Poem: Happy Birthday, Mac

When I was the tender, young age of five,
My parents bought our very first Mac.
From the moment we pressed it alive,
We knew there was no looking back.

Through the classic OS I did click,
Unaware of the company’s woes.
I was in love with a GUI so slick,
It could have collapsed right under my nose.

More products then entered our homes,
So many iThings and speakers and watches!
Would you believe they wrote their own tome,
Showing all of their fine design touches?

I look back on all I’ve created,
Whether for school or for work or for fun,
And nothing could be more surely stated,
Only with Mac could it all have been done.

Years later, through transitions aplenty,
The Mac has changed in ways both big and small.
Yet after 35 years we know definitely,
Its true spirit remains for us all.

Happy birthday, Mac.

Why HomePod Is My Favourite New(er) Apple Product

It has been some time since I first wrote about HomePod. Considering the general tech news angle that HomePod hasn’t been quite the success that Apple had imagined—which we don’t actually know for sure or in any real detail—I thought that it would be good to revisit the device and discuss how I’ve been using it.

Back in February when I first wrote about it, I only had one HomePod and was really impressed by the quality of the sound and oomph that it could produce. Set-up was easy, the build quality was fantastic and the integration with Apple Music and my own library was seamless. I now have two HomePods on my television cabinet, forming what Apple calls a ‘stereo pair’. The term ‘stereo’ is used here purely to represent two HomePods that coordinate as left and right speakers. In reality, they are communicating with each other via AirPlay 2, directing sound intelligently through each of the (combined) fourteen tweeters and two subwoofers. Both devices also contain their own custom amplifiers.

‘Stereo’ is transformed into a deeper, somewhat unbelievable soundstage that fills the room without any distortion with unparalleled audio separation. Old tracks shine and vocals are directed to the gap between the HomePods, making it seem like the person singing is right there in front of you.

HomePod stereo pair accompanied by Pâté the Duck…

The stereo pair also functions as my home theatre set-up, with sound diverted from my Apple TV when streaming movies and television programmes. To expand my home audio experience without paying for yet more HomePods, I followed the wise advice of writer and podcaster Jason Snell, picking up an old AirPort Express to integrate my old iPod Hi-Fi. This plays from the other side of my home, so that music continues to be crisp and audible even when I leave the lounge room.

People often complain that Siri doesn’t hear them properly on their Apple devices and that with the HomePod, it’s unclear if their voice has been picked up. I find this to be quite the exaggeration. My HomePod stereo pair is always quick to respond to commands (with 12 combined microphones!) and the only delays that I have noticed have been caused by Internet connection issues. This is fixed by rebooting the modem. Only once have I ever had to unplug the HomePods to reset them. Whether requesting music, sending messages, conducting phone / FaceTime Audio calls or using Siri Shortcuts to start a podcast episode on Overcast, Siri on the HomePods is generally reliable and fun to use.

Whilst I am impressed with the current accessory options for HomeKit, such as smart locks, automated lights and weather stations, I haven’t felt the need to dive into this world of expensive products. Sure, it would be great to bark at my HomePods to pull up a window-shade, however, it still isn’t necessary or particularly affordable to construct a smart home in 2019. Perhaps in the future!

For some time, Rene Ritchie of iMore and Vector has discussed the notion of ‘minimal delightful product’ when discussing Apple hardware. He defines it this way:

The minimum delightful product is that version of a new product which allows customers to experience the maximum amount of affinity with the smallest feature set.

His point is that the most successful Apple offerings have been those that might not have done everything upon release, but what they did do they did very well. iPhone, iPod and AirPods are great examples of this. The Apple Watch, whilst hyped at launch, was not necessarily able to achieve this minimal delight when it was first released to the public in 2015, with a plethora of apps and functions. I love Apple Watch and have worn it since the beginning, however it’s fair to argue that it lacked focus upon release. It tried to be too much at the time, whereas now Apple focuses its marketing communication on notifications, health and fitness.

