Tag Archives: iPhone

Throw the Southpaws a Bone

Apple has done such a remarkable job with accessibility in all of its software on iOS. It’s way past time that they addressed another group of individuals who have a hard time navigating their iPhones: the left-handed.

I’m picturing a simple switch, in the Settings app, where I can let my iPhone know that I’m a lefty. That one switch would automatically shift stock UI elements, such as table views, to have a left-handed bias.

Many apps feature a lefty table view navigation, where you can slide along the left side, instead of the right side, of the list to navigate quickly. But this is a custom control created by thoughtful individuals. It should be baked into UITableView.

It’s bad enough Apple won’t make me a phone that actually fits in my hand anymore. Making me reach across the oversized screen just to get to the bottom of a list quickly is just pouring salt in the wound.

I’m not suggesting that the whole interface get flipped horizontally. After all, speakers of Western languages still read left to right, regardless of handedness. I’m just thinking of the little things, the small UI details that are easier to reach on the right side that could easily be moved to the left. It seems Apple could make that happen quite easily, and millions of people would benefit.

My Adventures in Audiobooks

One of the things I always admired about Steve Jobs was his willingness to call out things that just plain sucked.

And so here I am, saying that syncing content with iTunes just plain sucks.

Today’s example:

There’s a good review of the Jony Ive biography over on Asymco. Since I tend to think Horace is a smart guy, I figured his recommendation was reason enough to go get this book for myself. So I followed his link, on my Mac, to the iBookstore.

But just before clicking “buy” I thought to myself, “Well, I have about ten iBooks I haven’t yet read sitting on my iPad. I probably won’t get around to this for a while.” And so I decided to check and see if there were an audiobook version instead. After all, I spend lots of time walking around the city, trying to get some exercise, and it’s been ages since I listened to an audiobook, so why not?

Why not, indeed.

There on the iTunes page for the iBook, I clicked on the “related” tab and saw that there is indeed an unabridged audio version of the same book for sale, on iTunes, no less. Narrated by Simon Vance, even. Perfect. So I bought it.

And at that very moment, I screwed my chances of listening to this book on my iPhone.

You see, unlike most forms of content on iTunes, audiobooks don’t sync over iTunes Match. They also can’t be downloaded more than once. I learned this the hard way, when I turned on my iPhone and fired up the Music app, expecting to see my new audiobook downloading automatically. It wasn’t. I also couldn’t find an audiobooks tab anywhere, even in the “more” section of the Music app. Hmmm. Did they move Audiobooks to another separate app?

I search the App Store. Hundreds of audiobooks apps; none of them from Apple, none that can read files bought on iTunes. I search the Internets. Confirmed. Audiobooks are still in the Music app, though some people are having issues since the iOS 7 update. Not a good sign.

So how to get the book over there?

I know, I’ll put it into a playlist, and that playlist will sync over iTunes Match, right? Nope. Playlists with audiobook files don’t show up in iTunes Match.

Okay, I’ll open up iTunes on my iPhone, search for the audiobook, and just download it again directly on the device, right? Nope. If I want to download it again, I need to purchase it again.

Okay, fine, I’ll bite the bullet and do something I never wanted to to again—I’ll plug my iPhone into my Mac and sync the audiobook using iTunes like a barbarian. First I try to simply drag the book over to the right side of the window to manually sync it. No dice. It gives me a blue highlight, as if to say, “go ahead and drop the file here.” But then nothing happens.

Then I go to the books tab and set it to sync just audiobooks, and I get a warning telling me that since I’m using iTunes in the Cloud on this phone, syncing this one audiobook file manually will force me to erase the entire contents of my music library on the phone first. Am I sure I want to do that?

No, iTunes. I’m not sure I want to erase 50GB of music off my phone to get one audiobook.

Not one to give up so easily, I drop the audiobook file into my Dropbox, hoping I can open the Dropbox app on my iPhone, and use “open in…” to send it over to Music. Nope. (Sidenote: Downcast gallantly attempted to open the file, but couldn’t get past Apple’s DRM. “A” for effort on that one.)

