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Categories: iphone

My iPhone Home Screen: August 2013 Edition

I haven’t done a Home Screen review since iOS7 launched because I knew things would be changing a lot in the coming months. While that’s certainly the case, there is also the consideration that some apps just wouldn’t work in iOS7 and some would look downright dated[1].

I’m not going to write specifically about iOS7 at this point but it has changed the landscape of my Home screen considerably. I’ve been trying out a lot of new apps; some stick and others move on pretty quickly. I’ve also found that I am using more stock Apple apps than before. It’s not just because they’re new and shiny. Their functionality has been significantly improved. I’m starting to think that they might end up hanging around for a while.

Row One

The Apple stock Phone app is finally settling down after a very difficult period in the early beta phase. The layout is cleaner but the functionality has changed little. I keep it on the Home screen so I can check for badges indicating missed calls but I initiate most calls from either the Contacts app or Alfred.

Mynd is a new addition, unseating Tempo (for now) as my daily organizer. As with Tempo, it mines your contacts, emails and calendar to build a daily view of what you have planned complete with driving directions and traffic warnings. I’ve been using it for about a week and it seems less ambitious than Tempo but it works well and I like the look of it. If it is able to make it through a few weeks of heavy use, it may see a longer review from me here.

I keep the stock Calendar app on the Home screen for the date display and to stay aware of pending meeting invites.

I still keep a folder on the Home screen with assorted useful apps (Droplr, Glassboard, Fantastical, Tempo and a few others that I like having a tap or two away). It’s always a handy place to stash things that are being temporarily supplanted by a new app.

Row Two

1Password is in a prime spot and I still use it constantly. The new version was recently on sale and I spent a few days proselytizing to friends who don’t see this sort of thing as essential. As news of the NSA and rampant hacking becomes more and more dire, having a storehouse of your uniquely created and encrypted passwords and identities locked away will be a good first step for the budding paranoid.

Wunderlist is a neat little shared list app that I use to share things like trip ideas with friends and shopping lists with my girlfriend. Nicely designed and incredibly useful.

Pinbook remains quite useful despite the growing list of incredibly competent and interesting apps that support Pinboard. Pinboard is one of those things that I wasn’t sure I needed until now, a year later, I find myself including it in the short list of nearly-indispensable services in daily use.

Downcast remains a solid podcast app and the recent release of the Mac version[2] of the app has only made it more useful.

Row Three

Twitterific remains the most attractive-to-use and functional Twitter app even though Twitter is getting decidedly less use as more of my attention is focused on ADN.

With text files remaining a key part of my daily workflow, having Nebulous Notes on both iPhone and iPad is essential. The hotkey creation and scripting on the iPad is great and the iPhone app remains a solid and stable text editor used mainly for finding files in my Dropbox repository and editing them when I’m away from my Mac.

Calca is a new addition. Being a big fan of Soulver for a few years, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about Calca but it ends up being much more in sync with how I thought Soulver should work. In other words, it fits the niche of a markdown text editor/calculation engine that Soulver does. I have been using it a lot and the fact that I can open any text file in it and see calculations “just work” is fantastic. It’s an interesting and useful app.

Despite the fact that I have a problem with having to download and try every marginallly different or useful-looking weather app for iPhone, Check The Weather remains the best one available. The integration with Forecast.io’s API and the smart layout and design keep this app on my Home screen despite some truly innovative work done in this space.

Row Four

Riposte is the best ADN client. It has an apparent over-simplicity to it but, after a little use, you find it goes very deep. At this point, its interface mechanics are indelibly burned into my muscle memory; so much so that I try to swipe left to go “back” in more apps than just Riposte. I love this app.

Whisper for ADN is made by the same folks who made Riposte so the “swipe left” trick works here too. Again, this is a pin-perfect execution of the ADN private messaging API and I’m using it to chat with many of my friends on ADN. It even enticed a few non-ADN users over to the ADN side once they saw how well implemented an instant messaging app it was.

Awful App is a somethingawful forum reading app. It’s like Reddit except with better content and people.

VSCOcam is an incredible photography app for the iPhone. I love the functionality and aesthetic and they seem to be trying to do something unique and different with it. I am really happy with the photos I’ve been taking with it and the editing doesn’t seem like a chore. I’ve been using it as a go-to iPhone photo app for a few months and I’d recommend it to anyone at this point. They’ve created a curated gallery of VSCO user photos using their VSCOgrid system and some of the results are pretty stunning.