Many would disagree, I’m sure, but HomePod fits this description of minimal delight for me. The device has great expandability through Siri and HomeKit, however, these are things that don’t get in the way at all. The HomePod, by design, is minimal in appearance and function and continues to be marketed mainly as a premium music-playback device. Tap on the top to control playback and volume; use your voice to request your music.

Whilst I am no musician, to me, music is one of the absolute greatest parts about life. It helps you to escape, unwind and even think clearly, in a way that can transcend even film and books. The design of the HomePod adds to this—I believe that those who have criticised its design and even price (as a higher-quality product than the Amazon Echo, for example) have misunderstood it. Moving away from listening to music on vinyl, your Mac, CDs or even iPhone, through HomePod you get to experience music as an entirely audio-based experience, with zero visual distractions. As depicted in its now famous Welcome Home ad by Spike Jonze, you can walk into your lounge room, lie down, request some music and have it simply happen. To me, this is pure delight based on minimal interaction. I don’t have to navigate anything—it just works.

I would go so far as to say that the HomePod is my favourite new Apple product today. AirPods are awesome for music and podcasts on the go but they’re a private experience. iPhone, Mac and iPad are devices that I love but work often follows me through them. My cellular Apple Watch Series 4 liberates me from social media and other apps, as I often leave my iPhone at home when exercising, going to dinner with my wife or even ducking out to the shops. Still, as brilliant as it is, the watch still keeps you connected.

Your HomePod doesn’t ping you with emails or pop up with calendar invitations for meetings. It is the pinnacle of premium minimalism and fulfils a remarkably simple purpose. I can request almost anything that I want, whether for a private musical escape or even a goofy dance party with my wife. When Apple says that music is in its DNA, I believe it.

500ish Words: ‘The “iPhone Mini” Revisited’

Small. Medium. Large.

You offer an iPhone XS Max, an iPhone XS, and an iPhone XS Mini. Or Micro. Or Nano. Or whatever. You already have the “medium” and “large” options, so you give the people what they actually seem to want: a “small” option too.

I could not agree more with this excerpt from a fantastic article by M.G. Siegler. He nailed it.

I have an iPhone 7 Plus, mainly because at the time that I purchased it I wanted the dual-camera module for depth mode. I still love the phone but miss the days of Apple’s famous ‘thumb-reachability’. Yes, I could spend the money on a new iPhone XS and technically have more screen in a smaller form factor, however that’s a lot of cash to replace my current and still very capable iPhone. I feel that this is part of the current issue of Apple’s maturing iPhone market. They’re so good now that it doesn’t make sense for everyone to upgrade every two years, as was once the norm with telco contracts.

Considering how successful the iPhone SE was due to both its size and price—almost everyone in my office has one as their official work phone—I don’t see what Apple’s mental block is to releasing its spiritual successor. Giving the old SE the iPhone X treatment by taking the screen all the way to the edge would be a very exciting development for small-phone devotees. Not to mention, the design of the SE (based on the 5 and 5S before it), is now actually closer to the hardware design of the new iPad Pro models. Jony Ive and his team would have almost no work to do.

Check out Siegler’s article here.

Ars Technica: ‘Even with the Google/Fossil deal, Wear OS is doomed’

Although I’m a dedicated Apple Watch user/wearer, I do occasionally monitor things in the land of Wear OS. You can’t ignore what’s happening elsewhere.

The fact that most Wear OS smartwatches are circular in design is fascinating to me, as this has led to a range of different user interface considerations, case shapes and band styles. I would argue that Apple strikes a better balance of visual design and function with its more square-shaped watch faces, as circular Wear OS smartwatches ultimately cut off or awkwardly format much of the written content.

