Two days ago we noted Apple had promised the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) to clarify the marketing for the new iPad’s “4G” connectivity options on the company’s Australian website. With the ACCC alleging that Apple was misleading Australian customers in thinking the iPad would be compatible with Telstra’s 4G network, and Apple replying that Australian networks were “misnamed”, Apple agreed to resolve the dispute by clarifying marketing, contacting customers, and sending new signage to resellers by April 5th.

As noted by The Next Web, Apple has begun making these changes by updating the description of 4G compatibility on its Australian online store, clarifying that the new iPad ”supports very fast cellular networks” but that it is not “compatible with current Australian 4G LTE networks and WiMAX networks”. We’ve captured the differences in the screenshot below.

Other international stores, however, including the UK and Italy ones, are still reporting the old description for the iPad WiFi + 4G model, and it’s unclear whether the changes made in Australia will propagate automatically to other countries, or if more lawsuits by local consumer protection organizations will be necessary. Complaints are indeed taking hold in various European countries as well.

As Apple is seemingly making true on its promise to clarify marketing terms and offer a refund to customers, the ACCC is still pushing for a full trial in early May.

iOS 5 Certified For Government Use In Australia

ZDNet reports the Defence Signals Directorate (DSD) — the organization that reviews and certifies software and devices for use by government agencies in Australia — has certified iOS 5, allowing iPhones and iPads to be used to transmit “certain classified information”.

Today, the DSD cleared iOS for government agencies to use so long as the information that was being communicated and stored had a classification no higher than PROTECTED.

PROTECTED is the lowest level of classification in the Australian Government Security Classification system aside from publicly available information. The other three classifications are CONFIDENTIAL, SECRET and TOP SECRET in order of sensitivity.

As confirmed in the iOS Hardening Configuration Guide, released by the DSD, the certification applies to iPhones, iPads and iPods running iOS 5.1 or higher. The guide includes a series of how-tos and explanations of iOS security, passcode management, iOS device deployment, and “example scenarios” to better understand the iOS file system architecture, data protection, and the way applications can register URL handlers to open documents.

As iPhones and iPads gain traction in the enterprise, government agencies may become another market for Apple to further consider with functionalities specifically aimed at improving the security of iOS.

Gravitational Force in Angry Birds Space Analyzed

Rhett Allain has posted a follow-up to his 2010 article The Physics of Angry Birds, this time studying the gravitational force that influences the trajectories of Rovio’s birds in the franchise’s latest installment, Angry Birds Space. The article goes into great detail analyzing the forces that may affect the gameplay mechanics Rovio built into the game.

If the scale of the sling shot is the same as the scale in the Earth-based Angry Birds, then the birds are launched with a speed of about 25 m/s. This is similar to the launch speed in Earth-based Angry Birds — for which I found a launch speed of about 23 m/s.

Read the full story on Wired if you’re looking for real numbers and a complete dissertation on the “friction” Rovio must be implementing in Angry Birds Space. Make sure to check out Allain’s analysis from November 2011 as well, specifically focused on the yellow Angry Bird.

Mar
29
2012

Here are today’s @MacStoriesDeals on hardware, iOS, and Mac apps that are on sale for a limited time, so get them before they end!
(more…)

Mar
29
2012

The (Semi)Skeuomorphism

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Last night’s release of Paper, a new drawing and sketching app for iPad (The Verge has a good review and interview with its developers), got me thinking about a trend I’m seeing lately in several high-profile iOS apps from third-party developers and, to an extent, Apple itself. That is, drifting away from the forced skeuomorphism of user interfaces to embrace a more balanced approach between imitating real-life objects to achieve familiarity, and investing on all-digital designs and interfaces to benefit from the natural and intuitive interactions that iOS devices have made possible.

John Gruber says that the tension “between simplicity and obviousness” can be seen in developers getting rid of UI chrome (buttons, toolbars) to make simpler apps, and Apple, which has adopted UI chrome — often, in the form of skeuomorphic elements — to bring obviousness and familiarity to its applications. iCal’s bits of torn paper and Address Book’s pages are obvious, but are they simple?

The subject is complex, and the scope of the discussion is too broad to not consider both ends of the spectrum, and what lies in between. Ultimately, simplicity vs. obviousness brings us to another issue with user interfaces: discovery vs. frustration.