Row Five

Contacts remains mostly unchanged from previous iOS incarnations. I use it enough at this point to keep it on the front page. Buzz has lost its shine in iOS7 and many of its functions still aren’t working for me.

Mail is vastly improved in iOS7 so far. It has finally risen in functionality to the point where I can relegate Sparrow and other email apps that were taking its place for the last couple of years. Since I’m now a Fastmail user[3], I’m finding that having the freedom to use any mail client rather freeing and Fastmail has been an excellent alternative since moving away from Gmail.

OmniFocus remains stalwart, consistent and constantly-used as my task management app.

Safari, while undergoing quite a few changes on the move to iOS7, is still quite capable. There are few design choices I could live without (like the auto-hiding toolbar) but it seems fast and capable. I still get confused when people insist on using alternative browsers on their phone. To each their own, but it seems like it is complicating the most simple thing on their smartphone especially when their best-in-class mobile browser is so tightly integrated with the OS.

The Dock

Drafts still gets heavy use. Small notes, Fantastical parsing, parking directions, entering items into OmniFocus… the uses are endless and the app just keeps getting better and better.

Messages, given the state of IM today, could be better but is my current messaging app of choice. For the few friends who don’t have access to a Mac during the day or don’t want to type on their phone during busy IM exchanges, there’s always Whisper but overall, it is a great way to get your instant messaging done on the Mac and iOS devices. It’s not without its faults but they are likely outside the scope of this post.

Trillian is what I use for my friends who insist on using Gtalk. A necessary evil until they move over to iMessages or Whisper/ADN (which won’t happen any time soon, I am guessing).

Launch Center Pro provides a fast way to get to apps I use often. I have a lot of the apps and shortcuts that control the Mac Mini attached to my TV. When watching movies or shows with VLC, LCP is in constant use and makes things very quick and convenient.

Despite the many changes brought on by iOS7, overall the changes have been welcome. As more apps make their optimizations for the OS and as Apple continues to tweak and improve it over time, I’m feeling more and more like this is the OS that the iPhone 5 was meant to have and I’m looking forward to how things shape up over the next few months ahead of the inevitable launch of the new iPhone models in September.


  1. Yes, it sounds ridiculous to say that given that the OS hasn’t even launched yet but after you get used to the initial shock of iOS7’s “look”, it becomes apparent that this OS is going to be a huge step up. ↩

  2. Affiliate link. ↩

  3. Join using my referral link! ↩

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. ↩

The Later Box

There have been quite a few email applications introduced into the iOS ecosphere in recent months.

Mailbox, Mail Pilot and Triage are three of the apps that I’ve tried. Each has a focus on managing your email in new ways – primarily they present ways to wade through your Inbox quickly and efficiently with a focus on action.

Mailbox has the ability to flag emails for later, set a timer or date for them to appear again, archive etc. It is an elegant and fast way to do things and I liked it a lot. Mail Pilot takes the same tack but takes Mailbox a step further, working with IMAP mail services beyond just Gmail. Truthfully, I loved Mailbox. If it worked with mail accounts other than Gmail, I would still be using it.

I found that Mail Pilot, despite the premium price compared to its compatriots ($15), delivered a spotty implementations. It was sluggish, slow to refresh and moving a piece of email often left it in a state of limbo. Moving email to an archive and searching for it later, was a crapshoot. Sometimes the email was just gone, only to show up later without any explanation. I’m sure it was related to syncing everything back and forth between the iPhone/iPad, the IMAP account and my mail client (in this case Mail.app). It also used a folder/filing structure that ended up getting quite Byzantine after a few days of use. This was hidden from the user on iOS but I go back and forth between my iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air and having to search through a dozen folders to find out where Mail Pilot decided to file something was less than ideal. Eventually, I would be able to track down the wayward email but it was a lot of wasted cycles and worry.

The aforementioned Byzantine file structure presented another problem in that it left my email account cluttered with empty folders. Maybe it eventually cleans them up but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out. I’ll check back on it after a few updates.

