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MacStories Reading List: January 22 – January 29

Another week gone by, another Reading List collection of great articles we've found around the web in the past seven days. This week saw the release of Apple's Q1 2012 results, with an impressive 37 million iPhones sold and over $40 billion in revenue for the quarter. Interesting discussions, however, are still happening around iBooks Author, textbooks, and publishing tools. Not to mention The New York Times' articles detailing Apple's supply chain in China, and the experience of an Android user trying an iPhone for two weeks.

It's time for another Reading List, so curl up with your favorite browser or read-later app, and enjoy the links we've collected for you. Read more

Quick Review: NewsFlash Aggregates The World’s Headlines

Even though I do most of news consumption in Instapaper, Twitter, and Zite these days, I still enjoy getting up to speed with "real news organizations" every once in a while. The majority of time that means getting to fire up some Italian website that delivers news (such as Ansa) or "big media" publications from the US, depending on what I'm looking for in that particular moment. Just as I was wondering why some sort of "Techmeme for Italy" doesn't exist yet, an email dropped in my inbox pointing me at NewsFlash, a new universal app by Sollico, the same guys behind CurrencyPad for iOS.

NewsFlash is basically an RSS aggregator for the major news sources in the world -- that is, some sort of "Techmeme for Italy only" for more countries, with "big media" websites aggregated by default and no relevance algorithm in the backend. In Italy, you can have news from the likes of Il Corriere Della Sera or Ansa; in the U.S. you'll both find Reuters and Msnbc alongside TechCrunch and MacRumors. The app, in fact, is organized in sections that range from News and Politics to Sports, Technology and Gossip, providing a way to quickly change the topic you're looking and get the facts, or at least what's been written, about the latest news. It's like Techmeme meets MacHash meets Tech News Tube meets Google Reader, only in a clean, intuitive app for iPhone and iPad.

The app obviously allows you to share stories via Facebook, Twitter (iOS 5 integration is supported), email and text message. NewsFlash doesn't always load a website's mobile view when jumping to stories (and that can actually be a good thing), but it offers font size controls and options to block ads and links to third-parties. News can be updated with the typical pull-to-refresh gesture, whilst a top toolbar is used to switch between countries and sections through a single swipe. Currently, NewsFlash comes with support for the following countries: Italy, UK, US, Germany (both in Deutsche and English), Japan, France (both French and English) and Israeli. The app's preferences allow you to hide certain sections and add custom feeds (you can add literally anything that supports RSS, turning NewsFlash into a simple RSS reader), adjust fonts and change the app's background. I like how the app automatically looks at your device's language and tries to load news from that country.

NewsFlash is free, but you can disable iAd with a $1.99 in-app purchase. Give it a try if you've been looking for a nice app that aggregates "general" news, whilst keeping your real RSS subscriptions in a standalone Google Reader app.

Lion Full-Screen, New Tab Page Sneak Into Early Firefox 12 Build

One of the next versions of Firefox, Firefox 12, may feature a series of new interface elements and functionalities that should both appeal to OS X Lion users and introduce new navigation options for those who dont' want to save their-most accessed websites in a bookmarks bar anymore. As first noted by ExtremeTech, an early version of a proposed new tab page design snuck into a nightly version of Firefox; per Mozilla's multiple channel releases, users of Firefox can test different versions of the browser, which range from Nightly to Aurora, Beta, Stable, and those uploaded directly to Mozilla's FTP servers.

ExtremeTech wrote about the new tab page:

The Firefox home tab is a lot more exciting. Basically there are two phases: The first phase will add “launchers” at the bottom — one-click links to your downloads, settings, apps, and so on (pictured right). Phase two is a complete reworking of the home page paradigm, weaving in favorite apps, recent websites, and even instant messaging (pictured below). Phase one is expected to roll out with Firefox 12, but at the time of writing the code still hasn’t been committed.

However, as also noted in an update to the original post, it appears Mozilla has pulled the functionality from the Nightly release of Firefox, leaving it in the "UX version" available for download on Mozilla's servers. Upon comparing the standard Nightly build to the UX one, I noticed the latter already contains the grid design for top websites pictured above, and full-screen support for Lion.

