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The State of Instant Messaging

Apple’s iMessage was the warning shot that things were changing. Some embraced it and didn’t look back. Some didn’t know they were embracing it – for them it was just a matter of having a blue text bubble versus a green one. Others saw it as a way to get out from under the thumb of greedy cellular carriers who charged outrageous prices for text messages. However you look at it, iMessage affected everyone who uses text messaging or instant messenging – and it is proprietary.

Microsoft’s purchase of Skype is finally changing the face of their instant messaging backbone. The popular MSN Messenger is widely used, especially among businesses, due to its ubiquity on the Windows platform but recently Microsoft announced that they were forcing all users over to Skype for voice and text chat – and it is proprietary.

Google, after having a huge success with Gtalk, has just introduced Hangouts. It is a souped up combination of Gtalk and Google+ hangouts and has the promise to be the best of both worlds with synced conversations across all of your devices (a la iMessage), best in class video and sound conversations (a la Skype) and integration with Google’s ecosystem (a la they get all of your usage data for free) – and it is proprietary.

The big three seem to be circling the wagons in an attempt to lock their faithful users in to their platform of choice. While there is solid logic behind this, it is the users who are the ones made to suffer for their choices. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to build a comprehensive view of the instant messaging landscape in an attempt to pick the best tool for the job (and then attempt to push everyone I know onto it).

What Features Are Important, New and Useful

With such a wide reach among tools, I felt it was best to start by boiling down what features I wanted in an instant messenging application. Deciding what was important would naturally push some of the choices out of the nest, making it easier to make a decision.

Here’s what ended up being important to me:

  • Synced conversations across devices - This was something that I didn’t know I needed until iMessage made it a reality.
  • Reliability - it sounds like something that would be an easy-to-add feature to an IM designer’s list of features but the latest crop of IM applications often drop the ball here in a big way.
  • Interface clarity - Seems like this would be high on the list for designers, but try and find a specific Hangout on the Google+ page and get back to me. Some folks clearly forgot to add “interface clarity” to the whiteboard in their brainstorming session.
  • Accessible to people I care about - Whatever the choice eventually is, I will need to convince people I know to use it or this entire exercise is pointless. Having friends scattered across four or five services is bad, but given the state of IM, this is about to get a lot worse.
  • History search - This needs to be toggled for each user for security reasons obviously, but having the ability to search through certain conversations later or use them to excavate notes from a chat session is a great feature.
  • Group chats - The ability to have a chat with more than one person can be helpful on projects or with certain groups of friends. These little group conversations echo the functionality of a small IRC private network when done right.
  • Open protocol - I know this is “a bridge too far” at this point but a non-proprietary network would greatly encourage innovative interface designs and competition for the mantle of “best app”. In the end, this means the user would win.

The Contenders

There are a lot of choices out there. I’m only going to list the good ones. I am not going to waste time on things that are platform-dependent[1]. I am also not going to waste time on the “text message replacement” apps like What’s App, HeyTell or Kik because making a friend pay a dollar to talk to you seems like a bad idea. I’m definitely not wasting my time on anything with the word “Facebook” in the title.

So what’s left? Not much, that’s for sure. Here’s the rundown.

Trillian/Adium - These apps are very similar and they entail creating an account on AIM, Gtalk, ICQ and the like. They function as a multiprotocol client that shows all of your contacts, and manages all of your conversations, in one place. Of the two, I find Trillian more capable because it has an iOS client which allows you to continue synced conversations between your Mac and iPhone/iPad. It is very powerful and it is one of my most-used apps. No group chat though.

iMessage/Messages - This is Apple’s entry into the scene. The Mac client builds on the old iChat model and tries (and ultimately fails) to combine the old paradigm with the new. It supports cross-device chat for iMessage conversations but if the user is on one of the other protocols or devices (like Android), you’re out of luck. I love that Apple completely routed around the text messaging monopoly held by the carriers and the way it falls back on text messaging if the device has no data connectivity is a work of genius. The Messages app has a serious bug that causes it to re-order entire conversations randomly. Continuity issues aside, the conversation sync feature is powerful and useful. If your devices are registered with iMessage/iCloud, a conversation can be continued seamlessly across all of your devices or machines. Facetime is integrated as well for voice and video chat. It is Apple-centric however and I doubt Apple will make it an open protocol anytime soon. If they fixed the message-reorder bug, this would be a major contender. It is so comprehensively powerful I’d gladly shun my Android friends (more) to consolidate on the platform. Group chat is well-implemented and I use it daily.

Google/Gtalk/Google+/Hangouts - Google, as usual, has made a mess. Gtalk was built on an open protocol (XMPP) and was easily integrated into chat clients like iChat, Trillian and Adium. As Google marches forward with Google+, it waves goodbye to consistency and convenience, replacing them with a Creepy Uncle hug to the integration between its half-baked, proprietary Hangouts effort and Google+ interface design fiascos. Google has decided to start pushing its closed protocol and combine it with its Gtalk “product”. I wouldn’t be surprised it if moved users over to their closed protocol in the coming months and shut down their XMPP service. Hangouts does support group chats and seems to aim squarely at making that a focus. Today, after extensive testing with Hangouts, I noticed that all of my Circles are now mashed up in my normal Gtalk user list on all clients[2]. Some of these faults could be redeemed if the Hangouts app was good, but it isn’t. At times, the chat delay is pronounced, I had issues with lack of sound during some video conversations, the interface lacks some very basic options and the iPad app is a stretched-out version of the iPhone interface. It is a shame. After a few minutes, I thought the app held promise. After about an hour, I was slightly frustrated but bemused. After a few days of use, I couldn’t delete it fast enough. The tech press was trumpeting “Google wins with voice chat and synced messages” last week while Apple users have been using these features since the release of iOS6. The state of Google chat is bad, folks. Really bad. “Open always wins” though. Yup. Ok.

Skype - Out of the Big Four, Skype has the worst chat interface. It is a trainwreck.[3] Admittedly, its voice chat is very good; it is practically a standard across all of the businesses I work with day-to-day. Most of the time, however, I just need to send someone a quick text message and this app isn’t the one I’m going to do it in.

