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watchOS 5: The MacStories Review

watchOS had a bumpy first few years. Some poor decisions and perhaps a premature initial launch forced significant design changes to be in order right away. It wasn't until last year's watchOS 4 release that it finally felt like the waters had calmed. Apple seemed to have solidified the brunt of its focus around fitness and audio, while also debuting a healthy backdrop of first-party apps, new watch faces, and machine learning features. The Siri watch face was the big addition for both of those last two categories, and while its initial introduction was underwhelming, the ideas behind it were intriguing. The redesigned Workout and Music apps along with background audio during workouts were excellent additions to the Apple Watch's core foundation. All things considered, Apple pushed a great update last year, and it only got better as the year progressed.

While it didn't ship in time for watchOS 4's launch in September, streaming from Apple Music was released late the next month in watchOS 4.1. The ability to stream music in the background during workouts freed runners and other athletes from being tied to their phones while they exercised. Paired with the redesigned Workout app – which put live statistics front and center while keeping Now Playing and workout controls just a swipe away – watchOS 4 established a truly better fitness experience for Apple's smartwatch.

The audio story that Apple told last year felt much less complete. Despite receiving a significant amount of attention in Apple's marketing efforts, the Apple Watch's music improvements seemed almost strictly geared toward workouts. Background audio was limited to workout apps and withheld from the platform as a whole, the first-party Now Playing screen continued to monopolize possession of volume controls, and the Music app only gave manual access to preselected songs instead of the full music library on your iPhone1. Audio on the Apple Watch had received some strong improvements, but the scope of those positive consequences felt unnecessarily limited.

Thankfully, Apple seems to agree. This year's watchOS 5 update, released today for all Apple Watches Series 1 and later, fills in the gaps of the watchOS audio feature set. Third-party audio apps can now run in the background, and full audio controls including volume adjustment via the Digital Crown have been made available to them. watchOS 5 also introduces the first-party Podcasts app, which supports automatic syncing of new episodes that you're subscribed to and streaming of any show in the iTunes podcast directory.

Beyond audio, watchOS 5 also builds on the solid fitness foundation with activity competitions, expanded Workout types, automatic workout detection, and advanced running statistics. Siri has continued to receive attention as well, introducing third-party integrations to the Siri watch face and a raise-to-speak feature which truncates the inveterate "Hey Siri" prefix for the first time on any platform. A new Walkie-Talkie app marks the first return to novelty Apple Watch communication methods since Digital Touch, but this time I think Apple might have tapped into a legitimate, albeit niche use case. Top things off with improved notifications, the introduction of web content, and NFC-powered student ID cards and we have a substantial watchOS update on our hands.

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  1. This last decision always felt senselessly arbitrary, and indeed Apple finally reversed it in watchOS 4.3 last March↩︎

iOS 12: The MacStories Review

After years of unabated visual and functional changes, iOS 12 is Apple's opportunity to regroup and reassess the foundation before the next big step – with one notable exception.

We left last year's iOS 11 update with a palpable tension between two platforms.

On one hand, following a year of minor changes to the iPad and a hardware refresh that came in later than some expected, Apple once again devoted plenty of attention to reimagining the tablet's role in the world of modern computing. iPad updates in iOS 11, despite having their fair share of critics, largely did not disappoint. On the other hand, the iPhone – by and large still Apple's crown jewel – had to play second fiddle to a platform that was more in need of a strong, coherent message. And so despite blessing the iPhone with the same features of its larger multitouch cousin (at least most of them), Apple seemed content ceding the smartphone's spotlight to the iPad. There was a healthy array of new functionalities for both, but iOS 11's "Monumental leap for iPad" tagline pretty much told the whole story.

iOS 12, available today for the same range of devices that supported iOS 11, feels like a reaction to changes that have occurred around Apple and consumer technology over the past year.