And so here I am, with a 9-hour audiobook on the least-likely device I’ll ever want to use to listen to it: My 27-inch iMac.

Thanks, Eddy Cue. Bang up job you did there.

As an absolute hail Mary play, I decide to plug my iPhone back in one more time and try the manual drag and drop of the file in iTunes. This time, it starts a sync without any warnings, and I get a progress bar at the top. So far so good. My cursor beach balls for about two minutes, but it doesn’t crash. The progress bar switches over to “Finishing Update” and I’m filled with hope. And then it keeps saying “Finishing Update” for another fifteen minutes. Convinced it must still be working on it, I wait. And Wait. If I turn on the iPhone, I can see the Audiobooks tab now in music, and the Jony Ive book appears to be there. But I can’t play it. And iTunes is still “finishing.” So I wait some more.

Forever Finishing

Finally, I get impatient and try to cancel the sync. Won’t cancel. I tap the eject button in iTunes, and I get a warning telling me that the sync is still in progress. Do I want to eject anyway? No. Another five minutes.

Okay, this time, I just want to eject it. So I say yes, I do want to eject anyway. Still “finishing” but I get an additional window, no close boxes or cancel buttons, called “Syncing iPhone.” with its own independent progress bar that never shows any progress. I guess this is iTunes’ way of scaring me into not unplugging.

The Second No Progress Bar

Another ten minutes. Remember, this is all for one audiobook. I realize the file is 250MB, but over a USB cable, what should that take? Maybe two, three minutes, tops?

Finally, I get bored and yank the Lightning cable. We’re already way past the point where any sane human being would have given up, aren’t we?

Look, if it’s all or nothing with iTunes in the Cloud, then everything you sell on iTunes has to work over the cloud. Everything. Not most things. Otherwise, if audiobooks are special and can’t be synced over iTunes in the Cloud, give me some other way to sync them without wiping out my whole library. Is that too much to ask?

And if manual sync is supposed to be the way to do that, then make sure manual sync actually works. Because it sure doesn’t seem to work as far as I can tell.

Also, let’s keep in mind that I’m more than a little savvy with this technology stuff. And so are a lot of my Twitter followers. And none of us could figure this out. If this is possible, and I’m missing it somehow, you get an F minus for usability, Eddy. There’s no way a “normal” person would have tried this many different things.

Seems pretty obvious to me, since you still sell audiobooks on the iTunes Store, that there should be an easy way to listen to books bought on your Mac on any of your iOS devices. I’m not talking about some obscure old content I bought ten years ago. I’m talking about a file I bought today, for crying out loud.

Still, third time’s a charm, right? And I want to be thorough for the sake of this post. So I give it another go. I plug in my iPhone and try the manual drag and drop in iTunes for the third time. I’m about to eat dinner, anyway, so how can it hurt? First three times I drag, it gets stuck in “preparing” to update and I have to cancel. So I quit iTunes and relaunch, drag it a fourth time, and just walk away.

Thirty minutes later when I return from dinner, the progress bar is gone. iTunes is sitting idle. I fire up the Music app on my iPhone, and sure enough, the file is sitting there. Tap it, and it starts playing. More than three hours after I purchased the thing, I can now finally listen to the Jony Ive audiobook on my device of choice.

Isn’t this the sort of thing for which we usually make fun of other companies?

My advice: Don’t ever buy an audiobook from iTunes. Or, if you do, buy it on the device where you want to listen to it, because you won’t be able to move it after the fact without wanting to punch someone.

And this is but one small example of how crappy it is trying to sync content to an iPhone from iTunes. This is no isolated incident. I don’t have the heart to tell you the one where I tried to turn off iTunes in the Cloud and go back to manual syncing all my music last year. That’s a whole day I’ll never get back.

Fix this stuff, Apple. Seriously. iTunes is a multi-billion dollar business. You should be embarrassed of how piss poor this experience is.

Hey Apple, Where’s the Fire?

