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Apple’s Chicago Event Will Mark a Milestone in the Evolution of Its Education Strategy

Next Tuesday, Apple will take the stage at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago to announce ‘creative new ideas for teachers and students.’ As any Apple event approaches, it’s natural to speculate about what products might be announced. After all, that’s what usually happens at an Apple event.

However, there’s a forest getting lost for the trees in all the talk about new hardware and apps. Sure, those will be part of the reveal, but Apple has already signaled that this event is different by telling the world it’s about education and holding it in Chicago. It’s part of a broader narrative that’s seen a shift in Apple’s education strategy that can be traced back to WWDC 2016. Consequently, to understand where Apple may be headed in the education market, it’s necessary to look to the past.

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Erasing Complexity: The Comfort of Apple’s Ecosystem

Every year soon after WWDC, I install the beta of the upcoming version of iOS on my devices and embark on an experiment: I try to use Apple's stock apps and services as much as possible for three months, then evaluate which ones have to be replaced with third-party alternatives after September. My reasoning for going through these repetitive stages on an annual basis is simple: to me, it's the only way to build the first-hand knowledge necessary for my iOS reviews.

I also spent the past couple of years testing and switching back and forth between non-Apple hardware and services. I think every Apple-focused writer should try to expose themselves to different tech products to avoid the perilous traps of preconceptions. Plus, besides the research-driven nature of my experiments, I often preferred third-party offerings to Apple's as I felt like they provided me with something Apple was not delivering.

Since the end of last year, however, I've been witnessing a gradual shift that made me realize my relationship with Apple's hardware and software has changed. I've progressively gotten deeper in the Apple ecosystem and I don't feel like I'm being underserved by some aspects of it anymore.

Probably for the first time since I started MacStories nine years ago, I feel comfortable using Apple's services and hardware extensively not because I've given up on searching for third-party products, but because I've tried them all. And ultimately, none of them made me happier with my tech habits. It took me years of experiments (and a lot of money spent on gadgets and subscriptions) to notice how, for a variety of reasons, I found a healthy tech balance by consciously deciding to embrace the Apple ecosystem.

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The Initial iPhone SDK

None of these apps were built by third party developers.

None of these apps were built by third party developers.

As noted by Craig Hockenberry, it has been a full decade since Apple shipped the first version of the iPhone SDK to developers.

It's hard to remember today that, in the beginning, the iPhone didn't have third-party apps. It came with a handful of built-in apps written by Apple for things like checking stocks and the weather, jotting down quick notes, making calendar events and reviewing contact information.

These apps were, for the most part, self-contained. The rich environment we enjoy on iOS today where apps can share lots of data with each other just wasn't present in 2007.

The outlier in this paradigm was Safari, which put the Internet — or at least the parts that didn't require Flash — in the palm of our hands.

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What HomePod Should Become: A Hub for All Apple-Centric Needs

Today the HomePod is all about music, but it could be so much more.

From its debut last June at WWDC to launch day this February, HomePod's primary purpose has been clear: it's an Apple Music accessory. Music has been the sole focus of Apple's marketing, including the recent Spike Jonze short film – yet it's an angle many have trouble accepting.

In a pre-Amazon Echo world, HomePod being a great Apple Music speaker would have been enough. But in 2018 we expect more from smart speakers, and we expect more from Apple.

HomePod succeeds as a music speaker, but it's not the device we expected – at least not yet. Due to its arrival date more than three years after the birth of Alexa, we expected a smarter, more capable product. We expected the kind of product the HomePod should be: a smart speaker that's heavy on the smarts. Apple nailed certain aspects with its 1.0: the design, sound quality, and setup are all excellent. But that's not enough.

HomePod isn't a bad product today, but it could become a great one.


By becoming a true hub for all our Apple-centric needs.

