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

The iPad As a Travel Computer

Long flights are one of the few contexts where I’m disconnected from the internet for a long period. As a result, I’m often very productive in airplanes. Much of this work happens on my iPad Pro. The iPad is light and compact and has a long battery life. It’s a perfect computer for working on a seat tray. I’ve even grown to like typing on its keyboard cover. And once I’m done with work, the iPad also doubles as a great entertainment device. All things told it’s a great little travel computer.

However, there’s one caveat to working on the iPad while flying: Doing so requires more planning than doing so with a regular laptop. In particular, I must always remember to download the stuff I want to work on to the device before getting on the plane.

In some crucial ways, the iPad functions more like a phone than like a laptop. I have lots of files I can call up at any time on my laptop. If I’m working on a presentation and want to copy a slide from an older deck, I look for the document and open it. Not so on my iPad; older files are usually in one of the various cloud services (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, etc.) rather than on the device itself. This isn’t a problem on the ground; my iPad has a cell radio that keeps me connected to the internet everywhere. Except for airplanes, of course.

In this particular flight, I was planning to work on the slides for my WIAD Switzerland workshop. When I’d already boarded I thought to double-check that I had all the files I needed, and — sure enough — I was missing three of them. These are relatively large files, with lots of images. I started downloading them as the airplane was taxiing. The process became a race against time. I could see the download progress bars slowly nearing completion, download speeds varying as the airplane moved around. The files finished downloading a few minutes before we took off; I got everything I needed and was able to work on the slides during the flight. Still, it was stressful.

There are many advantages to being device-independent. It’s great to be able to work anywhere using any one of various computers, phones, tablets, etc. If any one of them dies or is stolen, it won’t take my work with it. Being device-independent also means being able to work from the device that’s best suited to current conditions. That said, being device-independent also means being network-dependent. It’s easy to become complacent about network access when we’re in our home region. That dependency can impair our effectiveness when we don’t have good connectivity, such as when we travel.

Book Notes: “Creative Selection”

Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs
By Ken Kocienda
St. Martin’s Press, 2018

Twenty-one years ago, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs returned to lead the company after over a decade of board-imposed exile. How he rescued Apple—which was ninety days away from bankruptcy at the time—has become the stuff of legend. The role of design in that resuscitation is central to the story. As a result, design has a much higher prominence in today’s business world than it did a couple of decades ago. Apple is very secretive about its internal processes; even a small glimpse into how the company goes about designing its products and services would be very valuable.

Creative Selection’s subtitle promises to reveal the company’s product design process. And not just any product, but the most important one in the company’s history: the iPhone. (The author is introduced in the cover as Former Principal Engineer of iPhone Software at Apple.)

Mr. Kocienda acknowledges early on that there is no codified approach to design inside Apple:

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Managing Screen Time

One of the best features of the most recent version of iOS is called Screen Time. It allows you to monitor and control what you do with your mobile devices and when. For example, you can find out how much time you’re spending on social media apps and whether your usage is increasing or decreasing. You can also set limits for yourself on the device overall or on a per-app basis. And if you use multiple iOS devices (such as an iPad and an iPhone) you can configure Screen Time to show you your behavior across all of them.

To access Screen Time, you must open the device’s Settings app. (This feels a bit incongruous. Although I understand this is an OS-level feature, it feels like something that should be independent of Settings. Anyways, I digress.) In the Settings app you’ll see an option for Screen Time:

If you tap on this menu item, you’ll be shown a screen that looks like this:

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Developing a Mental Model of a System

In order to develop proficiency in a system, you must develop a mental model of how it works. This model must map to how the system is structured; you develop the model by interacting with the system. First impressions matter, but your understanding becomes more nuanced over time as you encounter different situations and conditions in the system. You also bring expectations to these interactions that influence your understanding. The degree to which your understanding becomes more accurate over time depends on how transparent the system is.

The Apple Watch serves as a good illustration. I’d never owned a smartwatch before buying mine, but I came to the experience of wearing a wrist-worn computer with expectations that were set by two devices that provided similar functionality: analog wristwatches and smartphones. From the former I brought assumptions about the Apple Watch’s timekeeping abilities and fit on the wrist, and from the latter expectations about a host of other features such as communication abilities, battery duration, legibility under various lighting conditions, how to access apps in the system, the fact there are apps at all, and so on.

