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How Apple Music’s Algorithmically Personalized Playlists Work

Reggie Ugwu, in a BuzzFeed feature story on the second act of Apple Music, got some details on the new 'My Favorites Mix' and 'My New Music Mix' playlists introduced with iOS 10:

Revealing how the mixes operate for the first time to BuzzFeed News, Apple claimed a potential advantage over similar algorithmically personalized playlists, including Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Pandora’s Thumbprint Radio: deep historical knowledge of individual users’ tastes and habits, based on years of data carried over from iTunes.

If you gave high ratings to a song or album in your old iTunes library, or just played it a lot more than others, you’ll find that behavior reflected in your My Favorites Mix. Meanwhile, the My New Music Mix algorithm serves recently released songs — as well as songs that Apple Music knows you haven’t played before — that the service’s music experts have flagged as similar to others in your taste profile. Apple Music executives suggested even more personalized playlists will follow in the series; but only after prototypes have been vetted, with all possible outcomes — intentional and otherwise — given careful consideration.

This explains why the 'My Favorites Mix' playlists have (anecdotally) been spot-on for people I talked to. As I previously noted, back-catalogue songs from artists you're not familiar with (essentially, Discover Weekly) would be a good addition to Apple Music's mixes.

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Sonos Speakers Are Coming to the Apple Store

Sonos PR:

We’re very excited to announce today that we’re making it easier than ever by expanding our collaboration with Apple and bringing Sonos into Apple’s physical and online retail stores. Two of our most popular speakers — the PLAY:1 and PLAY:5 — will be available later today at Apple.com in the USA, at 468 Apple Stores around the world starting October 5, and Apple.com in the coming weeks in most markets outside of the USA.

Better still, those who buy a Sonos system at Apple retail stores or at Apple.com between today and December 31 will receive a free three-month Apple Music Gift Card.

And:

This is a big deal — both for our companies, and for music lovers around the world who can now experience Sonos and Apple Music like never before. We know the best way to discover Sonos is by experiencing it first hand, which shoppers in more than 140 Apple Stores will be able to do with a hands-on Sonos and Apple Music demo featuring a guided Sonos app experience on the iPad Pro.

This makes sense given the popularity of Sonos, the problem it solves (it is, effectively, an ecosystem for audio), and its integration with Apple Music. I'm a Sonos customer, and their products fill a specific niche: good-looking speakers for the home with great audio quality and none of Bluetooth's annoyances. Does that seem familiar?

On the other hand, a closer partnership also gives Apple a way to study and learn how and why people buy Sonos devices. If I were a company playing around with the idea of releasing a smart speaker, studying Sonos' line is something I'd consider. I'm curious to try their hands-on demo with the iPad Pro.

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Google Allo Is Available

Allo, the messaging app that Google announced in May, has been released for iOS and Android. Dieter Bohn at The Verge has this to say about Allo:

I’ve been using it for a few days now, and it’s fine. Totally, completely fine. It does the things you expect from a messaging app…. If for some reason you abhor the dozen or so widely-used chat apps out there today, maybe Allo will appeal to you (assuming you can also get your friends to use it).

But to succeed, Google needs much more than fine. It needs something special. It needs something to make users switch away from those other apps (and to redeem itself after the slow, sad slide of Google Hangouts).

Google’s attempt at ‘something special’ is Google Assistant, a bot that can pull information from your calendar, email, the web and other sources. The feature is handy, but I agree with Bohn that it’s not enough if you are already invested in another messaging service.

What you can do with Google Assistant depends on where you use it. In one-on-one conversations with the bot, you can receive personal information like upcoming flight information or calendar appointments along with things like the weather, driving directions, and sports scores. Google Assistant can also be called upon in conversations with another person to do web searches and retrieve other data, but it will not share personal information in this context. For example, when Federico and I briefly tried Allo this morning, he couldn’t use Google Assistant to share a calendar appointment with me.

There are other limitations that iOS users should keep in mind. Allo does not work with the iPad, except in iPhone compatibility mode. Even then, when I sent a message to Federico on my iPad and then switched to my iPhone, I could no longer use my iPad with Allo and the message I sent from my iPad didn’t show up in the conversation on my iPhone. In addition, the notifications you receive on the iPhone are not the rich iOS 10 notifications many apps have already adopted. Nor is there a desktop native app or web client, which further limits Allo’s utility.

Allo also reflects the difference in approaches to privacy taken by Google and Apple. Whereas iMessages are encrypted end-to-end, Allo’s messages are unencrypted and stored on Google’s servers, unless you delete them or use Incognito Mode to send them. That’s because Google Assistant learns from your past messages to do things like suggest personalized canned responses to messages you receive.

It’s hard to get excited about any messaging service that is iPhone only. If you have friends and family that use Android devices though, Allo may be a good way to communicate with them and enjoy some of kinds of media-rich features offered by other services. Google Assistant is also off to a solid start and something I would like to see it incorporated in other Google products or as a stand-alone app.

For a comprehensive rundown of Allo’s features, check out Dieter Bohn’s review on The Verge.

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Tweetbot Updated with Support for Longer Tweets

When Twitter rolled out support for longer tweets yesterday, we mentioned that Tweetbot – the popular third-party client – would soon support the new format natively. Tapbots has released updates to the iOS and macOS apps today that let you view and create longer tweets (where media, polls, and quotes don't count against 140 characters) without having to rely on Twitter's official app. You can get the iOS update here.

