Ever since the launch of iPhone 6 back in 2014, I’ve enjoyed having a larger display. Web pages became easier to read and navigate, photos looked even more spectacular and on-screen keyboards began to feel less cramped. Still with the increase in size, I missed the feeling of the iPhones 3G, 4 and 5 that I had before the 6.
Then came the iPhones 7 Plus and 11 Pro: the next two models that I had. They were even larger than the 6—particularly the 7 Plus—and although I resented the size, there were very few options if you wanted a new iPhone with decent features. (First-world problem, I know!) Sure, the SE has been an option, but from each phone that I had, it was never really an upgrade… more of a sidestep.
Finally, late last year, the iPhone 12 mini came along. I’ve never upgraded within a year before, as I find it to be wasteful, however I was able to trade in the previous phone for it to be recycled (or refurbished). That process has its own energy implications, for which I do feel a pang of guilt, but I’m thrilled at last to have an iPhone that feels like a phone and fits comfortably in my hands and pockets. I intend to keep it for quite a while and whenever I use it I am delightfully reminded of this old iPhone ad, which sold the benefit of one-handed use when Apple was more resistant to selling larger handsets.
In addition, perhaps one of the greatest benefits is that my old Belkin dock, which I used first with my iPhone 5 (for which it was designed) all the way through the following 6, 7 Plus and 11 Pro, now cradles a phone that fits properly. You may be shocked that I was able and indeed willing to fit something as large as a 7 Plus on this but like I said, I avoid waste as much as possible. It worked with the larger phones, so I kept it.
The iPhone 12 mini is without a doubt the best iPhone that I have ever owned. In fact, many of my favourite Apple devices have had the ‘mini’ moniker. My first Apple product (other than earlier family desktops) was an iPod mini, I continue to use the Mac mini as my main computer and my favourite reading device for news and eBooks is the iPad mini.
I hope that other companies realise the value of offering smaller phones, now that we are able to include larger displays within narrower bezels. Let’s just hope that enough people are buying it, so that Apple continues to create this wonderful device. It would be a shame to go back to a time when the only phones that are available are the size of food platters.
As has already been written many times over the last month, Apple’s WWDC 2020 was a true departure from its previous annual developer conferences. Forced by COVID-19, the fully online format created an experience that while potentially lacking for those who normally can attend in person, was much more accessible to millions of other enthusiastic developers and consumers around the globe. It was an impressive display and even as a fan, Apple surpassed my most extravagant expectations.
I have already discussed the reality-bending nature of Apple’s conference in a recent episode of the Lounge Ruminator podcast, however I was driven to revisit it after reading Daniel J. Boorstin’s (1971) book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Apple ‘events’ are essentially what Boorstin (1971) described as a ‘pseudo-event’. In his book, he explains how American news (and in fact, global news, as a consequence) now focuses on pseudo-events, distorting our view of reality. On pages 11 and 12, Boorstin (1971) explains the four key characteristics of a pseudo-event:
‘It is not spontaneous, but comes about because someone has planned, planted, or incited it. Typically, it is not a train wreck or an earthquake, but an interview.’;
‘It is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported. … The question, “Is it real?” is less important than, “Is it newsworthy?”;
‘Its relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. … While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives.’; and
‘Usually it is intended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The hotel’s thirtieth-anniversary celebration, by saying that the hotel is a distinguished institution, actually makes it one.’
Relating to each of these points, we can see how Apple events are in fact pseudo-events. On point number one, it is obvious: the event (conference) that we are witnessing did not just spring up like a natural disaster or accident; it was planned carefully up to a year in advance.
Regarding point number two, the fact that Apple sends out invitations and offers live streams and on-demand playback means that the conferences are intended to be discussed and shared, as is happening in the very piece that you are reading now.
To point three, on ambiguity, we often complete a keynote and turn to writing and podcasting to unpack what we have seen. It is not enough to discuss the announcements; we must question their motivation and development, also wondering what might have been dropped from the show. What does it all mean for the future?
Finally, on the fourth point, Apple’s keynotes generally contain a self-fulfilling prophecy. This year is perhaps one of the greatest examples of this, as all the announcements—particularly that of macOS Big Sur—led to Apple’s true reason for the keynote: the transition to Apple Silicon. This is the Mac’s destiny and it will affect all of Apple’s platforms.
