Defomicron

Software, Hardware, Silverware


Entries tagged: Reviews

When I buy something new and fun I like to write about it and then maybe you’ll want something new and fun.

False Start

I consider myself a casual Apple historian, in that I am a big fan of Apple’s work and through that interest I have learned a fair amount about their past. It is with much interest that I purchased Leander Khaney’s Jony Ive, a biography of Apple’s famed lead designer. A month ago, I linked to an excerpt about the beginnings of the first iPhone. It is quite good and had me excited to read the rest of the book. Unfortunately (but not unexpectedly) this was the best portion of the book by far.

I was not turned off by the entire book1. The beginning, which talks about Ive’s education and work before Apple is informative, telling a story I doubt many are familiar with. Khaney’s descriptions of Ive’s early work at Apple were also enjoyable, covering the development of the Newton, the Twentieth Anniversay Mac, and the iMac. Part of me wonders, however, if these sections were more enjoyable only because I am less familiar with those product’s stories already. If I knew more about them, would I have found as many faults with Khaney’s writing as I did with the newer products that I am familiar with?

Jony Ive by Leander Khaney
Jony Ive would not like how this book looks.

The book is entirely effusive about Jony Ive, to the point of being annoying. The hockey puck mouse that shipped with the original iMac is only gently derided, and Ive’s tendency to supplant form over function is likewise given a pass. This gushing attitude hits its high in the final chapter, where credit for the success of the iPod, iPhone, and iPad is seemingly given entirely to Ive:

The iPod was a product of Jony’s simplification philosophy. It could have been just another complex MP3 player, but instead he turned it into the iconic gadget that set the design cues for later mobile devices. Two more delightful innovations, the iPhone and the iPad, were products of thinking differently, of creative engineering at work in rational problem solving on many levels.

Khaney repeatedly gives total credit for these products to Ive, which is ridiculous. Even the subtitle of the book is “The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products”. Not some of Apple’s greatest products, not a genius: he is the genius behind all of Apple’s greatest products. Ridiculous. All of the products Ive has worked on at Apple have been the result of massive team efforts of which Ive was only a single part. In many cases he was pivotal, but he was not the only pivotal person.

Regarding the iPod, Khaney even acknowledges that Ive did not have nearly as much control as with later devices. Khaney says that the idea for it came from Rubinstein (SVP of Hardware) and Fadell (Ruby’s understudy), the scroll wheel interface came from Schiller, and that Ive was only told about the project when they handed him the components of a finished unit and asked him to wrap it up in a pretty case.

The struggle between designer and engineer comes up a lot in the book. During Steve Jobs’s first reign at Apple, particularly in regards to the creation of the original Macintosh, design led engineering. Following Jobs’s departure, engineering took over and designers were forced to build pretty boxes around whatever engineering sent their way. When Jobs returned, things flipped back: designers came up with a product, and the engineers had to meet the constraints of the design. Understanding that, you’ve grasped a majority of what Khaney says about design in Jony Ive. That struggle is brought up so many times throughout the biography that I got irritated while reading whenever Khaney indicated he was about to go off on that tangent again.

Even more frustrating was when Khaney would spout things that were incorrect and/or idiotic. Again from the last chapter we get this nugget:

Before he died, Jobs revealed the degree to which he empowered Jony inside the company. “He has more operational power than anyone else at Apple except me,” Jobs said. “There’s no one who can tell him what to do, or to butt out. That’s the way I set it up.”

Jobs didn’t explain exactly what he meant. According to Apple’s organization chart, Jony reports to Cook; yet, according to Jobs, Cook can’t tell him what to do.

Khaney, you’ve left out one important detail: Steve Jobs is dead. Tim Cook is CEO, and he can absolutely tell Jony Ive what Jony Ive can and can’t do at Apple. Whether or not it would be wise of Tim Cook constrain Ive is a different question, but the notion that he can’t just because Steve Jobs said so is absurd.

In his chapter on the iPad, Khaney says:

In March 2012, Apple followed up with the third-generation iPad, which added a high-density retina display, a faster chip and better cameras. In October of the same year, the fourth-generation iPad was launched with a much faster processor and cell connection, as well as a tiny lightning connector to replace the original thirty-pin connector…

Two things. First, the third-generation iPad added LTE networking, not the fourth. This is a small mistake, but it’s embarassing. These little details are the easiest to research and get correct, and we’re trusting this man to have done extensive research into a very secretive company. If he can’t get the small, public, obvious facts right how are we supposed to trust the rest of it? Second, that paragraph contains the only mention of the lightning connector, the design of which is an important recent design that, as John Gruber put it, “epitomizes what makes Apple Apple”. Did Ive have nothing to do with it? In this book we’re led to think so.

This biography leaves out a lot that I wanted to know. iOS 7, arguably the most important product Ive has worked on since the first iPhone, is covered only briefly at the very end. It is generally summarized and lauded2 without any detail behind the events besides letting us know that Scott Forstall was actually fired, despite what Apple PR claiming he stepped down. Yeah, we already knew that. I wanted new information, not the same stories I’ve seen in the news for the past year. It’s hard to completely fault Khaney for this since all of it is so recent; it’s difficult to find sources for anything inside Apple, and probably impossible to get any behind-the-scenes accounts from the past year.

We can fault Khaney, however, for spending so much time off the topic of Jony Ive the man. There is much discussion of Steve Jobs, who was very important to Ive but not unfamiliar to anyone reading this biography. In fact, most who read Jony Ive will have read Walter Isaacson’s official biography of Steve Jobs, a text that Khaney cites numerous times. Later, there is far too much discussion on Apple’s stock prices and the post-Steve Jobs era of Apple. I picked up this book because I wanted to learn about Jony Ive and his design process and the stories behind my favorite Ive designs, not to hear someone else predict the future of Apple. In his final paragraph, Khaney actually calls on Jony Ive to reinvent Apple’s design language. Apparently it’s become “predictable”. You know, I was just thinking about how everyone more or less predicted exactly how iOS 7 would look.

All of this, to me, points to the unmistakable fact that this biography is premature. The products that Khaney goes in-depth on are older and less interesting. Ive is far from done and I hope his best work is still ahead of him. At the very least, his best work is his current work, and we won’t learn the stories behind these products for several more years, maybe a decade. Only then could we get a proper biography. You can safely ignore this one.


  1. Actually, the book itself is sort of gross-looking. The line-spacing is too tall and the text is set in an unappealing serif (the apostrophes and quotation marks are particularly unsettling) with headings in Avenir Next. Sans-serifs should never be used in printed books. In the case of Jony Ive, the use of the sans-serif combined with weird gray lozenges and pullquotes at the beginning of each chapter (see here) give the impression that this book belongs in an elementary school classroom. It’s an odd, almost intangible effect but I was not the only one who noticed it. I somehow doubt Jony Ive would be happy with his biography looking like this. ↩︎

  2. Khaney spends one paragraph noting iOS 7’s dedication to typography through the use of Helvetica Neue. He does not specify Helvetica Neue Light, and his writing indicates that he has no idea Helvetica Neue has been the system font on iOS since it went retina↩︎

iOS 7: The Defomicron Review

iOS 7 is here. Tim Cook called it “the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone” at WWDC, and he wasn’t exaggerating. This is an enormous release, and we have a lot to cover. The big thing is of course the new design. It’s a dramatic departure from not only iOS of the past but from anything Apple’s done before. The new design is most important, but it is far from the only change. If 7 looked exactly like 6, it would still be a substantial release. In an alternate universe, that’s the case. If Tim Cook had stepped outside and seen his shadow, we might’ve had 12 more months of “rich Corinthian leather”. We might’ve groaned, but in the end, we’d have been content. As it is, Tim didn’t see his shadow; Apple didn’t stand still.

Table of Contents

Installation

Before we go any further, let’s get you up and running on 7. If you’ve got a device with iOS 6, it’s pretty easy: Settings > General > Software Update. If you’re into it (I am), you can download it directly from Apple and do a clean install with an option-click in iTunes. If you’re lazy, at some point you’ll get a notification on your iPhone or iPad and with the tap of one button, iOS 7 will install. That’s how most of the world will be updated to this release, and that’s going to be interesting. While it is a great release, it is different and many average users are sure to be more than a little confused.


Design

In 2007, when the public first got eyes on iOS (back then, “iPhone OS”), its interface looked modern. The gloss- and gradient-heavy toolbars were carried over from the desktop OSes of the day, and from a certain point-of-view they made even more sense on the touchscreen device. If the controls were meant to be manipulated by our fingers, photo-realism made sense.

Fast forward six years and that same gloss and grad galore looks outdated, gratuitous even, to our trained eyes. The idea that elements that we interact with using our fingers need to look real is now obsolete. As John Gruber quipped when predicting iOS 7’s design changes: “the training wheels can come off”.

The Philosophy of iOS 7 Design

Jony Ive, the Brit behind Apple’s hardware for the past decade and a half led the design charge on iOS 7. As far as we know, this past year has been his first designing software. It appears that first year has been dedicated exclusively to redesigning Apple’s most important operating system. When we examine the design decisions made in iOS 7, it is clear that this is not merely a cosmetic rejuvenation. There’s little arbitrary about the decisions that have been made, with almost all of the changes stemming from shifts in the fundamental, core philosophies, that drive the operating system’s development.

Apple got a lot of things right with the original iPhone, and that includes the interface. A lot of this philosophy of depth can be found even then, in 1.0. The original Mobile Safari provided a similar cards interface to switch back and forth between open web pages. It is remarkable even now, after this massive redesign, how much has been maintained from the 1.0. iOS is still familiar, and that’s important.

Depth

The first of which is depth. Increasingly common in our industry is the proliferation and exultation of so-called “flat” design. Windows Phone is the prime example of this philosophy, with it’s total lack of gradients, sparse color, and focus on large and handsome typography. Before we saw iOS 7, we speculated that Apple would remove the gradients and gloss to “flatten” the interface. That prediction came true, but totally misrepresents iOS 7.

Before we can understand the difference between “flat” and iOS 7, we must understand the purpose of the gratuitous textures from versions past. The answer is, somewhat obviously, to show highlights and shadows. To show “depth”. And I mean “depth”, in quotations, because the effect amounts to fake 3D — the illusion of three dimensions on a flat phone.

If iOS 7 had done away with those highlights and shadows, then surely it is “flat”? Logical, but wrong. iOS 7 does depth differently; instead of textures, it uses layers. At the very bottom is the familiar home screen. The app icons exist one plane above, and tapping one zooms in on it, filling the screen with the app. Double tap the home button, and you can see all of the running apps that exist above the home screen. Swipe up from the bottom or down from the top, and Control Center or Notification Center slide over the top.

Lightness

After using iOS 7 full time now all summer, the first thing I notice when looking back at iOS 6 is how dark everything was. This phenomenon is seen even more drastically when running apps designed for iOS 6 on iOS 7. TweetBot, an application I have loved, has been useless to me all summer. It’s so out of place on 7 I can’t bear to look at it.

With the exception of a few utilities, all of Apple’s iOS 7 apps are white with black text and single accent color. That sounds boring when you read it, but so far I it isn’t. I expect most third party developers adopting iOS 7 conventions to move to mostly white themes. In time, I know the standard visual style will start to look boring and designers of third party applications will begin to experiment with variations on the new theme, as happened with the original 2.0 SDK. But the overall lightening effect is, I think, here to stay. Using iOS 7 is immediately refreshing. You didn’t notice the weight of heavy iOS apps creeping onto your shoulders these past years, but you’ll notice when it’s gone.

Clarity

In its implementation, clarity is the most questionable of Apple’s stated goals for iOS 7. In many cases, this has resulted in the use of text labels instead of glyphs for controls. While these are certainly more clear to the first time user, through repeated use ideograms are better representations than labels.

The perfect mix would give text labels to lesser used controls that people won’t be trained to instinctively hit and glyphs to all of the other ones, with a few exceptions. If a control has a particularly obvious or universally accepted glyph that goes along with it, such as a toothed gear for settings, it should be used. Further, if a text label is particularly lengthy in any localization, an icon is probably a good idea. With iOS supporting dozens of languages, this is a big issue for Apple.
The most troubling case of a failure to walk this line correctly is in the Music app. The shuffle and repeat controls have been turned to text. Those glyphs have been with us through generations of iPods even before iOS was a thing. At this point, they’re universally accepted. Really, shouldn’t Apple be more proud of that accomplishment?

Physics

Delight in design is sometimes intangible, but essential. A large improvement to the delight factor in iOS 7 comes in a rethinking of how animated transitions are handled. In the past, these animations have been hard-coded to emulate real world physics as closely as possible. Rather than continue the tedious trend of faking physics through bitmapped animations, Apple has chosen to build in a physics engine. The engine (accessible by all developers through UIKit) allows for the easy creation of animated transitions between states, and affirms that all of these animations will be consistent in their definitions of gravity and other forces.

The physics engine also provides the backend to allow for the manipulation of almost any screen element in ways that are entirely useless, but so so fun. But I’ll get to that into that later.

Content-First

When it comes to third party development, this will be the tenant of iOS 7 design that we’ll see broken the most often. In 7, Apple is calling for developers to deprecate the UI chrome in favor of the content, and some developers are upset. For awhile now the interface has been a canvas for some to show off their Photoshop skills. Throwing out that practice will be tough, but I think eventually users will demand it in such numbers that developers will be forced to comply.

