→ The Home button is fading away

Handpicked

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple is preparing three new iPhones for debut next month. One of the models, a new high-end device, packs in enough changes to make it one of the biggest iPhone updates in the product’s decade-long history. With a crisper screen that takes up nearly the entire front, Apple has tested the complete removal of the home button — even a digital one — in favor of new gesture controls for tasks like going to the main app grid and opening multitasking, according to the people and the images. 

[…]

Across the bottom of the screen there’s a thin, software bar in lieu of the home button. A user can drag it up to the middle of the screen to open the phone. When inside an app, a similar gesture starts multitasking. From here, users can continue to flick upwards to close the app and go back to the home screen. An animation in testing sucks the app back into its icon. The multitasking interface has been redesigned to appear like a series of standalone cards that can be swiped through, versus the stack of cards on current iPhones, the images show. 

I really don’t like that the Home button is becoming a software feature instead of remaining a hardware control. I’m sure that Apple’s famously tight integration between hardware and software will create a reliable user experience in general, but software controls can become unresponsive and unreliable in case something goes wrong software-wise (maybe due to a misbehaving third-party app). 

This leaving behind the Home button as a physical, mechanical control also strikes me as a step back with regard to accessibility. When I first handled the iPhone 7 in an Apple Store, I was pretty underwhelmed by the new force-touch Home button, no matter the intensity setting. It felt weak and weird. If the new deluxe iPhone even lacks a hardware area to use as a button and goes all-in with the software, I’d really like to know what people with sight disabilities think of this new direction.

Of course, a phone without a physical Home button is nothing new. My favourite implementation has to be Palm’s: the ‘Gesture area’ on the Palm Pre phone family was well designed (see this bit from CES 2009, where Matías Duarte is demoing the Pre’s UI and gestures) and maintains a great reliability and responsiveness. In a few instances where my Palm Pre 2 had a software hiccup, I was still able to go back and quit the app that was acting up, and retain control of the smartphone. I think that an iPhone with a similar gesture area (Apple could have called it Touch Area) would have been more interesting and user friendly; but hey, apparently ‘big, bezel-less display’ is the priority now.

I’m also curious to know the reasoning behind introducing a new user interaction model on the new deluxe iPhone, while presumably keeping the old one on the other ‘regular’ iPhones that will be introduced along with it in a few days. We’ll have:

  • The new deluxe iPhone with these new software gestures (and probably the new facial recognition feature instead of Touch ID).
  • The iPhone 7, 7s, 7 Plus, and 7s Plus with the force-touch Home button and Touch ID.
  • The iPhone SE with a physical Home button, Touch ID, but without 3D Touch.

I guess it’s going to be an interesting transition period.

→ Dropbox will drop support for older operating systems

Handpicked

Michael E. Cohen, at TidBITS:

Dropbox has begun notifying users of its service to inform them that as of 16 January 2018 it will automatically sign out any computers running certain older operating systems. The Mac systems include those running OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard through 10.8 Mountain Lion; Windows Vista systems will also lose desktop support on that date. Not that it matters much, but you won’t be able to download or install the Dropbox desktop app on those systems after 3 November 2017.

Although the vast majority of Mac users have updated their Macs to more-recent versions of OS X and macOS, some continue to run older versions. Many tend to be folk who, like me, have kept a Snow Leopard system operating in order to run PowerPC-based applications; Snow Leopard was the last Mac OS that supported Rosetta, the PowerPC emulator that enabled Intel-based Macs to run such apps.

Then there are folks who, while having a more up-to-date desktop Mac, perhaps keep using an older laptop that’s still working great and can take the occasional rough handling when out and about. Or vice-versa, their older desktop Mac is still useful, but their preferred machine to keep updated is the laptop. These people may need Dropbox to keep in sync two or more Macs of very different vintages. Then there are people like me, who still put even older Macs to good use, and would like to keep relying on services like Dropbox for basic syncing and file exchange. As time passes, however, Dropbox doesn’t seem to be a suitable solution for such needs.