In the first days after buying the Watch, I realized I had to adjust my model of how the device works. It wasn’t like my previous analog watch or my iPhone; some things were particular to this system that were very different from those other systems. For example, I had to learn a new way of launching apps. The starting point for most iPhone interactions is in a “home” screen that lists your apps. While the Watch also has a screen that lists your apps, that’s not where most interactions start; on the Watch, the starting point is your watch face. Watch faces can have “complications,” small widgets that show snippets of critical information. Tapping on a complication launches its related app. Thus, it makes sense to configure your favorite watch face with complications for the apps you use most frequently. This is a different conceptual model than the one offered by the analog watch or the smartphone.

After some time of using the Apple Watch, I now understand how it is structured, and how it works — at least when it comes to telling time and using applications. There’s an aspect of the system that still eludes me: which activities consume the most energy. For a small battery-powered computer like the Apple Watch, power management is crucial. Having your watch run out of power before your day is over can be annoying. This often happens to me, even after a few years of using this device. I’ve tried many things, but I still don’t know why some days end with 20% of battery left on the watch while others end with a dead watch before 5 pm. If the Apple Watch were more transparent in showing how it’s using power, I’d be better at managing its energy usage.

The tradeoff with making the system more transparent is that doing so can increase complexity for end users. I’m not sure I’d get more enjoyment from my Apple Watch if I knew how much energy each app was consuming. Designers abstract these things so that users don’t have to worry about them. As users, the best we can do is deduce causal relationships by trying different things. However, after three years of Apple Watch ownership,​ I still don’t understand how it manages power. The system is inscrutable to me. While this frustrates me, it’s not a deal breaker in the same way not grokking the system’s navigation would be. Not all parts of the system need to be understandable to the same degree.

The Allure of Novelty

It’s that time of year again: Tech companies are announcing new products in preparation for the holiday season. Over the past month, a slate of new phones, tablets, computers, and accessories have been announced. You may be considering buying one or more of these new devices. It’s worth thinking about whether or not you really need them.

As an Apple customer (and something of a gadget junkie), I’ve been intrigued by the new Apple Watch and the new iPad Pro. I already own earlier editions of both devices and was perfectly happy with them just a few months ago. But now I’m not. Now, when I look at my Apple Watch, I wonder: what if I could use it to play podcasts when I go running? What if its battery lasted the whole day? What if it was a little bit faster? What if… ? I know about the newer model, and can’t help but think about all the neat things it can do that mine can’t.

The iPad is a different story. While the new one looks quite nice, it’s not as clear to me how it would make my life better in ways the one I own can’t. Most of the new models’ features seem to be cosmetic: larger screens, smaller bezels, slightly different form factors, etc. Perhaps the new models are also a bit faster, but not in ways that would make much difference; my current iPad is plenty fast. The new Apple Pencil—the accessory I use most with the iPad—also looks much nicer than the old one, but seems functionally similar to the one I already own.

Would it be cool to have new devices for the holidays? Sure, it’d be fun. But it’s worth considering the tradeoffs that come with them. The most obvious, of course, is money. These things aren’t cheap! But there’s also the time they require: Time to research what to buy, time to set things up/migrate from older devices, time dealing with support if things go wrong. (I purchased a MacBook Pro earlier this year, and it’s already been back to Apple for service four times!) New tech can be quite a time sink.

How do you determine if the tradeoffs are worth it? For me, it comes down to figuring out whether I really need a new device or not. These questions help:

  • Does the new model enable me to do something I currently can’t?
  • Does the new model enable me to do something I can do now, but significantly faster or more efficiently?
  • Is there something I already own (or have access to) that could help me accomplish similar results, even if a little less conveniently?
  • Do I have the money/time to mess around with this stuff now? Or are there other things that require my money/attention with more urgency?
  • What do the new devices do worse than the old ones? (I.e., there are a few things about the new iPads that work better in the model I currently own!)
  • Am I using my current devices to the fullest of their capacity?

Novelty can be very alluring, especially during this time of year when advertising is in full force. But when I reflect upon these questions, I often realize that I may be better served by keeping my current devices longer and investing my time and money in other things.