I’m skeptical of how well Apple’s upcoming streaming video service will perform. A Netflix clone with Apple-produced programming could become the HomePod of the streaming video market; Apple’s install base and marketing clout keep the service limping along but otherwise struggles for mainstream adoption.
I’m bearish on Apple’s video plans because they don’t align with the company’s strengths. Apple’s excellence in design won’t keep a streaming video service afloat. Consider the UI that powers existing services. Even with rapidly growing user bases, their interfaces are at best pedestrian (Amazon Prime), at worst an unintuitive mess (Netflix, Hulu). Frankly, most viewers don’t care; 95% of the time in-app is focused on watching, not browsing.
Two of the Macbook Pro’s most hyped improvements – the Touch Bar and more compact profile – have little benefit to many professionals. I’m worried Apple is increasingly hawking consumer level tech that’s missing the high end market.
At least half of the developers and designers I know work primarily with a Macbook Pro hooked to an external display and paired with an external keyboard and mouse. Ergonomics improve with both displays at similar height and distance. It’s more efficient to scan and drag content given the screens’ proximity. And by driving the setup through a laptop, you still get the flexibility of a portable device for meetings or work on the go.
Therein lies the rub with the Macbook Pro’s Touch Bar. With the aforementioned setup, the Macbook’s distance makes the Bar out of reach and hard to see. Ironically, a setup for serious work nullifies the Bar’s purported productivity benefits. And based on Apple’s pricing segmentation, we’re paying a premium for it as well.
Once Apple Music’s free trial ended, I deleted all my files and resubscribed to Spotify Premium. The turnaround was surprising; this is Apple we’re talking about here. From Macs, to an iPhone, an iPad, and an Apple TV, I’m a convert. But after several weeks of heavy Apple Music usage, I was done with the service.
I’m not alone on this turnaround. Though 11 million subscribers (in a free trial period) is a decent start, I’ve seen many across, tech and design migrate elsewhere. There’s several reasons why:
As I wrote weeks ago, Apple TV needed several key factors to challenge console and PC gaming. Based on the keynote and what we’ve learned since, they missed on all counts. Traditional console or PC gamers won’t be flocking to Apple TV. Yet some wildcards could upend the casual gaming market in the long run.
Apple TV’s problems start with the included remote. A touchpad and single available button won’t give the precision needed for most traditional games. And add-on controllers are unlikely to make headway. Apple didn’t release a first-party option, and developers can’t require external controllers for play.
Then there’s the issue of a fairly weak starting library. Granted, several games look entertaining. Yet it’s mostly small scale entertainment — diversions alongside other apps and streaming media.
Tomorrow Apple is expected to announce an updated Apple TV with a dedicated app store and more powerful hardware. That positions the device to compete directly with the existing PC and console gaming space. Yet it’s premature for console manufacturers and PC gamers to be worried. Nor is it a surefire success for casual gaming in the living room.
We’ve been down this road before. First, smartphone and tablet games were predicted to kill consoles. It didn’t turn out that way. PS4 and Xbox One sales have been strong, even better than the PS3 and Xbox 360 during its opening sale period. PC gaming is booming through eSports and on Steam. And while casual gaming is successful on mobile, it’s fallen flat elsewhere. The Ouya, Fire TV, and the existing Apple TV through AirPlay have all been gaming duds.
Granted, a revamped Apple TV is a step in the right direction. An Apple-based living room platform is bound to take some attention away from traditional PC and console gaming. And like most forms of tech, we can’t quantify Apple TV’s impact until months or years from now. Yet several early factors will telegraph the Apple TV’s success against the exiting games market.
As a publishing platform, the web is on hard times. Paywalls and subscription plans are rarely successful. That makes ads and trackers the primary source of revenue. Yet ad tech is usually poorly designed, intrusive and inefficient. It slows down pages and pisses off users. That’s been underlined in recent articles highlighting the performance of The Verge , iMore and others. An otherwise simple news post bloats into megabytes of data, with ads and trackers taking the overwhelming share of that weight.
