Clown Sized Phone

Despite my earlier misgivings, I got a biggie size phone – the iPhone 8 Plus.  After lots of research and analysis, I realized an error in my previous logic.  I said:

It loses the magic of convenience that is so important to me in the iPhone.

That seems now to be a matter of perspective.  Yes, you lose convenience of always having your phone in your skinny jeans.  And yes, you lose convenience of easily reaching every corner of the screen with one hand.  But is that all “convenience” is about?  I also said:

when I got my 5s, I immediately wished it was a tiny bit wider to make landscape use more viable.  Typing any document in landscape only left me with about half an inch of displayed space.

So with a smaller phone, I actually gave up the convenience of seeing more of my document/ssh session in order to keep single-thumb use… and with any context that requires a bigger display I probably wouldn’t use a single thumb anyway.

With a larger phone, it seems that I don’t strictly need to use landscape in order to benefit from this.  I just have more to work with.

And, in landscape mode, the phone absorbs some of the power of the iPad.  The OS presents extra columns of information, panels that weren’t visible before are now on-screen.  This is called a “regular size class” to iOS developers (vs a “compact size class”), and it’s amazing, and frustratingly obscure.  I had to actually own one of these to get why it’s so different.  Side note: the iPhone X does NOT have the regular size class in landscape.  It’s just as cramped as ever even though it has loads of extra pixels available.  For “horns”.

Even including the onscreen keyboard, I have at least 5 usable lines to enter text.  With an external keyboard I have way more.

So, bottom line.  Is it convenient?  No, definitely not.  But is it convenient?  Oh yeah, definitely.  Maybe I’m one version behind everyone else, but I really like this format.

The Best eBook Reader, Again

I came to the realization a few years ago that the eBook reader Marvin was hands down, the best ePub reader for me.  Very flexible, configurable and some (still) unique features made it well worth the price.

That was, as I mentioned, a few years ago and I started to get a little frustrated with a few important (to me) missing features, such as ePub 3 features like aside (pop-up footnote) support, syncing and a few other small things.  The lack of these was one thing that bothered me.  The fact that the same developer released a second, free ePub reader app that offered these features was even worse, and quite frustrating to those that paid for the original app.

It wasn’t simply an easy task to switch from Marvin to Gerty though.  It wasn’t designed as a generic ePub reader, but rather a sort of book-journaling app.  What was the developer thinking?

It turns out he was thinking.  And working hard.  He was rewriting Marvin from scratch.  Today, he released Marvin 3.  This release adds, and far surpasses my original wish list.  Now there is full iOS9 support, including document picker, spotlight integration and split-screen support.  The icing on the latter part of that particular cake is that there is a second, nearly identical app, called Marvin SxS (“Side by Side”) that lets you have two copies of Marvin installed on the same device and you can have two ePubs open at the same time in devices that support split screen.

Marvin on an iPad
Marvin on an iPad

There are lots of great built-in fonts, whether you are a sans or a serif fan.  There is also OpenDyslexic built in.  If you aren’t satisfied with any of the bundled (and system) fonts, you can sideload others.

Margin size, line spacing, paragraph spacing, indent size are all configurable.  There are themes.  Multiple columns available in both landscape and portrait.  Textshots and auto-bookmarking on close.  Reading location syncs automatically to iCloud (zero-config).  And then there’s annotations – all those things that were in Gerty are now in Marvin 3.  You can of course highlight with a load of colors, but also add notes and photos to a book.   Apparently there are multiple map-viewing modes (you can read maps in here?)

There is native comic book (CBR and CBZ) support, and it’s really, really good.  I have, and love, Chunky Comic Reader, but in practice, there are only a few significant advantages Marvin 3 lacks – PDF comics, landscape for dual-pages and ComicStreamer support.  The page thumbnails (with long-tap to preview the page) are wonderful.  The zig-zag mode is much like Chunky’s “pan” mode.  You can scrub through the comic and have page previews show you where you are.  Given that Chunky is iPad only, I might find myself using Marvin for some of my comic reading, depending on the amount of dual-pages I might expect.

I have only touched the surface.  The only other reader that comes close regarding configurability is Moon+ Reader Pro on Android.

