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Back To Where They Came From

Back in the eighties and early nineties, we had home computers. These home computers were sleek all-in-one beasts, could be plugged into family TV set, and very importantly, were used for leisure. Not to play down the significance of the Apple Macintosh, it was actually the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga that stole the show in my generation. And why was this? Games.

Let’s face it: the majority of Atari STs and Amigas were used almost entirely as games machines, with maybe a little bit of time spent in Deluxe Paint, Degas Elite and STOS. (To be fair, one of my my best friends wrote a DBMS while I played Lotus Elite Turbo Challenge, but I suspect he was the exception.)

And then something happened: dad brought his work home from the office.

Enter the IBM PC (and compatibles). The big, boxy, beige machines invaded the home, straight through the front door: families only needed one serious computer, and what better to pick than the one that was already familiar from the daily grind?

The PC, while running all manner of CAD and spreadsheet packages very well (remember when we called apps packages?) wasn’t so hot on the games front at first. From the humble beginnings of Sierra graphical adventures games and some dodgy flight simulators, games on the PC went from strength to strength as the teenaged children of the aforementioned father spent their weekend job money on sound cards, graphics cards, motherboards and processors. One upgrade at a time, the office PC became the home-office PC, the family PC, and finally the gaming PC.

The next twist in the PCs unusual life was the explosion of home internet. The internet gave the PC more strings to its bow: no longer just a productivity and gaming machine, it was now the information and communication hub of the home. And lest we forget shopping.

While all this was going on in the spare bedroom, games consoles were enjoying a parallel life in the living room. Each generation of console became more powerful, more accessible, more mainstream. Some people preferred the PC for games, others the console, but before long we were all playing the same games, on almost the same hardware.

So what was next for the PC? Well, what many didn’t see coming was PC becoming so cheap and portable that everyone got their own. The PC unwittingly really did become the personal computer. And then the iPhone happened. And we all realised that actually, that was what we really wanted when we said personal computer. The iPhone, in hindsight, marked the major step in giving us a personal computing device that could manage most of the tasks that most people want to do.

The iPhone spawned the iPad which spawned numerous other tablets, and we now live in a world where an iPad will do 90% of the tasks 90% of home PC users. This is not to say that the PC is dead. Far from it. The PC is the best tool for many, many tasks, but the majority of those tasks are associated with work, not leisure. The PC is the ideal tool to be used in many workplaces for years to come. And yes, I’m talking about Windows PCs with mouse and keyboard input: this paradigm is actually fantastic for many productivity tasks, that are just horrendous when carried out on touch screens or machines held in one hand. Even the ecosystem that has grown up with them, the enterprise market, is in many ways a mature and solid setup, that like the sub-optimal “design” of the mammalian eyeball, is actually quite fit-for-purpose.

The thing is about the PC: we just don’t need one at home anymore. Consoles and set top boxes provide us with amazing gaming and entertainment. Tablets and smartphones provide us with much better ways to consume news, knowledge and information, and to communicate and remotely socialise. These devices all do what they were designed to do where for years the poor PC had to limp along, doing it’s best. It’s time to give it a break.

I’m not calling time on the PC: I’m just saying it’s time for the PC to go back to the office.

 


NSURL on iOS 7

There’s a subtle change in the way URLWithString: works on devices running iOS 7. On iOS 6, spaces at the end of the string used to be percent-encoded and a valid NSURL object was created, but on iOS 7 the method will return nil. For example:

NSURL *urlOne = [NSURL URLWithString:@"http://number23.org"];
NSURL *urlTwo = [NSURL URLWithString:@"http://number23.org "];

iOS6

http://number23.org

http://number23.org%20

iOS7 

http://number23.org

(null)

A non-encoded space inside the string will mean nil is returned on both platforms: it’s just this edge-case that is the oddity. Arguably this is actually a bug that has been fixed, and you should be encoding your strings anyway, but it’s worth checking your URLs (or running stringByTrimmingCharactersInSet: over them as standard) so you don’t get burned by this little beauty.


iOS App Review times at an all-time low

There’s a fascinating side-effect of the Apple Dev Center troubles happening right now: review times are some of the best we’ve ever seen.