I wasn't able to activate ExtremeTech's home tab page design with search, Top Apps, Top Sites and Chat in a single window; the current Firefox UX Nightly build features shortcuts along the bottom of the window to open History, Settings, Add-ons, Apps, and Downloads. A new "Restore Previous Session" button is also provided in case you haven't set Firefox to automatically re-open previously open tabs on launch.

Changes that appear in Firefox Nightly builds typically carry over to the other stages of development and are further tweaked with refinements and bug fixes, but there could be changes in the features that Mozilla decides to implement once version 12 hits the beta channel. As for Lion support, Mozilla failed to deliver any significant optimization since the OS' release back in July, unlike competitor Chrome which added new scrolling, full-screen support and gesture navigation (among other things) fairly quickly. A designer at Mozilla mocked up some ideas that the company could deliver in a future version of Firefox for Lion, but as of version 12 nightly (Firefox stable is currently at version 9) it seems those ideas haven't been taken into consideration yet.

Scanner Makers Have Their Heads In The Cloud

Macworld: Scanner Makers Have Their Heads In The Cloud

James Galbraith reports from Macworld|iWorld 2012:

Don’t believe it when folks say that the Macworld | iWorld show floor is primarily filled with iOS accessories—the community of document scanner makers is quite well represented too. At least seven different companies have scanners on display at this week’s event.

Continuing a trend that we saw last year, many scanner companies are relying on their cloud capabilities rather than their hardware to differentiate themselves.

He mentions Doxie's Go scanner, Neat Company's NeatReceipts and NeatDesktop products (powered by subscription-based NeatCloud), Fujitsu's ScanSnap scanners, and Ambir, which partnered with NewSoft for the Mac versions of the TravelScan Pro and TravelScan Pro Duplex. NewSoft also showed a Mac utility that scans the OS X Address Book and syncs with iCloud.

It's interesting to see how scanners, a category of devices many would have called "boring" five years ago, has been revitalized by iOS devices and the cloud. Most of these products have cloud-related functionalities built-in, usually in the form of Dropbox and Evernote integration for publishing scanned documents, or backing up entire libraries of PDFs. They come with desktop and mobile applications, too, that often allow for wireless syncing through Eye-Fi cards, thus cutting the need for a cord entirely.

On the iOS side, another trend that can only grow as the hardware gets better is camera-based scanning software. The App Store is full of possible solutions to turn your iPhone into a scanner; because it's software, developers can augment these apps with updates and new features at any time. iOS scanning tools will never be a replacement for "real" scanners if you need to go paperless with 10 years worth of documents, but they can serve as the primarily solution for many people that are starting now with only a few business cards and small receipts. I wouldn't be surprised to see Apple coming out with its own scanning app in the future, as a cool hardware showcase for a new iPhone.

Personally, I bought a Doxie Go and I'm quite fond of it so far. Make sure to check out Shawn Blanc's video and review if you've never heard of the Doxie before.


Even Apple Can’t Change The Reality Of Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Overnight

Even Apple Can't Change The Reality Of Consumer Electronics Manufacturing Overnight

There’s nowhere else in the world you can build a modern smartphone or tablet as cheaply, easily, and reliably as the massive factories of companies like Foxconn, which operate on a scale that is difficult to comprehend. The price for doing business with companies like Foxconn is living with the knowledge that these products are being built by people who have signed up for a modern-day version of indentured servitude.

This month the issue of working conditions and the human cost of producing Apple products has come up a few times with a 'This American Life' episode, the release of Apple's annual Supplier Responsibility report and then this week's New York Times report on the issue. It's an incredibly serious issue and one that is rightly in the spotlight again. Yet whilst it is wrong to excuse Apple on this issue, the New York Times report perhaps glosses over the important part of this issue. Tom Krazit of paidContent goes one step further than the New York Times report and points out the sad, conflicted reality that if we want these luxury consumer electronics (such as the iPhone), they just have to be made in China and Apple cannot single-handedly change this reality.

As should be clear by now, Apple is only being singled out by the Times because it is at the top of the tech heap, and while that may be fair game given Apple’s unbelievable profit, it overstates the ability of the company to act as a macroeconomic force.

Apple has been the focus of these reports and backlash because they are now at the top of industry - despite the fact that by all accounts they are also one of the most transparent companies regarding this issue. As Krazit points out, Apple's Supplier Responsibility report is far more detailed than that of Nike or GAP's - companies that were targeted nearly a decade ago for horrifying conditions in their supplier's factories. In fact GAP's last report was in 2010 and Nike hasn't even released a report since 2009.