Apple’s (and many others’, with Apple being the prominent example) approach is clearly visible: familiar interfaces are obvious. Everybody knows how a calendar looks. Or how to flip pages in a book. People are accustomed to the physical objects Apple is trying to imitate in the digital world. But are they aware of the limitations these objects carry over when they are translated to pixels? As we’ve seen, this can lead to frustration: why can’t I rip those bits of torn paper apart? Why can’t I grab multiple pages at once, as I would do with a physical book? And so forth. Interfaces that resemble real-life objects should be familiar; it is because of that very familiarity, however, that constraints become utterly visible when pixels can’t uphold the metaphor.

On the other hand, a number of applications are trying to dismantle the paradigm of “skeuomorphism mixed with buttons” by leveraging the inner strength of the iOS platform, and in particular the iPad: the device’s screen. Impending’s Clear, for instance, famously avoided buttons and toolbars to focus its interaction exclusively on gestures. Paper, for as much as its name implies a real-life feeling of actual paper, is the least real-life-looking (and behaving) sketching app of all: sure it’s got paper and a tool palette, but there are no buttons and navigation elements when you are drawing. In Paper, you pinch to go back one level (like Clear); you rotate two fingers on screen to undo and redo your actions. I assume the developers had to use standard sharing and “+” buttons only because they couldn’t come up with a significant breakthrough in associating these commands with equally intuitive gestures.

Which brings me to the downside of simplicity: discovery. Pinch to close and rotate to undo make for a pretty demo and elegant implementations for the iOS nerds like us, but are they discoverable enough by “normal people”? Would my dad know he can pinch open pages and rotate an undo dial? Are these gestures obvious enough to avoid confusion and another form of frustration? Intuitive software shouldn’t need a manual.

There are several ways to look at this debate. For one, we could argue that Apple was “forced” to use skeuomorphic elements to get us “comfortable” with these new devices, easing the transition from computers by imitating other objects and interfaces we already knew how to use. With time, they have realized people are now familiar with the previously unfamiliar, and they are now slowly introducing elements that subtly drift away from real-life interactions. Like the full-screen mode in iBooks, or the sidebar in Mountain Lion’s Contacts app. But there are still some graphical elements decorating Apple’s interfaces that don’t have a clear functional purpose: the leather in Find My Friends, the green table in Game Center, the iPad’s Music app. I think there is also a tension between functionality and appearance, and I believe Apple sees some skeuomorphic UI designs as simply “cool”, rather than necessary means to convey interaction: it’s branding.

The “simple and elegant” interfaces, though, reside in a much wider gray area that’s still largely unexplored. Clear and Instapaper, by foregoing real-life resemblances of any sort, have dodged the bullet of frustration by creating their own standards. You can be mad at Clear’s use of gestures, but you can’t be frustrated because its paper doesn’t act like paper. There is no faux paper in there. The “frustration” this new breed of iOS apps generates can be traced back to the novelty of their interfaces and interactions, not to their legacy. But then there’s a certain selection of apps, like the aforementioned Paper, that are still somewhat bounded to their real-life counterparts and, partly because of technological limitations and established UI patterns, aren’t completely distancing themselves from the familiarity of real objects.

We’re at a point in software history where balance is key. Balance between simplicity and obviousness, discovery and frustration, innovation and familiarity. We’re using software that wants to remember where it came from, but that also strives to touch the emotional cords of a natural extension it didn’t know was reachable: us.

As iOS devices and the ecosystem of apps and developers around them mature and evolve, these dichotomies will increasingly define the interactions of today, and the software of tomorrow.

Tim Cook Visits Foxconn in China

Bloomberg reports on a visit by Apple CEO Tim Cook to Foxconn’s plant in Zhengzhou, China, where iPhones and iPads are made, among other devices.

Cook’s trip to Zhengzhou followed a meeting with Beijing Mayor Guo Jinlong on March 26 and with Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang on March 27. Apple’s Wu said earlier those meetings were “great,” without providing details on their content.

Vice Premier Li told Cook Chinese authorities will make an effort to strengthen intellectual rights, but also asked for more attention in caring for workers in Chinese factories. Apple recently found itself in the middle of a debate surrounding working conditions in China — a debate spurred by false allegations by performer Mike Daisey, and a series of investigative reports by The New York Times. In February, the Fair Labor Association began an inspection of Apple’s suppliers.

According to an interview published  by paidContent, music streaming service Rdio will soon expand in “all countries” in Europe, making its digital music catalog available to more users outside the US, Canada, Germany, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and Denmark, where it is currently available.

