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.


Always Connected: Part 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how we live in a world where all our devices are connected to the internet 24/7.  At the time, my devices were not connected 24/7, since I didn’t have an iPhone.  But, as I wrote last week, I have an iPhone now (and I decided to stop turning the WiFi off constantly on my iPad) so my tech habits have changed quite a bit now that I’m always connected.  Here are my thoughts.

First off, for those of you holding your breath from two weeks ago, the Writing Aid widget does work correctly now.  It’s really nice that (for the most part) I no longer have to worry about widgets not updating as they should.  Some widgets still seem to get a little bit outdated, but at least now I know that it’s the widget’s fault instead of a connectivity issue.

Syncing is also working better, but still not quite perfectly.  I had hoped that my iCloud reminders would just sync correctly now, but it still doesn’t seem to refresh often enough.  Lots of times I check off several reminders on my iPad, only to check my iPhone a few hours later and see that they’re still there.  Checking one off on the iPhone seems to trigger a sync, and then the rest of them update, but still, that’s really clunky.  One of the things I’ve always hated about iCloud is it never tells you when it’s done syncing, and there’s no way to manually trigger a sync.  I guess this adds to the whole idea of “it just works” and “I don’t have to do anything,” but it leads to problems like this.  In contrast, Dropbox and Evernote both have nice status bars telling you exactly what has and hasn’t uploaded yet.  I wish iCloud had that.

It’s really nice to be able to send SMS messages from my iPad using Continuity.  I don’t see myself making many calls from my iPad, but I guess it could be useful.  Speaking of messages, I’ve been impressed at how well those sync over iCloud.  I leave my iPad on Do Not Disturb (only when locked) so it doesn’t ring constantly throughout the day.  I was afraid that I would get a text on both my iPhone and iPad, answer it on the iPhone, and then an hour later open up my iPad and see the notification.  I knew that if the iPad was offline, it would never get the notification in the first place, but I didn’t know that the notifications were smart enough to dismiss themselves if I read the message on another device (it does makes sense that Apple thought of this; it’d be a nightmare otherwise).  This seems to work for email and Twitter as well, so that’s great.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that I’m no longer flipping the WiFi on and off on my iPad, which in hindsight was really annoying.  It doesn’t even seem to use that much extra battery when I leave the WiFi on anyway.  Go figure.

In conclusion, I’m really enjoying my new always connected lifestyle.  It’s crazy that we live in a world where we can access almost anything, almost anytime, with almost no effort.  Now if my reception wasn’t so spotty in big buildings on campus, I’d really be happy.  ••

Always Connected: Part 1

Most people live in a world where their devices are online 24/7.  My life is slightly different.  I don’t have an iPhone, just an iPod touch, so I don’t have an internet connection everywhere.  To be fair, I have WiFi at home, church, and school, so that covers most of my life, but not all of it.  My iPad works the same way.  It’s just a WiFi model, and most of the time, I don’t even leave the WiFi on.  Even though I use my iPad fairly frequently, I end up turning the WiFi off when I’m not using it to save battery.  Long story short, most of the time my devices are not connected to the internet.

This has interesting ramifications.  A while back, I downloaded an app called Writing Aid.  It’s a dictionary app, with an nice, simple design, but the real reason I downloaded it was for the word of the day widget.  I’m a huge fan of Today View widgets in iOS 8, and a word of the day seemed the perfect fit for this category.  However, the widget doesn’t always refresh correctly.  I’ve seen other people review the app without talking about these issues, so I’m guessing the problem comes from my lack of connectivity.  On an iPhone, the widget can just refresh every 24 hours, since it always has internet.  What seems to happen on my device is that when 24 hours are up, it tries to update, but can’t.  When this happens, it seems to just give up for that day and try again the next.  This is a pain for me, but most people simply don’t have this problem, since almost everyone has an iPhone these days.

As you can see, our society doesn’t just operate while always connected, it has come to expect that we operate while always connected.  I seem to be the outlier here.

But not for long.