It’s honestly just better. When I’m looking at Twitter, I don’t want to be mesmerized (read: distracted) by the amount of work that went into creating the background for the toolbar. I want to read tweets. I want to share tweets. I want to tweet. I want all of these actions to be intuitive and simple, and I really don’t care that the designer spent three days getting the right texture on the toolbar. This is not to say that meticulousness in design is out the door. Certainly, I still want my iOS apps to be beautiful. One need only look at Apple’s Weather app to see an example of an app that follows this new strategy but is in incredibly beautiful.

This is a new approach to app design, for sure, but Apple has so far done an admirable job of following their own advice. All of the built-in apps have been rewritten to follow this strategy, though even some of Apple’s apps get sidetracked on their way to this goal. It is clear from using them that this is the right way forward.

Skeuomorphism

Before we get any further into this discussion, we must clarify that there are two types of skeuomorphism. The first is almost unanimously considered bad, and it’s the use of textures that resemble real world objects. That’s the felt and wood table of the iOS 6 Game Center and the “rich Corinthian leather” of Find My Friends and Calendar. And there’s the second, which is almost always labeled good, and it’s the use of real-world metaphors to enhance the usability of an interface. This reaches all the way back to the original Macintosh, with its “desktop” and “folders” that represented real world desktops and folders.

While you’ll hear otherwise, iOS 7 is not devoid of any skeuomorphism. In the first sense, tiny elements of the “bad” skeuomorphism have slipped by the watchful gaze of Ive’s eye. In the second, or “good” sense, skeuomorphism has actually been greatly enhanced and its grasp widened.

The Objectification and Gameification of the Interface

Due to the switch from bitmapped to physics-driven animations, more of the operating system can be manipulated like physical objects. This is most evident in the parallax effect between different layers of the OS. Tilting and shifting the phone can move different layers of the interface to different levels of exaggeration. On the home screen, both the wallpaper and the app icons move when the phone is tilted in effect called “parallax”. The icons move more dramatically to give the appearance that they exist on a different plane nearer to your eye. If you look close enough, you can make out that notification badges exist on an even nearer plane. The effect is the same with modal popovers. Tilting the phone will move the dialogs relative to whatever is behind it. And the same for the Control and Notification Centers.

I am still, three months into it, finding myself playing with parts of the interface, finding amusement in just the way it works. It’s a similar behavioral pattern to the unbending of a paper clip or a cat that can’t stop flapping the corner of a piece of paper. We play with it because we can, because we are bored, because our minds are concentrating intently somewhere else. You’ll find in playing with the OS that it behaves the way it should. The physics engine is in effect everywhere and it shows. It’s entirely brilliant.

The Weather App

The new Weather app is one of my favorites, and it’s very skeuomorphic. Gone is the cards metaphor from iOS 6 and the past, in its place is a fluid plane that can be swiped horizontally to view the weather data of different cities. As you do, the background display of the current weather seamlessly morphs into the next city. Pinch in to zoom out to the overview, where you can add and delete locations, reorder them, and switch between fahrenheit and celsius.

The data view for each location is gorgeous. It’s set against a background of high resolution, animated renderings of the current weather. The data is clear and shows everything you need: highs and lows, hourly breakdowns, and the current temperature. Additionally, tapping the current temperature to view humidity, percent chance of rain, wind velocity, and the heat index (interestingly sometimes it is called “Heat index” and sometimes it is labeled “Feels like”).

It’s a really nice app, but you might notice that it is visually similar to another popular weather app: Yahoo Weather. It really is. Enough that I’m sure there was some collaboration between Apple and Yahoo on the design. The glyphs, layout, and features are all so aligned, it couldn’t have been an accident. I haven’t heard any whispers of a lawsuit, so for now I call it a “collaboration”.

Rough Edges

With any sweeping redesign, you can expect rough edges in iOS 7. When it’s considered just how sweeping of a change 7 is, it’s remarkable how few of these rough edges exist. I’ve been using this OS full time since June 11, and I want to call out every single degradation from iOS 6. But the list isn’t very long.

Letterpress: iOS 7’s Brushed Metal

This little bastard. For some reason, Jony Ive decided that those odd skeuomorphic textures we familiarized with in iOS 6 deserved one holdout on 7. And so we have the letterpress visual style. Two of Apple’s apps, Notes and Reminders, utilize this look, and Apple promotes it as a visual style that third party developers should consider for their own applications. While I call it the brushed metal of iOS 7 in the snarky header above, I really hope developers are smarter this go around.

It’s a nice enough looking approximation of that fancy heavyweight paper stock that letterpress is traditionally performed on. Whoever created the texture should be praised for their graphical talent. Text in this visual style has the effect of looking debossed and it’s very pretty. The whole thing clashes terrible with the rest of the visual direction of 7. but it is directly opposed to the goal of “content-first”. This is all bling for the sake of bling.

Icon Design

I happen to like every single one of iOS 7’s default icons better than their iOS 6 counterparts. Few would be so kind as I. The iconset has been called everything from “ugly” to “plain” to “wrong”. (Two of those I can see the argument for. The other is nonsense.) The most important thing to remember about these icons is that they’re moving in the right direction. Apple was not conservative. Overzealous… maybe. They threw out pretense and approached icon design from a new angle. While some of them miss (Newsstand, Safari), they will be iterated on toward something great.

Apple could’ve stuck with the iconset from iOS 6. They could have stuck with the same designs and just removed the gloss. They could have left the same shapes and made them entirely flat. Those would have been easy options, but Apple instead redid the every single icon starting with a blank slate. Some of them developed very similarly to their older counterparts (Clock, Mail). The direction we’re seeing with them is toward a new perfection, while the old set was getting stale. These icons will be adjusted as the new interface matures. But the direction is better. If you don’t believe me, just try look back to the old Safari icon. Yikes.

(This isn’t a complaint, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere else, so here goes. Regarding the new icon shape, which some say is called a “super ellipse”: I think it’s much improved over the bland roundrect, if a bit hard for developers to recreate for the purposes of creating borders on their icons. Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. I don’t think anyone would complain if we lost the convention of giving games gold-bordered app icons.)

Contrast

Let’s bash on the Notes app some more, shall we? It’s never been a precipice of design, with is retina-searing yellow memo pad of old and the oh-so-beautiful Market Felt typeface. Both are gone in iOS 7, but have been replaced with two new devils. The letterpress stylization mentioned earlier, and a severe lack of contrast. In all their infinite wisdom, the iOS design team decided that the accent color for Notes should be… yellow. Yellow on white. The cardinal sin of readability. It’s so bad, it’s hard to believe it isn’t a joke. Maybe it was. Maybe the conversation went something like this:

Jony Ive: “Let’s design the notes app. It’s been pretty horrid in the past, so let’s buck the trend.”
Intern: “Let’s make it look like real paper.”
Designer: “Yeah, OK. And we’ll make all the labels yellow on white.”
Jony: “That’s brilliant, let’s do it.”
Designer: “Wait what?”

It’s really horrible. There’s no excuse for it. The accent is yellow because memo pads are yellow? No. Shut up. This isn’t a memo pad. How many people even remember memo pads? The only memo pads I’ve seen in the past five years have been digitalizations of them on Apple products. Make it blue, make it red, make it brown, I don’t care. Just not yellow.

To a lesser extent, the issue of contrast persists throughout iOS 7. In most cases, it’s due to the use of an overly thin font with a color that’s just a little bit too light. The abundance of white in the system is a good thing, but it does mean the palette of contrasting, readable colors will need to be a tone darker. Ive and his team got a little too caught up in the lightening and brightening of the interface, and the loss of contrast is just one of the temporary entrails. Give it a year, and if it isn’t fixed in 8, then we can really start screaming.

Game Center Like WTF Guys You’re Making This Harder Than It Is

To keep on the trend of calling out specific apps, let’s talk for a minute about Game Center. It’s almost too perfect an illustration of Apple’s lackadaisical approach to gaming that Game Center has always been such a strange child. Before, it was an ugly mix of glossy wood and green felt. Now it’s glossy 3D bubbles. It clashes violently with the aesthetic of iOS 7.

Apple seems to think that they need to do something special for Game Center, perhaps to show that no, really, we are committed to gaming. Well, listen guys. We understand that gaming isn’t your forte. We know that you’re trying, and honestly it would be much better if you stop treating gamers like they need extra special treatment and just gave Game Center the same standard iOS look that you gave to all your other apps.

There. I said it.


End User Improvements

Too often in redesigns, drilling down far enough into the new interface will reveal bits left untouched, forgotten, swept under the carpet. iOS 7 isn’t like that. Every single built-in application and every single interaction the user can have with the OS has been reskinned and often rethought. It’s very impressive, and such a change, such an undertaking, is certainly worth disecting in minute detail.

Springboard

Springboard has existed for all of iOS’s existence as more or less the same thing: a grid of icons. Along the way we got Spotlight search, home screen wallpapers, and folders, but the metaphor hasn’t changed. That’s a good thing though. As the most basic interaction with the OS, it is important that it remain familiar. Beyond that, I don’t think it has yet grown stale which is a pretty good indicator that Apple got it right the first time around.

Like the touch interface itself, the Springboard feels like such an obvious truth of UI design, and thoughtless calls for it to be replaced are ridiculous. iOS 7 brings the most dramatic graphical change to Springboard ever, but it fortunately remains largely the same. Icons are a different shape, spotlight is in a different location, but it’s all still there and familiar.

Folders

I still remember a time before iOS had folders. Back then, I organized my apps into categorized pages. I had a page for Apple apps, a page for news apps, a page for games, a page for utilities, and so on. Folders as they’ve existed since iOS 4 have been somewhat limited, but still proved an invaluable aid in home screen management. My Springboard dropped from five or six pages pre-iOS 4 to consistently two afterward. Folders in iOS 7 are a massive improvement, and having only one page of apps is entirely feasible.

iOS 7 folders are like mini springboards within Springboard. While limited to a three by three grid, folders now have multiple pages (up to 14, or 126 apps per folder) that you can swipe between. Jiggly-mode lets you organize your apps however you like, just as you can with home screens. The best part? No longer do we have to suffer with folder icons that misrepresent the content. Previously, folder icons showed a 3x3 grid while the folder itself contained a 4x3 or 4x4 grid. Not a huge deal, by jarring if you ever noticed it.

Folders are also gorgeous. Continuing the de-linenification of iOS, folder backgrounds are now frosted glass in appearance, similar to the dock. The color of the glass is affected by where the folder resides on your home screen. When you tap a folder and it zooms in to fill the screen (a delightful animation), the background zooms slightly with it, and the frosted glass adjusts to show what’s now behind the folder. Curiously, the label for the folder moves from the bottom to the top when zoomed in. There’s no explanation for this, other than it’s been overlooked.

Spotlight

Spotlight has moved from the left most Springboard screen to above your home screen. To access it, swipe down on any of your home screens. This is essentially no more than a cosmetic change, though it does have the one hindrance of discoverability. When Spotlight existed to the far left, there was an additional dot next your page dots that, if you looked closely, was actually a tiny magnifying glass. This little glyph told the user that, even when you’ve returned to your main home screen, there’s still another page to the left.

There’s no way to discover that Spotlight now resides above your app icons, you just have to figure it out (lucky I’m here, eh?), but I don’t think that’ll be too much of a problem. Spotlight is not one of iOS’s most popular features, and it’s mostly meant for the power user (many who will be reading reviews like mine) with lots of data stored his or her phone. Plus, the new Spotlight locations has the added benefit of being accessible from any home screen.

Multitasking

“Multitasking” really refers to two connected yet distinct aspects of iOS. The first of which is the app switcher, the interface that’s brought up by two quick taps of the home button, which allows the user to quickly switch between running (or state-frozen) applications. The second is the set of API’s that developers can utilize to make their applications run tasks in the background, while the user is doing something else or even nothing at all on the phone. iOS 7 brings massive improvements to both parts, but I’ll get to the second one later on.

The multitasking UI has been completely redone and is now a near carbon copy of the multitasking interface from WebOS. I imagine that (as with Notification Center), Apple spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do a multitasking interface (notification system) that was different and better than WebOS’s (Android’s). In the end, they had to admit that someone else figured it out before them, suck it up, and copy it. As I was glad that we finally got Notification Center in iOS 5, I’m very glad that Apple decided that statute of limitations on copying an interface was up and gave us a cards multitasking UI.

(Some have pointed out that before WebOS came out with their cards-based multitasking interface, Safari on iPhone had cards to cycle between pages. I’d still dgive credit to Palm for this one.)

In use, the cards interface is just as great as the Palm user told us. Often when I need to switch back to an app for reference, I just open the multitasking UI and look at the screencap of it. For instance, when I am composing a linked list item for this blog, I often get through my commentary only to have forgotten the author’s name (or how to spell it). I can double tap the home button, look at the screenshot of Safari, and tap back into Poster with the name, without ever having to go into Safari to get it. This, which can occur multiple times per day, is an awesome convenience that drastically reduces time spent in your workflows.

Closing apps is also much easier. Just like WebOS before it, swiping up on an app’s “card” quits that app. Since this is iOS, you shouldn’t really ever have to do that, but not all apps are perfect and if one does go rogue, it’s good to know that functionality still exists. (Also nice to know: you can quit multiple apps at once — up to three — by placing a finger on each of them and swiping up in one motion. That’s mostly useless but it should work that way and it does. It’s all in the details.)