There are some major competitors in Europe,” Rdio’s partnerships and internationalisation VP Scott Bagby tells paidContent. “We are a couple of years behind others in terms of expansion there.

“But Europe is an immediate focus. We’ll be expanding in all countries in Europe – within the next few months, you’ll see several pop up.

Like competitors Spotify, MOG, and Deezer (the latter very popular in Europe), Rdio allows users to pay a monthly fee to gain unlimited access to a vast library of songs and albums by artists whose labels and publishers have agreed to make music available for streaming. That isn’t always the case, as some notable exceptions have showed in the past, but new data from the US music industry suggests that music subscriptions are growing, proving to be a viable alternative to standard digital downloads. Rdio, however, puts greater focus on the social aspect of music discovery and collection, allowing its users to “follow” other Rdio subscribers and build playlists they can share and collaborate directly on the site, or using the native apps the service has developed for iOS, Android, and OS X. With the recent launch of New Rdio, the company has set out to fundamentally rebuild the way users interact with the service, making it easier to access playlists, recommendations from the network, and people to follow.

Like with most streaming services founded in the US, Rdio hasn’t been able to obtain rights to launch internationally since Day One, preferring to stagger launches in other countries throughout the past year. According to VP Scott Bagby, no timeframe has been set, but Asia will be another focus for the company after a wider European rollout.

Mar
28
2012

A few minutes ago Apple released iTunes 10.6.1, adding a number of bug fixes that were reported in previous versions of the software (iTunes 10.6 was released on March 7). From the changelog:

  • Fixes several issues that may cause iTunes to unexpectedly quit while playing videos, changing artwork size in Grid view, and syncing photos to devices.
  • Addresses an issue where some iTunes interface elements are incorrectly described by VoiceOver and WindowEyes.
  • Fixes a problem where iTunes may become unresponsive while syncing iPod nano or iPod shuffle.
  • Resolves an ordering problem while browsing TV episodes in your iTunes library on Apple TV.

iTunes 10.6.1 is showing up now in Software Update, and should be available on Apple’s Downloads website shortly.

Mar
28
2012

A Series of Clicks

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“Every once in a while a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything.” – Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

Often, new technologies come along and they immediately show us the future. That something new is possible, right now, today, and that we should pursue innovation along that path. But other times — most of the times I’d argue — new products and technologies simply “click” in our brains, telling us that, yes, that looks like the future, but that we should also wait for a proper and concrete realization of that vision.

In the past 18 years, I have been fortunate enough to play around with gadgets and technologies that had a profound impact on my personal and professional life.

It was sometime around 2003 when a friend of mine showed me the first Nokia phone with a camera. The 7650, revolutionary to me at the time, had a poor display compared to today’s standards and it ran Symbian. But it took pictures. Coming from old StarTACs and other Nokia phones, I can’t really express how that lens embedded in a mobile “smartphone” seemed ground-breaking to me. I mean, there you had a phone — the thing you were already using to make phone calls and send short messages — capable of shooting stills and saving them into its onboard memory for future perusal and consumption. Back then I couldn’t afford that phone; I started saving money, and eventually got another Nokia phone, with a camera that, however, was quickly surpassed by the pace of innovation in that area. Click.

Around that time I also used to travel a lot with my parents, usually by car. When we did, I made sure my dad would tune in the car’s FM radio to my favorite station…which would promptly lose its signal inside tunnels. So I convinced my parents that I needed one of those things — a portable CD player. My parents weren’t — they still aren’t — exactly “tech savvy”, and they hadn’t considered upgrading their music library from cassette tapes to the higher-quality CDs. We had a lot of music tapes in our house — remember how you had to switch sides in LPs, or use a pencil to manually rewind the tape? So I got a portable CD player — an Amstrad model — and boy was I late to the party. All my friends from school already had one, making mixes with the latest hits and exchanging ripped albums like there was no tomorrow. I remember getting my own portable CD player was some sort of a revolution for my music listening habits. Not only did I get to enjoy music with higher fidelity that didn’t “lose the signal” while in the car, I could also listen to something different than my parents. I loved that CD player. In fact, when it eventually broke down, instead of getting a new one I decided to take it to my local gadget shop and have it fixed. They fixed it. And I kept collecting CDs from my favorite artists and I made sure that, on every new trip, the Amstrad was right there in my backpack.