Social Networks (Twitter and ADN) - Twitter and ADN have private (or “direct”) message capabilities. Unfortunately, both of these are at the mercy of two different potential issues. The first potential issue is the social network’s ability to handle and support direct messaging. Twitter has downplayed its direct message capability and even floated the idea of doing away with it at some point (hard to feed ads to direct messagers, I guess). It clearly isn’t a focus for them so I’d rather avoid getting caught out by building a reliance on it. ADN has a rich direct/private messaging capability but it seems dependent on the quality and consistency of the client. As ADN relies heavily on the support of third party development, they also rely heavily on the developers understanding and ability to exploit the full potential of the protocol. So far, in testing, I’ve had spotty results. While you can successfully send messages back and forth to a user, it doesn’t seem to work very well for conversations that stream back and forth quickly. Twitter’s implementation is the inferior of the two but it is also the most ubiquitous so its a case of “pick your poison”. ADN has some interesting efforts like Project Amy which integrates ADN with Apple’s iChat/Messages app. I tested it but have yet to put it through heavy paces. In a cursory test, it seemed to work surprisingly well. ADN supports group conversations you can use apps like Patter to take advantage of them. If ADN were more universal, its great third party developer support coupled with smart considerations from its attentive owners would make this a nice contender. No voice or video chat though (yet).

Goodbye Status

One thing is clear – user status is going away. In the old days (last year), the ability to mark yourself “Away” or “Extended Away” was seen as a key feature for a chat client. These days, with device-synced conversations coupled with the fact that we are now used to disjointed and discontiguous text messaging, it seems less important than ever. I am happy to see it go since it was easy to forget to change your status. I gave up trying years ago.

Conclusion?

There is no clear winner here. As I mentioned before, the user is the real loser because the pitched battle for users and a lock-in model serve to create a wide range of favorites with each user deciding on what is their most important feature and then trying to convince all of their friends that their solution is the best. Out of all of them, Apple has the most comprehensively thought-out messaging model but it is plagued with a few serious bugs. Facetime serves the voice/video spectrum and the iMessage protocol (with its smart switching between text messaging and online-based chat) does an admirable job of syncing conversations amongst all of your Apple-based technologies.

And there is the problem – what about people who use Windows all day at work? If they can’t access chat on the desktop easily and take those conversations with them, it presents a large hurdle to building a consensus. This is the main reason why I end up using Trillian so much – it spans desktops, platforms and devices for users who aren’t me. After all, if you had the best chat client but no one to talk to, what fun would that be?

For now, my solution is going to be the Gtalk XMPP protocol via Trillian in order to span my desktop and iOS devices regardless of my chat partner’s choices. For friends who have Apple devices on both the desktop and devices, it makes sense to consolidate on iMessage, despite the occasional bugs in message continuity. The bugs will eventually be fixed but what will remain is the best platform from top to bottom. The real challenge will be convincing all of my friends to use it. For my Android-using friends, there’s always email…[4]


  1. As much as I think my friends who use Android make bad choices in life, it doesn’t mean I never want to talk to them. ↩

  2. What was a once a manageble 20 users is now up to 108 people I almost never talk to. Nice job, Google. Thanks for letting me know this was going to happen. ↩

  3. I do have to praise its consistency however as it has the worst chat client on all platforms, without exception. ↩

  4. Have fun with that. ↩

Boy, Was I Wrong: My Initial Impressions of the iPad Mini

Well, I have to admit, I’ve never been so wrong about a device.

I usually have a pretty good feel for these things, and I’ve spent a lot of mental clock cycles thinking about how a device like this can’t possibly work. Devices like the Samsung Note look inane and deeply flawed. I have played with the software that passes for applications on them. Awful stuff. Software on those devices always seemed to try to straddle the line between being a blown up phone app and a half-baked afterthought of a tablet app. Comparing “workhorse” apps like OmniPlan and OmniFocus on the iPad to those found on Android devices just seem… well.. terrible.

So I assumed that apps that were designed for a specific scale and use case on the iPad would scale down poorly with small tap targets and a non-retina display which would compromise the very detail you’d need to run those apps. Again, I was wrong.

I was thinking that the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard I bought for the iPad 3 I had been using was going to be wasted or useless. Wrong.

I’m typing this on my new iPad Mini (32GB with LTE) using my Ultrathin keyboard. The screen is small but not overly so. I can carry this light, slim device easily (it even fits snugly into the back pocket of my jeans) and I find it is always a first choice when reaching for something to browse the internet with, catch up on ADN or skim through Reeder or Instapaper.

The worry that apps like Comixology would suffer due to the lack of a larger screen or lack of retina resolution was unfounded. I was reading comics on the Mini yesterday and they looked pretty damn good and the fact that they’re more portable makes up for it.

Other reading apps fare pretty well too but admittedly in this area I do miss the retina resolution. iBooks, Kindle, Reeder, Instagram, Goodreader, the Magazine are all front and center on this thing though. While it used to lay all around the house ready to go at a moment’s notice, lately the Kindle Paperwhite is relegated to my nightstand. I still prefer the Paperwhite’s low-light reading capabilities and I’m sure it will fare much better when reading outside in the summer but for now, the iPad Mini is going to be my go-to for reading. Strange but true.

Thanks to the miscreants on ADN who pushed me over the edge. I am not regretting the decision. In fact, for once I’m pretty damn happy about being wrong.

Launchbar Contacts/Address Book Access in Mountain Lion

One of the casualties of Mountain Lion (OS X 10.8) this morning was that Launchbar could no longer access my contact information. At first I thought I was fat-fingering things but after a few tries, it became apparent that it wasn’t just my lack of typing skills.

To restore Address Book access, the fix was easy. Follow these steps.

  1. Hit your hotkey to bring up Launchbar.
  2. Click the gear for preferences and select Index > Show Index
  3. Select “Contacts” from the Index list on the left
  4. Select the “Options” pane in the Address Book area on the right.
  5. I had a blank dropdown here, so I selected “Mac OS X Address Book”
  6. Problem solved.

I hope this helps anyone else who runs into this little twist. Maybe I was the only lucky oneā€¦

7" iPad Rumors

Out of all of the articles and rumor-mongering going around over the last few days, I think Ben Brooks hits closest to what I agree with but I’ll take it a step further. I don’t think the 7” iPad is a good fit for the stable of Apple products.

