Posts From June 2010

Required reading for writers. Especially nerdy ones:

Humans, especially nerds, are creatures of habit. Often, these habits are designed to make the world a predictable place so that our brains can focus on the creative task at hand.

Mike Davidson on the just-redesigned story page for msnbc.com:

This weekend, msnbc.com launched a sweeping redesign of the most important part of their site: the story page. The result is something unlike anything any other major news site is offering and is a bold step in a direction no competitor has gone down (yet): the elimination of pageviews as a primary metric. [...]

We like big risks with big payoffs though and we feel that when you take care of the user and the advertiser at the same time, you’re probably onto something.

The new design really is fantastic. It’s readable, clean, has all related content inline, and seems to be showing the least amount of ads I’ve ever seen on a news site. Also: how clever is that “upscroll” header?

Michael Slade in response to my tongue and cheek link yesterday about CSS being the new Photoshop. Michael’s point is that CSS, HTML, and JavaScript are to the webpage what PostScript was to the printed page, and what’s missing is a webpage version of PageMaker (now InDesign). (Sure there’s apps like FrontPage and iWeb, but no serious Web designer would be caught dead using these tools the way a serious print designer uses InDesign and Illustrator.)

Check out Jeff Batterton’s iPhone drawing done entirely with CSS — no images. (You’ll need need the latest version of Safari or Chrome to view it properly.)

And speaking of impressive CSS, look at these iOS icons Louis Harboe made. (Again, IE users need not click through.)

Cameron Hunt magically stops and starts the data network connection of his iPhone 4 using only his index finger.

From Five Bars to Four, to Three, to Two, to One

Fraser Speirs posted a video demonstration of the reception on his iPhone 4 dropping down, bar by bar, when holding it incorrectly. This is exactly what I’m experiencing on my iPhone 4 as well.

Cameron Hunt has created a website which documents the incorrect ways to hold the iPhone 4 as demonstrated by Apple itself.

John Gruber, who’s lucky enough not to be having any problems, guesses that “the issue pops up in areas with spotty 3G coverage”. But I experience the left-handed signal drop regardless of my location — well, anywhere I’ve been since yesterday: home, my office, and church — and Kansas City has fantastic 3G coverage. (I can count on one hand the number of dropped calls I’ve had with AT&T since June 2007.)

At home where I have full signal, holding the phone in my left hand will cause the bars to drop down to 1. Though I am still able to retain enough connection strength to make phone calls, browse the web, and even stream Pandora.

My office, however, has poor reception. And yesterday if I held the iPhone 4 “incorrectly” it was literally unusable as a phone. I never had this issue on my 3GS. Even with poor 3G reception at my office I could always establish a connection and have a phone conversation.

This morning I installed Marco’s antenna booster, and it actually does seem to help a little bit. Using it at home the signal only drops to 2 or 3 bars instead of 1. I have not been in to the office yet to test it there.

Also, here’s a chart of 11 consecutive speed tests I did on the iPhone 4. The drop in bars does mean a worse connection.

iPhone 4 left-handed speed test

Thorough, full of one-liners, and very well written. The best article I’ve ever read on Engadget.

Pat Dryburgh:

If you put an item on a reflective surface and lift one side, the reflection of that side will appear to “sink” down into the reflection, rather than follow the upwards direction of the object. In Apple’s recreation of a reflection, however, the icon and its reflection appear to be physically joined, and follow the same movements on the same axis.

Nice.

(Via Jim Ray, who also has a non-busy wallpaper that is iPhone 4 ready.)

You can sync them via iTunes and send them into iBooks from various contextual menus (in Mail, Dropbox, etc…) on your iPhone / iPad. (Via Cameron Moll.)

All you ever wanted to know about folders in iOS 4. Per Dan’s screenshots I’ve since re-populated and renamed my folders to be a bit more specific.

You can now ask Voice Control what time it is.

A Brief Review of iOS 4

iOS 4 is now available, and it is fantastic. But as a long-time iPhone user some old habits die hard.

The unified inbox is great. But I still find myself tapping the “Mailboxes” header on the Inboxes view in attempts to go back one more screen, despite the fact there is no button there.

Folders are great. But I now have to re-learn where my apps are. I used to know where on the screen they were located, now I have to remember which folder I put them in.

Multitasking is great. But double tapping the Home button doesn’t get me to Phone favorites anymore — a function I have used dozens of times a day for the past three years (I’m one of the few who uses my iPhone to make phone calls). In earlier iOS betas you could at least double tap and hold the home button to launch favorites. But alas, that function didn’t make it into the Gold Master.

