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★ A Moment of Clarity Regarding the Raison d’Etre for the App Store

10 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Feel free to file Google’s release this week of an update to their iPad Gmail app with support for split-screen multitasking under “better late than never”, but this is so late it borders on the absurd. It’s like the difference between showing up fashionably late and showing up a week after the party. Split-screen multitasking was introduced for the iPad back in 2015 with iOS 9. Five years to add support for a foundational element of the iPad user experience. And an email client is near the top of the list of the type of apps where someone would want to use split-screen. Five years.

Google makes a lot of software with terrible user experiences for users who have poor taste. Their iOS software, in particular, has for the most part never suggested that it was designed by people who like — or even use — iOS. It’s the blind leading the blind. But yet the Gmail app is currently the number one free app in the Productivity category in the App Store.

On the surface, it’s tempting to blow this off. To each their own. Whatever floats their boat. Who cares if millions of iPad users are satisfied using an email client that is a poor iPad app, so long as actual good iPad email clients are available to those who do care?

But what about those stuck using the Gmail app not because they want to, but because they have to? Who can help them but Apple?

I worry that it’s not tenable in the long run to expect Apple to continue striving to create well-crafted — let alone insanely great — software when so many of its users not only settle for, but perhaps even prefer, software that is, to put it kindly, garbage. There have always been popular Mac and iPhone apps that are objectively terrible apps — where by “popular” I mean much-used, not much-loved. But what made Apple users Apple users is that they complained vociferously if they had to use a terrible app. Word 6 was a sack of dog shit Microsoft dropped off and set aflame on Mac users’ porch, but we all knew it was a flaming bag of dog shit, and even those of us who didn’t even use Word were angry about it because it was an insult.

I worry that this sort of “Who cares, it’s better than nothing” attitude has seeped into Apple itself, and explains how we wound up with barely modified iPad apps shipping as system apps on the Mac.

But more than anything I worry that this exemplifies where Apple has lost its way with the App Store. What exactly is the point of running a strict approval process for apps if not, first and foremost, to ensure that they’re good apps? An iPad email app that doesn’t support split-screen multitasking for five years is, by definition, not a good app.

I’d like to see all the vim, vigor, and vigilance Apple applies to making sure no app on the App Store is making a dime without Apple getting three cents applied instead to making sure there aren’t any scams or ripoffs, and that popular apps support good-citizen-of-the-platform features within a reasonable amount of time after those features are introduced in the OS. I don’t know exactly how long “reasonable” is, but five fucking years for split-screen support ain’t it.

You might argue that there are a million apps in the App Store and Apple can’t make sure every one of them is up to snuff quality-wise. But there’s no need to scrutinize a million apps — just start with the apps with a million users. The more popular an app is the more Apple should scrutinize it in terms of being, simply, a decent citizen of the platform. If they’re going to be stringent about App Store review, they should be stringent in the name of user experience.

That the iPad’s most-installed productivity app was allowed to languish for half a decade without supporting something as fundamental to the platform as split-screen is every bit as much a condemnation of the state of the App Store as the Hey imbroglio was. It’s the other side of the same coin.

The primary purpose of the App Store should be to steer third-party apps toward excellence, to make the platform as a whole as insanely great as possible. When Steve Jobs introduced the App Store in 2008, he said, “We don’t intend to make any money off the App Store. We’re basically giving all the money to the developers and the 30 percent that pays for running the store, that’ll be great.” Really. It’s impossible to square that mindset with the App Store of today, where the highest priority1 seemingly is the generation of ever-increasing revenue in the Services column of Apple’s quarterly finance spreadsheet.

Apple undeniably wields great power from the fact that the App Store is the exclusive source for all consumer software for the iPhone and iPad. Why not use that power in the name of user experience? Imagine a world where the biggest fear developers had when submitting an app for review wasn’t whether they were offering Apple a sufficient cut of their revenue, but whether they were offering users a good enough native-to-the-platform experience. Video app that doesn’t support picture-in-picture? You’re out of the store. App doesn’t support dynamic type size but clearly should? You’re out. Poor accessibility support? Out. Popular email client that doesn’t support split screen? Out.

Rather than watch Apple face antitrust regulators in the U.S. and Europe with a sense of dread, I’d watch with a sense of glee. “This company is abusing its market dominance to take an unfair share of our money” is an age-old complaint to government regulators. “This company is abusing its market dominance to force us to make our apps better for users” would be delightful new territory. Only Apple could do that.

