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Installing tvOS Betas Over-the-Air from iOS with iCab and Dropbox

I was trying to update my two Apple TVs (a 4K model and a 4th generation one) to the latest tvOS 11.2.5 beta earlier today to test AirPlay 2 (more on this soon) and, because I remembered there was a way to install tvOS betas without a USB-C cable, I was attempting to download Apple’s tvOS beta configuration profile using Safari on iOS. However, as soon as I tapped the Download button on Apple’s developer website, I got this message instead of a new tab showing the downloaded configuration file:

I don’t know when Apple changed this behavior, but I recalled that Safari wouldn’t try to install tvOS configuration profiles on an iOS device. Without a way to manually fetch the .mobileconfig file and save it to my Dropbox, I was going to unplug my TVs and connect them to my MacBook Pro (which usually sits in the closet until it’s recording day for AppStories or Relay) to finish the process.

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iCab Browser Updated for iOS 7, Adds Keyboard Shortcuts and Multi-User Support

iCab has long been one of the most powerful third-party browsers for iOS, pioneering features such as extensive integration with x-callback-url for automation, sync through iCloud and Dropbox for bookmarks and a proprietary Reading List, and integration with many third-party services for read-later and bookmarking functionalities.

Last week, iCab was updated to version 8.0, which has brought a redesign for iOS 7 and a reorganization of the app’s Settings; according to developer Alexander Clauss, the app has also been completely rewritten, resulting in native support for 64-bit devices, background downloads (iCab’s download manager is one of the app’s marquee features), and overall faster performance under iOS 7.

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Apple Watch Series 7: The MacStories Overview

At this morning’s virtual keynote event, Apple’s Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams announced the Apple Watch Series 7. Packing a brand-new display, a more rounded case design, faster charging, and greater resistance to cracking and dust, the Series 7 is a very nice iterative update.

Display and Durability

By far the biggest feature of the Series 7 is its gorgeous new display. Apple has reduced the bezels on all sides of the device by 40%, resulting in just 1.7mm borders around the screen. The screen itself has been stretched to fill this new area, and is 20% bigger than the screen on last year’s Series 6. To fit the new screen, case sizes have been increased to 41mm and 45mm — a fairly subtle change from the 40mm and 44mm sizes of the Series 5 and 6 Apple Watches. Thankfully, compatibility has been maintained with existing Apple Watch bands.

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Apple’s April 2021 Event: All the Little Things

Apple events are always packed with little details that don’t make it into the main presentation or are easy to miss in the flurry of announcements. Some tidbits are buried in footnotes, while others are tucked into word clouds on Keynote slides or in release notes. Today’s event was no exception, so after having a chance to dig in a little deeper, here is an assortment of details about what Apple announced.

Note: you can also check out our standalone overviews for the new iPad Pro, iMac, Apple TV, and AirTags with more details about each product.

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Inc. Interviews David Smith About Widgetsmith’s Astonishing Success

Most MacStories readers are undoubtedly familiar with the story of David Smith’s app Widgetsmith, which took off last fall after going viral on TikTok. Yesterday, Jason Aten of Inc. published an interview with Smith about his career as an independent developer and how his 12 years of experience building 59 different apps prepared him for the unexpected success of Widgetsmith, which has been downloaded more than 50 million times.

As Aten aptly points out:

Often, the simplest form of success is what happens when a stroke of good fortune meets years of hard work and preparation. Plenty of people work hard their whole lives but never come across the kind of luck associated with having your app go viral on TikTok. At the same time, plenty of viral social media stories flame out immediately. They never put in the work or preparation that would allow them to capitalize on the moment.

As MacStories readers know, Widgetsmith isn’t Smith’s first App Store success. We’ve covered many of his other apps over the years, but Widgetsmith is in an entirely different universe than anything that came before it. For example, Aten reveals that:

Smith told me that Widgetsmith had more downloads in a single day than Pedometer++ has had in the entire time since it launched in 2013.

That’s remarkable given that Pedometer++ was probably the first pedometer app on the App Store and has remained popular in the seven years since it was released.

There are many valuable lessons in the Inc. story that are broadly applicable beyond app development. Some lessons are as simple as the value of practice and becoming an expert in your field. As Smith explains:

All of those other apps that I built in the past helped. I need to, for example, get the user’s current calendar events so that I can put it in a widget. I know how to get calendar events and pull them into a widget. I’ve done this in another app before.

Smith’s story also shows how easy it is to misjudge demand for a product in advance too. Along with Smith and others who have followed his work, I didn’t expect Widgetsmith to be popular beyond iOS power-users. Widgetsmith is a terrific app, but I never imaged its audience would be bigger than Pedometer++, but as Smith says in his interview:

And it turned out that everybody is that power user who was very fiddly about what they want their Home Screen to look like. I just completely misjudged the size of the market that I was addressing. I thought I was targeting a very specific group of people. And it turned out that that very specific group of people was like everyone.

