I’ve been thinking about app scalability a lot lately – most recently in the context of TestFlight, which I find is incredibly frustrating to use, at best, and, on the Mac, often unusable. This isn’t a new problem for me, but I haven’t mentioned it much in the past because I’ve suspected that my experience is colored by the fact that I’m an outlier. But, outlier or not, the app deserves more attention than it’s been given.
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Links are the currency of information overload and distraction. There’s more media available than we could ever get to in a lifetime, and more things we might want to buy, places may want to visit, and other things to explore online than can be fit into a day.
The same problem exists in our work lives. That’s especially true for the kind of work I do. Links are part of everything. Whether I’m researching, writing, or preparing to record a podcast, I’m collecting, managing, and sharing links. I could follow all those trails as they cross my path, but I’d never get anything done.
Instead of flitting from one online discovery to the next with no plan, wasting precious time, I save links for later, putting them aside until I have time for them. I’ve been doing this forever, but I’ve also never been happy with my system. So, it was inevitable that I’d begin tinkering with my setup again, both with the apps I use and the shortcuts that support them.
We’re very excited to announce the second annual Automation April Shortcuts Contest, which, along with all of Automation April is dedicated to the memory of Alex Hay, the developer of Toolbox Pro and other apps.
As we had hoped when we introduced Automation April last year, the Automation April Shortcuts Contest became the centerpiece of Automation April. Last year, we had over 200 contest submissions across six categories of shortcuts. We received some remarkable shortcuts that showed just how creative and clever this community can be. But best of all, we saw the automation community come together to help each other when they got stuck and share the shortcuts they made.
Like last year, we encourage to you build a shortcut and submit it to the contest whether you’re a Shortcuts expert or just starting out. Shortcuts do not need to be complex to win in one of contest’s categories. That’s true for all the categories, but especially true for the Best Everyday Shortcut category, which we created because we know from experience that some of our most valuable and frequently-used shortcuts are among the simplest.
Our panel of judges will be evaluating submissions based on originality, performance, design, user experience, and usefulness. Pushing the boundaries of what is possible with Shortcuts is certainly a factor that will be considered in originality, but, at the same time, usefulness doesn’t require complexity, which is something we’ve emphasized often in our writing about Shortcuts. So, no matter your level of experience, we’d love to see what you build.
Entries must be submitted by 5:00 PM Eastern US time on April 17, 2023, so let’s dig into the details.
I can’t tell you how hard it is to write those words, and I can only imagine what those closest to Alex are going through. However, it’s also important to us here at MacStories to take a moment to reflect on Alex’s impact on our community and honor his memory.
One of the greatest privileges of running MacStories has been getting to know the developers behind the apps we love. Over the years, Federico and I have gotten to know hundreds of developers. They are the artists of our time, and their imagination, creativity, and passion are what inspire us.
In any creative field, though, there are always some people who stand apart from the pack. You don’t notice them because they’re especially good at self-promotion. No, they stand out because their raw talent is simply impossible to ignore. That was Alex Hay.
I don’t recall how Alex first appeared on my radar, but it was undoubtedly a text from Federico along the lines of “Hey, you gotta check out the crazy stuff this guy in the UK is doing with Shortcuts. You’re going to love this.” Nobody has an instinct for up-and-coming developers and apps like Ticci, but honestly, anyone could see Alex’s immense talent after just a few minutes with his apps. They are that good.
No app exemplifies Alex’s talent as much as Toolbox Pro, an app that simplifies complex APIs by making them accessible through Shortcuts. Toolbox Pro provides access to features of apps like Apple Music that even Apple hasn’t built by translating MusicKit APIs into Shortcuts actions. For Shortcuts power users, Toolbox Pro became the bridge between the worlds of iOS development and Shortcuts creation, allowing Shortcuts to be extended further than ever before.
Toolbox Pro was just one of Alex’s apps. He built a logger for Shortcuts that made debugging complex shortcuts infinitely easier. He also released Nauromate, an app that translated Notion’s APIs into Shortcuts actions making that app immensely more accessible to Shortcuts users.
