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MacStories Unwind: Apple Event Announced, Spotify’s Car Thing, Fitness+ Expanded, and HomeKit Advice

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Sponsored by: MindNode – Ever Had a Geistesblitz?

This week on MacStories Unwind:

MacStories

Club MacStories

  • MacStories Weekly
    • Federico unveils MusicLink a shortcut that creates links to multiple music services and John shows how to link GoodTask and Craft using a shortcut
    • John recommends CardioBot
    • An interview with iOS developer and Sofa creator Shawn Hickman
    • Apps, and more.

AppStories

Unwind


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?

Read more



    MacStories Unwind: WWDC, OmniFocus Custom Perspectives, and New Read-It-Later and Camera Apps

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    This week on MacStories Unwind:

    MacStories

    Club MacStories

    • MacStories Weekly
      • Federico shares a shortcut for browsing articles by topic and domain in Reeder and GoodLinks
      • Ryan highlights apps with great implementations of features announced at WWDC 2019
      • John imagines what better external display support for the iPad Pro might look like
      • Plus lots of apps, Q&A, Links and more
    • MacStories Unplugged
      • John travels west and Federico reveals his fascination with small town America before they dive into a discussion of optimism in technology writing and explore a new trend they are seeing emerge in the App Store.

    AppStories

    Unwind Picks


    Modular Computer: iPad Pro as a Tablet, Laptop, and Desktop Workstation

    My iPad Pro desktop setup.

    My iPad Pro desktop setup.

    When I started my iPad-only journey in 2012, I was stuck in a hospital bed and couldn’t use my Mac. It’s a story I’ve told many times before: I had to figure out a way to get work done without a Mac, and I realized the iPad – despite its limited ecosystem of apps and lackluster OS at the time – granted me the computing freedom I sought. At a time when I couldn’t use a desk or connect to a Wi-Fi network, a tablet I could hold in my hands and use to comunicate with remote colleagues over a cellular connection was all I needed. Over time, however, that state of necessity became a choice: for a few years now, I’ve preferred working on my iPad Pro and iPadOS (née iOS) in lieu of my Mac mini, even when I’m home and have access to my desk and macOS workstation.

    The more I think about it, the more I come to this conclusion: the iPad, unlike other computers running a “traditional” desktop OS, possesses the unique quality of being multiple things at once. Hold an iPad in your hands, and you can use it as a classic tablet; pair it with a keyboard cover, and it takes on a laptop form; place it on a desk and connect it to a variety of external accessories, and you’ve got a desktop workstation revolving around a single slab of glass. This multiplicity of states isn’t an afterthought, nor is it the byproduct of happenstance: it was a deliberate design decision on Apple’s part based on the principle of modularity.

    In looking back at the past decade of iPad and, more specifically, the past two years of the current iPad Pro line, I believe different factors contributed to making the iPad Pro Apple’s first modular computer – a device whose shape and function can optionally be determined by the extra hardware paired with it.

    The original iPad Pro showed how Apple was willing to go beyond the old “just a tablet” connotation with the Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard. Three years later, the company followed up on the iPad Pro’s original vision with a switch to USB-C which, as a result, opened the iPad to a wider ecosystem of external accessories and potential configurations. At the same time, even without considerable software enhancements by Apple, the creativity of third-party developers allowed iPad apps to embrace external displays and new file management functionalities. And lastly, just a few weeks ago, Apple unveiled iPadOS’ native cursor mode, finally putting an end to the debate about whether the iPad would ever support the desktop PC’s classic input method.

    The intersection of these evolutionary paths is the modern iPad Pro, a device that fills many roles in my professional and personal life. Ever since I purchased the 2018 iPad Pro1, I’ve been regularly optimizing my setup at home and on the go to take advantage of the device’s versatility. I’ve tested dozens of different keyboards, purchased more USB-C hubs than I care to admit, and tried to minimize overhead by designing a system that lets me use the same external display and keyboard with two different computers – the Mac mini and iPad Pro.

