People and resources added to my reading list in 2017

Tech Life

In 2015 and 2016, I noticed a trend in my RSS subscriptions and management: I was discovering fewer interesting people and resources worth following on a regular basis, while at the same time I was removing people and resources I had previously added, for a series of reasons I detailed in last year’s post. 2016 was a very active year for me, photography-wise, so the majority of discoveries were photography-oriented.

2017 was a terrible year. A sort of reverse-sabbatical where, instead of taking a break to focus on specific interests and projects, I found myself taking a break to… to focus on really nothing specific. Lots of things were left floating in a limbo. My creative writing and projects got sidetracked due to a hazy, unspecified inertia. Only my work with translations and app localisation was the exception, thankfully.

The tech world in general, and podcasts

I have grown progressively weary of how most of the tech debate is conducted today. I like to read people with (pardon the photographic reference) a wide dynamic range; people who don’t lose sight of the bigger picture; people who don’t limit themselves to being serial gadget lovers (i.e. people who lose themselves in every new shiny tree they encounter, rarely taking account of the whole forest; and I promise I’ll stop with the metaphors). Well, perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough last year, but I haven’t found many.

More and more, the podcast seems to be the preferred method of delivery, and well-written tech blogs look like an endangered species. I don’t want to start another tirade about podcasts, but let me reiterate one fundamental criticism: there is simply too much supply, and too little time. I can’t spend my day listening to podcasts, as I find practically impossible to follow a podcast episode while doing other things. Music can be enjoyed even when it’s in the background. I can’t follow what people are talking about while reading stuff on the Web or working. It’s just interference. I have to make time for your podcast. And if I’m going to give you one hour of my time for an episode, you better deliver on the quality and content, otherwise it’s bye-bye.

As a listener, my podcast habits have changed slightly. I used to follow a really short list of podcasts, doing my very best to listen to all their episodes regularly. In 2017 I added a few more podcasts, with the express intention of just listening here and there, loosening my overall commitment. No offense to anyone, but I simply felt it was time to broaden my horizons without also sacrificing more of my time. Here’s the current list of podcasts I’m subscribed to:

  • Covered, by and with Harry C. Marks.
  • Release Notes, with Joe Cieplinski and Charles Perry.
  • John Gruber’s The Talk Show.
  • Citizen Lit, a literary podcast hosted by Jim Warner.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher of Recode and Lauren Goode of The Verge.
  • The Americans Podcast, by Slate Magazine / Panoply [iTunes link] — I’m a huge fan of the series, and this podcast is a great listen after each episode of The Americans. It’s the only podcast I manage to follow regularly, because the output is limited and follows the series’ airings; and because each episode is rather short.
  • The Radiolab podcast, by WNYC Radio. I was recommended to listen to an episode on Oliver Sacks aired in late October 2017, and I kept the podcast in my subscriptions. I was trying to find the words to describe what Radiolab is about. Thankfully the show’s description does a better job at it than what I could possibly come up with: Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.
  • On Margins, a podcast about making books, hosted by Craig Mod.
  • Tomorrow with Joshua Topolsky [iTunes link]. From the description: “Tomorrow with Joshua Topolsky is a podcast about what’s happening right now — and next — in the world of culture, technology and the internet, music, movies, politics, and more.” I don’t often agree with Topolsky on technology, but it’s important to listen to people with different points of view, otherwise it’s all just an echo chamber.

I have listened to the occasional episode of other podcasts, but these are the ones I’m keeping in my subscription list for now. My podcast listening apps of choice are Pocket Casts on iOS (as always), and Podcast Lounge on Windows Phone.

YouTube channels

For the first time, in 2017 I also started paying attention to what YouTube has to offer. YouTube has got rather difficult to ignore altogether, and I dive in with strict moderation, knowing the attention sucker it can become if you don’t keep your consumption in check. I follow some tech-oriented channels whose output is not too overwhelming.

  • For product reviews: Btekt and Mr Mobile (Michael Fisher). Both of these guys, in my opinion, produce great videos (well-edited, not too long and not too short, etc.) and provide rather balanced reviews. I enjoy Fisher’s style and humour, in particular.
  • For product unboxing & reviews with the added lulz: Unbox Therapy.
  • I’ve also added the Computer History Museum channel, because it’s just rich in good-quality technology content.
  • When I have my recurring bouts of retrocomputing nostalgia, I check The 8-Bit Guy.

I’ve added these resources to what I follow. I’m sure there are many more out there, and some may be of better quality or value. I’m not into YouTube much, so if you feel I’m missing some fantastic channels, feel free to let me know via email or Twitter.

Tech blogs and sites

If I had written this piece back in early October, this would have been a completely blank space. Really. The few discoveries I made all happened in the last 2–3 months of 2017:

I’ve always read Peter Cohen’s articles when he wrote for Macworld, The Loop, and iMore. I added his personal site to my reading list back in October 2017. He hasn’t posted anything since, but I hope it’s only temporary.

Since he has been quoted often in recent times by other people I follow, I decided to check his blog more regularly, and I ended up adding it to my feeds. I’m talking about Matt Birchler and his blog BirchTree. What made me decide to add him to my reading list was his recent 8-part exploration of Android from the perspective of an iOS user. I appreciate when tech geeks take the time to explore other platforms, because that usually gives them a better perspective on technologies and products. I’ve done that too, and I’ve learnt a lot.

Speaking of exploring other platforms, after webOS and Android, I felt it was time to take a deeper, less prejudiced look at Windows Phone/Windows Mobile. After a surprisingly positive experience with a Nokia Lumia 925 and Windows Phone 8.1 started in November, I’m currently examining Windows 10 Mobile on a Nokia Lumia 830. Two great resources that have helped me a lot this past couple of months have been:

  • All About Windows Phone, with good reviews and tips; I’ve found a lot of nice Windows Phone apps by perusing the site.
  • Windows Central: it has a broader scope, and its focus is Windows in general, but it’s a good place to keep an eye on to stay informed on what happens in Windows land.

If you’ve known me for long, you’ll surely find my renewed interest in Microsoft and Windows a bit strange. Many other long-time Mac users keep looking at Microsoft and Windows through 1990s-era glasses, and well, I think it’s time to be more open-minded. I’m not switching to Windows, mind you, and I’m not necessarily saying that it has become better than Mac OS. But the hardware is interesting, and Windows has certainly got better than when I was using it more regularly years and years ago.

If I could afford it, I’d probably get a Surface laptop or tablet as a secondary device, to at least have a first-hand experience so that I can better understand the kind of efforts Microsoft has made to improve their hardware and software. I was able to do that with Windows-powered smartphones, and I was unexpectedly, positively surprised. Over the years I’ve come to realise that you can’t be interested in technology without ever examining what’s outside your preferred platform and ecosystem.

That’s it for tech blogs/sites. Again, if you believe I’m missing out on someone particularly smart, insightful, and worth reading, let me know!

People who don’t post as often as they used to, or have stopped altogether — and that’s a real pity

There are a few people whose contributions I used to enjoy, but it seems they’re now either writing very infrequently, or have taken a hiatus. I don’t know why. Perhaps they now have other priorities or are busy elsewhere. I still keep their sites in my RSS reader in the hope they can return someday. I felt like mentioning them here not because I want to single them out and line them up against some wall of shame, but because I believe they’re people worth reading and following. I’m mentioning them as a way to tell them, Hey, I miss your writing. It’s really a pity you’ve stopped posting regularly. I hope to read more from you in the future.

