John Voorhees

1233 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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Agenda

Date-Focused Note Taking


PCalc Developer James Thomson Shares His Catalyst Experience

James Thomson, the creator of PCalc, has written about his experience with Catalyst. Thomson, who was one of the developers that spoke with Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman about the challenges Catalyst poses to developers and their customers, expounds on what he told Gurman, saying about PCalc that:

It became pretty clear to me that I would need to rewrite a lot of the user interface, to find a happy middle ground between the iPad and the Mac. Which would probably benefit both in the long run, to be fair. But with everything else that was going on this summer, I couldn’t justify that work, with no guarantees at the end of the day that I would have something I was happy to ship. So, I mainly focused my time on things like Shortcuts and Dark Mode, and iOS 13 support in general.

Thomson goes on to explain that while it was simple to get a version of PCalc’s iOS app running on the Mac, the APIs for dealing with macOS-specific features felt rough and unfinished.

That’s something I’ve heard from a lot of developers who were initially excited about Catalyst. They also had their hands full dealing with iOS and iPadOS 13, and bugs in both OSes slowed them down over the summer. As a result, many put their Catalyst plans on the back burner.

Thomson also says that:

Documentation for Catalyst has been almost non-existent too, which has made things a lot harder than they should be.

From the business side, there is also no way for somebody to get the Catalyst version of the app for free when they buy the iOS version. And no great way to share in-app purchases either if you have a free app. That generally means that somebody will have to pay a second time to get a copy.

Instead of pushing forward with a Catalyst version of PCalc, which is already available for the Mac as a traditional AppKit app, Thomson created a Catalyst version of Dice by PCalc, his physics-based multi-sided dice simulation that can be used for games like Dungeons & Dragons. Based on his experience with Dice, which is available on the Mac App Store now, Thomson concluded that Catalyst isn’t far enough along to build a version of PCalc that is better than his existing Mac app, but he remains hopeful that the situation will improve.

From what I’ve heard from developers, Thomson is not alone in his experience with Catalyst. That’s not to say there aren’t useful apps being made with Catalyst, but so far, the pool of apps is small, and if it’s going to grow, Catalyst is going to have to evolve rapidly.

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Catalyst’s Rough Edges Risk Alienating Developers and Users Alike

Catalyst, the technology that allows developers to bring their iPadOS apps to the Mac, is off to an uneven start, as Mark Gurman of Bloomberg recounts through interviews with several developers. According to the developers interviewed, there’s a big difference between getting an iPad app up and running on a Mac, and using it to build a high-quality Mac app. According to Gurman:

[PCalc developer James] Thomson said the Mac version of his iPad calculator app initially looked like an iPad app floating on a larger Mac screen, so he had to redesign much of the user-facing software. However, all of the lower-level code pretty much worked out of the box, he said. Lukas Burgstaller said it was initially easy to copy over his Fiery Feeds iPad app, but then he “ran into all sorts of walls” trying to adapt the software to a Mac interface.

Those and other rough edges experienced by developers are exacerbated by a long-standing limitation of the Mac App Store: Mac apps can’t be bundled with iOS and iPadOS apps. That means developers have no choice but to charge separately for their new Catalyst apps, risking the ire of customers.

Although I remain optimistic about Catalyst, it’s off to a rougher start than I’d hoped, as I discuss in my macOS Catalina review. The quality of the relatively small crop of early Catalyst apps demonstrates that the technology holds promise, but Apple needs to move quickly to close the gaps. Otherwise the company risks alienating both developers and users, which would be a significant blow to its Mac strategy.

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AppStories, Episode 133 – Building an iOS Media Companion

On this week’s episode of AppStories, Federico helps John set up an iPod touch as a media companion for watching TV and movies, enjoying music, and controlling HomeKit devices.

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macOS Catalina: The MacStories Review

Ironically, Apple chose to name this year’s update to macOS after an island. Since the iPhone and iOS took off, macOS has sometimes felt like an island isolated from the rest of the company’s OSes, but the goal articulated by the company at WWDC this year was quite the opposite. Apple clearly telegraphed that change is coming to the Mac and it’s designed to bridge the user experiences between each of its platforms.

To developers, that message came in the form of Catalyst and SwiftUI. Catalyst, which was previewed as an unnamed ‘Sneak Peek’ in 2018, is meant to make it easier for iPadOS developers to bring their apps to the Mac. SwiftUI has a similar longer-term goal of unifying and streamlining how developers build the interfaces for their apps across a range of devices, for everything from the Apple Watch to the Mac.

The efforts to draw macOS in closer with Apple’s other operating systems run deeper than just developer tools though. macOS may have been the foundation on which iOS was built, but in the years that followed iOS’s introduction, the two OSes grew apart. Identically-named apps were developed on different schedules, which meant they rarely included the same features. Also, system-level functionality like System Preferences, which serves the same purpose as iOS’s Settings app, was unfamiliar, making Mac adoption unnecessarily hard for newcomers. Catalina is an attempt to address those kinds of inconsistent user experiences.

With Catalina, Apple has taken clear, though not always successful, steps to bridge the divide between the Mac and iOS. App functionality has been realigned, System Preferences has been rearranged, and new features have been added to make it easier to move from one platform to the other.

