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General

Continue Apple Arcade? 9… 8… 7…

It was with some dismay that I read Apple Arcade is looking to change up their curatorial strategy, and cancelled some games in the process. Hopefully the affected developers will be able to fund and continue their projects via Kickstarter or something.

What made the service so refreshing at the start was its dedication to art and quality, stickiness and engagement metrics be damned. You paid a subscription fee, and got access to a peaceful library of games that didn’t try to milk wallet-attached endorphins out of your brain. We got delightful little experiences like Assemble with Care and WHAT THE GOLF?, and I stuck around on the promise that we’d get a steady stream of those. Well, it seems that train has stopped because somebody upstairs wants more addictive games that will keep people subscribed past the free trial.

One example of what Apple wants, according to Bloomberg, is Grindstone. I personally love it; a fun pick-up-and-play puzzler, and an evergreen game you could easily be playing years from now. But not every game needs to be a Grindstone, and there’s only room for one or two Grindstones in my life at any time. These are games you use to soak up free time, go-to icons for when a moment appears while in line for something, or on the bus. There are plenty of them already on the App Store, so Apple Arcade should supply a breadth of other experiences.

I see the potential of Apple Arcade as analogous to the Apple TV+ strategy : quality over quantity, unique visions only. A change of course so soon comes across as a lack of courage. It’s a long game, so to speak. If people aren’t staying past the trial, maybe they’re not reaching enough of the right people who’ll be their early adopters. Even Airpods didn’t take off immediately.

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General

iCloud Drive and Calibre compatibility

About 7 years ago, I wrote a post about how the ebook library management app Calibre can contribute to problems with Amazon Kindle e-readers: it basically screws their battery life. I detailed a workaround for it, and to this day, I still get visits to that page, so neither Calibre nor Amazon must have gotten around to fixing it.

At one point, I had a large orange chunk on the bar above dedicated to “Documents” that weren’t actually there.

I now have a suspicion that Calibre also causes problems with iCloud Drive, so I’m leaving this here for anyone it might affect. Some scenarios for the search engines below:

  • If you store your Calibre Library folder on iCloud Drive, and have noticed that your remaining space does not reflect the storage you’re using, this is for you.
  • If you have deleted files on iCloud Drive but find that the free space reported by iCloud.com or your device does not immediately update to reflect the deletion, or…
  • If you have removed everything on iCloud Drive but still find space allocated to “Documents” in the “Manage Storage” section of iCloud settings on your iPhone/iPad — in other words, if you expect to have free space, and have done everything including a check of the “Recently Deleted” area and emptied your Recycle Bin, but the amount of free space is still inaccurate, I know that feeling.

This seems to happen to a lot of people, perhaps for other reasons, but it happens. Skip ahead to “Is it you, Calibre?” if you just want my conclusion.

So here’s my experience. A couple of years ago, I had this issue, and had to call Apple Support. It took several calls to resolve, because they wanted me to sign out of iCloud on every device (not an insignificant hassle with multiple devices), and when that established that the issue was on their servers, it had to be escalated to Engineering, and the eventual fix was they wiped everything on my Drive and reset it. I had to backup all my files locally (requires a Mac!) first. I believe I still suffered some data loss.

After that, it was all good, but my confidence in iCloud Drive was shaken, and I didn’t want to use it as storage for anything important. Every year since then, they’ve made enhancements to iCloud Drive, and to the Files.app on iOS, which has made me slowly more willing to embrace it again as a cloud file system worthy of My Stuff.

And then this happened again. 13GB of space just wouldn’t come back after I’d deleted files. The files were gone, the space was not reclaimed. After putting it off for two weeks, I got on the phone with Apple again, and two calls later, they managed to “repair” my Drive using some standard tools they have (Engineering was not involved this time). So, a slightly better experience than before.

Is it you, Calibre?

I’ll say upfront that this is a hunch. I don’t have the strength anymore to experiment on my iCloud account and conclusively prove anything.

Both times this happened to my iCloud Drive, I was using it quite “normally”. Nothing fancy, except that my Calibre Library folder was on it, and I knew that the Calibre app was actively updating files on it whenever I added/removed ebooks. This last time, the problem appeared after I’d deleted a ton of files THROUGH Calibre, and as best I can recall, a similar situation took place years ago.

With the Amazon Kindle problem, there’s something about the way that Calibre writes files to the Kindle’s drive that causes it. In other words, Calibre (which is a sluggish cross-platform app that behaves in a very non-Maclike way) may have some non-standard ways of interacting with the OS and filesystem. I think the way that it writes/deletes files isn’t the same as if you manually dragged files around yourself via the Finder. It might be through some low-level UNIX operations, but this is where I’m out of my depth.

So it’s not a stretch to imagine that when you delete ebooks in Calibre, it deletes them from your drive in a way that may cause issues. Deletes them in a way that is invisible to iCloud, so it doesn’t know that the files are gone and it should give you the space back. On a local drive? It works fine, and that’s how it’s used by millions anyway. But on a weird aliased virtual cloud drive that Apple hacked together inside a folder called “Mobile Documents”? Maybe not fine!

Here’s what I’d suggest trying if you have this problem: move your Calibre Library off iCloud Drive. I’ve put mine on Dropbox and it seems fine. Do NOT put it on Google Drive. Call Apple, and have them repair or reset your drive. Some luck is required here, but they’re your only hope. Once you get your missing space back, don’t use Calibre with it again.

