→ Accessing Siri through text

Rene Ritchie suggests expanding Siri’s capabilities so that you can ask things using text instead of voice in situations where you can’t talk to your phone or it’s simply frowned upon. He writes:

No matter how enabling and useful Siri is, though, there will be times when it’s simply not possible or socially acceptable to talk out loud to our phones or tablets. In those situations, being able to type “Cupertino weather” or even “Text Georgia I’ll be late” would be incredibly useful.

While I think it’s useful to be able to edit your voice requests (maybe Siri interpreted your command correctly save for a name, for instance), I don’t understand the practicality of the examples Rene makes. If you’re in a situation where you cannot or should not talk to Siri, and have to physically interact with your iPhone anyway, isn’t it just quicker to check the weather directly or text Georgia directly, rather than text to Siri? I’m not against the idea, per se, I’m sure it can be handy in certain circumstances and with more complex commands [1], but for simple things like texting someone, sending a tweet, setting an alarm or reminder (again, when you can’t use voice input with Siri), I find that it’s just faster to do that by accessing the relevant apps directly.

 


  • 1. For example: At 2:45 PM, text Georgia I’ll be on my way. ↩︎

 

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Different expectations

A few days ago, I received an email from an acquaintance I had previously helped with minor computer-related issues. He’s in his forties, like me, but he’s not a geek or a ‘power user’. He’s just a regular person who had to learn to use computers at work, has become increasingly proficient over time, but has maintained — to use his words — a ‘pragmatic approach’ with technology and devices: he uses them to get stuff done and that’s it. He doesn’t obsess over platforms, apps, nerd stuff, etc. though he likes to keep moderately up-to-date with what’s happening in technology. Things move faster and faster in tech today — he writes — so it’s always useful to know what people around you talk about.

George (let’s call him George) wrote me essentially to vent his frustration after attempting to go iPad-only for everything he does — work and leisure. Now, he doesn’t paint a detailed picture of what exactly went wrong with his attempt (or ‘experiment’ as he calls it), but there are a few observations he makes in his email that I think are worth considering. Most importantly, I think it’s worth sharing his point of view because he’s not a tech geek, and because his attitude towards platforms and tools felt quite unbiased to me.

George’s idea to go iPad-only came to him because it was time to upgrade his MacBook Pro, and after reading many contributions from tech writers who have enthusiastically embraced the iOS-only, iPad-only route, he was wondering if perhaps he could do the same. From what I understand, George is a Mac user, has had experience with Windows PCs, has never used a tablet (apart from playing with various devices in stores or asking friends to let him try theirs), and owns an Android smartphone.

He purchased a 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and the first days of exploration — he writes — were exciting. Thanks to online reviews and friends’ recommendations, he quickly populated his new iPad with the essential productivity apps we all know about, plus some fun games and photo/video apps for entertainment. Soon, however, the frustration began, and I appreciate the candor of this first negative remark George wrote: From what I’d heard, I honestly thought iOS was smarter than that. Note that he’s not actually making comparisons here, he’s not saying that Android or Windows are better. If there’s a comparison, it’s not with products from the competition, but with Apple itself: Some things felt unnecessarily disjointed, sometimes I found hard to believe this [iOS] comes from the same people who made OS X.

He certainly appreciates how single apps work, and he agrees that his experience within various different apps was satisfactory, but what frustrated him most was integration, or lack thereof, and the unexpectedly meandering ways and workflows to accomplish tasks. I thought things would be more transparent and, I don’t know, simultaneous? Instead it all feels very much sequential, always in and out of apps. Open this app, then jump to this other app, then jump back to another. And yes, I know you can use split-view, it’s useful sometimes, but do you honestly think it’s intuitive? I loved the Mac back when I switched from Windows, because I could find my way around very easily. Sure, then you discover you can do a million things if you master the Terminal, and you discover ‘tips and tricks’ you never imagined. But the basics… I never needed to read a single page from a manual. While on the iPad I could do certain operations simply because I knew where to look.

