John Voorhees

1144 posts on MacStories since November 2015

John, who is an editor for MacStories and the Club MacStories newsletters, joined MacStories in 2015. With Federico, he co-hosts AppStories, a weekly podcast exploring the world of apps, and Dialog, a seasonal podcast about the impact of technology on creativity, society, and culture. John also handles sponsorship sales for MacStories and its podcasts.

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Catalyst Can Rescue the Mac and Grow the iPad

At WWDC 2018, Craig Federighi provided a sneak peek at what everyone was calling Marzipan: an as-yet-unnamed way for iPad app developers to bring their apps to the Mac. So, it came as no surprise when Federighi retook the stage in 2019 and revealed more details about the project and its official name: Catalyst.

What caught a lot of developers off guard though was SwiftUI, a declarative approach to building user interfaces that was also announced at WWDC this year. SwiftUI, known before the conference as Amber, its rumored project name, was on developers' radar almost as long as Catalyst, but it's fair to say that few anticipated the scope of the project. The purpose of SwiftUI is to allow developers to build native user interfaces across all of Apple's hardware platforms – from the Apple Watch to the Mac – using highly-readable, declarative syntax and a single set of tools and APIs. If that weren't enough to get developers' attention, using SwiftUI carries the added advantage of providing features like dark mode, dynamic type, and localization automatically.

The message from WWDC was clear: SwiftUI is the future, a unified approach to UI development designed to simplify the process of targeting multiple hardware platforms. It's a bold, sprawling goal that will take years to refine, even if it's eagerly adopted by developers.

However, SwiftUI also raises an interesting question: what does it mean for Catalyst? If SwiftUI is the future and spans every hardware platform, why bother bringing iPad apps to the Mac with Catalyst in the first place? It's a fair question, but the answer is readily apparent from the very different goals of the two technologies.

SwiftUI serves the long-term goal of bringing UI development for all of Apple's platforms under one roof and streamlining it. It won't take over immediately though. There's still work to be done on the framework itself, which Apple will surely expand in capability over time.

By contrast, Catalyst is a shorter-term initiative designed to address two soft spots in Apple's lineup: the stagnation of the Mac app ecosystem, and the slow growth of pro iPad apps. The unstated assumption underlying the realignment seems to be that the two app platforms are stronger tied together than they are apart, which ultimately will protect the viability of their hardware too.

The impact of Catalyst on the Mac and iPad remains murky. It's still too early in the process to understand what the long-term effect will be on either platform. There's substantial execution risk that could harm the Mac or iPad, but despite some troubling signs, which I'll get to in due course, I'm convinced that Catalyst has the potential for meaningful improvements to both platforms, especially the Mac. Let's take a closer look at what those could be.

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CNBC Reports New Details About Apple’s App Review Team

App Review has been a black box for over a decade now, with virtually no details leaking out of Apple. That's begun to change in 2019. Earlier this year, Mark Gurman interviewed Phillip Shoemaker, a former head of App Review, on Bloomberg's Decrypted podcast where Shoemaker described what app review was like before he left the company around 2016.

Now, CNBC has additional and more recent details about App Review from unnamed sources within the organization. Many of the tidbits in CNBC's report were previously shared by Shoemaker, but there are new details sprinkled throughout the piece about the organization and how apps are reviewed. For instance, CNBC reveals that:

Apple recently opened new App Review offices in Cork, Ireland, and Shanghai, China, according to a person familiar with the matter. The department has added significant headcount in recent years, they added.

CNBC also learned that:

The department has more than 300 reviewers and is based out of a pair of offices in Sunnyvale, California....

The report contains new details about the review process too:

Reviewers have daily quotas of between 50 and 100 apps, and the number of apps any individual reviewer gets through in an hour is tracked by software called Watchtower, according to screenshots seen by CNBC. Reviewers are also judged on whether their decisions are later overturned and other quality-oriented stats.

App Review is part of Apple's developer relations organization run by Phil Schiller, the company's Senior Vice President of Worldwide Marketing. Like other developer problems raised with front-line developer relations personnel, App Review decisions are escalated through the organization when an appeal is made:

Developers who disagree with a decision made by App Review can appeal to a board called the App Review Board, which can change the decision from a lower-level reviewer and is partially composed of reviewers with good track records, people who worked as reviewers said. Sustained appeals can bring an app in front of the Executive Review Board.

CNBC reports that the Executive Review Board, of which Schiller is a member, also handles sensitive app decisions like the decision to reject the Infowars app in 2018.

It's curious that after years of almost no information about the App Review, details are beginning to emerge now. However, other than the size of the organization, which is smaller than I would have guessed, and revelation that App Review now operates in Ireland and China, the review process is about what I thought it was given that Apple has said in the past that each app is reviewed manually.

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I Won’t Sit Down: Songwriting with Frank Turner (Part 1)

In the fall of 2013, I sat in the first row balcony of The Vic theater on Chicago’s north side. I was there to see Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls for the first time. Can you see me stage left in the baseball cap?

