This is why iOS 8 is such a big deal

Believe the hype!

iOS 8 is the most important, most game-changing update to iOS since…well, since the arrival of the App Store in 2008.

I don’t say this because of all new features in iOS 8. There are many new features…so many that I’m still discovering some of the lesser known ones.

I don’t say this because of how nicely iOS 8 smooths out the rough edges of previous iOS versions. To take one example, you can now answer messages while staying in your current app rather than having to switch to the Messages app. This is all true, but that’s not the most critical change.

It’s not even the Handoff feature, which allows you to start a document on one device and automatically pick it up in progress on any other of your devices, OS X or iOS. Impressive as it is, it’s not the biggest deal.

The biggest deal is the greatly expanded “openness” in iOS 8. It’s as if iOS had been living in a shuttered room with the curtains drawn — and now the windows have been thrown open and the sun is pouring in. Yes, the change to iOS is that big. And the primary benefactor behind all of this openness are iOS 8’s extensions: Actions, Custom keyboards, Document providers, Sharing, Widgets and such. Taken together, these represent a profound philosophical shift in how Apple views iOS.

Working our way back to iOS 8

I’ve been writing about iOS since I wrote a book about it back in 2007. I marveled at the iPhone back then and continue to do so. At the same time, I’ve never stopped lamenting about the limitations of iOS, limitations that I believed Apple could easily address if it chose to do so. It has at last chosen to do so.

Although iOS is essentially a variation of the Mac’s OS X, Apple has never provided any of the Mac-like access to the iOS file system. There is no Finder in iOS, no way to see the files and folders that exist.  There has been no way to manipulate where you stored the documents you created. There are similarly no iOS apps that can directly access the file system, apps such as Terminal.

There is no way to connect an iOS device to a Mac and mount it as an external drive, as you can do with an iPod. Conversely, there is just about no way to physically connect an external drive to an iOS device.

There have been only limited ways to share files between Macs and iOS devices. There has been no seamless way for two iOS apps to work on the same document. In fact, due to sandboxing, an iOS app typically is not even aware of the existence of documents created in other apps.

Similarly, there have been only very limited ways that one app can work within another app. There have been no system-wide utilities, such as exist in OS X.

Also recall that when the iPhone was first released, Steve Jobs was opposed any sort of third-party App Store. All third-party software was to work as web apps. Even after he was convinced to change his mind here, the “curated” App Store remained the only way to get apps on your iPhone (unless you chose to jailbreak your device).

And on and on. You get the idea.

Each new update to iOS brought the promise that things would get better. And while each release did move the ball a bit further down the field, Apple still was quite a distance from the end zone. Until now. Until iOS 8. It changes everything. Well, almost everything. Certainly more than enough to get excited about.

iOS struts its stuff

To give you a small taste of what I mean, here are three key examples:

TextExpander. TextExpander on a Mac is a great utility…allowing you to type keyboard shortcuts that instantly expand to longer text or even graphics. There’s also an iOS version, but it has not been nearly as useful. Why? Because, due to iOS sandboxing, TextExpander could not function in most apps. Third-party apps had to specifically add in support for TextExpander. Most did not. And even if they did, it did not always work as promised.

This problem is now gone…vanished…over. The latest version of TextExpander touch for iOS 8 includes a TextExpander custom keyboard. With the keyboard active, TextExpander shortcuts work in any app that has access to the iOS keyboard. Fantastic!

[Note: How do you set this up? Briefly, after installing the TextExpander app, go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards. From here, select Add New Keyboard. Once you’ve added, the TextExpander keyboard, you activate it from the Globe icon/key on the iOS keyboard in any app.]

Adding custom keyboards, such as SwiftKey and TextExpander

1Password. The 1Password app is another superb OS X utility that has had trouble making the transition to iOS. With 1Password, you can save all of your passwords in a single location. To use any of them, all you need to remember is the single password for 1Password. The most frequent destination app for 1Password is a web browser, due to all the Internet accounts that require names and passwords to log in.

In iOS, “web browser” typically means Mobile Safari. Unfortunately, prior to iOS 8, there was no way for 1Password to work in Mobile Safari. To work-around this, AgileBits built a web browser into the 1Password app. In other words, using 1Password regularly could mean giving up on Safari, something most users did not want to do.

With iOS 8, the dilemma has been resolved. You can now enable the 1Password action extension in Safari (as well as other apps). Once it’s up and running, 1Password appears as a sort of mini-app within Safari.