Triage was something I heard about on ADN. I was pointed to a Viticci article (as I often am) and I got me interested enough to try it. Triage is simple. You hook it up to your IMAP account and you have two gestures to work with - Up (mapped to Delete in my case) and Down (mapped to Keep). Flicking up will throw the email into my Deleted Items folder and flicking down will leave the email alone, unread in my Inbox. Conveniently, it no longer will show up in Triage when marked as Keep. Why they don’t allow user-mappable gestures to the cardinal directions I’ll never know. If it did, my problems would be solved and this post would be over. Still, it comes close to what I need.

What Mailbox pointed out to me is that I need is a Later box. A place to stick emails that I don’t want jamming up my Inbox but I really do need to act on “later”. Ideally, the number of emails flagged in this way should be relatively few. If it is more than a handful, it is probably pointing to a different kind of problem – the last thing I need is an interim archive. I need two things – a place to hold emails until I return to my Mac and the discipline and discernment to act on them when I get there.

To solve my problem, I employed a mishmash of tools and techniques (as I do). First, I created a Later folder on my Fastmail IMAP account. If an email came that I couldn’t respond to immediately, I would use Sparrow on my iPhone and move it to that folder. Sparrow thankfully makes this painless and fast. Problem solved? Not quite.

The new problem was that I never checked the Later box. Things would go into a limbo state and I’d only remember to check it every few days. It ended up causing more friction than it was meant to solve. What I needed was something that did what Mailbox did so well; when a trigger event occurred, it would move the email back to the Inbox. This move was essentially flagging the email to indicate that the email needed to be dealt with again.

As so often happens, Keyboard Maestro offered a solution. On my Mac Mini “mail robot” (if you don’t have a Mac Mini home server, you’re missing out – those things are really useful), I set up a Keyboard Maestro macro that selected anything in the Later box and moved it to the Inbox every day at 7:30PM. The result is a flexible and extensible workflow that simulates what Mailbox does except with my Fastmail account. Problem solved for now.

My mail setup isn’t perfect yet. If Triage had a left and right swipe action, I could map them to “Later” and “Archive”. That would be quite convenient but, alas, this will have to do for now.

Here’s how it works – mail comes into my Inbox throughout the day and I quickly delete the stuff that I don’t care about using Triage. After deletion, there are usually just a few emails in here. The rest of my processing happens in Sparrow when I have a bigger chunk of time. If an email shows up that I need to hang on to (like a receipt) I can quickly send it to my Archive. If it is something I need to reply to, I do it right then and there. If it requires more thought or will take more than a few sentences, I send it to my Later box for when I get home. Every night, all of the things I deferred throughout the day appear in my Inbox at 7:30PM.

It is not elegant. In fact, its annoying and kludgey. There are too many steps and it involves too many apps. The main advantage the whole messy process confers, however, is that I have a clean Inbox throughout the day which allows me to speed through my email quickly when I get a spare moment . It also wastes a minimum of brain cycles thinking about how to deal with each one. That should do for now but I’ll still hold out hope that Mailbox will one day work with IMAP accounts or that Triage will eventually support a couple more speedy gestures.


Follow Up 5/10/2013:

I changed the automation to just call some simple Applescript which was more efficient and runs more consistently. Here’s what I used.

tell application "Mail" to move messages of mailbox "INBOX/Later"  of account "Fastmail" to mailbox "INBOX" of account "Fastmail"

Put that in a time-triggered Keyboard Maestro macro and you’re golden.

Dropvox: Simple Recording Straight to Dropbox

Shout-out to Shawn Blanc for pimping Dropvox[1]. I am a long-time user and have been putting it through the paces recording lectures I attend and for saving thoughts while driving. It has seamless Dropbox integration and seems to transmit the data to its destination even with bad connectivity. I have been impressed by its stability and simplicity.

The idea is that you hook this app to your Dropbox account and hit “record”. That’s basically all you need to know. The mp3 file is uploaded to a special application directory and you can do whatever you like with it. These recordings can be any length and I’m finding more and more ways to use it. Some recordings become emails, DayOne entries, memos or the framework for a much larger document that I want to get a headstart on before arriving at work. I have also recorded multi-hour lectures with nary a hiccup.

For the files that I record in the car on the way to work that are destined to become emails or documents, I have a little workflow to convert them to text. Sadly, it isn’t a cheap solution but it is one that works pretty well. MacSpeech Scribe ($149USD) is a tool created specifically for transcribing voice files to text. It takes some training but it works quite well.