  • Michael Anderson used to have a blog called Building Twenty; the domain appears to have expired now, but this is one of the last snapshots available through the Internet WayBack Machine.
  • Hey Cupertino, by Patrick Dean. Its last entry is from almost exactly one year ago. As I wrote last year: “I really like Patrick’s review style: each review is detailed, well written, and accompanied by meaningful screenshots. One immediately notices how Patrick decides to review an app only after having extensively used it on his device. This means his reviews are generally less superficial, and his recommendations are always worth checking.”
  • The Pickle Theory, by Shibel Mansour. It’s a pity Shibel hasn’t the time to write more on his site. He’s someone whose point of view I’d like to hear more often.
  • MbS-P-B, by Mike Bates. I enjoyed his reviews and I enjoy his photography. His blog has been silent since late 2016. I hope the hiatus isn’t definitive.
  • No Octothorpe, by G. Keenan Schneider. He’s not on hiatus, but he’s one of the few tech writers with a genuinely creative approach to tech writing, and he posts too damn infrequently.
  • Mac Kung Fu, by Keir Thomas. Last year I wrote: “It’s mostly tips and tricks for Mac OS, iOS, Apple TV, Apple Watch, etc. Keir is a competent power user and writer. There’s always something to discover, even if you’re an experienced Mac or iOS user, and Keir often manages to surprise you.” Keir doesn’t update the site as often as he used to, and it’s a pity. Still, I recommend you add it to your list of resources; I’m sure you’ll still be able to find plenty of useful tips in the archives.

My RSS management

Not much has changed from last year. To recap: on my main system, Reeder is still my favourite app. On my PowerPC Macs I use older versions of NetNewsWire (version 3.2.15 under Mac OS X Leopard, and 3.1.7 under Mac OS X Tiger). On iOS for me there’s no better RSS reader than Unread. On older iOS devices that can’t be updated past iOS 5 or iOS 6, I use Reeder instead (the last compatible version on those systems). It offers a great reading experience. A special mention goes to Feed Hawk by John Brayton, a very useful iOS tool to quickly add a website’s RSS feed to your reader of choice. My nano-review of Feed Hawk is here.

Since now I also use Windows Phone 8.1 / Windows 10 Mobile as my secondary mobile platform, I’ve searched for a good RSS reader on Windows as well. I’m currently enjoying FeedLab, but I’ve also been recommended the more feature-rich Nextgen Reader (for both mobile devices and PCs).

And I think that’s all. This article may be updated in the following days, in case I realise I forgot something.

Past articles

In reverse chronological order:

I hope you find this series useful. (Keep in mind that some links in these past articles may now be broken). Again, feel free to send tips and suggestions for more resources, either via email or Twitter. Thanks for reading!

The iPhone X still underwhelms me

Tech Life

There is something that just keeps not clicking about the iPhone X for me.

I could easily insert a joke here: “It’s the Home button”. But I wouldn’t be joking, actually. And it’s not (just) the Home button, or lack thereof.

I have read many reviews and impressions, and a lot of people seem to agree on one particular aspect of the iPhone X — it’s the first Apple product in ages that really excites them. It seems to exude that intangible Apple essence that just makes you love it. Something that Apple hadn’t seemed to manage to pull off since Steve Jobs’s passing. I’m a long-time Apple user, and I know exactly what they mean. I felt it with the introduction of various Apple products over the years: the first Mac, the first LaserWriter, the PowerBook 100, the PowerBook Duo system, the Newton, the iMac G3 and G4, the first iPod, the first iPhone, the iPhone 4, the colourful iBooks, the G4 Cube, the 12-inch PowerBook G4, the MacBook Air… You get the idea.

If you go through that list of Apple hardware, you’ll see that none of those computers or devices was perfect. Some of those were underpowered. Others, like the Cube or the MacBook Air, were limited by the very design choices that made them iconic. Yet, soon after being unveiled, I simply wanted to acquire them. Even with their flaws and limits, there was that je ne sais quoi that made them special. I realise this is how many iPhone X owners feel about their device. I can sympathise, of course, but I cannot feel it.

What I keep feeling when I handle an iPhone X is disappointment. I’ll try to articulate such disappointment through a series of observations more than a general analysis.

Reducing the bezel and going ‘all screen’

The only way I understand this recent trend of extreme bezel reduction in smartphones is that manufacturers are running out of design ideas to make their products stand out and entice people to purchase them. You could argue that a phone that is ‘all screen’ is not just form, but offers functional advantages as well. Like, more screen real estate without having to also increase the physical size of the device. But a bezel isn’t just wasted space. It helps you handle the device better, it gives more stability when you hold the device and interact with the user interface. When I’m reading something on my iPhone 5, my thumb rests comfortably on the lower bezel; that is, on the space between the Home button and the bottom right corner of the phone.

In my extended handling of an iPhone X, since that space is missing and it’s all screen there, while reading long-form articles on the Web, my thumb either stayed raised and out of the screen’s way, or rested on the right side of the phone. Sure, I could hold the iPhone X nonetheless, but it didn’t feel as comfortable or secure. This was mitigated when holding an iPhone X with a leather case. The case added grip and, ironically, increased the size of the iPhone’s side bezels.

Gesticulating in the absence of a Home button

I hold the rather unpopular opinion that removing the Home button has been a mistake and a step back on Apple’s part. In theory, I get this kind of design iteration move. I get the general plan (to reach a point where the interaction with a touchscreen is all touch), but not the execution — it feels poor, hastily thought and hastily carried out.

In his recent piece on the iPhone X, John Gruber writes:

In short, with the iPhone X Apple took a platform with two primary means of interacting with the apps — a touchscreen and a home button — removed one of them, and created a better, more integrated, more organic experience.

But let’s just step back a couple of paragraphs in his article, where he summarises the functions of the Home button versus the gestures and actions that have been put in place on the iPhone X after removing the Home button:

Over time, the home button’s responsibilities grew to encompass these essential roles:

  1. Single-click with display off: wakes the device.
  2. Single-click with display on: takes you to home screen.
  3. Double-click: takes you to multitasking switcher.
  4. Triple-click: configurable accessibility shortcut.
  5. Rest finger: authenticate with Touch ID.
  6. Double-tap (without clicking): invoke Reachability.
  7. Press-and-hold: invoke Siri.

I took the liberty to convert his bulleted list into a numbered list, for the sake of discussion. We can agree that, of all these seven main roles of the Home button, №4 and 6 aren’t as universally or frequently used like the other five. Not everybody needs to have an accessibility shortcut (I wonder how many of you knew about this triple-clicking, by the way. I confess I didn’t remember such shortcut), and not everybody has a Plus-sized iPhone.

Here are the gestures replacing the above-mentioned functions on the iPhone X:

In iOS 11 X, almost every role of the home button has been subsumed by the display, with the remainder reassigned to the side button:

  1. Wake the device: tap the display.
  2. Go to the home screen: short swipe up from the bottom of display.
  3. Go to the multitasking switcher: longer swipe up from the bottom.
  4. Even better way to multitask: just swipe sideways on the home indicator.
  5. Accessibility shortcut: triple-click the side button.
  6. Authenticate: just look at the display.
  7. Reachability: swipe down on the bottom edge of display.
  8. Siri: press-and-hold side button.