It is not a free upgrade.  There are two in-app-purchases to unlock full screen use and color themes, $3.99 USD for the former and a variety of “tips” for the latter, although you only get certain themes depending on the amount you “tip”. Kinda sounds to me like a purchase and not a tip… The SxS version is a full purchase without IAP unlocks – other than the themes.  To me, the regular IAP (or outright purchase) is well worth the cost.  The colours, not so much, but that is merely an opinion.

The bottom line is, if you’re looking for the best ePub reader, get Marvin 3.

AppleTV Updated

Finally, Apple decided to update the AppleTV – and promote it to the product menu bar on the main site!  This common, and popular, device had been overlooked for four years!

The changes are exactly what I was wishing for… but somehow not enough.  The main thing I wanted was apps.  It seemed kinda dumb that an iOS device (the previous AppleTV was running iOS 5) couldn’t run apps.

The internals have been improved significantly to support the load that modern apps will certainly give to the hardware.  An A8 processor (mostly the same in the iPad Air 2, with a different GPU), 2GB RAM, and 32-64GB flash storage.  Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi 802.11 ac (along with the other letters).

But Apple has never been strictly about the internals.  You shouldn’t need to know exact RAM numbers to know how the experience will be 1.  Apple has always been about the experience, even if it causes the device to be a little more expensive.

So what is the experience?  Well, the existing AppleTV experience is a gimme.  It was already very good and uniquely seamless… playing iTunes content and receiving AirPlay streams is a very satisfying experience.  The downside?  The doors were closed to anything else.  So now with apps, the experience gets much wider.  Plex is better than iTunes.  2  TuneIn Radio would be nice to have on the same box.  And then there’s games!

<record scratch>. 3

Of course there’s going to be games, when people talk about the App Store for iOS, their first thought is GAMES.  But, the App Store games have been unique beasts until now.  Odd games with ridiculously simple controls and brief (seconds to minutes) of typical game time.  Games like Threes, Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies really worked on a portable, touchscreen, battery-powered handheld that you had with you anyway.  Put it on a screen with three other bored family members watching and it won’t work.

The games have to change nature, obviously.  When you fire up a game in the living room, you do so with hours, not minutes in mind.  Solo games are still fine, of course (they already succeed on the consoles, so that proves that).  But the AppleTV as a gaming device is going into the arena with a handful of potential games worth playing.  I too loved the demo of Crossy Road, it looked great… but I think I would only play it on the big screen for 10 minutes.  The Apple ad highlighted Asphalt 8, and there’s also Real Racing 3, another graphics-beautiful game that lends itself wonderfully to the controller.  And with the In-App Purchases you can…

<record scratch>.  <audience gasp>. <crickets>. 4

I bought Real Racing 2.  It was fun, if a bit unrealistic.  It was self-contained and cost money up front.  Real Racing 3 came out, and was mostly improved except it’s now Freemium… so you can play for free as long as you stop playing every few races to let it recharge.  Stop.  Playing.  Tell me if that’s going to work when you’re on the couch with a cool drink and controller in hand.  I know, there are about 1% of the players that actually pay for cubits or gemoids or coinules or whatever they have 5.

The easy(tm) solution is to charge more for the games.  I’m actually fine with that, as I’d pay $5-$10 for a really good game.  That would be kinda the upper limit, the reason for which will I will explain shortly.  So maybe that will happen.  I’m actually pretty certain(tm) that it will, actually, though I think the prices will balance out at a little more around $10-$20.

Now back to the hardware.  It has the grunt to drive these games, but there are two significant problems that stand out right away.

First, controller support is restricted to MFi controllers, so those awesome and cheap USB controllers you already have (like the ubiquitous Xbox 360 controller) cannot be used.  So you can get an AppleTV for $149 plus a controller for $49 more.  $200 USD for an unknown console with a single controller… now that’s not too bad given new console prices.  Except I could pop out today and get a PS3 with 4 really good games (Lego Batman 3 and the Sly Collection) for $219 CDN.  With 500GB of storage.

