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watchOS 3: The MacStories Review

This month will mark the two-year point since the Apple Watch was first unveiled to the world, and nearly a year and a half since the product first made its way into the hands of consumers. Two years is a long time in technology in general, but particularly so for Apple. In this time the Apple Watch has gone from a product developed in secret, deep within Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, to the most popular smartwatch in the world. Millions of units have been sold, and surveys have pegged customer sat as extremely high.

Yet despite these positives, the Apple Watch has spent its first two years of existence as a flawed product. This is not due to the Watch’s hardware, which was beautifully designed, decently powered, and boasts enough battery life to easily last a day. Rather, the Achilles' heel of the Apple Watch has been its software.

watchOS has had problems from the start. Apple shipped its first version in an incomplete state, in which third-party applications were purportedly supported, but unable to run natively on the Watch itself. Instead, the logic of each app was executed on the connected iPhone, and the Watch was used as a dumb display for the results. This method was astoundingly slow in practice, not to mention that it rendered the Watch incapable of nearly anything beyond telling the time when disconnected from its iPhone.

It’s not surprising then, that only two months after the Watch’s release to consumers in April 2015, Apple introduced the first iteration on its operating system, watchOS 2. As I discussed in my review of watchOS 2 last year, version 2 did not significantly change any visual designs or interfaces. Rather, it was a foundational update meant to create the base of a more mature operating system, establishing important building blocks that could be iterated upon in the future.

The foundation created by watchOS 2 seems to be paying off, as this year’s major update to the system, watchOS 3, does indeed build up from that base. However, many of the other aspects of watchOS 2 turned out to be failures, and a year in the wild has proved the update unable to fulfill many of the promises Apple made about it.

There were two standout watchOS 2 features which did not hold true. First, the data surfaced by watchOS 2 apps was supposed to be updated more frequently in the background so as to keep them consistently relevant. Second, the move from running app logic on the iPhone to running it on the Watch itself was supposed to make watchOS apps more responsive and fast.

Perhaps when compared to the incomplete and unacceptable performance of watchOS 1, it could be argued that these goals succeeded, but I would disagree. After a year of using watchOS 2 with my Apple Watch strapped to my wrist nearly every single day, I can say unequivocally that apps were not fast enough to cross the threshold of “useable”, nor was data ever updated consistently enough for me to trust that it was not stale.

In lieu of these and other letdowns in watchOS 2, and after over a year of Apple Watches being in consumers’ hands, the next update to Apple’s smartwatch operating system had a lot riding on its shoulders. Would it double down on the sins of its predecessors, adding more interfaces like the spinning circles of friends and the whimsical yet impractical honeycomb Home screen? Would Apple try even harder to achieve the impossible goal (for current hardware, at least) of all apps running as smoothly as iOS apps and updating consistently?

Thankfully, while the rest of us spent the last year debating Apple’s intentions, Apple spent it hard at work.

For this year’s update, Apple took a hard look at the state of its smartwatch operating system, and it found many features wanting. Showing an uplifting ability to admit when they were wrong, Apple did not shy away from tearing out anything that wasn’t working, including features that were emphasized and promoted in announcements and marketing just last year.

watchOS 3 is still the same watchOS that you know, but its changes have cut deeply and ruthlessly at its origins. Apple is stripping away the cruft and honing watchOS down to a purer form. The strong system foundation of watchOS 2 and general design language of watchOS 1 are still present, but this year’s improvements have made both far more effective.

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    iOS 10: The MacStories Review

    Sometimes, change is unexpected. More often than not, change sneaks in until it feels grand and inevitable. Gradually, and then suddenly. iOS users have lived through numerous tides of such changes over the past three years.

    iOS 7, introduced in 2013 as a profound redesign, was a statement from a company ready to let go of its best-selling OS' legacy. It was time to move on. With iOS 8 a year later, Apple proved that it could open up to developers and trust them to extend core parts of iOS. In the process, a new programming language was born. And with last year's iOS 9, Apple put the capstone on iOS 7's design ethos with a typeface crafted in-house, and gave the iPad the attention it deserved.