One hiccup is that recording in the car is much simpler if I use my Bluetooth in-car voice control (and obviously its safer since it is handsfree) but the bluetooth voice quality is much lower than it is for standard recording. As a result, Scribe has a much harder time transcribing my voice files. After training it for a “car voice”, Scribe started getting much better but its not perfect. That said, it is still better than transcribing it by hand myself.

I’ve gotten my $2’s worth from Dropvox. It’s a very simple and handy app and worth a look if you’re in the market for a recording device that integrates seamlessly with Dropbox.

  1. Affiliate links ↩

Listening To Things That Aren't Podcasts In Downcast

There are times when I want to listen to a lengthy audio file but playing it in the Dropbox [1] player or Droplr player just doesn’t work as well as something purpose-built for long-form files. In those native players, there are no bookmarks and until recently I wasn’t aware of ways you could cache them on your device so if I was in an area of spotty connectivity, it was next-to-impossible to listen to what I wanted.

In trying to solve this problem, I found a little-touted feature in Downcast which allows you to add an audio file in amongst your podcast feeds via a URL. The file will act like a podcast for all intents and purposes allowing you to play it at faster-than-normal speed, bookmark it when you exit the app, skip forward and back, etc. I’ve been trying to work my way through dozens of hours of lectures and talks and this feature has been invaluable.

The problem I was facing was that Downcast needed a link to a physical file – not a link via Droplr or Dropbox which use link re-direction. Trying one of those links in Downcast results in a file error and frustration. After several days of trying different services or techniques, I wrote to the Downcast team and asked for help. It turns out that it was entirely possible to make this work with Dropbox. [2]

Here’s what you do to import a file from Dropbox into Downcast:

  • Open the native iOS Dropbox app.
  • Navigate to the file and open it.
  • Tap the star to “favorite” the file. This also downloads it to your iOS device cache.
  • Click the little “outbox” folder on the bottom right and select “Open in Downcast”.
  • This will import the cached file into Downcast.
  • Go back to Dropbox and un-star the file to delete the cache – no need to keep two copies cached.

At this point, the file will function just like any podcast in Downcast. Good tip from Downcast tech support. I love the app more and more every day.

  1. All links are affiliate links in this post ↩

  2. I haven’t found a way to make Droplr cooperate yet. ↩

Rise: My Mini-Review of an Unintentionally-Silent Alarm Clock

Rise is a new app for iOS that has a really nice design sense. This thing is gorgeous. The gesture controls are well thought out and generally it works well. That said, it does have some shortcomings concerning what you really need it for – waking you up.

I was really excited when I picked the app up - so excited I grabbed it on release day. I’ve always wanted to have something wake me up besides my blaring iPhone alarm and having the potential of a replacement, especially one that looked so good, was an inviting proposition. That said, I’ve had little to complain about regarding the built-in iPhone alarm. It has been rock solid for me since I started using it with my iPhone 1. I’ve never gotten up late for work due to an alarm SNAFU which is a pretty decent track record.

Rise allows for setting up repeating alarms, progressive alarms, pleasant sound effects and alarm songs/patterns and, going through the settings, I had high hopes that it would do what I needed it to do.

Luckily, I was able to press it into service during my vacation so if I woke up late it wasn’t going to be the end of the world. How did it go?

Three of the five mornings I used it, the app wasn’t able to rouse me from sleep. The most prevalent problem was that there was no noise at all. In fact, I am doubtful that it caused my phone to vibrate either. Curiously, I confirmed that the app was set to “vibrate” but, if it was vibrating, it was so quiet or brief that it didn’t get the job done. As a further insult, when I eventually woke up, I was met with several screens of notifications telling me it was time to wake up. Thanks, Rise…

Now, it’s certainly feasible that I was doing something wrong. But even if I was, alarms need to be a bulletproof, battle-tested thing and if I should have been doing something differently, then it wasn’t apparent. Remembering to put an app in the foreground and confirm everything before sleeping is something I haven’t had to deal with since… well since forever, so having to do it now isn’t something I want to deal with. The risk of a mess up is just too great at this point.

I realize that there are iOS development restrictions that prevent things like this from working as well as the actual iOS alarms. The hooks for the alarms have very deep integration into the operating system. That’s a disappointment because Rise has a lot going for it visually. Given the downsides, I’d avoid it for now.

