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.

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.

The New York Times: ‘As Facebook Raised a Privacy Wall, It Carved an Opening for Tech Giants’

Facebook is now beyond a joke. Following its enormous Cambridge Analytica scandal (and numerous other major missteps), The New York Times has uncovered yet more privacy breaches by the company. More specifically, Facebook shared users’ personal data with other major business partners and tech firms, all of which were exempted from its normal privacy restrictions.

The publication shares how it discovered all of this:

The New York Times interviewed more than 60 people, including former employees of Facebook and its partners, former government officials and privacy advocates.

The Times also reviewed more than 270 pages of Facebook’s internal documents and performed technical tests and analysis to monitor what information was being passed between Facebook and partner devices and websites.

Some of the companies that are mentioned in this article claim that they were unaware that they were given access to such personal data, whilst those that admit they were aware claim the data was used ‘appropriately’. Regardless, Facebook should never have done this.

I deleted my Facebook account some time ago and my life is much richer for it.

Read the article here. It’s long but stick with it; if you finish it and still think that it’s worth keeping your account, then I’m not sure what it would take to convince you.

Australia’s So-called ‘Assistance and Access’ Act

Very recently, the Australian Government passed what it called the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act. This overly complex and euphemistic title represents a piece of legislation that poses a significant threat to Australian data security and the economy.

Governments around the world insist that encryption hinders their efforts in dealing criminals and terrorist plots, due to the encryption of instant messaging apps. The creation of backdoors in apps and operating systems not only destroys innocent users’ privacy, it also threatens the integrity of systems upon which even government tools are built. Back in August, The Conversation explained:

the bill allows the Director-General of Security or the chief officer of an interception agency to compel a provider to do an unlimited range of acts or things. That could mean anything from removing security measures to deleting messages or collecting extra data. Providers will also be required to conceal any action taken covertly by law enforcement.

There are huge concerns about what this means for the security of businesses and how international companies interact with and work in Australia. One example that popped up in my Twitter feed was a blog post on the issue from Canadian company AgileBits Inc. I’m a huge fan and regular user of its app, 1Password, which provides a secure vault for passwords, logins, card information and various membership details and notes. How is this kept secure? You create a complex master password that protects all of your other information and encryption does the rest.

AgileBits Inc’s blog post dealt with its concerns about doing business with and hiring people from Australia. I doubt that the Australian Government really considered this and how Australia will be able to interact with the app economy in the future. Here’s an excerpt:

We do not, at this point, know whether it will be necessary or useful to place extra monitoring on people working for 1Password who may be subject to Australian laws. Our existing security and privacy design and internal controls may well be sufficient without adding additional controls on our people in Australia. Nor do we yet know to what extent we should consider Australian nationality in hiring decisions. It may be a long time before any such internal policies and practices go into place, if they ever do, but these are discussions we have been forced to have.

The more that I hear about the issue, the clearer it is to me that the Australian Government does not understand the implications of its decisions, despite arguments from major tech companies, app developers and other specialists in the field. We truly live in an era of dismissal (and even hatred) of experts.

Read the full blog post by AgileBits Inc here.

Walkie-Talkie on Apple Watch

I’ve been a fan of Apple Watch since it was first announced back in 2014. With each subsequent model and version of watchOS, there have been numerous new features that have enhanced the experience of wearing a computer on your wrist.

Some of the most notable changes over the past few years have been the addition of native support for third-party apps, cellular connectivity, enhanced health-tracking (e.g. accessibility, ECG and fall-detection) and of course, the overhaul of the user interface, bringing the Dock, Control Centre and more.

What I love the most about the Apple Watch is the fact that it frees me from my phone. I’ve left my phone on silent for years now and appreciate the taps on my wrist whenever important notifications arrive.

Now using the Series 4 with watchOS 5, I have found one of the most profound improvements to be Walkie-Talkie. When Apple announced it as a new feature earlier this year, it was mainly with a sense of humour and fun, as the first use case that was shown was two kids in a backyard at night for a sleepover, joking back and forth with the app between two tents.

Whilst it certainly is fun, I use it as a serious feature almost every day with my wife, Natasha. We still make phone and FaceTime Audio calls with each other and naturally use iMessage, however, there are certain cases when Walkie-Talkie is best. We use it when we need to know each other that we’re leaving work, late, stopping somewhere on the way for groceries, have a quick question to ask or even if we need something across the house (to save ourselves from yelling).

For those who haven’t used Walkie-Talkie, it’s not the same as sending audio files that require manual playback through iMessage. Instead, it sends an audio file that plays live on the other person’s watch, if only with a slight delay. This gives the feeling of a true Walkie-Talkie, as if you’re conversing with the person in-person.

Simply press and hold the big ‘TALK’ button whilst speaking!
Simply press and hold the big ‘TALK’ button whilst speaking!

Naturally, there are contexts where this would be downright inappropriate or wouldn’t make sense, particularly if you keep it on high volume. This is because the other person’s voice springs out spontaneously if you keep your status on ‘available’. Therefore, Walkie-Talkie is most useful when you only permit your most important contacts to become favourites in the app.

Taking a step back, when Apple unveiled the first Apple Watch, it touted the device not only as a tool for activity and health, but one for enhanced personal communication. Whereas wrist-taps, Messages, Scribble and other messaging apps and features have certainly made communication more convenient on Apple Watch, Walkie-Talkie is perhaps the first function to make you feel even more connected and really personal. Remember the favourite contacts list that hid behind a press of the Digital Crown in watchOS 1? It has been gone for some time and Walkie-Talkie feels like the app where your favourites truly belong. Now, five OS updates in, I’m even more excited about Apple Watch and what it means for communication.