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AppStories, Episode 212 – Music Part 1: How We Listen

This week on AppStories, we talk about Apple Arcade’s big expansion and the iOS component of John’s retro gaming project before beginning a new mini-series focused on music. For the first installment, we focus on hardware and services, covering our current setups, how we listen to music, and the services we use.

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Why Today Feels like a Quiet Turning Point for Video Games

Chris Plante, writing for Polygon on today’s major Apple Arcade news:

Microsoft’s and Apple’s bets on downloadable subscription services would seemingly place them behind their streaming counterparts in the long run, but that’s not quite the case. Their success shows that they’re neither ahead of the curve nor behind it; they’re simply meeting the expectations of their players. Apple debuted 30 games on Friday on a service that costs $4.99 a month and is often included in larger Apple product purchases for free. Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass Ultimate tier costs $14.99 a month and includes games on Xbox console, Windows PC, and Android devices — and will now regularly feature launch-day releases from Xbox Game Studios, Bethesda Softworks, and even Sony, along with a rotating collection of more than 100 catalog titles. They’re providing the best deals in gaming at this moment.

Compare Friday’s news and these strategies with other industry announcements from this week. Nintendo ceased selling a digital collection of Mario games for no greater reason than artificial scarcity, despite already hosting an online subscription service that could house the games. And Sony confirmed that it will be closing its digital storefronts for the PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation Vita — with no clarity on how or if those venues or their games will be preserved, let alone be made available in the future.

The fact that Apple, possibly inspired by Microsoft, has a real chance to do game preservation better than Sony is not a sentence I would have expected to type in 2021.

See also: my story from 2018, App Preservation: Saving the App Store’s History, featuring – among others – Zach Gage, who brought four classic games to Apple Arcade today.

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The Case for Shortcuts on the Mac

Jason Snell writing on Six Colors:

The more I use Shortcuts, the more I realize that in many ways, user automation on iOS has outpaced automation on the Mac. Let me give you an example: On iOS I built a shortcut to grab the contents of selected text in Safari and open the results in a text editor—converted to Markdown, with the title of the page set as the title and its URL set as a link. It’s not remotely the most complicated shortcut I’ve built, but it’s great—and has saved me a lot of time while improving the quality of my link posts…

I love it so much, I decided to build the same automation on the Mac. The results were ugly. My Keyboard Maestro macro forces Safari to copy the selected text to the clipboard, moves to BBEdit, opens a new window, pastes in the HTML, runs an HTML to Markdown Service on the selection, then runs an AppleScript script that cleans up the results. It’s ridiculous.

This is a fantastic example of something that I’ve experienced over and over to the point where I hesitate before trying to automate anything on the Mac. As Jason points out, Shortcuts isn’t exactly easy, but I find that I usually spend the most time figuring out the best approach to a problem rather than how to implement it in Shortcuts, which is automation at its best. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that encourages me to experiment more with Shortcuts and use Mac automation less.

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Siri Adds Two New English Speaking Voices and Lets Users Choose Among Them

Matthew Panzarino, reporting for TechCrunch says the latest beta version of iOS and iPadOS 14.5 includes two new English Siri voices. The report elaborates that the existing female voice is no longer the default and that users will choose the voice they want to use with Apple’s voice assistant when setting up a device for the first time.

In a statement to TechCrunch, an Apple said:

We’re excited to introduce two new Siri voices for English speakers and the option for Siri users to select the voice they want when they set up their device. This is a continuation of Apple’s long-standing commitment to diversity and inclusion, and products and services that are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.

Panzarino says he’s heard the new voices and likes them a lot and will be embedding samples in his story once he has the sixth iOS 14.5 beta installed.

I’m surprised that Apple is adding new Siri voices this late in the iOS 14 cycle, but it’s a welcome change that eliminates bias and makes Siri a more diverse and inclusive service.

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Apple and Others Invest $50 million into Music Distributor UnitedMasters

Apple quietly acquires companies with products and teams that complement its own offerings all the time, but it’s not often an investor, which makes the company’s recent investment in UnitedMasters notable. As reported by Matthew Panzarino at TechCrunch, Apple is joined by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and A16z as leads in UnitedMasters’ $50 million Series B round.

Historically, artists’ relationships with music distribution companies have prevented artists from connecting directly with fans. UnitedMasters’ goal is to change that providing artists with access to data and allowing them to retain control of master recordings and sell merchandise, tickets, and more directly to fans.