    At the end of this fun, eye-opening process, I’ve ended up with a computer that is greater than the sum of its parts. By virtue of its modular nature, I find my custom iPad Pro setup superior to a traditional laptop, and more flexible than a regular desktop workstation.

    So how exactly did I transform the iPad Pro into this new kind of modular computer? Let’s dig in.

    Read more


    The New Fantastical Review

    The new Fantastical.

    The new Fantastical.

    Over six years after the debut of the second major iteration of Fantastical – version 2.0 for iPhone, which I reviewed in October 2013 – Flexibits is introducing a new version of their popular hybrid calendar client/task manager today. The new Fantastical1, available today on the App Store, is a single app that runs on iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple Watch.

    In many ways, the new Fantastical is a distillation of themes typically found in the modern productivity app scene: the app is free, and the developers have switched to a subscription model to unlock a variety of premium features. Fantastical Premium – the name of the new service – costs $4.99/month or $39.99/year and brings a collection of brand new functionalities, integrations, as well as enhancements to existing features. Users of Fantastical 2, regardless of the platform they were using, get to carry all existing features into the new app for free, and can try the Premium service at no cost for 14 days.

    I’ll cut right to the chase: I’ve been using the new Fantastical for the past few months (hence the inclusion in my Must-Have Apps story), and it’s become the only calendar app I need, offering more power and flexibility than any alternative from Apple or the App Store. The free version of the new Fantastical – effectively, Fantastical 2 with a fresh coat of paint and some smaller bonuses – is a capable alternative to Apple’s Calendar app, but the Premium version is where Flexibits’ latest creation truly shines. At $40/year, Fantastical Premium may be a big ask for some users, but as a busy individual who deals with teammates all over the globe and likes Fantastical’s new features, I plan to subscribe.

    In addition to the unification of the app across all platforms, design changes, and new premium features, which I will detail below, Flexibits has devised one of the most reasonable, generous upgrade flows from the old, paid-upfront app to the new, subscription-based one I’ve seen to date. There will be backlash from folks who are against subscriptions on principle – a discussion that is beyond the scope of this review – but I believe Flexibits has done a commendable job granting existing users access to all features they’ve already paid for, while replacing Fantastical 2 (the new app is an update over the old version) with something that is faster, visually more attractive, and potentially more useful.

    With the new Fantastical, I’ve replaced a series of apps I was using for calendars, calendar sets, and time zones, and integrated everything into a single dashboard, kicking Apple’s Calendar app off my Home screen in the process. Even with a few shortcomings and system limitations, the new Fantastical is, at least for me, the non plus ultra of calendar apps at the moment.

    Let’s dig in.

    Read more


    LaunchCuts Review: A Better Way to Organize Your Shortcuts with Folders, Advanced Search, and Custom Views

    LaunchCuts' shortcuts view.

    LaunchCuts’ shortcuts view.

    Developed by Adam Tow, LaunchCuts is the latest entry in a series of meta-utilities designed to extend Apple’s Shortcuts app with new functionalities. Unlike Toolbox Pro and Pushcut, however, LaunchCuts is the most peculiar and niche I’ve tested insofar as it doesn’t provide Shortcuts with exclusive actions nor does it come with its own web service to deliver rich push notifications; instead, LaunchCuts’ sole purpose is to offer an alternative view for your shortcut library with folders and powerful search filters. If you have less than 20 shortcuts installed on your iPhone or iPad, you’re likely not going to get much benefit out of LaunchCuts’ advanced organizational tools; but if you’re like me and use hundreds of different shortcuts on a regular basis, and especially if your library has grown out of control over the past few years, you’re going to need the assistance of LaunchCuts to make sense of it all.

