96: The Mac beyond Steve

The 2018 WWDC keynote brought tons of interesting updates, big and small, to all of Apple’s major OS platforms. (Well, except tvOS. Poor tvOS.) It also was the seventh such keynote since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011. Often, after these events, people who are disappointed in the outcome muse about which of their wishes would have been fulfilled if he was still alive. It’s a particular brand of resigned pessimism, and it rarely does any good.

So don’t worry, I won’t be engaging in those counterfactuals. And I expect very few others will, largely because there is so little disappointment following this year’s keynote. Nearly everyone got something they wanted, from iOS automation to UIKit on the Mac to a more independent Watch. Instead, I’ll ask: what did we get only because of the composition of Apple’s leadership today? In other words, what 2018 OS features might not have survived Steve’s absolute veto power?

I think the best place to observe this is in macOS Mojave, designed under the leadership of Craig Federighi. The (literally) biggest statement Craig made this year was the ten-thousand-point “No.” in response to whether macOS and iOS will be merged. Others have countered “Haha, but all the Mac apps will be iOS ports using Marzipan!” These retorts ignore the significant changes being made to the most central Mac app of them all — the one that is always running — the Finder.

 You know I'm here, right? I can  hear  you.

You know I'm here, right? I can hear you.

Significant time in the onstage demo was given to Gallery view. It will be a great step forward, replacing the least useful (and likely least used) view in the Finder. Gallery view’s introduction immediately drew comments that “Cover Flow is back!” I understand why Cover Flow has been forgotten, but it’s not gone. In fact, it’s been in every version of the Finder from Leopard to High Sierra.

The question is: how and why did Cover Flow last this long? My theory is that it was protected by a double layer of nostalgia. Judging from his demos of it, Cover Flow was one of Steve Jobs' favorite features of the iPod era. And in turn, he loved it so much because of the nostalgic feeling of flipping through racks of vinyl LPs, marveling at their high-quality artwork. Letting it go — even to be replaced with a more modern interface incorporating editing and automation tools — is one more admission that those eras are gone forever.

Fortunately, Mojave's new features aren't all just cold-hearted progress. Once the first beta was seeded, Guilherme Rambo noticed that beyond light and dark modes in Mojave, there are now customizable accent colors. This bit of whimsy is very similar to an appearance option from Mac OS 8, and breaks the 17-year dominance of blue and graphite over the Mac's appearance. I feel like the enforced conformity of One True Appearance was a Jobs-ism; after all, High Tech, Gizmo, and the other wild window appearances set for Mac OS 8 were drastically scaled back immediately after his return to Apple. And while macOS will almost certainly never again allow the delightful insanity that Kaleidoscope schemes provided in the Classic era, this is another small area where letting go is welcome.

Ultimately, we can never know what might have been, but only what has come to pass. Even with privileged access to the inner workings of Craig Federighi's team at Apple, it would be impossible to pinpoint how these features came to be, and what hurdles — real or imagined — they overcame to come into existence. But one way or another we got them, and I see them as signs of a promising future for the Mac.

95: RIP Storm

I’ve been without a weather app on my phone for almost a week now. On May 24, through some combination of laziness, spite, and GDPR, Weather Underground’s Storm app shut down.

The writing had been on the wall for iPhone X users for months, even before official warnings came. Long after every other app I use on a daily basis had pushed an iPhone X update, Storm remained letterboxed. But despite the ugliness, it was still the only app that put all the weather data that I wanted in one place, and it stayed on my homescreen.

 The end is nigh. 

The end is nigh. 

Then weird things began to happen. A minor release didn’t change the interface, but introduced a bug where users who’d paid to remove ads started seeing them again. The issue was resolved — at least eliminating third-party ads — but soon that slot began to plug “Storm Radar”, an app by a different developer but with very similar branding. You really want to use Storm Radar. It’s great. It’s by our new corporate overlords, The Weather Channel. You know, the people whose website used to be the best litmus test for the effectiveness of your ad blocker. Go on, try it, you'll like it.

