Archive: Technology

Pocket: The best “save for later” app today?

“Save for later” apps – apps like Instapaper that capture and cleanly format text articles for later consumption – are essential to my workflow. I rely on them to read long form content for my job, for blog posts and just for fun almost every night. But last week there was a serious shakeup: Popular app Read It Later reinvented itself as Pocket. It aims to be a save later service for not just text articles but almost anything online, from videos to photos and mp3 clips. That’s ambitious, something I had to investigate further.

Thirty articles and a few days later with the app I’m hooked. Overall Pocket is an awesome app, albeit with a few rough patches. It’s a tool I’d recommend to almost anyone, especially to iOS newbies given its straightforward setup process. There are several things that Pocket does especially well:

A consistent experience across multiple platforms. A lot of other media apps provide a smart UI on both the iPhone and iPad. Yet it’s rare to see an app ecosystem work so consistently on the iPhone, iPad and the desktop. With Pocket there’s a uniform, drop down based navigation on each device that’s easy to use. Its grid based, Flipboard-esque layout works especially well on the iPad or web while remaining fully usable on the iPhone.

Visual design. Many apps dedicated to browsing or media discovery have a color scheme and layout that is heavy on contrast or overly skeuomorphic. It makes a strong first impression but can get a bit boring or distracting when you’re trying to browse through or read individual articles. Pocket avoids these problems by leveraging a light palette with subtle contrast and few gradients to maximize readability. This minimalist design looks borderline “non-native” to the iOS platform, but I think for Pocket it’s a smart move. The look feels fresh and distinctive, much in the same way the Twitter client Tweetbot distinguished itself visually with a chrome, metal and gradient heavy design.

App integration. This is where a lot of competition falls short; you can have an awesome reading experience, but that becomes meaningless if you can’t move articles in and out of your save for later app easily. That’s not a problem with Pocket. It uses the same API as Read it Later which has been around for years and consequently there’s huge app support.

Video integration. I’m a big film nerd, so naturally I capture a lot of clips, video essays and trailers. Pocket has native support for Youtube and Vimeo, which gives each saved video article a proper headline and thumbnail. With two taps I’m watching a video full screen on my device. Instapaper, Readability and other choices either can’t play video at all or add a lot of cruft around the video itself.

The setup process. Pocket goes out its way to make capturing content as easy as possible. On iOS devices it identifies other apps that are Pocket compatible and provides custom setup instructions for each. To add a web bookmarklet, an essential capture tool, its step by step tutorial is best in class.

Nevertheless Pocket isn’t perfect. The app’s filter for switching between text articles, images and videos is occasionally inaccurate; usually the articles view accidentally pulls in a few videos or vice versa. Also Pocket’s web site needs a bit for work on typography; its body text color is too light and it doesn’t offer the same font choices available on its iOS app. Finally while the default sans serif and serif options look nice, text customization (i.e. font choice, line height, margin size) lags behind what Instapaper provides.

So is Pocket better than Instapaper? Yes and no. If you trend toward content that’s graphic heavy, video based, or anything that strays from pure text, Pocket should be your first choice. For die hard readers of news articles, blog posts and other text-heavy content, stick with Instapaper.

I plan on using both: Instapaper for reading, Pocket for videos and everything else. I’ll detail in a future post exactly how I integrate both apps into my daily workflow.

Apps and the time factor

What qualifies as a ‘great’ iOS app over the long run? For me it’s simple: It saves me time. It doesn’t have to have a great icon, a great design, sexy graphics or get lots of praise from tech bloggers. If any of those traits add to saving time (and they often do) great, but time and efficiency outweigh everything else.

I use Drafts because its simplicity and raw speed saves me a few seconds every time I have to capture an idea or reminder. IA Writer’s clean typography and lack of customization focuses my mind for longer form writing. Marsedit’s quick WordPress and browser integration saves me a few minutes for every linked list post I make. Omnifocus syncs effortlessly and reliably between my Macs and mobile devices; I spend little time worried about lost contacts or todos. With Reeder I can scroll through and consume a day’s worth of tech, design and film news on my subway commute home.