My iPhone Home Screen: October 2012 Edition

A new phone. A new home screen. A new social network. There have been extensive changes to my home screen with the release of the iPhone 5 and App.net’s rise as my favorite (soon to be “only”?) social network. Given the iPhone 5’s added screen real estate, I have an extra row of apps to cover so this might take a while to write as well as read so let’s not delay things any further.

Row One

1Password has long been a standard on all of my devices. Lately, with all of the hackings and whatnot, it has become one of the most essential. Rotating highly unique passwords is possible because of 1Password’s ability to generate them as needed and cut/paste them where needed.

If you don’t have 1Password, buy it. If you own it but you’re not using it, you’re just asking for it. I’ll just leave this here… you know who you are.

Calvetica remained on the Home screen for a while but I’m impatient for an expanded view for iPhone 5. Calendaring apps present situations that benefit greatly from increased screen real estate. Since Week Cal was one of the first to jump on the expanded screen, and I had it hidden on the back page, I just swapped the two and I’m pretty happy with it. I forgot how good this app was. Calvetica is on the back page for now and I’ll just swap them randomly, I guess…

Awful is still in heavy use to read the SomethingAwful forums. (I hate Reddit so much – it’s the cesspool of a comment section beneath every forum post in the world but in handy forum form.)

Utilities folder
In my Utilities folder, I keep a rotating cast of characters that need more-than-occasional access and aren’t accessible through Launch Center Pro (see below). Calendar, Clock, Calculator, Bing, Glassboard, GV Mobile+, Adian, Rivr all live in here. I keep moving ADN clients in and out of this folder but I’ll get to App.Net (ADN) in a second.

Row Two

Instacast is back in the mix. I love the other clients I’ve tried but Instacast is the best fit for how I listen to podcasts. Instacast developers moved quickly to fix the complaints that heavy users like me had after a major release that changed many really good features. After those features made their way back to the app, I returned as well. It’s a really good app nowadays.

Fitbit still gets my food and water consumption entered into it every day. It’s become habit and the changes in the recent version of the app made it marginally better. At least it didn’t make it worse, which is usually my fear after big changes.

Soulver, as Ben Brooks mentioned recently, is a really amazing product. I use it all the time for monthly expenses, working out financial planning for hiring and project management and helping my 12 year old with his algebra homework.

Settings is back on the Home screen, mainly because I use the new iOS 6 “Do Not Disturb” mode fairly often and I wanted it more accessible. If it could be toggled in Launch Center Pro or via the Notifications pull down, it’d be ideal but I’m not holding out hope.

Row Three

Felix is one of the ADN clients on my iPhone. I’m using quite a few right now, testing them out and putting them all through their paces. Felix is fantastic. The “feel” is just right, the look is aesthetically pleasing and usable and, as a 1.0, it was rock solid and stable. I was happily using Felix for about a week but then Netbot hit (yesterday) which turned things upsidedown for me. I continue to get push notifications through Felix and use it about half the time. If a few key changes get made (bookmark sync & gap expansion are the two I have in mind), it may be the client that stays on the front page.

Dark Sky remains the most magical app on my phone. Last Friday, I was working from home and Dark Sky sent me a push notification that rain was going to start in my area soon. I have a fairly long driveway (we moved to a really cool rented farmhouse last year) so I got up and went out to fetch the mail before I ran the risk of getting soaked. On the walk back to the house, sure enough, rain started to fall. Magic.

Harvest for my hours tracking. A necessary evil, I’m afraid.

Nebulous Notes has taken a huge leap in the last version. I use it across iPhone and iPad and it is the best Dropbox-integrated text editor out there. At least for me. It suits all of my needs pretty perfectly including, after some monkeying around, outlining meeting notes. It is an essential app if there ever was one.

Row Four

Netbot is a newcomer but it is a fantastic addition. Helping move ADN from a small, fringe upstart to something a bit more visible, Tapbots released a version of their streaming social network client for ADN and, while it is very similar in form and function to its flagship app, Tweetbot, what it means to people who have been on ADN for a while is significant. I have been buying, downloading and using all of the ADN clients I can get my hands on, not only to support the work of the developers but to see what new things can be done with the fledgling APIs and concepts.

Netbot uses ADN to replicate Twitter and that’s not such a bad thing. Twitter’s treatment of its longstanding users and developer community has been appalling. I can see, as the network expands, the apps changing to embrace some of its newer functions (annotations, privacy APIs) and grow with the features as they’re added. It’s a great start. As I’ve been singing the praises of Tweetbot for some time, I’m happy to see Tapbots on ADN too.