[Note: To get this working in Safari, after installing the 1Password app, go to Safari and tap the Sharing item. From here, swipe the bottom row to get the More button to appear. Tap More. Scroll down to locate the 1Password item and move the slider to turn it on. Tap Done and you are ready to roll. Return to the same bottom row of Sharing. There will now be a 1Password item. Tap it and the 1Password login window will appear!]

The 1Password extension, as seen in Safari on an iPad

Document Picker. I’ve saved the best for last. File sharing has always been one of the weakest links in iOS. At first, it was almost unusable. It’s gotten better, but even with iOS 7’s Documents in the Cloud, much was left to be desired. As one example, if you saved a TextEdit or Preview document to iCloud on your Mac, there was no way to access the document on your iOS devices — because iOS 7 apps could only open documents created by the matching app on a Mac — and there was no matching iOS versions of TextEdit or Preview.

Again, all of this has changed for the better in iOS 8. Because OS X 10.10 Yosemite has not yet been released, not all of the cross-platform features of Document Picker are available yet. And very few iOS apps have been updated to take advantage of the option as yet. As a result, I still have several questions about how all of this works. But here is what I do know:

Document sharing, and what options are available, can vary from app to app. Following a tip from an excellent article by Federico Viticco, I tested the Document Picker in the updated Scanner Pro and Dropbox apps.

[Note: To find the Document Picker in Scanner Pro on a iPad (it works a bit differently on an iPhone), navigate to Sharing > More > iCloud Export. The iCloud Drive export window appears. You can save documents to any of the listed locations. Apple has never supported anything close to this before.]

The iCloud Export screen from Scanner Pro, with the Locations menu visible

A similar iCloud Drive import window in another app will allow users to open documents stored in iCloud drive — as long as the app is compatible with the document type and has been updated to support the feature. Different apps will be able to view and edit the same document, not just a copy, allowing changes made in one app to be reflected in the other.

This will work with documents shared between the Mac and iOS devices as well as among iOS apps. Yes, this means documents created in TextEdit or Preview on a Mac will finally be openable by iOS apps!

I was hoping to test all of this out with Apple’s iWork apps (Pages, Numbers, Keynote). Unfortunately, the iOS versions of these apps, while they support iCloud storage (as they did in iOS 7), they do not yet provide access to iCloud Drive and the Document Picker. Perhaps that will come after Yosemite is released. Or perhaps not. As far as I know, Apple has not commented on this.

Back at Scanner Pro’s iCloud Export screen, you can see a Location button in the upper left corner. Tap it to bring up a list of other export locations besides iCloud Drive. If no other items appear, tap the More button to see what choices you have.

On my iPad, I can choose Dropbox. This gives me the option to export/save a document to any location in Dropbox. As this is a system-wide feature, it means that any app that includes support for the Document Picker can automatically have Dropbox access. No longer will developers have to separately add Dropbox support to their apps.

Apple (and app developers) still need to do some interface cleanup. For one thing, it’s a bit of a misnomer to select Dropbox from a screen labeled iCloud. Overall, there are too many different variations and circuitous paths involved in the iCloud options. It needs greater simplicity and consistency. And some bug fixes. I’m optimistic this will all get better as time goes on (although we may have to wait for iOS 9 for really big improvements).

Regardless, this is a huge shift for Apple. True, iOS 8 doesn’t have all the file access available on a Mac (there’s still no Terminal app in the App Store, for example). And it probably never will; it’s not Apple’s goal to do so. Apple sees the needs and wants for iOS devices differently than for Macs. But iOS 8 provides users and third-party developers with a new level of openness and inter-app communication that is a quantum leap beyond what existed before. It addresses all of the most pressing concerns. This is what makes iOS 8 such a big deal.

I believe this change in direction is a deliberate move that can be traced back directly to Tim Cook. For me, that’s why, even more so than the forthcoming Apple Watch, this is the clearest evidence that it’s really Tim Cook’s Apple now.

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Technology | Leave a comment

The last word on the iPhone 6 vs. 6 Plus decision

By now, if you’re in the market for a new iPhone, you’ve probably scoured a dozen articles advising how to choose which model to get: the 4.7 inch iPhone 6 or the 5.5 inch iPhone 6 Plus. So, while I have no illusions that this is the first or only article you’ve read on this subject, it could be the last one you need to read.

For some buyers, there is no tough choice here. They  know exactly what they want. “It’s iPhone 6. No way I want a phone that’s so big that my small hands can’t even grasp it” or “The 6 Plus is the size I’ve been waiting for. I can finally dump my iPad mini and go with just one portable device.”