In the face of web bloat, users are opting out. Many strip out ad and tracker content with tools like AdBlock and Ghostery. Or they abandon the web for faster native publishing platforms like Facebook’s Instant News and Snapchat. Along these lines, Vox’s Ezra Klein predicts publishers morphing into a wire service, where the web becomes just one of many content platforms to publish on. Large publishers like Buzzfeed and The New York Times have already moved in this direction.
This is concerning. In reality, the web can be performant with ads, a subject matter for another post. A weakened web presence makes for an ugly future for publishing. It hurts the publishers themselves, and us, as readers.
Apple Music shares a lot of the same DNA as other streaming platforms. There’s a huge music catalog, the ability to save a collection offline, curated playlists, and radio stations. Yet its UX feels distinct, more segmented and compartmentalized compared to its streaming peers. That’s a plus for streaming newbies and more casual users. But it comes at the the cost of comprehension and cohesion in the long run.
It’s easiest to cover Apple Music’s UX shortcomings through example. Say you browse through playlists in New on iTunes, and then jump into the For You segment to browse further. At this point, there’s no way to jump back chronologically into your previously accessed playlists. Each segment has a separate state and history. Or you want to find the source (e.g. album, playlist, radio station) of the currently playing track. It’s often awkward if not impossible to do so. Even search adds a binary toggle between My Music and Apple Music to further separate results.
Joel Johnson, writing for Fast Company on Apple News and other related publishing consolidation:
For publishers, Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles are simply another revenue stream that puts content where the audience has chosen to be…For readers, assaulted by bad advertising, these curated feeds could be a better—or at least universally banal—way to consume words and images. But it is unclear if most publications will be able to survive on only the revenue granted by these platform companies alone, and it feels incredibly aggressive for Apple to openly state that it—or at least some of its developers—have decided that advertising is always unwelcome, unless it happens to be advertising that Apple itself lords over.
This is exactly one of the major concerns I have with Apple News. Strong consolidation of media under a monolithic company like Apple generally doesn’t bode well for journalism and publishing in the long run.
Steven Levy on how technology will eventually save us from notification overkill:
So what’s the solution? We need a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. As time goes on, we will trust such a system to effectively filter all our information and dole it out just as needed.
My iPhone app usage aligns with the 80-20 rule. Most apps I try are completely disposable; within a few days I delete them or relegate them to a folder off the home screen, for use only on rare occasions. Yet I use a handful of apps every day. They stand the test of time for months, if not years, of usage. As we wrap up 2014, I wanted to highlight my “must-haves”. Many are well known within tech circles, but there’s a few lesser known apps that are also worth your time.
News and Social media
Alien Blue. My Reddit usage pales in comparison to other social media and news sources. I never comment, happy to scan a handful of design and gaming subreddits for links and general information. Thankfully, Alien Blue handles the browsing component well. It deserves special praise for its handling of image galleries and videos, both of which pop up frequently on Reddit threads.
News Funnel. Another plug for my self-built news site that lists top stories from Designer News and Hacker News. It sizes down effectively for the iPhone (and other mobile devices) so I can scan both sites easily.
Nuzzel. The app aggregates and lists the most linked to articles in your Twitter feed, ordered by popularity. There’s no faster way to see what’s trending among my Twitter friends. And via the “news from friends of friends” option, I usually discover some tech, film or gaming related articles I would have otherwise missed. I’ve tried many tools that build content off of my Twitter feed; none of have stuck the way Nuzzel has.
NYT Now. I was I was skeptical of the streamlined, simplified interface of NYT Now when it debuted earlier this year. Yet after a week of usage it secured a permanent slot on my phone’s home screen. At its core, NYT Now lists the full NYT app’s top stories, but adds larger imagery and helpful bullet point summaries for articles I don’t have time to read. It’s that smart use of bullet points that make all the difference on the go.