Paring down your app set to mostly those that increase efficiency or save time isn’t a groundbreaking idea, but it is easier said than done. Like many in the tech industry, I get a regular share of recommendations via Twitter and RSS. I use to always download what had buzz with the tech bloggers, what was ‘innovative’ and what just looked cool. Yet after playing with a hot new app for a few days, 95 percent of the time I’d delete it or move it to some back folder, never to be touched again.

Don’t let this be you. Make hard decisions on the apps and tools you use. Granted there’s always edge cases: Gaming apps by their very nature should be arguably something that takes more, not less of your time if it’s a fun experience. There’s also something powerful with occasional experimentation: I downloaded Clear knowing full well it wasn’t a tool for me. Yet just playing with the app for a buck and hour of my time gave me design inspirations for my day job. Not everyone has the same priorities either. With my mobile workflow, saving time is paramount; I want to get in, get my work done and get out as efficiently as possible. You might instead favor aesthetic beauty, or great icons, or other traits.

Whatever that app goal is, stay focused. Is that new app that’s new and noteworthy on the App Store really going to integrate well with your workflow? Is it really better than what you already have? Ask those questions before you download.

Gaming consoles and poor UI design

Video game consoles are still putting up great numbers seven years into their current generation. But why have their user interfaces remained so bad? I was reminded of this on a popular Giant Bombcast (gaming podcast) from two weeks ago; the hosts talked at length about the sad state of Microsoft’s latest XBox Live UI refresh. Microsoft largely sidelined avatar functionality, one of the rare bits of personalization and whimsy from an otherwise business-like UI. The Netflix interface was overhauled so poorly that the hosts had moved their film streaming needs to other platforms. Common actions now required more taps of the controller than in earlier XBox Live iterations.

Ironically, XBox Live is generally regarded as the premier console gaming network. It costs $50 a year and generates a lot of revenue for Microsoft, a cool billion two years ago. So why isn’t some of that money being plowed back into great UI design?

The XMB, Sony’s navigation interface for the PS3, doesn’t fare well in the UI department either. Among the Roku, Apple TV, Mac, iPhone, and Boxee, all of which I own or have played with heavily, PS3 has the worst user experience. There’s too many actions and layered menus to get more complex actions done. Software updates, large in size and not skippable, pop up frequently before gameplay. (Sony apparently never got the memo on auto background updates.)

Yet UI may be beside the point: clearly the healthy state of console gaming’s market derives from the games themselves. But that market is changing, growing up and moving more mainstream. XBox 360s are being used now more for streaming media than gaming. A “one box media center” for the living room could just as easily be an XBox as a Roku or an Apple TV. Media partners clearly see this; content providers from Amazon to ESPN and HBO are supporting consoles in full, often adding their services to the XBox and PS3 just as fast as other set top devices.

In addition, while a Xbox 360 or PS3 costs $150 more than an Apple TV, that a premium price tag delivers far more capable hardware. It’s hardware that powers more immersive games, along with more responsive and novel interfaces (e.g. the Kinect) than their cheaper counterparts. Beefier hardware also means getting cool tech features (e.g. Dolby Digital 5.1, 1080p) before the competition.

Yet as we’ve seen before, muscular tech, lots of money and media partners will only get you so far without a solid user experience; just ask RIM. Competition is heating up: Apple and the rest of the portable market is on one side, chipping away at consoles’ casual gaming segment. Smaller, cheaper and simpler boxes from the likes of Roku form the other wing, attacking consoles’ non-gaming features. Without a adjustment in UI and other consumer-friendly maneuvers, I fear gaming consoles could be effectively squeezed out in the middle.

Facebook and Instagram

I was initially as shocked as everyone else when I heard the news of Facebook spent $1 billion to pick up Instagram. But then it came together in my mind: Instagram’s purchase is major win for great mobile design, for online products with high engagement and fast code.

None of those things make sense at first glance. Instagram is a photo sharing app without a proven business model or positive revenue. A company of thirteen (!) employees who’s majority share of 30 million plus users are already Facebook members. A social network that at its core isn’t groundbreaking; sharing photos on a wide scale has been done with Flickr since 2004.