It doesn’t make sense from a portfolio fit, from a usability fit or from a developer buy-in fit. Apple doesn’t shoot for the lowest common denominator, it innovates. It’s more likely that they are coming up with something no one has thought of yet, rather than chase the low-end and play in the same pool as the Amazon Kindle or Nexus7.

Here are some practical considerations from a design and development perspective.

  • The controls for current iPad apps will be too small to use in a lot of cases (think OmniFocus or OmniPlan for iPad). Do you really think this will look good on a screen that is THIRTY percent smaller?

  • How would ebooks created through iBooks Author work on a 7" screen (besides "badly")? Books like Paperless would be cramped and terrible or the fonts would be extremely small. iBooks might display OK in a “paperback” format (vs the current, larger “hardcover” format). If you have something with diagrams or specific design constraints, you’d be out of luck.

  • Is text going to automatically scale for all apps? Will that be developer controlled via different device targets?

  • What about Newstand magazines? Smaller text won’t do New Yorker any favors. I think you’d need a retina screen to do it justice, but then you’re raising the price of this supposed “bargain” device…

  • Pretty much all games will have to be redeveloped, from a control/interface perspective, to work well on this size device.

  • How usable is this device for typing? Is it a huge-ass iPhone keyboard or a shrunken iPad keyboard? They both sound terrible. If this cues the “but this will be for content consumption” then go read the statements above about how terrible it will be to consume content.

I’m not saying Apple definitely won’t build a 7” iPad-like device. If they do, it will be something new and different rather than a simple downscaled, lowest common denominator, “me too” device. Can you imagine what kind of industry we’d have right now if Apple decided to make netbooks just because HP was making money on them?

Me neither.

App Store Woes: A Perspective

Over the past couple of days, iOS developers have been citing complaints from users that their apps are crashing and causing waves of 1-star reviews. What’s worse is the hit to the user’s faith in the developer to deliver a consistent, stable experience.

For years, the sides of the argument that make the case for why the “walled garden” approach of the App Store has a detrimental affect for users have largely been proven wrong. You need only look at the state of malware on Google Play to see how advocates of Google’s approach have to live with their choices. It doesn’t look like a lot of fun to me.

For the vast majority of users, the approach Apple has taken with their App Store (curated, sandboxed applications) delivers a good user experience overall. Knowing that an app you bought has been vetted by some authority goes a long way for some people. That’s not to say that this method is totally perfect.

The problems arise when the trusted system goes bad. The app corruption problem that’s being brought to light is a huge issue for people who base their whole livelihood on the App Store.

When something like this is beyond your control as an application developer, it is a terrible feeling. It highlights the fragility of the ecosphere and underlines the reliance on a system that you have no input to, no authority over and no autonomy from if you want to continue to distribute your apps this way. Indeed, for iOS developers, this is the only way to distribute apps legitimately. As long as there is no workaround, or acknowlegement from Apple that there is even a problem, as a developer, you are left in a limbo state with no recourse whatsoever.

As frustrated as the developer community is right now with this issue, (rightfully so), I try to temper my reaction somewhat with the fact that what we do isn’t possible without Apple’s infrastructure.

Over the last 4 years, we have enjoyed an unprecedented ability to reach new users, clients and respondents. We have reaped the benefits of Apple’s distribution system, audience reach and smartphone technology. We have gained a whole new platform since this whole process started in the iPad and we have seen our businesses grow because of Apple’s success.

While this may be frustrating now, keeping the above things in mind will help us keep perspective on this bump in the road. Once things settle back into the status quo of solid up-time and the reliable mechanisms of software distribution we’ve enjoyed since 2007 but it may be smart to examine our reliance and find ways to mitigate the risks inherent in a system so beyond our control.

What If iOS Didn't Exist?

I was thinking the other day about the state of computing and specifically about smart phones in the last few years. A friend prompted me with the question, “What would things look like today if iOS never existed?”. Intriguing question. It is obvious with fairly little examination that iOS changed everything. Today, on the fifth anniversary of the release of the iPhone, it’s appropriate to look back think about how colossal an impact iOS, and the iPhone in particular, had on every piece of technology that followed it.

~

It’s been documented elsewhere what phones looked like pre-iPhone but looks aren’t everything. I think about the day I brought home my original iPhone. I was interested in the device but hardly sold on it. I was patiently waiting for them to come to some carrier other than AT&T because the company where I work was tied to Sprint. Until the iPhone came to Sprint, I thought, there was no way I was getting an iPhone.

In my position, however, thinking strategically about technology decisions is something I do on a frequent basis. The iPhone had every indication of being a big thing to me because I thought the aesthetic was forward-thinking and sleek and I loved the idea of a software keyboard – at the time, an opinion that was held to be pretty crazy.

So, after talking to a colleague, we decided to pick up 2 or 3 iPhones and try them out, paying the phone bills ourselves and expensing them rather than going with the corporate plan. As I drove home with my AT&T store bag stuffed with sealed plastic inner-bags filled with iPhones, I remember being pretty excited. Once I got the device activated and synced up, I was 100% sure this was the future of mobile computing.

But, let’s think back to that day and imagine that had never happened.

1. No Finger-based Touch Interface

The pre-iPhone smartphone landscape was dominated by stylus-based phone interfaces which, at the time, were seen as revolutionary. The Nintendo DS adopted it as a cutting edge navigation element and Windows Mobile phones and Treos used the stylus as the main form of navigation (although the late-model Treos had a directional button for jumping between controls on-screen as well).

Had the iPhone not come along, I doubt that another company would have the will to stick with a finger-based/gesture-based touch screen interface as the prevalent feeling at the time was so heavily biased towards a control-encrusted interface and a stylus.

Granted, there are now styluses that work well with the iPad but the iPhone is happily finger-based and there’s little doubt that Apple’s innovation in this area was instrumental in changing the entire industry. I, for one, am very happy that the iPhone doesn’t have a stylus after being stuck with the Treo for so many years.