But eventually I will acclimate and the above quibbles will be non-issues.

Apple’s new mobile OS is the most feature-rich and robust one to date. Just as the iPhone 4 is the biggest leap forward for the hardware since the original iPhone, iOS 4 is the biggest leap forward for the software.

iOS 4 is packed to the brim with features and functions we only dreamt about in 2007. Yet in spite of all the new, nearly everything about this OS is expected. Not because we’ve seen pre-release demos, but because the features are implemented so naturally. There are no new features that require much, if any, explanation. And, save but one, no new features do anything mind blowing.

That is exactly how Apple rolls. The implementation of a feature is just as much a feature as the functionality which it provides. Apple didn’t just add the ability to now create folders, they built the best possible user experience around that functionality that they could.

Current iPhone and iPod Touch users who are able to upgrade to iOS 4 will have no trouble using all the new toys found in iOS 4 without missing a beat. Even the most “hidden” of the new, highlighted features, fast-app switching via the Tray, is easily discoverable to the average user since activating the Tray is now tied to one of the most common functions of double tapping the Home Button.

The New Look

Every major update to the iPhone’s operating system has mostly only provided feature enhancements. iOS 4 is the first to sport a significant change in the look. And it’s beautiful.

Earlier this year I jailbroke my iPhone to install a different GUI and add a Home screen wallpaper and custom icons. But many of the graphical changes in iOS 4 negate my reasons for wanting to jailbreak. From what I’ve noticed, all of the new graphical elements are fantastic. Well, all but one: the default water drops wallpaper is bizarrely ugly. I’m currently using the fun but unobtrusive Pictotype Purple wallpaper from Veer.

I was never, ever, keen on the 3D Dock introduced in Leopard, but on the iPad and iPhone it’s great. For one, it’s much more open than the ‘grid’ Dock in previous iPhone OSes. This makes for a cleaner looking, more simple Home screen. Secondly, the square icons don’t look at all awkward while sitting on the 3D dock, which is not always the case in OS X.

Additionally, I’m a big fan of the scratched fabric texture which shows up in the background when drilling into a folder or when fast-app switching via the Tray. It’s a darker version of what you see behind the Google map if you click on the bottom-right page curl. And it’s the same background Reeder uses for its iPad app.

Folders

Folders are swell, but I suck at naming them.

Choosing a proper and usable name for a folder is proving to be more difficult than I thought. Also difficult is remembering which folder has which apps.

Thanks to folders, my first Home screen now has the apps which used to occupy my first two home screens. These are the apps I use daily or weekly. And the OCD in me decided it would be best to name each folder with names that were five characters long. So: Tools, Photo, Stats, and Sweet.

On my second Home screen, I have seven folders: Rare, Reference, Utilities, A Games, B Games, Misc, and Tools. But off the top of my head I couldn’t even tell you what apps are in each of those folders.

The Rare folder holds all the apps which previously lived on the very last Home screen wasteland. A Games and B Games are just that — except I hardly ever play games on my iPhone so I don’t really know which games are the more or less favorites. And the difference between Reference, Misc, Tools, and Utilities is (embarrassingly) a bit lost on me. I chose those names because I was trying to avoid having four folders with the same name, Utilities. But unfortunately my current solution is just as confusing as the alternative.

Once I’ve nailed down some proper names, my only gripe with folders will be the spacial arrangement of the individual apps. As Lukas Mathis points out, the placement of an app’s icon is in one location in the folder’s icon view, but it’s in another location when you open that folder. (Similar to the same spacial issues the iPad has when you rotate the device from landscape to portrait.)

The Tray and Multitasking

But Apple doesn’t really intend for users to navigate through folders for the apps they use regularly. Instead, they’ve given us the Tray and multitasking.

It used to be that when you were done using an app and you pressed the Home Button you were quitting that app. Some app developers were smart enough to build state persistence into their app. Which meant when you came back to that app, it would load itself at the same spot you left it, but it still had to load.

Now you are no longer quitting the app when you press the Home Button. Instead the app is put into the background and its icon gets slotted into the Tray. You access the Tray by double tapping the Home Button and from there you can swipe through all the apps you’ve recently used. But the computer-savvy geek in me wants to quit out all the apps that I’m not using. It pains me to see an app in that tray which I know I only use once or twice a month. That app is taking up precious memory.

Neven Mrgan wisely advises:

This is not the multitasking you’re used to. The sooner you accept this, the better.

