy with them.  It wasn’t until last year that I really wanted a Mac.  It started when I wanted to learn how to make iPhone apps.  One internet search later and I discovered… you have to have a Mac in order to make iPhone apps.  I was crushed.  After deciding that I did really want to learn to make iPhone apps, I started to look into the Mac Mini.  Since I already had a desktop, I already had a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers that I could hook up to a Mac Mini.  However, a new Mac Mini starts at $600, and used ones on eBay (at least ones recent enough to get the latest version of OS X) cost upwards of $300.  It was at this point that I realized that even a used Mac Mini would be a somewhat major purchase.

However, there was another thought to consider.  I was going to need a laptop soon; if a new Mac Mini was $600, and a good Windows laptop was $500, should I just buy a MacBook?  This question was answered when a close friend of mine said he was selling his 2012 13″ MacBook Pro.

So long story short, I bought the MacBook Pro from my friend, and it’s worked out really well.  Because it was used, I got a good deal on it, but I didn’t have to deal with any of the risk involved with buying a used computer on eBay.  I’ll be honest: the Mac is really not that different from Windows.  There are no mind-blowing benefits that would make me suggest you all rush out and buy a Mac.  There are, however, many nice little perks.

I’ll start with something the MacBook is known for: weight.  My MacBook weights 4.5 lbs., a full 25% less than my Mom’s Windows laptop (at 6 lbs.).  The Mac’s battery life is also quite impressive.  The advertised battery life is 7 hours, but of course no laptop actually meets its battery life spec in real-world use.  I haven’t run the Mac until it dies to get an official battery life count, but after smaller tests I bet I could easily get 4-5 hours out of it.

Another thing I like about the Mac is the ecosystem.  As someone who already used an iPod Touch and an iPad Mini, the iCloud integration of the Mac is really nice.  It’s great to have a computer with calendar and reminders programs that sync with my iOS devices.  There are also other little iOS-like perks, such as notification center, which conveniently shows all my reminders and emails.

Basically, most things I like about the Mac aren’t big new features, but little things that are just really well thought out (this seems to be one of Apple’s strong suits).

In conclusion, I really like the Mac.  I’m not sure I’m a lifelong convert yet, but who knows?  Maybe I’ll really get used to the perks and not want to go back.  Remember what I said at the end of an old post about using Windows 7?  Looks like that opinion might be changing.  ••