Great products often (but, sadly, not always) generate profit. Successfully navigating this dynamic — earning profits as a natural byproduct of the creation of consistently great products that people want to buy — is the story of Apple’s entire 40-year history in a nutshell. But profit seeking, as an end unto itself, does not generate excellence — and in fact generally results in the opposite. Apple, like any great company, is rightfully driven by an insatiable appetite, but that appetite ought to be for adding ever more artistic and technical excellence to the world, not mining ever more money from it.

You can’t pack every last ounce of joy, beauty, and elegance into something while simultaneously trying to squeeze every last dollar out of it.

  1. You can reasonably argue that revenue generation is not the highest priority of today’s App Store, but you can’t seriously argue that it isn’t a top priority — and that alone puts it in conflict with Jobs’s founding description. ↩︎

Apple Seeds First Public Betas of iOS and iPadOS 14

9 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

I’ve been running the developer beta of iPadOS and it’s been quite stable, but beta means beta, so expect the worst.

Herewith, a reading list of iOS/iPadOS 14 first looks:

Arizona Is #1, Bahrain Is #4: COVID-19 Outbreak in the U.S. Sunbelt Is Worse Than in Any Country in the World

9 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

David Leonhardt, reporting for The New York Times:

There is no country in the world where confirmed coronavirus cases are growing as rapidly as they are in Arizona, Florida or South Carolina. The Sun Belt has become the global virus capital.

This chart ranks the countries with the most confirmed new cases over the past week, adjusted for population size, and treats each U.S. state as if it were a country. (Many states are larger in both landmass and population than some countries.)

The only countries with outbreaks as severe as those across the Sunbelt are Bahrain, Oman and Qatar — three Middle Eastern countries with large numbers of low-wage migrant workers who are not citizens. These workers often live in cramped quarters, with subpar social services, and many have contracted the virus.

Don’t tell me the problem here in the U.S. is not the south.

And it keeps getting worse:

As President Trump continued pressing for a broader reopening of the United States, the country set another record for new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with more than 59,000 infections announced and some states’ final numbers still unreported, according to a New York Times database. It was the fifth national record set in nine days.

The previous record, 56,567, was reported on Friday.

The country reached a total of three million cases on Tuesday as the virus continued it a resurgence in the West and the South. At least five states — Missouri, Texas, Tennessee, Utah and West Virginia — set single-day records for new infections on Wednesday.

As of Tuesday, there had been a 72 percent increase in the daily number of new cases over the past two weeks.

All in the last two weeks. Almost entirely in the south. And all of these states had months of warning from the northeast, west coast, and, you know, the rest of the entire world. Months of warning, and all we had to do was listen to the experts. Stay at home. Close all non-essential businesses. Forbid large gatherings. Wear masks. It fucking sucks but it’s not complicated. You just have to follow the advice of experts who know what the fuck they’re talking about.

More on COVID and Brain Damage

9 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Melinda Wenner Moyer, in an op-ed for The New York Times:

The more we learn about the coronavirus, the more we realize it’s not just a respiratory infection. The virus can ravage many of the body’s major organ systems, including the brain and central nervous system.

Among patients hospitalized for Covid-19 in Wuhan, China, more than a third experienced nervous system symptoms, including seizures and impaired consciousness. Earlier this month, French researchers reported that 84 percent of Covid patients who had been admitted to the I.C.U. experienced neurological problems, and that 33 percent continued to act confused and disoriented when they were discharged.

Warning of Serious Brain Disorders in People With Mild Coronavirus Symptoms

8 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Ian Sample, reporting for The Guardian:

Neurologists are on Wednesday publishing details of more than 40 UK Covid-19 patients whose complications ranged from brain inflammation and delirium to nerve damage and stroke. In some cases, the neurological problem was the patient’s first and main symptom.

The cases, published in the journal Brain, revealed a rise in a life-threatening condition called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (Adem), as the first wave of infections swept through Britain. At UCL’s Institute of Neurology, Adem cases rose from one a month before the pandemic to two or three per week in April and May. One woman, who was 59, died of the complication. […]

One coronavirus patient described in the paper, a 55-year-old woman with no history of psychiatric illness, began to behave oddly the day after she was discharged from hospital. She repeatedly put her coat on and took it off again and began to hallucinate, reporting that she saw monkeys and lions in her house. She was readmitted to hospital and gradually improved on antipsychotic medication.

