Better tech writing

Brian Lam does technology writing differently at The Wirecutter. Instead of writing about every single dodad and gizmo, he writes “a list of great technology,” aiming to only tell readers what the best thing in a category is. Of course he wrote about the new iPhone:

These things are always the same. But better in small but meaningful ways. That’s all I remember from today’s news, really.

It’s also pretty much the same thing Apple says on their website and on the website of every other publication that writes about this stuff. It’s also pretty much what I wrote for the 4s and the 4 and the 3gs and the 3g, too. I feel despair when I am forced to write words that provide no service or additional value, but there’s a balancing act between saying what I think is useful and saying what people want to hear, so here we are.

Should you get one? If you want, sure.

His post is short, to the point, and not breathless, all of which is, sadly, refreshing in the world on online-gadget writing.

Microsoft could make the new Apple ads

Ken Segall on Apple’s new Mac ads that have been panned by Apple loyalists:

The idea of creating a “character” from an Apple employee is… well…. damn, I can’t even say this without feeling awful… it feels like something Best Buy would do. Maybe even Dell.

I think this is the problem. When I first saw them, I thought they could easily be Microsoft ads.

Even if the ads appeal to “people who’ve never bought a Mac but are thinking about buying their first,” which John Gruber says should be the test, there are ways to appeal to that segment and to current users that don’t stoop to the normally low comedic standards of the advertising industry.

I’m not a Mac owner, though if I bought a new computer today, it would most likely be a Mac. For what it’s worth, I think the ads are dumb, but they wouldn’t make a difference to me one way or the other. I asked my wife, also not a Mac owner and less likely than I to be one, what she thought when “Mayday” came on during a break in the Olympics last night. Her response: “I thought it was dumb that a guy felt he could make up for forgetting an anniversary making a video that didn’t take any work.”

A Twitter tit for Facebook tat is a win for Apple

Yesterday, Twitter cut Instagram’s API access that had allowed Instagram users to easily connect to the people they followed on Twitter on the photography network. Dan Frommer suggests it was payback for Instagram’s soon-to-be owner Facebook for blocking Twitter’s ability to let its users look up their Facebook friend on Twitter.

Users’ social graphs are valuable to social networks. Allowing users to find their friends on other services benefits the users, but it also benefits social networks by making them somewhat of a canonical list of your Internet friends. But when one network grows large enough to challenge another network, the interest changes to preventing users from moving easily to the new service.

Now here’s where I make a wild speculation there might not be evidence for: do these moves actually cede power to Apple? Maybe Apple, which has shown its social-network ineptitude, doesn’t care. But Apple’s iOS 6 (and, I believe, a future OS X Mountain Lion update) integrates Facebook, Twitter and contacts, making it, perhaps the way millions of iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and Mac users move between and integrate the two services.

Corporations paying more than customers

Marco Arment on the acquisition of a couple software companies, and his own ability to keep Instapaper independent:

If you want to keep the software and services around that you enjoy, do what you can to make their businesses successful enough that it’s more attractive to keep running them than to be hired by a big tech company.

The companies he mentions both sold paid Mac and iOS apps (Pulp, Wallet and Sparrow). The problem users face in this space strikes me as similar to the another point Arment made about advertisers outbidding users for their own attention.

I don’t know what Sparrow’s expected, but they knew they were competing with free when they built a paid Gmail client. Users bought the software. Development was still killed. How can users compete with that?

Rian van der Merwe writes a similar thing, more eloquently than I:

But… that’s what I did. I paid full price for every version of the Sparrow app I could find. I told everyone who would listen to buy it. I couldn’t have given them more money even if I wanted to. So, as a customer, what more could I have done to keep them running independently?

This is the core of the disappointment that many of us feel with the Sparrow acquisition. It’s not about the $15 or less we spent on the apps. It’s not about the team’s well-deserved payout. It’s about the loss of faith in a philosophy that we thought was a sustainable way to ensure a healthy future for independent software development, where most innovation happens.