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It’s Time for a Complete Home App Makeover

I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting with home automation gear since late last year: lightbulbs, light strips, electrical plugs, and door sensors, among other things. Most of the devices I’ve tested support Apple’s HomeKit APIs and those that don’t, I plan to integrate with Homebridge. That means I’ve also spent a lot of time in Apple’s Home app, and despite poking around in every corner of the app, I still find it frustrating and hard to use.

Last week, I tried to configure something new in my studio that illustrates several of the Home app’s problems. I have several Hue lights: there’s one over the steps leading to my workspace, four recessed ceiling lights, a floor lamp, and a desk lamp. It’s a lot of lights, but my studio is in the basement, and the lights help keep it from feeling like a cave.

I set the lights up as a group in Home and trigger them with a motion sensor. As soon as I open the door to the basement, the lights come on. I added a Hue switch on the wall as a shortcut for turning the lights on and off too.

I recently got an Elgato Eve door sensor for my back door. I figured it would be nice to know when my wife and son got home in the afternoon if I'm working away with the door closed, listening to music, and don't hear the back door open. I can get alerts from the sensor on my Apple Watch and iPhone, but I thought it might be fun to also turn the Hue light on my desk red when the door opens as a visual cue. That turned out to be harder than I anticipated.

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Things 3.4 Brings Powerful New Automation Features and App Integrations

I switched to Things as my task manager late last year, sometime before the holidays. While I discussed this decision at length on Connected and AppStories, I didn't write about it on MacStories because I didn't want to rehash Ryan's in-depth review of Things 3. In terms of design and features, everything I like about Things is covered in his original review.

My personal motivation for switching to Things boils down to this: the way projects and the Today screen are designed in Things fits well with my schedule, and doesn't stress me out. Things has a "calm" interface that doesn't turn overdue tasks red, making me feel guilty; projects are clearly laid out with a tasteful use of San Francisco, and further organization can be applied to a project using headings, a feature I've never seen in any other task manager. And among dozens of thoughtful touches, Things' separation of Today and This Evening for the current day is absolutely in line with how I think about my typical day. In short: I want 2018 to be less stressful than last year, and Things is helping with the task management part.

That said, as someone who used 2Do and Todoist in the past and heavily automated them for integration with other apps, I was missing some solid automation options from Things. Cultured Code has offered a basic URL scheme in their iOS app for a few years now, but the supported commands never went beyond the ability to create basic, metadata-free tasks in the app.

This is changing today with Things 3.4, which I've had the opportunity to test and experiment with for the past couple of months. With this new version, the folks at Cultured Code have shipped one of the most powerful and versatile URL scheme action libraries seen in a task manager for iOS – comparable to Omni's work on OmniFocus, and, in a way, perhaps even more flexible.

The new Things URL scheme, which has been documented here, lets you create tasks, projects, show specific sections of the app, and search across your entire Things database. This may not sound too impressive on paper, but what sets this feature apart is the level of customization and detail that can be applied to every single parameter of every action. As a result, Things is now a first-class citizen of the iOS automation scene, and, within the limitations of iOS inter-app communication, its URL scheme unlocks several new possible integrations with apps and workflows.

Furthermore, Cultured Code wants to make it easy for third-party developers to natively support sending data to Things from their apps. Today, the company is also introducing a JSON-based command to allow more control when adding items to Things from external apps, and they've created a set of Swift helper classes that apps can use to easily generate the JSON needed to pass data to Things. As I'll demonstrate later in this article, a couple developers of two of my favorite iOS apps are already taking advantage of these capabilities to great effect.

As you can imagine, I've been busy experimenting with the new automation features of Things and identifying aspects of the app I wanted to speed up by integrating them with other apps. Below, you'll find a collection of the launchers and workflows I've put together for Things 3.4. These are the actions and scripts I find myself using the most on a daily basis, and which I believe considerably extend Things' capabilities on the iPhone and iPad. More advanced workflows will follow over the next couple of weeks (and months) exclusively for Club MacStories members in the Workflow Corner section of MacStories Weekly.