2. No Software Keyboard (or Auto-correct)

Without the iPhone, the software keyboard wouldn’t exist. At least it wouldn’t exist for quite a while. The devices released around that time, even the Android prototypes, looked like Treos and Blackberrys, encrusted with keys and buttons.

So, while there would be some optimizations around the keyboard form factor, I believe that the hardware keyboard would have been here to stay for quite some time. The software keyboard needed a champion who would face the withering idiocy that follows when you do something that different from what is going on in the market at large.

A key factor in the success of the software keyboard was auto-correct.

At the time of the iPhone’s release, the idea of auto-correction while typing on a software keyboard in real time was very different. I remember a lot of people swearing up and down to me that they’d never use a software keyboard. After using Treos and Blackberrys for years, I was ready to shed the keyboard and had high hopes that Apple’s implementation would be pretty good out of the gate.

There was much made of the fact that the OS would predict where your finger was due to land based on the word you were currently typing and make that spot bigger to hit – an obvious advantage over a physical keyboard. Still people didn’t believe it until they used it, and worse yet, you’d really need to use it for a while to get the full benefit of the OS training and get your fingers used to where to go. Once you gave yourself over to the auto-correct, entered a few weird words and intentional misspellings into the ducking dictionary, you could fly on the software keyboard.

And, of course, after getting a lot of grief from every phone manufacturer, pundit, and Blackberry fan, software keyboards started appearing on all models and makes of smartphone and now physical keyboards are slowly, and thankfully, disappearing.

Why do I hate hardware keyboards so much? Well try having an “e” key stop working on a hardware keyboard and get back to me…

3. Flash

When Apple took a “stand” by stating that their phone wouldn’t support Adobe’s Flash, it was seen as quite controversial. It still is for some, but Apple’s push for HTML5 standards ultimately paid off for millions of users who don’t have to worry about poor battery life, pegged processors and an unstable OS. Ultimately, “no flash” is a non-starter since very few, if any, phones run Flash well currently.

At the time, I remember how upset people were that the iPhone wouldn’t run Flash. It was seen as a major shortcoming of the OS (still is) but no other phone ran Flash at the time. Looking back, I don’t see how it became such a hue and cry and was seen as such an Achilles’ heel. There are some video websites that still won’t display on the iOS Safari browser but that’s a small price to pay for the battery hit the phone would surely take if Flash was allowed.

I know that the only time the fan comes on on my Macbook Air is when I’m playing a Flash video and the battery drains visibly. It’ll be a great day when Flash goes away but the iPhone will be seen as the first nail in the coffin. Ironically, five years after the iPhone’s introduction, today the Android team has announced that it will no longer be supporting Flash. For something that was a distinguishing factor, a divisive sticking point, and was (for some misguided reason) rubbed in the noses of Apple supporters as a failing, it turns out that Steve Jobs probably was right after all.

4. No Visual Voicemail

This feature has since been taken for granted but before the iPhone and their partnership with AT&T, nothing like this really existed. I remember thinking this would be a nice feature when the iPhone was announced but, in reality, it only really made a difference for me until Google Voice entered the picture.

For me, personally, voicemail is a terrible technology. Like the fax machine, it was born out of necessity in a time when the technology wasn’t available to present anything better. Now that there is a prevalence of text messaging (or iMessaging), and given the ubiquity of email, the need to leave a voicemail seems as quaint as rotary dialing.

That said, would this push towards the atemporality of the voice messaging paradigm have happened as quickly if not for how easy the iPhone made communication? Granted, I sent a lot of texts on my Palm Treo but the iPhone made communication on the whole a lot easier for me; it was more seamless and brought ubiquitous communication to a whole new level.

5. No App Store

The entire app ecosystem, as it exists today, was brought on with the advent of the iTunes App store.

Prior to this, there was an amalgam of standards to buy software for your mobile devices. At the time, the Palm Treo software development community was the most active and there were a lot of apps available for it but the infrastructure to support it. It was a hodgepodge of ad-laden sites that were poorly run, looked sketchy and had an extremely convoluted app purchase and update workflow.

As bad as the options were on the Treo, they were miles ahead of the Blackberry app ecosystem which was a barren, nightmarish place.

Suffice to say, there was no Android app store to speak of at the time of the iPhone’s launch.

So how would the world have fared in the App department if Apple had never launched iOS? Well, many Mac developers would have remained in their niche, developing applications for Macs. If there had been no successful launch of the iOS App store, would Apple have launched their Mac App store? I suspect not and, as a result, Mac developers would have continued to roll their own distribution system (like the un-sandboxed apps are dealing with right now).

With no App store to push things along, it’s likely that the cottage industries that existed at the time would limp along with developers struggling to create applications based on the whims of carrier-restricted hardware, fragmentation would flourish, much like we see with the Android App store today.

It is amazing to consider how much power and control the App store has given developers. The charges leveled against it always cite the nearly-random app approval process and the proverbial “walled garden” as big minuses to such a system but would we have a Tweetbot without the iOS App Store? The great text editors like Nebulous Notes or Elements? The amazing productivity tools like OmniFocus? Sure, people could have built such applications, but before the iOS App store there was no good way to make money off of them and the overhead for a small development shop was immense due to the amount of infrastructure required with building the software, dealing with billing, dealing with tech support, dealing with distribution, etc.

6. Carrier Stranglehold

Prior to 2007, the carriers enjoyed a stranglehold on the phone hardware manufacturers and consumers that was very difficult for most people to reconcile. You had very little choice at the time. You basically picked a carrier and stuck with them. They relied on that lock-in and once they had a captive audience, they frequently changed the rules (never in the consumer’s favor) giving people less features while charging more money.

The law that passed (under protestations of the grasping carriers, of course) that allowed for portability of your phone number between carriers was the first chink in the armor, but it wasn’t until the iPhone’s introduction that we saw a carrier bow in any way to a hardware manufacturer’s demands.

Apple forced AT&T into a new model. Their phone had no carrier badges, there was no carrier malware/crapware installed on the phone that couldn’t be removed, there was no carrier “skin” as we see on Android devices today. It was Apple’s phone, delivered on their terms, using AT&T as a provider.