Notification Center

Notification Center has been split into three panels: “Today”, “All”, and “Missed”. These panels (though it isn’t hinted at anywhere in the interface) can be swiped between. In the new Today view, you can see an agenda for the day ahead. Reminders, calendar appointments, and birthdays can be displayed alongside a weather forecast. It’s the equivalent of the President’s morning wakeup call. (I can imagine a future version of iOS that, once you’ve silenced your morning alarm, has Siri read you all of the information it has on the day ahead.) By far my favorite addition is the day and date. For too long I’ve been frustrated whenever I cannot remember the date and have to find my first home screen and the calendar icon (or, even more often, lock the phone to see the lock screen). In iOS 7, I can swipe into Notification center and there it is.

Beneath the forecast there is a nod to Yahoo for providing the weather data. This is an odd inclusion for part of an interface that is so prominently and often displayed to the user. Surely Yahoo is not in a position to stronghold Apple into putting it there. It reminds me of iOS 6.1 when the network indicator changed to “4G” for AT&T’s HSPA+ network. It’s never nice to see Apple conceding to powers perceived higher.

The remaining panels, “All” and “Missed”, display your notifications as Notification Center has always done. Many will ask what the different is, and I am here to tell you that I have no idea. From what I can tell, the only different is that notifications in “All” are grouped by app and those in “Missed” are chronological. Why? I have no idea, as this isn’t indicated by their labels. Is it not the nature of notifications that they are things we’ve missed?

Many will also note the lack of sharing buttons in Notification Center. In iOS 5 we got a “Tweet” button that allowed for easily publishing new tweets. iOS 6 expanded this to Facebook status messages, and OS X Mavericks (due this fall) adds the ability to compose a new iMessage. But all of these buttons are absent in iOS 7. I found them useful and miss them, and I think they are a surprising omission.

Control Center

Swipe down from the top of any screen and get Notification Center. Now, swipe up from the bottom anywhere and you’ll get Control Center. Control Center, though a widely requested addition, feels like something we would never get on iOS. At least, never on non-jailbroken iOS. If you’ve ever experimented with jailbreaking, you probably installed something with similar function. Like home screen wallpapers before it, the first time you see it and the first few times you use it, you might feel dirty like you’ve done something to your phone that can’t be forgiven. That feelings wears off, and it quickly becomes another part of your daily iOS workflow. It’s remarkable just how often I find myself using Control Center. Occasionally the iOS 7 beta would bug out and Control Center wouldn’t work and it was infuriating. I cannot imaging going back to any OS that doesn’t provide the same functionality. Like copy and paste, multitasking, and LTE data speeds, regression is liable to drive anyone to insanity.

Safari

The original killer app. The first true mobile browser is further cemented as the best browser available on the phone. While I won’t tease you with any “Safari seems snappier” jokes (whoops), I’ll tell you that you’ll never want to use pre-7 Mobile Safari again. This release isn’t about speed (it’s no slouch, though). The browser interface, or “chrome” as goes the jargon, is the focus of it; it’s been totally redone and is far superior.

Full screen mode, originally an option only in landscape mode, is no longer a choice. Start scrolling, and the toolbars shrink away. Tap anywhere while the page is still, and they’re back. In portrait mode, the top toolbar never fully disappears. When you start scrolling, it shrinks to fill as little vertical space as possible while still displaying your status items and the base URL of the page you’re visiting. Inline with “content-first”, the data you want to see remains in view while the buttons and tools you don’t need fade away.

Speaking of the top toolbar, the URL and search fields have finally been unified, trailing a year behind the unification on OS X, and many years behind Chrome. The “omnibar”, as many call it, is such an obvious interface to the browser that it’s shameful it took so long for Apple to implement it. The excuse I came up with last year was that Apple would have to add an additional row to the keyboard to accommodate punctuation necessary for URL’s and the space bar, necessary for entering search queries. The solution Apple’s come up with, having small punctuation buttons flanking the space bar, is such an obvious move that Apple really has no excuse for taking so long on this. “Finally” is completely apt. Finally. Finally.

The bookmarks pane has been redone how I’d hoped it would be last year. As with the iPad version, we now have three tabs within the bookmarks menu: Bookmarks, Reading List, and Shared Links. Logically, this make a lot more sense than having “folders” within your bookmarks for Reading List and iCloud Tabs — but wait, I didn’t say iCloud Tabs was one of the tabs, did I? It isn’t, because it’s also been moved to a far more logical place in the interface. When you open the new tab view (a somewhat gratuitous 3D effect similar to Windows Vista’s AeroTab) and scroll all the way to the bottom, you’ll find a list of all the tabs open on any instance of Safari on any of your machines.

Back to the bookmarks pane. What is Shared Links? Shared Links parses your Twitter and (strangely) LinkedIn accounts for links shared by your comrades, and collects them into a stream to be tapped through. It works as described, though in my experience I haven’t found it very useful. When I want to see what my Twitter friends are up to, I open my Twitter app, not Safari. At least, I suppose, it isn’t intrusive. I wouldn’t be surprised if this disappears in a further release.

One more thing about bookmarks: finally, Safari on iPhone has found a proper positioning for the bookmarks bar. When a new Safari tab is opened, underneath the omnibar are all of your bookmarks bar bookmarks, presented as a grid of their apple-touch-icon (the icon that’s used if you add a web page to your home screen, which apparently you can still do). Ah, you say, but what if one of your bookmarks doesn’t have an apple-touch-icon? The Mobile Safari team foresaw that inevitability, and if that comes up, Safari will parse the site’s favicon for the most common color and create an icon with the Safari logo to represent the web page. It actually looks very nice.

The browser continues to be iOS’s most polished app. Every year I find myself more enamored with Mobile Safari.

Music

Last year the music app got its first interface refresh since 2007. Its toolbars turned white and its gradients were reduced, similar to the refreshes we saw to the interfaces for the stores. You’d be forgiven, a year ago, for thinking that might be the direction iOS design was heading. With new leadership, that brief portal into the future was cut off. iOS 7’s music app contains few changes (and one big one, which I’ll talk about in a moment) outside the redone interface.

Coverflow is gone, as we should have expected. In its place is a grid of album artwork that looks a whole lot more modern and works a hell of a lot better. Instead of three visual albums, we can see fifteen. Tapping on one zooms in a pops up a tracklist, and it is actually a great way to browse your collection. Cover Flow was flashy (though it didn’t age well), but it was not as usable as Steve Jobs would have liked. I believe that was one of those things Steve Jobs pushed for and never wanted to see the demise off.

Music’s accent color is a delightful pinkish red. The icons across the bottom toolbar have all been redone in the iOS 7 style and they are among my favorites. The iTunes Radio icon, in particular, is so intricately detailed (just look at the antenna) but also simple… I’m in love with that one.

(One Apple fan suggested that the Music app would have been better if the accent color changed based on the album artwork of the song playing, akin to the album view in iTunes 11. This has even been achieved in the recently released Pocket Casts 4. I agree completely. From the mockups he created, it looks really great and only further emphasizes the “content-first” strategy. I hope Apple steals that idea wholesale.)

iTunes Radio

For years now, we’ve been speculating on what Apple would do to compete with Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, and others. Finally, in 2013, we have the answer and it’s called iTunes Radio. Accessible via iOS, OS X, and Apple TV, iTunes Radio is a Pandora-like service that provides customizable (and curated) stations that play songs that sound nice together. For some, this might come as a disappointment. It’s an entirely different model than Spotify or Rdio, which deprecate ownership of music files, and instead acts purely as a music discovery service. Many were expecting Apple to enter that market.

I don’t find iTunes Radio all that surprising. Apple operates the largest music store in the world, let us remember, and it would indeed be surprising if Apple threw this model out in exchange for a streaming anti-ownership model. Retrospectively it is clear Apple was never going to build a Spotify-like service. It wouldn’t make good business sense, not after a decade of building relationships with record labels based on $.99 song sales. “What’s good for Apple will always supersede what’s good for users,” some will begrudgingly state. That’s true, but iTunes Radio isn’t bad for users. In no way is it a subpar service to Rdio or Spotify, it just fits a different model, and it’s a model I (and hopefully many others) prefer. Ownership. If you stop paying your Spotify membership dues, you lose all of the music you’ve accumulated into your “library”. If I switch away from iTunes, all my music files are still my music files. Many say Rdio is “the future”, but truthfully it isn’t superior in philosophy or application; it’s just different, made possible by the future.

In my experience, iTunes Radio performs really well. Whatever engine Apple’s using to power their “songs that sound nice together” feature works. My use of Pandora trailed off as their own S.T.S.N.T. engine ran into its shortcomings. After a couple hours of listening, its queue would get increasingly off track and increasingly worse. Not to mention their obnoxious advertisements.

(Speaking of advertisements, iTunes Radio is indeed ad-supported though I, as an iTunes Match subscriber, have not been subjected to them. I hope and suspect that Apple can strike the right balance with its radio ads. One thing it’s got going for it: it doesn’t hurt Apple’s bottom line if they don’t make enormous profits off the service.)

Messages

A large portion of my iPhone use is in the Messages app. I am in the fortunate position that most of the people I communicate with on a daily basis have Apple products and use iMessage, so almost all of my communication goes through Messages on my Mac or iPhone. That said, the refreshed UI in Messages on iOS had the potential to totally disrupt my day. Fortunately, all of the UI decisions Jony Ive’s team made were good, and Messages is a more powerful and convenient app than ever.

Let’s start with timestamps. This was a feature I wanted and knew would be trivial for Apple to implement, but I didn’t think it something they would bother to implement. I am glad to be wrong. Swiping a conversation to the left reveals the hidden data, for every message sent or received. Apple took the time to do this properly. Before 7, timestamps would appear every fifteen minutes or at the beginning of intervals longer than fifteen minutes, and they’d flow into the stream with the rest of the messages. Clearly redundant, those are now gone. Now if you take a break from texting your buddy for longer than fifteen minutes, you get a slightly thicker margin between the messages. This is subtle and effective. You’ll notice it if you’re looking for it, but you won’t if you aren’t. Exceptional.

In the message thread, the old practice of scrolling to the top to view the call or FaceTime buttons has been replaced with a “Contact” button on the toolbar. Tapping it reveals buttons for calling or viewing more details about the contact. It’s a subtle change but especially effective coupled with Messages’ new behavior of loading older messages automatically when scrolled to the top.

In group messages, encircled contact photos accompany each message sent to you so they can be more easily differentiated. While not every one of your contacts will have an attached photo, you may feel the urge to add them when you start using iOS 7 (this is made a lot easier with Twitter and Facebook contact integration). Turns out, photos are a lot quicker for discerning who sent a message than having to read a name label (which are still there, by the way, for those of you with contacts who for legal reasons cannot be captured on film).

Mail

Until OS X Lion revitalized the OS X Mail app, I considered iOS Mail the best email client in the world. Even after OS X Mail, it comes in at a close second. The simplicity of the thing is profound, and iOS 7 Mail continues that. Borrowing from Mailbox, the much-lauded Gmail app released earlier this year for iOS, you can now swipe a message from the list view and not only find the option to trash it, but also to move it to a folder, mark it as read/unread, or flag it as important or spam.

Another improvement comes from better support for multiple accounts. Previously, in order to drill down into the folder structure of a specific account, you had to back out of the unified inbox, scroll down, and tap into each account individually. With iOS 7, you can customize the display of the main accounts screen and stick their most-used folders to the top. While it doesn’t entirely solve the back, back, back problem that Mail suffers, it helps.

As an app that is presents a lot of content in the form of text to the user, iOS 7’s renewed focus on excellent typography truly shines. It’s a hard thing to communicate with words, but in looking at the screens it’s so obvious that a lot of time was put into getting the sizes, spacing, and line-heights just right for every single display.

Phone, FaceTime, & Contacts

The Phone app and the FaceTime app are now two separate apps. Because, uh… Well, remember when Apple split the iPhone’s iPod app into two separate Music and Video apps in order to match how it was done on the iPod touch and iPad? It’s like that. Now there’s a FaceTime app like there is on the iPod touch and iPad. Well, I say it’s like that, but truthfully it isn’t like that at all. Truthfully, it’s just really stupid. Here’s why.

When the iPod app was split into Music and Videos, it made sense. Those are two clearly different things, enjoyed separately and no one has ever gone into the Video app looking to listen to music or, vice versa, gone into the Music to watch Harry Potter. Splitting them into separate containers cut off the relations. FaceTime and Phone, though, those are both methods for calling someone. It makes sense for them to be contained within a single app, for, you know, calling. It gets worse.

The Phone app, as its included in iOS 7, provides all of the functionality that it did in iOS 6. What I’m saying is, you can still initiate FaceTime calls from the Phone app. And your FaceTime call record shows up in the “Recents” tab. So what, you ask, is the purpose of the FaceTime app? It has none. None at all. If you open it, you can see all of your contacts and even initiate voice calls. Yes, you heard right. You can initiate voice calls from the FaceTime app. Admittedly, your recent voice calls don’t show up in the FaceTime app but… wait, hold on, no excuses. This is totally dumb. You’ll remember this is the same Apple that’s included the Contacts app as a separate application to the Phone app on their iPhones for years. What functionality does the Contacts app provide over the contacts tab in Phone (and now FaceTime)? That’s right: none.