    Like the aforementioned Shortcuts utilities, LaunchCuts was born of its developer’s frustration with the lack of folders in Shortcuts – a basic feature that is still bafflingly absent from the app in 2020. As I keep pointing out in my iOS reviews, I find Apple’s continuing reliance on a crude, one-level-deep grid for shortcuts perplexing at best – particularly when the app is so very clearly employed by professional users who want to accomplish more on their iPhones and iPads.

    LaunchCuts was originally created by Tow as an advanced shortcut that let you tag and organize your shortcuts from within the Shortcuts app itself. I remember playing around with the original version of LaunchCuts and, although technically remarkable, I didn’t find much utility in it since it was limited by the UI constraints of Shortcuts; LaunchCuts was begging to become a fully-fledged app with a custom interface to take advantage of Tow’s original concept. Now that it’s a native app, LaunchCuts can fulfill Tow’s vision for taming cluttered and disorganized Shortcuts libraries in a way that wouldn’t have been possible as a shortcut – all while taking advantage of new features in iOS and iPadOS 13.

    Read more


    iOS and iPadOS 13: The MacStories Review

    Following years of a judicious union between platforms, it’s time for iPad to embark on its own journey.

    In looking back at major iOS releases from the recent past, it’s easy to see how building and positioning these annual updates has become a careful balancing act for Apple.

    In last year’s iOS 12, we saw the company focus on improving performance, providing users with tools to understand their device usage habits, and adapting Workflow to the modern era of Siri and proactive suggestions. The strategy was largely successful: iOS 12 was regarded as Apple’s most reliable iOS release of late – a reputation that has resulted in a 90% adoption rate a year later; and the Shortcuts app – the highlight of last year from a user feature perspective – is becoming a built-in (and thus more powerful) app in iOS 13.

    For all that Apple accomplished in iOS 12, however, some areas of the experience inevitably had to be put on the back-burner. Besides improvements to Reminders and Files, iOS 12 lacked a long-awaited dark mode (which was rolled out on macOS instead) as well as more substantial tweaks to the ever-evolving iOS 7 design language; chief among iOS 12’s absentee list, of course, was iPad. Even though Apple had trained users to expect major additions to the tablet platform on a biennial schedule (see iOS 9 and iOS 11), the lack of meaningful iPad features in iOS 12 spurred a contentious discussion when it became apparent that new iPad Pro hardware was so far ahead of its software, it legitimized asking whether investing in that hardware was even worth it.

    The annual debate that surrounds which features make it into each major iOS release is symptomatic of a complicated truth: iOS isn’t just the operating system that runs on iPhones anymore, and these annual releases are more than a mere collection of updated apps. iOS is the platform for an ecosystem of devices – from our wrists and speakers to cars and TV sets – and its changes have repercussions that ripple far beyond an updated Reminders app or a new icon set.

    This, of course, has been the case for a few years at this point, but the nature of iOS as an all-encompassing platform has never been as evident as it is today in iOS 13. For the first time since I started reviewing Apple’s annual iOS updates, it feels like the company is now keenly aware that a new iOS version has to cover an array of themes that can’t be pushed back for scheduling reasons. A single area of attention isn’t enough anymore – not for the Apple of 2019 as an economic, political, and social force, and not for iOS, the engine powering devices that aren’t just screens for apps, but bona fide lifestyle computers.

    As a result, there’s something for everyone in iOS 13 and all the recurring themes of Tim Cook’s Apple are touched upon this time around. iOS 13 improves Face ID recognition and promises improvements to app download sizes and performance. Apple is sending strong signals on its commitment to privacy as a feature with a new sign-in framework for apps and enhancements to location tracking controls and HomeKit cameras. iOS’ design language is getting its biggest update in years with dark mode, new tools for developers to express colors and embed glyphs in their user interfaces, updated context menus, and redesigns aimed at facilitating one-handed interactions. We have notable improvements to built-in apps, including the rebuilt Reminders and Health, an overhauled Files app, and hundreds of quality-of-life tweaks that, in big and small ways, make iOS more capable and efficient.