It’s a (literal) mixed bag. First of all, not all these gestures are touch-only. Two of them still involve a physical button (Apple Pay also involves the use of the side button, if I remember correctly). Face ID makes for a truly useful hands-free authentication, but there are still instances where Touch ID can be a faster option. The rest of the gestures — especially returning to the Home screen and handling multitasking — I still find confusing and harder to execute with consistent results. The remapping of the gestures to invoke Notification Centre (swipe down from the top left) and Control Centre (swipe down from the top right) doesn’t help, either. Oh, and before we forget: force-quitting apps from the multitasking view is easier/faster on an iPhone with a Home button: double-click the Home button, then just swipe up the ‘card’ representing the app, just like it was on webOS. In what Gruber calls ‘iOS 11 X’ the procedure involves tapping and holding, then removing the ‘card’. Perhaps it was made on purpose to discourage people from being trigger-happy when it comes to force-quitting apps. The gesture feels clunkier nonetheless.

(Oh, and as for №1, tapping the display to wake the phone: nothing new under the sun. I don’t know Android devices enough, but on Windows Phone devices the feature has been present for years.)

My impression here differs significantly from Gruber’s: this, to me, doesn’t feel like a “better, more integrated, more organic experience”. It feels like a renovation project that started with an idea — Let’s get rid of this wall [the Home button] — but didn’t fully take account of a series of consequences that quickly created a sort of snowball effect (if you remove that element, these other two need to be moved, another has to be replaced, etc. etc.). I agree that some of the resulting gestures may make a lot of sense on paper, or even after a certain period of acclimatisation with the device; but the whole picture, from a usability standpoint, feels arbitrary and forced by a self-imposed design constraint.

There was nothing wrong with how the Home button worked. There is nothing strange or weird in the fact that a Multi-touch device also relies on a button outside the display to interact with the interface. In fact, it is done to get out of the UI’s way. The removal of the Home button isn’t a bold move like removing the floppy drive from the first iMac, or getting rid of a particular connection (SCSI) to make room for a better one (USB, FireWire). It’s more like the removal of the 3.5mm headphone jack. That it was made ‘for the better’, is debatable, and not as clear-cut as removing a specific technology to push another that is provably, unquestionably better. Like with the removal of the headphone jack, Apple seems more interested in removing what they perceive as obstacles on their own design path, rather than solving particular problems users may face, or taking steps to demonstrably improve the user experience.

The progressive fragmentation of iOS

John Gruber:

Apple hasn’t called attention to this, but effectively there are two versions of iOS 11 — I’ll call them “iOS 11 X”, which runs only on iPhone X, and “iOS 11 Classic”, which runs on everything else.

I like this nomenclature, but it’s slightly more complicated than that:

  • There’s ‘iOS 11 X’, which runs on the iPhone X.
  • There’s ‘iOS 11 Classic’, which runs on the other iPhones, from the 5s to the 8 Plus.
  • And there’s ‘iOS 11 for iPad’, which runs on all supported iPads.

I make this distinction because there are a series of gestures that are unique to the iPad, that tie to specific iPad features not present on current iPhones.

I keep quoting Gruber’s piece because it is insightful. Like me, like others, Gruber too perceives this ‘fragmentation’, but if I understood his point of view, he thinks it’s essentially a temporary bump, a necessary transitional step in the constant, iterative evolution of iOS:

What we’re left with, though, is truly a unique situation. Apple is attempting to move away from iOS’s historical interface one device at a time. Just the iPhone X this year. Maybe a few iPhone models next year. iPad Pros soon, too? But next thing you know, all new iOS devices will be using this, and within a few years after that, most iPhones in active use will be using it — without ever once having a single dramatic (or if you prefer, traumatic) platform-wide change.

This is true, but my impression is that the picture Gruber is painting here is a bit too optimistic. Sure, if you upgrade to an iPhone X or to another future device running ‘iOS 11 X’, you’ll have to retrain and adapt to the new gestures and whatever this flavour of iOS brings and will bring with it. That won’t be too ‘traumatic’ because you will leave your old iPhone behind, along with its Home button and ‘iOS 11 Classic’ paradigms. But if you also have an iPad, with its Home button and ‘iOS 11 for iPad’ paradigms, the differences between the two flavours of iOS will remain apparent every time you go from a device to another.

I’m sure the next step for Apple is to introduce Face ID in other iOS devices. Probably in the very next iPad. But the upgrade cycle for iPads is notoriously slow — if I’m still finding an old third-generation iPad useful today, imagine those people who just purchased a 10.5-inch iPad Pro. It’s quite probable that there will be people using ‘iOS 11 X’ and ‘iOS 11 for iPad’ devices for a long while.

The current fragmentation of the iOS platform, in my opinion, can’t be resolved in software. As Gruber himself pointed out:

And some aspects of the iPhone X experience wouldn’t work on older devices. You could in theory swipe up from the bottom to go home on a non-X iPhone, but you couldn’t swipe-up-from-the-bottom to unlock the lock screen, because that requires Face ID. Conversely, there is no room in the iPhone X experience for Touch ID. There is no “rest your finger here” in the experience. It wouldn’t matter if the fingerprint scanner were at the bottom of the display or on the back of the device — it would be incongruous.

Only by progressively introducing new hardware that works like the iPhone X can the process of reunification, of ‘defragmentation’ of the platform begin. But at the software level, things are bound to remain different, at least between iPads and iPhones.

For example, Apple may introduce a new iPad (Pro) X, with a thin bezel and without a Home button, accentuating the ‘all screen’ feel, looking like a big iPhone X. I don’t even want to start thinking of the handling issues of a bezel-less tablet, let’s just focus on the UI gestures. One quickly realises that not all iPhone X gestures can be scaled and ported ‘as is’ on this theoretical iPad X. Certainly Notification Centre and Control Centre won’t retain the same specific gestures we now find on the iPhone X (swiping down from the top left or top right on a device as big as an iPad, which is also often used in landscape orientation, makes no sense). But it will be interesting to see how the gestures tightly related to navigating Home and to multitasking will be implemented, considering the current gestures revolving around the Dock.

The transition will be over when all Home-button, Touch ID-based iOS devices are phased out, and this may not take long at Apple’s end; but again, when you look at how frequently most non-geek users upgrade their iPhones and iPads, this transition will effectively take years.

Mind you, I’m not finding all of this problematic, strictly speaking. I realise a lot of issues here concern me mostly at a theoretical UI/UX level. But I’m finding a lot of this, well, largely unnecessary.

Back to the iPhone X

And so I return to the iPhone X. I understand how Face ID may be the next step, the ‘future’ of authentication. I understand how innovative it is compared to Touch ID. But what kind of problem does removing the Home button really solve? For now, what I see is just that its removal has triggered a series of new user interface and user interaction problems, popping up in a sort of ‘falling dominoes’ effect. The new gestures that had to be designed as a replacement feel like a hastily executed workaround.

Gruber writes: The iPhone X, however, creates a schism, akin to a reboot of the franchise. And later, after asking, Why not bring more of what’s different on iPhone X to the other iPhones running iOS 11?, he concludes I think they didn’t because they wanted a clean break, a clear division between the old and the new, the familiar and the novel.