While iOS 11 may go down in Apple software history as the touchstone of the iPad's maturity, it will also be remembered as one of the company's most taxing releases for its users. You don't have to look far into the iOS 11 cycle for headlines lamenting its poor stability on older hardware, plethora of design inconsistencies (which were noted time and time again), and general sense of sluggishness – issues that may have contributed to a slower adoption rate than 2016's iOS 10.

There were debacles in Apple's PR and marketing approach as well: performance problems with battery and power management were handled poorly during a key time of the year, culminating with a year-long discounted battery replacement program and a somewhat rushed battery-related addition to iOS' Settings. Then, of course, there was the much derided iPhone X ad clearly showing one of the many reported iOS bugs on TV, which had to be fixed with an updated commercial before the actual software was fixed. No matter how you slice it, it's been a rough few months for Apple in the realm of public perception of its software.

At the same time, toward the beginning of 2018, technology observers witnessed the rise of Time Well Spent – an organization and, perhaps more broadly, a public movement demanding that tech companies prioritize enabling healthier relationships with mobile devices. The principles underlying Time Well Spent, from battling smartphone addiction and notification overload to including superior parental controls in mobile OSes, may have originated as a natural consequence of breakneck technological progress; as some argue, they may also be a byproduct of global socioeconomic and political events. Time Well Spent's ideas found fertile soil in Silicon Valley: earlier this year, Facebook made key changes to its news feed to improve how users spend time on the social network; Apple made a rare commitment to better parental features in a future version of iOS; Google went all out and turned digital well-being into a suite of system features for Android.

It's important to understand the context in which iOS 12 is launching today, for events of the past year may have directly shaped Apple's vision for this update.

With iOS 12, Apple wants to rectify iOS' performance woes, proving to their customers that iOS updates should never induce digital regret. Perhaps more notably though, iOS 12 doesn't have a single consumer feature that encapsulates this release – like Messages might have been for iOS 10 or the iPad for iOS 11. Instead, iOS 12 is a constellation of enhancements revolving around the overarching theme of time. Apple in 2018 needs more time for whatever the next big step of iOS may be; they want iOS users to understand how much time they're spending on their devices; and they want to help users spend less time managing certain system features. Also, funnily enough, saving time is at the core (and in the very name) of iOS 12's most exciting new feature: Shortcuts.

iOS 12 isn't Apple's Snow Leopard release: its system changes and updated apps wouldn't justify a "No New Features" slide. However, for the first time in years, it feels as if the company is happy to let its foot off the gas a little and listen to users more.

Will the plan work?

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    Screen Time for Kids Puts Powerful iOS Monitoring Tools and Use Restrictions in Parents’ Hands

    For the past couple of years, the tech industry has grappled with the consequences of people carrying a tiny computer with them all day long. When it comes to Apple, iOS devices have long had a Do Not Disturb setting and notifications can be adjusted, but over time, it became apparent that the existing tools were not enough.

    Screen Time is Apple’s solution to the information gap about how we use our iOS devices. The new feature, which is found in the Settings app in iOS 12, provides a wide array of metrics that give an unforgiving and eye-opening look into exactly how you use your devices each day.

    Screen Time is also the means for acting on that information. Users can impose restrictions on when and how they use their devices.

    The same tools are available to parents through Apple’s Family Sharing feature. Although Screen Time for kids is complex in some respects and lacking in others, it’s an excellent first step. The feature may require a time investment to master, but it succeeds on two levels. First, by working the same way it does for individuals, which Federico will cover in his iOS 12 review, managing the feature for a child will be familiar to anyone who uses Screen Time themselves. Second, although I’d like to see Apple implement some age-appropriate default settings in places, on balance, I’m satisfied that the complexity of Screen Time is a fair trade-off for the customization that it enables.

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    Getting Behind the Mac as a Productivity-First Platform


    Apple's recent Behind the Mac series is one of my favorite marketing campaigns of late. I find the visual of people sitting behind their Macs so romantic and nostalgic. It's a sight that's ever-present whenever I spend time in a coffee shop, and the series' tagline, "Make something wonderful behind the Mac," causes me to now wonder in public: what are these people making as they sit behind the iconic Apple logo's glow?

