Working on the iPad

Early in 2021, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. In this post, I’ll explain my evolving use of iPads.

I’ve long advocated for using iPads for work. iPads aren’t toys or “consumption” devices — at least any more than early GUI-based computers were. But recently, I’ve started questioning the iPad’s role in my workflows.

iPads do some things better than “real” computers. My work involves a lot of drawing, and the iPad Pro + Apple Pencil combo is the best digital drawing system I’ve used. The Pencil is also great for reviewing and marking up documents.

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Don’t Subscribe; Follow

Per a report in Podnews (via The Loop), starting with iOS 14.5, Apple will remove the word ‘subscribe’ from its market-leading Podcasts app. In its stead, users will be invited to ‘follow’ podcasts. With this change, Apple joins Spotify, Audible, Stitcher, and Amazon Music, which already give users the option to ‘follow’.

Why the change? A researcher claims 47% of people who don’t listen to podcasts think ‘subscribing’ will cost money.

This is a great example of the sort of counter-intuitive insights one can glean from research. I’ve never been confused by the word ‘subscribe’ in this context. Given the choice between ‘subscribe’ and ‘follow’, I’d argue that ‘subscribe’ is a clearer description of what is happening.

But I understand how podcasts work. Many people don’t, and I can see how they’d understand subscriptions — an action they likely associate with newspapers and magazines — as something they must pay for. While less precise, ‘follow’ is a familiar enough term (especially online), and one that may be less intimidating.

‘Follow our podcast’: Apple Podcasts to stop using ‘subscribe’

Appreciating Device Upgrades

Yesterday I upgraded my laptop to the latest version of its operating system, macOS Big Sur. Big Sur was released a month ago, but I waited because Descript — an app central to my podcasting workflow — wasn’t yet compatible. Descript released a supported update yesterday, so I thought the time was right. As usual, I backed up my computer before updating its OS. But I didn’t need to: the update was utterly problem-free. (Still, it’s best to be cautious: backing up only takes about an hour and saves many hours were something to go wrong.)

I love Big Sur so far. The system’s user interface changes make it a more coherent sibling to iOS and iPadOS, the other operating systems where I spend much of my time. There aren’t many new features, but many existing features (such as notifications and various system controls) have been refined. This is subjective, but my computer also feels faster.

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The Siri

Photo: Gregory Varnum, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

My kids refer to our HomePod as “Siri.” As in, “Papa, Siri isn’t working.” (Lately, I hear this a lot.) They don’t mean Siri on the iPad or the iPhone isn’t working; they’re talking about the dark gray cylinder in the room.

The Siri has a lot of potential. As a speaker, it’s great. It replaced the unwieldy soundbar + woofer in our living room. It doesn’t sound as full as the soundbar, but I feel more strongly about clutter and complexity than I do about audio quality. Movies and music sound good.

Lately, the latter occasionally fail to play on request. I say, “Hey Siri, play Redemption Song by Bob Marley,” and the Siri responds, “Redemption Song by Bob Marley playing.” But there’s no music coming out.

I’m competent with computers. With other Apple devices, I have a sense of how to debug the thing. With the Siri, I’m stuck. With its minimal physical controls, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve asked it to restart itself, but it just shrugs. (At least that’s what I’m imagining it’s doing.)

Google led me to discover that I could restart the Siri by going to the Home app on my iPhone. I couldn’t find this on my own because the feature is hidden in the bowels of this app, under an ominous-sounding “Reset HomePod” button. (I admit to first resorting to the time-honored “pull-the-plug” maneuver.)

Restarting hasn’t helped.

I think of the Siri as 20% beautiful hardware and 80% inscrutable cloud-based service. (Perhaps my kids get this too, which is why they call it Siri instead of HomePod.) I expect the problem lies with the service, not with the hardware. So, when my daughter says, “Papa, Siri isn’t working,” all I can do is shrug.

Making Apple’s Ecosystem More Coherent

This post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Last week, Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference (or WWDC.) At this annual event, the company announces significant changes coming to its software platforms (including iOS, the iPhone’s operating system.) As with many other such gatherings this year, WWDC 2020 was held online. But that’s not what interests me most about this year’s event. Instead, I was intrigued by the steps Apple is taking to bring coherence to its ecosystem.

Apple is in a unique position in this regard. The company makes operating systems for a variety of computing device form factors: phones (iOS), tablets (iPadOS), watches (watchOS), TVs (tvOS), and personal computers (macOS). Apple competes with other companies in each platform segment, but no other company has strong contenders in every platform segment.

All of these Apple platforms have “family resemblances.” A first-time Apple Watch user will find details and interactions that are reminiscent of what she’s experienced on her iPhone. This makes the system more learnable and pleasant.