Also, you’d think ‘normal people’ would be happy not to have to deal with a visible filesystem, but George thinks differently: I deal with all kinds of files all the time. On my [Mac] notebook, I just drag them wherever I need to, it’s all very direct, in front of you. On iOS, it feels like you’re constantly telling someone else to move and handle stuff for you, it’s like telling your car what to do (accelerate, turn here, go there) instead of just driving, you know what I mean? Tap, tap, tap, tap, it feels you’re jumping through hoops for things that take 1/4 of the time on the Mac.

By reading my articles, George knows I’m more or less on the same page, nonetheless makes a few defensive remarks that are worth sharing: Look, I know that work can be done on an iPad. There are people out there who managed to do just that. Maybe it’s a matter of patience and a matter of investing a certain amount of time, but I don’t understand the hype. I don’t get why this is supposed to be ‘the future’ or a better solution than the computer. I mean, I can learn to become efficient on the iPad more or less to the point where I am now with Macs and PCs… although there are certain things you’ll always do faster on the computer… but at the same time I wonder why I should bother. It’s not that I don’t like new things, but here we’re talking about working with something. And my impression is that to switch to iPad-only, I have to take three steps back in order to make one step forward, while I just can keep moving forward by staying on the Mac. I may be totally wrong, but it doesn’t really feel like ‘progress’, this re-learning of workflows to maybe one day be as efficient and productive as I already am now.

George, predictably, has returned his iPad. He told me that maybe he will get a more affordable model down the road and use it for more leisure than work — but now he has to get back to his plan of upgrading to a new MacBook Pro, and doesn’t have the budget for two new devices.

Maybe some tech-savvy people or iOS power users have been reading George’s observations and shaking their heads. I decided to bring his point of view to the foreground — with his permission, of course — to illustrate that some tech writers/journalists don’t really have a clue when they talk about ‘regular people’, and don’t realise just how much their perspective is altered by tunnel vision. Some of them don’t seem to get the simple fact that just because they achieved the ‘freedom’ of being able to do everything with just an iPad or an iPhone 6s Plus, it doesn’t mean everybody else can do the same (or feels the need to). Some of them don’t seem to get that not everybody is as enamored of technology as they are, that there are people out there who don’t spend hours rearranging the apps on their iPhones, because they don’t care and also because — as I’ve found out — some of them don’t know how to do that.

When you write entire paragraphs nitpicking certain UI choices of an iOS app, or discussing how some colour hues are less distracting and contribute to a more ‘delightful experience’, remember that there are people who miss certain fundamentals because of poor discoverability of certain features at the system level. Just this morning, while running an errand, I caught a conversation between university students on the bus: believe it or not, there was a girl who didn’t know what 3D Touch could do — and she had an iPhone 6s! Her friends were evidently showing her how to ‘pop’ and ‘peek’, because she kept saying something like It would have never occurred to me to try such a thing!

I thank George for sharing his thoughts with me, and letting me share them with you. It’s always refreshing to read feedback like his, to be reminded that before the same devices and user interfaces, there is a wider gamut of reactions and approaches than tech geeks and power users anticipate. Last December my dad, at the young age of 72, bought himself his first smartphone (some big-screen Huawei — he needed a big display to read things more comfortably, and needed a dual-SIM device) and in the past months I’ve listened to his observations as he was learning to use the smartphone. So many things you and me take for granted were a bit of a struggle for him, and it wasn’t really a matter of old age or inexperience. Some of his remarks were thoughtful and well articulated. For instance, one of the first things he told me was that when he explored new apps: I don’t understand what half of the pictograms do. I have to find out by trial and error, and I’m not always sure how to ‘undo’ a mistake. Speaking of Android’s Back button: Are you just going back with it, or can you also use it to ‘undo’? Another criticism he still has (and it’s not Android-specific) is that many apps’ UIs tend to feel ‘crowded’ even on a 5.5-inch phone.

These are just little examples, but I think are fairly indicative of the gap between tech people and regular people’s habits, needs, problems and viewpoints — and also of the gap between what tech people believe regular people do with their devices or need from their devices, and what regular people actually do with their devices and expect from their devices. No judgment here, just food for thought.