It could use some of its $97 billion cash hoard as a carrot and the threat of losing its formidable business (Foxconn has no customer more important than Apple) as a stick. But unless Apple is willing to incur significant risk and set up its own manufacturing facilities governed by its own principles within China (something which, to be clear, may not be permitted by either China or the U.S.) it is dependent upon suppliers that have different standards when it comes to the well-being of their employees. And changing the labor laws of a foreign country is not necessarily a project that a U.S. company can throw money at and cross its fingers hoping everything works out.

Krazit's full article is well worth the read, as he rationally examines the issue and discusses what could be done by Apple. As he and us at MacStories want to stress, Apple is right to scrutinise their suppliers and should continue to put ever more pressure on their suppliers to improve conditions. Yet it is unrealistic to expect Apple to stop relying on Foxconn and other Chinese suppliers and move production to a Western nation or equalize working conditions overnight. As Krazit notes, "even Apple doesn’t have the clout to reverse two decades of economic history that has led to the status quo".


The State Of iCloud-enabled Apps

Three months after the public launch of iCloud, I thought it'd be interesting to check upon the App Store and see how many developers have decided to enable iCloud integration for documents & data storage in their apps.

iCloud went live alongside iOS 5 and OS X 10.7.2 on October 12th, two days ahead of the iPhone 4S' launch. In retrospect, iCloud's public debut wasn't without its issues and hiccups, but it was relatively smooth in the following days and Apple acted promptly to restore interrupted services for its users. Looking back, it's just weird how many times iCloud Mail has been down, and continues to be unstable, whereas iCloud sync (for apps and data) has been fairly responsive and, at least on my side, always up. This says a lot about priorities, I guess.

In 107 days since iCloud went live, and 235 since Apple's announcement at WWDC '11, it appears the majority of third-party developers are still considering whether or not iCloud is something worth investing their time -- and customers' money -- or not. Those who have successfully implemented iCloud have done so in ways that require minimal user interaction, most of the times enabling sync capabilities through a single setting switch. Others have tried more complex solutions, often having to come up with separate tools to enable iCloud. Especially on the Mac, the fact that only apps sold through the Mac App Store can be directly integrated with iCloud isn't helping developers who are still selling apps both on Apple's App Store and their own website. Overall, there seems to be a shared trend among developers choosing to wait for Apple to clarify specific aspects of iCloud sync, improve the platform and fix some bugs that may prevent certain applications from being iCloud-enabled without requiring a major restructuring of the codebase on their end. Turning an iOS or Mac app into an iCloud-enabled app hasn't turned out to be the 1-click process many, including me, wrongfully assumed when iCloud was previewed at WWDC last year.

Every app has its own way of storing local documents and user data. Some apps prefer keeping the original source of a document intact, say a .txt file, whilst others may apply their own file format to store documents and data internally in a proprietary database or multiple files, such as Evernote's take on XML. There are pros and cons: keeping a universal file format such as plain text gets you more benefits in data portability; writing your own database structure allows you, as a developer, to do things exactly the way you want. What does this mean for iCloud?

Without getting too technical (also because my knowledge on the subject can only get you so far before I suggest you go read the developer documentation), the developers I've talked to explained that in the way iCloud syncs file, there may be some incompatibilities with apps that are based on complex databases and libraries. Apps that simply want to sync .txt files across multiple devices might be easier to port to iCloud, but then again there are always some aspects to consider such as conflicts, renaming a file, or getting a timestamp for the modification date when multiple devices are accessing iCloud. That's not to say implementing iCloud is technically impossible for apps that are based on libraries, and not easily exportable files: below, I've collected some examples of apps that do just that, and quite cleverly too. However, getting to enable iCloud and make it reliable enough so that all kinds of apps can work with it without frustrating the user (who, in theory, never has access to the inner workings of iCloud) while at the same time providing the functionalities he or she expects. Read more

The Omni Group Previews OmniPlan for iPad, iCloud Sync Coming To iPad Apps

The Omni Group Previews OmniPlan for iPad, iCloud Sync Coming To iPad Apps

At Macworld|iWorld 2012, which kicked off yesterday in San Francisco, iOS and Mac developer The Omni Group offered a first preview of an initial build of OmniPlan for iPad, and detailed some of their upcoming plans for the suite of apps they offer to Mac, iPhone, and iPad users.