    No stone is left unturned in iOS 13 – and that includes iPad too.

    The iPad experience has always been largely consistent with the iPhone – particularly since Apple unified core iOS interactions around a screen without a Home button – but also distinct from it. iOS 13 makes this distinction official by splitting itself in a second branch called iPadOS, which uses iOS as the foundation but is specifically optimized and designed for iPad.

    It was clear when the new iPad Pro launched in late 2018 that it told only one part of a bigger story about the role of the tablet in Apple’s modern ecosystem. With iPadOS, Apple is ready to tell that full story: while the iPad has always been an extension of iOS, sharing key similarities with the iPhone hardware and software, it’s been evolving – arguably, a bit too slowly – into a different breed of computer that is fundamentally distinct from a phone.

    We’ve been able to observe this divergence starting in iOS 9 with Split View multitasking and Apple Pencil, and the transition continued with iOS 11 and its drag and drop-infused environment. It was only natural (and well-deserved) for the iPad to begin advancing in a parallel direction to iOS – informed and inspired by it, but also capable of growing on its own and tackling problems that an iPhone doesn’t have to solve.

    From this standpoint, there are two sides to iOS 13: on one hand, an underlying tide that raises all platforms, featuring a distillation of themes Apple comes back to on an annual basis; on the other, a fork in the road, opening a new path for the iPad’s next decade. And against this backdrop, a single question looms large:

    Can Apple balance both?

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      Hello, Computer: Inside Apple’s Voice Control

      This year’s Worldwide Developers Conference was big. From dark mode in iOS 13 to the newly-rechristened iPadOS to the unveiling of the born-again Mac Pro and more, Apple’s annual week-long bonanza of all things software was arguably one of the most anticipated and exciting events in recent Apple history.

      Accessibility certainly contributed to the bigness as well. Every year Apple moves mountains to ensure accessibility’s presence is felt not only in the software it previews, but also in the sessions, labs, and other social gatherings in and around the San Jose Convention Center.

      “One of the things that’s been really cool this year is the [accessibility] team has been firing on [all] cylinders across the board,” Sarah Herrlinger, Apple’s Director of Global Accessibility Policy & Initiatives, said to me following the keynote. “There’s something in each operating system and things for a lot of different types of use cases.”

      One announcement that unquestionably garnered some of the biggest buzz during the conference was Voice Control. Available on macOS Catalina and iOS 13, Voice Control is a method of interacting with one’s Mac or iOS device using only your voice. A collaborative effort between Apple’s Accessibility Engineering and Siri groups, Voice Control aims to revolutionize the way users with certain physical motor conditions access their devices. At a high level, it’s very much a realization of the kind of ambient, voice-first computing dreamed up by sci-fi television stalwarts like The Jetsons and Star Trek decades ago. You talk, it responds.

      And Apple could not be more excited about it.

      Read more


      Creating Home Screen Icons with Launch Center Pro 3.1 and the Shortcuts App

      This fall when iPadOS 13 launches, it will bring an updated Home screen that incorporates pinned widgets and a denser arrangement of apps. The changes aren’t as revolutionary as iPad power users may have hoped when they heard whispers of a redesigned Home screen, but they’re a start. While the addition of widgets is valuable in its own right, in my beta testing of iPadOS I’ve also discovered a lot of potential for the larger set of icons the Home screen can now hold – particularly when combined with a new feature just added to Launch Center Pro.

      Debuting today, Launch Center Pro 3.1 centers around a major upgrade to the app’s icon composer that provides countless options for creating custom icons. While the use cases for this icon creation tool are vast, I was intrigued by one specific possibility: designing icons that could be exported as image files and used by Apple’s Shortcuts app when adding shortcuts to the Home screen, since Shortcuts allows choosing custom images for Home screen shortcuts. Combined with several key OS changes, and the icon creation tool in Launch Center Pro, it’s a better time than ever to add shortcuts to your iPad or iPhone Home screen.

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