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“And that’s what we’re about”

Steve Jobs MWSF 2000  The Big Picture

I was watching Steve Jobs’s keynote at Macworld Expo in San Francisco in 2000, important because it’s when Jobs introduced Mac OS X, its architecture and Aqua interface, when he introduced iTools (basically iCloud’s great-grandfather), and when he announced as a ‘one more thing’ that he wouldn’t be ‘interim’ CEO anymore at Apple but would take the CEO role in a more permanent capacity.

There’s a bit of this keynote I’d forgotten about, though, and I think it’s just as important. At the end of the event, before the ‘one more thing’, when Steve is wrapping things up, he talks about ‘The big picture’ and about what makes Apple Apple. I have transcribed that bit and decided to publish it here because I think it’s still relevant:

I want to zoom out and talk about the big picture of how we see all of these things play together. You know, I remember two and a half years ago when I got back to Apple, there were people throwing spears saying “Apple is the last vertically integrated personal computer manufacturer, it should be broken up into a hardware company, a software company, what have you,” and— it’s true, that Apple is the last company in our industry that makes the whole widget, but what that also means [is that] if managed properly, it’s the last company in our industry that can take responsibility for customer experience. There’s nobody left!

And it also means that we don’t have to get ten companies in a room to agree on everything to innovate. We can decide ourselves to place our bets like we did for USB on the original iMac; hardware — let’s build it in; software — let’s build it in; marketing — let’s go evangelise it to the developers and tell our customers why it’s better. And let’s not wait three years for an agreement — and now Apple is leading in USB. Desktop movies — let’s take our hardware and put FireWire ports in iMac, let’s write applications called iMovie that take advantage of QuickTime and allow us to do these things, and let’s go market it, so people can understand this and see how easy it is to use. There’s no other company left in this industry that can bring innovation to the marketplace like Apple can.

So, we really care deeply about the hardware, we think this is where everything starts, and we got again the finest hardware lineup in Apple’s history. We’re so proud of these products. But we also do software at Apple. Again, we own the second-highest-volume operating system in the world and one of only two high-volume operating systems in the world. We make a lot of other software: Mac OS X coming, iMovie, et cetera. And the greatest thing is when we put them together, and we integrate them, like the examples I just gave you, like iMovie and the new iMacs, seamlessly integrated into desktop movies. Another example is AirPort, where we could seamlessly integrate this whole new wireless networking technology into our OS, so when you plug in an AirPort card in your iBook you don’t have to spend half an hour flipping settings. It just — boom! — pops to life and works.

This is the kind of innovation we can bring through this integration. And now we’re adding Internet stuff. We got our first four iTools today, that wouldn’t be possible if we couldn’t take unfair advantage of the fact that we supplied OS 9, the client operating system, and so that our servers and our clients could work together in a more intimate way than anyone else can do. And so we’re gonna integrate these things together in ways that no one else in this industry can do, to provide a seamless user experience where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And we’re the last guys left in this industry that can do it. And that’s what we’re about.

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‘It Just Works’ should be the next step

Knowing I like to talk about user interfaces, usability and operating systems, a few weeks ago my friend Michele Di Paola pointed me to this essay on Medium: macOS: It’s time to take the next step by Andrew Ambrosino, tacitly asking my opinion about it.

It’s a good essay, one that gives me the opportunity to discuss things that interest me, considering how lately it seems that Mac OS X and non-mobile operating systems have become a bit of the Cinderella of the tech debate.

A large part of Ambrosino’s contribution is devoted to big images showcasing how he imagines the next Mac OS interface, and I have to give him credit — for once, I’m presented with something that looks entirely possible and not just some designer’s abstract wet dream. It’s a very Apple-like direction towards an even more polished UI. I like the visual consistency of his proposal, and the idea of having Mac equivalents of certain iOS apps.

Some of Ambrosino’s UI touches also remind me of certain design choices I don’t particularly like when applied to a desktop operating system, such as the disappearance of chrome from application and Finder’s windows. Yosemite has brought to OS X the same kind of ‘flat revolution’ iOS 7 brought to iOS, and while I agree that a visual refresh was overdue (for both systems, but especially for OS X), the switch to a flatter design has also come with questionable decisions related to user interaction and usability. The extreme reduction of window chrome, coupled with the ability to resize a window from any side means an increased, unnecessary difficulty when moving windows around.

