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Creating Your Own Widgets: A New Category of Apps Emerges

This summer, when Apple detailed iOS 14 and the Home screen changes it would bring, the company highlighted personalization as one of the key features of the new widget-populated Home screen. Rather than just containing an assortment of apps, iOS 14 Home screens can feature the information that matters most to you. Whether that’s your Activity rings so you can stay on top of your health, the current weather forecast, your task list, a memory from the Photos app – there are an abundance of options for personalizing your Home screens now.

I’ve tried a ton of Home screen widgets from third parties over the summer, and developers are doing lots of creative things with their apps’ widgets. One of the most exciting trends I’ve seen is the emergence of a new category of apps entirely centered around widgets. While most widgets will come built in to the apps you already know and love, some developers have built brand new apps for the sole purpose of enabling users to create and customize widgets in a hyper-personalized way. The best widgets I’ve tried offer configuration settings so you can tailor them to your exact needs, and these new apps take that idea even further, offering widget creation tools relating to a variety of traditional app categories – like weather, photos, health and fitness, productivity, and more – but in a single centralized app.

Leading the pack in this regard is Widgetsmith from David Smith, which not only covers one of the widest array of different widget types, but also features a power user-friendly scheduling option that sets it apart. The App Store hosts a growing number of other widget creation tools too, such as Widgeridoo, Widget Wizard, Glimpse, and Health Auto Export.

Because each app specializes in providing its own custom set of options, there’s no limit to the number of apps worth trying. Widget needs can be highly personalized, so it’s no surprise that the apps designed for creating widgets all offer their own takes too.

Get ready to upgrade your Home screens.

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watchOS 7: The MacStories Review

While a tumultuous software release would have been fitting in a year like 2020, watchOS 7 will find no such infamy. Stoically iterative, this year’s update to the Apple Watch operating system is lacking in surprises. But is that such a bad thing?

We spent years on the wild frontier of watchOS design and experience. As fun as it was to deconstruct each year’s crazy changes, the results were a product that didn’t yet know its purpose. These days that’s no longer the case. The Apple Watch exists primarily as a health and fitness device, and secondarily as a lightweight interface for many of the tasks you do on your iPhone each day. Also, it’s a watch.

watchOS 7 is all about health and fitness, plus some love for the Apple Watch’s watch-ness with a big supply of new faces and face-related features. A few more reasons to use your Watch instead of pulling out your iPhone are also sprinkled in, such as the new Shortcuts app and cycling directions in Maps.

While it may not be the most exciting annual update, there’s not much to complain about with the overall direction of watchOS 7. As always though, we can still dive deep into the implementation of the new features. Let’s break them each down and see how Apple did with watchOS 7.

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    App Clips in iOS 14: The Right App at the Right Time

    There’s an app for everything these days. But until now, the primary way to discover and try all those apps has stayed the same: visiting the App Store. In iOS 14 that’s changing in a significant way. No, you won’t be able to install apps from a third-party store like some companies are asking for, but apps are moving beyond the App Store in a different way thanks to App Clips.

    App Clips are small pieces of apps designed to be discovered not in a digital store, but in real-world environments through NFC tags and QR codes. You can find and use App Clips in other places too, like Safari, but the real-world, on-the-go discovery methods are the most intriguing aspect here because of the convenience they promise.

    We’ve likely all found ourselves in a situation where we need an app for a specific one-time use, but may or may not need the app again after that. One example when visiting somewhere new is the transaction of paying for parking. Without an App Clip, such a circumstance would mean searching for and downloading an app, then creating an account within the app, and entering your payment details all for the sake of completing this single, far-too-painful transaction. An App Clip would be perfect for that situation, as you could simply hold your iPhone up to an NFC tag, use Apple Pay to pay your parking toll, and be done. These kind of on-the-go situations are where App Clips really shine.