I’ve personally just had 2 app updates accepted in 2 days each, and a brand new app in 3. Take a look at #iosreviewtime, almost everything is coming in between 2 and 4 days, which is virtually unheard of for iOS app reviews.

What’s curious about this is the timing: as you’re no doubt aware, the Dev Center has not been having a great time of late, but as of this weekend is (mostly) back up.

So how come these review times are so good? All the support staff have nothing else to do while the sysadmins are pulling 18 hour days? Whatever the reason, I’m not complaining.

 

UPDATE

Good point from the commenters: there will have been fewer new apps appearing since you would have had to have created your profiles before last Thursday, and so more time for app updates and the organised among us.

UPDATE #2

The word on Twitter is that while the reviews are quick, they might be not actually very good, and plenty of crashy apps are getting through. Got a buggy app? Make hay while the sun shines!

 


The Home Button Should Go Back To Having One Use

The Home Button on iOS devices is a great example of hardware and software design working in harmony: its role as a safety, a reset button that you can always depend on to get you back to the comfort of the home screen. And it is true that the iOS home screen is genuinely comforting: you are at home, where your device can do its primary things (an iPod, a phone, an internet communicator…), where your apps are in the places you put them, each a little tempting button that will do just what you expect. Even the icon on the home button shows you what you’re going to get.

As we enter an age where we are used to how touch devices work, we no longer need our training wheels: we need fewer affordances to let us know how things might react. This to me feels right, and for proof take a look a look at an 8 or 80-year old with an iPad. The new gestures unveiled in iOS7 at WWDC  show how we will soon be able to navigate around our devices in a faster and more fluid way, power users and regular users. (There are actually some neat animation speedup tricks for the real power users that make the experience even quicker.) In fact most of the gestures are ones that have been introduced in apps over the last few years and at least some of us are so used to we try to use them even when they aren’t there.

The home button at first may seem out of place in this new world, but actually its primary use as an escape button is still a great piece of UX, something that is essential on a device that you way want to call an ambulance on as well as play a few rounds of dots.

The problem with the home button is not its primary role. It is its secondary role: as the app switcher. Nothing feels more clunky than, having unlocked with a gesture, navigated around using back and forward swipes, accessed notification centre and control centre, than then attempting to switch between apps by double tapping the home button. You feel your nippy journey around your device suddenly slow to a crawl as your thumb depresses the button, once, then again. The satisfying audible feedback you once liked is now a dull thud in your ears. The whole experience shakes you out of the future and back three years.

Arguably, the tertiary role is just as bad, it’s just not used so much. Siri, the time-saving feature that lets you talk instead of act, takes two full seconds of waiting with your thumb pressed down. Siri shaves two seconds of a tasks if you’re lucky, and so this method of invocation feels like a prank being played on you for trying to use the feature in the first place.

There are many aspects of iOS7 that really bring the futuristic feel back to iOS devices, the combinations of physical gestures and on-screen animations especially. In the next few months, two more gestures need to be found to not let the home button be a burden around its neck.


Modern life

Birthday greetings by communication medium.

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Old-Fashioned

I’ve seen three people this week get locked out of their gmail accounts “to keep [their] systems healthy” or for “unusual activity”. Google have been doing a good job recently of tackling accounts used for spam, but all of these cases were just regular people locked out for no reason, for hours or days.

In the last week Google announced Google Reader would be no more after June. Like they closed down Wave. And Picnik And Buzz. And they’re completely within their right to do so. Google are an advertising company, and public company, and their goal is to make money. By selling ads. In their own words,

“We generate revenue primarily by delivering relevant, cost-effective online advertising.”

They’ve come up with some quite amazing ideas, products and services for an ad company, but I think it’s quite important to remember that. Especially if you’ve come to rely on their services.