As with other transitional periods in the Mac’s history, this one isn’t going to be easy. However, because the change is driven by a fundamental change in computing, it’s also necessary. We live in a new climate where computing is now dominated by mobile devices. For many people, a smartphone is all the computing power they need day-to-day. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer a place for the Mac, but it’s clearly what’s driving the changes in Catalina.

Apple could have chosen to ignore the shift of the ground beneath its feet and merely maintained macOS, making the kind of small incremental changes we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. However, not adapting is as deliberate a choice as change is, and it carries just as much or more uncertainty for the Mac as a platform because it risks irrelevance.

The Mac isn’t in crisis, but it isn’t healthy either. Waiting until the Mac is on life support isn’t viable. Instead, Apple has opted to reimagine the Mac in the context of today’s computing landscape before its survival is threatened. The solution is to tie macOS more closely to iOS and iPadOS, making it an integrated point on the continuum of Apple’s devices that respects the hardware differences of the platform but isn’t different simply for the sake of difference.

Transitions are inherently messy, and so is Catalina in places. It’s a work in process that represents the first steps down a new path, not the destination itself. The destination isn’t clear yet, but Catalina’s purpose is: it’s a bridge, not an island.

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GoodNotes Adds Superior Multiwindowing, Dark Mode, and OCR Scanning

When Apple introduces a fundamental change to how apps interact with iOS (and now iPadOS), it’s always fascinating to see the different ways those changes are adopted by third-party developers. Although Apple sets a baseline for how new frameworks work, it has less control over how they are used, and it’s those implementation details that often have the greatest impact on users.

In the inaugural version of iPadOS, that’s been the case for multiwindowing. Many apps stick to the basic built-in ways to open multiple instances of the same app. However, the real power of multiwindowing is revealed by apps like GoodNotes, which goes the extra mile and provides an experience better than any other multiwindow app I’ve tried.

Dragging a PDF into a new window.


Replay

What makes GoodNotes special is not just the sheer number of unique ways to open a second window for the app, though that’s impressive in itself, but the thoughtfulness of its execution. In every corner of the app where you might want to move a folder, document, page, or bit of data into a new window or document, you can. The result is a level of flexibility that even Apple’s own iWork suite doesn’t match, further cementing GoodNotes as my favorite app for taking handwritten notes.

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Apple to Open Siri Up to Third-Party Messaging and Phone Apps

Bloomberg reports that Apple will open up Siri to third-party messaging apps with a software update later this year. Third-party phone apps will be added later. According to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman:

When the software refresh kicks in, Siri will default to the apps that people use frequently to communicate with their contacts. For example, if an iPhone user always messages another person via WhatsApp, Siri will automatically launch WhatsApp, rather than iMessage. It will decide which service to use based on interactions with specific contacts. Developers will need to enable the new Siri functionality in their apps. This will be expanded later to phone apps for calls as well.

As Gurman notes, the company’s change in approach comes as Apple is facing scrutiny over the competitive implications of its dual role as app maker and App Store gatekeeper in the US and elsewhere.

It’s interesting that the update is a Siri-only change. Users will still not be able to replace Messages with WhatsApp or Phone with Skype as their default messaging and phone apps for instance, but it strikes me as a step in the right direction and a change that I hope leads to broader customization options on iOS and iPadOS.

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Apple’s Deep Fusion Camera Feature Launching as Part of the iOS Developer Beta Program

According to TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino, Apple will roll out the Deep Fusion camera feature announced at the company’s fall iPhone event today as part of the iOS developer beta program.

Deep Fusion is Apple’s new method of combining several images exposures at the pixel level for enhanced definition and color range beyond what is possible with traditional HDR techniques. Panzarino explains how Deep Fusion works:

The camera shoots a ‘short’ frame, at a negative EV value. Basically a slightly darker image than you’d like, and pulls sharpness from this frame. It then shoots 3 regular EV0 photos and a ‘long’ EV+ frame, registers alignment and blends those together.

This produces two 12MP photos – 24MP worth of data – which are combined into one 12MP result photo. The combination of the two is done using 4 separate neural networks which take into account the noise characteristics of Apple’s camera sensors as well as the subject matter in the image.

Apple told Panzarino that the technique “results in better skin transitions, better clothing detail and better crispness at the edges of moving subjects.”

There is no button or switch to turn Deep Fusion on. Like the over-crop feature that uses the ultra wide lens to allow photo reframing after the fact, Deep Fusion is engaged automatically depending on the camera lens used and light characteristics of the shot being taken. Panzarino also notes that Deep Fusion, which is only available for iPhones that use the A13 processor, does not work when the over-crop feature is turned on.

I’ve been curious about Deep Fusion since it was announced. It’s remarkable that photography has become as much about machine learning as it is about the physics of light and lenses. Deep Fusion is also the sort of feature that can’t be demonstrated well onstage, so I’m eager to get my hands on the beta and try it myself.

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Pixelmator Photo Adds Direct iCloud Photo Library Access, Batch Editing, and New Export Features

Pixelmator Photo for the iPad has been released with a trio of new features that greatly increase the power of the app. With the update, you can now now edit images in your iCloud Photo Library non-destructively without creating duplicates. There are also new batch-processing workflows and better options for exporting images. It’s an interesting mix of updates that I expect will appeal to a wide audience even though there remain iPadOS features I’d like to see adopted in the future.

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