The WWDC That Never Took Place

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:

  1. 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.’;
  2. 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?”;
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Tetrad for Apple’s Virtual WWDC 2020 Keynote

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.

The Wonder of Choice

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’.

Critiquing the Apple TV User Experience

Background

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.

App Examples

(See the later gallery for corresponding images.)

TV

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?

Stan

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.

PhD Journal Entry 9: For the Rest of Us?

The most enjoyable aspect of my PhD research so far has been the discovery of myriad different perspectives on the history of technology, written by a range of media ecologists.

Occasionally, in such reading, I have discovered a study or views that challenge my preconceived ideas or in one particular recent case, have even challenged my identity. I experienced exactly this while reading a 2002 article titled The Development of Graphical User Interfaces and their Influence on the Future of Human-Computer Interaction, written by Susan Barnes.

In this journal article, Barnes (2002) explains that the realisation of the graphical user interface (GUI)—upon which all desktop computers (and subsequent mobile devices) are based—was the result of four distinct stages of development: (1) the ‘ideals-driven’ stage; (2) the ‘play-driven’ stage; (3) the ‘product-driven’ stage; and (4) the ‘market-driven’ stage. To explain this further, Barnes (2002, p. 81) outlines the history more specifically:

In the first stage, Douglas Engelbart conceived certain ideas about how people should ideally interact with computers and he developed computer systems that incorporated those ideals. The resulting technology was next expanded and elaborated, in the play-driven stage of development, by Alan Kay and his fellow researchers at Xerox PARC. In the third stage, the PARC prototypes were later turned into commercial products by Apple Computer. Finally, in the market-driven stage, Apple, IBM, and Microsoft started competing with each other in the development of GUI technology in hopes of dominating the enormous technology marketplace.

It is the product-driven stage to which many Apple fans would cling, as the narrative tells us that Apple refined and popularised this concept for accessible (indirect) computer interaction with a mouse.

As an Apple fan from early childhood—growing up with a Mac—the philosophy and brand of the company has long been a part of my identity. I accept and respect the advantages of other PC brands and vendors but much prefer what Apple offers. This quote from Barne’s (2002, p. 88) article seems to justify this achievement:

The Macintosh was the bridge into the fourth stage of development, the market-driven stage. Bill Gates took Macintosh’s Desktop Finder interface and with minor modifications marketed it as Microsoft Windows.

That is, until I read further into the article and discovered the following section, which explains how the development of the graphical interface and its grander purpose at Xerox PARC was cut short (Barnes, 2002, p. 90):

…the results of this study suggest that, a pivotal moment in the history of graphical interfaces was Jobs’s decision to apply the visual screen elements to Apple computers without the underlying programming language. Jobs’s intention was primarily to sell computers, and in the interest of that objective he largely ignored the social and cognitive ideals underlying the earlier designs. Today, Jobs’s decision can be viewed as a historical turning point that created paradoxical situations for the future development of GUI development.

When the original Macintosh was released in 1984, it was hailed as the computer ‘for the rest of us’. It was supposed to be intuitive and more accessible to a wider range of people than early command-line-driven computers were. For those who remember, IBM was the enemy at the time. With Barnes’s (2002) study and assessment of Apple’s role, she challenges this history (or myth, if you prefer), by saying that Apple essentially cut the development of the GUI short.

I was already aware of the story of Jobs’s visit to Xerox PARC and adoption of the GUI idea, however I was unaware of this approach to the story. I had always viewed the release of (then) Mac OS as the ultimate popularisation of accessible computing, rather than the inhibitor to a wondrous future of true digital and technological literacy.

Instead, Barnes (2002) essentially argues that by releasing a personal computer in the form of an easy all-in-one appliance, Apple completely closed the platform to investigation and comprehension by users through education about how to program properly, thus creating what Innis would call a ‘monopoly of knowledge’ with a business and profit-driven intention. In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, media ecologist Neil Postman (1993, p. 3) defines Innis’s term: ‘…those who cultivate competence in the use of a new technology become an elite group that are granted undeserved authority and prestige by those who have no such competence‘.

Ultimately, by making it easy to use, Apple stopped people (other than programmers/developers) from ever really learning how a computer works. As an enthusiastic user who isn’t a programmer, I would fall into this category and of course, I pay handsomely for Apple stuff.