(OK, I’m being harsh. The FaceTime app has one cool feature that might explain its existence on the phone entirely. When you open it and browse through your list of recent calls, favorite, or contacts, you’ll notice that behind the list view and blurred is your face, because the background is actually the live image taken from the front-facing camera. Cool, but… ultimately still dumb. And some part of me is nervous whenever I open that app because I feel like that’s a complete waste of resources. It’s the same part of me that unplugs my laptop as soon as it’s done charging even though that isn’t really a problem anymore.)

Maps

The Maps app has changed little since last year. When you open it for the first time on iOS 7, it will be plenty familiar to you. The iOS 7 look has been painted on top, the lower right page curl has been replaced by an info button, and (for all of you who were clamoring for it) a full screen mode has been added. That’s fine, though. What’s most important and what’s been most controversial is the data, and from what I can tell, it has improved a lot in the past twelve months. The only way to truly test that is to use it, and use it a lot. Complaints about Apple’s mapping data have become increasingly sparse, so I think it is getting better. That said, I have still note multiple times in the past months when Apple Maps have brought me to the wrong location or, most often, very near the right location but not exactly.

(A few months ago it was reported that Apple had bought the mapping firms Locationary and HopStop. Locationary is a Wikipedia-style location database and HopStop, as many of you know, is a very popular and very good app for transit directions. While neither of these acquisitions made their mark on iOS 7, they show that Apple is dedicated to further improving maps. Having recently moved to New York, I’m looking forward to what the HopStop acquisition can bring to the Apple Maps.)

Navigation

My favorite bit of skeuomorphic texture in all of iOS was in the navigation functionality added last year in iOS 6. In case you’ve forgotten, your directions were presented to you on beautifully rendered road signs. Those road signs were intricately detailed, right down to the dithered green background. It was entirely appropriate, which is why it worked so well. The metaphor was exact, mimicking the common road sign to present its digital road signs.

So take it with heart when I say that iOS 7’s navigation surpasses it. There’s nothing special about the interface, the toolbars are the same standard elements found across the board. One of Apple’s stated goals with iOS 7 was to deemphasize the interface to put the focus on the content. On a navigation screen, which has so much content (moving map, distance to next waypoint, estimated time to and off arrival, number of miles remaining, and current road) this philosophy is really able to shine.

It isn’t all good news. 7 adds nearly zero new features to navigation, and not because it is feature complete. I’m surprised, because Apple’s navigation is only a year old, that there is so little that’s changed. Improvements should have started the day after iOS 6 shipped. I’m still shocked that we don’t have speed limit information on the display. This isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. Once you’ve used a navigation system that incorporates speed limit data into its display, it’s incredibly frustrating to go back.

Photos & Camera

Both the Photos and Camera apps have been totally redone for iOS 7. Both are, in this writer’s opinion, massive upgrades. Let’s start with the Camera app. Apple has shown since the introduction of the iPhone 4 that they are dedicated to making the iPhone the best camera phone on the planet. They’ve continued that tradition through this year with the recently announced 5S and through iOS 7.

Live filters are perhaps the most exciting addition. Similar to those popularized in Instagram, iOS 7’s filters provide several nice ways to embellish a photograph before, or (and this is the cool part) while the photo is being taken. Live filters can be quickly switched in an out by tapping the filter button in the lower right corner of the screen. After photos have been composed, these filters can even be removed or swapped for another you like better.

Also building off of Instagram hype is the ability to shoot square-framed photographs. This is built right into the new mechanism for switching between shooting modes. Simple swipe across the photo preview to access Video capture, Photo capture, Square capture, or Panorama capture. The rest of the controls will be familiar to anyone who has used an iPhone camera before, though the UI has of course been updated to reflect iOS 7 style.

Photos

Photos, which sports one of the more handsome iOS 7 icons, introduces new automatic photo management features. Photos are grouped into “collections” based on time and location, so that all of your photos from your vacation in New Orleans are neatly grouped together. These can be zoomed out to further grouping all the way to year views, and in any of these views tapping and scrubbing over thumbnails presents larger previews of the photos within.

In the “Albums” tab you can find the interface we’re all familiar with: separate albums synced via iPhoto, created on the device itself, and your camera roll. Unfortunately, screenshots are still grouped together with photographs and videos still aren’t synced via Photo Stream. This writer would love to see Apple introduce something a more advanced and cloud-integrated photo management system (he’d even pay for it), but it seems we’ll have to wait at least one more year.

Utilities

The iPhone has always shipped with a few necessary but simple applications, and over the years Apple’s added more. In iOS 7, all of these received interface refreshes inline with the new design philosophies. As a whole, these apps have been darkened with a focus on black background and white type. They stand in contrast to the majority of other apps, which are general white and light in color and tone. This differentiation serves effectively to denote them as simple utilities. These aren’t the apps you’ll use every day, for any extended amount of time, or because you actively seek them out. But you’ll need them, and they’ll be waiting for you.

Calculator

The Calculator app receives a visual refresh inline with the other utilities. Darker, more ahem… utilitarian. It looks great, but it hasn’t been given any new features. This may come as a disappointment to users of Soulver, or Calca, or PCalc, but I think for its purpose it is just fine. It’s the default calculator, included because you can’t have a phone without one, and it is meant (though yes, it does contain scientific functions) for simple math that’s a little too complex to do mentally. It’s feature complete; if anything, too complicated.

But iOS 7 does bring one major improvement to Calculator, and that’s through the shortcut to it in Control Center. I’m not sure where the Calculator app is kept on my phone. In a folder somewhere, I’m sure, but I don’t have to think about that anymore. Swipe into Control Center, tap the calculator icon, and it opens, awaiting my calculatory needs. It’s just the sort of feature that benefits from an easily-accessible shortcut. In fact, if Apple removed the calculator app entirely and turned it into a popover accessible via Control Center, I don’t think anyone would complain.

Compass

Remember the last time you had fun with a compass? The one and only time was probably the first time you ever used a compass. Back then you couldn’t fathom what was going on, and most likely assumed witchcraft kept the red arrow pointed north. I bet you miss that. Well, Apple’s redone Compass utility may just transport you back (and not just because you don’t know how an electronic compass works). For me, it was certainly the first time I’ve felt delight with a compass in a long time.

The first thing you’ll notice is that calibration as you’ve known it on every single smartphone thus far is out the window. That’s right: next time you pull out your phone to locate true north, you won’t have to shamefully stuff it back into your pocket to avoid the embarrassment of flinging the phone around in a wild eight pattern to calibrate the sensor. In iOS 7, you’re presented with a circle, and it’s your job to turn the circle white by tilting the phone this way and that. It’s like game, and the prize for completion is a functioning compass. It’s brilliant design. Then you might look down and see the familiar page dots, and you’ll wonder, “What’s on page two of a compass?”. I’ll tell you: it’s a level, and it works great. The center displays the current angle of your phone as a comparison to perfectly horizontal or perfectly vertical, and when you get very very close to either of those models, the whole display turns green. I have found way too much joy in playing with it at my desk.

Goodbye Angry Birds, Compass is all I need.

Stocks

I think we’re all a little surprised that Stocks has stuck around this long. While useful, Stocks isn’t an app that every soul has a use for. On the original iPhone, it made sense for Apple to include little widgety apps because the phone as a whole didn’t do very much. Now, there are plenty of apps for keeping up with the stock market in the store. There’s little reason for Apple to keep around this inessential app as default and unremovable. The app itself has zero new functionality, and even the layout is more or less identical to what we’ve seen in all prior versions of iOS. It is a beautiful, for sure. Perhaps some will find a use for it while they await their favored stock market tracker to become iOS 7-ready.

Clock

Live icon. That’s all you need to know. It’s great. Almost entirely useless, but great. Other than that, the Clock app hasn’t changed much. Yes, naturally, the interface is entirely new, and it is one of the more handsome iOS 7 apps. Typography is front and center, with lots of data represented by words and numbers. Interestingly, you can see in the clock’s app one of the few alterations Apple has made to Helvetica Neue: round colons. It’s a tiny thing but it does look nicer than square, at least blown up to this size.

Voice Memos

Voice Memos used to be an ugly unintuitive bastard. In iOS 7, it’s now a beautiful unintuitive bastard. It was always difficult to figure out how to switch between your past memos and the recording screen, and the distinction in iOS 7 is even more convoluted.

If I tap an item in my list of memos, the screen slides up to reveal my full list. But how do I get back to the recording screen? Do I swipe down? Tap Edit? Press the record button? It’s apparently the last one, but I really don’t understand why it isn’t a swipe down. When you first launch the app, 3/4 of the screen is dominated by timeline of your next recording (yes, the one you haven’t taken yet), and when you press the record button it begins to fill up. But even after you’ve recorded, there’s no way to swipe through the timeline. To fast forward or rewind or even play your message, you have to tap “Done”, name your new note, and then tap it in the list view and tap play. The entire interface is stupid. It looks great (and it has one of the best looking icons in the entire new set) but at the massive expense of working in any way that you’d expect.


The Apple Social Network

Last year when I reviewed iOS 6, I wrote about Apple’s social network. No, not Ping. Remember Ping, Apple’s failed music-oriented Twitter rip-off that was built into iTunes and used by nobody? Back then, everyone was screaming at Apple to “get social” because they clearly didn’t “get social”. After Ping’s failure, the casual observer would think Apple gave up on “getting social”. Cleverly, Apple has been building a different kind of social network, one that fits entirely into their vertically-oriented business. Instead of a common service, Apple’s network is built on a network of common devices.

Social Integration

In iOS 5 Apple gave us our first dose of social integration when it baked Twitter sharing into any action sheet where it made sense. Facebook and Yelp followed in iOS 6, and this year we’ve got two more: Flickr and Vimeo. The sharesheet gets crowded if you’ve got all of them enabled, but luckily they’ll only appear if you’re logged into them in Settings. These social integrations are the fattest red herring distracting us from Apple’s own social network. Surely a company looking to lock its customers into a network of their own wouldn’t integrate other services. But Apple recognizes that they can’t never disrupt the established players. They’re not so arrogant to think that they can replace Facebook. Ahem.

By integrating these other services deeply into the OS, Apple appeases its customers that use these services, locking those customers into using the Apple device, regardless of which photo sharing service they prefer. I expect these integrations to continue every year. (Maybe with mid-cycle updates as well. With filters and more advanced editing features built in to iOS 7 photos, I’d love to see Instagram sharing built right into the sharesheet.)

But, you say, what about iMessage and FaceTime? Aren’t these cases where Apple entered established markets with their own service? Yes, because Apple identified these markets as ones they could succeed in (and they have).

iMessage & FaceTime

It started with FaceTime in the iPhone 4. At the time, Apple didn’t know what they were on the path to creating. The strategy of a ‘social network of devices’ probably hadn’t been born yet. Famously on stage at WWDC 2010, Steve Jobs announced that FaceTime would be developed into an open standard. That never happened, and I don’t think it ever will. So why not integrate Skype? Apple likes to own their services, of course, but that doesn’t fit entirely with the strategy I discussed above. The success of FaceTime might honestly have been a happy accident.

A year later, iMessage shipped with iOS 5 and we got a truly disruptive evolution of SMS texting. Chat of course has existed since the IRC boards of old. Apple competes here with Google and Facebook and AOL and a host of others, but because they could integrate the service directly into the Messages app on every single iPhone, Apple knew they could best all the others. In a stunning move, they completely bypassed the carrier’s control of texting, enticing customers with a free and superior service to the expensive world of SMS. This time around, Apple made no illusions of openness. By this point, they’d probably figured out what course they were on. Those of us that latched onto iMessage were locked into iOS devices.

Three years after FaceTime shipped, we now have FaceTime audio. True voice-over-IP telephony service baked into every iPhone sold. Again, Apple is bypassing the carrier’s old lock-in on voice calling without so much as a curt nod. All the iPod touch needs to become a full-fledged smartphone is a cellular data connection.

Photo Streams

Last year, Apple introduced shared Photo Streams. While there are many different ways to share photos, they are all specialized in one way or another. 500px is for showcasing your very best shots with a community of professional photographers. Flickr is for discussing your best shots with your friends. Instagram is Twitter for photo sharing. Shared Photo streams fills another niche, by allowing you to share collections of photos with friends and families. You can give the grandparents all the latest pictures of the new baby, or collect all the photos your friends took on the recent trip to New Orleans into one place. It’s similar to Facebook’s photo galleries, but a more dedicated, integrated, and ultimately more social service.

AirDrop

In iOS 7, we see Apple’s biggest social push yet. Featured prominently on every sharesheet is the button for AirDrop. Introduced way back in 2010 in OS X Lion, AirDrop was originally for sharing files quickly between Macs on the same wireless network. Finally in iOS 7 it has come to iPhones and iPads, with basically the same function but between iOS devices. Tap on the button to share a photo or document or webpage (or whatever else), tap a contact, and (once the other user confirms the transaction) the file is on its way.

Bump and the bump rip-off baked into Samsung’s Galaxy phones have provided similar file sharing for awhile, of course, but AirDrop is a much more elegant solution. I really don’t want to have to touch my phone with whoever I’m sharing with. A button works just fine.