I know the trend lately is to suggest that Apple is not moving fast enough. That it should be releasing brand-new groundbreaking products every year or two. That iOS needs a complete design overhaul so it won’t be so “boring.” Where’s the Apple TV? Where’s the iWatch? And so on.

Down with Skeuomorphism! Flat Design FTW!

Forget all that. What Apple really needs to do is slow the hell down.

The Mac was released in 1984. The iPod in 2001. The iPhone in 2007. The iPad in 2010. Sure, the revolutionary new products are coming faster now than they used to, but is that a good thing?[1]

Apple has introduced some incredibly cool technology over the past several years that hasn’t come close to reaching its potential. FaceTime, Passbook, iBooks Author, iCloud—just to name a few—were all so promising when they were introduced. But most of them have failed to be completely successful, not because they aren’t great ideas, but because Apple isn’t doing a whole lot to either improve or evangelize them.

If the pattern used to be “release, then iterate, iterate, iterate,” it seems like Apple is not giving itself enough time for the “iterate” part of that process. It’s being pressured to move on to the next thing. And that leaves us with a lot of half-baked products and a ton of unrealized potential.

Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

FaceTime

The first time you use FaceTime to talk to your family members from across the globe is a pretty magical experience. We’ve all seen the commercials and gotten teary-eyed. Anyone who has used FaceTime can see the value in making free long-distance video calls, right? But what’s holding FaceTime back from wider adoption?

When Jobs introduced FaceTime, he said that it would eventually be an open standard, that anyone could use the same technology and thus it wouldn’t matter if your kids or wife or whoever also had an iPhone or iPad. You could call people on Android, Windows, etc. What happened to that? Did the standard get rejected? Did Apple ever bother submitting it?

And why is FaceTime still a one-on-one conversation? I can do a video iChat with three people over AIM, for crying out loud. And I can’t share my screen during a FaceTime call, either. The Mac app hasn’t been updated since it was in beta, really. And the carriers are only now opening up and letting us use it over our cellular data plans. Considering how long FaceTime has been around, it’s stunningly similar to what it was at launch.

Update: Rene Ritchie from iMore has informed me that Apple is in the midst of a lawsuit involving FaceTime, and that may have had a strong effect on Apple’s ability to improve the technology, and to open source it. That certainly would explain the lack of progress there. Thanks for the tip!

Passbook

The four times I’ve used Passbook were some of the most delightful retail experiences I’ve had. Who wouldn’t love the idea of never having to worry about losing paper tickets or waiting in line at Will Call again? Every time I buy tickets to a movie, concert, or comedy show, I scan the confirmation email, hoping to see a Passbook link. And more often than not, I’m left disappointed.

I’d be using Passbook a lot more, except few companies seem to be adopting it. This one is a real head scratcher, as from what I can tell the technology isn’t difficult to implement. It appears as if Apple actually got the hard part right, but no one at Apple is selling it enough. I know that Passbook is relatively new, but is anyone out there pushing companies to try it? Does Apple even have Evangelists anymore?

It would help if Apple Retail at least adopted Passbook for Apple Gift Cards and in-store pickups. Talk about eating your own dogfood.

Update 2: @hmk on App.net pointed out that last November, Apple did start allowing online Apple Gift Cards to be transferred into Passbook. The physical cards you buy in Apple Stores and other retail locations are still not transferrable, however. 

iBooks Author

Phil Schiller said Apple wanted to reinvent the textbook with iBooks Author. And what have we gotten since? Is Apple taking this book revolution seriously anymore? Maybe it is, but it’s hard to tell when Apple has been basically silent about it ever since, minus one update that didn’t address most authors’ needs.

