Apple’s app problem

Writing for iMore, Rene Ritchie on the problems Apple faces as an app developer:

And perhaps that’s where the answer lies — in stopping the impossible. Tough as it is, letting go of the legacy Windows and iPod support would let Apple take iTunes to the cloud and modularize sync and other services on the desktop. Letting customers with old libraries manage them the old way would let Apple Music stream unencumbered. Making things like News system-level projects surfaced consistently across apps would both surprise and delight.

I don’t see killing iPod support as viable, if for no other reason than the iPod shuffle and iPod nano are still current, supported products. That suggests to me that a phase-out roadmap is still a ways off.

And I sincerely doubt that Apple is going to turn its back on Windows iTunes users, given the millions of Windows users who use iPhones and sync their devices to their PCs.

Ritchie describes some clear systemic issues that Apple has to combat going forward, where app design decisions are either being made arbitrarily or in a vacuum, without a clear awareness of how the software will be used long-term. Hopefully better, sustained management will take hold, because the status quo leaves people with a mediocre experience.

Atari Vault promises old-school gaming thrills

Atari Vault is the latest attempt to cash in on retro nostalgia for old-school video games. If you’re a gamer in your 40s as I am or if you just love the old coinop experience, you may be interested in this new package coming to Steam this spring.

Atari Vault isn’t unique – Atari and other publishers have used emulation technology for years to resurrect classic titles. What makes Vault a bit different is its obsessive detail with cabinet art and other details to help create an immersive experience.

There’s a gallery with tidbits “from our own archives,” as Labunka puts it, with original box art for Atari 2600 versions of the games, instruction manuals, promo materials, and the like. Anything and everything to offer a full picture of what these games looked, felt, and sounded like in their original contexts.

And yes, old school gamers, Atari Vault is planned for the Mac.

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2015: The Apple year in review

Apple certainly wasn’t sitting still this year. Here’s a look back at the major accomplishments of Apple in 2015.

MacBook

Apple retired the “MacBook” mark in 2010 when the white polycarbonate-clad laptop was discontinued, offering only the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro instead. The MacBook roared back to life in 2015, reimagined as a next-generation laptop designed to work entirely wirelessly.

The MacBook is Apple’s slimmest, lightest laptop, clocking in a hair over 2 pounds, equipped with a Retina display, Force Touch trackpad and a new keyboard that’s love it or hate it depending on your preference. It’s also a bit slower than the MacBook Air, thanks to the Core M processor inside — a lower-power, lower-speed variant of the processor used in other Macs.

Tim Cook has said that the MacBook is a look at the future of the laptop. Some design decisions, like using USB-C as the sole interface for power and external connectivity, haven’t been well-received, so we’ll see how much of this tech makes it into other Mac laptops over time.

MacBook Air and MacBook Pro

Apple’s other laptops got some attention in March, too. Apple updated the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display with a new generation of Intel processor and some other features too, and also bumped the MacBook Air with a gentle refresh. The 15-inch MacBook Pro followed later in May.

The Apple Watch

After much fanfare following its unveiling in late 2014, Apple released the Apple Watch. The device’s long-term impact to Apple’s product line and designs remains to be seen, but eight months after its initial release, Apple has increased the device’s distribution from just Apple retail stores to major retailers including Best Buy and Target too.

Apple isn’t sitting still with the Apple Watch — they’ve already revised the design to offer the popular Sport model in different finishes including Rose Gold, introduced with the iPhone 6S this fall, and has revised the operating system, watchOS, to version 2, loaded with new features.

Third-party developers are still trying to figure out how to incorporate Apple Watch app designs and functionality into their products. This is going to be a very interesting market to watch in 2016, when Apple will presumably introduce a new Apple Watch with new features, better performance and more functionality.

iOS 9 and El Capitan

Apple’s annual operating system upgrade cycle — a fixture for the last half-decade — continued unabated this year with iOS 9 and OS X 10.11 El Capitan. Both of them were introduced at WWDC in June, and saw public releases in the fall. iOS 9 and El Cap adoption have been good — it’s helped that this year was a real iterative change for both operating systems, not a major upheaval like iOS 8 and Yosemite.

iOS 9’s hallmark is “more intelligence:” Better contextual reminders, new ways to search and more effective Siri integration. A new News app gives you access to up-to-date info from your favorite sites, and a redesigned Notes app incorporates new features like drawing tools and the ability to include photos and images in notes.

El Cap’s performance is better thanks to some under-the-hood reworks. Core graphics technology is up to 40 percent better, Safari has been reworked and more. Apple’s also made apps like Notes, Maps, Mail, and Safari better than ever.

Apple Music

Apple had long bucked the trend toward music subscription services, but finally shook off that limitation in 2015 with the introduction of Apple Music. For $9.99 a month you get unlimited music streaming from Apple, and while the selection isn’t nearly as complete as the iTunes Store, there are millions of songs to listen to.

Apple sweetened the pot by offering new subscribers a 90 day trial version, and all indications are that it’s been hugely successful.

iPhone 6S

After introducing Force Touch with the MacBook and refreshed MacBook Air and MacBook Pro earlier in the year, Apple introduced the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus in September, revealing “3D Touch” as a new way to navigate the iOS interface. 3D Touch employs haptic feedback — force feedback — so you can “peek” and “pop,” dipping in and out of content without losing your place.

Live Photos record moments in time before and after the shot is taken, and the new 12 megapixel sensor on the new iPhones makes it possible to record 4K video.