    You wouldn't have expected it from a device that barely accounted for 10% of the company's revenues, but iOS 9 was, first and foremost, an iPad update. After years of neglect, Apple stood by its belief in the iPad as the future of computing and revitalized it with a good dose of multitasking. Gone was the long-held dogma of the iPad as a one-app-at-a-time deal; Slide Over and Split View – products of the patient work that went into size classes – brought a higher level of efficiency. Video, too, ended its tenure as a full-screen-only feature. Even external keyboards, once first-party accessories and then seemingly forgotten in the attic of the iPad's broken promises, made a comeback.

    iOS 9 melded foundational, anticipated improvements with breakthrough feature additions. The obvious advent of Apple's own typeface in contrast to radical iPad updates; the next logical step for web views and the surprising embrace of content-blocking Safari extensions. The message was clear: iOS is in constant evolution. It's a machine sustained by change – however that may happen.

    It would have been reasonable to expect the tenth iteration of iOS to bring a dramatic refresh to the interface or a full Home screen makeover. It happened with another version 10 beforetwice. And considering last year's iPad reboot, it would have been fair to imagine a continuation of that work in iOS 10, taking the iPad further than Split View.

    There's very little of either in iOS 10, which is an iPhone release focused on people – consumers and their iPhone lifestyles; developers and a deeper trust bestowed on their apps. Like its predecessors, iOS 10 treads the line of surprising new features – some of which may appear unforeseen and reactionary – and improvements to existing functionalities.

    Even without a clean slate, and with a release cycle that may begin to split across platforms, iOS 10 packs deep changes and hundreds of subtle refinements. The final product is a major leap forward from iOS 9 – at least for iPhone users.

    At the same time, iOS 10 is more than a collection of new features. It's the epitome of Apple's approach to web services and AI, messaging as a platform, virtual assistants, and the connected home. And as a cornucopia of big themes rather than trivial app updates, iOS 10 shows another side of Apple's strategy:

    Sometimes, change is necessary.

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      Jumping in with Both Feet

      The tagline for my MacStories Weekly column, Ongoing Development, is:

      Trying new things, seeing what works, and discarding what doesn't.

      The description captures Ongoing Development well and I like that it’s short, but if I were to add anything to it, I'd expand the middle bit to ‘seeing what works and where it leads’ because when you find something that works, it often leads in new and unexpected directions. When I started recording short audio clips for The MacStories Lounge Telegram channel, I never expected it would lead to a WWDC interview series with developers, but it did.

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      Exploring the App Store’s Top Grossing Chart

      A word cloud of the names of the apps in the Top 200 Grossing charts

      A word cloud of the names of the apps in the Top 200 Grossing charts

      You have probably noticed that there are a lot of free apps, apps with In-App Purchases, and games in the Top Grossing charts. I did too, so today I decided to survey the US App Store's Top 200 Grossing iPhone apps and create some charts to visualize various data points and trends. Included in this article is an analysis which examines the upfront price, In-App Purchases, category, and other details of the apps in the Top 200 Grossing charts.

      The rankings will change from day to day, and country by country, but I think the results in this article provide interesting observations from a general perspective, even if some of the exact details may differ depending on the day.

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      WWDC 2016 Developer Reactions: The MacStories Interviews

      Over the course of WWDC I recorded interviews with fifteen developers and other people from the Apple community (sixteen including one pre-WWDC interview) about their reactions to the announcements made at WWDC and their work. The interviews, which are embedded below, grew out of The MacStories Lounge Telegram channel, where Federico and I have posted short audio updates for the past few months. I didn’t get a ticket in the WWDC lottery this year, but there was never a question in my mind that I would fly out to San Francisco for the week because I go for the people and geeky conversations as much as to learn what’s new. Thinking about those conversations it occurred to me, ‘why not record some of them to share with MacStories readers?’

      Interviewing the Workflow team.

      Interviewing the Workflow team.

      What I recorded over the course of the week are the same sorts of conversations that happen all over San Francisco during WWDC, whether it’s in line for a session at Moscone, over a meal with friends, or yelled at the top of your voice in a noisy bar at night. It was fun to see the many common threads that emerged from the interviews over the course of the week. Everyone had their own unique take on the events and interests in things that are relevant to their own projects, but there were also many reactions to WWDC that were common to most of the people to whom I spoke.

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      On iPad Features (Or Lack Thereof) at WWDC 2016

      In my iOS 10 Wishes story from April1, I wrote:

      I heard from multiple sources a few weeks ago that some iPad-only features will be shipped in 10.x updates following the release of iOS 10 in the Fall. I wouldn't be surprised if some iPad changes and feature additions won't make the cut for WWDC.