Signing up to be sold out

Following my Facebook sex lube incident, I’ve become the posterboy for, first, a giant tub of lube, then the future of advertising, then for Facebook’s attempts to make money with its data and then for people who sued Facebook and sorta-but-not-really won $10 million in a settlement.

I wrote in my post “Of course Facebook is happily selling me out to advertisers. That’s its business. That’s what you sign up for when make an account.”

Some people disagreed. Here’s one:

I’d totally disagree, you don’t sign up for that. Surely the lawsuit proves this, users do NOT sign up to sell adverts.

First, it’s pretty clear that Facebook’s terms of service say that you sign up for exactly that.

10. About Advertisements and Other Commercial Content Served or Enhanced by Facebook

Our goal is to deliver ads and commercial content that are valuable to our users and advertisers. In order to help us do that, you agree to the following:
1. You can use your privacy settings to limit how your name and profile picture may be associated with commercial, sponsored, or related content (such as a brand you like) served or enhanced by us. You give us permission to use your name and profile picture in connection with that content, subject to the limits you place.
2. We do not give your content or information to advertisers without your consent.
3. You understand that we may not always identify paid services and communications as such.

That’s part of the problem. Facebook’s lawyers write the terms, and users only have the choice to not use the service if they don’t agree to them.

Second, the lawsuit, and its settlement don’t prove that you don’t sign up for that, either. In fact, the lawsuit proves nothing except that Facebook is willing to settle lawsuits.

It was an settlement in which, I’m sure, Facebook admits no wrongdoing. Companies settle for a multitude of reasons, including to avoid admitting wrong doing, to avoid a bad image from public trials, and to avoid setting legal precedents. It’s possible that a trial would have found that Facebook’s sponsored stories violate some right or law, but by settling, Facebook has avoided letting that become established; it’s still, I believe, an open question.

This isn’t to say that I don’t agree with the writer’s conclusion. Facebook is a “hungry information monster that wants nothing more than to take all your details, package them up and sell them on.” Users need to be aware of that and act accordingly. I don’t think users have to just grin and bear it. I wrote, long before the sex lube incident, that Facebook isn’t free.

Update: Today, The New York Times reported in a story by Somini Sengupta, the reporter who put me on A1:

Facebook has agreed to make it clear to users that when they click to like a product on Facebook, their names and photos can be used to plug the product. They will also be given a chance to decline the opportunity to be unpaid endorsers.

So, Facebook still has the right to use your content as ads, it’s just required to tell be slightly more upfront about it.

iPad lifespans

When Apple announced the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 6, it also raised an interesting question: what’s the expected useful life of an iPad?

I ask this because iOS 6 will not work on the first-generation iPad, which debuted a little more than two years ago and was the only iPad customers could buy as recently as March 2011, just 15 months ago. While consumers have gotten used to getting new phones every couple of years, even high-end phones only run a few hundred bucks once we sign a new phone contract.

Laptops, which iPads often seem to be replacing, don’t benefit from carrier subsidy, and users who upgrade every couple of years seem extravagant. But a five-year-old PC seems, to me, a little long in the tooth.

Doesn’t it seems reasonable for an iPad’s useful life to be somewhere in the middle? At $500 for the low-end iPad, it costs more than a subsidized phone, and is cheaper, in most reasonable cases, than a laptop.

I could reasonably, I think,  expect a new iPad to be kept up-to-date for three years. By cutting the original iPad out of iOS 6, Apple seems to have decided that less than a year and a half is enough.

I don’t know Apple’s reasons, and I don’t know what the technical limitations of iOS 6 are. It could be that the original iPad can’t handle the new software. I do know that, until last week, I was plodding along on an OG iPad, and, despite my complaints about the time the device took to swtich apps, and the lagginess when a notification would come in while I was playing a graphically intense game, it was a perfectly functional computer. It handled e-mail, writing and Internet browsing just fine. My 6-year-old, now the owner of a gently used first-generation iPad, chides me for ever complaining about it’s lack of snappiness.

