20 Years of the iPod

My original iPod (left), alongside the iPod 5.5 and the Apple Watch, in many ways its successor.

It’s been 10 years since I wrote about it being 10 years since the iPod. That means of course that it’s now been 20 years since Steve Jobs first graced our 1024×768 screens announcing the iPod. I won’t rehash what I wrote 10 years ago, instead I thought it would be interesting delve into what the technology scene was like 20 years ago. 

In 2001, I was 16 years old. I had left school in May and started college on September 10th 2001. I will always remember starting college the day before the 9/11 attacks. We had started on the Monday, and our tutor gave us the Tuesday off, telling us to come back on Wednesday. Nobody quite expected the world to have changed so much in the space of little over 24 hours. The gap between leaving school and the attacks was only a few short months. I mention this only to say that no matter the topic, it’s impossible to consider the world in 2001 without remembering that day.  

My computer in 2001 was a G3 iMac of the Snow variety. I had bought this in the summer with some money my grandparents had given me. Back then, and still now, buying a new computer was not something I did often. The difference now is that I have many devices that could be considered a computer: a phone, tablet, laptop and even my Apple Watch. At the turn of the century a computer was something you kept on or under a desk.  Macs were not particularly cool, especially within tech circles. The arrival of Mac OS X, with its UNIX underpinnings gave it some street cred amongst geeks like me. I could justify buying one promising I’d be able to learn the Unix command line, while also running user friendly GUI software such as Microsoft Word, and connecting to printers and scanners – a task that was not easy on Linux at the time.

 

I bought the iMac from John Lewis (there was no Apple Store in the UK at the time) and still vividly remember the excitement of going to collect it, and how unexpectedly heavy the box was (it had a full CRT screen of course).  Initially Mac OS X was far too slow to actually use, and so my dreams of using the iMac to learn the Unix had to be put on hold. Around this time, my phone would have been a Motorola T191. A basic phone that had only one thing going for: it looked cool. To really satisfy my inner geek, I had managed to save up to buy a Palm m100. In 2001, if you wanted a PDA, you wanted a Palm.  For a cool one-hundred pounds, or £170 in today’s money, I had a device that could store phone numbers, take notes and play two-play pong over infrared. It supported email, but only when synchronised over from the Mac. There was no web browser to be seen, and certainly no music. The only audio the Palm m100 was capable of was a Casio watch style “beep”. Instead, my portable music needs were taken care of thanks to a £50 Panasonic portable CD player. It was capable of playing not only audio CDs, but also MP3 CDs. These were CDs stuffed with MP3 files. This meant you could fit more than the usual 10 or so songs that would fit onto a CD. It was portable, but with caveats. It’s bulk meant unless I was wearing a hoodie or fleece with large pockets, it had nowhere to go. It was also difficult to control the music while walking. Still, for 2001 it was great.

Then the iPod happened. I watched the Steve Jobs keynote on my iMac after reading about it in the news.  There was something about it being Mac exclusive ,and me being a Mac user that made it stand out to me. I was lucky enough to get one for Christmas that year. £300 Christmas presents were certainly not a regular thing for me – I don’t know what my parents were thinking!  Initially, my friends laughed at the white earbuds, it would take years for them to be normalised by Apple’s marketing campaigns. The original iPod was extremely easy to scratch, and so I sought a case to protect it. Unlike today where they are a myriad of case options available for every device under the sun, at the time of the iPod’s first release there was no such thing. I ended up buying a case from a specialist photography shop – it was designed to hold a camera flash.  From then on, my experience of music, along with millions others was that of buying the CD, feeding it into my computer, and then synchronise it with my iPod. The CD then went back on the shelf. A new generation of music lovers was born. To this day, when I think about playing a song I start with the artist, locate the album, and press play. One time, I was browsing CDs in HMV and frustrated at the thought of having to wait until I got home before I could listen to my new CD, I had the killer idea – what if the HMV (a bricks and mortar music retailer for anyone who doesn’t know) had some kind of machine that would let you scan the barcode of the CD and plug in your iPod so you could listen to your purchase there and then? Of course this became somewhat of a reality 6 years later when the Apple introduced iPod touch and the iTunes music store. Now of course we have steaming services and music is easier to access than ever. We can now ask Siri (other assistants are available) to play virtually any song on demand. Where next for recorded music consumption? I have no idea, but I certainly look back fondly on the days of the iPod.