    In Apple’s ideal world, you might find an App Clip at every table inside a restaurant, which would enable self-ordering and self-payment. Museums would offer App Clips at prime exhibitions to help visitors engage in a new way with different artifacts. Bikes and scooters could be rented with a single tap of an NFC tag. Stores would use App Clips to offer quick access to online product listings so in-store shoppers could read reviews before they buy. Historic parks and other public spaces would employ App Clips for detailing the significance of a given monument or location. And more – Apple hopes adoption of App Clips will span not only examples like these, but all sorts of other creative uses the company hasn’t yet imagined.

    App Clips will start arriving today with iOS 14’s debut. Here’s what to expect from them, and why they’re such a potentially transformative technology.

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    The New Fitness App in iOS 14

    Last year Apple introduced Activity Trends, a new feature for tracking your fitness over time. Trends complemented the Apple Watch’s classic Activity rings feature, and found its home alongside the rings in the iOS Activity app.

    Activity rings are binary metrics: did you or did you not meet your goal for moving, exercising, or standing today? Trends, on the other hand, track your past year of activity through rolling 90-day windows, and inform you as to whether you’re improving or declining. If necessary, Trends then suggest improvements such as walking a little more than usual each day or standing for a bit longer each hour. Together, Activity Trends and the classic Activity rings seek to help you develop and maintain an overall healthy lifestyle across a handful of monitored metrics.

    Last year, Trends got their own tab in the Activity app alongside the four tabs that had existed previously: History, Workouts, Awards, and Sharing. These tabs always felt a bit sparsely populated for my tastes, and it seems that Apple agreed. In iOS 14, Apple has redesigned the Activity app, consolidating its tab structure, and renamed the app ‘Fitness.’

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    Sleep Tracking in watchOS 7 and iOS 14: Elevated by a User Experience-Driven Design

    Sleep tracking has always seemed like a natural addition to the Apple Watch, and for years all signs have indicated Apple had it in its plans. In 2017 the company acquired Beddit, which specialized in sleep-tracking hardware and software. Perhaps one motivation for that move was the fact that paid sleep-tracking apps regularly occupied the App Store’s top charts. Apple has also progressively exhibited strong interest in areas of health, making sleep a no-brainer. So the technology for sleep tracking had been acquired, customer demand was clearly there, and it fit within the broader health ambitions of the company.

    Yet until this year, Apple’s sleep-related software enhancements have been limited to…improved alarm options on iPhone. This fall that’s changing, as watchOS 7 and iOS 14 will together introduce a true sleep tracking system.

    I’ve been using the new sleep-related features of Apple’s forthcoming OS versions for two full months now, and in true Apple fashion, they’re in some ways more comprehensive and elegant than third-party solutions, and in other ways they’re underpowered compared to what third parties provide, ensuring that they won’t be the best fit for all users, but their simplicity will make them a solid solution for most people.

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    Deeper Controller Support and a Revitalized Game Center: Exploring Apple’s 2020 Gaming Updates

    I’m perpetually confounded by Apple’s approach to gaming. For every encouraging development like Apple Arcade last year and the controller and Game Center announcements at WWDC this year, there’s a story like the blocking of Microsoft’s xCloud service from the App Store and the ongoing legal dispute with Epic. As uneven as Apple’s recent and long-term history with gaming has been, though, it’s clear that the company understands that games are a lucrative part of the App Store as it continues to introduce new gaming enhancements to its OSes. This year’s updates center on deeper game controller support and a refreshed Game Center experience.

    Last year saw the surprise introduction of support for Microsoft’s Bluetooth-enabled Xbox controllers and the Sony DualShock 4 controller on Apple devices. As I wrote at the time, the initial integration of the controllers was excellent, and a substantial improvement over most of the expensive MFi controller options previously available. As a result, it’s no surprise this year that Apple has extended its support for controllers, even further expanding coverage to new controllers and adding support for features like haptics, rumble, motion, lights, and special input options. Apple is also adding support for button and other input remapping on iOS, iPadOS, and tvOS, but curiously not macOS.