Today, we published the latest interview of Dialog Season 1 featuring musician and songwriter Frank Turner.

You can find the episode here or listen through the Dialog web player below.

There's something about Turner's songs that grabbed hold of me in 2013 and has brought me back to several live shows since. Aside from Turner's music, which I love, part of the draw was his abrupt break with his musical past. I found Turner's jump from post-hardcore band Million Dead to a folk-inspired, acoustic guitar-based solo career inspiring as I contemplated a career departure myself.

There’s also something in Turner’s autobiographical, personal style of songwriting that connects with listeners and transcends differences in their experiences, which I find intriguing. It reminds me of the discussion Federico and I had in episode 1 about writing personal stories. Those are often the hardest stories to write, but they can also be the most rewarding when, despite different backgrounds, others draw something useful from them. In today's episode, we explore that aspect of Turner's music, his relationship with fans, and the interpretation of his lyrics.

We also trace Turner’s early years of constant touring and how he's managed to find the time to write new songs and books while on tour. We talk about social media's dual nature as a useful tool and destructive force in society too; a topic that has become a common theme among Dialog guests. Finally, we touch on the evolving music industry and how it's affected Turner's career as a musician.

Photo Credit: Nicole C. Kibert

Photo Credit: Nicole C. Kibert

The title of the episode is drawn from Turner's song Photosynthesis:

I won’t sit down,
And I won’t shut up,
And most of all I will not grow up.

The lyrics reflect a stubborn defiance of authority and expectations combined with a restless energy that I think captures Turner's musical career and the mindset of many of the other writers we have already interviewed and will interview soon.

I hope you enjoy the interview. When we sat down to plan Dialog, Frank Turner was precisely the sort of guest I had in mind: someone working in a creative field affected by many of the same technological issues other writers face, but with a unique perspective on them. Be sure to check out the show notes for the episode to learn more about Turner and his music, and stay tuned for the conclusion of our interview next Tuesday.

Also, we’d appreciate it if you would rate Dialog in Apple Podcasts, recommend it in Overcast, or simply tell a friend about it.


AppStories, Episode 116 – Notes in iOS 13 and macOS Catalina

On this week's episode of AppStories, we start a series of episodes on the new and updated apps coming to iOS and macOS Catalina in the fall starting with Notes.

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Soulver 3 for Mac: The MacStories Review

The strength of Soulver lies in its flexibility. Full-fledged spreadsheet apps like Numbers and Excel have their place. However, day-to-day life requires calculations that don't demand that level of horsepower and benefit from contextualizing numbers with text. It’s the kind of math that happens in notebooks and on the back of envelopes. By combining elements of a text editor, spreadsheet, and plain English syntax, Soulver commits those easily-lost notebook scribblings to a format that allows for greater experimentation and easier sharing.

During WWDC last week, Acqualia Software released a major update to the app. Soulver 3 for Mac features an updated design and substantial new functionality that I love. The app has never been easier to use, and its implementation of a sidebar to corral sheets is fantastic.

However, unlike its predecessor, version 3‘s file format is incompatible with the iOS version of the app and earlier Mac versions. Soulver also saves its data as a single ‘sheetbook’ file now, which means it can no longer save or manage sheets as individual files saved to arbitrary locations on your Mac. Both changes will be problematic for some users who may want to wait for future updates that the app's developer has said are in the works.

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Dialog Season 1, Episode 3: A Conversation with John Gruber (Part 2)

Today, we published the second part of our Dialog interview with John Gruber of Daring Fireball. You can find the episode here or listen in the Dialog web player below.

Like Federico, John Gruber was one of the first people I thought of when we began planning this first season of Dialog about writers and writing. Daring Fireball was an inspiration for me too, but in a slightly different way.

I first met Gruber in 2012 at the first Úll conference in Dublin, Ireland, where he was a surprise speaker. That was before I built my first iOS app or was writing or podcasting. I went to Úll on a lark to get a closer look at the iOS developer community I'd been following as I started to teach myself Objective-C. By the end of three days chatting with Gruber and other writers and developers at Úll, I knew I wanted to be part of that scene, creating my own apps. It would be almost three years before I launched Blink, my first app that drew any attention, and five before I could quit my old job, but that's precisely why this second part of our interview with Gruber resonated with me.

Daring Fireball started like many indie businesses: as a labor of love that Gruber wrote on the side while working another job. The site didn't earn enough to make it a full-time job at first, but over time it grew, and Gruber was faced with a choice. Daring Fireball had reached a point where it had a shot at supporting him and his family, but not unless he quit his day job, which he did.

In the latest installment of Dialog, we continue our conversation about the difficulty of making it as an indie writer online today. Gruber discusses how his priorities have shaped Daring Fireball, the audience for whom he writes, and maintaining the site's relevance long-term.