Sometimes you try grabbing a window from its title (an old habit for seasoned Mac users) and you accidentally resize it. Sometimes, when having multiple windows open in a text application, instead of moving a window away, you end up either resizing it or even inadvertently selecting text in it. This happens in particular — to me and to a few different people I spoke with — when using the trackpad as input device instead of the mouse. Small last-second movements of the fingertips, and the pointer is offset enough from the intended position that you end up mishandling a window in the ways just described.

I believe we can give windows some chrome back, or even a more visible, grabbable border, without losing in flatness or elegance. To tell you the truth, I find the old way of resizing a window by only having to drag the bottom right corner to be more comfortable and less error-prone.

The part I most disagree with in Ambrosino’s proposal, however, is when he talks about a new filesystem that would leave behind the old hierarchical model in favour of a ‘single bucket’ model, relying on “powerful search and self-organization” (?):

Last year I had the privilege of working at Upthere […]. Started by Bertrand Serlet and others a few years ago, the goal has been to introduce a brand new stack that forms a cloud filesystem and model for organizing content. The model is simple and the implementation complex — it lacks hierarchy and relies on powerful search and self-organization, along with building in sharing and collaboration into the filesystem itself. It’s about time for macOS to shift to this type of organization (or just buy them!)

This is not the first time I’ve heard this tune, that the hierarchical filesystem must die because— well, apparently because it’s an old model and not suited for our modern needs anymore. The ‘top highlight’ of the essay is: We produce far too much content and our work is too often collaborative to rely on a manual model that was designed many, many years ago.

Sorry, but I’m not convinced. Am I the only one who sees the ‘single bucket’ model as being actually more impractical when applied outside of the cloud and at the local level? Why have to solely rely on search, when things can just as easily be found by browsing because in most cases you already know where to look? That’s why it’s called Finder. Even when Spotlight on the Mac worked better (under Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger and 10.9 Mavericks, in my experience), I usually found what I was looking for by going to where I knew it would be — because I put it there in the first place — or where I at least expected it would be; this latter scenario happens when I don’t remember the exact file name (e.g. IMG_7918) but I’m pretty sure about the name of the folder I’ve put it in (e.g. Firefox iPad screenshots).

Also, with this proposed new ‘single bucket’ model, how would one manage operations like copying a bunch of files from the Mac to an external drive or USB key? Sure, one can look for the files first, or maybe they’re linked together by what Upthere calls loops, but unless I’m missing something obvious, this doesn’t strike me as a faster way to carry out what amounts to opening a couple of folders in the Finder and drag-and-dropping the relevant files on the destination drive.

I’ve nothing against searching, mind you. A powerful search is a great tool to have. For me, it works like this:

  • The Finder is my short-term memory search tool: all recently accessed files and projects are basically a click away. I’m usually faster at retrieving stuff by looking at my organised folders inside the Finder than accessing Spotlight, typing what I want to retrieve, and finally opening it.
  • Spotlight and (better) Find Any File, are my long-term memory search tools. I use them every time I need to look for something I filed long time ago and am not sure anymore where to look for it. If I feel I may have moved it on another volume, I connect my external hard drives to the Mac and perform a blanket search on all volumes. This is obviously much faster than fumbling about clicking on several folders down the wrong rabbit hole.
  • Then there’s Raskin, which is the tool I resort to especially when I’m looking for a certain image file or photo or PDF document and I have absolutely no idea what its filename is or where I put it, but I remember what it looks like. Raskin provides an unique bird’s-eye view on folders and files, and in several occasions I’ve been able to spot the image I was after by recognising it ‘from above’. Raskin is a rather ingenious tool that perhaps needs a bit of your time to become familiar, but once you get accustomed to its logic, it’s a handy solution to have in your arsenal.