But the deal did happen, and there’s there’s several standout lessons here for designers and developers rooted in the reason why:

If you create a product with very high levels of engagement, you can be a threat to some of the largest tech companies out there. Facebook saw people shifting their mobile time away from Facebook to apps like Instagram and wanted in. Instagram just has a certain cache, or ‘stickiness’ with their app. For now at least, when influencers want a ‘cool’ way of sharing photos, Facebook and Flickr often aren’t their first choice. Instagram is.

Why? Great engagement derives from unique, emotionally driven design. Granted, part of Instagram’s engagement comes from marketing and sheer luck. Nevertheless, Instagram’s design is standout. For example, other apps use photo filters, but not with the same range, fun naming convention or ease of use to jump between them; Instagram makes post processing fun. It’s been one and a half years since Instagram’s debut, yet how many other apps can make that same claim?

High engagement levels can be retained with simple, straightforward design. Instagram was one of the first apps to make sharing to multiple social services so damn easy. It doesn’t take many more steps than your typical iPhone shot: capture, pick a filter, pick who to share to and you’re done in three taps.

High engagement is generally maintained only from a quick, responsive app or platform. This is where blazing performance at the development level comes in. Earlier in the year an in-house engineering blog post revealed some of Instagram’s tech under the hood. It’s straightforward, well thought out and was able to scale to 14 million in a year.

Nevertheless, a lot of positives about this deal can’t stop skepticism on my part. I don’t trust Zuckerberg’s claim that sharing with non-Facebook social networks will remain unaffected. Facebook has reneged on its promises repeatedly and likes a tightly controlled ecosystem. I’m thus also worried about the app’s “independent” future long term.

Overall, for a company of Facebook’s size, 1 billion isn’t crazy, “we’re in a bubble” cash. It’s a buy with stellar engagement levels and a mobile weapon to keep away from the other big tech players: Google, Amazon, and Apple. Given the stakes in this arms race between these four companies, don’t be surprised if the numbers only ramp up in upcoming years.

Sublime Text 2: My TextMate replacement

Sometimes the smallest of changes can deliver a huge impact. In my case, several weeks ago I switched away from the popular Mac text editor TextMate to Sublime Text 2, giving a significant boost to my productivity in the process.

Some context is necessary here: any web developer can tell you that, with the profession’s focus on coding, text editors are generally the most important tool at hand. For the last five years, TextMate was my editor of choice and I depended on it for effectively everything at work: HTML, CSS, Ruby on Rails, even extended emails and design notes. I loved the speed, the keyboard shortcuts and its slick bundling system – macros, commands and templates came together in a unified package.

But ever since Mac OS X Lion came out, TextMate’s lost a lot of its luster. The downward spiral began with the program’s incompatibilities with much of Lion’s new functionality; this only amplified the nagging suspicion TextMate would never receive a significant upgrade (its last significant release was version 1.5 back in January 2006.) The TextMate team unexpectedly announced a public alpha of TextMate 2 for release before the end of 2011, but I think it’s a case of too little, too late.

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Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

I’m a relative newcomer to Apple and Steve Jobs. Apple computers were an influence growing up, but I didn’t really start using Apple products until my post college days. Yet, after getting my hands on my first Mac, a Powerbook G4, I was hooked. The accessibility and design of Apple’s products always matches the tech power under the hood – a rarity in our industry. I don’t think any of it would have been possible without, as Jobs often said, Apple at the intersection of technology and liberal arts. It makes the company’s work unique and often amazing.

Jobs was a genius, yet still fallible; his flare ups of anger and arrogance were well documented. Paradoxically, the weaker sides of Jobs made him even more approachable, human, and charismatic. That made news of his passing all the more tragic. Not every Apple launch under Jobs has been a success, yet his successes fundamentally changed the technology industry at least three times with the Mac, iPod, and iPhone. Who other single person has had that kind of impact?

Jobs also had an incredible gift at intertwining technology and design, along with a relentless drive. Both are traits that I strive to achieve every day in my career.

Rest in peace Steve and thanks for always moving the ball forward.

It’s Apple’s post-PC world…but not for long

With HP cutting its losses on the Touchpad and PC markets, the “post-PC” era begins with Apple firmly in the lead. The evidence is overwhelming: HP’s exit leaves Apple as the only major consumer PC maker with increasing profitability. Yet even with its leg up on the competition, Apple is shifting away from PCs. Over 70% of its previous quarter’s revenue was wrapped up in iPhones and iPads; it’s fair to expect that percentage to only increase in the future.