Surely, I am not the first person to look at corporate events such as Apple’s and call them pseudo-events. The motivation to discuss it in this context arose from my earlier creation of a tetrad for the keynote, based on the tool by Marshall and Eric McLuhan. In the tetrad, I noted that the live-streamed keynote rendered applause obsolete. With no one at a conference venue in person, clapping and cheering became a thing of the past. It just didn’t happen.
Although Apple keynotes and developer sessions have been streamed online for years, they have always been a recording of an actual in-person event. This consideration of applause, as obsolete, leads us to the fifth characteristic, which makes Apple’s WWDC 2020 the ultimate pseudo-event:
There was no event.
Yes, around the world, developers and brand fans alike watched a keynote video simultaneously and communicated about it together online. It was amazing. Yes, they returned to the same sessions over the course of the week, as one would when lining up for something in-person. It was communal and collaborative. Yet, none of the ‘events’ that comprised the conference and were consumed took place either physically in person or at the same time as the act of consumption.
In creating a totally pre-recorded, online conference, Apple realised the full potential of the (in)famous ‘Steve Jobs Reality Distortion Field’, well beyond the scope of product benefits: the company attracted millions to an event that never took place.
Reference: Boorstin, D.J., 1971, The Image : a Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Atheneum.
In my media-ecological research, I have been fascinated by the development and implementation of the ‘tetrad’ by Marshall and Eric McLuhan. First explained in their 1988 book Laws of Media: The New Science, the laws ‘…are intended to provide a ready means of identifying the properties of and actions exerted upon ourselves by our technologies and media and artefacts. They do not rest on any concept or theory, but are empirical, and form a practical means of perceiving the action and effects of ordinary human tools and services’ (McLuhan and McLuhan, 1988, p. 98). To be clear, these laws state that all media/technologies/artefacts must perform the following: enhancement, obsolescence, retrieval and reversal. Each category illuminates not only the functions of any given medium but also its effects on human ability and behaviour.
After watching the live stream of Apple’s first-ever totally virtual, pre-recorded WWDC keynote, I was impressed by the result but also felt the major shift from earlier live streams, which showed people actually presenting physically onstage. Inspired by Andrew McLuhan’s regular sharing of his own tetrads on Twitter, I thought that I would attempt to formulate my own tetrad (above) for this major online event.
The information (message) that was presented by Craig Federighi and co. seemed to be largely the same as that of previous years, however the delivery channel and style (medium) were very different. Taking this noticeable shift and its effects into account, it is important to remember that the medium is the message.
Source: McLuhan, M. and McLuhan, E., 1988, Laws of Media: The New Science, University of Toronto Press.
Inspired by Myke Hurley’s semi-recent tweet about how he ‘likes choices’ in his computing, I thought that I’d share the latest development in how I use my iPad Pro as a kind of secondary desktop, when not in pure tablet or laptop form.
With the release of the new 11- and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models and Magic Keyboard for iPad Pro, I spent a lot of time hovering over the ‘Checkout’ button on the Apple Store. Sporting a 10.5-inch model from 2017, I thought to myself repeatedly, ‘Which model should I get?’, ‘Do I go all the way to the 12.9-inch one or would the 11-inch be a more reasonable size to carry?’ and ‘Do I really need to buy this expensive set-up at all?’. Of course, poor Natasha had to listen to me ruminate constantly on all of this. It’s hard being married to a nerd, I’m sure…
With the new cursor support in iPadOS 13.4, I had tried using my Logi MX Anywhere 2S with my iPad Pro and was impressed, however I didn’t see myself using it all the time the way that I do with my Mac. There was something slightly clunky about the experience, particularly when it came to scrolling, which did not seem to be optimised for the OS the same way that it works on the Mac.
For years, I used a trackpad with my Mac and enjoyed the gestures that came along with it. I only recently returned to using a mouse because I enjoy the Logi MX so much… it’s clicky, I LOOOOVE the super-fast inertial scrolling—the wheel feels like it spins forever—and it’s great that I can map the extra buttons to functions such as Mission Control and App Exposé.
In the end, I worked out what it was that I actually wanted: a trackpad for my current iPad Pro. This would solve my desire for using both a mouse and trackpad in different contexts, while extending my iPad Pro.