My point is, why should the filesystem be tied to a single model at all? Why not have multiple ones? In other words, why not let people organise stuff with the method that’s most efficient for them, and then offer multiple models, multiple ways to search and retrieve information? Macs are powerful enough to handle this, and certainly powerful enough to manage underlying complexity while offering user-friendliness on the surface. The seeds are there: just imagine a more efficient Finder with a more efficient Spotlight engine, plus a better way to display search results and ways to interact with such results; plus an added capability to perform visual/spatial bird’s-eye view searches the way Raskin does. Not to mention Siri as a search tool. All built in OS X (or MacOS, whatever it’s going to be called next). Things simply need to work more seamlessly, more coherently, and more reliably.

Let’s get back to that ‘top highlight’ in the essay: We produce far too much content and our work is too often collaborative to rely on a manual model that was designed many, many years ago.

What does this mean? In what ways the hierarchical filesystem is inadequate to handle far too much content and collaborative work? It’s a genuine question. You file content gradually anyway, you don’t usually produce 250,000 files overnight and have to organise them the day after. While doing research for Low Fidelity, the science fiction novel I’m publishing in serialised form on my magazine Vantage Point, I recently downloaded a lot of PDFs from the Web. I hadn’t planned that — I started finding interesting materials online, one thing led to another, and when I realised my Downloads folder was getting crowded, I created three new folders to organise the files I had downloaded; then I put everything in the Research folder inside my Low Fidelity project folder. Doing this is simple, it keeps my stuff tidily organised, and keeps me organised and efficient when I need to retrieve information.

As for the collaborative work — I honestly don’t know. I have done little collaborative work in my professional career. The little I’ve done never involved working with other people on the same file at the same time. We simply agreed to share a dedicated Dropbox folder.

On a similar note, I haven’t much to say about The People Thread, the last section of Ambrosino’s essay. I guess it’s a smart thing to create ‘an advanced common thread for people,’ considering how obsessed the present technological era is getting on the social aspect of everything. I still view the Mac as a personal computer first — as a local, private, personal space first, and a means to share slash collaborative device second. So if I were to design a new model for the Mac operating system, I would still favour the personal over the social, but of course I’d give the users with more social/collaborative needs all the necessary tools to carry out whatever they want to carry out.

In the end, I think that what the next ‘MacOS’ needs most is focus. Focus on what it has historically done best — ‘just working’. I don’t think that the current problems of OS X have much to do with its old age or its old models. It’s more a matter of identity. I feel that recent versions of OS X have tried to ‘look friendly’, as if to say Hey folks, I can be simple like iOS! Look, I too can have big app icons taking up the whole screen! I too can go full-screen with apps, and I can do split-view just as well! And I have Notification Centre like on iOS! and so on. This path of convergence with iOS hasn’t been all bad, but the process has involved an accumulation of new features which not always have brought more value or functionality, and often have introduced bugs or annoyances; all this has ultimately undermined the most important aspect of using a Mac — the ‘it just works’ aspect.

OS X shouldn’t present its simplicity by dressing up as ‘the iOS for the desktop’. It should present its simplicity through its powerfulness and versatility, through a coherent, cohesive system that ‘just works’. A system that is more than just the sum of its parts. A system where — to make an example already mentioned above — people can organise their documents and files any way they like, and then search and retrieve them in many different ways: through the Finder, or a more reliable version of Spotlight, or by looking at the entire filesystem from a bird’s-eye perspective like in Raskin, or by performing dictation search through Siri. What makes people love iOS, what makes people think iOS is much simpler than OS X is, I believe, its reliability. iOS feels positively predictable, dependable. This kind of reliability should become the main focus for the next ‘MacOS’, not just a continued aggregation of old, newer, and borrowed features swept under the carpet of a translucent, attractive UI.

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From standalone utility to service

Ever since Smile Software introduced their new service for TextExpander, and switched to a subscription model for pricing, it seems that everyone in tech had an opinion about it. Bless you, Michael Tsai, for collecting the most interesting contributions.

Before getting to Tsai’s, the first opinion piece I read on the matter has been TextExpander goes Subscription Only by Joe Cieplinski. While I’m not a software developer, I share Joe’s perspective:

As a developer, I completely understand and support Smile’s decision. I’m sure there are a number of hard-core TextExpander junkies who use the software several times a day. For these folks, it should be a no-brainer to fork over $5 a month.