However, I disagree that the failures of HP, RIM and other companies in the tablet sphere make a long run Apple victory inevitable. In actuality, the post-PC era is divisible into two eras. The first is a transitional, “tablet as entertainment” era that we’re in now in which Apple clearly dominates. Yet there’s a final, longer term “tablet as PC” era of the future where I doubt a single company will control the market.

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DSLRs are losing their luster

We’re in a fast changing digital landscape; innovation has worked into almost every device I use regularly and with cloud syncing my content is accessible from anywhere. So why do higher end cameras, most notably digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) ones, feel absent from the picture? Big manufacturers like Canon and Nikon push out better sensors and higher end lenses year after year, but the core design remains unchanged. Contrast that progress with the rapid evolution in smaller, camera-equipped devices like the iPhone and Canon S95, both in terms of technology advances and mainstream adoption. If the trend continues the DSLR will be relegated to a niche device for professionals only.

The problem starts with perception: compared to hot new consumer tech like the Kinect and iPhone, DSLRs, at least to a mainstream audience, are run of the mill if not behind the curve. First and foremost, in a golden age of lightweight, powerful technology, DSLRs remain heavy and bulky. They also have a higher learning curve than most other tech devices: even using its simplest operation, the most basic DSLR offers a bewildering array of dial settings, zoom levels and menu adjustments.

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Minimalist text editors revisited

Minimalist text editors of the likes of WriteRoom have been growing in popularity lately, both in terms of their user base and the download options in the Mac App Store. That’s a great trend. I’ve found text editors to be a wonderful tool for writing, and the more users that come to the same conclusions, the better. But which app is the best option for your money? I’ve spent the past few weeks on this subject comparing three popular options: Byword, iA Writer and WriteRoom.

Byword

Home Page | Mac App Store ($9.99)

Byword is the newest of the three text editors I tested. The app offers some, but not all, of the customization of the more mature WriteRoom. It’s a hybrid approach that picks and chooses elements from both programs and spins them off in a new direction.

On the positive side, I found Byword’s features set striking a good balance between flexibility and minimalism; enough customization for users to write in a way they feel comfortable, yet not so much to feel overwhelmed. In addition, I’d predict Byword will push the ball forward more than its competitors for raw functionality in future releases. I already find its markdown and HTML export support to be more robust than its competitors, along with providing a slick HTML and Markdown preview functionality the other tested text editors don’t offer at all. Finally, I can’t overlook that at $10 it’s half the price of its competitors. That’s a factor for those on the fence about spending money for a text editor with such a seemingly simple purpose.

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The iCloud hyperbole

I was relieved when Apple debuted iCloud last Monday; finally the company was addressing its subpar cloud connectivity head on. Given Apple’s penchant for great design, combined with its large install base and investment (a.k.a. its gigantic North Carolina data center) iCloud could move cloud computing to a much more mainstream level of integration and accessibility.

However, I’ve seen way too much hype from financial investors to tech pundits who are all accepting the Apple PR mantra of “it just works” as fact. Please, stop with the hyperbole. iCloud is not revolutionary. iCloud is very much a hard drive in the sky; Apple is merely obfuscating the details by burying them within their native apps.

In reality, Apple’s iCloud is less technical revolution and more philosophical shift. The company’s cloud system centers on tight vertical integration with iOS or Mac-friendly apps that have integrated Apple’s iCloud API. It’s a classic Apple move. An attempt to move an existing technology to the company?s comfort zone: its native user interfaces, hardware and software. I’d suspect iCloud will be easier, at first glance, for users heavily invested within Apple’s iOS and Mac ecosystem. A document will be saved, and given the likely heavy restrictions placed under the iCloud API, there’s only a few places it can go, namely the same file name and app on every other Apple vetted app.

In contrast, existing cloud sync systems from the likes of Google and Dropbox embrace a far more open, flexible structure that can be accessed in many ways (on any operating system, on the web, within native apps via APIs). Yet, that openness comes at a cost; more options and flexibility means a less unified, harder to understand interface, especially for the non-tech crowd.

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