My interest was piqued recently when I stumbled upon this article by Ars Technica by Ron Amadeo, which explains the recent acquisition of Fossil Group by Google, which could lead to some sort of ‘Pixel Watch’. The use of the word ‘doomed’ is a tad sensational and very familiar to Apple blog readers, however the article makes some great points. This part stood out to me, as it details the major issue with Wear OS and the way that Google operates in this space:

If Google really wants to fix Wear OS, the first thing it needs is to secure a good SoC supplier. Today, no component vendor sells a good smartwatch SoC that a company like Google can buy. Qualcomm is really the only game in town, and it doesn’t seem to care about the smartwatch market. Qualcomm has had three major “generations” of smartwatch chips: the Snapdragon 400, the Snapdragon Wear 2100, and the Snapdragon Wear 3100. Fundamentally, these three chips, released over a four-year span, are all the same. They all use Cortex A7 CPUs built on a 28nm manufacturing process, which was state-of-the-art smartphone technology back in 2013. Qualcomm hasn’t invested in building a serious smartwatch chip and instead only pays lip service to the market by repackaging the same core technology year after year. I don’t think it’s possible to build a viable, competitive smartwatch using a Qualcomm chip.

Apple’s greatest advantage in this market, like the others in which it participates, is its hardware prowess and ability to integrate its software and services simultaneously. Apple reimagined what a modern watch could be by essentially making it a computer on the wrist and prioritising the creation of an in-house S-series of chips, much like the A-series for iPhones and iPad. (Let’s see if Apple ends up extending this chip philosophy to Macs, with the oft-rumoured transition from Intel to ARM chips.)

Google and its partners made devices that look and feel like watches… but are slow to innovate or improve. Apple threw off the shackles of traditional watch design and ideals, keeping terms like ‘complications’ and ‘crown’ to make connections to the world of traditional watches for the sake of marketing and familiarity.

With the investment in silicon, Apple can deliver meaningful performance and feature improvements each and every year. Google tried to jump on the smartwatch bandwagon and probably assumed that it would have the same success and hardware proliferation as it did with Android on smartphones. Instead, the company has been left to deal with hardware and chip makers that operate on different schedules and with different values.

Again and again, we see the power of owning and designing the whole widget. I do hope that Google will have greater success with Wear OS, purely for greater competition and to keep Apple on its toes. I’m not holding my breath though.

ABC Open: Macadamia Thief

Australia has some of the most unique and beautiful wildlife. Growing up surrounded by eucalypts, I awoke to the sound of myriad birds every morning.

Whilst people seem united on the evilness of the magpie, one bird that divides people, is the sulphur-crested cockatoo. Many find their screeching annoying and fear that they will nibble and gnaw on their timber railings, whilst others find them cute and comicAl. I think that they’re absolutely gorgeous and I love to watch them. This photo (submitted by Backyard Zoology on ABC Open) perfectly captures their personality and I couldn’t help sharing it.

They’re kooky, they’re majestic and they really know how to crack open macadamias. We have a macadamia tree outside our unit and the way that they break through those nuts is unbelievable. It puts humans to shame.

Photo ‘Management’ on Windows

I’m a Mac user in the unfortunate position of having to use Windows at work. I know… first-world problem. It’s not entirely painful but there are still things to this day that are either clunkier or purely non-existent on Windows, which are just plain simple on the Mac.

Amongst other topics, John Gruber recently discussed the Mac and iOS Photos app with Jason Snell on The Talk Show. This discussion, along with a link on his site to a tweet about the inconsistent UI experience on modern Windows 10, reminded me of one of my pet peeves of working with the system: photo management and editing.

Something that Mac users take for granted is the fact that an app like Photos (and iPhoto before that) has been there to handle your entire photo library, album creation and image adjustments. If you want, you can invest in additional apps such as Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, Affinity Photo or Pixelmator to kick things up a notch. On Windows 10, you’re still left with the default method that has existed for years: storing your photos in manually named folders in Windows Explorer. To get anything as robust as Photos that also syncs (or beyond for pros), you really have to invest in third-party software. Paint and Paint 3D certainly don’t cut it and the only thing that Microsoft has really added to improve the experience is an app called (wait for it)… Photos.

Whilst you can create your own ‘collections’ and ‘albums’ in the newer Photos app for Windows, it doesn’t act like Apple’s own Photos for Mac. You need to create an album by choosing preexisting files or folders in Windows Explorer. Talk about clunky…

If you want to open an individual photo for viewing or editing in Photos (to actually make changes, which Windows Photo Viewer can’t do), the experience is horrible. In fact, it’s not immediately obvious even for people who have a long history with Windows.