It’s my understanding as well. But I guess that my fundamental question is, Why creating this schism in the first place? I don’t believe it was necessary. This could have been a smoother transition if Apple hadn’t removed the Home button and had introduced a transitional iPhone with Face ID and with the Home button. But it all stems from the need to introduce something ‘fresh’, from the ‘fear of missing out’ — since the competition’s new thing is reducing smartphone bezels as much as possible, let’s jump on the bezel-less wagon too. And if that implies making design compromises and remapping the UI in awkward ways, well, we’ll deal with it later.

I have resisted bringing up Jobs’s Apple until now, but my impression is that, under Jobs, Apple was more daring in its general attitude and less prone to peer pressure. There was more action and less reaction. Apple (Jobs) seemed more focused on doing its thing and the ‘fear of missing out’ was not really a concern. How others designed and manufactured their computers and devices was not really a concern. Apple’s concerns were to develop its own designs, aimed at providing customers with the best products possible. That encompassed the design of the hardware and the software. Apple, following Jobs’s philosophy, was clearly selective when it came to saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a design solution, to an idea for a product or feature. That’s what Think Different was all about.

On the surface, today’s Apple hasn’t really changed. The principles are essentially the same, but I also notice a sort of ‘me too’ attitude which, if I were talking about a person, I would ascribe to insecurity and even performance anxiety. I’ve noticed a shift where, instead of focusing on a selected range of products and markets, Apple seems more interested in ‘being everywhere’ first, and ‘let’s figure out how’ later. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just how you stay on top today in this frenetic technological landscape, but again, this ‘fear of missing out’, pushing Apple to develop products like the HomePod, to invest lots of resources in car-related projects, to dabble in the production of original television content, etc. — this ‘fear of missing out’ is forcing Apple to create and maintain several software platforms, to neglect products for years (even relatively successful ones like the Mac mini), to spread their resources thin.

Say hello to the future” — I will when I see it

With the iPod, there was never a defining slogan, but when talking about it Steve Jobs was certain it would revolutionise the way people listen to music, and that’s exactly what happened. When now I read that the iPhone X is ‘the future of the smartphone’ or that ‘the future is here’, it just rings hollow. Why is it the future of the smartphone? The only feature that feels mildly futuristic is Face ID. As for the rest, what about it? It has very good specifications, very good cameras, a very good display… But I don’t understand what the big deal is, essentially. iPhone X users will probably say that the device is more than just the sum of its parts; that it’s the overall experience that ultimately makes the difference. But I still don’t see what makes the experience on this device truly stand out compared with, say, an iPhone 8. Face ID and ARKit allow for cool effects and implementations, I definitely agree. But the processor in the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus is the same, so you can enjoy ARKit-based applications on those iPhones, too. The iPhone X’s cameras are a bit better, but not fantastically better.

It must be how it looks, then. The immersive AMOLED screen; the shifting between active apps like with a deck of cards; the seamless, (almost) friction-less Face ID authentication; Animoji; the industrial design (which I wouldn’t call radical[ly] new, as Rene Ritchie does), and how you feel the iPhone X in the hand.

Is that it? Have I missed something? I don’t think it’s enough future to have in my pocket for 1,200–1,300 euros.

To me, the future of the smartphone is a device with unique applications enabling me to do things I’d never thought I’d be doing with a smartphone — or any other device, for that matter. I can’t make examples, it’s the classic case of I’ll know it when I see it, but I can recall having felt this way with my first iPhone, the 3G, back in 2008. The idea of using just one pocketable device to browse the Web decently while out and about; writing emails with ease on the fly; being able to find my way in places I’d never been before thanks to Google Maps; having an abundance of information, in real time, any place I was with cellular reception — that whole experience felt really revolutionary to me. Ten years ago I felt I was ‘living in the future’. Now I feel I’m living in pretty much the same future, only with retina displays, better cameras, and faster processors.

After handling the iPhone X for a while, I returned to my old iPhone 5 with iOS 10, and oddly I didn’t feel I was missing out that much, apart from the superficial differences. I didn’t feel the thrill of having the future of the smartphone in my hands slip away. The overall experience was like having been handed a cool, aimed-to-please, but overpriced product with a slightly awkward UI and an unapologetically compromised design.

I’m fully aware that my opinion reflects the fact that I don’t own an iPhone X, that I only had a reduced exposure to it compared to those who own it, use it every day, and enjoy the hell out of it, joie de vivre and everything. But that’s kind of the point — in the examples I made at the beginning, all the Apple products I listed truly wowed me from afar. I didn’t have to ‘spend some time’ or ‘get accustomed’ with a MacBook Air, with an iMac G4, a Newton MessagePad, or with an iPhone 4 to know I wanted one right away. That kind of magic, of thrill, has yet to return for me.

In memoriam

Et Cetera

Giuliano Mori, 1943–2017

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On 24 November 2017, I was crossing the street near my place when my iPhone rang. When I saw it was my mum, calling directly my Spanish phone number and at an unscheduled time of day, my heart skipped a beat. That meant Bad News almost certainly. She asked where I was, and if I could drop everything and come as soon as possible. Your father has been rushed to the hospital. He’s in a coma and in the ICU now.

The brief phone call left me in a sort of drunken daze. Shocked, stunned, powerless. Because it wasn’t easy to ‘come as soon as possible’, given that my identity card had expired in August, and that I had to take a plane and one or two trains and a car ride before I could reach my mother. During the call, I had enough presence of mind to explain her that I would call the Italian Consulate in Spain and request they renew my ID immediately (I had already sent the necessary request papers back in May, but bureaucracy was slowing down things as usual), but that there were things out of my control. I’ll come as fast as I can, but even if all goes well I can’t be there before Monday 27.

But the emergency dissipated quickly. The day after, my mother called again. I spoke with the doctors earlier. They said he’s basically brain-dead.

Dad was gone. Just like that. A devastating brain haemorrhage. Just like that. He wasn’t in great health. He was suffering from heart and blood issues. His heart, in recent times, had entered a constant state of fibrillation and was accelerated even when resting. His cardiologist had told him he still had a few years, but not many, considering all the other circulatory issues. Yet his passing felt sudden and untimely.

After a month, after the funeral, the condolences, after seeing him in a coffin, I’m still in a sort of denial. That shock that makes you wonder, Is he really gone? It can’t be.

 


 

I loved my dad so much. We’ve always had a great relationship, especially thanks to a true similarity of character. We had the same sense of humour. We were often on the same wavelength. Of course we had our differences, but this happened mostly when I was in my twenties, when it was clear that my life was going in a different direction than the one my parents and grandparents wished. When he saw that I was able to sustain myself through my freelancing work, he was proud of me.

My dad was a very good person. I’m not saying this because it’s my dad or because it’s bad form to speak ill of the dead. He was really a very good person. The kind who teaches you to be another good person simply by example. He never lifted a finger on me. He never ‘beat the reason out of me’. Even when he was not pleased with me, he always explained why.