Which leads me to my next issue.  There are only two levels of storage differentiating the $149 and $199 models Is 32GB enough, or is 64GB enough?  Right now very few know.  A high-end iOS game at the moment might push 2GB, or possibly more, but recently released developer information explains that apps for the AppleTV can only reserve 200 megabytes of persistent storage each.  They can download and cache a whole lot more than that, apparently, but given memory pressure (i.e. lots of different apps, not just games) using that cache, it will be dumped and you will have to redownload it.  So the snappy performance of the device when you first set it up will probably fade.  In practice, maybe you don’t notice this much, since you’d have to run a lot of different apps to create the memory pressure required to dump the cache of one.  Most people would focus around 4 or 5 apps each.  Unless of course you’re a family.

Oh… yeah, that 6.

It would be easy to compare this to the Xbox One, because it does much of what the Apple TV promises, without the Apple integration, of course… but it’s expensive, so I won’t do that.

Let’s go back briefly to the pricing of games…  It seems to me the big competitor they’ve just walked into the ring with is Valve.  Steam sales are ridiculous.  It’s not unusual to get a significant and excellent game on Steam for under $5.  Steam games are often cheaper than their iOS ports.  But, PC games and consoles are very different things.  The other key is the Steam Link hardware that is coming out next month.  A $59 CDN box will stream your PC/Mac games to your big screen.  It supports Xbox 360 controllers as well as a few others, and they are releasing a new $59 (CDN) controller as well, that is looking promising.  So for games, it’s $119 for a game plus controller, and a TON of cheap, high-quality games.  And an online store that works really well.  It will also stream your music if you really need to (MP3 only).  Maybe movies will come soon, who knows.  While it’s true it’s a streaming-only device, and you need your computer on… AppleTV is mostly the same for movies and music.  (Yes I know about iCloud)

I think the real potential competitor to the new AppleTV is the old AppleTV + Steam Link.  $89 + $59 = $148 CDN beats $149 US by a fair margin.  Enough to throw in a controller, if you really really don’t have one.

Comparing unreleased, unknown products is often an exercise in madness.  But at least my madness is well exercised.  I think we’ll know how this all shakes out in about a year.  Mark this down.

  1.  Quick, tell me how much RAM a PS3 has!  Whether you know that number or not, you realize it doesn’t matter as much as it would on a desktop
  2. There.  I said it.
  3. For the younger set, you might have to Google this
  4. You have to add your own sound effects here.  Work with me, people.
  5. For the older set, don’t bother Googling these
  6. Won’t someone think of the poor RECORDS?

Swype and iOS keyboards

I have experimented with replacement keyboards on Android from time to time.  Though I had SwiftKey installed for a year, I mostly used it as a regular keyboard.

So it wasn’t a real thrill for me when Apple announced third-party keyboards on iOS 8.   I found the iOS keyboard quite good, the design was really good and led to fast and mostly error-free typing.

The problem with most mobile keyboards is text prediction – autocorrect can never get you entirely what you want, and more often than not it was an exercise in frustration.  I didn’t find the iOS 7 predictions too bad, but when iOS 8 came out with QuickType, something happened.  It seemed like the autocorrect was much more aggressive, and more often frustratingly wrong.  So I started looking into third-party keyboards.

Fleksy was my first look, because it was free at release – it is not a huge leap for a new user to start using this keyboard, the keys are in the same spot and you just tap to enter letters.  However, this keyboard relies heavily on prediction.  Most of the time it does really well, but when it gets it wrong, you need to remember and perform a gesture to “unfix” it, or cycle through alternate replacements.  I found this more cumbersome than just using the iOS keyboard and being alert.

SwiftKey was free, and I liked the idea of gesture-based scribble-typing.  I had used it before, so it should be a simple switch, right?  Well, it was, but it still felt very clumsy. Once again, I hadn’t gained anything, it was just different.  I found myself fighting to switch back to the regular iOS keyboard more often.

Now, Swype came to my attention the past day or so, because they made it free.  That’s evidently a great way to get me to try something I am skeptical about.  Well, right away, I was impressed.  Multiple themes, a case-changing keyboard (it shows you the characters in caps when caps is on, etc), nice optional gestures, etc.  Mostly though, I liked the comparatively non-aggressive nature of the text suggestions. When an unusual word comes up, the quick type area allows you to dynamically add the word to your personal dictionary.  The personal dictionary can be edited at any time to remove accidental additions (or those times you were SURE that’s how it was spelled).  It even includes emoji in the autocorrect suggestions!  Just type “smile” and there’s a smiley.   That may seem slower than picking it, but remember you can swipe over the characters in order to kinda sketch out a little scribble that brings a smile to your keyboard, and maybe even to your face.

