Category Archives: Opinion

Thoughts on computers and the IT industry.

WWDC 2017

I thought I’d jot a few notes about next weeks WWDC, Apple’s major developer conference. Full disclosure: I’ve not been following the rumour sites very closely this year. I’ve not even done as much iOS development since WWDC 2016 as I have for the last few, so what follows is just a wish list. It’s based on neither leaks nor an in depth knowledge of failings of the current developer tools.

Hardware

WWDC is normally a time for software announcement but so much of Apple’s hardware is currently stale that it would be disappointing if nothing is updated before September.

Pretty much every Mac and iPad Pro could do with an refresh. We know not to expect a Mac Pro update, but anything else would be fair game. An update to last years MacBook Pros would be a decent indication that the “Pro” market is still a segment that Apple wishes to serve.

Personally I’m not currently in the market for new hardware, but good and frequent updates would show that my platform of choice will remain viable.

Development tools

In the last year I’ve written an Apple TV app and a small Mac app. The former I used as a exercise in learning Swift. What I found was that I liked the language but hated the tools.

Xcode is just less stable, slower and less complete when using Swift. I also picked a time where open source projects were transitioning from Swift 2 to 3, so not all projects worked together nicely. (I ended up using no third-party libraries for just this reason.)

Based on this experience, when I wanted the Mac app to be something I put together super-quickly, I chose Objective-C instead. I missed Swift-the-language but I appreciated the return of a usable Xcode. Call me a Luddite, but on balance I think I preferred boring but stable. (I also used Cocoa Bindings which feels much more natural in a language like Objective C.)

So my wish is simple: a Swift development environment that’s as smooth, fast and complete as when coding in Objective-C.

iCloud

Despite the negative press, iCloud has mostly worked well for me. Famous last words. Last year, Apple fixed my last core complaint: that it wasn’t possible to share CloudKit records between users. I’ve not seen many apps that use it yet, though.

What’s left?

Firstly: storage sizes. It feels that the amount of space you get isn’t very generous. The 5Gb “free” space just isn’t enough. You should be able to back up all your iOS devices. And the storage tiers should probably be cheaper or give you more space for the same money.

Secondly: I love iCloud Photos. Take a photo on my iPhone, have it instantly appear on my Apple TV. Download my DSLR pictures to my iPad, have them available on my Mac without any extra work. What’s not to like? Well, each device has its own database of Faces and other metadata. I should get the same results for the same search term on all devices.

Thirdly: more Continuity. The main thing I’d like to see is continuity between the various Music apps. Start listening to a playlist on your iPad, pick it up on your iPhone when you leave home or on your Apple TV when you want to share it more widely.

Mac

I upgraded my personal Mac to Sierra but my work computer is still on El Capitan. Day to day I notice very little difference.

This sounds like a bad thing but, actually, it’s not. I broadly like 10.11. It’s stable and fast for me. I think for the next version I’d just like them to finish what they started.

Does Siri on the Mac feel finished to anyone? What about all the extras in iOS Messages that never made it to the Mac? The web (and Chrome) are always advancing, so there’s always work to be done on Safari.

There is a feeling of stagnation on the Mac but maybe that’s inevitable at this stage of development. Do we really need major annual updates any more? I wasn’t convinced this cadence is useful or sustainable when they announced it. I’m still not sure.

iOS

As a younger platform, iOS clearly has more room for growth than macOS, but with a decades development much of the low hanging fruit has already been picked.

Overall, I’m fairly happy with iOS on the iPhone. Sure, there are tweaks. How about being able to configure the Control Centre? Or change the default apps from the Apple-supplied version? (For what it’s worth, I prefer Safari to Chrome and would probably stick with Mail.app, but competition would be good.)

But the iPad… so much of what was added in iOS 9 still feels unfinished. I love side-by-side apps but I hate having to switch between those apps. I often also want to switch the two running apps, but there’s no simple way that I’ve found.

Ultimately this is similar to the macOS situation: refinement and finishing what’s already there. I don’t think we need a revolution this year.

Apple TV

Some progress, any progress, here would be good. I like my Apple TV but it’s not cheap compared with the competition and the App Store is not exactly vibrant. Some of the recommended apps, for example, are still the same launch titles. Not good for two years later. (I hesitate to conclude that traffic in the App Store is low based on downloads of my own app… but it is a data point that suggests so.)

Is it a games machine? If so, why do Apple only sell one controller? Is it for TV? Then where (in the U.K.) are the ITV and Channel 4 apps? Where is Amazon Video? As the industry moves to 4K, why is it only HD?