As reported by Ars Technica, an iPad version of The Omni Group’s project planning and management application, OmniPlan, should be released in the second quarter of 2012. That puts it right on schedule for a possible WWDC release, although The Omni Group’s CEO Ken Case didn’t commit to a specific ETA when commenting on the app’s release. Similarly, Case didn’t give any details on pricing, except that we should expect the same pattern that happened with the Mac versions of OmniFocus and OmniGraffle – the iPad apps being sold at roughly half the price, yet with equally powerful functionalities.

Chris Foresman writes:

When we spoke to Case at the Macworld Expo last year, he told us about the company’s plans to update OmniPlan on Mac OS X to version 2.0. That version included a major overhaul to the backend engine, which improved cloud syncing abilities and offered integration with the GTD-based task manager OmniFocus. OmniPlan for the iPad will use the same engine, making it possible for multiple users to update project plans simultaneously. Those changes can be reviewed, approved, or rejected using the iPad just as on the desktop.

The early build we saw this week wasn’t complete, but the UI made full use of pinch and swipe gestures to control how much of a project’s timeline was in focus at any given time. Multitouch gestures also make it easy to manipulate task times and connect tasks and milestones to others to establish dependencies.

For current Omni customers, Case has confirmed that iPad versions of OmniGraffle, OmniGraphSketcher and OmniOutliner will get a new document management interface with iCloud support. The change is much needed as Omni’s current document-based sync isn’t the most automatic or user-friendly out there, and iCloud would hopefully make everything easier and reliable, while still keeping the old webDAV and exporting options available.

Looks like it’s going to be another great year for The Omni Group.


Why The iPhone’s Average Selling Price Increased Despite The “Free” iPhone 3GS

Earlier this week Apple released its Q1 2012 financial results and it was a blockbuster quarter, Apple's best ever with $46.33 billion in revenue. One of the key factors that drove this sky-high figure was the sale of 37 million iPhones at an average selling price (ASP) of $660 — iPhone sales actually contributed to 53% of Apple's revenue for the quarter.

Significantly, this was the first full quarter where Apple offered a "free" iPhone in the US to customers going on contract — the iPhone 3GS. Previously Apple had offered the 3GS alongside the iPhone 4 at a reduced price, but with the 4S the iPhone 4 fell to $99 and the 3GS became free. One would have presumed that the iPhone ASP would thus fall with the addition of another lower-priced iPhone model but in fact the ASP increased from the previous quarter and at $660 the iPhone ASP is near the highest it has ever been.

How has the ASP risen despite the presence of the "free" 3GS?

There are a few reasons as to why the ASP has increased and a big reason is that in addition to the new lower-priced 3GS ($345), Apple also introduced the 64GB iPhone 4S that is at a higher price-point ($849) than the previously most-expensive iPhone. This new higher-priced model would seem to have offset any reduction in the ASP that the iPhone 3GS would have caused - particularly given Q1 2012 was the 4S launch quarter and demand was very high for the new iPhone model.

Whilst Apple didn't give out details on what the breakdown was of sales between the iPhone 4S, 4 and 3GS, an estimate from Consumer Intelligence Research Partners suggests that in the last quarter the iPhone 4S represented 89% of all iPhone purchases in the US. The report showed that only 4% of iPhone purchases last quarter were for the 3GS and 7% for the iPhone 4. This backs up the notion that the higher-priced iPhone 4S 64GB model (estimated to be 21% of iPhone 4S purchases) actually offset any decrease in the ASP and probably drove the increase in ASP to $660.

How will the iPhone ASP fare in the following quarters?

As Horace Dediu of Asymco points out, there is usually a slight uptick in the iPhone ASP during a launch and holiday season. This would suggest that in the following quarters the ASP may decrease a little as the high launch demand for the 4S subsides a little. It is unlikely to drop that much though, with the iPhone ASP typically hovering somewhere between $620 and $660. Dediu also investigated the historical ASPs for the iPhone, iPad, iPod and Mac and found that "Apple does not change pricing but rather stakes out a specific price point as resonating with consumers given their positioning". The above chart demonstrates this point quite well.