And so I’m learning not to play the Tray because iOS 4 is clever and responsible enough to quit apps on my behalf. The least-recently-used app gets the boot once the system actually begins to run low on memory. And with iPhone 4 rocking twice the memory my 3GS has, there will be even less reason to manually monitor which apps are running in the background.

John Gruber explains the new multitasking quite well:

The new model [of multitasking], [...] is that apps are not quit manually by the user. You, the user, just open them, and the system takes care of managing them after that. You don’t even have to understand the concept of quitting an application — in fact, you’re better off not worrying about it.

The Tray and its fast app switching are just one element of multitasking in iOS. There are also a handful of background APIs which 3rd-party apps can now take advantage of. The most heralded have been the APIs for background music, location, and VoIP. Respectively: Pandora can play music while in the background; GPS apps can give directions while in the background; and Skype can host a phone call while in the background. I don’t use Pandora, GPS apps, or Skype, so these new features, while great, do not really change my life for the better at the present moment.

The API which I am most thankful for, in that it affects my day-to-day usage the most, is task completion. Now I don’t have to wait while Twitter uploads my latest tweet or Simplenote syncs my latest note. But unfortunately, the other side of the coin to task completion, background updating, is not baked in to iOS 4. When you open apps like Simplenote, Twitter, or Instapaper, even if they’ve been running in the background, they will not have been able to update. They still have to wait until they are the frontmost app before they can download any new data.

A hot new weblog written by Dave Caolo:

For years I thought, “Someday I’ll have an opportunity to write long-form articles about Apple for obsessed fans who appreciate the value of taking time to sit quietly and read.”

Dave is a great writer; I am so subscribed.

The Linked List is the Comments

Comments drastically change the tone, feel, and content of a website. I’ve never had comments on my site, and I can’t fathom how much energy I would have to spend to keep the tone I’ve established here if comments were enabled.

Even if every comment were kind and clever there would still be a different feel to shawnblanc.net. Each post would have extra metadata: who commented; how many total comments; who’s the most commenting commenter; gee I haven’t commented in a while, I guess that makes me a lurker?

Moreover, comments would affect my time. I don’t want to spend one minute unnecessarily moderating rude comments or robot spam. Nor do I want another incoming distraction of having to keep tabs on what content is being put onto my site.

So for one, comments don’t serve me or my heart for this website. But they don’t serve the reader either.

Having commenters does not necessarily make a community. Most comment threads I’ve seen are just a lot of people posting replies with no regard to the other comments. (And sometimes with no regard to the original post, even.)

When someone comments, they are giving a one-on-one reply to the author. This can be done just as easily via email. I love how Marco put it earlier today:

A blog post is a one-to-many broadcast. Comments are the opposite: many-to-one feedback. A true discussion medium would encourage more communication between the commenters, forming larger quantities of many-to-many interactions and de-emphasizing the role of the blog post’s author. In practice, that rarely happens.

If comments are behaving as many-to-one feedback, there’s minimal value to showing them to the world, because the world largely doesn’t read them. [...] We already have a widespread many-to-one feedback medium that avoids this: email.

On my site, and many others, feedback from the reader is welcome via email or Twitter. And if the reader wants to add to the conversation in a public way, they are encouraged to write it on their own website. And this is where links come in — to keep this site from becoming an island.

Chairman Gruber describes it as a curated conversation. John posts his own thoughts, opinions, and commentary, but also links to other people’s. In a way, the DF Linked List is the comments. And it’s extremely moderated and painstakingly curated.

Instead of discovering new people and content through the who’s who list of comments on Daring Fireball, you discover them through the Linked List. This is how John maintains the quality of DF that he’s so particular about. But it’s also John’s way of encouraging people to put their thoughts in front of their own audience. Which is, in my opinion, the best reason of all to not allow comments.

What frustrated Joe Wilcox about the lack of comments on Daring Fireball was his inability to respond in context. But John’s goal of a curated conversation is not about keeping his writing protected from criticism. He is passively encouraging people to build their own soapbox, write something of substance, and to curate their own conversations.

Amazing. It was AT&T’s busiest online sales day ever, and even Apple is back ordered until July 2nd. It looks like there will still be some stock available for walk-in customers. I was able to reserve a 16GB model using the Apple Store app this morning.

Brad Smith:

Virb is not an answer to those seeking a Facebook alternative or a better-looking MySpace. [...] Our new mission is much more focused: The new Virb is one of the easiest and most affordable ways to build an elegantly simple website. That’s it.

I’ve had a Virb profile since the first beta. Granted, I’ve only updated it twice in the past three years. And all it does now is aggregate this site’s RSS feed, my Twitter stream, and my Flickr photostream.