If there are MacStories readers who still haven’t tried Widgetsmith, do so because it’s fantastic. But, also, don’t miss Inc.’s interview with Smith, which is an excellent look at the combination of hard work and luck that lead to ‘overnight success.’

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Downloading YouTube Videos on iPad with youtube-dl and a-Shell

Greg Godwin, writing at NonProfit Workflows:

There are various apps for the Mac that’ll download YouTube videos, but there’s nothing comparable for the iPad. I discovered that it’s possible to download these videos using the iCab browser if you change the user agent, but I could never get this to work consistently. There is a command-line program you can run called youtube-dl that will download videos from YouTube (and other sites). The problem is, the iPad doesn’t ship with a Terminal app like the Mac does, so while I could do this on my Mac, I struggled to find a way to use this command on my iPad.

Greg has written an excellent tutorial on how to install the (recently reinstated) youtube-dl utility (which I’ve been using to download YouTube videos on my Mac mini for years) and use it on iPad via a-Shell. I followed their tutorial and was able to get youtube-dl up and running on my iPad Pro – with support for encoding files via ffmpeg – in literally two minutes. There’s probably less of a need for downloading YouTube videos on iPhone and iPad now that the YouTube app supports native 4K playback on Apple platforms, but I think it’s great to be able to download videos offline for research and archival purposes regardless. I always like to download the best possible version of a video in the WebM format, which plays beautifully at crisp 4K in the free VLC app for iPad.

One crisp Tyler.

One crisp Tyler.

Side note: I’ve been trying to use this shortcut to pass the URL of the current video from Safari/YouTube to a-Shell via the share sheet. Unless I’m missing something obvious, the a-Shell app launches but doesn’t run my command, which is passed as a ‘Text’ parameter to its Shortcuts action.

Update: Thanks to MacStories reader Jay, I was able to make a-Shell’s Shortcuts action work by switching from single- to double-quotes. I’ve made a shortcut that lets you pass a YouTube URL from either Safari or the YouTube app to a-Shell – which will start downloading it – so you don’t have to type the command (and related options) manually each time. You can find it below and in the MacStories Shortcuts Archive. Also, don’t miss this tip by Greg on navigating a-Shell’s local folder structure.

youtube-dl

Download a video from YouTube using youtube-dl and the a-Shell app for iPhone or iPad. The shortcut accepts any YouTube URLs passed from Safari or the YouTube app via the share sheet. Detailed instructions on how to set up youtube-dl and a-Shell can be found here.

Get the shortcut here.

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iOS and iPadOS 14: The MacStories Review

Even with (unsurprisingly) smaller releases, Apple is pushing forward with bold ideas across all platforms.

How do you prepare a major new version of an operating system that now spans two separate platforms, which will be installed on millions of devices within a few hours of its release, amid a global pandemic? If you’re Apple, the answer is fairly straightforward: you mitigate the crisis by focusing on a narrower set of features, perhaps prioritizing bug fixes and stability improvements, but then you just have to do the work.

In my time as an iOS (then iOS and iPadOS) reviewer, I never thought I’d have to evaluate an OS update with the social and political backdrop of iOS 14. Let’s face it: when the COVID-19 outbreak started fundamentally changing our lives earlier this year, at some point many of us – including yours truly – thought that, among more serious and severe repercussions, our tiny corner of the Internet would see no new phones, OS updates, videogame consoles, or other events over the course of 2020. Or that, at the very least, changes in hardware and software would be so minor, they’d barely register in the grand scheme of things as tech companies and their employees were – rightfully so – adjusting to a new, work-from-home, socially distant life. Yet here we are, over a year after the debut of iOS and iPadOS 13, with brand new versions of both operating systems that were announced, as per tradition, at WWDC a few months ago. Remove all surrounding context, and you wouldn’t guess anything has changed from 2019.

Context is, however, key to understanding Apple’s background and goals with iOS and iPadOS 14, in a couple notable ways.

First, I think it’s safe to assume slowing down to reassess the state of the platform and focus on quality-of-life enhancements and performance gains would have worked out in Apple’s favor regardless of the pandemic. In last year’s review, I noted how the first version of iOS 13.0 launching to the public wasn’t “as polished or stable as the first version of iOS 12”; in a somewhat unpredictable twist of events, managing the iOS 13 release narrative only got more challenging for Apple after launch.