Yes, I have ordered an iPhone (on eBay, more on that experience in a future post), and it should be here very soon.  Now that I too will be always connected, I expect that my habits will change quite a bit.  In a few weeks, I will write Part 2 of this post and detail how that all plays out.  Now I just have to figure out how much I can get out of my old iPod on eBay…  ••

Why More People Don’t (But Should) Use Windows Phone

I don’t think it’s any secret on this blog that I like the iPhone.  However, picking a smartphone is a matter of personal preference.  Obviously, Android is also popular choice.  Blackberry, not so much anymore.  There is, however, one more smartphone platform that doesn’t get a lot of attention, Windows Phone.  I think the reason some people are put off by Windows Phone is the fact that it’s very similar to Windows 8.  Many people do not like Windows 8 on their computers.  To a large extent, I agree with them.  The reason for this is because Microsoft designed Windows 8 primarily for tablets, and it just doesn’t work as well on a PC.  Honestly, though, I like what I see from Windows tablets, and, by extension, Windows Phone.  I’ve never owned a Windows Phone, but from the little bit I’ve seen, it looks like a pretty impressive platform.  The user interface is unique, the OS seems responsive, and the phones themselves have good specs.  There’s just one thing left: apps.  Windows Phone has a definitive lack of apps.  It’s really a shame too, because right now, Windows Phone is stuck in a feedback loop.

Why don’t more people use Windows Phone?  Because there aren’t many apps for it.  Why don’t app developers take the time to make Windows Phone apps?  Because there aren’t many users.  Like I said, this is too bad, since I think the platform has a lot of potential.  Fortunately, Microsoft has one thing going for them: deep pockets.  If Windows Phone is going to catch on, it appears it’s going to catch on slowly.  If any company can afford to wait this one out, it’s Microsoft.  Microsoft has tons of money coming in from sales of Windows PCs (which people continue to buy, whether they like Windows 8 or not), Microsoft Office, and the Xbox.  If Microsoft can continue to support the Windows Phone long enough for people to adopt it, they just might have a hit here.

This is exactly what I hope will happen, maybe it will, maybe it won’t.  I’m curious as to what kinds of phone you guys use.  iPhone, Android, Windows Phone?  Something else?  Feel free to leave a comment and participate in the polls below.  Thanks for reading!  ••

Technology on Campus

In the past two weeks I started my joint-enrollment at Atlanta’s Southern Polytechnic State University.  Basically, joint-enrollment allows high school juniors and seniors (me) to take some (or all) or their classes at a local college, and the rest of their classes at their high school.  The college classes give double credit towards high school, plus they still count towards your degree once you start going to college full time.  As a homeschooler, this is a big jump for me.  Not only has it provided an entirely different atmosphere for school, but it has also given me many new opportunities to (aha!) stare at other people’s phones.  This has also gotten me thinking about all the other various electronic devices used all over campus.  I thought I’d run through all the tech I have, and why each piece is or isn’t necessary on campus.

1.  iPod
As someone who still doesn’t have a smartphone, my iPod Touch is basically my go-to device when I’m leaving the house.  Fortunately, SPSU’s WiFi is pretty good, so the iPod is definitely serviceable.  If I need to make a note of something, or if I want to check my email or twitter between classes, this small, portable device really can’t be beat.  Of course, being small is also a drawback in some respects, which brings me to my next device.

2.  iPad
At home, there’s no question that I’d rather use my iPad Mini over my iPod.  The simple fact of the matter is that it’s bigger.  However, on campus, I don’t really use my iPod a whole lot.  Sure, I use it, but it’s mostly for quick things.  Therefore, I don’t actually bring my iPad to SPSU.  I had thought about taking notes on it (I opted for paper there), and I did bring it to the first day of classes, just in case I needed it.  Honestly though it’s just one more device to carry around (and worry about getting stolen).  I’m not sure I even touched it that one day I brought it, so that means it’s staying at home from now on.

3.  Laptop
This was the one piece of equipment that I knew for sure I was going to need.  A friend of mine (who’s a year older) told me that they do a lot of in-class writing for English, so you needed a laptop.  My English class is actually held in a computer lab though, so I don’t think I technically need the laptop.  However, I do prefer to use it.  For one, I’m used to it, and I know how everything works.  Secondly, if I use the university computers, I have to use a thumb drive to save all my work and take it home.  This immediately makes me nervous; I don’t want to accidentally not save my work and lose everything.  That being said, the laptop is definitely something that I will be using frequently.  It’s also nice because just in case I do need to do something that I can’t do on my iPod, I can boot up my laptop, since I don’t have my iPad.