I was practically raised by my mother’s parents, because my parents both worked at very different times of day, and they couldn’t afford a nanny to look after me while they were at work. So I stayed with my grandparents from Monday to Friday, then went home on the weekends and during the holidays. This until I was about 15 years old. My grandfather was authoritarian, the kind of hardened man who told you Do as I say because I say so, and Trust me, because I’m always right. He was also moody and prone to fits of anger (this was caused by the constant quarrels with my grandmother), and the only tolerable moments were when he was in a good mood. I’m not painting a great picture of him, I reckon, and luckily he wasn’t physically abusive as often as you’d think. But he was a difficult person to live with. He could be unreasonable and demanding. He was the kind of person that would force positive values (like being a tidy person and take care of your things) by threatening to slap you if you didn’t do as he said. And the truly frustrating aspect of all this, which annoyed me deeply even when I was little, was that my grandfather never explained why his way was the right way. I had to ‘trust him’.

My dad was the polar opposite. The result was that, while my granddad never really gained my trust or respect, my dad did, with ease. While my granddad was raising me by doing exactly what his father did with him, my dad — who had an equally terrible father — learnt from his father’s mistakes and acted very very differently.

He had a natural intellectual curiosity, and was very eager to learn new things. Like many people of his generation, he started working very young (at 13), and was forced to interrupt his studies. But he later managed to finish the compulsory education by going to evening classes. He always tried to better himself, to expand his knowledge, to take care of himself by keeping in shape; life had given him very little, and he fought for everything he then managed to achieve. He was an example of resilience. He never said to me, Do as I say, but rather showed me that if I did a certain thing, or approached something with a certain attitude, I could achieve the desired result because — he said — I’ve been there, and done that. Maybe it won’t work in your situation, but it doesn’t hurt to try.

He was a maker, he was great with tools: carpentry, plumbing, electricity… you name it. He was also a good mechanic, having spent 20 years in a car repair shop, and a few years as an autocross driver. But he was also a quick learner when he took a desk job as archivist in a factory where they built industrial electrical transformers. He always maintained an open mind, in every situation, and that was what allowed him to develop a natural instinct and sensibility for many subjects that were technically outside his expertise. He was able to think like a designer and an engineer without having studied to become either. And the passion for building and learning never left him. At 55, almost he alone renovated the house my parents bought in Northern Tuscany. At 72, he decided to upgrade his dumbphone and get a smartphone. (I still smile when I remember what he told me: Sorry it’s an Android phone. I know Apple is better, but an iPhone was out of my budget…). I thought I would have to show him how to do a lot of things with that big Huawei phone, but he became proficient at an incredible speed.

In a way, if I had to sum up the big lesson he taught me, it would be something like Steve Jobs’s Stay hungry, stay foolish. And keep an open mind, always.

My dad was my superhero. Since my relocation in Spain more than 12 years ago, we only spent about a month and a half together every year, but even with the physical distance between us, I always felt protected, if you know what I mean. I always felt I could reach out for advice, or just for joking and laughing at the same jokes. He was my superhero, and now he’s gone, and I can’t believe it. You know when they say that a part of you dies, too? It’s true. When they say you’re never ready for this kind of loss? It’s true. Even when you imagine how much it might hurt, when it really happens it hurts at least a hundred times more.

My dad is nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Every time I come across a photo of him, I bleed tears. It’s excruciating.

I’ll always miss him. Always love him. I hope there’s an afterlife, because he definitely deserves one.

 


 

Apologies for the lack of recent updates here. Lately I haven’t really felt like talking about technology, or other topics that usually interest me; now you know why.

A few days with Windows Phone 8.1 and a Nokia Lumia 925

Tech Life

Nokia Lumia 925

I misjudged Microsoft. When they presented Windows Phone 7 in 2010, my mind was elsewhere. And when it wasn’t elsewhere, it was prejudiced. As Joe Belfiore showcased the Metro UI and apps, I thought it was fairly interesting, but superficially I just saw it as a mere derivation of the Zune UI, and found hard to believe it could withstand the weight and scope of an entire mobile operating system. I also remember thinking It’s Microsoft: this thing will also be counterintuitive and unreliable. In my defence, my scepticism was mostly informed by the terrible, terrible experience I previously had with Windows Mobile 6.x on an old Samsung smartphone (which my wife had given me to play with after upgrading to an Android phone). Windows Mobile 6 on that phone felt like using a miniature Windows 98 or XP on a 3.5-inch display with a toothpick-sized stylus. To say it was awkward is the greatest understatement.

Recently, and unlike with new Apple products introduced in the past, the whole debate around the iPhone X was leaving me utterly exhausted. I tried to go back to this little project I’m slowly putting together, a short book containing observations on the evolution of iOS’s user interface, but in the end I felt like trying something completely different. So an idea came to me: let’s take a belated look at Windows Phone, provided I can find a suitable device without spending too much money. I asked around, and shortly after a kind soul was sending me a well-used Nokia Lumia 925 basically for the price of shipping.

A brief aside, before proceeding further: this piece doesn’t want to be a comprehensive review of Windows Phone 8.1, nor does it intend to serve as a guide to the operating system. For that, among other resources, Matt Gemmell did a great job with his article from 2015 titled Windows Phone. If you want to have an idea of what it’s like to set up a Windows Phone device and perform a first exploration through its main features and first-party apps, do check Gemmell’s guide, filled with clear explanations and an abundance of screenshots. In this article, I’m merely offering a series of observations and impressions I had while discovering what is an entirely new place for me, and in the process I’ll share a few screenshots of things and details that surprised me in a positive way.

My current Start screen
… scrolling …
My current Start screen (cont'd)

 

Let’s go on then. When the Lumia 925 arrived, I was instantly impressed by how good it felt in the hand. It’s slightly wider, slightly thinner than my iPhone 5; the feel is different, the way you handle the two phones is different, the hardware buttons are positioned differently, but you quickly find your way around it. The Lumia 925 feels both light and solidly built. It has a polycarbonate back like many other Lumias, but the phone is encased in a rounded aluminium frame that gives it a more ‘flagship’ feel. I’m also glad to have received a model with an AMOLED screen rather than LCD because I was curious to see the difference between this display and my iPhone’s. The Lumia 925’s display is very nice and bright, more readable than the iPhone’s in direct sunlight. Like with many displays of this type, colours do pop and are vivid, but not as sickeningly saturated as I’ve seen on some Samsung phones.

Also of interest is that the Lumia 925 and the iPhone 5 are of similar vintage and have comparable specs. The iPhone 5 was introduced in September 2012 and discontinued in September 2013, while the Lumia 925 was introduced in June 2013 and discontinued two years later. The iPhone 5 has a dual-core 1.3 GHz Apple A6 CPU; the Lumia 925 has a 1.5 GHz dual-core Qualcomm Krait CPU. Both phones have 1 GB of RAM. The Lumia 925 display is bigger — 4.5 inch with a resolution of 768×1280 pixels (15:9 aspect ratio); the iPhone 5 display is 4-inch with a resolution of 640×1136 pixels. Pixel density is slightly higher on the Lumia — 334 ppi versus the iPhone’s 326 ppi. The Lumia’s main camera is 8.7 megapixels. The iPhone’s is 8 megapixels.

The Lumia 925 appears to have come with a stock version of Windows Phone 8 preinstalled, which immediately auto-updated to 8.1 as soon as I connected the phone to my home WiFi network. As far as I can tell, the process was fast and straightforward. What happened next, I honestly did not anticipate.