On top of all that, there’s a special calculator-style numeric keyboard available under the Swype key, if you want to enter numbers more comfortably.

There’s lots going for this keyboard.  Totally worth grabbing for free right now, if the deal is still on, and if not, it still might be a worthwhile investment if it has gone back to its regular 99 cent price.

Freemium Free

It began with an outright refusal to pay extra to play more of a game. Freemium games are now dead to me.

I should define more early what I mean. In this context I don’t mean a full game or app with add-ins, like extra levels or “pro” functionality. I figure each level is very usable and enjoyable, and you get to what you pay for, many times if you so choose.

What I have come to loathe is the “gems”, “crystals” (or its analog) idea, where you have to pay in virtual and also real currency continuously to enjoy the game.

Related to this are repeated notifications that draw you back into the game – clearly to maintain their revenue stream.

I kinda find the fun game experience should do that, don’t you think? For example, PvZ was really fun. I bought it on three platforms and replayed it twice on each. PvZ 2 was really, well, not fun. It was all about maintaining an economy of premium features. You could only enjoy what you could afford in the game. It has thus been deleted.

IMG_0105.JPG

The final hanger-on was Real Racing 3. I actually did enjoy this game (when I wasn’t cursing its knife-edged grip modeling). It gave you quite a lot for free, but it still bugged me. I couldn’t repeatedly race my favorite car, because they all have an artificially imposed limit… unless, of course, you pay. Secondly, I grew annoyed at the regular (daily) notifications that “you really should be playing”. Yes I know I can turn these off, but why are they there in the first place? When I needed a few extra gig to upgrade iOS the other day, I finally unloaded it. I hadn’t played it for months anyway.

So with that, I no longer have any freemium games at all on any of my devices. When I see one on the App Store I first look at the in app purchase list and if it has a satchel or truckload or baggie of gems or crystals or whatever, I know it will not add to my fun. Instead, I will play a fantastic game like Minecraft PE or True Skate, or, who knows, maybe I’ll even start PvZ again.

Apple Pay

The third punch in the Apple show was the biggest, in my opinion.  Again, on the surface it appears to be catch-up but this is much more significant.

The competition liked to throw in an NFC antenna and then claim it was a feature, but without deep integration all it is is more hardware.  Yes you could tap to pay, but you can also do that with your credit card.  Why introduce a phone into that?  I realize there were some apps like a google Wallet that integrated with that, and that’s a good start, but missing the last step.

What’s the last step?  Security!  Apple Pay runs only on phones that have TouchID, and the Apple Watch that has a simple form of biometric security (apparently it remains unlocked only with continued skin contact on the back of the watch).

The best (and most secure) component of this whole platform is invisible to users.  The channel between banks and Apple is HUGE.  I can only guess at the infrastructure, but if you think about it, it might be something like this… the phone (I presume) generates an asymmetric key and stores the private one in an enclave on the phone and registers the public one with the bank.  When a transaction takes place, it probably creates a transaction packet with the purchase details and signs and encrypts it, passes it through to the Bank.  The credit card details are nowhere in the transaction.  No signature, no PIN, no card number or CVC.  Apple is in the loop somewhere, but they claim they never see any purchase details.  Perhaps they check the signature, match it to a user, and pass it along as an inter-bank transaction.  Since the bank is RIGHT NOW already tooled up to accept this, they likely didn’t have to make significant changes to their back ends.

Talking through my hat of course, but it has to be closer to this than any current tap-to-pay tech.

The bottom line is, Apple isn’t trying to make credit cards more convenient, they’re trying to replace them.  They’re setting themselves up as part of the infrastructure of daily commerce, which is much much bigger than selling a few technology items.  They think much bigger than “slap an NFC chip in there”, and it’s going to have a big impact in the years to come.

Apple Watch

I, like others, was drooling when Apple introduced their new wearable.  They made the competition look horrendous.  (As a side note, when I first saw the Galaxy Gear S in pictures, I was excited – it too looked great, and not Android… until I saw the actual size.  It’s absurd.)