Another woman, aged 47, was admitted to hospital with a headache and numbness in her right hand a week after a cough and fever came on. She later became drowsy and unresponsive and required an emergency operation to remove part of her skull to relieve pressure on her swollen brain.

Germany yesterday reported 298 new cases of COVID-19.

The U.S. reported over 55,000. Just yesterday. It is raging out of control here in the United States. It’s that simple. We’ve lost any handle on it we might have had, infections are now — I repeat myself because there’s no other way to accurately describe it — raging out of control, and a large segment of the population has decided to pretend it isn’t happening and isn’t a big deal if you do get it.

For those of us who’ve been taking this seriously since March, it’s soul-crushing that this is where we’re at after four months of isolation. It sucks. We who’ve done the right thing are the ones most yearning for — and let’s be honest, most deserving of — a few tastes of normalcy. I see people in the south complaining about the physical discomfort and social awkwardness of wearing a mask because they’re new to it and I could not be more “Fuck you”. We should be over the hump, easing our way back to normalcy with confidence, like every country in the world that isn’t led by a dimwitted angry sociopath, but we’re not, and we have to face the fact that we’re in this indefinitely.

Do the right thing — stay home as much as you can, wear a mask and keep your distance when you’re out. You don’t want to get this and you don’t want your family to get it.

New Work by Gary Larson

8 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Gary Larson:

So here goes. I’ve got my coffee, I’ve got this cool gizmo, and I’ve got no deadlines. And — to borrow from Sherlock Holmes — the game is afoot.

Ben Dolnick on Our Long Parenthetical Moment

8 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Ben Dolnick, in a delightful piece for the NYT:

Here’s something I used to think about, back in the before-times: A clause set off by em dashes is like dropping underwater while swimming breaststroke — just a quick dip before popping back to the sentence’s surface. A parenthetical clause is more like diving down to the pool bottom to pick up a coin. And a footnote is a full-blown scuba dive — you have strapped on equipment and left the surface behind and you had better, after going to all that trouble, see something interesting down there.

How was it that I had never noticed that this entire taxonomic system of authorial interruptions took for granted that readers would enjoy being plunged into a medium in which they couldn’t take a breath?

Simultaneously an astute observation on writing and a spot-on assessment of our collective moment.

AirPods Versus AirPods Pro

8 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Adam Engst, writing for TidBITS:

I also wasn’t expecting to care about the case design. Because of their shorter stems and silicone tips, the case for the AirPods Pro is shorter and wider than the case for the AirPods. Even rotated 90 degrees, it’s slightly larger in both dimensions, and it’s also a little thicker. It’s not bad, but where Apple got the heft and hand feel of the AirPods case absolutely perfect, the AirPods Pro case feels… slightly off.

I’m sure this varies depending on your hand size, but I find that the AirPods case is an addictive fiddle — it’s like that smooth stone from the beach that you just can’t put down. The AirPods Pro case, on the other hand, is a little large in my pocket and just doesn’t have the same addictive feel.

I just love this assessment. I’ve thought the same thing ever since getting AirPods Pro but never quite to the level of writing it down.

For me personally, though, the utility of noise cancellation wins out over all else. I too find the regular AirPod buds more comfortable in my ears, but the acoustic advantages of AirPods Pro lead me to prefer them strongly.

★ How We Shot The Talk Show Remote From WWDC 2020

7 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

If you missed it, here’s a re-link to last week’s special episode of The Talk Show, with special guests Craig Federighi and Greg “Joz” Joswiak.

By necessity, it was shot remotely — Federighi and Joz were at Apple Park, and I was at home in Philadelphia. Overall I think it turned out pretty well, and whatever is wrong with it is the result of my middling skills as an interviewer. Technically, I think it came out amazingly well — it looks great and sounds great. It doesn’t look or sound like a Zoom or FaceTime call that was simply recorded and played back.

A lot of folks noticed that, and have asked how we made it. I have good news and bad news. The good news is the answer is very simple and doesn’t require any expensive equipment. The bad news is it’s a lot of work.