If you’re among these people, my suggestion is to switch to Box. Maybe their pricing plans are nothing to write home about, but for me Box’s killer feature is its WebDAV support. As I’ve reported on my System Folder blog, this means you can connect to your Box storage ‘drive’ even with very old versions of Mac OS X (WebDAV’s support is built into Mac OS X since version 10.0); if you use a WebDAV client like Goliath, you can connect to Box even under Mac OS 9 and earlier (down to Mac OS 8.1!). Read my afore-linked System Folder article for more information.

Subscriptions for apps — the uneasy deal

Software

Ever since the idea of a subscription model for apps started circulating, it has always felt wrong to me. Perhaps ‘wrong’ is too strong a term. How can I say this in other words? I’ve always felt a kind of mismatch, as if ‘subscription model’ is the square peg, and ‘app’ is the round hole. In my life, the things I have usually subscribed to are services and magazines. Services include, obviously, essential utilities (electricity, gas, water) and de facto utilities like Internet connection and mobile phone service. But more specific to the matter at hand, by services I mean things like Spotify, or subscribing to a bookmarking service like Pinboard, etc. And by magazines, I generally mean print magazines, though the example could also be extended to digital publications. 

With services and magazines, the subscription option has always made sense to me. Music or video streaming services generally offer quite the advantageous deal for a customer: for reasonable prices, they provide an ample choice of content to be consumed (apologies for the use of these trite terms). For print magazines that can typically be purchased at a newsstand, a subscription can be a handy option not because it’s particularly cheaper, but because it gives customers the convenience of not missing any issues of the publication they love. They don’t need to remember to rush to the newsstand to get next week’s or next month’s issue, nor they have to hunt for an issue when a newsstand has sold them all. (In the 1980s, my parents subscribed me to a couple of obscure computer magazines I loved because tracking down their issues had become a nightmare).

Maybe I’m being old-school here, but I always considered software applications to be products you buy and that’s it. Apart from an initial period when I was young and foolish and obtained pirated versions of apps and games I was interested in (or kept using shareware ignoring its reminders to pay for it), I then quickly understood the value of software, and started paying for it, happily, because no matter how immaterial software is, it is a product, it is a tool, and you pay for it just like you pay for the bread you eat, the books you want to read, the utensils you need in your home, and so on. Since my early conversion, since I understood the rightness of it, I’ve always paid for software, whether it was the $19.95 shareware utility or the almost $900 of QuarkXPress 3 back in the early 1990s (I needed it for work, and poured all my savings into it at the time). Back then, software (especially Mac software) was generally more expensive, paid updates were rather normal and not cause for minor online uproars like today, and, if I remember well, it was rare for a single developer to be able to support themselves with their shareware. There were big software companies, and small software companies. A lot of applications coming from single developers were the fruit of their spare time; they charged what they thought was fair; most of the time it was really fair; and I guess that, with what they earned, they were able to keep cultivating their tech-related hobby.

Like every other product I’ve ever purchased, I’ve always enjoyed the ‘no strings attached’ aspect of the transaction. I pay for the product, I use the product, and if I’m satisfied with it I’ll choose that manufacturer / producer / author / artist / developer again, recommend them to other people, and that’s that. Restricting the context to software: is there a new, paid version of an application I love and enjoy? I’ll pay for it, gladly. Does said application evolve in ways I don’t particularly like? I’ll keep using the old version until I can, and then maybe one day I’ll try a similar application from another developer if it seems to be focused on the same features I’m after. No strings attached.

It’s the same with every other product you can think of. I get my coffee at that place over there because I enjoy how they do it, or the exotic selection of coffees they offer. I have a favourite bakery. I have favourite shops I go to, to buy the stuff I like. If one day my favourite bakery changed its business model and offered only a subscription service where I pay a monthly fee and every Monday I receive enough bread to last the week, that would feel awkward. (I know, there’s always someone who would consider this arrangement very convenient, but bear with me here.) If, on top of that, the baker told me that by subscribing, I’d help him support his business and his family and he would have the time to develop new and exciting recipes to make bread and pastries, I would probably return a polite smile and leave the shop, thinking that — while there’s nothing inherently wrong in the proposition — it does sound really awkward. I would also have the feeling the baker is having issues running his business and wants me to participate in solving them. 