The Little Things: Teams vs. iMessage

Both Microsoft Teams and Apple’s iMessage offer the ability to ‘react’ or ‘tap back’ on a message – for those who don’t know, this allows you to mark a message with a quick emoji response instead of sending a full message back.

I’m a heavy user of both apps: Teams while I’m working, and iMessage for keeping in touch with friends and family.

Despite Teams being targeted at business – I find the iMessage implementation so much more well through-through and appropriate.

While they both have a thumbs up – check 👍 – the heart in Teams feels a bit too much like a ‘romantic heart’ and unless Microsoft are condoning workplace romances – probably best avoided lest you end up in trouble with HR – I can’t see what they were thinking here. On the other hand, iMessage manages to remain neutral – a small platonic heart that doesn’t throb is much more appropriate for work.

Teams also lacks a simple thumbs down, a way to convey the word ‘no’. Unbelievably, it instead opts for crying emoji, or even worse – a red-faced anger emoji. There aren’t many times I feel like crying in response to a co-worker’s message, or get so angry I turn red – but often I could use a simple thumbs down. The biggest omission from Team however is the humble question mark. Being able to simply question what someone said – that is ask them to expand on what they meant and clarify – is something that often needs to be communicated with colleagues.

All of this is to say that really spending the time to think through little details like this can make all the difference in how useful the feature is. Apple clearly thought more about it in my view. On this feature at least, Teams gets a big 😢 from me.

Footnote: None of these animated icons are technically emoji – but you know what I mean.

Developer Centric Design

The new version of Safari for iPad is a classic case of ‘developer centric design’. That is, designing a product that you as a developer would love to have, but not considering how a less technical user base might approach the app. Take the new sidebar – technically, it’s a marvel: I can access tab groups (a new feature), my bookmarks, the reading list and browsing history all from one convenient location. In addition, Private browsing is now just another tab group – how cool is that? I wonder if they inherit the same Objective-C interfaces under the hood? Of course they do – and that’s the problem. The interface appears to have been designed around its technical implementation.

While new the new ‘do everything’ sidebar in Safari might sound great on paper, it just doesn’t old up in real world usage. Since the release of iOS 15, I’ve found myself using the iPad far less because of this. Tasks that should be highly optimised are frustratingly slow to complete. Take opening a bookmark and then closing the sidebar in order to browse using the entire width of the screen. It takes up to 6 steps:

  1. Open the sidebar
  2. Optionally press back if the side bar was in another list (History or Reading List)
  3. Select Bookmarks
  4. Navigate to the bookmark and click it
  5. Navigate back up to the root of the sidebar
  6. Close the sidebar

Contrast this with the original version of Safari:

  1. Tap the bookmarks toolbar button
  2. Navigate to the bookmark and click it

That is 3, maybe 4 additional steps – for something which I imagine is a pretty common action.

While I’m not suggesting we all revert to a version of Safari that came out 10 years ago, I think the spirit of the original design: simplicity and usability are still worthwhile goals in 2021. Even with advanced features such as tab groups and browser extensions, there has to be a better way. A simple fix would be to add a bookmarks button back to the toolbar, and remove tab groups from the sidebar entirely (that functionality can also be accessed from the tab overview screen).

Importantly, Apple need to learn how to think like their users again, and not build products simply for themselves. While I can’t claim to represent all Apple users, I’m certainly not the only one who finds the new design messy and confusing.

Glass: Half Empty

Like every other Apple-focused technology enthusiast with spare time on their hands, I’ve been trying out Glass, a new app for sharing photos. Its biggest selling point according to the creators, is that they are in fact selling it. Unlike rivals Instagram and Flickr, Glass is not for “selfies, stories, quick snaps, or influencers” and there is no free tier. Instead, Glass costs £4.49 per month or £25.99 for the year as an introductory offer, going up to around £48.00 per annum after the introductory period is over. 