For the rest of us, and this includes myself as well as I suspect the vast majority of buyers, the decision is far less certain. That’s what drove people to make cut-outs of the different sizes before pre-ordering last week, so they could take the models for a quasi-test drive. The trouble is, even if you now go to your local store and play with each model for awhile, the choice may still not be clear.

Each model has its pros and cons. For example, I found it impossible to hold and use the iPhone 6 Plus as a camera one-handed. But, the iPhone 6 Plus has Optical Image Stabilization not present with the iPhone 6. Which way does the balance tip here? I’m not sure.

And so it goes. Do I want the largest possible display, an iPhone that can almost double as an iPad? Or do I want a more compact, portable device that is still easy to use with one hand. If I could test out each device for a couple of weeks, I might figure this out for sure. But that’s not financially practical.

Whatever I decide, it doesn’t mean that I would recommend the same choice for you. Which model is better for you depends on how you see yourself using the iPhone. The more you view the phone as a pocket computer rather than a phone with extra features, the more you’ll likely lean toward the Plus.

In the end, neither model may prove the right one in all situations. You’ll have to figure out which device you prefer most of the time because you won’t prefer either model all of the time.

As a related example, I purchased both an iPad Air and an iPad mini last year. For the first month or so, I alternately used one or the other — in attempt to decide which one would be my primary device. Some days the mini seemed too small — when I was reading the New York Times or playing a game where precision aiming was important. Other times, the iPad Air seemed too big…when reading a book or when using it for almost anything while out of the house. The Air was the better choice when paired with a physical keyboard. It’s larger size made it superior for watching video. The mini was better when I wanted to quickly look things up on the web, check the weather or other similarly small tasks.

In the end, I stayed with the Air, as it was the device I wound up wanting most of the time. But there were still days I would have preferred the mini. And so it will be with the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus.

Let’s not make too much of this dilemma. This should be the worst problem you ever have, as my mother would have said. Both iPhones are spectacularly designed devices. Neither one will be a disappointment.

I am especially impressed with their displays. I didn’t think they could be that much better than the one on my iPhone 5S (which was already excellent). But they are. The images are brighter, sharper and seem less pixellated. They almost appear as if they are painted on the glass.

So, when crunch time came, what was my choice? I went with the iPhone 6.

What ultimately tipped the scales for me was that the iPhone 6’s display was larger than I anticipated. And I mean that as a good thing. After reading all the hype following Apple’s media event, I was prepared for the iPhone 6’s display to be almost unrecognizably bigger than my iPhone 5S. Not so. It’s way bigger. I can type more accurately with it. I read small text more easily. Photos appear distinctly larger. Games are more pleasant to play. The iPhone 6 turned out to be sufficiently big that I didn’t feel the need for the larger 6 Plus with all the compromises it required.

Still, the iPhone 6 Plus was not as ungainly big as I had imagined. Passing one critical test, it fit easily into the front pocket of my blue jeans. If the 6 Plus was my only option, I would be content with it. Who knows? Maybe I will be ready to move up to an iPhone 6S Plus next year. But no Plus for me this time around.

One more thing: my iPhone — with its curved glass display, super-thin design and space-gray back — looks and feels so good that I decided a case would ruin the effect. So I am going without a case for the first time.

My decisions have been made. Once I gave up on the idea that there had to be a sure “correct” decision, it became a lot easier to make one. Hopefully, this helps in making your choice. Good luck!

Posted in Apple Inc, iOS, iPad, iPhone, Technology | 3 Comments

Macworld: The end of an era

It’s the sad end to a glorious era. Macworld magazine is dead. Over. Kaput.

The next print issue of Macworld will be the last.

But that’s not what is truly sad. Or surprising. The demise of Macworld’s print magazine has been expected for several years. Almost all other technology print publications, including Macworld’s PCWorld sibling, have already vanished. There was no way they could compete with the immediacy, ubiquity and free availability of the web. Macworld has now joined their ranks.

Macworld intends to continue as the macworld.com website. As this is where most Macworld readers were already consuming the content, the transition need not have been a traumatic one. But it is.