This is quite the challenge to my entire idea of Apple’s role in modern computing. I have long acknowledged the company’s tendency to prefer more closed, all-in-one systems and consumer electronics, however I never saw Apple’s legacy as one that is negative or deliberately limiting. As Barnes (2002) puts it, Jobs (as more of a sales guy) was apparently unable to comprehend anything beyond the visual, hence the focus on iconography and desire to dumb things down for the average user.

While I am happy to remain open to this more complex idea of Apple’s role in the history of the GUI (along with Microsoft’s, which is also blamed), I do believe that there is a somewhat utopian—if not slightly elitist—element to Barnes’s (2002) argument. In his book The Story of Utopias, Mumford (1962, p. 1) defines the word utopia as the precursor to a discussion of broader society’s idealism and ideas of what it means to live a good life:

The word utopia stands in common usage for the ultimate in human folly or human hope—vain dreams of perfection in a Never-Never Land or rational efforts to remake man’s environment and his institutions and even his erring nature, so as to enrich the possibilities of the common life. Sir Thomas More, the coiner of the word, was aware of both implications… he explained that utopia might refer either to the Greek “eutopia,” which means the good place, or to “outopia,” which means no place.

I can’t help but feel that although Apple and Microsoft might have doomed the broader masses to never attaining the full knowledge of computer programming, the idea that the entire global community would be educated to the point of expert computer programming seems very hopeful and utopian. As we can see today, even with ‘dumbed-down’ GUIs and product designs, many from older generations who grew up alongside or worked during the development of computers and the Internet still struggle to navigate apps and operating systems. The view of modern computing as unnecessarily stripped back and made to be less intelligent sounds like a mildly elitist view of the entire way that people enjoy using computers today. One can be somewhat hands-off. Indeed, the way that Apple and Microsoft ended up designing such products empowered people who were most likely never going to be interested in programming the first place.

I believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Sure, Apple took the idea of the GUI and potentially limited its development as a more powerful, mainstream programmer’s tool, however it also gave people the chance to work and create art without the need to become a programmer.

It is easy to criticise people’s and companies’ roles throughout history and as a massive influence on the global community, corporations like Apple should never be immune to scrutiny. As I delve deeper into my research on podcasting, which is a result of my Apple fandom, I need to remain open to views that challenge my preconceptions of how technology works, how it has been developed and how it affects people in ways both big and small. My views on what constitutes things like computing, media consumption and podcasting in general may not align with others’.

References

  • Barnes, S.B., 2002, ‘The Development of Graphical User Interfaces and their Influence on the Future of Human-Computer Interaction’, in Explorations in Media Ecology, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 81–95.
  • Image credit: MacRumors (2019)
  • Mumford, L., 1962, The Story of Utopias, Viking Press.
  • Postman, N., 1993, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Vintage Books, New York.

App Review: Front and Center + SwitchGlass

Every once in a while, a revolutionary app comes along that changes everything. Well this time, for me, it has been two different (and seemingly very simple) apps that work together in perfect harmony. Developed by John Siracusa of Accidental Tech Podcast (ATP), these two great apps are called Front and Center and SwitchGlass. To be clear, the text that follows is not a sponsored review; I only wish to share my honest personal experience and view of each app, as I’ve really come to enjoy both of them.

Revealed respectively on ATP episodes no. 360 and no. 365, each app restores a key feature of the now defunct 32-bit app DragThing, which functioned as an organisational tool and app switcher in earlier versions of Mac OS / Mac OS X / macOS and which went beyond the standard Dock. Siracusa shared that while he has been able to adapt many of his computer habits during DragThing’s absence, he has continued to miss two key features, namely: (1) the Classic Mac OS behaviour of clicking on a single window of an app and having all associated windows of that app come to the front as well; and (2) having a dedicated, on-screen app switcher that one can click with a mouse cursor, rather than relying on the command-tab app switcher or other navigational features.

Both of these functions may sound incredibly specific and obscure and Siracusa has even been so blunt as to discourage people from purchasing his apps from the Mac App Store, as they are particular to his computing preferences.