Oh I almost forgot – what have I picked up staring at other people’s gadgets?  Well, I’d say there’s a fairly even split between iOS and Android phones (though I think Android has the edge).  Most of the laptops are PCs, but there is a mac or two here and there.  Finally, I’ve also seen a few iPads floating around.  It’s a pretty tech-centered campus, though that term may be redundant in and of itself.  ••

July App Review: The New Skype for iPhone

App: Skype (v. 5.1)
Developer: Microsoft
Price: Free
Platform: iOS (iPhone only, iPad coming soon)

There’s been a Skype iPhone app for a long time now.  However, over the years, it hasn’t changed much.  Sure, it got a slight iOS 7 facelift, and a few new features here and there, but honestly there hasn’t been much going on for about two years now.  All that changed a few weeks ago.  Microsoft has completely redesigned their messenger app for the iPhone (a redesigned iPad version is coming soon).  Microsoft has acknowledged that there are lots of messenger apps out there, and that they want to be competitive.  Skype for iPhone has gotten a huge cosmetic redo, as well as some cool new features.

Let’s start with the look and feel.  Before, the Skype app didn’t really feel special.  It didn’t feel too dated, but it wasn’t super neat either.  All that has changed.  Microsoft has given it a modern makeover, and in my opinion they scored a home run.  The app has the flat look that seems to be trendy right now, but it doesn’t exactly look like iOS 7 either.  Instead, the bolder colors just scream Microsoft, and I mean that in only the best way.  Through Windows 8 (and other recent products), Microsoft has crafted a new look, and props to them for successfully branding their software.  There are also a lot of nice new animations in the app.  When you tap on a conversation, for example, the new screen slides in quickly, then sort of “bounces” off the edge, then finally stops in place.  It’s a cool feel, and you can tell someone at Microsoft put plenty of thought into little details like this.

But the new Skype isn’t all about looks either.  There are lots of other new features.  For as long as I’ve used Skype, it has supported both one-on-one and group messaging.  iMessage also supports group threads, but most of my friends hate them.  Why?  Once you’re in a group, you’re stuck.  Then, as other people have a conversation (which may or may not be relevant to you at all), you keep getting notifications for every single message.  Skype not only allows you to leave a group (this feature has been there for awhile), but now you can also turn off notifications for specific groups or even specific contacts.  (To be fair, iOS 8 will allow you to leave or mute group messaging, so Apple is fixing their problem.)  The other new feature of Skype that I was really excited about is offline photo sharing.  In older versions of Skype, whenever you sent a file, both you and your recipient had to be online in order for the transfer to complete.  With the new app, this isn’t the case anymore – as long as both people are using the app.  App to app photo transfers are seamless.  However, when you send a photo from the app to someone on a computer, they get a link.  When they click on the link, they can see the photo.  Technically, this is “offline sharing,” but it’s hardly seamless.  I was hoping that there wouldn’t be any difference on the receiving end.  Unfortunately, it seems this is only the tip of the iceberg.  Unbelievably, when someone on a computer sends a photo to the app, you can’t get the photo at all.  Instead you get a message saying that this version of Skype doesn’t support file transfers yet.  I’m sure this will get fixed, but meanwhile Microsoft could make a lot of people upset by removing a feature that they’ve had for two years.

Call quality on the new Skype is still pretty good (although Skype call quality can be hit or miss sometimes).  Overall, I like the direction Microsoft is going.  There are certainly some oversights, but if Microsoft is paying as much attention to its user base as it claims to be, hopefully these will get fixed soon.  As someone who uses Skype on the computer every day, it’s nice to have a fresh version for my mobile devices.  I just hope Microsoft is able to learn from this first version and make later ones even better.  ••

Update 10/12/14: Microsoft has updated both Skype for Windows desktop and Skype for Mac to include the new photo sharing features.  Oddly enough, Skype for Mac can both send and receive photos the new way, but Skype for Windows only receives them (still sending photos the old way).  Skype for iPad has not been updated yet.