[Sources: MacRumors, Asymco, AllThingsD]

The Apple Of Gaming

A great piece by Craig Grannell at Revert To Saved about the current state of Nintendo:

For a long time, I considered Nintendo the Apple of gaming—a company that cared about the details and about the right things (fun, excitement, enjoyment). Nintendo’s problem these days is that Apple is now the Apple of gaming—and the Japanese veteran needs to fight back, perhaps borrowing some of the tricks used by the plucky American upstart.

Yours truly, two months ago:

It’s always about the games, ultimately, but the hardware matters, too. More importantly, integration of hardware and software matters, and with my iOS gaming background I think Nintendo still has to get this right. Using the 3DS after years of iPhones and iPads feels strange because I’m dealing with a device that’s pretty capable spec-wise, yet doesn’t show the same amount of attention to detail, integration and flexibility that my iPhone has. I can play Angry Birds on my iPad, quickly look up a webpage, send an iMessage to my friend real quick and then effortlessly come back to the game. I challenge you to do the same on the 3DS with that joke of Internet browser and “suspended” software on the Home screen.

The problem with Nintendo is that for the longest time they thought only geeks and iPhone nerds were paying attention to App Store games, replacing their handhelds with iPads and iPods. It turns out, previous Nintendo customers are actually moving to mobile platforms -- I'll throw Android in the mix as well -- for all their gaming needs. Blame changes in society, blame the recession, blame the advancements in graphics processing that made Infinity Blade II possible -- mobile gaming is very much real, albeit immature, and Nintendo failed to forecast just how much of an impact it would have on its business. Shame on them for being so stubborn. Now they are paying the consequences, and will likely continue to pay until the Wii U comes out. To get a visual representation of what Nintendo is exactly facing, check out this chart by ngmoco's Ben Cousins comparing Apple, Microsoft and Nintendo by revenue:

What's next for Nintendo? That's a question with no answer, really, as you can't just know what the company's up to without having some kind of inside knowledge of their secret plans. Rather, I'd start by proposing some ideas that might be worth considering at the light of iOS' popularity in mobile games and the changes in consumer behavior:

- Ship a moden interface for managing a device: users don't want to be treated like 3 years-old anymore. Make it accessible, flexible, elegant, fast. This is functional to the point below, which is:

- Make accessing, saving and managing digital content easier. Nintendo's current solution is a joke -- will Nintendo Network be any better? We shall see.

- Embrace social networking: let players link their Nintendo Network profiles to their Twitter, Facebook or Google+ identities, and allow them to interact with Nintendo content outside of Nintendo's online platform.

- Create an ecosystem: make Nintendo Network the single marketplace for all kinds of Nintendo content. Drop regional restrictions and adopt an App Store-like distribution model with worldwide releases, price tiers, promo codes, developer pages. Unlike the App Store, drop user reviews and allow free trials. Let users rely on their Nintendo ID for all kinds of possible future Nintendo services.

- Drop resistive touch-screens: the future is multi-touch. Delay the Wii U if necessary to make it absolutely right.

- Don't drop cartridges entirely, but embrace a digital distribution strategy that makes sense. Advise all developers to release digital versions of their games on Nintendo Network, and perhaps reward buyers of physical copies with free unlockable in-app extras. The goal is to achieve a win-win situation both if you're buying digital or physical.

- Ditch friend codes. Because, seriously, why are we still using friend codes in 2012?

- Create fresh, innovative, strong new IPs while emphasizing the importance and value of historical brands. Fortunately, that seems exactly what Miyamoto is doing.

- Use cutting-edge hardware: let's face it, people like to play Call of Duty and Uncharted these days. Whilst good graphics aren't synonym of good games, they sure help in nurturing an ecosystem of variegate games -- those who make presentation their selling point, and the ones that are more focused on gameplay with less impressive graphics. Angry Birds was possible in 2009, but that didn't stop Apple from leap-frogging itself year over year with the A4 and A5. Make consoles that can stand the onslaught of the Tegras and A6s released every year.

- Ultimately, stay true to gaming. Users don't want to read emails on their handheld or have Office on it. Internet-connected doesn't mean PC-like.

This morning I retweeted three tweets by Zac Cichy:

I don't know how Nintendo should implement these proposed changes in the next months, but I am sure these are ideas more than just a couple of bloggers agree with. The money just isn't there anymore, and Nintendo needs to evolve before it's too late.

[Nintendo Headquarters via David Offf]