I did try it, and I can say with no reservations: Storm Radar is a bad app. It feels like a Windows app ported to iOS. Banner ads float in the middle of nowhere on the iPhone X screen (and the option to pay for their removal is gone). Its map tiles and color scheme are hideous. It has no 3D touch actions on its Springboard icon. And worst of all, it's a one-trick pony. Granted, that trick — good predictive radar animations — is unmatched in any other iOS app. Except, of course, for old Storm, which separated past and future radar, avoiding the display and navigation bugs present in Storm Radar.

Having dismissed Storm Radar as Bad, I ignored it and continued using Storm. Until the dire warnings began. "Upgrade required!" (Remember, to an app with a similar icon, different name, and different developer — perhaps putting that message in violation of App Store rules.) Then "3 DAYS LEFT", 2, 1, and 0. "This app is no longer supported." It functioned for a few more hours, and then, it would seem, Weather Underground revoked their own API key so it displays blank maps, blank forecasts, blank graphs.

In one sense, this was a straightforward simplification of a bloated app catalog. After the merger, one company was managing three iPhone weather apps: Storm, Storm Radar, and Wunderground. They cut it to two, but only after creating the problem by developing Storm Radar in the first place. And they eliminated easy access to detailed data that weather nerds like myself love. I want to see the pressure in millibars. I want to see a graph of the dew point over the next week. And when there's a tornado warning at 3AM and I'm debating whether I really need to go to the basement, I want to tap on a storm system and see the 0-3km vertical shear. (It was super high. I went to the basement.)

These features are now buggier and more fragmented than before. Storm Radar shows shear, but not reliably. WunderStation — yes, a fourth app, but only for iPad! — shows me the graphs I want. Nothing puts them all in one place as well as Storm already did.

And that's the worst part: a company with great data has no incentive to deliver a good iOS experience. A parallel problem has arisen with Electron apps replacing native apps on Mac OS. And why should Weather Underground spend money developing great apps when the market price of an app is free? A lousy app or bad web-based experience or even nothing at all earns the same revenue. Weather Underground at least licenses their data through an API, with fees high enough that indie developers make it a paid option. But that passes the risk onto small companies that shouldn't be shouldering it for a giant corporation.

So there's some small hope that someone else will make the next great weather app, and charge me a fair price to send nearly all of that money along to Weather Channel HQ. But even more than when I discovered Storm a couple years ago, I wouldn't bet on it. And that, rather than the missing icon on my homescreen, is the true loss.

94: iOS 12 wish – Siri self-awareness

It goes without saying that Siri has a lot of catching up to do. Anyone who hasn’t given up on it entirely will want to see significant improvements in iOS 12. I’m not too optimistic, so I’m asking for something smaller: just a little self-awareness.

I’m not talking about eliminating the dad jokes, though that would be wonderful. All I’m asking for is some simple connect-the-dots, making Siri not look oblivious when asked basic information about the device it’s running on. There are several pieces of information that are available onscreen in built-in, Apple-created apps, that Siri completely falls down when asked about.

If you’ve ever been to the Apple store for a repair on your iPhone, you know the first thing they ask is whether you’ve backed it up to iCloud. Genius Bar techs have memorized the four-tap sequence they need to access this information in Settings, but think how much time that wastes in the aggregate! Yet asking Siri, "When was my last iCloud backup?" produces one of three unhelpful responses.

"Everything you need to know about Apple products is at Apple's website."

What does that have to do with iCloud?

"Apple.com should be able to answer that question, and more."

You know that icloud.com is a thing, right?

"Allow me to direct you to Apple's rather fabulous website."

For that one, they really punched up the smugness factor in the voice improvements made in iOS 11. And all of these are failures to parse the question. In fact, they are keying on the word iCloud and ignoring the rest. Just saying “iCloud” alone produces the same stock phrases.

I’ll grant that this request has some moderate degree of difficulty (remote data needs to be loaded) and limited use outside of a support context. But what about purely on-device data for one of iPhone’s flagship features: health and fitness? Don’t bother asking Siri…

"How many steps have I taken today?"

"I can't answer that on your iPhone, but you can find it in the Health app."