How Family Sharing Will Ease Your iOS Lifestyle

Everyone in my family owns at least one iOS device (most own two).  In order to keep us from having to buy the same apps and songs multiple times, we all share an Apple ID (the account used to purchase things from the iTunes and App Stores).  This has its benefits.  For example, if someone in my family recommends an app to me, I go and look it up on the app store.  The app shows up as “already purchased” in our account (because it is, just not by me), and this makes it easier to find, since I know someone else has downloaded it.  However, there can also be downsides to sharing an account.  I’m the only one in my family that uses iCloud to sync my calendar and reminders.  This is fortunate, since anyone else who wanted their reminders to sync would have theirs dumped in with mine (a less than ideal situation).  Fortunately, iOS 8 may offer a solution.

iOS 8 will include a new feature called “Family Sharing.”  This isn’t a way to separate one Apple ID into multiple users, rather it’s a way to link multiple Apple IDs into one group.  Basically, the idea is that each person has their own Apple ID.  This is used both for purchasing and for other things such as iCloud.  However, when multiple Apple IDs are in a Family Sharing group, anyone can download anything purchased by any other person in the group, without paying for it again (as long as you’re using the same credit card across accounts).  I’m not sure my family will actually use this feature, since as I’ve said, I’m the only one who uses iCloud, so as it is, we don’t have much of a problem.  However, I know people who do have separate Apple IDs, and they have to pay for apps more than once if more than one person wants to use them.

Unfortunately, Family Sharing does not actually allow you to have multiple users on one iOS device.  As TechHive.com put it (in this article), “Apple still seems content with assuming that ‘multiple users’ means ‘one iOS device per person.’”  Like a lot of much-clamored-for iOS features, I don’t think multiple users makes sense at all on the iPhone.  However, this would be a great feature for iPads.  It’s sort of a shame Apple isn’t adding this.

On the whole, however, I think family sharing is a great idea.  As Apple themselves put it (as the iOS 7.1 tagline), “The most advanced mobile OS keeps advancing.”  I for one am very excited for iOS 8, and I’m happy that Apple continues to understand (most) of the wants and needs of their customers.  ••

Alert! Emergency Lock Down!

I hate to break it to you, but if you own a smartphone, you’re at risk for a huge area of crime today: smartphone theft.  Unfortunately, smartphone theft doesn’t just happen when you leave your phone at the coffee shop; if you look online (or you may have even seen it on the news), there’s tons of security camera footage of crooks walking up to someone and just grabbing their phone.  The victim can’t really do anything, since often they’ve just been punched in the face.  Sure, there’s Find My iPhone, but taking the law into your own hands and going after a thief is more dangerous than walking around not paying attention in the first place.  Enter the smartphone kill switch.

A kill switch is exactly what it sounds like: a remote way to wipe, and more importantly, deactivate, a smartphone.  As of iOS 7, the iPhone has this feature (called Activation Lock).  Simply log into a web browser, select the phone, and the phone is wiped and locked with your Apple ID password.  Aside from this password, there is no way to use or access data on the phone, not even by connecting it to a computer and wiping it.  The phone is completely useless.  Sure, you don’t get your phone back, but the hope is that if every phone has this, thieves won’t even bother stealing them any more.

This is why some people want smartphone kill switch legislation.  While Apple has already implemented the kill switch, not all phone companies have.  There’s a reason for this: smartphone insurance is a multimillion dollar business.  However, there now seems to be a shift towards the kill switch.  Many tech companies, including Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and Apple, have signed on to a voluntary program making kill switches mandatory for all new phones sold after July 2015.

I think the kill switch is a great idea.  I’m not sure I’d go so far as to legislate it (just from a big government standpoint), but I hope all smartphone manufacturers include this feature in new smartphones.  Stolen iPhones go for a lot of money on the black market, but my guess is bricks do not.  Making the two things one and the same will surely cut down on violent smartphone theft.  ••

May App Review: Carousel

App: Carousel
Developer: Dropbox
Price: Free
Platform: iOS, Android

This month, I am going to be reviewing the app Carousel, a photo app made by Dropbox.  Dropbox made a big deal of launching this app a few weeks ago, and I finally got around to trying it out.  For a while now, Dropbox has tried to make itself a home – or the home, they hope – for your photos.  The Dropbox app already has a special “Photos” tab, and a feature called “Camera Uploads” that automatically uploads all your phone’s photos (and videos) to Dropbox.  This can be done in the app (over Wi-Fi or cellular) or by connecting your phone to the computer (running the Dropbox client of course).  Dropbox remembers which photos have been uploaded, so there’s no duplicates.  It is into this context that Carousel was launched, and while there are certainly improvements to be made, I’d say this is a great app.