    The other pillar of Apple’s gaming story is Game Center, which hasn’t seen much love in recent years. Game Center debuted alongside iOS 4 in 2010, but with iOS 10 the dedicated Game Center app was eliminated, relegating Game Center functionality like leaderboards and achievements to APIs that developers could incorporate directly into their apps. Game Center isn’t returning as a standalone app in 2020. Instead, it is receiving a significant makeover that raises its profile in games and on the App Store, creating the potential to make gaming on Apple devices more social than in the past.

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    Apple and Privacy in 2020: Wide-Reaching Updates with Minimal User Intrusion

    Privacy has increasingly become a competitive advantage for Apple. The bulk of the company’s revenue comes from hardware sales, in stark contrast to competitors like Google who depend heavily on ad revenue and thus benefit tremendously from collecting user data. Apple calls privacy one of its core values, and the structure of its business makes it easier to hold true to that value. But that doesn’t mean its privacy work is easy or without cost – behind the huge number of privacy enhancements this year was surely significant effort and resources that could have been diverted elsewhere. The company’s privacy discourse isn’t empty marketing speak; it’s product-shaping. Not only that, but thanks to Apple’s enormous influence in tech, it can be industry-shaping too, forcing companies that otherwise may not prioritize user privacy to do business differently.

    This year in its WWDC keynote, Apple dedicated an entire section of the presentation to privacy, detailing its latest efforts within the framework of what it calls its four privacy pillars:

    • On-device processing
    • Data minimization
    • Security protections
    • Transparency and control

    Evidence of each of these pillars can be seen throughout much of what Apple announced during the rest of the keynote. On-device processing, for example, powers the new Translate app in iOS 14, HomeKit Secure Video’s face recognition feature, and more. New security protections have been implemented to warn you if a Keychain password’s been compromised, and to enable Sign In with Apple for existing in-app accounts, both of which make your accounts more secure. But the majority of this year’s most prominent privacy updates fell under the remaining two core pillars: data minimization and transparency and control.

    Here are the privacy-focused changes you’ll see this fall across iOS and iPadOS 14 and macOS Big Sur.

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    Apple Maps in 2020: Cycling and EV Routing, City Guides, and Feature Parity on All Platforms

    Apple Maps has come a long way since its debut in iOS 6. Much of the app’s history, which got off to a rocky start, has been focused on gathering and improving map data worldwide, but that’s beginning to change. The task is enormous and will never really be finished, but a shift has already started.

    Once, the improvements in Maps were focused mainly on its basic underlying data like getting roads and geographic features correct. However, today the emphasis is increasingly on providing a deeper set of data and new features like cycling routes and city guides. Google Maps has had some of this functionality for years, and many of the refinements to Apple Maps are in just a handful of cities and countries. However, with the completion of Maps’ rebuilt map data in the US, Apple has begun to layer in new data and functionality that is poised to spread out much more widely.

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    Mac Catalyst 2.0: Doubling Down on the Alignment of the Mac and iPad

    WWDC 2020 brought Mac Catalyst into sharper focus than ever before. Introduced as an unnamed ‘sneak peek’ in 2018, Mac Catalyst offered the promise of a simple and efficient way for iPad developers to bring their apps to 100 million Mac users. The reality was that it can be hard to transition an app from an iPad to a Mac, and the results weren’t always great.

    The trouble was the result of a confluence of multiple factors, including:

    • The first iteration of Mac Catalyst used iPad design conventions in places that felt out of place on the Mac
    • There was too little documentation
    • Excitement surrounding SwiftUI left developers wondering whether Apple was committed to Mac Catalyst

    WWDC 2020 was different. Apple introduced what was effectively Mac Catalyst 2.0 with its Optimized for Mac initiative, a separate Mac Catalyst path that follows Mac conventions more closely but requires more work. The company also built Messages and Maps, two of its flagship apps, using Mac Catalyst, demonstrating a deeper commitment to the technology than ever before. The result is a brighter future for Mac Catalyst that clearly has a role to play alongside SwiftUI and Apple’s other frameworks.

    To understand where Mac Catalyst is heading, though, we first need to understand where it has been over the past two years.

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