As someone who loves photography, but dislikes the way in which Instagram has turned into a late 90s glossy lifestyle magazine with its over-reliance on filters and airbrushing, Glass seemed like a breath of fresh air. In addition to selling this app instead of selling out their users, Glass also does away with traditional social media metrics: like counts and follower counts. While these seemed innocent and innovative in 2010, it has become apparent that such metrics though meaningless in themselves can be terrible for our mental health, and certainly do no correspond with any real sense of worth or value. The business model of selling the app instead of customer data means that in theory it doesn’t matter how long someone spends in Glass, because they are not optimising to maximise eyeballs on ads. This allows Glass to forego the algorithmic timeline that every other social media platform uses and instead offer a simple chronological timeline and feels more like Twitter circa 2009.

That said, upon signing opening Glass for the first time, I was surprised that there is no functionality available unless you sign up for a subscription. Not even ability to even view photos from other people without posting, which I would have expected. The first 2 weeks of the subscription are free however, and so I gave it a go. 

First impressions were good: the app is mostly well designed. There are some odd quirks, the back button is in the bottom left of the screen, instead of the top left as it is in nearly every other iOS app, which even after 2 weeks still throws me. The portrait orientation of the iPhone doesn’t work well with photos that are taken in landscape. Glass attempts to remedy this by zooming in and allowing you to pan the image, but I would have preferred to be able to rotate my phone and browse in landscape instead. 

Upon first launch I was invited to follow a selection of accounts. I’ve no idea whether this was a random list, or whether they have an algorithm that attempts to show you “interesting” people based on how many other people follow them or some other metric. After a day or two I’d built up list of about 15 people I was following. After that I uploaded some old photos that I was particularly proud of. It turned out this is exactly what everyone else did too. Nearly all of the photos the app displayed to me had dates on them from months and years before the app had launched. The chronological timeline seemed somewhat broken with photos from all seasons seemingly thrown in. This quirk will perhaps become less pronounced as the influx of new users cedes, but for now think of Glass as a place where people post their “best of” photos, rather than a window into what is happening in the world.

After a few days, boredom started to settle in. There were some nice photographs alright. Plenty in fact. But the web is not short of great photography. I found it difficult to discover anything interesting or above average. I particularly like landscape photography, but I couldn’t find a way to search for it, nor did Glass seem to know this and show me more of it. There are places I frequent and photograph a lot, and I wanted to see other people’s take on them. However there is no way to search by location either.  Instead, it’s up to me to follow the right people. It left me longing for an algorithm. Yes, an evil algorithm! The thing is, algorithms are not evil. It’s how they are used that determines whether they are good or bad. If an algorithm is used to optimise for “engagement” for the purposes of selling more advertisements, then this is bad. In the case of Glass, I’d quite like to see something pop up in my feed that is popular or of potential interest, but alas this did not happen. 

Another thing I noticed, at least based on the list of people I see in the “follow people” tab, Glass seemed to be somewhat of a monoculture. This makes sense: everyone in the app is rich enough to own an iPhone, probably also owns an expensive dedicated camera, a laptop (probably a MacBook) capable of editing them, and has enough discretionary income to pay a monthly subscription to a social media platform. This is boring. While I’m no fan of Instagram, it does at least seem to attract people from all parts of society. Perhaps this will come with time, if Glass decide to expand beyond its initial user base of photography enthusiasts. For now, where Instagram is the economy section on a plane, Glass aspires to be the first class area with none of the undesirables. This may not be a conscious decision, but it’s a direct consequence of being iOS only and charging a monthly fee. 

So is Glass for me? While I really wanted to like Glass, and I have genuinely found some great photographs on it, the staleness and sameness of the content leaves me wanting more for my £4.49/month. I’ll be checking back in a few months, hopefully by then this glass will be brimming.

Google’s Native Advertising Problem

I’ve noticed that Google’s search results are full of a lot more spam recently. When I scroll past the page of ads that Google itself places at the top of the results page and jump straight to the so called ‘organic’ search results, I find more than more that these links turn out to be nothing more than thinly veiled advertisements themselves.