Late in the beta cycle last year, the company announced certain iOS 13 features – including automations in Shortcuts and ETA sharing in Maps – would be delayed until iOS 13.1, originally scheduled for September 30th. Following widespread criticism about bugs, various visual glitches, and stability issues in iOS 13.0, Apple moved up the release of iOS 13.1 and iPadOS (which never saw a proper 13.0 public release) by a week. Despite the release of a substantial .1 update, the company still had to ship two additional patches (13.1.1 and 13.1.2) before the end of September. Before the end of 2019, all while the general public was lamenting the poor state of iOS 13’s performance (just Google “iOS 13 buggy”, and you’ll get the idea), Apple went on to ship a total of eight software updates to iOS 13 (compared to iOS 12’s four updates before the end of 2018). The record pace, plus the mysterious removal of features that were originally announced at WWDC ‘19, suggested something had gone awry in the late stages of iOS 13’s development; it wasn’t long before a report covered Apple’s plans to overhaul its software testing methodology for iOS 14 and 2020. The pandemic may have forced Apple to scale back some functionalities and deeper design changes this year, but it’s likely that a decision had been made long before lockdowns and work-from-home orders.

Second, context is necessary because despite the pandemic and rocky rollout of iOS 13 and its many updates, Apple was still able to infuse iOS and iPadOS 14 with fresh, bold ideas that are tracing a path for both platforms to follow over the next few years.

On the surface, iOS 14 will be widely regarded as the update that brought a redesigned Home Screen and a plethora of useful quality-of-life additions to the iPhone. For the first time since the iPhone’s inception, Apple is moving past the grid of icons and letting users freely place data-rich, customizable widgets on the Home Screen – a major course correction that has opened the floodgates for new categories of utilities on the App Store. In addition to the upgraded Home Screen, iOS 14 also offers welcome improvements to long-standing limitations: phone calls can now come in as unobtrusive banners; Messages borrows some of WhatsApp’s best features and now lets you reply to specific messages as well as mention users; Siri doesn’t take over the entire screen anymore. There are hundreds of smaller additions to the system and built-in apps in iOS 14, which suggests Apple spent a long time trying to understand what wasn’t working and what customers were requesting.

iOS and iPadOS 14 aren’t just reactionary updates to criticisms and feature requests though: upon further examination, both OSes reveal underlying threads that will shape the evolution of Apple’s platforms. With compact UI, the company is revisiting a principle introduced in iOS 7 – clarity and content first – with fresh eyes: the UI is receding and becoming more glanceable, but the elements that are left are as inviting to the touch as ever – quite the departure from Jony Ive’s overly minimalistic, typography-based approach. We see this trend everywhere in iOS 14, from phone calls and Siri to widgets, new toolbar menus, and Picture in Picture. Intents, the existing technology behind SiriKit, Shortcuts, and intelligent Siri suggestions, is also at the center of widget personalization. Intents already was one of Apple’s most important frameworks given its ties to Siri and on-device intelligence; iOS 14 proves we haven’t seen all the possible permutations and applications of Intents yet.

Then, of course, there’s iPad. In iPadOS 14, we see the logical continuation of pointer and trackpad support introduced earlier this year in iPadOS 13.4: now that users can control an iPad without ever touching the screen, Apple is advising third-party developers to move away from iPhone-inspired designs with apps that are truly made for iPad…and somewhat reminiscent of their macOS counterparts. We can see the results of this initiative in modernized system apps that take advantage of the iPad’s display with a sidebar, multiple columns, and deeper trackpad integration – new options that every iPad app developer could (and, according to Apple, should) consider going forward. Although some of the iPad’s oft-mentioned ongoing struggles remain unaddressed in iPadOS 14 (see: multitasking and window management), Apple is embracing the iPad’s nature as a modular computer this year, and they feel comfortable leaning into lessons learned with the Mac decades ago.

The context of 2020 is what makes iOS and iPadOS 14 so fascinating and, to a certain extent, fun to review. On one hand, we have two major OS updates that may or may not have been impacted by the global pandemic in their focus on fewer groundbreaking additions and more consistent improvements across built-in apps; on the other, just like any other year, we have a suite of overarching themes and potential implications to dissect.

But for all those users still pausing over that ‘Install’ button, pondering whether updating their most important communication and work-from-home devices is worth it, there’s only one consideration that matters:

Will this go any better than last year?

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    Drafts 22 Review: Widgets, Scribble, and More

    One of my favorite times every year is right around the beginning of August. Not because of the weather – summer where I live – but rather it’s when beta season is in full swing. Apps are putting polish on features, the full update scope is set, and everything starts to feel stable. And there’s nothing better to me than a new Drafts update to coincide with new OS features, bringing new uses of the app to my répertoire.

    With the release of iOS and iPadOS 14 this year, it might seem on the surface that the updates to most apps are minimal. Widgets are the hot new feature of the operating systems, along with the visual changes of macOS Big Sur. While most apps will benefit from these changes, the productivity category will be greatly helped. And like Shortcuts, Scriptable, and others, Drafts benefits greatly from these new changes. It might take you a bit of time to see how this will fit your use cases, but once you give that some thought, it will open up new opportunities for you to use the app.

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