Apple seem not to know what to do with it, so my wish would be some statement of intent.

Overall

The funny thing is, desipite using both the Mac and iOS devices all day, every day, I’m pretty happy overall. Maybe it just indicates a lack of imagination on my part but my vote for this year would be simple, incremental updates.

Virtual Assistants

Virtual assistants are all the rage now, in the press if not in not people’s lives.

I am not claiming to do a thorough, like for like comparison. What follows is my subjective, personal experience. Your usage patterns, successes and failures may be different to mine, but I think my conclusions should broadly hold. We’ll see.

I’m comparing an Amazon Echo, an iPhone 6S and the Google app on that same iPhone. I know I’m not using Google Now in its native environment. That was unavoidable and may hobble it. You should bare that in mind if you use Android.

So this Sunday we were going to go to IKEA. It’s a Sunday and the opening hours are shorter than the rest of the week, but which ones?

“Alexa, Ikea Croydon opening hours today.”

Two things about this. First, I don’t really use a conversational style with my computers. That works in the adverts but I try to keep my interactions with inanimate objects short.

Second, none of the three systems had any real trouble understanding what I said. They may have difficulty understanding what I meant but the words themselves posed no problem. If you’ve used voice recognition software any time in the last twenty years this is amazing. (This is not to say that any are 100% accurate, just that the standard is very high and fairly consistent.)

Anyway, while Alexa completely understood the words I asked it, it wasn’t able to get an answer. It didn’t even punt it to Google or Bing.

Siri did better. It thought “Ikea Croydon” was ambiguous and asked me to confirm its guess (it had it right) and then spoke the correct answer.

Google Now went straight to the answer, though it only showed it on screen and didn’t speak it.

Of the three responses, I’d put Siri first and Alexa last. I think speaking the responses makes it more useful, even though I had to say exactly which IKEA I was going to and Google guessed correctly. Reasonable people could argue that Google’s response was better.

Next I asked for the weather: “What’s the weather in Croydon in Fahrenheit.” The catch is the ‘in Fahrenheit’ part, since I normally work in metric. Both Siri and Google Now got it right. Apple’s agent remembered my preference for Imperial measures for the current session, so immediately asking for another city gave the answer in Fahrenheit but later in the day it reverted to the correct measure.

Alexa wasn’t quite as good. It got the right weather but kept the default units. I won’t make the argument that this is another reason for people to give up Imperial measures.

Finally I asked all three whether there had been any problems reported on the Northern Line, the nearest line on the London Underground to my house.

Siri and Google both went to a search engine for the answer, just showing a list of sites that might have the answer but not actually showing the results.

Alexa doesn’t natively know the answer but it has an extensive directory of “skills” that you can add. I used one called “Tube Status.”

It can answer the question but you have to talk to it in a specific way. “Alexa, are there any problems reported on the Northern Line” fails. Instead you have to say, “Alexa, ask Tube Status about the Northern Line.” The “ask Tube Status about” bit is critical; without it, it doesn’t work.

In this case, Alexa comes first but with some caveats. Google and Apple come joint last. This is odd as both companies have the transit data available in their respective Maps app, but they’re currently not surfacing it to their voice assistants.

That experience is actually a pretty good overall summary. Alexa can do a lot, possibly more than either Siri or Google Now, but it’s not so good at understanding what you’re asking without help. Google has its vast trove of data to virtual hand and uses it to make clever inferences about what you mean rather than what you asked. Siri tries to have more of a personality and otherwise falls somewhere between the two. In some areas the fact that it has less data than Google is a feature (privacy!) but that can limit its options.

I have a hard time saying one is better than the other. They’re all flawed, they all got some stuff right and wrong. It’s early days and rather than showing one is better than the others, it really shows differing priorities. Amazon emphasises its API, Apple its privacy, Google its data. They’re all right. An ideal system would have all of those. And in the future they probably will.

Dongles

When I got my new MacBook it wasn’t complete. I sat it down on my desk and nothing would connect.

I tried to plug in my monitor, but I needed a dongle to connect to my DVI monitor. My FireWire external hard-drive needed an adapter. I had to get a card reader as my camera takes CompactFlash cards. Even my USB hub needed replacing because my new computer came with a newer, faster USB standard.

This wasn’t last week and this wasn’t a 2016 MacBook Pro. This was in 2011 when I replaced by Core2 Duo MacBook with a MacBook Pro 15″. Different monitor port. FireWire 800 rather than FireWire 400. The USB ports upgraded to USB 2.