As Panzarino notes, the investment comes as the music industry is changing:

We are currently at an inflection point in the way that artists and fans connect with one another. Though there have been seemingly endless ways for artists to get their messages out or speak to fans using social media and other platforms, the actual business of distributing work to a community and making money from that work has been out of their hands completely since the beginning of the recording industry.

UnitedMasters’ mission is to assist artists in making the transition to music’s future. If UnitedMaters’ objective sounds familiar, it’s likely because, as Panzarino explains, it bears a lot of similarity to what Apple Music Connect could have been:

In music, Apple is at the center of this maelstrom along with a few other major players like Spotify. One of the big misses in recent years for Apple Music, in my opinion, was Apple’s failure to turn Apple Music Connect into an industry-standard portal that allowed artists to connect broadly with fans, distribute directly, sell tickets and merchandise but — most importantly — to foster and own their community.

The streaming music industry is moving fast. Over the past several weeks, Spotify has introduced a long list of features to attract new listeners to the service. Apple Music seems to be evolving slowly compared to Spotify, but Apple’s investment in UnitedMasters shows that the company has its eye on the industry’s future too. Which new features stick with music fans remains to be seen, but judging from the first three months of the year, 2021 will be another interesting one for music streaming services.

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AppStories, Episode 211 – Apple at Home

This week on AppStories, we scrutinize Apple’s home strategy from its discontinued Airport routers and HomePod to the Apple TV, HomePod mini, HomeKit routers, the Home app, and more, plus ongoing browser and calendar experiments, and the hunt for an elusive keyboard continues.

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Spotify Updating Home Hub with Recently Played Section, Deeper Podcast Integration

As announced by Spotify last week, the company is rolling out a refreshed home hub in its mobile app featuring a new Recently Played section, an easier way to stream new releases from your favorite artists, and shortcuts to play and resume podcast episodes with one tap:

About a year ago, we reworked the Spotify mobile experience to refresh our Home interface. Since then, Spotify users have been able to access the content they love more quickly and easily—and maybe even discover something new straight from their home screen. But the ease and discovery don’t stop there. This month, we’re announcing a series of updates that will make the Home experience even more personalized for each and every listener.

We’re constantly working on ways to improve our user experience. Through this latest update, we’ll be rolling out several advancements on the mobile Home hub designed to make finding the audio you love easier and more intuitive. These will roll out to users globally on iOS and Android this month.

The redesigned home hub is the latest announcement in a series of recent product updates, including genre and mood filters for liked songs, real-time lyrics, and the upcoming lossless tier.

In my tests with Spotify this year, I’ve been positively impressed by the company’s pace of updates. What I find particularly intriguing in the refreshed home hub design is the integration with podcasts: I was very skeptical of blending music and podcasts in the same app when I switched to Spotify at the end of last year, but the more I use it, the more I understand why podcast listening in Spotify is growing rapidly. There’s something about making both kinds of audio content accessible in one place that works well for removing friction from having to choose what I want to listen to. I’m curious to see how Spotify will balance music and podcast episodes in new home hub (which I don’t have in my Spotify app yet).

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The Pleasures of Conversing via Voice Text

Fun story by Rachel Syme, writing for The New Yorker last week, on rediscovering the simple pleasure of sending audio messages (voice texts) to friends during the pandemic:

Voice texts (also called audio messages), by contrast, are text messages with a pulse, phone calls with none of the pressure; they are fizzy zaps of connection that demand little of the recipient except that she listen and enjoy before they’re gone. They are not a new feature—on iPhones, they launched as part of the iOS8 update, way back in 2014 (and users of WhatsApp have long communicated with a similar service). But voice texting has gained obvious new appeal during the past year of isolation. At the site nofilter, the reporter Kate Lindsay wrote that she had been prepared to dismiss voice texting as “a Gen Z (or, rather, z-lennial) fad. Then the pandemic hit, and before I knew it all my text message conversations were replaced with disappearing audio snippets.”

Audio messages have been the default communication method among my friends and family for the past several years (primarily via WhatsApp; no one I know here in Italy uses iMessage’s voice text UI since it’s, frankly, quite clunky). During the pandemic and through our various stages of lockdown, however, I’ve also rediscovered the joy of sending audio messages, which strike a nice balance between the immediacy of a text and the additional context of a phone call.

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