Infuriatingly and nonsensically, AirDrop doesn’t work between iOS devices and Macs. When I heard that AirDrop was coming to iOS, I thought it would finally solve the problem of “how do I get this thing to where I want to work on it”. There are many theories for why, including the way in which AirDrop on iOS uses WiFi and Bluetooth for peer-to-peer connections, but I call bullshit. It’s 2013, and I still email myself regularly to get files where I want them. Like an animal. Come on, Apple.

iWork for iCloud

While this isn’t a feature of iOS 7 (at least not yet), Apple did release a beta of iWork for iCloud earlier this summer. Some of you will remember Apple’s previous take on cloud productivity apps with iWork.com, but iWork for iCloud is a new approach. Like Google Docs on steroids, Keynote, Pages, and Numbers documents can now be edited using full-featured and gorgeous web apps. This isn’t the place to elaborate, but they are seriously impressive.

What’s more interesting is the social (or at least sharing) propositions of iWork for iCloud. Apple has promised new versions of iWork for iOS and OS X (both of which are currently long-in-the-tooth) for later this year, and I’d be surprised if they don’t integrate tightly with iWork for iCloud. I envision being able to share and collaborate on iWork documents with anyone else on the web, with changes pushed immediately not only to the web version of a document, but the local versions on all my devices. Collaboration, in real time across the internet, within native applications.

If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like Google Docs, you’d be right. But more or less that’s what I want. Google Docs, but made by Apple so that it is integrated with my native (and superior) apps.

When It All Comes Together

So far Apple’s social network is a rather loose conglomeration of services. At least it seems that way. We must remember though that Apple’s end goal isn’t to lock us into any particular service, as long as the services we are locked into are on Apple devices. As the network continues to be enhanced and come together, we probably won’t notice. It’ll be gradual. As long as Apple continues to build the best devices and the best OS on the market, it won’t matter. The lock-in shouldn’t hurt us, and the integration will be a boon. If we are ever to leave Apple behind, most of our data should be in other services. We’ll just have to find another phone maker that’s built those services in as well as Apple has.


Developer Improvements

It’s time now, if you’ve made it through all of that, to look behind the curtain at some improvements Apple has made for developers. I haven’t covered everything, but I’ve tried to touch on some of the things I found most important. If you’re a developer, you will know about most of these already. What follows are brief descriptions of API improvements that I believe will really impact what users get out of their phones.

Backgrounding

By the time multitasking arrived in iOS 4, users were sorely missing it. Android had been bragging about its ability to stream Pandora in the background for months, and we were jealous. The limited multitasking iOS 4 gave us was a great compromise that kept iPhone battery life the best in the industry and introduced greater usability for third party audio, navigation, and calling.

Three years was a long wait, but Apple’s finally got around to expanding on those multitasking API’s. In a surprising turn, they’ve actually opened them up quite a bit. All of the improvements are good and needed, but somehow they don’t feel like enhancements I ever thought Apple would allow. I can’t really say “good on them” for that, but thank goodness.

Background Fetch

First, the big one: background updates. Previously available in limited capacity and only for Newsstand apps, now all applications have the ability to download data when they aren’t running. Developers configure their applications for background updates and set an interval for how quickly after their app leaves the foreground it asks to be updated. This interval can be as long or as short as the developer wishes, however iOS makes no promises to follow it exactly.

iOS 7 smartly coalesces background fetches and aligns them to times when the device is already up and doing something. If the user pulls out his/her phone to check the time, iOS will need to start up and in that time it will wake up third party apps that have requested background time. This method minimizes battery drain in a system that, left unchecked (in say… Android) would mutilate battery hours. When a device’s battery is low, updates are further apart, as the OS works to keep the device going for as long as possible.

In an attempt to be even smarter about it, iOS 7 will attempt to learn the habits of the user. If you wake up every morning and open the Weather app, iOS will soon start to allow Weather to update in the background right before it expects you to open it. In practice, this might not be effective but for a couple uses. I open Reeder, Twitterific, and Felix at about 7:00 every morning, so I expect iOS to start updating those a few minutes before 7. Beyond mornings, my use is sporadic and I expect that’s true for most users. Still, it’s valiant of Apple to put such effort behind backgrounding to get it to eek the least juice possible while still giving developers powerful API’s.

If an app does manage to go rogue, force-quitting from the App Switcher will remove an app’s ability to get refreshed in the background, at least until is relaunched. Additionally, there’s a new page in Settings that allows the user to toggle background app refreshes on and off individually for each app that’s requested it.

Background refreshes will be notes in the App Switcher. This is handy for Twitter and email applications and the like, presumably because users will see the new content loaded into them when flicking through the App Switcher. This feature is accomplished by having the app create a new snapshot whenever it finished a background refresh. For saved-state apps, this snapshot becomes the new screenshots seen in App Switcher. (This is the same snapshot that saved-state apps will briefly flash when they are reopened, before they can show the live screen.)

With background fetch, Apple has given a lot more freedom than developers have come to expect from multitasking API’s. That’s good and bad. Good, because good developers will be able to utilize it and our feed readers, ADN clients, and Instapapers will be much better apps. Bad, because it’ll be easy for bad developer to abuse it. That’s mostly good, I think, and Apple’s done a lot to keep it from getting out of hand.

Remote Notifications

The second new multitasking API in iOS 7 is an enhancement of the veritable push notification: Remote Notifications. In fact, they aren’t entirely new. Newsstand apps have had access to a very similar API for almost two years, but in iOS 7 access has been granted to all.

Previously, push notifications were siloed and solitary. Developers could send them to devices but that was about it. When a user swiped a new notification from their lock screen, the developer’s app would open and only then would the new content load. iOS 7 reorders the process.

Now, a developer can optionally have their app hold the new push notification until the new content is loaded. If a Twitter app, for example, receives a push notification that its user has been @mentioned, the app can load that new tweet before sending the notification on to the user. This way, when the user taps or swipes the notification and the app opens, the tweet they were mentioned in is waiting for them.

A second form of these notifications is the “silent” notification. These skip the step of notifying the user. iOS received a push notification from the developer’s server and wakes up the app to deliver the message. The app is given a few seconds to run in the background, on the pretense that the push notification most likely contains instructions to start a download of some content.

Silent notifications are rate limited. Whereas visible notifications are expected to be controlled by the user (if a user finds an app is over-notifying, he/she can easily turn off or limit them), silent notifications will be invisible to the user and so the OS takes it upon itself to set the number that come through.

Developers aren’t limited by the number of silent notifications they can send to a user, however Apple’s push servers will stop apps attempting to send what it sees as too many (Apple says 1 or 2 per hour is OK), hold on to the notifications, and then send them in batches at a rate it sees fit. If the content being called via silent notifications is critical, it’s advisable that developers limit themselves so as to not run into these inhibitions.

You’ll have noticed that silent notifications and background fetch serve the same purpose: updating an app’s content without the user’s knowledge or intent. They both have their advantages, though. Silent notifications work best for content that is critical or sporadic. If your app doesn’t know exactly when its content will be updates (with say, email), a silent notification works best because it will notify the app as close as possible to when new content is made availalble, and it will only wake up the app to download content when new content is available. Contrasted, Background Fetch works best for content that is updated at regulary intervals or very frequently. Twitter streams, for example, will be best updated with Background Fetch since new content will be arriving constantly and the app can retrieve it in batches. (Twitter mentions and DM would fit into the silent category, though, as mentioned earlier.)

Background Transfer Service

The third and final new multitasking API in iOS 7 is meant for large file transfers, and that’s Background Transfer. Background Transfer is one universal download/upload queue for all third party apps.

In the past, apps were afforded about 10 minutes after they left the foreground to complete and upload or download operations, and these were managed by the app itself. iOS 7 removes this time limit and shifts management to the OS. If an app needs content uploaded or downloaded, it enqueues it using the Background Transfer API and iOS handles the rest, delivering the content (or receipt of upload) when it’s done.

Transfers can be unqueued from the foreground or the background, and therein lies Background Transfer’s biggest limitation: a subset of transfers are labeled “discretionary”, which means they will only be downloaded over WiFI. While transfers initiated by a foreground app can optionall be tagged discretionary, all background enqueues are labeled discretionary. It would make more sense for the deference to WiFi being owed to the size of a download/upload, or perhaps to restrict each app to 50 MB per day or week of cellular data use.

Since iOS is managing the entire queue, updates can be coalesced for performance. iOS will minimize the energy hit by performing updates simultaneously and when the device is already awake and performing some other task. This does introduce a further limitation of these API’s, though it’s one that I think developers will have to live with: there’s no guarantee that new content will be available in any expected timeframe. This is simply a side effect of Apple’s efforts to reduce battery drain, and I don’t expect it to change in the foreseeable future.

The old background task API is still around, and can still be useful for applications that need to complete one last save or modification on a task when they unexpectedly leave the foreground. However, the time limit on task completion has been reduced drastically to only a few seconds. It it therefore necessary for developers to switch all of their big transfers over to the new system and limit the use of task completion to only the very quickest of “finishing up” tasks.

Guidelines

It’ll benefit all apps on a given system if developers do their best to optimize their background tasks. The fewer resources used, the more resources available for all to use. Apple thinks they’ve done their part in this bargain, but it’ll still be on developers to ensure these new API’s are implemented correctly and used responsibly. Note that that doesn’t necessitate very limited use; just be smart about.

Since more apps than ever will be allowed to run full-fledge in the background, it’s wise to revisit some general advise. The responsible developer will ensure that unnecessary parts of their app (say, the rendering engine in a game) are turned off in the background. They’ll minimize the amount of IO and the number of transfers needed by coalescing beyond what Apple can control. Apple seems to finally be ceding to the demands of developers here, and it’d be wise not to abuse what they’ve given us.

There’s also a toggle in Settings (and eventually an API to check the status of this setting) to allow the user to turn off background refresh for any app they wish. Use these API’s irresponsibly and expect to see your background privileges stripped.

The Snapshot

One more thing on backgrounding, and it’s a small one. The snapshot, the screenshot that is stored when an app enters the background, is now being used a lot more frequently. When a saved-state app is reopened, instead of the default.png iOS will load the snapshot. This provides a much less jarring and more seamless flow into using an app that is no longer running in the background but has saved its position for you for next time.

Text Kit

Text Kit is a new API layer built on top of Core Text. Core Text, as some of know, is a powerful but complicated API layer. Excepting only the most enterprising developers, access to the Core Text API’s used to be filtered through WebKit. In previous versions of iOS, UIWebView was a developer’s best option for building an interface with beautiful typography. 7 deprecates those techniques, with all rendered text converted to Text Kit.

If we go back to iOS 7’s core philosophies, you’ll remember that one of them is typography. Since the original Macintosh, typography has been essentially important to Apple. Text Kit advances that by providing tools that allow developers to easily create layouts with beautiful typography. The important decisions that go into typesetting have been made for developers, and knowledge of typography is no longer an essential skill.

Text can now easily be placed in columns and paginated. Rich text support is now integrated at the API level, available for all applications to read and write. The developer now has finite control over the break points when text is truncated. These are complicated issues, but so ubiquitous that it makes sense for implementation to be handled at the OS level. Less ubiquitous but cool: wrapping text around arbitrary shapes (think about the demo Apple loves to show with every new release of Pages) is now accomplished with only a few lines of text. The ease of use with which advanced techniques can now be implemented will surely push the standard for third party app typography.

My favorite addition: kerning and ligatures is now system wide and on by default. These tiny details are clearly the “right” thing to do but aren’t for all intents and purposes “necessary”. It’s not something the user will see. It’s the piece of wood on the back of the dresser. Few will notice, but if you have any passion for your work, you can’t be satisfied with it any other way.

Dynamic Type

By far the most exciting aspect of Text Kit is Dynamic Type. Remember how I said typographic decisions are now handled by Apple? This is how developers utilize Apple’s expertise.

Dynamic Type provides a series of professionally-designed, hand-tuned, and optimized type styles. These styles have been tweaked to look great for every font and font size built into the OS. Each includes styles for body text, headings, subheadings, footers, and captions. These styles are easily applied to any string of text via a drop down menu in Interface Builder.

Choosing different typefaces is trivial, requiring only a single call compared to the several needed to build new typefaces in iOS 6. With Symbolic Traits, developers can select bold or italic variations of a font or adjust line- and letter- spacing. Even though Apple has made a lot of decisions in Text Kit, control is ultimately up to the developer, if he/she wants to assume the role.

The “dynamic” part of Dynamic Type comes into play with a font size slider in Settings. Adjusting it adjusts the font size of all apps utilizing Dynamic Type. This includes all of Apple’s built-in applications, which have all been rewritten to utilize Type Kit and Dynamic Type. Developers will have to explicitly support this this aspect of Dynamic Type (called “preferredContentSizeChanged”). It’s easy, though, and because users will quickly begin to expect support in all of the apps they use, I predict most app developers will quickly get on board.

Dynamic Type in many situations will eliminate the need for app developers to support changing the default font size in their apps. While apps meant for reading (Kindle, Instapaper) might want to keep these around, RSS and email applications will be able to remove these settings that can clutter their UI. Apple has recognized a control that most apps need and implemented it through a systemwide setting, which I think is much better. It’s consistent.

In all likelihood, that hook won’t be necessary. Dynamic Type is such an enormous advancement in application typography that I expect every application that uses type (basically every app that isn’t a game) to implement it.

iCloud

iCloud took a lot of shit last year, most of it warranted. Apple would have had you believe that iCloud was the future of file systems. Unlike Maps, their PR campaign for iCloud never shifted from “it’s amazing” and “it just works”, even though it wasn’t and didn’t. Which is remarkable, because iCloud has been a much bigger failure than Maps. The key difference being the domain of the failure. Maps failed for end users, iCloud failed for developers. The end user aspects (email, mostly) have worked pretty well, but the developer API’s have been neglected. Apple treats their developers well, but ultimately end users are more important for their business.