Listening to both ATP episodes, I was curious to try the apps to see if they would fit how I work. After purchasing both and trying them with normal daily use of my Mac, I’d like to share further details of my experience below.

Front and Center (AU$7.99)

As already stated, Front and Center’s entire purpose is to restore the classic behaviour of bringing all app windows to the front when clicking on only one of the windows belonging to that app, in instances when more than one window is open for that app. For example, if you are running an app like iA Writer with multiple document windows open (as I do) and you click on just one of those windows while it is behind another app, all iA Writer windows will leap to the front. This is the default behaviour, with the option of shift-clicking to match the usual setting of having only individual windows come to the front.

As far as running Front and Center goes, there is no main app window with which to interact; it is purely a clicking behaviour. Siracusa has, however, created a very thoughtful and well-designed preference window that enables the user to customise the function, switching between ‘Classic’ and ‘Modern’ options, as well as the choice to show or hide the app’s icon in the Dock. I love the attention to detail in this simple window and the option to hide the icon is fantastic, as there is no need to increase visual clutter on the screen. With the process essentially invisible, this behaviour becomes the new norm. You can view the preference window below, with my current options selected.

Indeed, having these settings activated I can now see why Siracusa was unable (or just unwilling) to adjust his behaviour. Clicking on a window and expecting all the others to come to the front just makes sense. If I’m editing a document and wishing to draw text from others that I have open, it seems right that everything should follow it, rather than having to fish around for the other windows, drag things around and just create further mess on the desktop.

SwitchGlass (AU$7.99)

The idea of SwitchGlass may seem odd; why on Earth would I need a visible app switcher when I already have the Dock and additional features such as command-tab and Mission Control to alternate between windows? It certainly didn’t click for me at first. Looking at the new app switcher that was sitting on my screen, it seemed to be further visual clutter, until I realised that it could rectify a long-standing issue that I had with launching and navigating between apps on my Mac. Stay with me here.

For many years, I have oscillated between having only very few apps in my Dock to having way too many there. Quite often, I’ve settled on only having a few so that I found it easier to identify and click on only my most crucial and frequently-used apps. The issue with this, however, is that I’ve had to go to Launchpad (which I’ve never really liked or wished to organise) or open Spotlight to search for an app that isn’t in my Dock. The Home Screen (on which Launchpad is based) makes sense on iPad and Spotlight is great for opening apps on iPhone, however I find them just a bit too much on the Mac, where we have so much more space. Furthermore, with these less crucial apps now open in a more minimalistic Dock, their icons sit at the end of the Dock and change in order depending on when I open them. This is poor for consistency and recognition of icons.

With SwitchGlass, I’ve realised that I can now include as many apps as I wish in my Dock permanently—even if they’re really small—and I can use Siracusa’s new app switcher on the opposite side of my screen with larger icons to swap between running apps in a more visible and quicker fashion.

To give you a better visual idea, see a screen shot of my desktop below, with a full Dock on the left and SwitchGlass running at the top-right of the screen.

I can still use Mission Control or the command-tab switcher if I wish, however now there is something that is always available and that rests roughly where I settle my mouse cursor. I can now use the Dock for launching apps with recognisable, unchanging positions and rely on SwitchGlass to swap quickly between those that are running.

Furthermore, as is the case with Front and Center, SwitchGlass includes an even more customisable preferences window that enables you to select a precise position, alter the menu bar icon and even change the margin, padding and other dimensions of the switcher and icons. See a screen shot of my own preferences below.

Conclusion

As Siracusa has stated repeatedly, these apps are not for everyone. I have certainly had to change my own long-held habits… but I’m glad that I did.

When it comes to Front and Center, it simply feels natural to have all windows spring to the front. As a kid, I used Classic Mac OS in the 1990s but did not remember this behaviour as the years went on, as my brain had been reset to the general defaults of the following Mac OS X design and user interface.

Regarding SwitchGlass, I’m simply excited to have a really useful tool permanently on my desktop that makes my computing experience quicker. I’m dragging windows around less and searching less for the apps that I want to launch.

Apple’s desktop operating system still offers a level of customisation that many users enjoy and I hope that the company pays attention to the efforts of devoted third-party developers, whether newer to the development game like Siracusa or veterans such as James Thomson, whose now defunct DragThing is obviously still missed by numerous users. I’m a very enthusiastic user of iOS, however the possibility and availability of tools like these are a testament to the continuing power and versatility of the Mac as a platform.