On the Mac, if you wish to open a file in a different application from usual, you would right-click on a photo on your desktop or in the Finder to select ‘Open with’ then select the app that you wish to use. On Windows, this process is essentially the same, however the Photos app is not present under ‘Open with’; instead, it has its own designated option under ‘Edit with Photos’. See below… it would be easy to miss if your Windows user muscle memory guides you to the ‘Open with’ menu item.

I couldn’t fit it easily in the mark-up but there’s even another separate ‘Edit with Paint 3D’ option! Why not ‘Edit with > Paint 3D, Photos’ etc.?!

In my experience, the extra frustrating thing is that clicking on the ‘Edit with Photos’ option rarely opens the photo the first time. It almost always requires a second click to open. I’m not sure if this bug is specific to me but it remains annoying.

Furthermore, the menu ribbon at the top of the screen is inconsistent with other Windows apps such as Word and Outlook, with saving functions moved to the bottom-right of the screen. Depending on your viewing context or level in the application, a ribbon-like interface will appear. This supports the general argument of why the Mac’s menu bar is so powerful—it’s obvious and permanently on the screen, regardless of where you are in any given app. Windows continues to play peekaboo with various functions.

You’ll notice that the options are ‘Save’ and ‘Save a Copy’. This means that the app doesn’t support the same kind of non-destructive editing that the Mac’s Photos app does. If you save the file, your image edits are applied to the file and you won’t be able to backtrack or undo anything when you reopen it. If you save it as a copy, you will have a (potentially) unnecessary duplicate. Again, this is the problem of not having a default library that handles this for you. You have to manage these things in folders by yourself.

If you’re a Mac user who thinks that Apple’s software is sometimes a little inconsistent these days, just be thankful that you don’t have to deal with this. Microsoft might have added a new sheen in Windows 10, however there is always something old, broken or plain wrong to be found a little under the surface.

Apple and Google Smartphone Branding

Apple is by no means perfect but if there’s one thing that they know more than any other company, it’s effective branding.

Take the following examples of Google and Apple advertising on Oxford Street in Sydney. It was difficult to take the photos from street level but I think that they still illustrate the point that I wish to make.

The above ad for the Google Pixel 3 is something of an oddity, with the handset being presented as an ice-cream. I’m not quite sure of what they’re trying to achieve here. Perhaps by showing the Pixel 3 as half of an ice-cream, it’s a subtle message that the phone is cool in a stylistic or figurative sense. Regardless of the intention, the choice of light pink against an only partially displayed white phone means that you actually pay more attention to the ice-cream half. Given Google’s history of generally selling Nexus and Pixel phones to tech enthusiasts, I would argue that there is an assumption that mainstream users will recognise and understand the Google branding with only the ‘G’ being displayed. I think that this is a mistake.

I could spend a lot of time talking about Apple’s choice to use the letter ‘X’ as the Roman numeral for 10 in its branding, which may or may not be a branding error, however that’s well and truly set in stone now. Most enthusiasts know to say ‘ten’ like in the days of Mac OS X but many others simply pronounce it as the letter.

Focusing on the ad, we see a much more effective design here. Both the iPhone Xs and Xs Max are displayed here and are aligned cleverly not only to make the colour droplet wallpapers match up, but also to show people that there are two sizes from which to choose. In addition, the heavy use of black throughout the image and far-extending wallpapers clearly send the message to passers-by that these are virtually edge-to-edge displays.

These days, Apple obviously has such enormous brand power that it can express meaning and style in the most minimalist of images. Google really seems to be shipping improved hardware these days (particular camera modules) but the company doesn’t have the same background in hardware design and branding as it does in search. It is an advertising company though, so surely that should mean something here.

What does Google want its phones to be and what message does it want to send? Apple expresses this clearly with its use of premium materials and its annual Shot on iPhone campaigns. Other than purely wanting to provide a stock alternative to the Android juggernaut that is Samsung, it’s evident to me that Google hasn’t really come up with a clear reason to communicate why consumers should buy its hardware.