    Following WWDC earlier this year, I shared that one of the things I least expected from the conference was that it would get me excited about the Mac. I've been iOS-first for three years now, with no regrets whatsoever. During that time, while the Mac has received incremental improvements, its growth has lagged significantly behind iOS and the iPad. While I never expected the same level of innovation on macOS that iOS received – since the Mac didn't need as much work, frankly – it was frustrating to constantly see iOS score new apps and technologies before the Mac.

    It has long seemed to me like the Mac was on its way to an eventual death. But WWDC breathed new life into the platform, with Apple doubling down on the Mac's strengths as a productivity tool, and the prospect of ported iOS apps starting next year. Each of these changes will bring, I believe, genuine excitement back to the platform.

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    The History of Aperture

    For years, iLife defined the Mac experience, or at the very least, its marketing. An iMac or MacBook wasn't a mere computer; it was a tool for enjoying your music, managing your photos, creating your own songs, editing your home videos, and more.

    iLife was brilliant because it was approachable. Programs like iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, iDVD, and GarageBand were so simple that anyone could just open them from the Dock and get started creating.1

    Of course, not everyone's needs were met by the iLife applications. iMovie users could upgrade to Final Cut, while Logic was there waiting for GarageBand users. And for those needing more than what iPhoto could provide, Apple offered Aperture.

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    Apple Books: A Love Letter to Readers

    When iOS 12 launches this fall, it will introduce a newly redesigned iBooks app simply named Books. Though the reading experience in Books is largely the same as before, the rest of the app is drastically different, offering the biggest app redesign on iOS since last year's App Store.

    Modern design is a clear centerpiece of Books, but the app also includes new features, big and small, that make it feel all-new. From tools that borrow from Goodreads, to more robust collections, to dark mode, and much more. There's a lot to explore here, so let's dive in.

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    The App Store at 10: The Next Decade

    The App Store has changed the world. Over the last decade society as we know it has been irrevocably shaped by the App Store and its products.

    Just as no one 10 years ago could have predicted where the App Store would have brought us today, so is it impossible to guess what the next decade might bring. There's no stopping us from trying though.

    As we close out our App Store anniversary week coverage, here are our hopes and expectations for the next 10 years.

    Federico

    Apple predictions often age badly because the company has a tendency to not directly follow the latest market trends; at the very least, they offer their unique twist on ideas others have been experimenting with for some time. However, based on how the App Store has evolved for the past 10 years, I see some interesting signs in its trajectory that are pointing to obvious changes coming down the road. So, even though I may turn out to be dramatically wrong in 10 years, here's my list of App Store changes I believe will occur over the course of the next decade.

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    Personal App Store Stories from the MacStories Team

    Over the past week we've released articles and podcast episodes documenting the stories of Apple and third-party developers during the App Store's decade of life, but as our celebration week nears its end, we wanted to shift gears and share our own stories.

    The story of the App Store doesn't just belong to Apple, nor is it limited to the developers who have made the App Store such a vibrant marketplace. Everyone who has ever downloaded an app on their iPhone, iPad, or even iPod Touch has their own story of the App Store's impact on their life. In that vein, here are the MacStories team's personal stories of what the Store and its products have meant to us.

    Federico

    I told the story of how MacStories came to be before. After dropping out of university (where I thought I was going to study Philosophy – it's funny to imagine another timeline where I ended up a Philosophy professor), I got a full-time job as a seller at a physical eBay store. Those stores, which were quite common before the smartphone era and the mobile-marketplace app boom, helped folks who didn't know how or didn't have the patience to sell old items on eBay. My job consisted of assisting customers who came into the store with boxes full of stuff, explaining to them how eBay and our fees worked, putting items up for sale, monitoring the auction, and taking care of shipments. It was a fun job, but it was also repetitive and somewhat boring after a while, yet it allowed me to save money toward the first computer I wanted to buy entirely with my own money. I wanted to buy a 15" MacBook Pro.

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