This is why I am mystified that, a week after Apple’s event, people are still complaining that they might have to buy some dongles when they upgrade. I have to buy a few adapters every time I buy a new computer.

Am I saying that I love to carry round a bag of adapters (and lose them)? No, of course not. But I do love carrying around a computer that doesn’t have all the legacy crap that most Windows laptops still have. A colleague got a new laptop last month and it had a VGA port (first launched in 1987) that he’ll almost certainly never use!

In a short time we’ll have Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C peripherals and everything will be much better. This is the price we pay for being trailblazers but I, for one, think it’s worth it.

The Short-Sighted Game

I’m sure that you’ve read Fast Company article about Apple playing the long game. It’s fascinating and, despite the deliberately click-bait title I’ve used here, I think it’s generally true for Apple.

However, there is one area where they don’t get things right. Here’s where I think Cook does it again:

“When you look at most of the solutions, whether it’s devices, or things coming up out of Big Pharma, first and foremost, they are done to get the reimbursement [from an insurance provider]. Not thinking about what helps the patient. So if you don’t care about reimbursement, which we have the privilege of doing, that may even make the smartphone market look small.”

The problem I see here the pure USA-first vision. Big Pharma is big all over the world, but there are only a few places where the insurance providers have such a great stake in heath care.

It’s easy to get stuck in a US, or even Silicon Valley, bubble, not realising that the rest of the world works differently. This time it’s health care. Last time it was thinking that everyone uses swipe credit cards.

These are great markets in America, meanwhile a billion Indians are having a hard time getting an Apple product and the Chinese are putting up obstacles. A company the size of Apple can’t afford to think only in terms of opportunites in the US. Clearly isn’t not going to fail with this attitude but it could limit its future growth.

iOS 10

As I wrote before, iOS 10 is an odd release to talk about before it’s  generally available. Like iOS 8 — but unlike iOS 7 — almost all the good stuff is hidden in APIs, for use by developers. Which means that it’s probably going to be a nice update, but until apps are available it’s difficult to tell.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing interesting visible. Here are a few things that struck me.

  • You get used to the the “lift to show the lock screen” feature on the 6s very quickly. It really is hard to go back to actually pressing a button to see notifications. I know, this is totally a first world problem
  • Visual changes are subtle but mostly an improvement. I’ve not measured it but it feels that some of the animations are quick which helps overall
  • “Share…” button when you long press a link in Mail. This makes sorting through iOS Dev Weekly (among others) so much easier
  • Notifications really are much richer though we’ll only see the full benefit when apps are updated. Messages is almost worth it alone but makes other notifications all the more annoying as they just open the app
  • Updates to the Music app are great. They even fixed the “add to next” / “add to up next” bug
  • The updates to Messages really requires everyone to be on iOS 10. Messages look weird on iOS 9 and lower. For example, if you ‘like’ the message “Hello”, the older OS sees it as “Liked ‘Hello'”. Which, needless to say, is confusing

The final thing that I wanted to mention, is that after using iOS 10 on my main device for a few weeks, work gave my an iPhone SE which came with iOS 9. It immediately felt weird and I missed lots of stuff I’d barely noticed getting used to.

Maybe that’s the best proof of the pudding. It may not be dramatic but I miss it when it’s gone.

Underwhelming by design

There have been lots of articles like “iOS 10 chooses renovation over innovation” since Apple’s WWDC keynote in June.

I think they reflect the fact that when you download the first beta and put it on your old phone — because you’re too cowardly to put it on the handset you use every day — iOS 10 is slightly underwhelming. The first time you look at the home screen you see… pretty much no differences from iOS 9. So you launch Maps and see they moved the search bar to the bottom of the screen. You tap Messages and see some new icons at the bottom. But Mail looks the same. Safari seems to be unchanged.

This isn’t like iOS 7. Not every inch of the screen is different. This is more like iOS 8 where the promise is in the new APIs. And the problem with new APIs? You see nothing with the first beta. There are literally no apps that use them. Most developers don’t even have ideas of how to use them yet.

When I played with the iOS 8 betas, it just appeared to be like iOS 7 with a few fixes and the odd thing moved around. No biggie. As soon as it came out of beta and apps that used extensions became available there was no going back.

So, sure, maybe this isn’t innovation but I’m pretty confident that it’s much more substantial than just rennovation. The new APIs will prompt some interesting new ideas that you’ll be able to see in September. Be patient. Sometimes innovation is in the things you don’t see.

This post originally appeared on Medium.