Google+ is still on the front page. I check it once a day but it’s a weird mix of Android fans, science news and beer links.

Safari gets a lot more use now that Cloudtabs exist.

Row Five

Drafts has had some fantastic updates since my last post about it (more to come too!). It is my go-to for short text files to keep information handy like parking spots, phone numbers entered on the fly, etc. It’s my digital scrap paper with the added ability to shoot these little snippets of text to all sorts of handy places.

OmniFocus is something I write fairly often about. It’s about as important as my iPhone at this point.

Sparrow is back! For me anyway. I was using Mail.app for all of my accounts but I have quite a few and it got confusing. Breaking them out and serving my gmail accounts from a sad, deprecated, likely-no-longer-supported app seemed like the marginally right thing to do. Sad. Very sad.

Mail - Yuck. Although, VIPs are a nice feature, I’ll admit.

The Dock

Phone - Yes Dialvetica is gone, and has made room for the stock Phone app. I’m sad that Dialvetica no longer seems like it will be getting any support or new versions (last update in December 2011) but Phone gets the job done.

Messages seems to have been fixed from the perspective of iMessage sending things to all of the right devices. Messages on the Macbook Air now seems to work with the advent of Mountain Lion and having a cohesive messaging solution that does what it supposed to do is as surprising as it is handy.

Trillian has only gotten better and better. I use it constantly as I swap from the laptop to the phone, back to the laptop, and so on with each having the same messages completely in sync. It’s a staple for me and extremely stable and capable. Highly recommended.

Launch Center Pro keeps adding new Actions for apps and getting more and more useful. I haven’t updated my Actions screen for a while but here’s what it looks like for now. I’ll be changing this soon to integrate some of Nebulous Notes new features and make better use of the screen real estate.

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So there it is. A whirlwind tour of the Home screen. I hope it helps and if you have any questions or comments, drop me line to @jeffhunsberger on app.net or Twitter.

Which Apps I Use (and When)

One of the big focus areas for iOS developers lately is the creation of task and reminder apps. Being a heavy OmniFocus user, the thought of splitting my focus isn’t one that I look forward to. Sure, I like checking out new apps now and then, but putting tasks in the iOS Reminders app, OmniFocus and yet another app seems like I’ll end up missing something.

Enter Checkmark by builtbysnowman, a new app that helps you remember things you need to do, but focusing more on where you are doing things rather than just having good ways of managing your lists.

After buying the app, and testing it out briefly, it is clear the app is slick and has merit but it is causing me, yet again, to rethink my tool selection to find the best combination of tools for the jobs at hand.

I have the following apps on my phone being used for some very specific functions:

Task and List Management

  • OmniFocus - Main task/project repository. Useful for everything. Does location-awareness and integrates with Siri (sort of).
  • Checkmark - Location-based reminders only(?)
  • Due - Useful for pulling recurring, reminder-type tasks out of my Calendar (“take out trash”, etc)
  • Reminders - Stock Apple app. Useful but hardly idea. Just used to shuttle things from Siri to OmniFocus.
  • Ita - Gorgeous but never used.

Writing and Note Management

  • Drafts - Useful for quick, “reminder-like” notes.
  • Scratch - Another quick text entry tool, like Drafts. Testing it out.
  • Writing Kit - This is the best app for writing on the iPad. By far. Hands down.
  • Nebulous Notes - Still my favorite Dropbox text file editor.
  • Byword - I generally use the Mac version (writing in it right now)
  • Notesy - I want to like this but had stability issues. Waiting…
  • Elements - Some great parts, but rarely used.

How Do I Decide Which App To Use?

Having this many tools makes it critical for me to be targeted with how each app should be used. Like lots of people who post about this stuff, I feel like each tool is not quite up to the task. I keep downloading each new thing, expecting it to be the final piece of the puzzle only to find it is ever-so-slightly imperfect.

The current task-tracking tool breakdown, for today anyway, is to use OmniFocus for capturing tasks that are related to projects. If it is something related to a project or a person I have a context for, OmniFocus is also a natural choice.

For single tasks or tasks that are tied to a specific place, I’ve started using the fairly-amazing Checkmark. So far the app has been performing really well in all of my tests and the interface is slick as hell. As I’ve never really used the location-based reminders in OmniFocus, this is scratching the itch for ephemeral needs. I will continue to put it to work and expect I’ll follow up with some sort of tech note on this site at some point.