Maybe footnotes would be a good start.

iCloud

Lots of stories lately about how Apple is blowing it with iCloud, so I don’t need to belabor the point here. Everyone seems to agree that contact, calendar, and preference syncing is mostly okay, though not perfect. But the real issue is more complex data sync, which is both broken and next to impossible to implement.

iCloud needs developer adoption, and right now the top developers are telling everyone to stay away from it. This is a huge problem for Apple. I know the tendency for Apple is to think of users first, then Apple, then the devs, but this is one case where putting the dev first is actually going to help Apple and the users more. If Core Data sync is truly unfixable, replace it with something better under the hood. Keep calling it iCloud, because no one outside the developer community will know you changed anything. They’ll just be happy it started working.

Conclusion

Behind every one of these products is a brilliant idea. This is not a Ping situation, where Apple saw it had made a mistake and quickly cut it loose. Every one of these and many more could easily become world-changing, competition-killing features with the right amount of polish and some proselytizing. But Apple can’t do that if it starts to adopt a more Google-like “throw it all up against the wall and see what sticks” attitude. This would be harmful not only to the users who get burnt as their favorite new technologies die on the vine, but also to Apple itself as people start to lose their faith that everything new Apple does is golden. It’s also destructive to the talent within Apple who come up with these things. You can’t retain talented people if you abandon the projects they work so hard to deliver.

When the iPhone was first released, and it didn’t have cut, copy, and paste, I wasn’t worried. I wasn’t worried there were no third-party apps. I knew that would all happen eventually. I want to be just as sure about Apple’s newer products.

Even on the hardware side, we’re just scratching the surface of iPad adoption. There are far more people who don’t own a tablet than who do. It’s clear that tablets are destined to become the primary computing device for most people; but not if Apple is already putting all its attention on wrist computers and not addressing the shortcomings that make the iPad impractical for average users’ needs. The current iPads are awesome, but they’re not done. There’s plenty more to improve.

If Apple took the year and worked on half of its existing prodcuts rather than trying to introduce new ones, they’d be doing themselves and us a much bigger favor. If they spent the year fixing the unbelievably sloppy bugs that still exist in iOS and Mountain Lion (I’m talking boneheadedly simple things like drag and drop on the Mac), rather than bringing five new half-baked apps like Podcasts to the platform, our phones and our laptops would be better at surprising and delighting us.[2]

I’ve loved jabbing Adobe for its many flaws over the years, but when they took a step back with Photoshop CS6 and spent the majority of the release fixing all the teeny little annoyances we were complaining about for decades rather than peppering it with a thousand useless new features, you could feel the collective joy from the user base. We were thrilled that Adobe was finally fixing most of the broken stuff. Apple would be wise to take some time to do something similar with iOS and OS X. All those little irritations add up, and every new product you introduce that doesn’t get more love later is yet another breeding ground for discontent.

Maybe that’s not sexy enough to gather all the right headlines. Maybe new features in iWork for the first time in seveal years won’t keep Wall Street or the idiot analysts happy. Maybe the competition is too fierce to afford the time to slow down and get some perspective rather than plowing forward at breakneck speed. (I seriously doubt it.) But all this rushing, all this spreading of resources too thin is starting to show. Allowing pressure from others to set the pace of innovation at Apple would be a very costly mistake.


  1. Personally, I think the iPad was released a few years earlier than it should have been. Jobs wasn’t going to be around much longer, so it made sense that he wanted to see it out in the real world before he passed, but the more I use my iPad mini, the more convinced I am that the mini would have been what Apple released as the first iPad if it had waited a few more years to refine the product to its usual standards.  ↩

  2. The release of the new and improved Podcasts app actually gave me hope. Most of the press only cared about the killing of skeuomorphism, but the more significant UI changes and new features in Podcasts demonstrated that Apple knew exactly what was wrong with the app and how best to fix it. If Podcasts is an indication of where iOS is going in general, then I’m not worried. Let’s hope we’ll see more of this sort of methodical polish in the near future.  ↩

You’re not Michael Simmons, Either

In September 2011, I attended 360iDev for the first time. At the time, Fantastical for Mac was a very new app, and I was happy to see that one of its creators, Michael Simmons, would be giving a talk. After his talk, I told him how much I liked Fantastical and that I was hoping he’d make an iPhone version. He gave me a coy “We’re looking into it” response, and I went home thinking it was likely coming in the next six months or so.