In one example, after finding out my new router supports connecting my entire network to a VPN, I searched Google for the model name and the word ‘VPN“. The second result was an article that was quick point out that my router doesn’t support Express VPN, but I should probably just use it anyway. There was of course a big fat button linking to Express VPN. Using the excellent wheregoes.com I was quickly able to verify that yes, this was a referral link. This article exists for no other reason than to make money from confused users.

Minutes later I searched for how to synchronise to Macs without using iCloud. The 2nd result was this page by MacPaw.

The article has runs through some rudimentary waffle about how cloud synchronisation works, and then about halfway down the pages suddenly breaks into an advert for their product “CleanMyMac X”. An app that is completely unrelated to file synchronisation.

While I’ve nothing against so called “inbound marketing” articles, they can often have genuine value (Digital Ocean’s vast array of tutorials for configuring Linux servers are some of the best on the web), it’s clear that Google has a big problem on its hand in distinguishing the cruft from the genuinely useful content.

How to Remove Clickbait Headlines From Apple News

Apple News can be a nice way to catch up on the day’s events, however it can also be a source of clickbait headlines and celebrity gossip that I couldn’t care less about. I’m sure it’s the inverse for others too, perhaps you want to read celebrity gossip but keep getting exaggerated political controversies.

Thankfully, there is an option hidden away in the iOS Settings app called “Restrict Stories in Today”. Turning it on will cause News to limit articles to those from publishers you actively follow.

I definitely recommend following a wide variety of outlets to avoid a filter bubble, but I’ve found this option to be a great quality filter so far.

Fancier MacBooks Are on the Way, but You Probably Don’t Need One

Rumours are abundant, and so it must be true that in the coming months Apple will release updated versions its high-end computers. But for the majority of users, even us “professionals”, the current crop of M1 Macs will probably do just fine.

I’ve been using an M1 MacBook Pro as my own personal laptop now for 3 and a half months and I have to admit, the hype is real. It’s a beast. Day to day it’s exceedingly fast at nearly everything I throw at it. Anything you could possibly consider “day to day” use doesn’t even warrant a mention – it’s blindingly fast. It breezed through more advanced photo editing, compiling apps using Xcode, editing video in the Photos app, and pretty much every other task I’ve thrown at it. Contrary to many reports however is the fan. It does get extremely loud when performing intense tasks. In my case, when transcoding video that wasn’t natively supported by the M1’s instruction set.

In comparison to my other laptop, a work-provided 15″ Dell XPS 9500 running Intel’s 2020 i7 which has a bigger screen and costs £400 more but is far is hotter, slower and less reliable (frequently overheating while charging to a point it shuts itself off, and unable to stay in sleep mode without draining the battery completely over night) the latest MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are no-brainers for anyone who doesn’t need Windows to do their job.

Unless you are playing (or making) AAA games, working with video at a professional level, or training large machine learning models, the current crop of M1 Macs will likely far exceed your needs. Even Marco Arment can get by with the latest MacBook Air for software development. As with any processor transition, it’s not all plain sailing – I struggled to get an older version of TensorFlow working on the M1 Mac because Apple have forked the project for M1 at a later version – but these kind of teething issues will resolve themselves over time. As with anything like this, if you have specific software needs, check compatibility first.

So while the latest, shiniest, fastest laptop might seem temping, the mid-range is where the value is right now.

WWDC 2021: Quick Thoughts

Lots and lots of goodies in Apple’s 2021 keynote. Some quick thoughts:

  • FaceTime on the web – I guess just as I was last pondering this May, someone at Apple was also wondering why Zoom took off and not FaceTime. Thankfully they reached the same conclusion.
  • Digital ID – The ability to add ID to our digital wallets will finally end the need for a physical wallet. I wrote about this at the end of 2019 and so was pleased when the presenter almost quoted the title of my post The card missing from our digital wallets. At the moment it’s US only, but at least it’s a start.
  • The Mail app will now proxy images to protect privacy. Has Hey.com just been Sherlocked? All along I’ve said this kind of functionality should be something a mail client offers, not the email service itself.
  • On-device speech to text will dramatically help Siri’s performance. The current cloud-based STT is often so slow I manually deduct 30 seconds from the time I actually want to set a timer for. I didn’t notice any mention of intent recognition, and so I assume it is still likely cloud-based, which means an Internet connection will still be required for many Siri tasks.
  • Apple will allow developers to A/B test App Store listings. While I understand this kind of testing can be effective, I’m coming round to the view that perhaps asking users is more polite than bypassing their consciousness.
  • Being able to edit dictated text on the Apple Watch is fantastic and solves a major problem: most ML based STT systems still struggle with unexpected, out of context words. It looks like Apple are moving watchOS towards where early iPhone models were when it comes to content creation with the ability to share photos as well.
  • Built in VPN for iCloud+ users. Did I understand this right, that anyone paying for storage currently will now be an ‘iCloud+’ user? Surly that can’t be right? Apple don’t give features like this away for free!
  • iPad multitasking – Looks good. We now have the Shelf, a nice reference to NeXTSTEP which of course had its very own shelf that would become the Dock in macOS.
  • On the presentation itself, I find myself missing the days of one or two presenters simply levelling with an audience to explain what’s new. For the past for years, and even pre-pandemic, there have been dozens of presenters, high-production videos, and special effects that seem more at home in a Hollywood blockbuster than a developer talk. It makes one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world seem even less relatable.
  • Quick Note. Great name, but where have I heard it before? Hmm…
  • A menu bar on the iPad, which was pretty much the conclusion of my recent post The Tablet Dilemma.

All News Is Breaking News

Having set up a new phone recently, I started receiving “Breaking News” alerts from the BBC. I must have accidentally granted permission when installing the app. I left them turned on, thinking perhaps this time I might find it useful, especially given the precarious worldwide situation right now. Within hours though, I remembered why I’d turned them off years ago – not just from the BBC – from all news apps.

In my mind, I had “breaking news” as meaning “important news worthy of interrupting your day”. The would obviously include kind of thing the BBC may have traditionally interrupted television programming for; the death of a monarch, war breaking out, or the announcement of a lockdown due to a global pandemic. Of course an alert on your phone isn’t the same cancelling the nation’s favourite weekly medical drama, and so I expected alerts with slightly less gravity but still serious and impactful all the same.

This is not what “breaking news” means. In the news business, breaking news is news that is “new news”. This is why we get alerts about a press conference that is due to start on time, as scheduled. While I have no direct knowledge of the media business, it seems to me that there is a race between various news broadcasters to be the first to “break” news. I’m sure that by adding “breaking news” to a story it feeds the audience’s desire to read the latest gossip, and this generates clicks, which looks good for the reporter in question. It’s similar how in the early days of the pandemic when we had daily briefings, rather than insightful questions from health or science correspondents, we had political correspondents trying to outdo each other in trying to ask the most original and intricate question, hoping to trip up the politician at the podium.

While there is no doubt an audience of avid news junkies who enjoy receiving notifications about mundane events as they happen, I think there’s a larger need for alerts about serious and important events only. Please, news broadcasters, give us the choice!

The Tablet Dilemma: Powerful Laptop Replacement or Casual Consumption Device?

Earlier this week Apple announced a new version of the iPad Pro, a £749 tablet that includes pretty much the same internals as the other recent Macs including the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Mini. Once you up the storage to a more acceptable (but still bare minimum) 256GB and add in the optional Magic Keyboard, the cost ends up being £1,178, slightly more than a similar spec’d MacBook Air, which starts at £999.

The iPad and Mac having comparable specifications is nothing new. For many years it has been apparent that Apple’s top end tablets could outperform even some of the higher end laptops on single core tasks. Now, with both products using the same chip, and with Apple giving the iPad Pro a the same M1 processor they’ve used in Macs, many people are starting to wonder why the iPad is still so limited by its operating system. Harry McCracken, a longtime proponent of using iPads as a primary computing device wrote “The iPad Pro just got way more pro. Now it needs pro software”.  Over at The Verge, Monica Chin wrote “Put macOS on the iPad, you cowards”, a headline that seems sure to fire up camaraderie on Twitter.  Jason Snell, one of my favourite writers about all things Mac, wrote “The iPad Pro is a killer machine but its software is killing me”. It seems there is a consensus. 