This is because, in addition to ceasing print publication, Macworld laid off almost its entire editorial staff. This is not an exaggeration. Dan Frakes, Dan Moren, Dan Miller, Phil Michaels, Serenity Caldwell (correction: Serenity resigned a few days previously; I have heard that she would have otherwise been retained), and Jason Snell (technically, Jason had planned to quit before he could be laid off, but the end result is the same). They are all gone — as are several others that I do not know as well. It is the end of the line for the greatest bunch of people I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. Only Chris Breen appears to have survived. He must be checking his shirt for bullet holes about now, wondering how he could be the only one left standing after the massacre.

After recovering from the shock of this news, my first question was: How can Macworld continue as a website? Who will be left to write the stories? Who will be left to manage the site? I’ve been told that a skeleton crew, perhaps headed by Chris, will attempt the job. There will be an increased dependence on freelance writers (disclaimer: I have already been approached in this regard). While this will assuredly save Macworld money, they will be losing the critical commitment of a full-time staff.

The focus of and range of topics covered by Macworld will inevitably narrow. But they intend to soldier on.

I wish them well. Truly. Still, in my heart, I feel like the Macworld I have known for three decades has effectively ended. It was the people who made Macworld great. And those people are gone. To be frank, I won’t be surprised if, within a year, the site has either vanished or morphed into something that is no longer recognizable.

Looking back

Macworld holds a special spot in the history of Apple and the Mac. It was the very first Mac-only publication, premiering in January 1984, simultaneously with the Mac itself (I still have a copy of every issue!). It outlasted numerous competitors, including MacUser (whose demise is what led me to become a writer for Macworld). It quickly attained and maintained a position as the #1 most respected and authoritative publication for everything Apple. I’ve been proud to be listed on its masthead.

With the rise of the web years ago, Macworld had to struggle to adjust. I give Jason Snell the lion’s share of the credit for successfully navigating the transition. Before he took over as editor, macworld.com was just a weak extension of the print magazine. Its content was largely limited to web translations of print articles. Even here, you had to wait about a month after an issue appeared on newsstands before those articles showed up on the website. Given the fast pace of the web, this was a recipe for disaster.

Jason turned Macworld around, making the website its focus. Everything appeared first on the web, typically within hours of breaking news. The print magazine became a curated version of what had appeared on the web in the previous weeks. It worked. I believe this probably saved Macworld for going under years ago.

Along the way, Jason assembled what became one of the best teams in tech journalism. That’s why it was heart-breaking to witness the near total collapse that occurred yesterday. I can only hope that the people laid off find other satisfying work very soon.

It is the way of the world today that people move on to the next thing at nearly light-speed. The 24-hour news cycle demands it. So I expect that, for most people, the news of the “demise” of Macworld will soon be barely a memory. Like the people at the end of The Truman Show movie, people will shrug their shoulders and ask “What else is on?” It’s inevitable.

For me, however, the aftershocks of this event will linger for quite some time. Perhaps it’s because I’m closer to the epicenter. Regardless, there’s been a shift in the ground beneath me. It will be long while before it all settles again.

Posted in Media, Technology | 5 Comments

The Apple Watch see-saw

If you tried to stream Apple’s media event yesterday, you know how frustrating it was. Crashes, test screens, Japanese translators speaking in the background, unauthorized access warnings. It was like a cornucopia of everything that could wrong.

Thankfully, by the time Apple got around to announcing its Apple Watch (or Watch, as I will refer to it for this article), the technicians had wrestled the difficulties to the ground and gotten things under control. I was able to watch the event without further interruption.

So just how big a deal is this new wearable product from Apple? At this point, it’s impossible to know. Too much uncertainty remains. The final answer will have to wait till next year, when Apple reveals the full specs (including the cost of those 18K gold models) and people get their hands on the device.

Still, based on what we already know, we can begin to make some educated guesses. As I watched the Watch presentation unfold, my reaction kept shifting, as if I was riding a see-saw. First, I felt the board tip downward, then I was buoyed up and ultimately I was left dangling in the middle. The big question lurking behind it all: Is the Watch worth it?

My first reaction was to the physical styling of the watch — and it was one of mild disappointment. It certainly didn’t get my pulse-pounding (as the sensors on the back of the Watch would confirm, if I was wearing one). The design is a bit too boxy and bulky for my taste. I would have preferred something more like the prototype image seen here or the new Moto 360. Go into a watch store today and you’ll see that all the watches, except the cheapest ones and a few speciality items, have eschewed the “digital” look of the Watch for a more elegant analog appearance. Can the Watch successfully push back against this trend? I believe so, but I’m not sure.

I understand that form follows function. And, with all the Watch can do, it probably needed to look…pretty much like it does. And that may ultimately be the deciding factor. If you want a device with the capabilities of an Watch, you may have to make a sacrifice in style to get it.