As cool as the newer, Home button-less models are (2018 onwards), there is nothing wrong at all with my 10.5-inch model. Concerning screen space, it’s completely fine: I use it daily for note-taking next to PDFs and webpages, using split view in iPadOS to position iA Writer next to Safari, Files and other relevant apps. Not to mention, when using it like a laptop, I really enjoy the fabric-covered butterfly keys on the Smart Keyboard and feel no need to get rid of that just yet.
I have to say: the experience of using an external trackpad with iPadOS is absolutely awesome and Apple has done a wonderful job in making the iPadOS pointer feel natural and intuitive. Pictured at the top of this article is the my desktop set-up with a dedicated iPad stand, the Logi mouse and my Keychron K1 Mechanical Keyboard (with blue switches), the last of which I also use with my Mac. Funnily enough, our cockatiel, Rocky, is also a fan of the keyboard, as you can see below.
In addition to this, I sometimes use the trackpad alongside the more laptop-style setup with the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard. Believe it or not, I also occasionally use the iPad like this on the lounge, with the trackpad to my side. This may not sound ergonomic, however it is quite comfortable to keep my arm down rather than reaching forwards constantly while more reclined than when at a desk.
All of this is to say that while the new iPad Pro models are more capable than my current 10.5-inch model, Apple’s dedication to iPadOS means that all models—old and new—are being extended in fantastic new ways. A device that I bought almost purely as a tablet three years ago with a handy keyboard extension has now become a new kind of desktop away from my Mac. Being able to use a trackpad with it satisfies my desire for gestures, while I enjoy the clickiness and precision of a great mouse with my Mac. I can easily change the space where I’m working or move to a new one entirely, keep things elevated and also focus more on my work, as full-screen and split-view functions on iPadOS remove extraneous elements.
In addition, I find it immensely satisfying that I’m gaining for my value out of my 2017 purchase and can be more mindful about my digital purchases, both in terms of my wallet and ecologically.
Like Myke Hurley said, what’s wonderful about iPadOS as a platform is the versatility that it now provides—not only in its unbelievable range of apps but also in the ways that you can connect, configure and arrange your hardware around it.
For more rumination about the versatility of iPad, check out my late-2019 podcast episode ‘The Post-PC Decade’.
After an interesting episode of the podcast Mac Power Users (‘#528: The Merlin Awakens’) with David Sparks, Stephen Hackett and special guest Merlin Mann, I was inspired to write my own piece about the experience of using Apple’s tvOS. I have been a fan of the Apple TV (as a device) since its very first version, when it was essentially an iPod for your television that ran a beefier version of (then) Mac OS X’s Front Row. When it was updated in the second and third generations as a little, black hockey puck, it took the whole experience and made it easier without the need for synchronisation with iTunes on the Mac. There were fewer channels but the UI design was exceptionally consistent and easy to understand.
These days, Apple’s long-standing ‘hobby’ product is slightly more controversial (albeit much more powerful and fully featured), as the HD and 4K versions come with the infamous Siri Remote. The remote is quite fragile and sensitive to some, leading to a higher package price in contrast with other TV boxes and products. Apple has been more committed to the platform than in the past, if not a bit lighter with feature additions, as tvOS has received updates each year with things like single sign-on, multiple users, support for third-party controllers, beautiful scenic screensavers and more. While the future of TV has not necessarily turned out to be apps, there are apps and games with genuine utility and the platform has been extended with Apple’s addition of the TV app, the Apple TV+ service and Apple Arcade for gaming. I’m pleased to have the device as my main way of watching television and movies.
All of this being said and the remote aside—which I actually like, although it could be less fragile and more ergonomic—I see the greatest potential for improvement in the tvOS Home screen itself and in the introduction of more consistent user interfaces. My greatest complaint, focusing on the Home screen, is that it is not easy or quick enough to jump straight into content that I’m already watching. At the top level, it’s super-easy to find recommendations—they’ll almost always show you those—but finding current content is slower than it should be. Yes, one can use Siri to ask for shows, but the fact remains that it should be easy to see visually what you want to start watching.