This is an approximate picture of how the subscription model applied to apps makes me feel in general.

Subscriptions demand a mutual dependence: obviously developers present such dependence as a mutually beneficial pact. But the fact is, there is now a dependence where before there was none. And that makes me uncomfortable. Because an uncomfortable atmosphere is created: I’m not simply buying your product, I become regularly involved in your support. I become part of your plan to make a living through the development of a software application. And I agree with iA when — in their musings about the next version of iA Writer — they write [emphasis mine]:

The elephant in the room is: Who will pay for this? Will there be a paid upgrade? Do we ask for subscriptions? Talking to other devs you can get tough guy advice like: 

People always complain, they don’t understand technology, you need to live, you have tons of fans, you lose some, win others, who cares?”

Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets. Yes, we need to live. But that’s our problem. Explaining that dev costs and comparing software to coffee, sandwiches or cars is not convincing. The only ones that will feel you are friends, family and other indie devs. Friends don’t count money. Customers do. To own, we pay more. To rent, we pay less. Strangers don’t genuinely care about our wellbeing — they compare prices and pick the best value. Subscriptions are tough. They are not bad or impossible, but they need to meet real life expectations:

a) Renting is less expensive than buying

b) Expensive products hold longer than cheap products

c) Buying vs renting should be a fair choice

 

I become involved in someone else’s business problem, hopefully as the continued solution to such problem. And, in a sense, I’m not even a customer anymore, I become a subscriber, a patron. I’m not sure I want this kind of involvement. This may sound cynical and all, but it also has to do with something I already mentioned — the unsustainability of the subscription model for apps if applied on a large scale:

And my early guess is that — if abused — [subscription is] going to be an option that has the potential of driving customers away. Not necessarily cheapskates or people who don’t understand the costs of app development, but also people who (like me) usually pay for apps but are on a budget and can’t afford supporting every app they like. And people who simply can’t justify a recurring subscription for apps they love to use, but don’t use frequently enough.

I believe the right way to approach customers with a subscription model for apps is to offer such subscription as an option, not as the sole way to sell rent your product. People should be given the choice to be just customers, no strings attached; or supporters (subscribers) if they really love the product, if they’re fans of the developers, and want to be more actively involved in solving the sustainability problem of someone else’s business.

That third iPhone

Tech Life

Thanks to the Apple rumour industry, by now it seems rather obvious that Apple will introduce three iPhones in September, two being the usual ‘speed bump’ versions of the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The third iPhone — which many refer to as the ‘iPhone 8’ — is the one sporting a significant redesign, with a bezel-less display taking up most of the front of the device, and apparently a new authentication technology based on facial recognition replacing Touch ID.

The possible positioning and pricing of this all-new iPhone has been the subject of recent speculation, and John Gruber has made a compelling argument in favour of the concept of a high-end iPhone ‘Pro’, with a ‘Pro’ price tier. Where his piece got me thinking was here:

Let’s take a serious look at this. $1,500 as a starting price is probably way too high. But I think $1,200 is quite likely as the starting price, with the high-end model at $1,300 or $1,400.

and here:

Furthermore, why shouldn’t there be a deluxe “Pro” tier for phones? For many people, phones are every bit as much an essential professional tool as their laptops. For some people, even more so. And I’d bet my bottom dollar there are more people who consider their iPhone a “pro” tool (and be willing to pay “pro” prices) than who think so regarding their iPad, and we’ll have had iPad Pros for two years by the time new iPhones are announced in September. If there are iPad Pros and MacBook Pros, why not iPhone Pros?

Well, the idea of an iPhone Pro sounds a bit ludicrous to me. As I tweeted the other day, in the common-sense world I live in, current iPhones already are Pro devices with Pro prices. The iPad line is a bit different: Pro iPads have certain hardware characteristics that set them apart from regular iPads. (Although I can’t but point out how the iPad Pro line looks more ‘pro’ now mostly because the 5th-generation iPad is a dumbed-down device; the lines were more blurred when Apple was selling the 9.7″ iPad Pro and the iPad Air 2).