I don’t imagine that Google will close Gmail down any time soon. Why would they: they’re constantly serving you focussed ads while you use it, and that makes them money. When there is a problem with the service though, what do you do? And what do you do if you’ve come to rely on something, like Reader, goes away? You can’t get a refund if you never paid.

Call me old-fashioned, but if you’ve paid for a service, like the olden days, you’re in a better position. Of course, your paid-for service could also close or be disrupted. In these cases though, as a customer, you have rights that have been enshrined in law (at least they have in this country). By paying you enter into a contract, and therefore you get to demand certain level of service and have a channel open for if or when you need it.

And then there’s the ads. Call me old-fashioned, again, but I think that advertising has become one of the worst things about modern life, and targeted advertising has only made it worse.

The internet, being online, digital life: whatever you call it, it’s here to stay. And for many of us it is no longer a separate part of of our lives, it’s just another aspect. Before the internet, we didn’t get, or expect, all our services for free, nor did we tolerate constant targeted advertising, and having our personal communications trawled through by international companies. Why now? Isn’t it time we made the internet grow up? We don’t have to throw it out to get back to old-fashioned customer service.

 

Update:

I’ve been informed (by @bigpumpkin, thanks!) that the Gmail you get with Apps For Business is ad-free. I should have realised this since we actually use it at work (though I rarely use the web interface). This is of course the solution I was suggesting: you pay for the service instead of having it ad-supported. How about a personal-tier version of this then, Google?


Got Pebble

Last year one project became the poster child for the crowdsourced funding site, and that project was Pebble. They shot to fame when they overshot their funding goal by $10,000,000. The result was they had to rethink their business plan, their whole manufacturing process, and their timescales, in order to try and satisfy the demands of all their backers.

While the delays were hard to swallow as we all waited patiently to live in the future, last Friday mine finally arrived at my doorstep from Singapore. Was I excited? Very. Did I feel bad that it arrived before my manager’s, the guy who convinced me to back the project (a few days after him)? Not really. I was too busy unboxing and, given as I am to the zeitgeist, posting the unboxing to Vine.I’d already installed the Pebble app on my phone in anticipation when I got my shipping email. There are already some great reviews of the Pebble, so I’m going to focus on my first full day wearing it and what that was like.

The first thing I liked about the watch was, stop me if this seems a little obvious, being able to tell the time by looking at my wrist. I haven’t worn one for three years when the strap on my Diesel knock-off from Malaysia broke. Yes, I’m so lazy that I went three years looking at my wrist and being a little disappointed. Actually, when Siri was first released I had high hopes that that would be my new way of finding out the time: pressing the button on my headphones and saying ”what’s the time?”. Nice idea, but there’s something wrong with having to not only vocalise that question (and not to another human being), but then waiting for that audio data to be uploaded to a server, interpreted, sent back to the phone and then read back to me. Just as I was about to mend my watch, Pebble came along and I decided I could probably wait a little longer. So: teling the time, awesome. The “text watch” theme gives the time in a lovely two or three word form such as “two forty”. The only downside is it’s americanised, and so you occasionally get things like “five after three” instead of “five past three”. If and when I get my hands on the SDK I might take that into my own hands.

Ok, so I’m sitting on the train and my wrist vibrates. A text message from a friend about the evening’s plans: I glance at my wrist and I can read the whole thing, without getting my phone out. I know this sounds like a small gain, but let’s just consider how fiddly it is to get your phone out of your pocket while sitting on a train. Not convinced? Well, I find it quite fiddly! Ok, so it’s not really overcoming of phone extraction that I liked so much. It’s the fact that this workflow felt much more natural, and I felt like I’d been less disturbed by not having to check my phone but simple being fed the one piece of information I needed right there and then. It’s really an issue of human self control, but now that our phones have become our main communication and entertainment devices there is a real draw to continue to interact with it after the original reason for checking it in the first place.