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Sketch Updated with Improved Vector Editing

Bohemian Coding, the maker of Sketch, the popular vector design program, announced a significant update to the app today. Sketch 40, simplifies and improves the editing of complex vector shapes:

In Sketch 40, you can now simply press the Enter key on [a complex shape with multiple subpaths and points] to reveal all the points and paths contained within it, no matter how many layers are there. With multiple points selected, across different layers, you can adjust them at once without the need to select each layer individually.

Bohemian Coding also improved existing text transformation features, which are contained behind an Options button in the Inspector, by making them non-destructive. Complete release notes describing other enhancements and bug fixes in Sketch 40 are available here.

Sketch, which moved to an annual license model for upgrades in June, is $99 and available on Bohemian Coding’s website.

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Google Photos Introduces Movie Concepts

In addition to improvements for sharing between users, Google has announced a new feature for Google Photos dubbed 'movie concepts'. Automatically generated like the service's previous slideshows and Assistant creations, movie concepts are based on "creative concepts" – themes found in your photos that go beyond recent uploads.

As Google writes:

We’re also upping our game when it comes to automatic creations. Google Photos has always made movies for you using your recently uploaded photos. Now we’re going further, with new movies that are based on creative concepts — the kinds of movies you might make yourself, if you just had the time. And they’re not only limited to your most recent uploads.

And:

Look out for a concept to commemorate the good times from this summer, and another one for formal events like weddings. And you don’t need to do a thing — these movies get made automatically for you.

Here's an example of a concept created by Google Photos:

Casey Newton, writing for The Verge, has more details:

Tim Novikoff, who joined Google last year when it acquired his video-editing company, Fly Labs, said the feature takes advantage of Google’s advancements in deep learning and computer vision. The idea, he said, was "let’s leverage this to make movies that are emotionally powerful — that make your really smile, or even make you cry and reminisce and show your family."

More concept movies are planned. "You can imagine where this goes," Novikoff said. "Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Little League highlights, dance recitals. All the things that people do, we can make special movies around them."

The new feature comes less than a week after the launch of iOS 10, which includes Memories – a feature of Apple's Photos app that creates personalized movies based on location, dates, and people recognized in your photo library. From Google's description and Novikoff's comments, it sounds like movie concepts will be more advanced than iOS' automated creations, but we'll have to test them in practice and see if the promise holds up. I'm curious to compare Apple's Memories to Google Photos' concepts.

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iOS 10 Actionable Notifications, the Lock Screen, and 3D Touch

Junjie, developer of Due for iOS, on changes to the Lock screen and actionable notifications in iOS 10:

To my surprise, when users upgraded their iOS 9 devices to iOS 10 this week, I started receiving feedback that they were no longer able to snooze or complete their reminders from their Lock Screen. Many thought I’ve removed the feature from Due, or that there was a bug with Due in iOS 10. Of course, neither of which is the case.
[...]
Unlike iOS 8 and iOS 9, swiping a notification from right to left in iOS 10 no longer reveals the notification actions. Instead, depending on the device that you use, it now displays either View and Clear on non-3D Touch devices, or just Clear on 3D Touch devices.
[...]
So while users can now access all four notification actions in iOS 10, they need to go through an additional, unintuitive step of pressing the View button. However, for users with 3D Touch enabled phones like the iPhones 6s and 7, pressing firmly on the notification will reveal the notification actions menu.

I was talking about this with my girlfriend earlier today, and it's something I didn't consider in my review. For some reason, she can't use 3D Touch. Every time she presses on the screen, she ends up swiping or activating tap & hold accidentally. I don't know what it is about the way she grips the phone or touches the screen – we've tried every setting, and she just can't take advantage of 3D Touch in her daily iPhone usage. She ended up disabling 3D Touch altogether because it's useless to her.

Here's a problem, though: with iOS 10's notification design, this means she can't swipe on a notification and have instant access to actions. There's an extra step:

  1. Swipe notification on the Lock screen;
  2. Tap the new 'View' button;
  3. Tap actions in the expanded notification.

Step 2 is what people who don't use 3D Touch need to go through now, and it feels like a regression. I wish I had mentioned this in my story, but I didn't think of it because I use 3D Touch and pressing notifications is second nature to me.

Perhaps Apple could improve this by automatically expanding a notification with a long swipe. Instead of revealing two buttons – View and Clear – a long swipe to the left could trigger the View button, expand a notification, and avoid the additional tap required for non-3D Touch users in iOS 10.

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The iMessage App Store and Paid Stickers

Ortwin Gentz, one of the developers behind Where To, has noticed that the majority of iMessage apps and sticker packs in the top charts seem to be paid ones. He collected some numbers from the iMessage App Store and concluded:

The distribution of business models is even more interesting. In contrast to the iOS App Store where freemium titles dominate the top-grossing charts, the overwhelming revenue in the iMessage App Store comes from paid titles. This reminds me of the early days of the App Store where In App Purchase wasn’t even available.

Probably the #1 reason for this is the lack of IAP in no-code sticker packs. These sticker packs consist only of the actual artwork and are easy to create for designers who don’t want to code.

Currently, basic sticker packs – the ones that only require dropping a bunch of image files into Xcode – can't offer In-App Purchases. As soon as Apple offers an integrated solution to bring In-App Purchases to iMessage sticker packs without writing code, I have no doubt we'll see the iMessage App Store follow the "Free with In-App Purchases" model of the iOS App Store.

Unless Apple is deliberately pushing artists towards paid packs because they do not want to repeat what happened with the App Store? The perception of sticker packs right now reminds me of the early days of the App Store – that good work is worth paying for.

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