You can find Front and Center and SwitchGlass on the Mac App Store or learn more at Siracusa’s site, Hypercritical. Give them a try!

(As a final note, I recall that Siracusa enjoys star ratings, so both apps receive five stars.)

Image credit for icons: John Siracusa at Hypercritical

Restoring a Magical Piece of Glass

The year 2020 is the tenth anniversary of iPad and there have been many articles, podcasts and videos that all offer their own take on the success and influence of the device. Naturally, I thought that I should throw one in as well, albeit a bit later than the others.

Essentially, most commentators fall into one of either two camps: (1) iPad is a roaring sales success that has ushered in the ‘post-PC era’—see my earlier post or podcast on this general topic; or (2) it has fallen short of its original potential, with a confusing multitasking interface and a less-than-stellar range of iPad-specific apps.

There is merit to both of these views and on the first one, John Gruber and Ben Thompson spoke at length during a recent episode of The Talk Show about their disappointment with the platform. I agree with much of what they had to say; things could be much more further along and there is a feeling that the device hasn’t lived up to its potential.

On Relay FM’s Upgrade, Jason Snell and Make Hurley have been critical of the device but bring a healthy dose of enthusiasm as much more regular iPad users. Check out episode #282 ‘iPad at 10’ for more. Nowadays I use my iPad regularly for blogging, research, sketching and podcasting, so I tend to relate to Snell and Hurley a bit more when it comes to the ease of navigating the iPadOS interface. As others have said, however, do we find something easy to use because it is in fact intuitive by design… or is it simply familiar because (as fans) we invest the time in learning the interface?

Most of all, I have been intrigued by the discussion of what makes an approachable and engaging UI. During the aforementioned episode of The Talk Show, I really related to Thompson’s point about the iPad being a magical piece of glass that transforms into a range of different tools. Most notably, he spoke about the demo of GarageBand for iOS at the iPad 2 launch back in 2011. It didn’t just show a small window with piano keys like on the Mac; it became a piano. Direct manipulation with a finger opens up uses and possibilities that just aren’t possible with a mouse.

Amongst all of this, I was reminded to two intriguing UI experiences from the early days of iPad: the first of which facilitated a novel method of navigating content; and the second of which transformed the display in a whimsical and nostalgic way.

The first is the original Twitter app for iPad. Back in the day, Twitter had a fun interface on the device, which included a series of horizontally-scrolling, hierarchical columns that linked threads and topics together. As you tapped on a tweet or link, it would expand to the right and you could easily swipe between levels or dismiss columns to navigate conversations. While totally unlike anything on the Mac in its design and layout, this app applied the Mac’s spirit of a truly intuitive, enjoyable user experience, but for touch instead. The order of conversations was not only indicated by the left-to-right layout, but also by the use of shadowing. Below is my own saved screenshot of the app from my third-generation iPad, back in 2012.

Twitter’s current iPad app is an utter disappointment… simply a blown-up version of its iPhone counterpart. These days, I use Twitterrific by The Iconfactory instead, however I retain the official app in a folder for the support of instant DM notifications, which was dropped in the APIs for third parties.

The second app is the initial version of the Podcasts app, which is perhaps the greatest example of Apple’s love for skeuomorphism under Steve Jobs (apart from ol’ leather-bound Calendar app in Mac OS X Lion). It showed a gigantic tape reel, which was inspired by the Braun TG 60 Tape Recorder by Dieter Rams. Below is my own saved screenshot of the app.

Although this interface did not add any practical functionality, it totally involved the user and felt delightful. It transformed this piece of glass into an approachable, nostalgic interface that related to the app’s focus on enjoying audio.

I’m no UI designer but I like to think that I have a reasonably good idea of what constitutes ease of use and good taste. Skeuomorphism is not necessarily the best approach these days, particularly as people have become more comfortable with touch interfaces, however the depth, tactility and whimsy that come with it are things that could continue to be reinjected into modern iPadOS.

Moving on to the topic of multitasking, I was really impressed with a recent effort by Twitter friend Ian Williamson (@tuckerjj), who used Keynote to develop a more approachable, logical way of using multiple apps in iPadOS, which doesn’t have floating windows.