So I spent the rest of the day wandering around Shoreditch, occasionally getting messages from Facebook, texts, and the odd Twitter @-reply and genuinely enjoying not having to get my phone out but being able to screen these notifications from my wrist. Clearly I’m easy to please. I use my phone as my radio while at home, playing through a bluetooth speaker. While I’m out and about I pause and play music with the button on my headphones, so the ability to do it from the watch isn’t so useful. At home, however, this is actually really handy if the phone and speaker is in another room.

So that’s about it. But is “it” enough? For me, the Pebble does three things that are useful. Just three. But that’s three really useful things, and two more than a regular watch. And that makes me a happy pebbler.

Looking for the tl;dr? The picture sums up my view of the pebble.


Compromise, Or Don’t

In an excellent and largely misunderstood article, Matt Baxter-Reynolds recently pointed out the real-life, day-to-day issues with using the  Microsoft Surface Pro on the move. By starting with the form-factor of the moment, a tablet, and then adding a kickstand and keyboard, Microsoft inadvertently threw away 30 years of iterative portable computing design.  The result is a device with a 10″ screen and a footprint larger than a 13″ Macbook Pro (and indeed larger than any other ultrabook or MacBook Air). The same as a 15″ MacBook Pro, in fact. Not only is the footprint larger, it’s less stable, since you have a hinge with no hold between the keyboard and screen, and then a half-centimetre bit of plastic to hold the screen up instead.

Google’s recently announced Chromebook Pixel is competing in the same space as the Surface Pro, and by virtue of price bracket, that also means the same space as the MacBook Air. It runs ChromeOS, so everything you do is cloud / browser-based. I’m not going to debate the pros and cons of this model now: suffice to say there are people out there who love this thin-client  setup (it’s not new, it’s just it’s time is finally coming), and are within reach of wifi for enough hours a day for this to work for them.

What the Chromebook brings to the table is a touchscreen (just), it’s incredibly portable and has all the advantages of an actual laptop in design. Well, I say all: from a physical point of view it has the same advantages. It’s a clamshell, and so you can sit there tapping away on a real keyboard with it perched on your knee.

Where Google have thought differently of course is by making the Pixel a thin client. For me though, that means they have throw away all the reasons I still use a MacBook Air as my portable machine and haven’t gone to an iPad. When I’m out and about, I still want to do the kinds of computing tasks just not possible on an iPad yet. I want to code in objective c and Java, compile apps, run them on a simulator or a device. I want to write Python scripts. I want to open Ableton Live and work on a DJ mix or new tune. I want to open Photoshop and edit a PSD, then save a PNG and add it to an app or website or a mix I’m uploading to SoundCloud.

I admit, the kind of things I do with my MacBook Air are niche. Not everyone writes apps or dance music. Why not I have no idea, but that’s another story. But these reasons keep me on a traditional laptop, at least for now. Microsoft and Google should be praised for thinking outside of the box. So far though, these alternative offerings both throw away the best bits of what they are trying to replace, yet cost the same. The iPad doesn’t try to do what a laptop does. It does a subset of what a laptop can do, some of those things it does better, and of course it costs around a half to a third of the price. The Surface (RT) does something similar. Similarly, the lower end Chromebooks do a subset of what a laptop can do, and cost around a quarter of the price.

There’s a weird trend in the media to think that compromise is a bad thing. It isn’t: compromise is the key to good design. The iPad, and to some extent the Surface RT and the low-end chromebooks: these are the great examples of compromise in design. Compromise is designed right-in. It’s a feature. You get something that is great at a subset of tasks.

The problem that the Surface Pro and Google’s Pixel have: they pretend there is no compromise, but in fact they have the the worst kind: unexpected compromises.


A Plist-configured form view with validation for iOS

I find a lot of apps need a form-like view at some point, and after looking around and not finding one we like, we made our own. Presenting RAFormView, released under the MIT licence.


Apps I Installed

A new tumblr. Literally, it’s apps I installed and maybe you should too.