For a long time this has been my view too. I’ve written many times before that what holds back the iPad is its software not its hardware. The touch screen revolution didn’t quite happen as planned. 11 years after the iPad was first introduced, most people still turn to a desktop or laptop with a mouse and keyboard when they really want to get work done. But with tablet hardware so powerful, and with the software that feels ‘almost there’ it’s reasonable to ask why can’t we do more with our expensive iPads. The solution however, is not simple. Allowing users to reboot their iPad into macOS as Chin seems to suggest would be one answer, but it would require either macOS to be redesigned to accommodate touch input, or that Apple require users connect a trackpad and keypad to their iPad when using it in “Mac Mode”. This doesn’t seem very elegant to me – though technically probably not difficult, and Apple is all about elegance. Adding touch to macOS would beg the question of why Mac laptops don’t have touch screens and risk destroying what makes macOS such a great operating system. (Windows 8 anyone?) In 2019 the ability to run iPad apps on the Mac was added to macOS, but with a mouse and keyboard of course. Requiring a mouse and keyboard on the iPad would be more preferable approach and would keep the line between  ‘desktop’ and ‘mobile’, but it just doesn’t seem like something the Apple we all know would ever do. It’s too clunky having two versions of the same app.

Another option is to build upon iPad OS and address all the little things that make it difficult to use a full-time computing device. It has come a long way in the past 5 years since I wrote my original article, and many of the features I said were needed are now present in iPad OS. The difficulty now is that many of the things that make PC operating systems so powerful run counter to what makes the iPad so secure and simple to use. As we’ve seen from the iPad’s horrendous attempt to support multitasking, adding complexity to something that wasn’t originally designed for it is also difficult to pull off. Not forgetting, iPad OS also needs to run on the cheapest £329 iPad which has far less compute power than the iPad Air or iPad Pro. Anything that add adds more power for Pro users risks alienating the majority of casual users who just want a large smartphone for watching video browsing social media.  

What really leaves a sour taste in the mouth is the fact that Apple now is now seemly selling the same computer in many different form-factors but is artificially limiting which software can run on them based on imaginary product categories.  There is no law of nature that says what a ‘tablet’ is any more than there one that defines a number of grains of sand required before they can be called a mound. Yet it is in Apple’s best interests to make sure customers have a reason to buy a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone. For a company that likes to boast how good it is by making sure we all know how much they support good causes, have they not thought of the environmental impact of millions of people deciding to buy both an iPad and a Mac when there is no reason other than Apple’s business model requiring they do so?

But Apple must have known that by naming the iPad’s processor ‘M1’ parallels would be drawn with the Mac, and questions would be asked. They could quite easily have called the CPU A14X, or A15, it’s just a marketing name after all. The fact they choose to draw a direct parallel with the Mac makes me think that Apple do have something up their sleeves to further bridge the gap between the iPad and Mac, and ensuring all that power does not go go waste. I don’t think the iPad will ever run macOS, but I can see a situation similar to how the Mac can currently run iPad apps, but in reverse. Imagine if when a keyboard and pointing device are plugged into the iPad, iPad apps that have been updated to support the Mac are able to run in full ‘Mac Mode’ on the iPad. Apps would be scaled down to simulate a higher resolution allowing more content to be shown with the assumption that a pointer, not a finger will be used for input. A menu bar would show across the top of the screen. It wouldn’t be “macOS” (it’s not the menu bar), but it would provide a way for Mac-optimised apps to run in in a desktop-like mode. Additionally, if iPad OS could also provide a “Developer Mode” similar to how Macs let users turn off secure boot that allowed software be side-loaded (bypassing the App Store restrictions) and a way to use developer centric tools such as the Terminal and Homebrew, the iPad would suddenly become substantially more powerful. It still wouldn’t be able to run the full version of Photoshop as many have asked for, but it would be a compromise that would offer a more powerful user experience while also seeking to encourage the likes of Adobe to port their ancient applications to Apple’s more modern UIKit frameworks, becoming iPad apps at the same time.

Is it a stretch? Yes. But giving the iPad the same processor as a Mac is a bold move, and that makes me hopeful that we can expect similarly bold moves from the software team over the coming year.