Nowadays, you can see more and more evidence of the carriers reacting to being treated as a dumb pipe by removing unlimited data plans, complaining about how much their revenues have dropped due to iMessage’s introduction, about how their profits have dropped due to paying Apple a bigger subsidy. All of these grievances are being rolled out to the press to presage the higher rates they will inevitably seek to extort from their customers.

Think back to how text messaging used to be prior to the iPhone’s introduction; some plans offered 200 messages for $10 and unlimited texting was sometimes more than $30 a month on some carriers. With the ability for users to run instant messengers on their iPhone (they were very popular early on), it started cutting into the amount of messages that people needed to send. After Apple’s surprise announcement of iMessage, the carriers ability to rip off users (by charging a markup of over 6500% by some accounts) was minimized to an even greater extent.

Judging from how Google and others have kowtowed to the carriers even after the introduction of the iPhone, I think it is fair to say that if there was never an iPhone, the world of mobile technology would be controlled by the carriers and the ability to push the edges of technology would have been poorer for it. You only need to look at the carrier’s lack of progress (or interest) in updating all of their customer’s Android devices to the latest OS to see how much they want to serve their user base…

The Competition

It is fun to think about how the competition would have evolved had their been no iPhone. Of course, this is all wild speculation but it is certainly interesting to imagine what would have happened to the likes of Palm, RIM, Microsoft or Google had Steve Jobs and Apple decided to listen to Steve Ballmer’s helpful advice that there was no way they’d succeed in the mobile market.

Palm

Let’s take Palm first – a company I am well acquainted with after using their devices for years over many iterations and OSes. Their Palm OS was long in the tooth in 2008. They had released a line of Windows Mobile phones in the Treo form factor. They looked really slick until you actually used them and then the usual Windows Mobile problems would show up – slow performance, memory-clogging apps and constant reboots.

Palm form factors would likely have remained the same for quite some time without someone pushing them for higher-resolution touch devices — a hardware keyboard, stylus, and a small screen that would sport better resolution over time but probably remain the same relative size and shape. At the time, Palm was having trouble changing form-factors for some of the same reasons that Android has now (and Apple may have in the Fall if the pundits are right) — software that is built on a device and honed over a period of time for the size and shape of the screen doesn’t do well when you make significant changes. Backward compatibility becomes key and none of the hardware manufacturers at the time wanted to jettison their legacy compatibility and alienate their developer community (for good reason).

Palm would have slowly moved their software away from their Palm OS to the Windows Mobile 6.5 environment, kept their compatibility with legacy Palm apps using third party emulators, and probably had their hardware designs follow whatever software solutions that Microsoft was cooking up post-Windows Mobile 6.5. There was no “touchscreen” world outside of stylus-based touch at that point. Without Apple driving that bus, it’s unlikely that anyone would have tried anytime soon either.

RIM/Blackberry

The mighty Blackberry was riding high in 2007.

Back when we started evaluating the iPhone, we were told we first had to prove why RIM was a bad first choice. To anyone who had either (a) used the iPhone or (b) used a Blackberry, it was pretty obvious which way RIM was headed back then, but there were a lot of naysayers.

Without an iPhone to push them, RIM would have continued to sit on its laurels and roll out small, light phones with hardware keyboards meant to satisfy the older crowd of mobile phone user. They never would have rolled out their biggest disaster (and most-returned phone) ever, the Blackberry Torch.

As time rolled on, RIM would keep honing this form factor with thinner, lighter phones and incrementally better software, but their OS was a terrible mess back then. The Bold was slow and awkward with a paucity of features. It’s settings screens were a mish-mash of badly named controls for features that no one wanted.

Back then, I hated the Blackberry because it was an extremely harsh environment to use, support and develop for. If you ask me, the most significant advantage of RIM’s decline is that I no longer hear the term “crackberry”. Good riddance, RIM. You and your garbage phones.

Android

It’s hard to imagine that much of what is now Android would exist without iOS and the success of the iPhone. Android pre-dates the release of the iPhone but it looked much different than it does now. Competition is good, huh?

While some prefer the software keyboard and auto-correct scheme that Android uses (with the ribbon of suggested words taking up valuable screen real estate above the keyboard), the iPhone’s seamless word substitution and correction-canceling certainly give it a run for the money; I obviously prefer it.

The two software makers embarked upon their creation of their respective operating systems from two very different places. Google wanted to create a generalized operating system which would allow for extension by others while Apple chose to forge their own path with an OS they would manage themselves. Apple’s App Store was announced fairly early on in the process and clearly Google was hoping that the ability to modify the OS and capitalize on its flexibility would bring developers in droves.

Without Apple as their foil (and obvious inspiration), I believe Google’s Android team would have continued down the stylus-based path for the foreseeable future. Hardware keyboards, stylus slots and button-encrusted layouts would be the preferred method of user interaction and with the competition being the likes of RIM and Microsoft, the need to innovate would have been non-existent, so they would have just moved the ball incrementally forward, rather than the audacious chances they took post-iPhone.

The Industry as a Whole

The entire industry has changed, mostly for the better, due to the introduction of the iPhone and then, significantly, the rise of iOS.

Since then we have seen all of the major players in the mobile space, the desktop space, the phone carrier space, the software development space and the ebook space react to the changes brought about by iOS’s innovation. We have even seen the rise of a new type of computing with the release of the iPad. No, I’m not saying that Apple invented tablet computers but its hard to argue against it being the first tablet that sold significantly. Ultimately, the iPad’s success spelled doom for the netbook industry.

The world, and the technology in it, push inexorably forward regardless of the appearance of a device or operating system. If the iPhone had never launched, we would still have smartphones and, eventually, we would have tablets as well. Apple’s iOS was definitely a game-changer however. It affected so much that came after it that it is impossible to re-imagine the world without it. Even as a foil for operating systems like Google’s Android, it moved the bar so far forward that other companies were either force to react (as Google did) or die (as RIM is in the process of doing). That’s the sign of a true revolution. I’m glad they got it (mostly) right.

Kindle vs iBooks

For those with the patience to listen to my comments on Twitter, you probably heard me making note of how terrible the new version of the Amazon Kindle app is for the iPad. The last version made a few changes to what I once considered the best e-book reading app on the device.

After a few emails from helpful friends, some gyrations with file formats and and upgrade to my version of Calibre, I had all of my Kindle books residing happily in the constantly-improving iBooks app.