But that is just the point as to why Brad, Ryan, and team are changing their business model. Instead of offering free profiles and working to build a social network, they’re re-directing to offer dirt-cheap websites and an all-in-one solution (build, design, publish, host).

Virb is a fantastic site with even more fantastic talent behind it. Building on the reputation of great design and a clean community of users they’ve built, this new direction is a smart move for them. (Best of luck, guys!)

Which Device for Which Task?

With a cup of hot coffee, most work days begin with combing through email, scrubbing my to-do list, and prepping for any meetings.

No two days are alike. Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep on top of email and put out fires. Occasionally I’m in meetings back to back to back to back. And then some days I am able to do some work of my own. Unless it’s a meetings-only type of day, I need my MacBook Pro to get work done. But regardless my iPad and iPhone are usually close by.

And so I was curious to look at how frequently I use each device for certain tasks I may do on a given day. Secondly, if my preferred device isn’t around, how well do the others fare at completing that same task if and when they have to?

How Frequently I Use a Device for Certain Tasks

Task MacBook Pro iPad iPhone
Check Email Regularly Regularly Regularly
Browse Web Regularly Regularly Regularly
Check Twitter Sometimes Sometimes Regularly
Manage To-Do List Regularly Regularly Regularly
Text Message Never Never Regularly
Phone Call Never Never Regularly
Write Blog Posts Regularly Sometimes Never
Read an eBook Never Regularly Never
Read Instapaper Sometimes Regularly Rarely
Save to Instapaper Regularly Regularly Regularly
Check RSS Feeds Sometimes Regularly Rarely
Write Reports Regularly Sometimes Never
Graphic Design Sometimes Never Never
Listen to Music Regularly Rarely Rarely
Watch Movies Sometimes Rarely Never
Play Games Rarely Sometimes Sometimes
Take Meeting Notes Sometimes Regularly Rarely
Update Calendar Regularly Regularly Regularly
Access / Use Dropbox Regularly Sometimes Rarely

A good example of where quality has affected frequency is with RSS feeds. I rarely check my feeds on my iPhone anymore because checking them on my iPad is just so much better. The same goes for Instapaper — reading things later on the iPad is so fantastic that I practically refuse to use my laptop for it.

Now, if my preferred device isn’t around then how well do the others fare at completing that same task if and when they have to? Here is a chart rating each device’s ability to handle the task at hand.

Device’s Ability to Handle My Regular Tasks

Task MacBook Pro iPad iPhone
Check Email Great Good Good
Browse Web Good Great Good
Check Twitter Good Great Great
Manage To-Do List Great Poor Poor
Write Blog Posts Great Poor Poor
Read Instapaper Good Great Good
Read an eBook Good Great Poor
Check RSS Feeds Great Great Great
Write Reports Great Poor Poor
Graphic Design Great n/a n/a
Listen to Music Great Great Great
Watch Movies Great Good Good
Play Games Great Great Great
Take Meeting Notes Great Good Poor
Update Calendar Great Good Good
Access / Use Dropbox Great Good Good

The ratings are not necessarily based on the scope or limitations of the device. Some of the ratings are due to limitations of the app, or are simply because of my own established workflow.

For example, the only reason Things is poor at managing my to-do list on my iPad is because it doesn’t fully match my work flow. The iPad app, in and of itself, is fabulous. But I can’t map email messages to my to-do list like I do on my laptop, and there is not yet over-the-air syncing. Functionality issues like that make it difficult for me to easily manage my to-do list. (There are times when I email myself a to-do item from my iPad or iPhone because I need to remember it as soon as I return to my laptop.)

What the Charts Don’t Say

Looking at how regularly I reach for my laptop, and how well it handles nearly everything I do all day, it would seem as if my iPad were simply a luxury. Quantitatively, yes. But qualitatively, it’s a different story. Because the scope and feature checklist of the iPad (and iPhone) alone do not accurately convey the value added.

Perhaps a more accurate comparison of devices and tasks would not be based on tasks at all, but rather on context and use-case scenarios. My laptop is what I use at my desk. The iPad is usually with me when I’m on the go or in the living room. One device is not relegated to one type of task. All are for work and, and all are for leisure — the quantity and quality depends mostly on the context.

What the charts don’t say are things like how useful my iPad is on a day full of meetings because it is so easy to carry one place to the next, and its battery is a non-issue. Or how I’m less distracted when using it. Or that I read so much more now.

The only thing missing is how well the three devices work together. As my MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad learn to share the same information at the same time, their usage will become even less task-driven and more context-driven.