To be called ‘Pro’, the new bezel-less iPhone has to feature something much more compelling and groundbreaking than simply having a big display on the front and some kind of facial recognition technology. These aren’t features specifically aimed at pros. There has to be something else and something more to justify a ‘pro’ price tag of $1,300–1,400. “Apple Pencil support,” you say? That may work with the iPad, but an iPhone screen doesn’t have the ideal size to be considered an artist’s canvas, wouldn’t you agree? 

On the other hand, maybe it would be a little less ludicrous if Apple introduced such an iPhone as some sort of ‘Edition’ or ‘Deluxe’ variant[1]. Again, it would still need some sort of stand-out, defining feature to be considered a limited edition product. In the case of the Apple Watch Edition, we had an otherwise regular Watch but with a gold chassis. Perhaps Apple has something up its sleeve when it comes to the materials employed in manufacturing this new ‘iPhone Deluxe’, or some other cutting-edge technology that can’t yet be implemented on a large scale, making such iPhone a bit exclusive.

But whether it’s going to be a ‘Pro’ or ‘Deluxe’ iPhone, the problem is: what’s going to happen a year from now? 

If a new iPhone Pro line is introduced, is Apple going to operate in a similar way as with the iPad line? i.e. Keeping the ‘regular’ iPhones interesting enough but a bit dumbed down, so that the iPhone Pro can shine in all its Pro glory, which I assume it’s made of unique pro hardware capabilities and even specialised software features?

If it’s going to be an Edition/Deluxe iPhone, will Apple keep producing it as the high-end model with its own update cycle à la iPhone SE? Will it be a one-time product like the gold Apple Watch? And if this is the case, what is this iPhone Edition going to have that makes it so special?

But most importantly, how will this new iPhone impact the design progression of the whole iPhone line? In September 2018, will we see regular iPhones updated to the same bezel-less design and hardware characteristics, or is Apple going to maintain the design (and feature) differences, keeping the bezel and ‘soft’ Home button on regular iPhones, while pushing the design envelope with the Pro/Edition model? If Apple unifies the design, it’s interesting to see what will make high-end the high-end model. If Apple keeps the two designs, it’s interesting to see how long it can keep things sustainable design-wise. It feels quite challenging however you look at it, if you ask me.

On a closing note, I find the splitting of the iPad line in ‘regular iPads’ and ‘pro iPads’ to be rather unnecessary and a bit contrived. Before such split, customers would buy the latest iPad, certain that they were also buying the greatest. Now there’s this artificial and arbitrary division between the cutting-edge iPads and the dumbed-down budget versions. Sure, this gives people more choice, and access to decent iPads for those who can’t afford the more expensive, feature-rich ones. But again, how is this design/feature separation going to play out in the next iterations? Will the sixth-generation iPad get a bit of what the current iPad Pros offer now, while Apple continues to concentrate innovation on the Pro line? It’s an interesting design problem Apple created by themselves. I’m sure they know how to address it. At the same time, it’s something that could have been avoided by keeping the iPad product family more streamlined.

If indeed there is going to be a split of the iPhone line in ‘regular iPhones’ and an iPhone Pro, I have to say it’s a separation I find even more artificial than the iPad’s — the current iPhones are already advanced devices with Pro-level hardware (and Pro-level prices). The introduction of an iPhone Pro means Apple is ready to introduce a device that is two generations ahead of the current iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. The introduction of an iPhone Pro means having to deal with the same challenges related to maintaining two different sets of features (one for the regular iPhone, one for the iPhone Pro) across future iterations. I’m very curious to see what Apple’s approach will be. 

 


  • 1. A little less ludicrous because if this new iPhone has nothing inherently, truly ‘Pro’ to offer, at least calling it ‘Edition’ or something along these lines would be more honest than offering a redesigned iPhone that Apple arbitrarily labels Pro to justify the price tag. I hope I’m making sense. ↩︎

 

The ‘iPad as laptop replacement’ angle is legitimate

Tech Life

I’m frankly surprised that some tech pundits have made a big deal out of this. Sure, maybe having a whole review revolving around this one angle — is this new iPad with iOS 11 a viable laptop replacement? — is misplaced. Maybe Matt Gemmell is right in his belabouring of the point; and I don’t disagree with John Gruber when he writes:

Again, Apple is not trying to convince everyone to replace a traditional Mac or PC with an iPad. Apple executives say that the Mac has a bright and long future because they really do think the Mac has a bright and long future. Any review of the iPad and iOS 11 from the perspective of whether it can replace a MacBook for everyone is going to completely miss what is better about the iPad and why.