Overall, I much prefer the reading experience on iBooks at this point, for many reasons. I’ll address them in a minute, but first I wanted to show you why I feel the Kindle app has gotten so bad.

Where Amazon Went Wrong

Here are two screenshots of the same page in both apps. I greyed-out the Kindle app version to better differentiate the two. Key to note here is the amount of “breathing room” there is around the text. In the previous version of the Kindle app, the text used to float inside the frame much like the iBooks version but with the latest release, it is cramped on all sides.

(click the pictures to enlarge)

kindle page  ibooks page

 

While it is distracting enough while reading, if you display the interface elements to do something like look at the time, check your progress through the book, or add a bookmark you can see that the interface elements cover the text in the Kindle version. Why? It’s inexplicable, distracting and downright ugly.

kindle interface ibooks interface

 

I’ll admit that one spot where Kindle gets it right is the Library display. There are rare occasions where the skeuomorphic design might work but the whole bookshelf idea is not one of them. I much prefer the Kindle version of this screen.

kindle library ibooks library

What’s A Good Solution?

Before Amazon laid this egg, I had been almost all of my ebooks from them. I figured their versions would be portable to my Kindle 2, my iPhone or my iPad. Another big plus was that the Kindle app for iPad had a “night mode” long before iBooks did which it made it the best choice for reading at night, as I generally do before bed.

Since Apple opened their online bookstore, I rarely bought ebooks in iBooks format but it was sometimes necessary if they weren’t available from Amazon. It was rare however as, even now, I can count the number of iBooks epubs on one hand. I even pre-ordered the Steve Jobs bio on Kindle which seemed somewhat of a betrayal at the time.

But, as with all things (especially software development!), time marches on and with each release Apple improved the iBooks app. When night-mode was added, I seriously started to look at it for handling the bulk of my reading. Still, ebook pricing was generally more favorable on Amazon and the selection was much better so moving was not going to be an easy choice.

That said, some events have conspired to precipitate an quicker move to iBooks than I had previously anticipated (*cough-IOS6beta-sneeze*) and I needed a good way to read books on my devices. After some asking around, it turns out many had solved this problem before and were eager to proffer solutions. Thanks for all of the help, folks.

At this point, I’ve come up with a decent (if fiddly) method for moving my books to iBooks in epub format. I can switch back and forth depending on my needs at the time and, if Amazon ever decides to improve their Kindle app (or at least restore it to it’s former level of usefulness), this way I’ll be able to switch back. The issue of having a perfectly serviceable app become unusable (for me) is something I’ve rarely had to contend with (Instacast is another example of an app that had a misstep but, after their last release, they seem to have corrected the most glaring issues). I’m hoping Amazon corrects their problems and gives me the options which I appreciate for things like this. Until then, at least there is one really excellent choice for epub reader in iBooks. It is gorgeous, works really well and its bookmark cloud-sync seems to be working flawlessly.

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Tech Note: iTunes Match

I consider myself quite a bit of an Apple nerd at this point, I’ll admit. I have a large number of Apple devices in my house and a couple of them that I carry around with me all day long.

I have come to know “how their stuff works” in that way where, despite something being completely baffling to you six years ago, it just makes sense as to why something is the way it is.

I have lots of examples of this. The “active app” dots under icons disappeared – I got used to it. The trackpad scrolling direction changed in Lion – I got used to that too. Sure enough, I think they were right… it seems pretty damn intuitive at this point.

I like the way the iPhone alarm system works, despite some very vocal detractors (with whom I couldn’t disagree more).

I realize they change things for a reason and their interfaces are sometimes seen as obtuse at first but, in the end, I feel the choices they make fit the greatest swath of users and, in the end, it is all about pleasing the people who pay for their hardware (and, less so, their software).

But, despite understanding Apple’s design decisions on most things, where they leave me baffled is iTunes Match.

What Is iTunes Match?

I used to be really fastidious with my music collection. Everything was immaculately tagged and stored in organized folders, backed up to multiple sites (all 90GB of it at the time, but that was years ago and it has shrunk considerably since then) and kept in the best shape possible with album art and high bitrates.

With the advent of the streaming, all-you-can-eat services, it became a lot less necessary to keep up with that stuff. I also moved to using laptops for most of my computing and keeping a 36GB set of files was untenable. I tried some home streaming options but I found I had less and less time to track down albums I was interested in and Spotify’s selection at the time was pretty good.

With Spotify getting more entwined with Facebook (the Sean Parker connection, no doubt) and lots of the bands I like pulling their catalogs, I moved over to Rdio and I’ve been pretty happy with it. But these streaming services don’t have everything. Some inexplicable exceptions do occur and, when they do, I want to be able to listen to music I own in the iPhone Music app.

That presents quite a problem due to the limited space on the iPhone. Having just the song you want from your collection on your phone when you want it is a very hit-or-miss affair and often you end up having to wait until you get to a computer and the ubiquitous iTunes. Hardly a great solution.

Enter iTunes Match.

You pay Apple a nominal fee of around $25 a year and it will upload or match up to 25,000 of your songs and store them in the cloud – iCloud in fact. When people first hear about this, understandably, it’s not an easy “sell”.

“If I have these songs locally, why would I want to upload them to Apple for $25 a year? What does this get me besides backup?”

Well the answer isn’t as clear as Apple would like it to be but here’s the deal:

  • The songs in your iTunes collection will be upgraded to 256k bitrate if they are matched to the version in Apple’s cloud.
  • Once a song has been uploaded to iCloud, you can delete the song from your local collection and still have access to it.
  • You can stream your music collection to Apple TV (including playlists, etc.)
  • You can stream your music to any of your computers.

As you can see, that’s probably enough of a benefit to shell out the money since $25 a year is a little over $2/month. That’s a small price to pay for a full backup (if you have less than the allotted number of songs) of your music collection. Needless to say, the space in ITM doesn’t count towards your free iCloud 5GB.

Hits and Misses

There are a number of great features that become apparent after you use the service for a while. They aren’t well documented and they don’t always work as you’d expect. Overall, the entire service gives the impression that it was rushed out the door to meet an arbitrary deadline so hopefully some of the rough edges noted below will be smoothed over in the coming months.