They pitched this at everyone.  It’s not a “geek watch” and another model is a “fitness watch” and another model is a “cool watch”.  They all have factors of each.  Sure, they have different versions but nothing’s stopping you from exercising with the Edition… uh… edition (that name!).  Or wearing the Sport edition with a suit.

The digital crown is one of those obvious things that nobody thought to use.  Why did it take Apple to think of this?  Because they’re never in a panic to release something.  They don’t iterate like Microsoft (used to) or in the extreme, Samsung.  Can you believe Samsung is (as of publication) on their sixth generation of smart watches?  Have you seen anyone wearing one?  Wanna know why?

Of course I want one, but the price is high.  They “start at” $350US.  Is that the Sport one with a basic rubber(ish) band?  What if you want the Sapphire crystal version?  How much will bands cost?  This is pretty much the definition of a luxury item.  You can get a pretty awesome regular watch for $350.  Are the digital additions worth the premium over a decent analog watch – one that, remember, will still be worth a respectable percentage of that amount (if not all of it) 5 years from now?

I won’t be getting one, but not because I disagree with them in any shape or form.  I’ll see what the next product cycle or two brings around.

Now, was that a working model that Tim Cook was wearing?  If so, I’m sure Apple execs can wear them in public now as test cases and get some real-life issues resolved even before release.

If you read this far, are you wondering what I think about Android Wear?  I won’t have Google touching my person or knowing my physical status or location at all times, thanks.  The “Ok Google” thing on the Android watches creeps me out.

BIG PHONES

Apple’s done it.  “They’ve kneeled to the pressure from Android”.  Haven’t they?  Let me think.

One day to a few hours before the event I saw a fair number of tweets where people expressed that they didn’t really want a bigger phone.  The iPhone 5 size is wonderfully compact and ideal for daily use (but lets talk about that later).  I am content with mine.

However, when I got my 5s, I immediately wished it was a tiny bit wider to make landscape use more viable.  Typing any document in landscape only left me with about half an inch of displayed space.  I adapted, and found that typing in portrait orientation was clearly the way to go.

hound_dog_taylor
The average iPhone 6 Plus user

So now they’re bigger.  If you haven’t downloaded the template from Ars Technica to see how big they are in person, you should really do so now.  I found the Plus at first glance in my hand didn’t seem too bad, until I pretended to use it.  Forget that noise.  I don’t have thumbs like Hound Dog Taylor.  It loses the magic of convenience that is so important to me in the iPhone.

The regular-sized 6… now I could work with that.  I think toleration would give away to preference the more I used it.  Does that make the 4″ screen of the 5 “too small”?  Absolutely not!  I am still very content with this for daily use.

That leads me to my thoughts on “daily use”.  It goes without saying that the typical use has changed from the introduction of the first iPhone (and yet I said it).  People don’t talk on their smart phones that much any more.  But I think the new generation of smartphones have gone one further.  Site-specific apps are starting to give way to responsive web sites.  The push to demonstrate that the iPad is a “content creation device” led not only to spectacular apps that do so on the iPad, but a desire to continue that work on the iPhone.  I ran GarageBand on my iPhone 4 (well, I “walked” it) but the 5s made it much nicer – primarily for speed but the screen space did help.  Parallels Access works on the 5s, but it would be nice if… and so it goes.

So did Apple kneel to the Android push in doing this?  I don’t think so, if they did then maybe it was in a very very small way.  I actually think Android did a big favour to Apple in working out the kinks first.  Who needs your own R&D and customer metrics when another company does it all for you?  I think big phones were just big phones until very recently.

I also don’t think that the simultaneous introduction of the Apple Watch and the big phone was an accident either.  With a large phone you immediately lose a small measure of convenience, but you gain that back – and more – with an Apple Watch immediately at hand (yes I know).  So Apple was working on the watch for 3 years, and big phones have been out for how long now?

If you still don’t understand Apple’s philosophy in all of this, watch the “Perspective” video again, and read the words and not just look at the great camerawork.