As soon as I started exploring the OS, the initial impression was much, much more positive than I expected. Everything was fluid, smooth, responsive. Scrolling, swiping, jumping in and out of apps… The whole phone felt, well, newer than a 4-year old device. I had previously carried out a similar experiment, trying out a Sony Xperia phone with Android Ice Cream Sandwich to have a better understanding of the Android platform. And now that I’ve experienced Windows Phone as well, I can say that, while Android’s user interface strikes me as being fairly derivative of iOS’s in many aspects, Windows Phone’s UI feels fresher, more original, from the very start. Matt Gemmell sums it up nicely:

The interface of Windows Phone is clean, high-contrast, readable, and uses large text and flat colours throughout. There’s almost no embellishment at all, instead providing information spaces rather than discrete screens or objects.

The aesthetic really speaks to me. It’s easy on the eyes, and very sci-fi.

It also uses animations and transitions sparsely, and that’s another good thing in my book.

And mind you, the Windows Phone interface doesn’t look original simply for the sake of it. Just like rounded rectangles are Apple’s trademark shape, Microsoft here makes the square tile the foundation of the visual language of Windows Phone’s UI. Tiles, squares, sharp rectangles are everywhere, from the Start screen, to the icons, to certain controls, to the shape of the keys in the virtual keyboard. Even the transition when opening an app, with all the UI elements shifting in position, looks like a tile floor that is summoned beneath your feet as you step forward. And I like how this even ties to the Microsoft logo — basically made up of four tiles itself — which is also the Start button.

Here are some examples:

Tiles applist

On the left, you can see a screenshot of the app list view. You enter this view by swiping left on the Start screen (or by tapping on the right arrow that appears at the bottom of the Start screen), and this is where you actually see and access all the apps you’ve installed. The tiles on the Start screen are essentially shortcuts (aliases for you, long-time Mac users) to the apps you typically access most frequently. If you have a lot of apps, it can be tedious having to scroll down all the way if you want to launch, say, an app whose name starts with ‘W’ (like Weather). The quicker way is to tap any group-heading letter, and you’ll be presented with the screen on the right, where you can jump to any desired section. It’s really faster to carry out than to explain, really, and in some cases it’s even faster than swiping five app screens on the iPhone to reach the desired app. As you can see, tiles everywhere.

Tiles are also present in apps like Music and Store, where they act as tappable category labels:

Tiles in apps

 

Other examples:

Tiles alarm keyboard

On the left: setting an alarm. On the right: the virtual keyboard. The tile metaphor again.

You can see much more examples by scrolling through the already mentioned Windows Phone article by Matt Gemmell. You’ll see tiles and squares everywhere throughout the system.

As you can see, this is beyond flat design — it’s positively 2D. There isn’t even a hint at a drop shadow. All these angular shapes, big typography, high-contrast elements, bright flat colours, instantly reminded me of many film title sequences designed by Saul Bass — and that’s perhaps one of the reasons I immediately liked Windows Phone’s UI. But it’s not just that. It’s the consistence, the rigorousness. At first glance, it looks as if Windows Phone had a simpler set of human interface guidelines than iOS, but, by sticking to it without deviations or concessions, it has resulted in a more coherent, predictable interface. Predictable is good, because once you familiarise with the position of the main interface elements system-wide, you’ll know what to do and where to tap in whatever app you’re in. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly I was able to pick up gestures and navigation.

While some find it off-putting, another aspect of the interface I like so much is the emphasis given to text and typography. This is where the ‘transit system information’ aesthetic joins the tile element in being foundational in the UI (it was originally called ‘Metro’, after all). The main goal of Windows Phone’s user interface is to provide clear information and clear visual cues above everything else. Icons, where present, are essential, stylised like street signage or information panels you find in public places.

Clear labels in OneDrive

But what if, as it sometimes happens with apps, some icons are a bit obscure or ambiguous? (See, for example, the OneDrive app above.) No problem, because as you invoke additional menus by tapping on the three dots in the bottom right of the screen, explanatory labels always appear under every icon. You always know what a round button does.

By the way, one detail that strikes me about the OneDrive interface is how the invisible grid design of the elements creates a self-sustaining architecture in the page’s white space. The big tiles suggest the grid, as does the clean placement of labels and item names; there’s no line separating the bottom bar (navbar) from the rest, but your eye uses the 3-dot handle as a reference point, and that’s enough to suggest where the main page ends and the navbar begins. When you tap the handle, the expanding section is revealed as a thin, icy layer overlapping the page.

Using the Nokia HERE suite of navigation and transit apps is fun, and it’s perhaps the best example of the use of colours and typography. Here’s an example of detailed directions in the HERE Transit app:

HERE Transit directions

The big text headers are tabs, so you can tap them and see the next travel solution. The colours match the actual colour code of the Metro lines here in Valencia. I find information displayed this way to be very readable, immediate, and cool. (I chose a dark theme for my phone. If you prefer a light theme, the background will be white and the text dark, of course.)

I also love the use of typography in the Dictionary app by Flow Simulation. This is an example of a third-party app that gets the spirit of the 2D and typographic ingredients of the user interface in Windows Phone 8.1:

Dictionary

The main interface, on the left, shows a sort of ‘word cloud’ that isn’t just ornamental — each term is tappable and you get the definition. If you start a search in the traditional way (on the right), words start appearing below as you type. Nothing earth-shattering, sure, but I really like the effect. It’s a nice app, fun to use.

 

Another simple, yet surprisingly effective interface element in Windows Phone is the accent colour. It is used to give the whole system a dominant colour of your choice, but it also highlights specific elements of interest and indicates an ‘active’ state wherever present: if you see the accent colour on a switch, it means it’s active. On text, it could mean that the highlighted word or words are tappable and do something (like Read more in an app description in the Windows Phone Store); or, in the case of the email client, that a message is unread.

Here are the start+theme settings, and the picker for the accent colour. Tiles, again:

Accent colour

 

A matter of apps

Every time you bring up Windows Phone, the song remains the same: its failure was 1) the lack of apps in general and good-quality apps in particular; 2) the consequent vicious circle where people lose interest in the platform because ‘there are no apps’, and developers are not incentivised to write apps if there are so few people interested in the platform; and 3) some strategic choices on Microsoft’s part that didn’t help much in making the platform more widespread, and alienated many in the already small user base — especially in the transition from Windows Phone 8.1 to Windows 10 Mobile (at least, it’s what I’ve been told by other Windows Phone users).

Some people warned me about this when I announced my intention to take a dive into Windows Phone 8.1, but I must say that what I found wasn’t exactly the ghost town I was led to expect. I was prepared to the mess that was the webOS App Catalog when I got my Palm Pre 2 (just a few months before HP destroyed everything) and while it’s true that compared to iOS or Android, the choice of decent apps in Windows Phone is limited, my experience was pretty much the same as Matt Gemmell’s — and I’m writing this two years and a half later. His remark:

The Windows Store certainly has far fewer apps and games than either the iOS App Store or the Google Play Store on Android, but in terms of the apps I use every day, I actually didn’t find many notable omissions.