Checkmark also does time-based tasks, which I have started using as well. Previous to that, I was using a mix of OmniFocus or my calendar, both of which aren’t really the best tool for the job. Due was in the mix for a while, and it was well-suited to the task, but having things spread out over so many tools is disorienting and just doesn’t sit well with my somewhat-well-ordered-and-organized mind. I generally want the best tool for the job, but I want to use the least amount of tools possible. Adding more tools just adds more friction.

For recurring events, since Checkmark doesn’t have support for them, I continue to use Due. As mentioned above, Fantastical works for this but it always felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. I’ll still use Fantastical to set up things like birthdays and actual events, but recurring reminders are now much better served using Due.

The Apple Reminders app only really comes into play via OmniFocus, making use of the makeshift Siri integration. Using Siri, I can integrate iCloud and Siri’s insertion of tasks into OmniFocus, which has saved me a ton of time over the last few months.

When I need to write something down that isn’t task-related and anywhere between a few words to a sentence or two, the two apps I turn to are Drafts and Scratch. Given how easy it is to make nice Markdown changes in Scratch, I’ve been using that more. I’d say Scratch is still in a beta state for me. It’s an impressive app so far, however. If I could get Scratch’s “append to Dropbox file” to work in the iOS6 beta I’m sure I could find some interesting uses as well…

Writing Kit is an amazing iPad editor (in fact I’ve written this post using it). I feel dumb not having used it sooner and I can’t recommend it enough. I have the notes for an upcoming review/recommendation post to explain exactly what makes it so great but, in the meantime, just go buy it.

Nebulous Notes is still a staple for editing Markdown notes for work. It works well for a lot of things and does a decent job of avoiding Dropbox conflicts, although they still happen occasionally if I’m swapping back and forth between my Mac and iPad.

~~~

For me, keeping things as simple as possible in a very hectic work (and home) environment is paramount. Cluttering up my devices with a bunch of apps that are half-solutions doesn’t really help me much because adding any level of friction just means that I won’t record something or remember something or be reminded of something important. Friction can be anything from not being able to find an app you need when you need it to having to think for a half-second about what the best way to record something is.

Do I use Due or Checkmark to set a reminder? Do I use OmniFocus? Wait, is there a project for that? Does it make sense to put it in a particular context? Will I need to transfer this task to my main OmniFocus database at some point? Let’s look at how I make some of these calls…

I will generally follow the decision tree outlined below to determine which reminder app to use:

  1. Is it a simple recurring task? If yes, use Due. If no, go to 2.
  2. Is it a complicated recurring task? If yes, go to 4, if no, go to 3.
  3. Is this a simple, one-step task? If yes, use Checkmark If no, go to 4.
  4. Use OmniFocus.

How should I set a timer?

Due has timers, but Siri is so dead simple I prefer using it. I guess if I have to be sneaky and silent when I need to time something one day, I’ll use Due but how often does something like that come up? I’d guess nearly never. At least I have alternatives..?

I need to write something. How do I choose which tool to use?

  1. Is it really short? Like noting where I parked or someone’s phone number? Use Scratch or Drafts (Scratch is currently on the Home Page for this purpose).
  2. Is it a piece for the website? Use Byword on my Mac, or Writing Kit on my iPad. I don’t use my iPhone for writing posts.
  3. Is it longer than a few lines but not for the website? Then I almost always use nvALT on my Mac and Nebulous Notes on my iOS devices. Whatever it is gets synced to Dropbox.
  4. Is it really long? Use Scrivener or Byword (although I recently wrote a very long work document in nvALT – I didn’t know it would grow to the length it did and nvALT worked pretty damn well. It looked gorgeous with my output from Marked too.)*

So there you have it. My streamlined decision trees for which tool I use and when. I try to keep it as simple as possible but still use the best tool for the job. I consider myself lucky that there are so many great tools out there to make me more effective wherever I happen to be.

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.

A Better Mess: Speeding Up OmniFocus with Launch Center Pro

Here is a great article by Michael Schechter of A Better Mess explaining good ways to integrate Launch Center Pro with OmniFocus.

I immediately set some of these up and they are really great for speeding up OmniFocus workflow on my iPhone.

Thanks, Michael.