I am still mystified by this answer. My phone is unlocked. This data is 100% available to me. The steps are logged by the accelerometer in the phone itself (I don’t have an Apple Watch). And what possible definition of “on your iPhone” excludes the Health app which is on the homescreen of that phone? At least you can open the app by simply commanding, “Open Health.”

Even that didn’t used to be the case with the Home app. For years, most commands with the word “home” got routed to the HomeKit or Maps APIs, making it impossible to launch the app via Siri at all. I reproduced this as recently as a few days ago, but it seems to be fixed at the time of writing/recording. Well, unless you have another app installed that has a similar name.

“Open Home.”

“Which of these would you like? Home … or … Home – Smart Home Automation?”

“Home.”

“Just swipe up from the bottom of the screen to get home.”

Maddening. Don’t let Apple tell you that they’ve added support for follow-up questions to Siri. When the Siri prompt sounds, it’s actually starting again from zero. You can ask “What’s the weather?” in response to the follow-up, and it will go fetch the forecast. A simple problem that should be constrained to two choices is instead opened up to the entire universe of possible commands, inviting poor results.

So this is all I ask: Siri, please listen to yourself. Please learn about where you live. Do your homework, and we can talk again this summer.

93: iOS 12 wish – a better phone

WWDC 2018 is fast approaching and Apple-watchers everywhere are preparing their iOS feature wish lists. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit available to make the iPad and iPhone better internet communicators and content-creation and content-consumption devices. But what about making the iPhone a better phone?

I know. “Who uses their phone as a phone?!” Like email, voice phone calls have become a bizarre, legacy, mostly inbound communication channel. As Google controversially pointed out recently, sometimes a phone call is the best or only way to find certain information or accomplish a task. But 90% or more of the calls to my iPhone are junk.

Apple must have realized that spam calls were of rising concern to their users, as they added call blocking capabilities in the CallKit API introduced in iOS 10. This led to an explosion of call-blocking apps in the App Store, some of them scammy in their own right, requiring access to all your contacts in order to function. A few are above-board, not needing your private data. One of them is WideProtect, which I’ve been using for several months now.

These mass blockers are useful for the latest pattern in spam calls here in the United States: spoofing a number similar to the one being dialed, in hopes that it will look “familiar” and get you to pick up. I started by blocking numbers that were extremely similar to mine, differing only in the last three digits. That didn’t stop enough of the spam, so I expanded the range to anything differing in the last 4 digits — 10,000 numbers in total. That seems like a lot, but I’m only using 1% of WideProtect’s blocking potential! CallKit allows each blocker extension to cover 100,000 numbers, but apps can have multiple extensions. WideProtect has 10 extensions for a maximum of 1 million total blocked numbers.

Blocking extensions are far more effective than my old tactic of putting repeat offender numbers into a single contact named “spammers”, but they don’t eliminate the annoyance. CallKit blocking prevents the phone from ringing, but voicemails still come through as notifications. These too are predictable: most are just 2 or 3 seconds of dead air, while others are a robot reading a script about senior care medical devices they want me to purchase. Needless to say, these are the most garbage-y notifications I receive on any given day.

 
 Not helpful.

Not helpful.

 

So why can’t iOS eliminate them entirely? Smart handling of voicemail has always been part of the iPhone’s “revolutionary mobile phone” features (Visual Voicemail, as it was then called, was truly unheard of in 2008.) Today, iPhones analyze voicemails on-device to create transcriptions, which are available within notifications via 3D touch. Using that transcription data to suppress notifications could be dressed up as fancy machine learning, but really all that’s required is the type of basic pattern matching that has powered email spam filters for decades. And any good spam filter needs a safeguard against false positives, so offending voicemails could be sorted into the separate Blocked Messages view in the Phone app, rather than being blackholed entirely.

Perhaps the average iPhone user is accustomed to their device being a constantly buzzing annoyance box, and a couple spam calls per day are nothing amongst their dozens of other spam notifications. But I try to keep those annoyances as close to zero as possible. So even though the phone is, most likely, the least important part of the iPhone, robust spam filtering would help it be the best phone available.