The Economist reviews a few apps which are meant to help you focus. I’ve tried some of these but they never really stuck. But you know what the best anti-distraction piece of software I’ve ever used is?

My iPad’s OS.

All tasks are done in full-screen mode: checking email, reading in Instapaper, writing notes in Simplenote, or whatever. And to switch to another app I have to click the home button, look for the other app’s icon, and tap it. Not exactly an arduous process, but also not as easy as a quick press of Command+Tab using my thumb and ring finger.

I’m sure there is more to it than just the app-switching process. But there is no doubt that when using my iPad (regardless of if it’s for work or leisure), I am significantly less prone to distraction or multitasking than when I am using my MacBook Pro.

(Via DF.)

And you thought Reeder for iPhone was good.

iPhone 4 Miscellany

The Battery

With every other gadget I’ve owned keeping the battery charged is one of the costs of ownership. The iPad, on the other hand, has an incredible battery. It’s battery is one of the best features of the whole device, and usually is the first thing I say when people ask me what I like best about my iPad. “The battery,” I tell them. “This thing will run for 12 hours.”

The iPhone 4 boasts virtually the same battery life as the iPad. Imagine then what you can still do after the the 20% power warning. The 4 will still have enough juice for a 90-minute phone conversation, an entire movie, 2 hours of surfing the web, or to just be left sitting around for another two and a half days.

When the 20% battery warning comes up on my 3GS it means I go into iPhone survival mode, keeping usage to a minimum to prolong death before I am able to charge it next. But on the 4 a 20% warning will simply mean charge at my earliest convenience (the same way it is for the iPad).

The Glass

Putting glass on both sides is a great move. I have never put a screen guard on any of my iPhones, and I usually place my 3GS face down because the glass front is more scratch resistant than the plastic back.

The original iPhone was well-built. It felt good and looked good. But it was a bit slippery and had poorer cell reception compared to the 3G and 3GS. But what the 3G-enabled models gained in function they lost in form. The plastic back is not nearly as classy.

And so by putting helicopter-grade glass on both sides the iPhone 4 now gets the best of both worlds: a phone that feels good, looks good, and get’s good reception.

The Screen

I’m afraid of the 4′s new display in that it may cause every other device I use (Apple Cinema Display, MacBook Pro, iPad) to look like pixelated crap.

That Wallpaper

The water drops wallpaper which is set as the default in iOS 4 baffles me. I’m not running the iOS 4 beta, nor have I seen the wallpaper in display on an iPhone 4. But in the promotional shots of the new iOS and phone the wallpaper looks tacky to say the least.

My only guess is that the water drops image was used because it was an ideal image for being the Home Screen wallpaper and showing off the Retina Display hotness. Regardless, I expect to be using something more minimal.

Marketing FaceTime

The FaceTime commercial and its section in the iPhone design video both use classic, emotional music. The show all sorts of happy, real-life scenarios, and really pull you in to the emotion of watching real people connect.

Apple is telling a story about the iPhone through FaceTime. It’s not just a device for fun, games, and work. It is something which can add value to your real life. It’s a story wrapped with families and loved ones connecting like never before.

Gina Trapani says:

That’s the thing about Apple marketing. They don’t talk about how many gigabytes of memory or how many CPU cycles or how many apps (much). They aim for your heart, and show you how technology can make your life better during its most important moments.

It’s this feature alone that makes me want to buy my wife an iPhone 4 as well, instead of giving her a hand-me-down.

AT&T

I was with Verizon for almost 9 years before I bought an iPhone, and their service was great. But AT&T’s service in Kansas City (where I live) and Denver (where my family lives) is also great.

I can count on one hand the dropped calls I’ve had since June 2007. My phone always has solid 3G reception and very speedy data. Moreover, whenever I’ve had to deal with AT&T’s customer service it’s been easy and pleasant.

Two other things I love about AT&T: (1) They subsidize my iPhone upgrades more frequently than every 2 years; and (2) they let me change my plan for just a month or two (when I know I’m going to have a talk-heavy event) without making me renewing my contract for another 2 years.

Great thoughts from Kyle Baxter on Apple’s obsession with making amazing products. They don’t leapfrog their competitors by adding or improving to the feature checklist, they make a product which redefines the rules of the game altogether.

Related (and recommended) reading: Marco Arment’s “Feature Checklist Dysfunction“.

Starts in little less than two hours. Engadget and Ars Technica will also have live coverage. (Engadget is not using that Coveritlive thingamajig.)

Some famous mustaches and some just famous men who happened to have a mustache.

Reader-supported curation of design inspiration for print, web, packaging, typography, and more. Sweet.