However, in my opinion, things are much simpler than that. I believe that many articles have talked about the iPad as laptop replacement because that’s exactly the thing regular people ask the most about the iPad when they visit Apple stores and electronics stores with a dedicated Apple space inside. And it’s the most frequent question I’m asked by less tech-savvy acquaintances who would like to upgrade their old laptops with something more lightweight and ‘modern’, to use their words. Intrigued by the ‘Pro’ moniker, they ask me: Can I use this new iPad to do this and that stuff I usually take my laptop for? Or: If I get this iPad and the Smart Keyboard, can I just ditch my old laptop and use the iPad instead?

Some simply formulate the question in such fashion out of sheer curiosity: they never used an iPad but have a general idea of what an iPad can do. Some are a bit more informed and they ask whether the iPad can be used as laptop replacement as a way to ask whether the iPad has matured enough to be more than just a tablet for consumption, because that’s the image they’ve been having of it (or because they used to have one of the earlier iPads and it didn’t feel much versatile to them back then). Some picture the iPad Pro as Apple’s version of Microsoft Surface Pro, and since they consider the Surface a laptop replacement — or better, a laptop equivalent — they’re basically ascertaining whether the iPad Pro is in the same league.

But whether tech pundits like this ‘iPad as laptop replacement’ argument or not, many people ask about the iPad, and especially the recent iPad Pros, in these terms. Of course, regular people may be ‘asking it wrong’, and some iPad Pro reviews may be giving too much importance to the whole Can the iPad be a laptop replacement? matter. Surely everything is complicated by the extreme, inherent subjectivity of it all. It’s not possible to give a universal piece of advice here, because different people do different things with their laptops. Because people have different reasons to choose a laptop in the first place. Sometimes it’s all about the hardware: when netbooks were a thing — remember!? — I knew people who got attracted to them merely because of their size. Power and software weren’t really a concern. They were happy to carry around these compact devices to catch up with their email or write Word documents wherever they went. For these people, netbooks were viable laptop replacements. 

Other times it’s the software, and all the related workflows. And again, some workflows can be translated to the iPad, or adapted without much fiddling. Some people who don’t need platform-specific software can certainly work from an iPad if the workflow aspect isn’t a roadblock or a deal breaker.

Other times again it’s the general role the laptop plays in one’s tech life: is it a primary machine? Is it — heh — a desktop replacement? (In a famous 1999 advertising campaign, Apple referred to the first iBook as iMac, to go). Or is it a secondary machine, an addition whose main convenience derives from portability and whose main purpose is to take care of temporary tasks while out and about?

In all my years as a Mac consultant, I’ve met a fair amount of people for whom a laptop was simply overkill. But back then, before the iPad, before the iPhone, before the netbook, what practical choice did they have? Pre-iPhone smartphones could be used to handle email, calendar tasks, some very light WAP-sized web browsing. There wasn’t a device that combined a certain subset of tasks and applications, with a laptop-like form factor, all wrapped in the simplicity of an operating system designed for mobility.

The iPad today may not be designed to replace a laptop for everybody, otherwise, as Gruber implies, Apple would just stop producing MacBooks. But for some people it is certainly a solid alternative, because they can use it to carry out all the tasks they previously (under)used a laptop for. For others who just need a secondary device to check stuff while they’re not in their office or home office, a laptop might be overkill, and an iPad the perfect solution. For others, like me, the iPad will never be a laptop replacement, but always an invaluable addition to their personal tech ecosystem.

Matt Gemmell postulates that There’s no such thing as a laptop replacement, and if there were, the iPad isn’t meant to be one. I concede that the iPad isn’t meant to be one, not by design; yet I have witnessed more than once that for some people (most of them not techies — what a shocker) the iPad can definitely be one.