My favourite thing about it is this: his concept does not break the recently established system that Apple developed; it simply refocuses the whole process around the Home indicator, which has seen great praise and adoption as a visual affordance on iPhones X and later. This has enormous potential benefits, as it would be easy to adapt current iPadOS apps that use multitasking, become more approachable to more casual users and would be an easy relearning curve for current ‘power users’. Check out his concept video below… Apple should definitely be paying attention ideas like this.

I have and always will be a fan of the Mac, however I love the way that iPad has enabled me to compute more comfortably—away from a desk. It really absorbs you in a way that no other computer can, with and without a keyboard.

With iPadOS now the official name of a differentiated software product, I’m extremely optimistic about the platform’s future and believe that Apple can correct the product’s course. The magic of this piece of portable glass can be restored.

Feature image source: Apple (2012)

Deborah Rutter on ‘Recode Decode’ with Kara Swisher

The latest episode of Recode Decode includes a fantastic interview with Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. in the United States.

I had no idea about the Kennedy Center prior to listening to this but I found it absolutely riveting. On the show, Swisher asks Rutter not only about the centre’s history, but also about her varied career and the ways in which she believes that technology can enrich the performing arts. Later in the episode, they discuss the centre’s new collection of free, ‘immersive learning spaces’, called REACH, which is a great example of technology and the performing arts working together to engage diverse audiences.

This was a stand-out line for me, spoken by Rutter:

Technology is a way for you to figure out what you want to do with your primary activity. Don’t try and build technology for technology’s sake but to advance what you want to do with whatever your art form is.

As someone who loves digital devices, I can really relate to this. I don’t want my social accounts and computers to rule me; I want to use them in a way that helps me to be creative and engage with others.

Check out the episode.

Inconsistent Whimsy

Image source: Serious Eats (2011)
Image source: Serious Eats (2011)

After quite a bumpy beta period, macOS Catalina was finally released on 7 October. There are welcome improvements, such as the addition of Sidecar, the split-up of iTunes into different apps, a better Reminders app and the all-new Voice Control, which is a fantastic accessibility feature that enables you to control your Mac entirely with your voice. There are also some more controversial changes, including tightened security and permissions (leading to more dialogue boxes), the slow start to iPad apps on the Mac with Mac Catalyst and the final, complete removal of support for 32-bit apps. If you want a full review, make sure to check out Jason Snell’s on Six Colors.

Whilst Catalina has received quite a mixed reaction, personally I’ve been happy with the software upgrade and can see how Apple clearly is continuing to push the Mac forwards, leaving legacy cruft behind in order to facilitate a more cohesive, integrated ecosystem of devices. Apple is clearly showing that it still believes in the Mac, contrary to the shrieking and carrying on by many tech analysts. Rather than being the centre of our lives as it once was, it is now just one of many devices.

Despite these visible improvements, there’s a little something that has been sticking in the back of my mind in for the last few years: inconsistency. More on this in a moment…

For some time, Mac fans have complained that Apple has been stripping the whimsy out of macOS, saying that it lacks much of the personality that it once had. Examples range from the removal of Clarus the Dogcow all the way through to the more contemporary ‘grayscaling’ of buttons and other UI elements throughout the system, where flickering, aqua-themed progress bars, quirky ‘About’ boxes and reflective, glass-like finishes once reigned supreme. To be clear, Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘whimsy’ as ‘Playfully quaint or fanciful behaviour or humour’.

I don’t really buy this argument. To claim that Apple has steadily been making macOS (and even iOS) more boring isn’t quite right, as the company’s design pendulum has swung between skeuomorphic and flat, opaque and transparent, ‘lickable’ and grey and so on for years. The company is naturally going to respond to consumer taste and also attempt to match its current hardware.

The true issue doesn’t lie in the supposed removal of whimsy; it’s in its inconsistent implementation and presentation. Let me give you a super-specific example.

For many years in Mac OS X (now macOS), removing an application icon from the Dock resulted in a whimsical little puff of smoke. Now, as you can see below, it does not.

Aha! Didn’t you say that it wasn’t all about the removal of whimsy, Martin? Where’s the inconsistency here? It’s becoming boring like everything else in the system!