What all of Alex’s apps have in common is that they opened new doors for Shortcuts users to take control of their iPhones, iPads, and Macs in new and exciting ways. Instead of building apps that fulfilled a specific need, Alex’s talent was building apps that let users tap into their own creativity to make what they wanted for themselves with Shortcuts.
The news of Alex’s passing reached us just as Federico and I were finalizing our plans for Automation April, leaving us shaken. Our reactions were the same: to use Automation April, an event that brings all corners of the Apple automation community together to remember and honor Alex’s memory.
So, with his family’s blessing, we’re dedicating Automation April 2023 in memory of Alex Hay, a brilliant and beloved member of the automation community who was taken from us far too early at the age of 36. MacStories is also making donations to the American Cancer Society and Cancer Research UK in Alex’s name, and we’d love it if you would join us in making a donation using the links above too.
The Apple automation community is a close-knit group of talented, creative people, and no one exemplified that more than Alex Hay. We’re grateful for the chance we had to get to know Alex and the apps he built that opened up so many new possibilities for Shortcuts users around the world. Our hearts go out to his family and friends, and we hope you’ll join us in thinking of him and his loved ones throughout Automation April.
Two pieces of mobile gaming news caught my eye this morning.
The first was an interview that Phil Spencer, CEO of Microsoft Gaming, gave to the Financial Times. The annual Game Developer Conference began today, and Spencer wants developers to know that Microsoft intends to publish games on mobile devices:
We want to be in a position to offer Xbox and content from both us and our third-party partners across any screen where somebody would want to play.
Today, we can’t do that on mobile devices but we want to build towards a world that we think will be coming where those devices are opened up.
Spencer is banking that the EU’s Digital Markets Act will force Apple and Google to open up their devices early next year. Microsoft is having troubles of its own with US, UK, and EU regulators over its proposed acquisition of Activision Blizzard. Part of Spencer’s strategy to win regulators over appears to be the prospect of bringing competition to mobile gaming with its own store and a native Game Pass app that isn’t relegated to streaming via a browser, which is the case for it and services like NVIDIA’s GeForce Now under current App Store rules.
The second piece of news comes from Netflix, which says it has 40 mobile games coming to iOS in 2023, which will join the 55 already available. Working within the constraints of the App Store’s guidelines, Netflix’s games are released as separate App Store downloads that Netflix subscribers can download and play at no additional cost. I’ve been impressed with the quality of the games released by Netflix, which include titles like TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, Kentucky Route Zero,Reigns: Three Kingdoms, Oxenfree, and Lucky Luna.
However, perhaps even bigger than the news of Netflix’s growing catalog is that the first two Monument Valley games are coming to the company’s mobile game catalog in 2024. That’s a big deal because both games are currently part of an Apple Arcade subscription, as well as being available as separate App Store purchases. It’s not clear whether the games will remain part of Arcade after they’re published by Netflix, but even if they are, it will provide another avenue to play the games at no additional cost, which will dilute the value of an Arcade subscription.
Microsoft and Netflix are already competing with Apple in mobile gaming to a degree, but their hands are tied by App Store guidelines. Microsoft has settled on streaming games, which is clunky and constrained, while Netflix has launched dozens of individual games without a good way to organize and market them under their brand.
What Microsoft and Netflix have done so far demonstrates that a little competition is a good thing. Developers have more avenues for publishing their games, and consumers have more choices. The Digital Markets Act has the potential to be the catalyst that opens the door to competition even wider, which I expect will create all sorts of new opportunities for developers and consumers alike.
Usually, when a big company shuts down an API, they give customers time to prepare. It’s the right thing to do regardless of what any terms of service say. That’s not how things went down with Twitter. Instead, as I wrote in January, Twitter eliminated access to its API for many third-party apps, including Tweetbot by Tapbots and Twitterrific by The Iconfactory, with no notice at all and then made up an excuse for why they did so after the fact. One moment the apps worked; the next, they didn’t.
The ramifications of Twitter’s actions are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before on the App Store. Tweetbot and Twitterrific were both subscription-based apps. Because they had no notice, neither company had a chance to suspend new subscriptions or take other actions to deal with a change that, under the best of circumstances, would pose massive challenges to their development teams. As a result, both Tapbots and The Iconfactory are faced with refunding the 70-85% of subscription revenues that they received on a pro-rated basis. That’s how the App Store works, and it’s potentially devastating to both companies given how events played out.