I’ll be here with crossed fingers too, waiting to see if this happens again.

Categories
General Reviews

Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.


Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

Categories
Reviews

An early look at HEY email

(For Part 2 of this review, check out: Hold up, HEY)

I’ve been pretty keen to see HEY’s rethinking of email, and just got my early access invitation this week (I joined the queue back in February, perhaps on Day 2 of their recruitment drive). I was also an early adopter of Gmail back in 2004, and as they say on the manifesto page, there’s not been much innovation in the world of personal email since. If anything, email has been in decline and most of its use cases now belong to chat platforms (keeping up with friends), workplace project management/collaboration suites (enterprise communications), and services’ own portals (seeing account and order histories). The resurgence of newsletters is one bright spot, and displaying them is one of the main jobs of my email account.

Anyway, I get excited about new things quite easily. When the invitations started rolling out, I was obsessively checking my inbox, and I kid you not, literally dreaming about getting mine to the point where I was waking up in the middle of the night with the urge to check my mail! Part of the anxiety probably came from wanting needing to secure my address of choice, like I was lucky enough to do back in 2004 with Gmail. Just try getting your name now without adding random numbers; I don’t know how the poor kids today deal with the scarcity. My wife also wants any readers to know that she’s heard enough about my two username options, the pros and cons of both, and never wants to discuss email addresses again.

So now that I’ve used it for a little bit, I’m undecided if I should make this my primary email service. On one hand, everything they promise is true. The workflows are elegant, the way it puts you at the center of the experience is refreshing (no stranger can disturb your peace, OCD freaks can bundle threads together, etc.), and the emphasis on privacy and business model transparency is way better than any free alternative. On the other hand, it’s not entirely how I’d like to use email, and some edges are rough to the touch.

Categories
General

Singapore Gets An Apple Store

Finally.

After years of waiting, Singapore got its own Apple Store on Orchard Road (where else?) in May of 2017.

I’ve been in the ecosystem for about 14 years now, and getting good sales service and support from third-party resellers has been consistently hard. Back when Funan the IT Mall was still around, there were a few small shops that knew what they were doing with Macs, but for the most part, the bigger chains gave people bad advice, installed RAM chips facing the wrong way, and stocked some pretty abysmal accessories at outrageous prices. Apple Retail have done all of the above on a bad day, too, I’m sure, but at least they’re held to higher standards.

The two-level store follows the recent round of store designs by Norman Foster, with lots of large indoor plants and round headphone stands on the far end. You get upstairs via a symmetrical pair of spiral staircases cut into cool stone walls on either side; no glass staircases or elevators here. I read in some press release that the materials are meant to echo the Apple Park campus’s design language, which I guess is … fine.

Processed with VSCO with kp8 preset

While it’s nice to have a place to buy devices and “feel part of a community” with the new Today At Apple events, I think the main benefit of having this here is going to be accessible, proper customer support in the city. I’ve been down to industrial parks way too many times to get my iPhone looked at in the past, and it’s not fun.


 

A word about my current setup, for future reference: I’ve not bought a new Mac in 7 years. The current iMac struggles along and is only used once every couple of months to do the things only a Mac can do for arbitrary reasons. I get most of my work done on a MacBook Pro supplied by the company, but for personal use, my iPhone and a couple of iPad Pros do everything I need or have time for. The 12.9” version gets a lot of use as a desk-bound typing machine and a bed-bound Netflix player, which is really underutilizing it, I know. The smaller one gets taken everywhere because of its size, and I’m hoping for it to replace the MBP for a lot of little things at work like note taking and task management. Who wants to bring a big laptop home every night anyway?

Categories
General

iOS 10 Makes the Timeline UI a Reality

Wired: Apple May Have Figured Out the iPhone’s Most Promising Feature

3D Touch is instrumental to Apple’s newly rethought lock screen, in a way that could fundamentally change how you interact with your iPhone.

But with iOS 10, you’ll use your home screen a whole lot less.

This article from Wired today recalls the thinking of many UX designers who believe that homescreens tiled with app icons will soon give way to a new kind of smartphone UI: the timeline. Over the last few years, both iOS and Android have been making their notifications richer, with simple functions like deleting new emails, quickly replying to texts, or faving tweets, amongst others.

lockscreenBut iOS 10 looks to be taking it to a whole new level. iPhones will light up when you raise them, and interactive notifications can expand into whole widget-like apps with live maps and data, and house more complex options than a dialog box or text input field can provide. And the best place for this new timeline UI to live is on the lock screen of your phone, the starting point of any interaction, and an arguably more valuable space for accomplishing tasks than the homescreen.

And it’s 3D Touch, launched to public disinterest with last year’s iPhone 6S, that’s been the missing piece all along. Without pressure sensitivity and Apple’s Peek & Pop gestures, a self-activating lock screen might be a pretty bad place to have action buttons that can accidentally touched. I’d be interested to see how it works on phones without it, such as the new iPhone SE. Perhaps they just won’t have Raise to Wake.

Also worth remembering that this new timeline of Things That Need Your Attention Most will live beside the Today screen of widgets (swipe to the right), which should do a lot for the idea that we’ll all be unlocking our iPhones a lot less and getting stuff done quicker later this September.