Not so fast… look what happens when you go to customise the toolbar in Safari…

Not only does the removed toolbar icon disappear in a puff of smoke, all icons shimmy side-to-side whilst in the editing mode, like on the Home screen in iOS.

This may seem like pretty pedantic example but it’s very significant. Apple’s entire philosophy for design, be it in software or hardware, is to sweat the details—to pay attention to the little things that no one else cares about. Why is this animation present in one application and not the other? This seems like an oversight.

Moreover, the puff of smoke is only a simple animation but it makes you smile and enjoy a system that you’re probably using mainly for work. These days, that is almost always the context for the desktop computer.

When people discuss the UIDatePicker that has been brought from iOS to macOS (in Mac Catalyst apps like Home), they explain their dissatisfaction as being rooted in the fact that this ‘does not work on the Mac’ at all. ‘Not working’ really means that this whimsical, skeuomorphic element doesn’t belong or match the elements that are around it—it’s out of place.

I understand that Apple is in a period of significant transition, particularly as it has developed more integrated platforms and as it comes to terms with becoming more of a services and media company. Things are also moving much more quickly in tech these days, with greater pressure to innovate, add new features and churn out new and amazing products. Slowing things down a bit is a double-edged sword: taking the time to refine software can ensure stability and consistency but you risk being seen as lacking drive and innovation.

I don’t believe in the claim ‘Steve wouldn’t have allowed that if he were still here’, however I do believe that Apple is now lacking an equivalent tastemaker—one person (or very exclusive group of people) to look across the entire company and say ‘yes’ and (more often) ‘no’ to things. Whimsy is only a small part of this but like any kind of feature or design decision, it needs to be consistent. Such decisions shouldn’t have to be guided by only one person, however it’s also true that the best things in life are never designed by a committee.

Consistency may not sound like the most exciting product feature, however like fun and whimsy, it’s one of the main things that attracted us all to the Mac in the first place.

Apple and Its Ever-changing, Unchanging Ecosystem

Image credit: Apple
Image credit: Apple

In case you missed Apple’s latest keynote this week (not sure how), the company announced the new seventh-generation iPad, Apple Watch Series 5 and iPhones 11, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max and gave updates on retail, Apple TV+ and Apple Arcade.

Naturally, the event has already been covered to death. The coverage may be summarised as follows:

  • ‘Midnight green? What were they thinking?’;
  • ‘So what’s the point of the iPad Air now?’;
  • Will the game demos ever stop?!’;
  • There’s really nothing that they can do to improve the watch and I doubt that I’d need to buy a new one even if… OMG AN ALWAYS-ON DISPLAY!!!’; and
  • It’s great that they’re giving Apple TV+ away for a year with new devices but yeah I’m not so sure about it… look at Disney+!’.

It’s this last point about Apple’s emphasis on services like Apple TV+ that has really gripped most fans and commentators in recent times when looking at Apple events. So much of it is pure speculation at this point. Reflecting on the event, however, I found the most impressive and important part of the whole presentation to be the video that was shown at the very beginning, called Wonderful Tools. It is an antidote to this concern.

When this started, I was absolutely transfixed. Apple encapsulated its design philosophy and history in under two minutes. It set the scene for the product announcements that followed.

Of course, as the keynote progressed and the new announcements came and went, the Web (Twitter, really) lit up with users obsessing about specific features, colours and the direction of Apple Arcade and Apple TV+. Even with positive reactions to certain elements of the products and services, there is still a prevailing idea that with this big push for services and (perceived) product evolution rather than revolution, Apple is somehow different from what it once was. The event received a bit of a ‘meh’ from many. The hardware focus is apparently at risk.

Yet I don’t believe that Apple has changed much at all. Wonderful Tools is evidence of this and that Apple retains a focus on hardware. Reviewing everything that was featured in the video, the only things that were strictly services were Apple TV+, Apple Music, Find My and (to a degree) Siri.

Apple enthusiasts and analysts say that specs aren’t everything, yet they often focus on tiny details rather than the broader narrative. Looking into the fairly recent past, we can see that Apple has been telling the same story over and over again, reassuring its customers of its commitment to an ecosystem that is centred on hardware.