      I didn't have high hopes for major iPad-specific features to be announced at WWDC. Still, I was disappointed to see the iPad return to the backseat2 after last year's revitalization. Every time Craig Federighi ended a segment with "it works on the iPad, too", it felt like the iPad had become an afterthought again.

      After WWDC, I strongly believe that Apple has notable iPad-only features in the pipeline, but they won't be available until later in the iOS 10 cycle, possibly in early 2017.

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      “Where’s the App for That?” – Fixing App Store Discovery

      When the iPhone debuted in 2007, it was by no means a forgone conclusion that there would ever be an App Store. Steve Jobs reportedly resisted the idea over concerns that it would ‘mess up’ the iPhone,1 yet about one year later, the App Store debuted with around 500 third-party apps.

      The App Store grew like wildfire. By January 2009, there were about 15,000 apps. Though modest by today's standards, 15,000 was already enough apps that it felt like there was one to fulfill every possible need you might have. Apple celebrated the success of the App Store the next month by launching a TV ad campaign featuring the catchphrase ‘There’s an app for that.’

      Fast-forward to today and the scope of the App Store of 2009 feels quaint by comparison. There are now approximately 1.5 million apps in the App Store – a 100-fold increase in just seven years. But while the App Store has been an undeniable success for Apple by almost any measure, that success has come at a cost. With so many apps in the App Store, discovery has become such a serious problem that today’s version of Apple’s 2009 catchphrase may as well be ‘Where’s the app for that?’

      The good news is that change is afoot in the App Store. Last December, Phil Schiller took over responsibility for the App Store. In April, Apple launched a site dedicated to helping developers build their businesses, which includes a way for developers to contact the App Store team directly about promoting their apps. In mid-May, app review times dropped dramatically, from around a week to under two days, instantly changing the launch cycle for developers. Then, just in the last week or two, Apple quietly started hiding Apple TV apps from its Featured pages and top charts that customers have already downloaded, making room to display more new apps.

      According to rumors Apple has about 100 people working on changes to the App Store. With WWDC just around the corner, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about how Apple could improve App Store discovery and gathering ideas from other developers. I’m optimistic that meaningful progress can be made to make developers’ apps more discoverable, but these are hard problems. There is no silver bullet that will improve discovery overnight – it’s a problem that needs to be attacked on multiple fronts simultaneously.

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      I Made You a Mixtape

      I've always loved the idea of someone else making a mixtape for me.

      When I was in middle school and until the first year of high school, we didn't have the Internet at home. My parents were against buying me a PC; they thought it was a waste of time. Unlike many of my friends, I depended on books and magazines for my school research and hobbies. I was a voracious reader.

      That was 2002. I wasn't exactly a music fan back then: I heard music on the radio in my mom's car on the way to school in the morning, and I occasionally slid my dad's cassette tapes in our Siemens Club 793 stereo, but he only listened to Italian music. I wanted the English stuff.

      Until one day my friend Luca told me about MP3s and compact discs with hundreds of songs on them. By leaving his computer plugged in all night, he explained elatedly, he could download any music he wanted from the Internet using programs with exotic names I had never heard – WinMX, eMule, iMesh. Then, all those songs could be "burned" onto a CD as MP3s, and I could play them back for as long as I wanted with a CD player.

      I was 14, we were chatting after school, and I didn't know what piracy was. And then, the surprise: because he knew I didn't have the Internet (or a computer), he had made a sample CD for me with about 30 songs on it. He gave me the CD, told me to buy a CD player for myself, and he concluded with "Get back to me soon about the songs you like. I put in a bit of everything except Italian music".

      Fourteen years ago, I was handed the first mixtape someone ever made for me.

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      Tim Cook’s Big Week in India and China: Context and Timeline

      It may not have made the front page headlines, but Apple just concluded a significant week-long tour of India and China. Tim Cook has made numerous trips to China in recent years, but this was the first time that Cook visited India on an official trip as CEO of Apple. The trip also comes at a crucial time for the company as it begins to make big strategic moves to attract more Indian consumers, and at a time when Apple’s growth in China last quarter screeched to a halt after a period of huge growth.

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