Fast forward to September 2012, and I’m giving a talk at 360iDev. This time, Michael Simmons would be watching me speak, and Fantastical for iPhone was still a few months from release. The day before my talk, I bumped into Michael at the elevator, re-introduced myself, and told him again how much I liked Fantastical. He immediately invited me to hang out with him and his friends for dinner and introduced me to many of the other speakers.

My point here is that Michael is an extremely approachable guy. We had a great conversation over dinner about App Store pricing, and he gave me some valuable advice. He also attended my talk the next day and gave me lots of encouraging feedback.

Fast forward to yesterday, and Fantastical is finally released for iPhone. Somewhere in the middle of the day, I see this tweet from Michael:

For at least a few hours on launch day, Fantastical for iPhone was the number 1 iPhone app. It was beating out Angry Birds Star Wars, a game that combines two amazingly powerful brands held by two multi-million (billion in the case of Star Wars) dollar companies. Flexibits is a small, independent operation. This shouldn’t be possible.

But the image he attached actually tells an even more important story. Angry Birds Star Wars sells for $0.99. Fantastical was selling at an “introductory rate” of $1.99. So that means Fantastical, for at least a few hours yesterday, was making more than double the amount of money that Angry Birds Star Wars was. With a non-game app made by an indie shop that was more than $0.99.

That’s mind-numbing.

Imagine my shock when exactly no one in the tech press wrote that story yesterday.

(Correction: Matthew Panzarino did in fact write this exact story for thenextweb.com. I apologize for the error. And kudos to him for bringing this story some bona fide media attention.)

What’s my point in all this? Well, on Wednesday, I said that you should forget the top charts on the App Store, that you’re never going to get on them. And I still stand by that advice. Because you’re not Loren Brichter, and you’re not Michael Simmons, either. But seeing Loren and Michael break that barrier, get themselves up on these lists as small independent shops, should be encouraging to you, as long as you don’t take away the wrong lessons from their successes.

You see, neither Michael Simmons nor Loren Brichter were trying to get on the top charts. The goal was to create a great app first and then get it into as many hands as possible. The fact that they reached the top of the chart is evidence that they succeeded in their goal, not the goal itself.

Loren made it to the top of the chart with a freemium game. Michael made it there with a $2 productivity app. The price had less to do with either success than most people think.

Another thing I said two days ago was that most iOS developers are great at code, terrible at business. Guess what Michael Simmons is amazingly good at?

You need both a great app and a good head for business to succeed at this thing. If you’re confident that you’re making the best apps you can possibly make, and you’re still not really breaking through in the App Store, it’s probably time to start studying sales and marketing.

Time will tell how long Fantastical will stay high up on the charts. I suspect that it will fade slowly down to a comfortable spot in the top fifty or so, like most popular apps do. But that amazing launch day alone netted Flexibits more money than most apps make in a lifetime. And the giant user base of mostly happy customers who bought Fantastical yesterday is going to evangelize the crap out of Fantastical, bringing a nice steady stream of sales for years.

In short, Fantastical is a role model for how to succeed on the App Store as an independent developer.

So if you want a tip from your old pal, Joe, here it is: Keep an eye on Flexibits. When you come across interviews with Michael Simmons, particularly ones where he reveals some secrets about how to have a successful launch, read or listen to them. When you see he’s speaking at some event somewhere, go watch him talk. And introduce yourself afterwards.

And as you begin to succeed on the App Store yourself, and you bump into someone you don’t know who tells you he or she likes your work, take a few moments to be gracious and encouraging, and share some of your wisdom. Having a reputation for being a genuinely nice, generous person never seems to hurt.

You’re Not Loren Brichter

Realmac Blog – App Pricing and the Freemium Trend: “So what does this mean for us and the future of apps? Given the right product, a freemium model is something that we may have to consider. To throw in some business speak, the right product matched to the right target market is critically important here, and when done properly going freemium could be a massively successful strategy. That said, how it affects the perceived value of our craft remains to be seen.”