For example, in one of my all-time favourite Apple ads, Designed Together, Apple showed off its consistent design language in hardware and software with the iPhone 5c.

In the masterful piece Intention, we see Apple telling the story of ‘a thousand nos for every yes’ in what it chooses to make and how it makes it. In my view, this is the epitome of Apple’s brand storytelling.

Now, some will say that Apple no longer lives up to this ideal. How could it? In a world where services are now on the rise, Apple will attach a fee to whatever it can. Apple simply wants to turn everything into a service and is hellbent on creating new ways to make money out of its existing customers, as it sells fewer iPhones each quarter over time.

Sure, Apple will never say no to more cash but the thing is: none of these services are really new; they are just old ideas recycled.

Look at Apple Music and the more recently announced Apple TV+ and Apple TV Channels. They are not new services; they are the inevitable streaming replacements for iTunes. You know how people say that Apple has never been able to do services? Apple built the world’s most successful mainstream digital music service and it’s now dying a slow death as people turn to streaming. Something has to replace it when people eventually stop buying and owning music.

What about Apple News+? Well, back with the launch of iOS 5, Apple launched the clunky and now defunct Newsstand. In addition, during the early days of iPad, Steve Jobs announced the first iPad-only digital publication with News Corporation, The Daily (also gone). Right, so Apple isn’t really in any new territory here; it’s just a different app with a rejigged distribution and payment model.

What about the way the company takes users’ money for extra iCloud storage? All of this cloud stuff is sort of new! Well, again, before iCloud there was eWorld, iTools, .Mac and MobileMe, which all offered some different take on the same old idea of an online service that bound products together. Apple has long charged for this kind of thing.

Aha! What about Apple Arcade?! That’s a new service entirely! Not exactly… remember Game Centre, Apple’s earlier idea of a gaming service? Game Centre’s intention was to provide a way for Apple device users to play and compete in games through the App Store, encouraging them to buy more games. (It continues to hang around kind of invisibly today.) Apple Arcade is just a clearer, more comprehensive subscription service that does away with the confusion of old. It’s like Apple Music but Apple just funds the content.

Let’s not forget that the App Store in general is also perhaps Apple’s greatest service, in addition to iMessage, which is in itself a social network—the definition of a service. Oh, now that I think of it, Apple Maps is also a service, along with the entire Apple Store experience, including sales, support, classes and Today at Apple sessions, spread across physical and online environments.

Back in June, I wrote a piece called Challenging Three Apple Myths, discussing the following common ideas:

  1. Apple can’t do services well;
  2. Apple is doomed without Steve Jobs; and
  3. Apple can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

Looking back and taking all the aforementioned services into account, I can now see that I missed the great modern myth about Apple, which appears in much of the reporting about the company today:

Apple is turning increasingly into a services company.

Observing the video examples above and tracing Apple’s evolution of the same service ideas over and over again, the reality is in fact the opposite:

Apple has long been a services company.

People are so obsessed by what is new and shiny or more specifically, that which is rebranded, that they forget what came before. They fail to see how the same ideas are recycled. It’s the only way that Google fans could possibly forgive the company for so many cancellations of online products and services, which then come back in some other form down the line.

Especially since Steve Jobs’s announcement of the digital hub strategy, Apple’s focus has always been hardware that runs its own software, all tied together by integrated services.

Apple hasn’t just realised that it needs services and must charge for them because the iPhone is a maturing cash cow; instead, Apple has finally worked out how to make high-quality, long-term services to replace older ones and that also fit the overwhelming trend of the subscription model. Apple didn’t get games and now it kind of does. Apple was slow to the catch onto the idea of streaming but now it’s getting there.

As Apple’s ecosystem continues to transform and grow ever more complex, in essence its basic philosophy and foundations has really remained unchanged: create beautiful objects that are underpinned by great software and joined by useful services. That was the point of Wonderful Tools. Services aren’t distracting from hardware; they’ve always been there and now they’re just getting better (for a more obvious fee).

For those who still aren’t convinced, they should ask themselves this:

If Apple sees itself as a services-only company in the future, on what hardware would it actually run?

Although much of the user experience rests with systems macOS and iOS and the connective tissue that is iCloud, without hardware, there is no Apple. It is the company’s identity.