I haven’t either, and thankfully what I found still works (unlike on webOS). You have to explore a bit, read the reviews (which I found refreshingly articulate and helpful), and sometimes just try an app and see for yourself. My rule of thumb — if an app has a crappy icon, it’s very likely a crappy app — proved to be right most of the times. The flip side is that I did find mediocre apps with nice icons. But all in all, I can’t complain. At the moment I have about a hundred working apps installed in total, which is not bad at all. I’ve found good photo editing apps, good camera apps, clients for my cloud services of choice (Dropbox, Box, and now I also have a bit of space on OneDrive), the official Telegram client, the official Twitter client (spartan but functional), a great Instagram client (6tag), podcast apps, weather apps, dictionaries, news apps, unit converters, ebook readers, even a minimal Instapaper reader and a Simplenote client, a great YouTube client (Tubecast), PDF readers, barcode scanners, VLC for playing videos, and so forth. I’m not really a gamer, so I can’t say anything meaningful in this regard.

Ultimately I feel I ended up with a system configured with just the essentials, but a functioning system nonetheless, and that works just fine for me. Yes, because — and this is what truly left me astounded — I could definitely use this phone with Windows Phone 8.1 as my primary device should something happen to my iPhone. There are a few minor things I’d miss, no doubt, but nothing absolutely crucial.

(The funny thing is, a lot of people crave choice in an app ecosystem, but since we’re creatures of habit, in the end we keep using the same subset of smartphone apps for 90% of our daily activity. On my iPhone I have 150 or so apps installed, but in terms of apps I use heavily or extensively every day, I’m guessing they’re not more than a dozen. Having 30 different photo apps is cool, but when you keep using the same four or five, while the other 25 are on the device ‘just in case’ or because there’s one that gets occasionally used for a particular filter which works very well only with specific subjects, well, in the end it’s not so different from having six photo apps installed. Sure, maybe having just six apps is more boring. People bore easily, too.)

Other miscellaneous bits, and things I especially like about Windows Phone 8.1

  • Emoji suggestions to replace words was already a feature in Windows Phone 8.1 before arriving on iOS.
  • Tap to wake, too.
  • The Notifications + Quick Actions screen (Action Centre): In Windows Phone 8.1 you have Action Centre, which, from an iPhone user’s point of view, can be considered a merge of Notification Centre and Control Centre. You access it by swiping down from the top of the screen. And while it isn’t as feature-rich as the combination of those two in iOS, it’s faster to access, and its Quick Actions are customisable:

     

    Action Centre

     

    On the left: Action Centre. In the top area you have quick access to a set of controls, just like iOS’s Control Centre. These are the default four, but you can customise them by picking from the selection shown (partially) on the right. What I also like is that from Action Centre you have direct access to All Settings. Below the Quick Actions area is where notifications will appear (a new email, in this example).

  • The Camera app supports ‘lenses’, allowing third parties to skin and add features to camera interface. This was implemented in Windows Phone 8.0 (2012), two years earlier than Extensibility, a similar feature introduced in iOS 8 that allows filters and effects from third-party apps to be accessed directly from within a menu in the standard Photos app, rather than having to import and export photos through each respective app to apply effects. (Source: Wikipedia)
  • I’m pleasantly surprised that Windows Phone apps appear to weigh much less than on iOS/Android. Dropbox is 13 MB, for example, and a lot of the apps I’ve installed so far weighed on average 2 to 8 MB. I realise that, once downloaded, the apps get unzipped and end up taking a bit more space than the nominal download size, but they’re still more lightweight and less bloated than on iOS or Android. The proof is that, with the operating system and a hundred app installed, I still have 6.71 GB free on this 16 GB Lumia 925 (note that I also transferred 1.7 GB of music on the phone). A 16 GB smartphone running Windows Phone 8.1 is therefore more usable than a 16 GB iPhone, as far as software bloat goes.
  • There are free trials for paid apps in the Windows Phone Store. The implementation is seamless. Usually, during the free trial, an app will have only a limited set of working features, and/or it may display advertisements, but at least you can have an idea of the experience that is not limited to a bunch of static screenshots.
  • The ability to easily add a word to the phone’s dictionary (and therefore to the predictive keyboard).
  • Speaking of the keyboard — I never understood how people could claim to type faster by just swiping on the keys without lifting their fingers. I tried third-party keyboards on the iPhone with this feature, but I’ve never been able to type fast this way — I was actually slower and making a lot more mistakes compared with typing in a traditional fashion. But the Word Flow keyboard on a Windows Phone 8.1 smartphone is another thing entirely. I don’t know if it’s the physical shape of the smartphone I’m using, if it’s the keys that are taller than on the iPhone, or their shape, but after a few attempts I noticed that it’s quite effective and I really can type fast. Maybe not actually faster than typing the usual way, but certainly faster than using a third-party keyboard on the iPhone.
  • I really like the ability to customise the Home screen (or rather, Start screen) with tiles and live tiles. I find this approach much more useful than what iOS offers (Android has widgets at least). Not only can I choose which of my most-used apps to put there, but 1) I can decide to have bigger tiles for the things I need to access most quickly (bigger tiles means bigger buttons to tap); 2) Apps featuring Live tiles can provide additional, real-time information on the screen without even having to launch them (e.g. Weather, News headlines, RSS feeds headlines…); 3) I find satisfying to be able to change the layout however and whenever I see fit, rearranging tiles to my taste and needs. An acquaintance still using a Windows Phone device told me that he has arranged his Start screen tiles ‘ergonomically’, i.e. in a way that the most used apps are all represented by 1×1 tiles he can reach without moving his thumb after unlocking the phone. You may object that this little game gets old soon. I can respond by saying that iOS’s Home screen has been essentially the same since 2007.
  • I like that I still haven’t found a UI element that is too tiny to tap accurately. I have small fingertips, yet I’ve always had trouble tapping the little ‘x’ button to clear up notifications under iOS. No such problems on Windows Phone 8.1 so far.

Conclusion

My Windows Phone 8.1 experience on this Nokia Lumia 925 has been a complete surprise. I went in rather ‘blind’, not knowing exactly what to expect, but at the same time with a baggage of scepticism and prejudice because it was something made by Microsoft, and I’m a long-time Mac user from the Jobsian school of thought (“Microsoft has no taste”). And boy, was I so wrong.

I’m going to quote Matt Gemmell one more time, because his experience closely resembles mine:

Windows Phone is a compelling and surprisingly mature mobile platform. Its aesthetics are bold and information-focused, and it has all the functionality that a truly modern mobile OS needs. I’m very comfortable when taking a Windows Phone device out with me instead of an iPhone.

There are little differences that require some mental adjustment, and there are some rough edges. There are idiosyncrasies, as with anything — but on the whole, I really could switch full-time. I didn’t expect to be able to say that.

Maybe I’m just used to iOS, rather than bored with it. Maybe I don’t need the customisation and personalisation of my Live Tiles. Maybe Apple will finally do something with the stale, static Home screen in iOS 9 [They did not.]. I’ll certainly be watching, and I’m not throwing my iPhone away.

What I’ve learned, though, is that there are absolutely other viable options — including one from Microsoft. It’s not corporate, or jargon-filled, or business-centric. It’s not cluelessly enterprise-focused, to the exclusion of regular users.

What it is, though, is a boldly different yet mature and capable mobile platform, with an aesthetic that I find exciting, and an obsessive dedication to presenting information cleanly to the user.