For the actual video call, we used Webex. That’s Cisco’s platform that’s like Zoom. Webex is pretty good in terms of call quality, very good in terms of privacy and security, and pretty crappy in terms of user experience and user interface. Zoom is kicking their ass as the go-to app for remote meetings because Zoom makes easy what Webex makes confusing. But it doesn’t really matter what we used for the call. It could have been using FaceTime or Skype or Zoom and it wouldn’t have made a difference to what you see on the final video, because we didn’t record anything from the Webex call. (Well, we did record it, just in case, but we didn’t want to use that footage, and because Murphy’s Law thankfully did not strike, we didn’t need to.) The call was just for we three — me, Federighi, and Joz — to hear and see each other live.

Federighi and Joz were using iPad Pros for the call itself. I was using a MacBook Pro. We all wore AirPods. So the call itself was conducted using iPads on their side, a MacBook Pro on mine, using the built-in device cameras for video. One advantage of using iPads is that you guarantee there will be no fan noise. We wore AirPods for the call to avoid feedback.

But all that stuff was just for the conference call. We didn’t use any of that footage for the show.

For the show’s audio, we used real podcast/TV-quality microphones — desktop mics for Federighi and Joz; and a professional lav mic and boom mic for me, connected to a Sound Devices MixPre-6 digital audio recorder (all borrowed from local audio pro and Sandwich collaborator Zach Phillips). We didn’t need both microphones, but using two gave us more choices in post. I could have recorded my side with the microphone and USB preamp I usually use for my podcast, but it didn’t really work visually with the space where we set up to film in my office. The point is all you really need is any microphone good enough to record a podcast.

For video, we shot 4K 30 FPS using iPhone 11 Pros. That’s right, iPhones. Apple seems to have plenty of them so Federighi and Joz each had two — one positioned head-on, and one to the side for a wider-angle view. I just used one. The trick to getting that “looking right at the camera” angle is to position the iPhone camera just behind and above the device being used for the conference call. We weren’t using the iPhones as webcams for the call, but we positioned the main ones as though we were. That’s key to the setup.

I had mine mounted on a GorillaPod and Glif. From behind the camera it looked like this:

A photo of the camera setup in my office, showing an iPhone mounted on a tripod behind and slightly above an open MacBook Pro.

So we wound up with three audio recordings (one of each of us) and five video recordings (one for me, two each for Federighi and Joz). We also had an “if all else fails” recording of the Webex call. I’m lucky to have nice natural light in my office (we shot at 10am PT / 1pm ET), and we set up a few additional low-cost LED lights, that, to be honest, I don’t think accomplished much.1 After that, it was just a matter of editing.

Which, of course, is a huge matter. So, a few weeks before the show, I called upon my friends at Sandwich, and they were keen to help. They know me, they know The Talk Show, and they know how to make good videos. They nailed it. They were so easy to work with and the end result is exactly how I imagined the show turning out. Really, the biggest problem was just getting them my footage. I get somewhere between 250-300Mbps downstream, but my upstream connection maxes out around 10 Mbps. With 17 GB of footage, that wound up taking around 7-8 hours. (Because they used four cameras, Apple’s footage was close to 100 GB in total — they, however, apparently have faster upstream internet service than I do.)

So to recap:

  • Webex call: used so we could see and hear each other while recording, but none of the video or audio from the call was used to produce the actual show.
  • Audio: recorded on its own using good microphones.
  • Video: 4K footage shot using the 1× lenses on iPhone 11 Pros.

None of this is magic or particularly expensive. Calling in Sandwich for post-production and editing was, let’s face it, a cheat code, but the raw video footage from the iPhones was really good. Recent iPhones are amazingly good video cameras.

Basically, the secret to shooting a remote interview that doesn’t look like a recorded internet call is simply not to use the internet call video. Instead, shoot each participant like you would if there were no internet call involved, recording video and audio locally for everyone, using decent cameras and microphones. In audio podcasting we call this technique “double-ending” — recording the audio locally for each participant. We used the same principle for my show, just with both video and audio.

  1. I checked the forecast days in advance, and expected and got good weather. A severely overcast day here in Philadelphia would have necessitated a Plan B for lighting on my side. ↩︎

Uber Buys Postmates for $2.65 Billion

7 juillet, par John Gruber[ —]

Really, it makes a ton of sense. If you take one money-losing company in a low-margin business and combine it with another money-losing company in a low-margin business, it’s like multiplying two negative numbers: you get a big positive number. Total sense.

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