To put it another way: my first-gerneration iPad was still an adequate post-PC device.

Maybe most people won’t care if their iPad is on iOS version 5.1.1 or 6.0. But Apple did just get done mocking Android for seeing so many users stuck on old versions of Google’s OS. It did a some chestbeating about how quickly OS X Lion was adopted. What would the reaction be if Apple or Microsoft didn’t offer an upgrade path to a two-year-old PC? I don’t know, but I don’t expect it would be positive.

The tablet market will, I have no doubt, be larger than the PC market ever was. That’s why Apple cutting off relatively new hardware from software upgrades makes me a little uncomfortable.

The ‘anyone else should be worried if Apple has any success whatsoever’ school of thought

John Gruber complained today that as soon as someone has success doing things differently than Apple, we get pundits saying Apple needs to start doing things differently or else.

But we get the inverse, too: Someone does something different than Apple, has little success with it, and pundits start arguing they need to change course and do what is Apple doing.

Memento, starring Siri

Marco Arment’s response to Boris at ReadWriteWeb’s question “Is it time to say goodbye to Siri?” prompts me to add more to my chronicle of chronic Siri struggle.

First, Siri’s response when I tried to use my wife’s phone to call my own. Yes, I tapped the phone number Siri offered and labeled “mobile” and she gave me a map of Mobile, Alabama. Obviously a bug of some sort, but how is that anything but seriously broken and embarrassing? Isn’t this exactly the sort of task Siri was built for?


Then another short-term memory failure. In moments like this, Siri bears a striking similarity to Leonard from Memento.


These aren’t reliability issues and these aren’t managing expectations issues. These are basic issues that a marquee feature of a marquee product of a marquee company.

Moving from Android to iOS

After using the original Motorola Droid for two years, I just ordered a new phone. I snickered for those couple of years about the limits of iOS and the many purposeful ones Apple imposed. But I ordered an iPhone 4S.

I never would have considered the move if I hadn’t won an iPad. (Thanks, Patch of suburban Virginia!) It quickly replaced my laptop for many of my daily personal computing tasks and got me comfortable with iOS. (iPads and iPod Touches are both great gateways to iOS that Android, Windows Phone 7 and webOS have never been able to replicate or complete effectively with.)

The original iPad (running iOS 4.whatever) and the original Droid (updated to 2.2.something) are the only two real data points playing into my decision. I’ve been mostly happy with my phone; most of the disappointments are related to the fact that it’s a two-year-old phone in area seeing rapid progress. Nowadays, its single slow core and a minuscule amount of RAM feel ancient.

So here’s one Android user’s pro-and-con list.

Things I think I’ll miss

The seamless Google integration. Turn on an Android phone, plug in your Google credentials and you’ve just set up Gmail, Google Calendars, Google Talk, Google Maps and any other Google service whose app you install. iOS isn’t too bad, but if you want to set up, say, Google Voice, you need to give it credentials there, too, even after you’ve plugged then in for Mail and Calendar. And God help you if you want to use multiple Google calendars or sync contacts magically with an iOS device. Now you have to set up the same account as an Exchange account and manage it through Google’s Sync We app.

Google’s built-in apps. Gmail on Android is heads and shoulders above Gmail in Apple’s built-in Mail app (threading, labels, marking as spam or important are all easy and well done on Android). Google Calendars on Android is heads and shoulders above Google Calendars in Apple’s built-in Calendar app (sure hope you didn’t have more than a single calendar to display on your iPhone). Google Maps on Android is heads and shoulders above Google Maps in Apple’s built-in Mail app (turn-by-turn and public transit information on Android are great). Google Voice on Android is heads and shoulders above Google Voice on iOS.

The blinking notification light. Without having to wake the phone up, I know at a glance if I’ve got a new e-mail, Twitter mention or something else waiting for me. Simple, but really nice to have.