To try to mitigate the damage, both Tweetbot and Twitterrific were updated this week with new interfaces. Now, both apps give subscribers the option to indicate that they don’t want a refund. Tweetbot also offers to transfer a user’s Tweetbot subscription to Tapbots’ new Mastodon app, Ivory, which Federico recently reviewed and is excellent. If users do nothing, they’ll receive a refund that will be credited to their App Store account automatically by Apple.
Tapbots and The Iconfactory have played an important part in the Apple developer community for a very long time, and their Twitter clients were two of the best ever created. It’s been hard for us at MacStories to watch as the makers of two of our favorite apps have been treated with such callous disregard by Twitter, which owes no small portion of its past success to both apps.
If you were a subscriber to either or both apps, you’re absolutely entitled to a refund, but we’d ask that you open the app you use and tap the button to decline a refund as a final act of support for their developers instead.
The App Store’s success is built on many things, but its cornerstone is the developers who care enough to make apps like Tweetbot and Twitterrific. Many of us have moved on from Twitter, but let’s not leave behind the developers who made it a place where we once enjoyed hanging out.
Update, March 3: Version 3.1.1 of Apple Frames has been released with support for a new passthrough output command. This post has been updated to reflect the changes. You can redownload the updated shortcut at the end of this post.
Today, I’m happy to introduce something I’ve been working on for the past couple of months: Apple Frames – my shortcut to put screenshots captured on Apple devices inside physical device frames – is getting a major upgrade to version 3.1 today. In addition to offering support for more devices that I missed in version 3.0 as well as some bug fixes, Apple Frames 3.1 brings a brand new API that lets you automate and extend the Apple Frames shortcut itself.
By making Apple Frames scriptable, I wanted to allow power users – such as designers and developers who rely on this shortcut to frame hundreds of images each week – to save valuable time without compromising the accessible nature of Apple Frames for other people. This is why all of the new advanced features of Apple Frames are optional and hidden until you go look for them specifically. Furthermore, even if you do want to use the Apple Frames API, you’ll see that I designed it in the spirit of Shortcuts: it does not require any code and it’s entirely powered by simple, visual ‘Text’ actions.
I’m incredibly excited about what Apple Frames can do in version 3.1, so let’s dive in.
I’ve seen the future of Mac gaming, and it’s not Metal 3 or Apple silicon. It’s a PC sitting in a Dallas data center with an NVIDIA 4080 GPU. That’s the data center my Mac connects to when I log into GeForce NOW Ultimate, the top tier of NVIDIA’s videogame streaming service. NVIDIA has data centers like it across the US and in Europe, streaming the latest, most demanding titles to a wide range of devices, including the Mac.
GeForce NOW is a technological marvel that turns traditional computing expectations on their head, offering Mac users a world where your Internet connection and display are more important than the computing power of the device on which a game is played. For Mac users, GeForce NOW is an opportunity to finally play the most advanced games available on the computer they love, which is exciting. However, for Apple, which has begun to market Macs as capable of playing modern games, GeForce NOW and services like it may end its AAA gaming ambitions before they leave the gate.
For the past eight years, Six Colors’ Jason Snell has put together an ‘Apple report card’ – a survey that aims to assess the current state of Apple “as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple”.
The 2022 version of the Six Colors Apple Report Card was published yesterday, and you can find an excellent summary of all the submitted comments along with charts featuring average scores for different categories here.
Once again, I’m happy Jason invited me to share some thoughts and comments on what Apple did in 2022. MacStories readers know that last year didn’t exactly go as planned. While iOS 16 delivered a meaningful update to the Lock Screen for people who care about customization and the iPhone 14 Pro came with substantial improvements to the display and camera tech, the iPad story was disappointing and confusing. This is reflected in my answers to Jason’s survey, and it’ll be a recurring topic on MacStories in 2023. At the same time, I was also impressed by Apple’s performance on services, concerned by the evolution of the Shortcuts app, and cautious about the company’s newfound approach to HomeKit.
I’ve prepared the full text of my answers to the Six Colors report card, which you can find below. I recommend reading the whole thing on Six Colors to get the broader context of all the participants in the survey.