So what are some of the more esoteric features that make the hit parade?

First, you can upload all of your music and then delete it from your computer to save space. When you have a MacBook Air as your main machine, this is a pretty important “plus”. If I happen to download any actual music to the MacBook Air, I just add it to iTunes, make sure it syncs to iCloud, and then delete the local copy.

What? Then how, pray tell, can I play this music? Well, the second great part of the service (that no one seems to talk about) is that ITM will stream your music to your computer.* I have no music on my MacBook Air right now. You can see how this is a real plus when you’re sporting a 128GB solid state drive.

The other Apple device that benefits from streaming is my Apple TV.

When you set up the Apple TV to recognize your ITM database, it instantly gives you access to stream all of your music and playlists and even lets you use the Genius to build a smart playlist based on the currently-playing song. It works just like it does in the iTunes client but having that type of feature on your Apple TV ends up being pretty great.

But all is not sunshine, moonbeams and Gillian Anderson JPGs in the land of iTunes Match. There are some strange and glaring bugs that crop up from time to time. Some are merely annoying, some detract from the service’s utility and others are downright baffling.

The one that bothers me the most is that there are times when you open up iTunes to play some music and every song is grayed out. No songs can be clicked or activated, nothing will play and you’re basically screwed.

The only workaround I’ve found for this is to sign out of your Apple account, sign in again, and then restart iTunes. Once you do that, it will refresh your iTunes Match account and the ability to play songs is restored. Pretty annoying when all you want to do is listen to Katrina and the Waves…

Also, there are times when iTunes inexplicably refuses to either upload (or let you know it uploaded) a song to iCloud. This has gotten rarer and rarer as the service has matured but I still see it from time to time.

Overall the iTunes Match experience on the Mac is pretty well done. They’ve made a lot of progress with maintaining stability and speed and the bugs are getting more difficult to find.

iTunes Match on the iPhone

By far the most baffling implementation of iTunes Match is found on the iPhone.

Controls for the service are found scattered throughout the device and some of the controls do some pretty bizarre things when you interact with them.

The basic gist of the service is that the Music app on the phone is a reflection of your ITM account. Every band, album and song appears in your music collection. If the music is on iCloud, it appears with a cloud outline next to the song (or album, depending on the view you are in).

IMG 0470

So far so good, I guess, but this is the point where things start going off the rails.

At this point the songs are on your device which is great if you’re in an area where you have spotty coverage. You obviously don’t want to eat up your monthly data plan downloading 256k bitrate songs so caching the data seems like a good idea – except when your cached songs inexplicably disappear from your phone.

I assume it is because the phone became tight on space for some reason, but you really should be informed if the music you just spent hours downloading is about to be wiped out. I had several occasions when I would open the app to play some music and find it was all in a non-cached state but still showing as “downloaded”. I’d have to go through multiple gyrations to get to the point where I could download music again.

Another rather bizarre omission (which would probably go a long way to fixing the issue above) is that there is no easy way to delete music from your phone.

If you want to delete music, you have to swipe on every song and tap delete to make the “download cloud” appear. Alternatively, you have to go into the Settings app and turn OFF iTunes Match, which will clear your cache completely. This is what we would call the “Nuclear Winter” option. It is also about as elegant as … well something really inelegant. It sucks, in fact.

Why I’m Keeping iTunes Match

Complaints aside, I’m keeping iTunes Match. There are simply too many things that are good about it. The price makes it a no-brainer if you need a good backup solution. Having Time Machine track my 31GB of music seems like a waste to me.

Having my music collection available legally and seamlessly on all of my machines and devices is a pretty attractive offer as well. For now I’ll just deal with the service’s little idiosyncracies and hope Apple finds the time to fix them.


  • The music does seem to go to “Playcache” directory during this streaming process, but it still works really well. My cache is only 350MB, which isn’t large at all, given that my music collection is many gigabytes in size.

My iPhone Home Screen: June 2012 Edition

The last Home Screen post was back in February and there have been some pretty major changes to how I use my iPhone since then. With starting to use my Fitbit and Aria scale daily, as well as changing how I listen to podcasts, I’ve had to make some hard changes as to what is staying in easy reach and what gets moved to a nested folder or Launch Center or what gets buried in the back pages.

Row One

1Password remains on the Home screen and continues to get more and more important with each passing day. I’ve had a few friends see the light on this app recently and all of them sing its praises. If you don’t have this application yet, you’re putting yourself at risk. I also save a ton of time when having to enter address or credit card information.

What I wrote in my calendar apps post still holds true. Week Calendar is still the best of the bunch.

Awful remains a staple of my forum content consumption. Reading about Diablo3, tattoos or corgis on somethingawful’s forums is often insightful (or aggravating). This is a must-have if you’re a goon.

The standard iPhone Camera app is now gone from the Home screen and I have replaced it with the Utilities folder. As before, I have some critical apps in there that need to be quickly accessed but aren’t needed in just one click.

I started using Harvest to track my time and the app is pretty capable for that task. The app that runs on my Macbook Air runs at 5-8% of my CPU (according to “top -oCPU”) which is inexplicable. When I’m not in my office at work or home with my Macbook Air, plugged into a power source, I tend to shut down the Harvest OS X app and use the iPhone version to save laptop battery.

Instagram is in that folder too but since it was purchased by Facebook I’ve deleted my account. Instead, I created an alias which I basically use to lurk tattoo artist’s Instagram accounts since all of the best tattoo artists in the country show their latest work on there.

Google+ recently revamped their iPhone app. The functionality still isn’t quite there but it looks fantastic and hasn’t crashed nearly as much as the old version. It has a Flipbook vibe too it and I really like what they’ve done with the interface.

Soulver lives in this folder too and still gets a fair amount of use.

GV Mobile+ sits in this folder too, just so I have it around for easy access or so I can easily see a red badge if I have a message waiting.

Row Two

Instacast has been replaced by Downcast. You can read why here.

The Fitbit app lives on this row as well, which I use all day long to track what I eat and drink. I outlined that whole deal in this post.