Apple TV

Apple TV finally turned the corner in 2015 from a streaming video appliance to something more. The fourth-generation Apple TV debuted with a new remote — the Siri Remote, complete with Siri integration and a touchpad surface — and a lot of new functionality, including the ability to download apps from an Apple TV app store.

The new Apple TV costs more than its predecessor, but packs a much bigger punch. And if initial indications are any gauge, it looks like it’s off to a rousing start, although the rollout of apps to take advantage of the Apple TV has hit a few speedbumps along the way. 

iPad Pro

For the first time since the iPad mini was introduced, Apple’s changed the form factor of the iPad. The $799 iPad Pro features a 12.9-inch Retina display, the biggest iPad screen ever. What’s more, the iPad Pro showcases unique technology like support for the Apple Pencil, a pressure-sensitive stylus that enables you to draw and illustrate on the iPad Pro’s screen effortlessly; and the Smart Keyboard, a combination keyboard/iPad cover that uses a three-conductor interface on the iPad instead of Bluetooth for reliable communications and power.

iMac

The iMac got some much-needed attention in October with refreshed 21.5 and 27-inch models. 5K display is now standard across the 27-inch line, with a 4K model serving as the high end of the 21.5 inch line. 

Executive reshuffling

It wasn’t all product news at Apple this year. Some important behind-the-scenes stuff happened as well. In October the company elected former Boeing corporate president and CFO James Bell to the board of directors. Apple promoted Jeff Williams to the COO’s position, which had been vacant ever since Tim Cook took over at CEO following Steve Jobs’ retirement. Williams has been in control of Apple’s operations for some time, so this titular change doesn’t represent a new direction.

Apple also announced the appointment of Tor Myrhen, a creative from Grey New York, to the position of VP of Marketing Communications, replacing 18 year Apple veteran Hiroki Asai. Johny Srouji has been promoted to VP of hardware technologies after leading development of the A series processors used in Apple’s mobile devices.

And perhaps most tellingly, Apple senior VP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller’s role has been expanded to include management of the various App Stores Apple has has developed to support iOS and OS X. Some Mac app developers are hoping Schiller’s appointment will help to move some long-standing issues regarding Mac App Store policies and procedures, but we’ll see.

The iMac: A history of Apple’s whimsical design

Apple’s product design is elegant and sophisticated, but austere. Whether you’re holding a MacBook or an iPhone or an iMac, the best word to describe all of them is “thin.” And Apple seems intent on making them thinner each year.

The iMac, especially, has become a thing of hardened, severe beauty. I love the design, respect it a great deal, but I’m not as emotionally connected to it as I have been to past iMacs.

Apple’s VP of design has talked about making the interface invisible to the work, so it’s understandable that Apple would try to make the actual hardware interface itself as invisible as possible, too, reducing it to its core components.

But in the process, Apple’s lost some of the whimsy and joy that’s marked earlier product designs.

Take a look at early Macs. The beige boxes were designed to look like kitchen appliances — something unassuming, something inviting to use.

 

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In the late 1990s, Apple sought to reinvent itself. And it did it with a computer that was just fun to use – the iMac. An updated reinterpretation of the original Mac concept, the iMac included a color screen, CD/DVD reader and Internet connectivity, all built right in to a translucent shell that enabled you to see inside, to demystify how the computer worked.

IMac

 

A few years later Apple would reinvent the iMac in flat screen trim, and this was the most imaginative, expressive, and creative case design yet. The iMac G4. Some people called it the “Luxo Jr,” in reference to a computer-animated desk lamp imagined in a short subject produced at Pixar, while others called it the “flower pot iMac.”

Any way you slice it, the iMac G4 was cute. With its optional speakers, it looked like a bug-eyed alien, especially when you opened up the tray-loading CD/DVD drive.

IMac G4

 

The long march towards austerity turned the corner with the next generation, the iMac G5. It introduced the boxy flat shape we have today. Apple’s made it progressively leaner and bigger since then, until we ended up with 21.5-inch and 27-inch models with 4K and 5K displays.

No one questions that todays iMacs are light-years better than their predecessors. I just wish they still had some of the cheeky, humanistic fun of earlier models. Maybe some day. Not today.

 

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Tesla’s Autopilot is not magic, it’s just code

Tesla recently rolled out an expensive over the air firmware update for their electric cars. Among the changes in the 7.0 release is a catchy-named feature called “Autopilot,” which enables the vehicle to achieve a fair degree of driver autonomy: On a well-marked highway, the car can keep itself in its lane, change lanes when it needs to, avoid other vehicles, speed up, slow down and even come to a complete stop.

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But it is most certainly not a true autopilot. And in introducing the new feature, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, made it clear that it’s a feature that’s still very much in development. He called it a “public beta.”

I can’t remember the last time an auto executive would have admitted that a new feature in a flagship automobile wasn’t ready for prime time, but there it is.

Still, there have been a few reports of Tesla drivers completely yielding control to Autopilot, with predictably dire results.

I’m not sure what’s more foolish: Naming the feature “Autopilot” to begin with, or being gullible enough to assume that you no longer have to drive your own car simply because some new software has been downloaded.

Years ago, I worked for a Mac software developer in tech support. I was asked to garner a list of customer requests for the next major version of an app we were working on, and presented it at the meeting.

As the list of demands and requests grew ever more esoteric, the exasperated project manager finally blurted, “You know, these people have to understand: There’s a difference between AM and FM. AM being actual machine code and FM being f*ing magic.”