On the other hand, I thought the wide variety of Watch straps, and the ability to easily swap one for another, was a brilliant stroke. It offers the customization and variety that I know people will want from a device that is visible on their wrist all day. It even allows a person to shift from a casual to an elegant strap, for example, depending upon their mood and destination. And the precision way the straps work and attach to the watch is…pure Apple. I found myself smiling as I watched the demonstration video.

When attention shifted to the digital crown, I felt my mood shift downward a bit. I’m going to have to turn a wheel to scroll through a list? This seemed like a step backward to the days of the iPod click-wheels. I also worry whether my aging stubby fingers can successfully manipulate such a tiny tool. Still, as with watch’s overall square shape, I understood that something like the crown was required. As Apple pointed out, the watch display is too small for access to be entirely via touch. But understanding a feature’s necessity is not the same as liking it.

Moving from style to features, my virtual see-saw veered sharply upward.

Assuming it works as demonstrated, the watch’s fitness monitoring features promise to surpass anything else on the market. I can certainly see myself using the Move, Exercise and Stand rings to assist in becoming more active. A definite big plus here.

What I am most looking forward to trying out are the watch’s notification and messaging features. I was especially impressed with the walkie-talkie-like Digital Touch for sending custom doodles and such. I can see all of this transforming the way we do casual communication.

The list just keeps growing from there. The Watch works with the new Pay. It will help find where you parked your car. It will unlock the door to your hotel room. It will track your flight status. And, with third-parties apps still to come, the Watch will be able to handle a countless assortment of other tasks. Eventually, you may find it hard to do without one. At least that’s Apple’s hope and plan. And I can see it becoming reality.

But it was at this point that I felt the see-saw start to drop again — as unanswered questions began to mount.

There are speakers and microphones built into the Watch. Will these be sufficient for even a brief phone conversation? Will it be practical or enjoyable to listen to music from the watch’s tiny speakers? Why even bother to try, when you have an iPhone in your pocket?

Will the light from the watch’s display be a distraction in darkened environments, such as a theater? Will we need an “airplane mode” for the watch?

And these lead to the biggest questions of all: Will the Watch add enough convenience, beyond what you already have with an iPhone, to justify its purchase? In other words, is the Watch worth it?

The  Watch “requires” an iPhone to work. It’s still not clear to me exactly what this means. I assume that some watch features, such as displaying the time, will function even without an iPhone nearby. On the other hand, it seems certain that you’ll need an iPhone for text messaging and phone-calls. The GPS and Wi-Fi from the iPhone will be needed for tracking your activity. I assume there are many more ways the Watch and the iPhone are linked.

In the end, it strikes me that the Watch is more of an iPhone accessory than an independent product.

Will the advantages of the Watch be enough to make it worth owning yet another device that you need to charge every day, sync with your other devices, maintain with current software, and so on. Will you want to add the Watch to the list of devices that you regularly upgrade?

These questions especially jumped out at me as I watched the demo of accessing photos from an Watch. I found myself asking: “When would I want to look at photos on the watch’s tiny display rather than take my iPhone out of my pocket to view them on a much larger screen?” The answer is “Never.” This query quickly spiraled into other directions:

Do I really need a watch to show me a reminder or a map or the weather or whatever else the Watch can do that the iPhone also does? After plunking down hundreds of dollars for an iPhone, will I want to spend an additional minimum of $350 for a watch that, in some sense, offers very little beyond what my iPhone already does?

Maybe. After all, I continued to wear a watch even after I bought an iPhone. So why not an Watch? In the end, there’s need and there’s want. I won’t need an Watch. But I may want one anyway.

[Update: What about Watch 2? This is a concern for all Watch models, but especially the gold one. As I pointed out on Twitter, and others have also mentioned, the gold Watch is likely to be super-expensive, likely in the thousands of dollars. As Watch technology inevitably improves over the years, and new models are released, will you be expected to shell out the same amount of cash for a new gold watch on a likely annual basis, assuming you want to stay up-to-date? Or will Apple offer some special discounted upgrade path?]

For now, I don’t know if I will even want one. I’m in the “wait and see” period — and I expect to remain there for quite some time. The Watch is not a device I intend to pre-order or rush to buy on the day it’s released. Rather, I will monitor events to see what early adopters report and decide from there. I’m guessing that many others are in the same boat. Which way we go will likely determine the success of the Watch.

Posted in Apple Inc, Technology | 3 Comments