Nebulous Notes is still the reigning mid- to long-form text editing champ for me (on iPad too). I still wish it had a full search capability so I could search entire directory contents but, for now, I can rely on crafty naming tricks and using a few other apps to do deep searches. It hasn’t been a big enough problem to start exploring other options just yet.

Like before, the standard Phone app is on the front page despite my heavy use of Dialvetica. It’s there for the same reasons noted last time – I need access to recent calls or to re-dial a disconnected conference call number and Dialvetica doesn’t provide that functionality. Having this app handy also helps me see if I have a missed call.

Row Three

Tweetbot has gotten a slew of new features since the last one of these posts. If this isn’t your favorite Twitter client, your brain is severely broken. Some might be turned off initally by the overhauled and completely custom look of the app, compared to other, more standard apps, but it is the attention to detail that makes this app sing after you use it for a while. I can’t see needing or using another Twitter client on iOS. I wish they’d create a Mac client so I can just go “all Tweetbot” and be done with it.

Rdio continues to be a great service. I use it to listen to music in the car or when I’m working. It’s a solid app and very stable. I still think this is well worth the $10 a month. Their music selection tends to be pretty great, especially for non-standard fare. They had the new Hot Water Music album Exister and OFF! EPs; they let me stream the new Torche album Harmonicraft and they had all of the Iron Chic albums when I went looking.

Drafts has entered the Home screen scene for me and quickly became an essential app. Lots of folks have been raving about this little piece of software on the internet so I won’t bore you with the same thing that’s been rattling around the echosphere. Suffice to say the first release was great and the developer just keeps improving it with each new version. I love this app.

Safari is still awesome and I use it a lot.

Row Four

Mail is a sad necessity.

Sparrow is fantastic. Love the interface. Love the app in general. My current workflow is to keep all of my work email in the standard Mail app since that tends to be high priority. The push capabilities of Exchange and Mail.app make it pretty essential. I don’t know that Sparrow will ever be a great choice for corporate email. I do hook up all of my personal accounts on it now, however, and I love the experience of using Sparrow. Still, I qualify it as “good for handling personal email”. Early on, I kept thinking, “I can’t wait until Sparrow gets push notification” but I’m finding I don’t miss the fact that I have every email notifying me of its presence the second it arrives.

OmniFocus remains fantastic and essential on every platform.

The Quick Entry for Omnifocus icon has made a return to the Home screen. If you want to implement it, search around on the OmniFocus forums. It’s pretty easy to track down (or click the link). It is FAST. One tap launches OmniFocus and takes me directly to the Quick Entry screen. I toyed with using OmniFocus from Launch Center on the Home row, but it was still an extra click and, believe it or not, there are times when it matters.

Home Row

Dialvetica is a fast dialer app for iPhone. I can usually dial contacts in 3-4 taps and that includes turning on the phone, opening Dialvetica and hitting dial. An acquired taste, probably, but I use it daily. It’s a cool app.

Messages became a lot less stable with the release of the beta Messages.app for OS X. I still have issues with its stability and features. I turned off all of the Messages accounts on my computers and deleted all evidence of the beta. After that, things quieted down and it has become usable but Apple’s entire messaging stack has become quite messy. I’m hoping Mountain Lion can straighten it out, but I don’t have high hopes.

Trillian was still an experiment when I wrote the last Home screen review in February. And now, months later, Trillian endures. It’s a stable, reliable chat application and the desktop sync now has me spoiled for any other chat client. Highly recommended. I wish they had a native iPad version.

Launch Center remains an experiment. I like the interface but I wish it worked with more apps. I use the Flashlight every night when I take the dog out. Having some of my travel and navigation apps in there keeps them handy but not too handy. I guess after four months, it’s probably a staple, right?

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There you go. Another Home screen post in the books. If you have any recommendations, hit me up on Twitter, Google+ or send me an email using the Contact page. Cheers!

Why Tech Rumors Matter

There have sure been a lot of rumors about a bigger iPhone screen lately, huh? It sure is easy to get overloaded on tech rumors when we’re in the middle of a cycle.

You know about the “cycle”, right? It goes something like this.

Apple has an impending release of a product planned. It is certain that they do. It is obvious that they do.

The debates first start by addressing “release dates”. The release will be announced at WWDC. No, it will be released in the Fall. No, it will be released next Spring when many cellular contracts get renewed, etc. All scenarios will be discussed ad nauseum.

Despite the fact that the release of said product is (possibly) months away, the manufacturer “facts” start leaking out because, hey, if the manufacturers don’t know what’s going on, who does, right?

Each new “fact” revealed is debated endlessly in what I refer to as the technology echosphere, bouncing back and forth between twitter, blog posts and sites looking for pageviews.

There’s usually a lot of math involved in these facts. Some are debunked, some are found to support products that will never see the light of day. Some are put forth as the first signs of Apple faltering in the market and clear ways for competitors to gain a foothold in the marketplace. Many of these facts are ridiculous linkbait and are obviously wrong.

The curmudgeonly twitterers, like Merlin Mann (who I love dearly), poke fun at the round robin of idiots and geniuses alike, and their predictions. I can’t say I blame him. There is no way to know anything about what Apple might be thinking really. Not concretely, anyway.

Of course, some writers are better at spotting trends than others and some are great at cutting through the bullshit and coming up with what makes sense. The fact that they are right more often than not is what keeps people reading. The feeling of being right is great, especially in the face of so many others being wrong.

So what makes these tech rumors such heady stuff for writers and twitter folks? Like Merlin, you can say it really doesn’t matter because Apple will do what Apple does. These predictions seem to revolve around people positioning themselves to be right more than anything.

I can’t necessarily disagree, but I follow this stuff, like a lot of other developers (or in my case, head of a technology group), because my livelihood depends on it. Knowing a few weeks or months ahead of a release is key for us planning our next move. It is also key to mitigating risk for current or upcoming projects. For some of us, missing a prediction (whether it is posted on the internet or written on a whiteboard in a meeting room) can mean the difference between weeks or months of development time.

So, while I agree to some extent with the curmudgeons about the tech rumor merry-go-round, there are some really good reasons it exists. I love following it because (a) I like being right and (b) it’s fun to read and (c) I like making fun of people who are so impossibly and completely wrong.