Of course, eventually, something new came along and showed me yet another taste of the future. New solutions always create new problems. With the CD player, it was the CDs. All those CDs! I think by the time I was into my second year of portable CD player usage, I had bought around five of those things to carry around compact discs. And sure enough, a new standard had come around, a digital format called MP3 that promised to bring CD-like quality with the convenience of your music being available digitally. On a computer, with files you could manually manage, download, and delete at any time. So I bought a new “MP3 player” — it was an Acer one — one of those with a spinning hard drive you could hear when you were navigating your music library through a terrible display. The MP3 player was an even bigger revolution for my music habits. It allowed me to rip my own music, transfer it on a computer, manage it there, and if I still wasn’t happy, look it up on the Internet to get something else. And I didn’t have to carry around CDs. I filled my MP3 player with gigabytes worth of music and those random bootlegs found on the Internet I still cherish today. Because new technologies often “click” somewhere in our brains and tell us to wait for the complete realization of that product a few years down the road, it was no surprise when that MP3 broke and I decided to get an iPod. Classic white one, bought in 2007. That iPod got me started with iTunes, the Apple ecosystem, and gave me a better interface for the CDs I had ripped, which hopefully in a few months will be available for a digital upgrade through iTunes Match. Those are the same files I converted over a decade ago.

Progress and innovation have a funny way of changing our lives. Sometimes, they do so abruptly, seemingly without following a constant line of changes throughout the years. Other times, it’s just a series of clicks. The music tapes became CDs, which convinced me to get a portable player, which turned into an MP3 that, because of the pace of innovation in the digital era, led me to buying an iPod years later. That iPod allowed me to create the iTunes account I still use today for my iPhone. The MP3 files have become a monthly subscription to Rdio. You can count the clicks.

It’s not just about music and gadgets. In reminiscing products and ideas that have been truly transformative in the way I think about the broad subject of “technology”, I can’t avoid mentioning videogames. I have been a gamer since my earliest memories, and even if I’m playing less today, I still try to be in the loop of what’s happening in the community. My parents bought me the original Game Boy and SNES when I was around 6, yet the more I think about “click” moments in regards to gaming, the more I keep coming back to the Game Boy Advance. The GBA, and in particular its SP revision, showed me that SNES-quality portable gaming by Nintendo was possible, with decent battery life and original games, too, not just ports. Years later, I got a call from my friend Marco, who owns a videogame store here in Viterbo, to come try “something cool” he just got from Japan. It was a Saturday afternoon in late November. Today, every time I go visit Marco, usually over the weekend, I still remember that Saturday afternoon of 2004, when I first tried the original Nintendo DS, controlling Mario in a 3D environment with a stylus on a touch screen. Back then, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at – “you really can control Mario with your touch”, I think I said. Touch screens were nothing new; yet that implementation paved the way — or at least my perspective — for touch-based interactions in the future, leading all the way up to today’s Angry Birds. Click.

The sense of discovery in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Liberty City Stories, flexing the original PSP’ hardware muscles for the first time. The PSP homebrew community — back in high school, I spent hours browsing PSPUpdates.com (now available here), learning the latest tricks to run perfect emulators of — guess what — my old SNES and GBA games. The day my friends and I figured we could send photos during class to each other over Bluetooth, rather than MMS, with our Nokia phones, also in high school. Or that morning when Marco from the videogame store called us — we were at school — because he had the Wii in stock on Day One. We left school, got the Wii, and spent all day wondering if, someday, all game interactions would be based on motion controls. Click, and click.

In the recent years, several innovations occurred in other areas: the App Store in 2008; the solid-state drive, forever changing the way I think of “responsiveness” on a laptop; Twitter, the tool I use every day to get in touch with people from around the world. Just two years ago, in 2010, I gazed upon the iPhone 4′s Retina display for the first time, thinking that such image quality, such crispness, such detail couldn’t be possible. But they were possible. Nokia 7650 be damned.

In connecting the dots and “counting the clicks”, I remembered ideas and products that I was able to try out when they were first released, and then I look at my new iPad, which is the culmination of these technologies that have so amazingly evolved over the past 10 years. For better or worse, in one way or another, all those innovations that were so incredible when I first tried them are now coexisting in a single device that’s even more incredible and enjoyable because of the very sum of its parts.

Technological innovations are objective, factual, but how we remember them — the way we connect them to today’s products — is deeply personal. So while my series of clicks and dots may be best exemplified by the iPad in 2012, waiting for “the next big thing” to happen, perhaps yours is still developing, with the iPad being just another “click”. Either way, there’s only to be excited about the future.

Click.