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 Apple.com

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.

TAOI: Searching for iTunes in macOS Catalina

The architecture of information:

Starting with macOS Catalina, Apple deprecated its long-standing iTunes media management app. In its stead, we got three new applications: Music.app, Podcasts.app, and TV.app.

I just upgraded my laptop to Catalina. After cleaning up some random post-upgrade changes, I set out to do some work. Before starting, I thought I’d get some music going in the background. So I did what I always do to play music on the computer: I typed CMD-space to open the system Spotlight search field and then itun-RETURN. This sequence of keystrokes usually launches the iTunes application. I’ve done it so many times I now do it reflexively, without even looking at what the system is doing.

Which is why I was confused when I saw an unfamiliar app welcome dialog pop up. I knew iTunes had changed in this release, but the dialog wasn’t what I expected: I was onboarding onto the Podcasts app. My first thought was that perhaps the Music app opened with a description of the new apps that replaced previous iTunes functionality so that I wouldn’t be lost entirely. But the welcome dialog said nothing about Music or TV — it was all about Podcasts. When I closed it, I realized I had actually opened the Podcasts app. I was baffled.

So I typed CMD-space again and then the word itunes:

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Changes to iOS 13’s Mail Toolbar

A perennial tweet by Jared Spool:

The default Mail application in iOS — perhaps one of the most popular apps in the world — is an unfortunate recent example. With the latest release of the app (in iOS 13,) Apple’s designers changed the options in the toolbar so that the Trash button is located where the Reply button has been in previous releases. Even though these buttons are different, app users have developed muscle memory over time; they’re used to tapping on that screen location to initiate a reply action without thinking about it. Only that now, instead of opening a draft reply, the message they’re working on disappears. The result? Frustrated users. John Gruber has a good overview of the issue and user reactions.

Few changes are as impactful as those you make to your system’s navigation elements. Toolbars and navigation bars are how users move around and do things in your app or website. Over time, people get used to where options are; changing their placement — even if done for good reasons — can lead to frustration. If you must change long-established navigation elements, test new versions extensively with users of varying degrees of experience. And if you don’t have good reasons to change your navigation elements, consider focusing on other aspects of your system instead.

The Curious Design of Mail’s Message Action Toolbar in iOS 13