So while I hesitate to label anything “what is should have been a year ago”, with iCloud, I’m just hoping that it is what it should have been a year ago (or even two). The message to developers has been that it is, and that developers who’ve been burned in the past should try again. But who knows. Who knows if developers will want to, and only if they do will we find out if Apple’s improvements to iCloud live up to their claims.

Core Data

Apple’s big push with Core Data this years is that they’ve drastically reduced the work developers must do to integrate its API’s into their apps. Previously, Core Data provided little more than a synced datastore, tied to each iCloud account and walled off for each app to use in its sandbox. Going forward, new API’s will enable Core Data to take on a lot more.

The iCloud API’s will now handle the fallback datastore, or the local copy of a user’s app data that is used before a connection to iCloud is established, or when it is entirely unavailable. It was previously up to the developer to create and store this local copy, and then to handle the tradeoff and application of changes when the iCloud connection is established. In iOS 7, the fallback store and iCloud store look almost identical to the app, and both the store of the local copy and tradeoff will be handled by iCloud.

iCloud will now handle multiple accounts and account switching. Apple used to provide little guidance on what app developers should do if the device’s iCloud account is deleted or changed. Going forward, this swap will be handled by iCloud. When iCloud sees that the account has changed, it will publish any local changes from the old account to iCloud, delete the old account’s persistent store from the device, and swap in the store for the new account.


For a bit of perspective, it was only 11 months ago that Tim Cook fired Scott Forstall. In less than a year, Jony Ive and Craig Federighi’s design and development teams have totally reshaped iOS, in appearance and vision. It would have been a heck of a lot easier for them to slap the new features and API’s onto iOS 6 and call it a day, to shelve the interface replacement for just one more year.

In many ways iOS 7 is the first thing post-Steve Jobs Apple has done that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have done. Now, I have a lot of personal regard for Steve, so make of this what you will. But I honestly believe that, had Steve Jobs been able to see iOS 7, he would have recognized how much better it is. Or, more likely, he’d have cursed the designers out the room and come back the next day claiming it was his idea all along.

Casual Indeed

When the wealthiest author in the world, the author of a series of books that sold over 400,000,000 copies, a series of books that spurned the most successful film franchise of all time, releases her first out-of-franchise followup, it is expectedly a big deal.

The Casual Vacancy on a Red Chair

It is unexpected that that followup is an idle political novel about a pastoral English village. No one could have predicted The Casual Vacancy. It’s true that we didn’t know really what to expect, but at the least I and others probably thought her next book would land to similar praise and adoration as her others. As I read through it, I constantly was waiting for something big to happen. My expectation of a “Rowling” novel was bent by the fantastic adventures of Harry and friends. Unfortunately I could not appreciate Vacancy for the earth-bounded story it is. I found myself guilty of the thing I’ve poked fun at so often. As so many have lambasted Apple for not delivering earth-shattering revolutionary products at every single event, I was heartbreakingly disappointed with Rowling for not delivering another smash hit.

Stylistically, Vacancy is exquisite. I mustn’t have realized it, as I grew up alongside the Harry Potter novels, reading each of them in turn as they came out, but Rowling’s writing has really matured. Comparing Vacancy to Philosopher’s Stone, the quality of the writing has gone from great to lust-worthy. Don’t get me wrong, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is one of my favorite novels, and the writing is great. Vacancy is just that much better.

To use a specific example, this was my first encounter with extended parentheticals, and I love them. Syntactically, they are super effective delineating a passage (often a long passage) that breaks from the set narrative. Whether it be a flashback, an extended description, or other diatribe, it is made clear that this little bit (right here) is separated. Of course they wouldn’t be so effective if they weren’t placed with the utmost care. J.K.’s shows an amazing aptitude for placing them exactly where they ought to be, providing clarifications and deviations at exactly the times they are needed and never when they would disrupt any of the import, climactic business going on. I could continue attempting to explain exactly why they’re so delightful, but honestly it would be much easier if you read the book and discovered for yourself.

In this novel, for the first time in her writing career, Rowling experiments with out-of-sequence, Pulp Fiction-y storytelling. Throughout the first part of the novel, the point-of-view shifts between different characters and different moments in the timeline of their lives. As we’ve come to expect from Rowling, the backstories are richly detailed. Often tidbits from their background are revealed through those extended parentheticals. The impression given is that Rowling has spent many months in the village of Pagford researching all of the intricate details of every single one of her invented characters. She must have volumes of notes in equivalent detail to those she created for the Harry Potter universe, but with every detail of Pagford jotted.

(I like to imagine that the Harry Potter series, The Casual Vacancy, and the Cormoran Strike series all take place on the same alternate Earth. Actually, I prefer to imagine that it isn’t an alternate Earth at all.)

Fortunately since I read it I’ve had many months1 to reflect. Over time my opinion of it has grown fonder, and my disappointment has waned. The Casual Vacancy is a read not meant to keep you up into the wee hours turning pages. The characters aren’t remarkable. They are human. Humans are boring. They are relatable. Muggles. When you can accept all of that, it’s a lot easier to praise its delights.

I was initially disappointed but this novel isn’t disappointing. It can be difficult to accept that your favorite fantasy author isn’t actually a “fantasy author”, but it’s a good thing. Limiting J.K. Rowling’s talents to one genre wouldn’t be any fun at all. The Casual Vacancy is a superb example of the kind of novel I wouldn’t usually read.

A detective novel, though… that’s something I could get into.


  1. Including the four months it’s been since I promised this review↩︎

Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens

The first computer I remember loving was my 12-inch “second generation “dual-USB” iBook.

I owned many computers before it, hand-me-downs from an eccentric grandfather. All of them ran Windows XP, often poorly. When the last of them crapped out, I was given the iBook. This was in 2007, and by then the machine was going on six. It too was recycled, this time from my schoolteacher grandmother. It was my first experience with a Mac, and it was great.

If I was handed an equivalent machine today, I’d probably toss it. Back then, I dealt with the quirks that come with owning an aged, outdated machine because I didn’t know any better. It had a 10 gigabyte hard drive and a PowerPC processor whose speed was measured in megahertz. The ethernet port demanded constant upward pressure to maintain a connection1. If you dared to alter the position of the hinge, the backlight would eek revenge and shut off. To adjust the angle of the display, you had to put the machine to sleep, make your adjustments, and wake it back up again. My iBook’s idiosyncrasies were nothing if not infuriating.

But god dammit, those details didn’t matter. That machine was reliable. Every single day I trusted it to boot up and run Firefox and AIM2 and TextEdit and every single day it did. I was involved with a couple internet communities (far too deeply than I care to admit) and my iBook was my only method of connection. And it did. I’ve never since used an Apple product for so close to its intended use. I was uninhibited by the computer and its components, and I just used the damn thing.


With college coming this fall, a laptop was at the top of my shopping list. When the MacBook Air was updated two weeks ago, I made a purchase. I’ve been using it for a week now, and it’s great. It’s the best computer I’ve owned. In so much of it I see my punchy little iBook.

I’m savvier now, but I find myself just as uninterested now in the specifications and details of my laptop as I was then. Rest assured, the storage is measured in triple digits and the clock speed in gigahertz. Many laptops on the market are boasting about their super high-resolution touchscreen displays. The Air might seem archaic in comparison. Its screen is small and low-resolution. It isn’t even and IPS panel. As with my iBook six years ago, these details don’t matter.

The Thine Edge of the MacBook Air

My machine is reliable and solid. It runs the best operating system in the world. It runs all of the apps I need, and runs them well. Most importantly, it gets out of the way and allows to me do my best creative work. That’s the essence of every thing Apple makes. Six years ago I missed this remarkable distinction of Apple products. Now I’m fully aware.

While the 2013 iteration of the MacBook Air isn’t too different from the last, and though it might not match up in a checklist comparison to other Windows notebooks on the market, it is the best computer I have ever owned. Perhaps the best in the world.


  1. Mine was not AirPort equipped. ↩︎

  2. Those were cool once. ↩︎

Modern Vampires

Last year when Jukebox the Ghost released their third album, Safe Travels, I was critical of it for getting too serious at a detriment to the fun and upbeat style I loved about them. I posited a theory of “third album syndrome” and wondered if Vampire Weekend could escape it. Turns out they could. Modern Vampires of the City, Vampire Weekend’s third effort, is out now. I’ve been listening to it for a week now, and it’s my favorite album of all time.

Modern Vampires is a continuation of the technological experimentation first pushed with 2010’s Contra. Auto tune, pitch-shifting, and echoes all play a part in the first single off the album, “Diane Young”. It’s modern, in that it is available to the band only through computers, but it sounds and feels completely natural. It’s so tastefully done you don’t recognize it as techno. It’s just good punk rock.

Modern Vampires of the City on Vinyl

Modern Vampires pushes also the clever lyrics and wordplay we’ve come to expect of Vampire Weekend. “Leave me to myself / Lead me to my cell” is a particular favorite, off “Everlasting Arms”. “Hannah Hunt” is brimmed with eloquent lyrics: “A gardener told me some plants move but I could not believe it / Til me and Hannah Hunt saw crawling vines and weeping willows / As we made our way from Providence to Phoenix”.

“Hannah Hunt” is my favorite track off the album, and I think Vampire Weekend’s best track to date. It, like all of the songs on Modern Vampires, has been ceaselessly iterated upon. Nuances catch your attention the third, fourth, and eighth times you listen to it (and you will). When Ezra Koenig sings “In Santa Barbara…” the guitar shifts to a tropical sound and you can hear the lapping waves of the ocean in the background. It may sound cheasy reading about it, but trust me, it is beautiful. “Hannah Hunt” is a soft track for two and a half minutes, and then five drum beats bring it into the most equisite ninety seconds of songmaking I’ve ever heard.

All of the songs give of this aura of development and iteration. It is clear that the Vampires have been relentless pursued perfection on this record. Each song is handcrafted and stands on its own. At the same time, they are together cohesive and tell a story. Said Rostam Batmanglij (guitar, keyboard, and backup vocals) in a recent interview:

I think we realized there’s no easy way to arrive at having twelve songs that you’re very proud of. There’s no shortcuts that can be taken. You just have to write and write and write and rewrite and revise. Hopefully that’s what we’ll always do. We’ll always be as hard on ourselves as we were on this record.

If I had one major criticism of Vampire’s debut, it would be that the tracks were too individual. Individually great, yes, but as a whole it eas clear the album was a collection of singles. Contra swung perhaps too far in the other direction; the songs didn’t stand quite so well on their own. Modern Vampires of the City is right in the middle. It’s best listened to as a whole, straight through, but you can shuffle it into your other music as you please. I don’t imagine you’ll want to listen to anything else, though. At least for a while.

Waiting three years for Modern Vampires sucked, no doubt. But if this is what Vampire Weekend can deliver with three years of work, then bring on 2016.

Simple

This January I switched from Bank of America to Simple. Simple is an “e-bank”, and what I mean by that is they don’t have physical branches. What that means for their customers is that there’s no tellers to aid you through withdrawals or deposits. Personally, I had already been using ATM’s for all of my interactions with my bank, so an online-only bank was just fine. Besides, e-banks have one distinct advantage: a real incentive to make their online presence great.

This is where Simple excels far beyond any of their competitors, online or otherwise. They’ve already been likened to Apple, and I’d agree.

The Card

It starts with the card. Have you ever seen a better looking debit card? It is simple1 and beautiful. There are no unnecessary colors or artwork. A small logo and card data; that’s all that’s there and all you need. Just compare it to my old card and you’ll see. All cards should be this pretty. Because it isn’t flashy, it won’t call attention to itself (which is smart), except when you hand it to a cashier (“What is that?”).

A minor nitpick: the numbers on the card are the same plain white, and that is sometimes troublesome when entering card information online. For the most part, it’s a nonissue. Simple claims that the numberes blending in is a safety feature. To that end I say meh. If someone’s close enough to read the numbers off my card, it’s probably because they just swiped2 it.

The App

Moving on, we have Simple’s iPhone app3. Having used Bank of America’s iOS apps for three years, I can tell you Simple’s are in a league their own. The interface is thought out and intuitive. In lieu of blue gradients, Simple has chosen to texture the interface widgets. Sometimes, this idea gets out of hand, but in Simple’s case it is just gorgeous. The icon, too, is just wonderful.

The featureset is powerful (and growing). You can check your “Safe-to-Spend” amount, see what your saving, view and add metadata to transactions, deposit checks, schedule bills and other payments, and locate ATM’s4.

I’d like to detail one feature: photo check deposits. Most banks now have them, and they’re generally terrible experiences. With Simple, they took a little longer than most but did it so much better. You take a photo of your check, and within two days it is credited to your acccount. Is that as fast as an ATM? Nope. But that’s a minor drawback for an all-around superior banking experience.

I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy using a banking app. It’s gotta get over a huge barrier, after all: reminding me how poor I am. Simple’s done it. There’s no going back.

The Site

Simple’s website is another masterpiece. Combining the standard stream of transactions with some excellent analytical data, Simple has produced a modern banking website that’s enjoyable to look at as much as it is to use.