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TAOI: Grouping Albums in Apple Music

The architecture of information:

A tweet from MacStories founder Federico Viticci highlights a change in Apple Music’s information architecture:

Special editions of albums have been around for a while. It’s not unusual for classic albums to be remixed, or remastered, or get re-released with additional tracks. If you search Apple Music for The Rolling Stones’ Let it Bleed, for example, you will find both Let it Bleed and Let it Bleed (50th Anniversary Edition). This change to Apple Music’s architecture links both editions so the user knows that there’s a relationship.

Digital music is a great source of interesting IA examples. Most music in a modern catalog follows a hierarchy that looks something like this: Artist → Album → Song. These objects can also be tagged with several metadata facets, such as genre, year, etc.

What makes it so interesting is that there are lots of exceptions. In classical music, for example, there’s often a distinction between the performer of the piece and its composer. Which one should be considered the “artist”? (If you’re intrigued by this question, listen to my conversation with Thomas Dose on The Informed Life podcast.)

There are also bands with similar names, albums with the same name but recorded by different bands, and the issue highlighted above: the same album but different somehow. Of all these cases, this last one is perhaps the easiest to solve. Still, it’s good to see Apple making the architecture of its music catalog clearer.

Via The Verge

Apple’s Services Pivot and Persuasion

Nick Heer on the effects of Apple’s pivot towards increased services revenue:

using Apple’s products is starting to feel like visiting a department store that’s more intent on pushing its credit card than selling you a pair of shoes.

I’ve long stated that one of the reasons why I prefer Apple products over those of other companies is the clarity of my business relationship with the company. I pay Apple (lots of) money for beautiful, useful, reliable devices every couple of years. In return, they respect my privacy and attention. Win-win.

Apple’s move towards increased revenue from services has changed the balance. While I believe the company still respects my privacy, it is now incentivized to persuade me. Given Apple’s position as steward of my information environments, it has tremendous power over my attention. Will it wield that power responsibly?

I don’t see many first-party ads in my iPhone or iPad, but that’s because I’m already paying for many of Apple’s add-on services. I’d be greatly annoyed if my operating systems was constantly trying to persuade me.

Apple Promotes Its Services Through Pervasive and Often Disruptive In-App Advertising

No More Customer Reviews on

AppleInsider reports:

On November 17, Apple removed the “Ratings & Reviews” section from all product pages on the Apple website. It is currently unclear what has prompted this decision, nor when Apple will bring back the option to read the opinions of other customers at the time of purchase.

Customer reviews never felt like a natural part of Apple’s online store. I remember reading the negative reviews for the USB-C to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter and wondering how a company as controlling of its image as Apple allowed its products to be disparaged on its own website. I expect the answer to the question “when will Apple bring back this option?” is “never.”

(Contrast this decision with Amazon’s approach.)

Apple pulls all customer reviews from online Apple Store

Alternatives to 32-bit Apps on macOS Catalina

When a new version of macOS comes out, I usually upgrade my computer relatively soon. I like having access to the latest features, and significant macOS release upgrades are generally trouble-free. That hasn’t been the case with the newest version, Catalina. The trouble stems from the fact that Catalina doesn’t run 32-bit applications. While most major software in the system is now 64-bits, there are still some stragglers — especially legacy apps and drivers that haven’t been (and likely won’t be) upgraded.

That’s why I waited longer than usual before upgrading to Catalina: there was one application in my system that was 32-bits, the driver for my Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M scanner. I knew this driver was incompatible because every time I launched it (under Mojave, the previous version of macOS), I’d get a warning saying that the app would not run in the future. (Here’s a way to learn which apps won’t work: under the Apple menu, go to About this Mac > System Report… > Legacy Software.)

Without this driver, the scanner is useless — even though the hardware is perfectly functional. This device is an important part of my workflow; I use it every other week to digitize most of my paper documents and correspondence. Fujitsu no longer sells this model and has no plans to release 64-bit drivers. So I was stuck. I had two choices: I could hold off on upgrading the operating system (for a while), or I could buy a new scanner. I didn’t like either option. Sooner or later, I’d have to upgrade the OS. And as I said, the scanner itself was in perfect condition; I didn’t need a new one. What to do?

It turns out there was a third option: look for an alternative driver. I found a third-party application called VueScan that works with a range of scanners, including the S300M. It’s been working well for me; the only downside is that it’s a bit slower than Fujitsu’s driver. But given my use of the scanner, it’s not slow enough to merit buying a new device.

Thus far, Catalina has been great. I’m especially enjoying the new Sidecar feature, which allows me to use my iPad as a second screen when I’m on the go. So far, everything is working for me — including my old scanner. The lesson: if you’re contemplating upgrading to Catalina, but are holding back because of legacy software on your system, consider looking for alternatives.