(Via. Realmac Blog)

While I agree with Rob that there’s a place for freemium, this disturbing trend of assuming that price is the major factor in a particular app’s success always gives me pause.

I think Letterpress would have done fine if it weren’t freemium. Why? Because it was made by Loren Brichter, and it’s an awesome game. You can’t just look at the pricing model and assume that’s the reason why something hit or didn’t. We have no way of knowing for sure how well Letterpress would have done at $2 or $5, but we can’t assume that it would have done worse. It could have made more money.

A couple of things to keep in mind if you’re getting into the App Store software business, especially if you want to make a productivity, or some other sort of “non-game” app:

  • The vast majority of iPhone and iPad owners only buy games. Actually, to be more accurate, most of them don’t buy games; they download free games. And then a very small percentage of those folks actually pay the $1 or whatever for the “advanced” features. Those hundreds of millions of devices that Apple talks about at every keynote? Most of them are never going to run your app at any price. Not because these users are cheap. They paid for an iPhone or iPad. They have a few bucks to spare. Not because they hate you. They don’t know you. It’s just that paying for apps is not on the radar. They just like playing casual games once in a while, and that’s all they need from their phone. So forget them. They’re not your customers. There are hundreds of thousands of other iOS users who are interested in your product and do pay for software regularly. Don’t confuse those users with everyone else. They are two very different groups of people. You don’t need to get them all.
  • The Top Grossing Apps list is a complete waste of your time. Repeat after me: You will never be on this list. Furthermore, the apps on this list have almost nothing to do with your success or failure. Everyone there has all sorts of advantages (connections, press, luck, VC backing, etc.) that you don’t have. Trying to emulate anything about any of these apps is an exercise in futility. You can make money just fine without ever paying attention to this list at all. In fact, you’re more likely to make money if you forget the list exists.
  • You’re not Loren Brichter. You’re just not. Maybe you’re a genius, and you’ve made an app that’s even better than anything Loren has ever done. That’s nice, but you’re still not Loren Brichter. You didn’t work at Apple on the original iPhone. You didn’t have one of the early App Store successes with Tweetie. You haven’t guest lectured at Stanford. You didn’t earn the reputation he has for building the highest quality stuff, and you aren’t universally adored in the Apple community as an all-around nice guy. You may be all those things some day if you keep working at it like he did, but you’re not there yet, and you’re not getting there this week. If you want to emulate anything about Loren, emulate his commitment to quality, his ability to take advantage of the luck that comes his way, and his focus on the product rather than the profit motive. Don’t emulate his freemium game pricing model. That’s like donning a white suit and thinking you can dance like Travolta. Not going to happen.
  • There are ten times more failed freemium apps than successful ones. The bottom grossing apps are mostly free or freemium, too. You know why? Because far too many devs embrace freemium as the “only way to make money.” Most devs are smart engineers but terrible business people. Don’t be that.
  • The goal isn’t to get rich quick and retire young. That could happen on the App Store, but there are much easier ways to reach that goal. You haven’t heard many stories about the dev who makes an app in his spare time and hits it big a la Steve Detemer lately because we’re past that stage. Far richer and more connected people have descended on the App Store with well-known brands and armies of resources, and they get the bulk of the attention and the money. But that’s fine. There’s still plenty of room for you. Find a measure of success that’s both realistic and noble, and work towards it. Make something you’re proud of and figure out a way to make a living with it so you can make it better. Be ready for that to take years.
  • Buy apps. And start encouraging everyone you know to pay for quality. If you balk at paying $1.99 for any app that genuinely interests you, get out of the business immediately. You’re part of the problem.
  • If you’re in the apps business to get rich quick or to get into the Top Grossing list, you have to be prepared to play an entirely different game, with venture capital, millions in investment, teams of engineers, and an exit strategy. Just making your app free to play isn’t going to do you any good. That’s one piece of a much larger and very different business strategy.