Will it sell?  Dumb question, of course it will.  Will it sell because it’s bigger?  Well there’s no more new 4″ iPhone so it’s hard to say.  The twitters seem to indicate to me that many are going to get the Plus because of its assumed scarcity and “see how they like it”.  I presume the Plus will sell ridiculous amounts.  What we don’t know at this point is how many will be returned in a couple weeks for the 6.  (I also wonder how Apple will count this as sales figures?)

So, bottom line for me… I’m in no rush for the 6 but I will envy those that have it.

WWDC 2014

Apple had their WWDC keynote today, and announced, well, everything.

Their user experience is converging like I couldn’t have imagined before.  Continuity lets you transfer your work from mobile to desktop just by being close to your Mac.  You can answer your phone from your computer.

Mavericks looks awesome, despite my worry about flattening things.  I was worried it would look like Windows 8, but it looks terrific.  The screen fonts make my eyes sigh.

iOS extensibility has set my head spinning.  I can only imagine my what my Mail / Pocket Informant / Omnifocus workflow will look like early next year.  How will 1Password work with Safari now?  TextExpander and Drafts will now act like steroids for your phone.  Well, even more so.

Not talked about, but on the slide was Wi-Fi calling… which might mean free cell-phone calls.

A few “about time” features, of course, like AirDrop from iOS to OS X, interactive notifications, and reasonable iCloud prices.  I’m not about to gripe that those took so long, because hey, they’re here now.

Swift is an interesting announcement, it might mean much easier app development.  It might be just as easy to do a Swift app as a PhoneGap app now.  We’ll see.

One thing notably missing was offline Siri capability, which is a shame.  I understand why they didn’t do it though.  If they did, I’m certain they would have had to cut off the iPhone 4s and even possibly as far up the chain as the iPad Mini.  This is not something that Apple wants to consider doing right now.  (Update: apparently I completely missed the reference to Siri’s “streaming recognition” which might actually mean offline.)

Did you notice, Google got referenced about, well, once, if you count the big Android onscreen.  There was OneDrive, Box, but no Google Drive icon (interestingly, no Dropbox either).  Bing translate.  Even the webmail used in the demo was Yahoo!  Spotlight is now your go-to search, and that can use whatever engine Apple chooses to use behind the scenes – which is evidently Bing.  They allow you to change your default search provider to DuckDuckGo.  Apple is mad at Google, and now they’re playing hardball.

So much new, it’s going to be hard to wait until fall.

iPad multitasking

I have no idea if this rumor has any substance to it, but it makes me wonder. I have long wanted a way to view, for example, a document alongside a stopwatch, which is a very simplistic use case, I know. Or a Bible app alongside an ePub reader.

If they do this, I can see an easy way to introduce it with a new OS that will immediately work on a) Retina devices and with b) universal apps.

First of all let me restrict this scenario to a 2/3 style layout display, i.e. One primary app and one smaller secondary app.

If you have your iPad in landscape orientation, you have 2048 pixels across. Even if you halved that resolution you could easily display a second app – as the iPhone mode, in portrait… Even with full Retina resolution. You would have 384 horizontal pixels to spare – at least partly for interface and decoration.

I think the big technical issue there would be scaling down a Retina app on a Retina screen to non-Retina resolutions. It could be done, mathematically, but it won’t be nice, as in, Apple-nice. It has precedent though, pre-Retina iPad apps and games looked just OK, and inflated iPhone apps were workable, and it all lit a fire under developers to provide nicer assets for their apps.

The advantage of using this scheme is that most apps will just work. Those devs with two non-Universal apps will have to develop them or the users might have to have both versions installed on the same device. The interface design adaptations already made for a smaller screen space will pay off immediately when used as a secondary app.

This doesn’t answer all the questions though. What about the vertical blank space on the iPhone-app side? It would seem clumsy to leave exactly 400 vertical pixels unused, not to mention the downscaling we would have already seen on the iPad-app side. Some if the groundwork has been done already, though. Apple has been pushing resolution independence for a long time now, and with the exception if games I think most apps are at least partially prepared for it – and games won’t be played split-screen (let the exceptions fly). If they said “your horizontal resolution is no longer a binary choice between 1536 or 2048” or “your “iPhone” apps will have to allow for a 1536 pixel high screen” then developers could adapt without too much concern. Responsive Web developers have had to deal with this for a long time. Universal app developers have had to deal with this for a long time too. It wouldn’t take long.