Reeder. I like having full control over my news aggregation, so for me there’s no substitute for RSS in the form of a Feedbin account. On the go, Reeder is my Feedbin reader of choice. There are other quality apps with Feedbin integration, but I find Reeder syncs faster than the competition. Also, the screen density of list items – dense but not too dense – matches my workflow. It’s about speed and sharing to other services like Pocket and Twitter, not lingering to read full stories.
Tweetbot. I check up on Twitter frequently, which makes a strong Twitter client essential. And while there’s been strong improvements on the official Twitter app lately, it still can’t match the speed and customization Tweetbot offers. Its timeline sync between devices is an especially nice touch.
Hours. I like to keep track of how much I’m working on both my day job and side tasks. I first tried popular web based time tracking software like Harvest and Toggl. But both felt optimized around more complex, team based workflows, when I prefer a simpler system. Enter Hours. The app centers on an intuitive interface for me to start, stop, and switch timers easily. It could use a Dropbox or iCloud based backup, not to mention a more customizable export system. But those are small quibbles on an otherwise strong 1.0 product.
Mailbox. I generally shy away from email apps that try to add their own productivity features on top of my inbox. But Mailbox adds its extras elegantly; with swipe gestures to archive or delete messages, I’m able to move through my inbox much faster than previous mail clients (there’s no coincidence Apple added similar swipe functionality to Mail with iOS8.) Overall, Mailbox adds just enough functionality to add value, but not too much to distract from my inbox content.
Pocket. My one stop source for catching up on content I’ve saved elsewhere on the web and aforementioned news apps like Tweetbot and Reeder. Parsing has gotten better over the years and the clean, stripped down reader view is easier on the eyes than many original web sources.
Wunderlist. I dig Omnifocus as a task manager for complex work tasks, but it’s overkill for simple to-do lists I write for chores, tasks at home, and other miscellaneous work. I’ve previously bounced around and tried Clear and Todoist, but both ultimately lacked staying power. Clear has a cool minimalist interface driven by gestures, but it was too simplistic for my needs and I’d run into occasional iCloud sync delays between devices. Todoist provides a lot more power, but the additional filters and searches overlapped too much with Omnifocus. Wunderlist finds a middle ground between Clear and Todoist; its sync is rock solid and the shared lists are useful and easy to set up with family members.
Next. Like with aforementioned time tracking, my budgeting needs are simple, centered on daily spending for expenses like restaurants, drinks, apps, and electronics. Because I’m entering in new entries manually each day, a smart entry UI is critical, and Next nails this perfectly. I tap a large category button, enter the amount and I’m done.
Overcast. For years I used Instacast to listen to podcasts. But eventually the complexity of extra features I never used (e.g. sleep timers, individual podcast settings), combined with several periods of slow syncing let me to try other clients. Marco Arment’s new Overcast matches my podcast flow perfectly; its interface is stripped down and straightforward, syncing is extremely reliable, and I use both of the exclusive “smart speed” and “voice boost” features heavily. There’s also a few small design touches I appreciate, like the audio equalizer animation during playback and the use of Concourse for typography.
Rise. I first scoffed at the idea of a dedicated alarm clock given the utility of Apple’s Clock app. But Rise is beautiful and has custom alarms that can progressively rise in volume, which I find is a more relaxing, peaceful way to be woken up. Most importantly, its gesture interface makes setup very easy, an important consideration given how often I change my wakeup time slightly from day to day.
RunKeeper. I run several times a week, and while I like select features on Strava and other fitness apps, I’ve always come back to RunKeeper for GPS-based run logging. The app has a straightforward interface that’s easy to both interact with and read as you run. I also appreciate the high degree of customization for automated voice notifications on your distance, time and speed.
Weather Line. I feel like I’ve tried at least twenty weather apps over the years, but since I started using Weather Line a year ago, I’ve been hooked. Like a few other weather apps, it has Dark Sky integration, which I find essential (so much so I own the original Dark Sky app for extra detail during rainy weather.) But Weather Line has a unique line graph interface that’s easily scannable to see how the rest of the day or week will pan out. I haven’t found another app that’s quite as intuitive, especially for a quick glance.