Of course, no interview with Gruber would be complete without talking about Markdown. Although we nearly forgot to ask about it, I'm glad we did because it's not easy to remember that Markdown, which debuted 15 years ago, took a while to catch on. Markdown's human-readable syntax may not have clicked with writers on the web in 2004, but as more people who didn't have experience with HTML started their own websites, Markdown gained momentum. Today, it's used on all sorts of platforms and in text editors, blogging tools, and even Apple's own Xcode IDE.

As we conclude our first Dialog interview, I want to thank John Gruber for taking the time to be our first guest on Dialog. Next week, we'll begin a two-part interview with singer-songwriter Frank Turner, who we caught up with as he passed through Madison, Wisconsin on tour last month. I'm excited to share those episodes for a couple of reasons. First, it was a personal thrill to interview Turner, whose music I love. Second, while the conversation is a departure from what you likely hear on a lot of your favorite tech podcasts, there are fascinating parallels between John Gruber's writing on Daring Fireball and Turner's songwriting, which is precisely what we'd hoped for when we began this season.

Finally, thanks for listening. If you missed the first part of our interview with John Gruber you can listen to it here, and you can subscribe to the podcast here. Also, if you're enjoying the show, please take a moment to rate it in iTunes or recommend it in Overcast to help others discover it.


Craig Federighi: The AppStories Interview

It's been an exciting week at WWDC. Despite rumors and leaks going into the keynote on Monday, the presentation was full of surprises and fulfilled many of the wishes of Mac and iOS developers and users.

Federico and I arrived in San Jose last weekend and planned to record an episode of AppStories that would begin to sift through the huge stack of announcements made by Apple. Those plans were almost immediately cast aside when a unique opportunity presented itself.

Federico is attending WWDC this week, and Apple graciously offered to schedule a time for him to interview Craig Federighi, the company's Senior Vice President of Software Engineering. With a WWDC packed with announcements that will affect app development for years to come, we of course agreed immediately.

When you step back from the details of what was announced in the keynote and since, I expect that WWDC 2019 will be remembered as the event when a new vision for apps on all of Apple's platforms from a tiny Watch face to a Mac Pro driving a 32-inch Pro Display XDR began to come into focus. The tools made available to developers – like Catalyst for bringing iPad apps to the Mac, and SwiftUI, a new declarative way to build app UIs with less code – promise new efficiencies and capabilities to help developers build apps on every Apple platform. Combined with powerful new features coming to the iPad in iPadOS and an extensive Shortcuts update, there's an opportunity for a future with deeper, pro-level iPad apps and experiences, a more diverse Mac app ecosystem, and tighter integration across Apple's entire hardware lineup.

Against that backdrop, Federico sat down with Craig Federighi for a special episode of AppStories, one of MacStories' growing lineup of podcasts, to explore the impact of developer tools like Catalyst and SwiftUI and the new iPadOS on the apps we use today and the apps these technologies will enable in the future.

Thank you to Apple for arranging the interview, Craig Federighi for participating, and as always, thank you for listening to AppStories. We hope you enjoy the show.

You can find the episode here or listen through the AppStories web player below.


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CarPlay Dashboard to Enable Displaying Multiple Apps in the Fall

According to Apple, CarPlay is currently available in 90% of all cars manufactured in the US and 75% worldwide, which explains why the company announced what it described as the biggest update to CarPlay since its introduction in 2014.

The update, which will be released in the fall with iOS 13, is dominated by a redesign of CarPlay’s interface. In the current version of CarPlay, only one app is displayed onscreen at a time and using Siri takes over the whole screen. The new UI, which Apple is calling CarPlay Dashboard, allows two apps plus Siri suggestions or the Siri interface to be displayed at one time.

During the demo, Apple showed off Maps side-by-side with Music and a Siri suggestion to open a garage door using a HomeKit shortcut. Although apps can coexist next to each other in the update, the demo also showed apps like Music being used full-screen. When Siri was activated while Music was displayed full-screen, Siri’s familiar stylized sound wave pattern appeared beneath the Music controls and artwork, which is a nice departure from the current system where Siri’s UI takes over the entire display.

In another nice Siri addition, the voice assistant will now work with third-party CarPlay-enabled apps like Waze and Pandora. Currently, Waze has a separate button in the app’s UI to trigger voice control. That makes voice control more difficult and frustrating in third-party apps because they all implement voice control a little differently. In the fall though, developers will be able to update their apps to take advantage of the same in-car Siri hardware buttons as Apple’s apps.

Apps will also be added and updated. Apple previewed a new CarPlay version of the iOS Calendar app, and Music has been redesigned to include album art.

Apple didn’t say whether the update will be backwards compatible with existing car entertainment systems, but because that’s historically been one of CarPlay’s selling points, I expect it will be. A revamped CarPlay was an unexpected surprise yesterday, and although I haven’t had a chance to try it yet, I like what was shown during the demo, especially the ability to keep Maps on the same screen as another app.


You can also follow all of our WWDC coverage through our WWDC 2019 hub, or subscribe to the dedicated WWDC 2019 RSS feed