The more you peruse the site, the more tiny details you pick up on that Simple’s considered. One of my favorites is how Simple quickly learns which day your paychecks arrive on and then averages them to let you know how much you should be expecting and when. It’ll then use that data to build graphs showing how much your spending on each paycheck. It is all very useful and helpful.

My favorite feature, however, is Goals. With Simple, the concept of having separate checking and savings accounts is gone. Instead, we have a singular account (that does accumulate interest) and Goals. Goals allow you to take money from your “Safe-to-Spend” amount and place it into a digital shoebox for spending later. It can be a fixed amount, or Simple can take a bit each day toward a “goal”. It’s ingenius; I can’t believe no one else was doing this.

Let’s back up for a moment: I’ve mentioned “Safe-to-Spend” a couple times now. What’s that, you ask? “Safe-to-Spend” is Simple jargon for the amount of money it’s OK for you to spend right now. Your disposable income. “Safe-to-Spend” takes your available balance and removes any payments you have scheduled, money you have in goals, and pending transactions. It’s genius and, again, I can’t believe it’s the first time I’ve seen it.

The Wrap-Up

The best moment I’ve had with Simple so far happened at my local Apple Store. I had stopped in to purchase an extra Lightning cable, and when I handed my card to the blueshirt he asked how I liked Simple. I told him it was great, and he told me he was still waiting on his invite, and so I sent him one, right there in the Apple Store.

Simple is an fresh take on the traditional checking account. Who would have guessed that people would be jonesing for an invite to a bank? I always though people hated banks. Simple is great. Its founders are dedicated to building the absolute best banking experience. It’s getting better all the time. If you’re interested, you can follow along with its development on their blog.


  1. Go figure. ↩︎

  2. Pun absolutely intended. ↩︎

  3. They’re on Android, too, and I’m sure that’s great. ↩︎

  4. There are over 40,000 free ATM’s nationwide. ↩︎

The iPhone 5

Word on the street is I’m a little late with this review. Sorry about that. To answer the most pressing question: yes, the iPhone 5 is not only the best iPhone ever made, it is the best phone ever made. Period.

Last year I got my first iPhone, a 4S, and this week I upgraded that device to a 5. While I loved my 4S (still do), I am amazed by how much better the 5 is. Apple took the previous best phone ever and made every part better.

The aluminum body is stronger, lighter, and feels better in the hand. The Apple logo and legal copy on the rear of the phone are now much more subtle and beautiful. The buttons and ringer/silent switch all feel excellent. The earpiece (now with noise cancellation) sounds fantastic. The phone is exceptionally thin.

The iPhone 5 Leans on a Coke

The new display is beautiful and obviously better once used. I had doubts, before I used one, about the height being awkward, but it isn’t. There’s no going back1. Speaking of no going back, LTE is wonderful. With few bars on AT&T, I consistently get 5 Mbps down and with full bars, I’ve seen as high as 63 Mbps.

And battery life is actually improved over the 4S. When I go to bed at night, the 5 has about 30% of its juice left. That’s with 6 hours of usage, which a week ago would have killed my 4S. I don’t know how Apple added so much, made the phone smaller, and got battery life. But I’m glad they did.

OK, praise over: I have two caveats. First, while the taller is screen is awesome, I wish the physical height of the device had remained the same. Conceptually, you could fit a 4-inch screen on a phone the size of a 4/4S. Now, I am sure Apple wouldn’t have been able to make all of that fit, but I’d love to see the next form factor return to the physical height of the 4/4S.

Number two: the headphone port. It’s been relocated to the bottom in a seemingly arbitrary move. I assume this had to do with fitting everything in the device, and it isn’t a major annoyance but: prior to the 5, I never once even thought about the location of the headphone port. Now, though, I think about it every time a 3.5mm jack gets in the way of my typing.

The iPhone 5 is a huge upgrade over the 4S. I recommend to any one that can justify it to upgrade (if you haven’t already).


  1. Apple added exactly the number of pixels necessary to add exactly one row of app icons to the home screen, turning the aspect ratio to exactly 16:9. That worked out so perfectly that I’m inclined to believe this was planned from the beginning. ↩︎

The Benefits of Living Within the Apple Ecosystem

For the past week, I’ve been using (and loving) my new Magic Trackpad. This evening, I completed my peripheral upgrade by adding an Apple Wireless Keyboard and, for good measure, Battery Charger. Since September, I’ve been using my Mac mini with a Microsoft bluetooth keyboard1 and a no-name bluetooth mouse. Other than not being able to take advantage of Mountain Lion’s multi-touch functionality, I didn’t think there were any issues with the setup.

About a week ago, however, I decided to reward myself with a Magic Trackpad, so that I could finally take advantage of gestures. My desktop experience has been revolutionized. Scrolling is fantastic. Backpedaling through Safari is fantastic. Switching between screens is fantastic. Gestures, however, is not why my experience has been revolutionized.

Since September, every time I left the desk for more than five minutes, my keyboard and mouse would go to sleep. Upon return, I’d furiously click at them for fifteen seconds, waiting for them to reestablish a bluetooth connection. It was a small thing, but looking back it was incredibly frustrating. None the wiser, however, I dealt with it thinking all bluetooth accessories worked this way.

Back to the Trackpad. Turns out, despite it sleeping like any other bluetooth device out-of-use, the Magic Trackpad never actually loses the connection. It works instantly, every time, no matter how long I leave it idle. It was this factor that led me to purchase the keyboard so quickly after. Truth be told, I don’t know if I had cheap bluetooth devices before or if this is truly a benefit of Apple’s gear. What I do know, however, is that the Magic Trackpad of last week and the Wireless Keyboard of tonight work perfectly, every time, whenever I need them.

(A small note on the Battery Charger: it’s a small, insignificant thing you wouldn’t expect Apple to make and sell. And yet, I can immediately tell that the quality of its build far usurps any other charger on the market. Most importantly, it isn’t even costly. Apple’s Battery Charger is priced equally among its peers2. It makes me wish Apple made more random-and-small consumer gadgets.)


  1. A gift, I swear. ↩︎

  2. Chiefly the Sanyo Eneloop, which the Apple battery is a licensed clone of, and which is regarded in the industry as the best. ↩︎

EarPods: Better Late Than Never

While most blogs probably have their hands on iPhone 5, I’ll talk about something a little more within my means: EarPods. Audiophiles will want to skip this review.

I first got my eyes on EarPods when I linked to a leak out of Vietnam. I was pretty certain that leak was legitimate, and at the time I said so because of a rule I came up with all by myself. Let’s call it ‘Defomicron’s 1st Law’: if purported Apple product makes current Apple product look like outdated pile of poo, then purported product is probably authentic. In the case of EarPods, this is certainly true.

I never hated Apple’s old earphones; I was not in the camp that claimed they had unforgivably terribly audio quality or were a child of Satan. I’ve owned several pairs of Apple’s earphones, and can say that since 2001 they have definitely improved in sound quality and durability. Calling each step along the way gradual, however, might be overstating it. EarPods are orders of magnitude greater than any earphone Apple’s ever created, including the $39-turned-$79 in-ear models.

EarPods on the Pier

For the first time in a $30 pair of buds, I can hear bass. Not teenager-in-a-Honda-at-the-stoplight bass, mind you, but bass that enriches the music in the way it was meant to. If you’ve been hearing your music through an older pair for a while as I have, you might have forgotten by now that ‘Oxford Comma’ isn’t supposed to sound like it’s being drummed on aluminum pie pans, but trust me when I say you won’t want to go back. According to Apple, slits in the bud and step of the EarPod allow for the acoustic chamber to breath and give us that bass. I can independently confirm that if you cover a slit, audio quality degrades instantly.

Apple says they spent three years developing the EarPods, and I believe them. For one thing, Apple has kept the old design way too long. For another, EarPods really are that good. The new shape both looks straight out of 2001, and fits much better1. Despite the body being entirely made of hard plastic, I find them very comfortable. I can leave EarPods in for hours at a time without any semblance of ear strain, a feat unrivaled, in my case, by any other bud.

While I can’t comment on long term longevity, I will affirm that EarPods look like they’re going to outlast their predecessors, if only for the absence of the rubber rings that tended to fall off. Since an EarPod is made entirely of plastic, there doesn’t appear to be a weak point in the bud itself. On the cable side of things, Apple has added a second sleeve wherever it connects with another piece. Hopefully this additional insulation will prevent the cable from tearing as it has suffered from for years. EarPods certainly seem poised for the test of time.

The new remote control is heavenly. It has been lengthened and widened, and the buttons given a much more satisfying click. Around back, gone is the microphone grill. Instead, we get a glyph that I find rather awkward. As it turns out, the microphone grill on older earphones was a placebo, meant to comfort those of us who just aren’t quite comfortable speaking into something that isn’t mesh. That’s a roundabout way of saying that audio quality is the same as or better than before, even without creature comforts. Oh, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a future refresh of EarPods removed the microphone glyph altogether.

It would be wrong of me to detail my experience with EarPods without revealing the one weakness I’ve found, so here it is: a lot of my earbud usage is on a bicycle, which has consistently been a week point for them. Apple’s old earphones, while usable, were distorted by wind interference and struggled to make themselves heard over the noise. EarPods are, if anything, worse. The microphone works just fine on a bicycle, even for Siri. So there’s that.

EarPods are a marked improvement over all of its predecessors. I think it signifies a rededication at Apple to doing every little bit right. As with the Lightning connector, Apple is looking at each individual aspect of their creations and making it the best it can be. Are EarPods the greatest earbuds that have ever been made? Naturally not. But they are the best $30 buds you can get.


  1. Notably, my sample pool is two. ↩︎

iOS 6

iOS 6 is here. You’ve been waiting a long while for it. I, on the other hand, was impatient and have been running the developer betas for months now. The answer to the question “should I upgrade” is a pretty simple one: yes. iOS 61 is the best version to date of your favorite mobile operating system. It can be described by a host of superlatives. But let’s skip the generalities, shall we?

The Great Google Purge

When the iPhone shipped in 2007, Apple and Google were on vastly different terms. Eric Schmidt, then CEO of Google, was on Apple’s board of directors and was even invited up on stage at MacWorld to talk about the two companies’ partnership. When the iPhone shipped, it included three of Google’s most important services: Maps, YouTube, and of course search.

But time change; it’s now 2012, and the Apple/Google friendship is long since over. While Google remains the default search engine in Mobile Safari, YouTube and Maps got the axe. The YouTube app, the one that’s been there since the beginning, the one that pushed for HTML5 video on the web, is gone. The Maps app is still there, but the backend has been replaced with Apple’s own. No matter what either company has to say about the situation, the message is clear: neither wants to rely on the other.

Regarding YouTube, Apple has officially stated that their licensing deal with Google ran out, and the app had to go. Whether the failure to continue that licensing deal was on Apple or Google is unknown. While some will steadfastly choose to blame whichever they hate more, the fact is we don’t know, probably won’t ever know, and there were clear motivations for both sides not to extend the contract.

Google has released their own take on the YouTube application to the App Store. While it is a significant improvement in terms of usability2 over Apple’s app, well… I hope you like ads.

With Maps, Apple had clear competitive reasons for switching their Maps database; number one being feature parity with Android’s Google Maps app. Apple has been waiting to cut Google Maps support for some time now. On July 7, 2009, Apple acquired Placebase, who specialized in mapping software. In 2010, Apple added Poly9, a company that created web-based map software. And in 2011, Apple bought C3 Technologies, a 3D mapping firm. Now, three years into the effort, we finally see the fruits of those acquisitions. iOS 6 brings an entirely new Maps application with an Apple-developed backend.

Vector-Based Mapping

Google’s maps in iOS versions 1-5 was rendered with bitmapped images at various zoom levels. On slower connections, this often resulted in pixelated images and blurry text while waiting for the next zoom level to load. With Apple’s new maps, text and map data are rendered individually and as vectors. Zooming in and out is now results in clear images whatever your data speed, and huge, fully-zoomable areas (in some cases up to 50 square miles) can be cached for offline use.

As with text, points-of-interest are now rendered in a separate layer, and for the first time in iOS, they are tappable. With the old Maps, you could zoom in on a shopping center and see a few stores, but you couldn’t tap on any of them to bring up additional information3. With the new Maps, tap on any point-of-interest and up pops the same data sheet you use to only get from searching.

Navigation

Ever since the introduction of the App Store, third party navigation apps have represented a considerable faction of the market. All of those apps just got Sherlocked. Apple has built their own navigation solution4, and it is a beauty. More importantly, it is integrated right into Maps and works as well as any of the other solutions on the market. It’s a one-hit K.O. to third parties.

Improvements to Safari

My favorite improvement Apple’s made to Safari is the removal of the alert that used to pop up whenever your iOS device had trouble connecting to a server. In iOS 6, Mobile Safari presents the user with an white page with a Safari graphic and a message explaining the problem. Much more user-friendly, much less in your face. Thank you, Apple.

Bookmarks Menu

The bookmarks popover on iPad is much improved. Previously, Reading List and History apeared as folders within your bookmarks hierarchy. Now, you get three tabs on the bottom of the popover, one each for Bookmarks, History, and Reading List. This makes much more sense, as History and Reading List are specially apart from the bookmarks system. Frustratingly and confusingly, the iPhone keeps the old way of doing things5.

iCloud Tabs

The best addition to Safari is iCloud Tabs. Like extensions and the omnibox, Safari has lagged behind others on syncing. iOS 6 paired with OS X Mountain Lion rectifies that with what Apple is calling iCloud Tabs. In this humble writer’s opinion, it is the best implementation of syncing to date.