Let's dig in.

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A History of the Xserve: Apple’s One Rack Wonder

Within the next few months, macOS Server as we know it today will be going away, with many of its services being deprecated. Things like hosting calendars, contacts, email and wikis are going away as Apple focuses the product on "management of computers, devices, and storage on your network."

This shouldn't come as a surprise. macOS Server has been languishing for years, with many of its most common features being integrated into the mainstream version of macOS.

For fans of macOS Server, this just another in a long string of disappointments over the years. But none of them were as big as the cancellation of the Xserve, Apple's rack-mountable 1U server, back in January 2011.

Remember this thing? Not many do.

Remember this thing? Not many do.

Running the risk of reopening old wounds, let's look back at this unusual product and its nine year lifespan.

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New Apps for 2018

You can download my wallpaper here.

The new year is always an opportunity for me to take some time off work and better understand how I use technology and, more importantly, what I want from the devices I write about. Historically, that meant I would take a short break over the holidays and come back to MacStories with a handful of recommendations for new apps I wanted to test throughout the year, from text editors to finance management utilities and health apps.

This time, the break lasted a little longer. Last year was a particularly stressful one for me, and I felt that I needed to take at least a couple of weeks off all my work projects to clear my mind and make a plan for the year ahead. That turned out to be a fantastic idea: not only was I able to finally relax (to the point where I was craving the website and feeling the urge to write again) – the extended break also allowed me to identify areas of my life that I wanted to act upon immediately and improve in 2018.

This is why, when Myke Hurley asked me on Analog(ue) which big project I was working on for the new year, my first answer was "myself". My plan for 2018 is to take better care of myself – from multiple perspectives – so I can avoid the stress of 2017, feel more inspired, write more, and, ultimately, be happier. I don't have a single big "work project" for 2018; my goal is to improve every aspect of my daily routine, in big and small ways, so everything I do can subsequently grow as well. Essentially, I need to fix the foundation before I can build on top of it again.

In addition to new habits (which I detailed in last month's issue of the MacStories Monthly Log for Club members; you should subscribe if you haven't yet), this effort involves new apps I'm using to help me along the way. I decided to wait a full month after I came back to work because I wanted to see which ones would actually stick around; what you'll find below is a collection of apps I'm now using on my iPhone and iPad on a daily basis.

While this type of story isn't new to longtime MacStories readers, I feel like the 2018 version is more personal and pragmatic. These aren't advanced automation apps or utilities I'm just experimenting with for the mere sake of geekery; from mental health to time tracking, each of these apps is having a tangible, positive impact on my life that I'd like to highlight.

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What I Wish the iPad Would Gain from the Mac

The iPad is finally starting to grow up.

Despite the device becoming an instant sales phenomenon upon launch, iPad in its earlier years of life was never a legitimate PC replacement – nor was it meant to be. From birth the iPad existed not to cannibalize the Mac, but to supplement it. Steve Jobs called it a "third category" of device, fitting snugly in the space between a laptop and smartphone.

In recent years, however, the iPad has gone through a stark transition. If you want an iPad to supplement your iPhone and Mac, you can still get one in the $329 "just call me iPad" model introduced last spring. But the bulk of Apple's iPad efforts of late have centered on making the device a capable replacement for the traditional computer. The iPad Pro and iOS 11 represent a new vision for the iPad. This vision puts the iPad not next to the Mac, but instead squarely in its place. It's a vision embodied by the question, "What's a computer?"

I made the iPad Pro my primary computer when it first launched in late 2015. The transition pains from Mac to iPad were minimal, and the device has grown even more capable since that time thanks to improvements in iOS. My need for a Mac is now extremely rare.

My desire for a Mac, however, still exists in a few specific use cases. There are things the Mac has to offer that I wish my iPad could replicate.

Now that the modern iPad has many basics of computing covered, here are the things I think it needs to take iPad-as-PC to the next level.

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