As a customer, it gets harder for me personally. I’ve been using TextExpander for many, many years. I’ve upgraded to the latest version up until now. But I’ve never been what you’d call a “power” user. Basically, everything I do with it I could probably pull off with the built-in text shortcuts in iOS and OS X. TextExpander does way more than that, obviously, but I personally don’t use those extra powerful abilities.

I understand Smile Software’s decision and wish the company all the best because I, too, offer a subscription-based product, my Vantage Point magazine. As a TextExpander user, again, I’m in a similar position as Joe’s. I’m probably an ever more casual user than he is. I have TextExpander only on my Mac. I don’t need it on iOS because I don’t write enough on my iPad or iPhone to have to resort to a tool such as TextExpander, and I also don’t need to synchronise the snippets I have accumulated on the Mac. There are several snippets that are simply a quick way to correctly type certain often-used words, like iPhone, iCloud, iTunes, MacBook Pro, and for those both iOS’s autocorrect and predictive keyboard are a surprisingly useful alternative. I write on the Mac, I write a lot, so TextExpander is a nice aid there. But still, I’m basically only using TextExpander’s core feature: text snippets that get automagically entered when triggered by the designated abbreviation. The fact that I’m still on version 4.3.6 should be telling enough: I’m happy with it as it is.

Michael Tsai makes a good point here:

The new service makes it really easy to share snippets with other people, and it sounds like there are big plans for more team/collaborative features in future versions. This is really cool, but I have no personal interest in using those features. It seems like the product is being refocused for a different audience. There is essentially nothing new aside from the sharing.

I won’t be subscribing to TextExpander-as-a-service because I’m not interested in the extra features it would provide, and because for how I use TextExpander, investing about $50 per year is too much. Before you think What a cheapskate!, let me rephrase that: investing another $50 — in addition to what I already pay yearly (or monthly) for other services, and considering my low budget — is too much.

Since I followed the debate, one theme I’ve often seen popping up is something that Joe Cieplinski has articulated best:

Subscriptions are going to be the primary way we pay for productivity apps eventually. It’s going to happen. It has to happen. Upgrade pricing has been rejected by most consumers, and many businesses tend to prefer the predictable monthly costs of a subscription. As Adobe and Microsoft have shown, subscriptions may be a hard sell at first, but the long-term benefits to the health of products based on subscription are obvious. At least for pro apps.

I wouldn’t use the ‘pro’ versus ‘consumer’ (or ‘casual’) differentiator here, though. I’d use the phrase At least for apps where a subscription makes sense. Or For apps for which becoming a service makes sense. This is the differentiator for me. This is what has felt off for me since Smile announced the switch to a subscription-based service for TextExpander. I’m a long-time Mac user, I’m old school, I’ve been paying for software since it came in big boxes with a dozen floppies and hefty printed manuals inside. To me, TextExpander is a standalone utility. This switch to service feels forced, feels more like renting an app than paying for the kind of availability and convenience deployed on a large scale that’s provided by an entity like Spotify, if you know what I mean.

Tsai:

It is said that customers don’t like to pay for upgrades. I wonder how much of this is because Apple has conditioned them, through the App Store and its own app and OS updates, to expect all updates to be free.

I always try to educate people to pay for apps and upgrades. Subscriptions make me nervous and I tend to view them as something that is more beneficial to the provider than the final user. Mind you, there are many contexts where a subscription model makes sense: cloud services, music streaming, video/movie/TV streaming, and so on. But just as I think that the patronage model isn’t sustainable for a single user because such user cannot possibly support more than a few developers offering it, the same is going to be true should more developers follow Smile’s steps, refocussing their apps and utilities to work more like ‘services’ — maybe in the name of ‘social’ or ‘syncing’ features not all users may find useful or compelling.

The various App Stores and the poisoning, infamous ‘race to the bottom’ in app pricing has certainly done a lot of harm to the perceived value of software. I still believe that people can be educated to pay premium prices for good-quality software. I don’t know if a subscription model could be an answer to the problem of paid upgrades — how can those people who are averse to paying for the occasional major update be keen on paying for an app on a monthly basis?

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