The app gives you a simple screen that scrolls vertically, showing you all your photos.  These are grouped by date, and the location taken is shown too, if you let your phone geotag your photos.  Tapping a photo opens it full screen, another tap closes it.  Pretty basic so far.  The app will automatically upload all your photos (similar to the Dropbox app) and place them in your Dropbox’s “Camera Uploads” folder.  Since the app has Background Refresh permissions (in iOS 7), it seems to keep on top of the uploading pretty well, at least when it’s running in the background.  Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to test the effects of this on the phone’s battery life.  There is no way to make the app sort the photos into subfolders – the pictures are just there all together in Camera Uploads.  However, each photo is handily named with the date and time (“2014-05-01 17.49.46.jpg”, for example), so at least it’s easy enough to sort them later.

There’s no way to delete a photo in the Carousel app; you have to do that through the Dropbox app (here’s hoping that changes in the future).  You can, however, hide a photo from the gallery without deleting it.  All your hidden photos and videos can be viewed and un-hidden from the settings screen.  You can also share photos, but the only way recipients can download them is through the Carousel app.  If your recipient doesn’t have the Carousel app, they’re out of luck.  If your recipient does have the Carousel app, there’s a nice little “Conversations” screen that allows you to chat about the shared photos (I didn’t actually get a chance to try this, I just saw it in the app’s introduction screen).  Again, this only works if your friends have the Carousel app.  That being said, if you’re going to share photos, you’re better off sharing them through the Dropbox app, since anyone can access Dropbox shared files regardless of whether or not they have a Dropbox account.

Despite these few flaws, I really like Carousel.  I’ve used Camera Uploads for a long time, simply because it’s a really unobtrusive uploader, and then used a batch file to move the pictures out of Dropbox.  However, now that I have Carousel, I’m going to keep my photos in Dropbox (at least the more recent ones, since I have limited Dropbox space).  The app isn’t perfect, but I have hopes that it will get better over time.  If you have lots of photos to keep synced over lots of devices, I definitely recommend you give Carousel a try.  Now we just need an app that keeps the good selfies and deletes all the ugly ones…  ••

Update 10/12/14: You can now delete photos from Dropbox from the Carousel app, and non-Carousel users can now download the photos you share with them from the app.

Update 11/22/14: Carousel is finally available for the iPad!  In addition, there is now a new web interface.

5C, 5S, 5 inch?

Will Apple release an iPhone with a larger screen?  The short answer is: You’ll find out this September (or maybe next September).  However, there are many people out there already placing their bets as to Apple’s next big iPhone innovation.

I personally like the iPhone at its current size.  I think it’s easy enough to read, yet still fits in your pocket easily.  However, I could see myself using a slightly bigger iPhone.  The old iPhones (1st Gen, 3G, 3GS, 4, and 4S) all had a screen that measured 3.5″ diagonally.  The newer iPhones (5, 5C, and 5S) have a 4″ screen.  I think this increase was an enormous improvement.  The added vertical space allows you to see more items in a list when holding the phone vertically (read: most of the time), and also gives the screen a 16:9 aspect ratio.  This means that the screen has a shape the same as a widescreen TV, instead of an intermediate ratio between widescreen and fullscreen like the old iPhones had.

As to what the increased size will be, I doubt Apple will make their screen as large as some phones out there (the ones that make you look like you’re holding a small tablet up to your face when you make a call).  However, I could see Apple making a 5″ iPhone 6, along side other 4″ models.

Another thing to consider is that changing the screen size comes with challenges for app developers.  Before the iPhone 5, iOS developers didn’t have to worry about different screen sizes the way Android developers have to – all iPhones were the exact same size.  The iPhone 5 made things more complicated, however, and a larger iPhone 6 will certainly make things more complicated still.  Recently, Apple has been encouraging developers to begin using “auto-layout,” a development feature that can automatically readjust the placement of controls on the screen to fit different sized screens.  I see this move by Apple as a major implication that Apple is planning a bigger iPhone.

So in conclusion, my prediction is that Apple will release a new iPhone with a larger screen.  However, like all Apple rumors, we won’t really know until it’s official.  Now would somebody please tell that to the people holding out for an iTV?  ••