Visible as a toolbar button the Mac and iPad, and as a folder in the iPhone’s bookmarks menu, iCloud Tabs presents itself as a list of web pages open on any Apple device logged in with your iCloud account. Tapping any of them works just as a bookmark and loads the page. Simple and intuitive, but most importantly with anything that syncs: it works. No setup required.

So the next time you find yourself looking up dinner recipes on your Mac and you leave for the grocery store without writing down a list of ingrediants, pull out your iPhone and load up the same page you have open at home on your Mac. Boom.

User Interface

Dating way back to the original iPhone and iOS (back then it was called iPhone OS) 1, you’ve had glossy blue toolbars and poignant vertical pinstrip backgrounds. Early on, all of Apple’s apps and most early third party apps used this theme. In the past couple years, however, developers and Apple-alike have been experimenting with different colors and textures for the toolbars. With iOS 6, Apple has acknowledged that gloss and pinstripes have lost favor among designers, and they’ve update all the stock UIKit widgets.

Changes to UIKit

Gloss is officially deprecated. Stock toolbars are now an appeasing gradient of blue that makes the old toolbars look dated and ugly. Seriously, use iOS 6 for a week and then try going back. Additionally, pintripes are beginning to fade away. Literally, pinstriped are now muted and dispersed in such a way that they don’t actually annoy me just for being there anymore.

While a unified interface was a big theme for Apple in 2007, five years later the trends have changed and diversification is in. The new stores introduce a black theme, the refreshed Music app brings a white variation, and the new Maps app for iPhone brings an iPad-style silver theme.

All the new themes are nice on the eyes, but leave me wondering whether Apple will pick one for the future of iOS’s interface or if the move is for an indefinite diversified GUI.

That Status Bar

The job of the status bar has always been to deliver a few essential bits of information at all time to the user. On a phone, that means signal strength indication, the time, and battery level. Although the status bar needs to be omnipresent, it should also disappear into the background when you don’t need it.

In previous versionsof iOS, there have been two status bar types: a light gray bar with colorful ideograms and black bar with monochrome ideograms. In iOS 6, the gray bar has been replaced by a chameleon bar that changes color based on and individual app’s navigation bar. This is done by sampling the bottom row of pixels from the navigation bar and averaging them, as demonstrated by developer Simon Blommegård.

It’s your host’s opinion, the status bar should be as non-intrusive as possible: when you need it, it should be obvious and clear, but when you don’t it should disappear. In the past, developers have had three options, the best of which was the black bar with gray glyphs. On black iPhones, this bar did a fine job of staying out of the way because it blended in with the device’s bezel. On iPhones with white bezels, however, it didn’t do so well. The chameleon bar takes a different approach by blending into the app itself instead of the bezel of the phone, eliminating the importance of bezel color. It is now safe to dye your iPhone pink.

That Gorgeous Settings Icon that I Never Realized Looked So Terrible Until I Saw How Good It Should Have Been From the Start

If you are reading this on an iPad or iPhone running iOS 6, then you’ve already noticed the new Settings icon. And you probably don’t need me to tell you that it is gorgeous. If you want my advice, avoid looking at the old icon for you rest of your life.

The Dock…

In 2007, OS X Leopard gave us a new, 3D-ified dock to the Mac. Some loved it and some hated it. Regardless, just this year Mountain Lion shipped with a gorgeous brushed aluminum dock that makes the Leopard dock look silly and downright stupid by comparison6. iOS, which got the Leopard dock when version 4 shipped in 2010, didn’t get updated to the new dock. If iOS 6.0.1 doesn’t rectify this situation, I’ll be pissed. If 6.1 doesn’t, I’ll probably switch to Android.

Everything Else

Here are some shorts that don’t fit in the other sections.

The New Stores

The App Store, the iTunes Store, the iBookstore, the Podcasts catalog, and the iTunes U catalog have all gained a refreshed, unified interface. While the functionality of these stores remains the same, the darker and richer color scheme definitely presents a more pleasing experience. The window chrome is now black and the bottom toolbar sports a new look with each item divided by a vertical line.

On the iPhone, each store presents a series of banners at the top, advertising for new and noteworthy apps, albums, books, or podcasts. On the iPad, these banners present in a cover-flow. On both devices, the banners can be flicked through and tapped on to reveal additional and purchasing information. On the iPad, tapping on album artwork, an app icon, or a book cover no longer jumps you to a separate page within the app with additional information. Instead, an overlay pops up with all that good stuff and purchasing options. This is similar to the way tapping on albums has always been in the iPad Music app, though notably without the flipping animation.

In my experience, the new stores seem more stable than their predecessors. Signing into accounts is much more likely to work on the first time, and buttons seem much more responsive (something the iTunes and App Stores have fought with for a long time). Best of all, tabbing back to a search now brings you back to where you had scrolled, instead of jumping you back to the top.

Unfortunately, “more stable” does not translate to “stable”. All of the stores are still rendered in HTML instead of native Cocoa, a practice even Facebook finally gave up. That means that the weird one-off glitches that we’ve been accustomed to over the years are still there, lurking behind every curve. On top of that, Apple has revamped search to take advantage of their Chomp acquisition from February, and while I personally don’t hate the new user interface, search results appear to be even less relevant than before. A search for “Twitter” brings up Instagram, and SpaceEffect FX, and Sky Burger within the top ten hits. Hopefully Apple can work that out soon, and hey, since it’s all a glorified web interface it will be really easy for them to push out those updates. So there’s that.

Passbook

There has been an increasing desire among gadget people and minimalists to have smartphones replace wallets for credit cards and other necessary cards you carry with you. While the other side is investing in near-field communications technology, Apple has been a bit more conservative with Passbook. The Passbook app shows up on the first home screen for new iPhone owners, but there’s a fear in me that it will be the Newstand of iOS 6. That is, a headline feature pushed by Apple that quickly gets relegated to the last folder on your eleventh home screen. I’m going to try to remain optimistic.

When you open Passbook, you are presented with a list of your “cards” which can be anything from gift cards to event passes to plane tickets. Anything that can be accomplished with a barcode can be accomplished with Passbook. While I haven’t been able to use it for anything real, I’ve played with the app quite a bit and I have to say it feels like the future. Everything Apple could have done with the app is there: it is attractive, it is incredibly easy for companies to make cards and deploy them, and cards can be updates on-the-fly with push.

Passbook’s success, then, will come down to who Apple can strike up partnerships with at the beginning. If they could get a few big names like Virgin America, Starbucks, and Ticketmaster on board, then maybe the idea of using an iPhone for such things will stick and then everyone else will be forced to support it. If, however, Apple can’t lock in anyone at the beginning, I foresee Passbook relegated to a slow and drawn-out death on my last home screen until something better comes along.

Shared Photo Streams

Photo Stream was announced last year as one of the means for cutting the tie between the iPhone and the PC. It allowed for instantaneous transferring of photos between your iPhone, your iPad, and your Mac. When you take a photo with either iDevice, it is instantly pushed to the other two devices. iOS 6 allows for the creation of curated Photo Streams that can then be shared to all of your friends.

This can be done in one or both of two ways: if you share a photo stream with someone running iOS 6, it’ll appear in a list of Photo Streams on that person’s iPhone, iPod touch and/or iPad. Alternatively, you can share public iCloud.com URL that will show every photo in the Stream in a nicely-laid out fashion.

Combined with Find My Friends and Facebook/Twitter integration, I think we are beginning to see the coming-together of Apple’s social network. There’s is not one that relies on a common location that everyone must go to catch up, but instead a social web of several different applications and networks with a different commonality: iPhone/iPad/iPod touch ownership7.

Panorama

The LG dumbphone I from four years ago had a panorama mode. I could take three widescreen photos and lace them together, but I had to line up each image by myself, putting such a difficult task in the hands of a human really isn’t a good idea. For that reason, I’m not surprised that a native panorama mode in iOS took so long. It is an easy thing to do, but it is a difficult thing to do right. That said, there is a healthy market of panorama apps on the Store, including great one like (my personal favorite) 360 Panorama. I confess, however, that after installing iOS 6, I have deleted all panorama apps from my phone. Panorama mode in iOS 6 is that good.

It’s been an open secret for awhile now that Apple has been working on a panorama mode for the iPhone. Hackers found it and were able to enable it in iOS 5.1, but back then it didn’t work all that well and no one questioned why it wasn’t available in the final release. Now though it works beautifully and as it should. Drag your phone across a landscape and iOS 6 takes care of it all: taking the photos, lining them up, and stitching them together into 28 megapixel stills. For the most part, the pictures turn out great.

The Phone App

The Phone app has received it’s most notable improvements since its introduction with the original iPhone. Borrowing from the lock screen Camera slider, when a new call comes in a phone slider now resides next to the answer and decline button/slide to answer slider. Swiping up on it reveals a list of options for declining the call, including sending a text to the caller or reminding you to call them back later.

The second improvement, or change really, is for the ‘real last century’ folks. The dialer has got a fresh new coat of white paint. I can’t really imagine any reason for the change other than some designer thought it looked nicer this way. I agree.

Facebook Integration

Last year, Apple added native Twitter integration to the entire OS. iOS 6 adds to this with Facebook sharing in all the same places. Additionally, Notification Center has gained a new widget with buttons to quickly tweet or post to Facebook. While it takes a week or so to get used to updating your social status from Notification Center, it really is very handy.

iPhone 5 Features

iOS 6 includes support for the brand new iPhone 5 and its taller screen. Apps that have been created with standard UIKit widgets will automatically stretch to fit the new dimensions, just like how stock widgets automatically scaled up to fit Retina resolutions back in 2010.

Games and other apps with completely custom interface will require more developer attention to get to look right on the new phone. Until then, apps for old iPhones will be letterboxed like a widescreen movie on a fullscreen TV, with black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. I expect most developers to support for the new screen within a couple months.

Interestingly, Apple hasn’t announced any big iPhone 5-only software features. In the past, new iPhones have received not just new hardware but also new software features that would never see the light of day on older phones. This year, the iOS 6 is bringing the 4S very nearly up-to-par with the 5, and perhaps reducing incentives for you to upgrade. But then again, those of us who will upgrade each and every year probably aren’t thinking about one new software feature. I doubt Apple will lose sales over this.

Conclusion and a Big Fat Asterisk

While I won’t try to claim I touched on every detail of iOS 6, I think I hit many of its highlights. So my review of iOS 6 ends here, a few features short. But what fun would it be if you could stop here?


  1. Internally codenamed “Sundance” after the Sundance ski resort in Sundance, Utah. ↩︎

  2. The icon lacks, shall we say, vision. ↩︎

  3. Nothing is more frustrating then when your search didn’t present the result you had already found. ↩︎

  4. With a surprisingly long list of friends↩︎

  5. My best guess is that Apple didn’t know how to reconcile having a tabbed toolbar on a slide up pane that originated from a button on another toolbar. Look, I said it was my best guess, I didn’t say it was a good excuse. ↩︎

  6. I said aluminum, not brushed metal, and trust me when I say there is a huge difference. ↩︎

  7. That being said, I’d love to see Apple buy Twitter, hire Loren Brichter to build the native application for it, and then leave it alone. ↩︎

Third Album Syndrome

Safe Travels, Jukebox the Ghost’s newest album, is out this month. I’ve finally got the chance to give it a listen, and I’m sad to report that Jukebox has fallen ill to what I’ll call “Third Album Syndrome”.

The album, their third, lacks the upbeat, happy that hooked me into Jukebox about a year ago. With Let Live and Let Ghosts and Everything Under the Sun, Jukebox crafted a masterpiece that I can listen to on repeat for hours and never tire of. The only other band that’s captured me in such a way is Vampire Weekend. I’ve actually drawn several comparisons between the two groups: in both cases, the first album contained many great singles that are fantastic to listen to on their own. Both band’s sophomore albums contained more mature tracks and more cohesive albums that are enjoyed best when listen to as a whole. And with both bands, their songs (at least on a surface level) talked about inconsequential topics (commas, UFOs) that might be a bit obscure, but — importantly — aren’t whiny, bitchy, or moany.

Safe Travels, on the other hand, is definitively serious. I’m not necessarily even referring to the lyrics, but to the songs in general. There’s a certain moodiness and angst to the entire album1 that makes it a much less fun to listen to, and Jukebox the Ghost’s fun was one of its best attributes. “Everybody Knows”, the twelfth track from Safe Travels is the notable exception and my favorite track from the album. It manages to capture some of the magic of “Schizophrenia” and “Hold It In”. So there’s hope.

A Plucked Guitar String

This is a blind and probably ignorant/arrogant assumption, but I get the impression that young (or maybe just small) bands think that at a certain point they need to “get serious” with their music. The problem is that their Hakuna Matata-nature2 is what we fell in love with in the first place, and if you change that, what do you have left? That’s what I call “Third Album Syndrome”, and I hope Jukebox can come back from it.

Perhaps I haven’t given this album enough time, and perhaps my opinion will change like it did with Contra. I still love Jukebox’s non-standard instrumentation and Ben Thornewill’s vocals, but I am concerned for album number four, and worried about Vampire Weekend’s third.


  1. I have no idea how to write about music. ↩︎

  2. Seriously, not a damn clue. ↩︎