Moreover, although Apple has attempted to remedy this by pushing the TV app as the central repository for all programmes, even suggesting that it be the default user experience over the app Home screen. The problem is that I’m not a huge fan of the TV app as it stands, even if it displays the programmes that I’m watching in a top row. The app itself is too messy and unfortunately isn’t supported by all third-party services (Netflix, ahem). It’s a noble idea but I find myself wanting to go there only to access my own library of iTunes content. That’s the nice part.
Going back to the tvOS Home screen, this doesn’t all fall on Apple, however, as I believe that third-party providers and TV services need to be a lot better about how they reveal their programmes for easy access. In the tiled app-icon view of the Home screen, this takes place in the shelf above the top row of apps. In the following sections, I’m going to show you how useless each of the apps in my top row are at showing what I’m currently watching, thereby necessitating numerous clicks down levels of menus to get to what I want.
While this may seem like a list of first-world problems in the midst of a crisis, more people of varying technical abilities and interests are interacting with media at home (in isolation) perhaps than ever before. It’s an issue of ease and accessibility.
(See the later gallery for corresponding images.)
As I mentioned already, Apple’s TV app is intended to make it easier to see all the things that you’re watching and may want to watch next. While this design philosophy supposedly applies to the interface within the app itself, it does not apply to the top shelf on the Home screen. Instead, you receive a full-screen view of what Apple deems to be the most important items to promote. While beautiful, the utility is low for anything other than exploring new stuff. This space should be for more than simply advertising.
Deutsche Welle (DW)
I regularly watch the programme EuroMaxx on DW, for example, and while the app offers quick links to certain programmes, the tiles are not dynamic… they always remain the same. Why not show the latest episode of the show that I want to watch, rather than displaying huge singular rectangles?
My wife Natasha and I frequently enjoy shows on Stan. For example, we regularly watch Seinfeld, we’ve just finished watching Showtime’s wonderful series Kidding and we’ve been revisiting the brilliant Breaking Bad. Do you think that any of these programmes ever appear to be continued? Nope, they do not. While Stan is better at displaying a range of shows at the top that can be scrolled left to right, the focus is still on suggested content.
ABC iView and SBS On Demand
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) offer two fantastic apps that offer live (free-to-air) streaming and a range of Australian and foreign-language content. While both apps present a similar top-row function to Stan of swiping through titles, the format of the thumbnails is different, so it’s impossible to see the title of each show unless it’s written within the title or you select it and the caption appears beneath the image.
Extra Annoying: YouTube, Netflix and Disney+
In the past, I have had YouTube, Netflix and Disney+ on my Home screen’s top row. I eventually became too frustrated to have them there, as unlike the services listed above, YouTube and Disney+ show absolutely nothing except for their own logos. That’s right: over half of my TV is taken up by nothing but useless decoration. These companies are swimming in money and are either unwilling or unable (or both) to provide a better user experience.
In addition, the apps themselves contain interfaces that are completely inconsistent with the rest of the system, with different layouts, menus and even speed/behaviour when it comes to swiping.
So, What’s Next?
I certainly don’t blame entirely Apple for this, even though its own TV app is a part of the problem. A major factor of running a platform like tvOS is working with different services and media companies; there are many people to keep happy.
Furthermore, I understand and am willing to reflect on my own bias as an Apple product user: in line with the general Apple ethos, I believe that services and applications should adapt their own interfaces to suit the platforms on which they run. This is problematic for apps such as YouTube, Disney+ and Netflix in particular, which implement user interfaces that are universal and adaptable across various smart TV platforms. Take the Apple Music app on Google Play, for example: it doesn’t show an iOS interface, it shows a layout that is adapted for Google’s system.
We’re left with a mess of different app experiences and layouts and inconsistent ways to find what we need—I didn’t even get to Amazon Prime Video, which I deleted as it is the worst of all. Not everyone wants to talk to their TV remote or submit entirely to an app like TV to find content; some people just want to navigate a clear and accessible menu between services.
To remedy this, Apple should ideally push third-parties to offer more customised, user-friendly interfaces that are consistent with their own design language. It’s also in third parties’ interest to do this, as it will lead to greater customer satisfaction and accessibility, and they should also put the same effort into others’ platforms, whether for a Roku box or a Samsung smart TV.
I really enjoy having Apple TV as my main portal to television content and believe that it is a worthwhile premium experience, with many redeeming features; it just needs a bit of extra polish and effort from third parties to achieve its full potential.