Swype. I’ve been using the alternative keyboard for something like a year and it really does work like magic. I can type long messages with a single thumb in bright daylight. iOS’s multitouch keyboard and autocorrect are pretty good, but not magical, and they’ll never be available on iOS.

Single browser field for search and URLs. The single field is my favorite feature of desktop Chrome, and I really like having in on my Android browser as well. Safari and Mobile Safari should adopt it.

No LTE option. I get the tradeoff. 4G LTE eats battery. But I’m not buying a new $200 or $300 phone every six or 12 months. Verizon has been aggressive in rolling out LTE coverage and has it in Iowa City and elsewhere. I worry that I’ll feel stupid when I’m still poking along on 3G in a year.

Things that might be better, might be worse

Notifications. On iOS 4.whatever on my iPad, the notifications suck. They interfere, they pop up and get knocked into oblivion when another comes in immediately after. They aren’t collected in one place, only as little red dots with white numbers scattered across app icons on various home screens. Perhaps the Android-like notifications in iOS 5 will be an improvement. I sure hope so.

The file system. iOS doesn’t have one that’s visible to its users, which I think would be great when I’m poking around, seeing all the cruft from old apps on my Android phone. But other times, when I’m moving a podcast’s audio file from my downloads folder to a special folder for my podcast app, I know that won’t be possible on iOS. (Idea: a podcast player that integrates with Dropbox to allow you to add one-offs and other audio files to a podcast playlist.)

Background tasks. It’s great being able to set my Android podcast app to download new episodes every day at 10 p.m. when I’m home, on Wi-Fi and charging. iOS won’t allow that, so I have to manually open then app to get it downloading. Same with Instapaper. The tradeoff, of course, is random apps aren’t sucking down battery throughout the day.

Design. The iPhone 4S is a sexy piece of hardware, but that glass back scares me.

Things that I’m looking forward to

A better e-mail client. In addition to Gmail and Google Apps accounts, I have my Exchange account for work. While I like having a completely separate app for my work e-mail, Android’s non-Gmail client is atrocious: it can’t be searched, it forwards e-mail as attachments, it occasionally forgets my credentials all together. (I have never gotten the well-regarded K9 mail app to work.)

Better apps. The best apps available for iOS are, without a doubt, better than the best apps for Android. And Google doesn’t seem to be pushing for better itself. Example: on my iPad, I use Reeder all the time to access my Google Reader subscriptions, but on Android, despite the existence of an official Google Reader app, I continue to use the Web app because I find the native app annoying, particularly the way it continues to not indent blockquotes.

Universal apps. I’m looking forward to being able to buy single copies of most apps that will work on my phone and on what has become my primary personal computer.

Better networking. Whether the problem is my employer’s network or Android itself, I’ve never been able to reliably connect to the Wi-Fi there. The same is true of the network at the university. My iPad hasn’t had issues connecting or getting data in either place.

Faster, better camera. I’ve never been the type to carry around a point-and-shoot or a DSLR camera, but I do like having pictures to look at later. Since having a decent camera in my pocket at all times, I’ve started taking many more pictures. The iPhone 4S’s camera takes great looking pictures pretty quick. (Having them show up on my iPad automatically will be great, too.)

Twitter integration. My iPad has had problems with the Twitter for iPad (formerly known as Tweetie) bookmarklet not sending links to the app from Mobile Safari. It seems like a problem only for a small number of users and my complaints were answered with “we’re working on it,” by which Twitter meant the deep integration with iOS 5. Being able to post links to Twitter easily is nice and I do it a lot. Android allows users to share links directly to an installed Twitter client, but only copies over the URL, not the page’s title or other helpful information.

Remote wipe. As far as I know, there is no way to locate, lock or wipe an Android device remotely. I don’t think I’ll need it, but that it’s there on iOS is a relief.

Things I don’t really care about

Siri. Maybe it will be really slick, but I rarely use Android’s built-in voice search for much more than basic queries every few weeks. I really don’t want to be the dork carrying on a conversation with my phone.