Perhaps my experience was very positive also because I got the right hardware (this Lumia 925 has solid specs compared to cheaper Lumia models) — but still, no complaints. I expected I’d be fiddling with the new toy for a couple of days or so, then put it aside, but I keep returning to it. These days I’ve been carrying both my iPhone 5 with iOS 10 and this Lumia with Windows Phone 8.1, and one of the things that kept amazing me was how smoothly everything worked on the Lumia. Nothing stopped working unexpectedly. The OS never froze, got sluggish, or displayed strange or unexpected behaviour. I don’t know how multitasking works in Windows Phone 8.1 at the technical level, but assuming that apps and processes are frozen like on iOS, then I can say multitasking on Windows Phone 8.1 appears to work well.

The Lumia 925 never stopped being responsive under heavy load or with many apps open (CPU-intensive tasks made it noticeably warm, however). More importantly, Windows Phone 8.1 and the Lumia overall felt snappier and smoother than iOS 10 and the iPhone 5, especially when transitioning from an app to another, and when typing on the virtual keyboard. There are moments on the iPhone when the lag during typing becomes apparent, even annoying. In Windows Phone 8.1 with the Lumia 925, the keyboard kept up all the time without exception. This assessment may be a bit unfair towards the iPhone — in the end, it’s running iOS 10, a much updated version of the OS it originally shipped with (iOS 6), while the Lumia 925 shipped with Windows Phone 8.0 and can’t be upgraded past 8.1, so the hardware/software integration is tighter. If I could make a test with an iPhone 5 running iOS 6, it would probably be just as responsive. On the other hand, I must say that Windows Phone 8.1 hasn’t aged that badly and it’s certainly more viable than using an iPhone with iOS 6 today.

To be honest, I thought the experience with the Lumia and Windows Phone 8.1 would turn out to be like other tests with vintage hardware and software from other platforms (Android, webOS): a fascinating study of the user interface, but ultimately something I couldn’t be comfortable using day to day. I thought the amount of working apps would be limited, like on webOS. I thought I would have had to babysit background processes and watch out for stuck apps draining the battery, like it happened with Android when I tried out that 2011 Sony Xperia with Ice Cream Sandwich. Nothing of the sort. This Windows Phone setup and the Lumia 925 are definitely going to become my secondary/backup phone — at least until apps and services stop working or get abandoned.

Now that I’ve used (and own) iOS, Android, webOS, and finally Windows Phone devices, I think it’s really sad that today it’s just iOS vs Android, basically. The real pity is that, UI-wise, the ‘loser’ platforms are, in many aspects, more innovative, creative, daring, and in most cases more consistent than the two giants.

I was prejudiced, and underestimated Microsoft’s efforts when they introduced Windows Phone 7 and the following versions. After giving it a fair try and extended use, I’ll say that Microsoft has done a great job with the UI. My experience has been enjoyable and satisfactory, and I didn’t see that coming. Maybe if fewer people in tech hadn’t been equally prejudiced and sceptical, things could have taken a different turn and Windows Phone could have been a more successful platform overall.

The next mini

Tech Life

Next mini

Prompted by a MacRumors reader on the future of the Mac mini, Tim Cook replied that the mini will be “an important part of the company’s product lineup in the future.” Remember the mini? It was last updated in October 2014, which in tech years is a long time ago. That last refresh was a bit controversial, too, because the 2014 Mac mini was a step back in terms of upgradability and versatility when compared with its 2012 predecessor (take a look at this comparison review published by Macworld UK three years ago to have an idea of the differences).

It’s a true pity that Apple has been neglecting this Mac. I still think there’s a market for a compact, affordable Mac such as the mini, though I presume the dream of Apple’s current executives is that people would all choose an iPad over a Mac mini in that price range. I think Bob Burrough (who previously worked at Apple) has best articulated Apple’s lack of interest in the mini when he tweeted: In my opinion, the Mac mini is supremely damning, because the minimum effort is just updating the CPU, RAM, storage each year. They didn’t. Like how would they answer “Why didn’t you update the Mac mini?” “We’re undergoing a difficult and sophisticated redesign.” I don’t think so.

I don’t think so, either. Still, Cook says they’re not leaving the Mac mini behind. What’s next for this machine, then? I’ve been thinking about a few possible scenarios:

  1. The first scenario is the laziest: the mini basically maintains the same design and simply receives a speed bump with hopefully up-to-date, decent specifications. This could be ‘good enough’ from a pragmatic standpoint, but it would certainly create another round of criticism towards Apple (e.g., We waited more than three years to get a new mini that has the same design as the 2010 model, come on!).
  2. The mini gets worse. By worse, I’m thinking of a physically smaller machine, something resembling an Apple TV, available in two configurations — ‘underpowered’ and ‘okay’ — with soldered RAM, SSD, USB-C ports (2 or 3), and that’s it. ‘Worse’ is obviously subjective here. It would be for me, because I prefer expandable, versatile machines; but perhaps such a Mac might be a good option for people who just want something small and powerful enough on their desks.
  3. The mini gets better. I’m thinking of a sort of ‘poor man’s Mac Pro’, a rather expandable yet compact desktop Mac, something in the spirit of the Mac mini from 2011–2012 (or even of its glorious predecessor the Power Mac G4 Cube); a machine that would be cheaper than an iMac, but not much less powerful. It could be the choice for those who don’t want a big all-in-one computer, or have already a good standalone display. And when I say ‘poor man’s Mac Pro’, I mean it from a design standpoint, too. Just like the upcoming iMac Pro shares the same design as the iMac, the next Mac mini could have a similar design as the next Mac Pro, but in a more compact package, and with less power/expandability to avoid cannibalising Mac Pro sales.

I’m not sure which of these three options is the most likely. When it comes to the Mac, Apple has been getting increasingly inscrutable in recent years. The company so far seems particularly averse to expandable, serviceable machines, so scenario №2 could be what eventually materialises. I might even be okay with a locked-down Mac mini equipped with immutable internals, but in such case I think the smart move would be to make this new mini a truly affordable Mac, something like the iPad 5 in the iPad product line. An entry-level model at $329 and a more powerful model at $429 — I believe they could be appealing to a lot of people, especially non-pro users with a limited budget.

Of course, I’d love if something like scenario №3 could come true. Imagine a Mac Pro Mini that is a bit narrower and taller than the current mini, with a hot swappable drive bay, easy access to RAM slots (and RAM expandable to 32 GB), plus one PCI expansion slot, just to give it a bit of expandability. This kind of mini would command slightly higher prices than scenario №2 above, but I’d say that keeping the current price tags ($499, $699, and $999, with the $499 model offered without the expansion slot, for example) would be quite fair.

Who knows, maybe Apple will end up surprising everybody by introducing some unexpected feature or design. Maybe the next mini will be the first Mac sporting an ARM chip. Maybe it’ll be cheap and it will come in colours. Maybe it’ll have the array of sensors and cameras of the iPhone X and come with FaceID technology. But really, the Mac mini doesn’t necessarily have to be a playground for innovation. The basic formula is still a winner — a powerful-enough, general-purpose, truly affordable desktop Mac. It’s just waiting to be refreshed to be more up-to-date. There’s really no wheel to reinvent here, Apple.