A tirade on iOS 10 and iPhone 7

Apple missed the mark with iOS 10, focusing heavily on material updates that do little to make the OS radically different. In fact, iOS 10 looks to me like a redressed iOS 9, which in turn is a redressed iOS 8, which is what iOS 7 should have originally been. The biggest features of iOS 10 (improved Messages app, new lock and keyboard sounds, redesigned Music and News apps, card-like interfaces that take up way too much space on screen etc.) should all have been app updates or minor updates in 10.x versions, not part of a core OS overhaul, and certainly not the highlight of iOS 10.

Share sheets and Extensions were probably the last major iOS change worthy of an entirely new edition of the mobile operating system. This time round, opening up Siri to third-party developers is probably the only notable overhaul — and it too came much later than it should have. A lot of other features I was hoping for (including stock apps residing on the App Store and enjoying regular updates like Apple’s Pages, Keynote etc. already do) never made it to iOS 10. Something as fundamental as natural language input — which Calendar.app on Mac already has — is sorely missing from iOS, and, combined with the fact that Apple now allows us to remove stock apps from the home screen (not delete them, but even removing them is better than having a folder full of junk), I am certainly tempted to wipe the slate clean and start over with a generally better experience. However, some apps like Mail.app are good for everyday, light users, as is Reminders. While on the other hand Notes.app can be useful for power users too.

This wide gorge between parts of the OS is what makes the whole experience feel incomplete. On the one hand is the better integration of 3D touch, which, frankly, I have come to enjoy immensely; however, while 3D touching an e-mail can offer you swipe options to, say, trash the e-mail, doing the same thing on a Messages app notification only allows you to dismiss the message and forces you to unlock your phone anyway and navigate to the Messages app to delete an unwanted text. It seems, once again, that while 3D touch has been used to make existing functionality better (since a 3D touch interaction just feels better than swiping around), Apple failed to do anything new with it. The only things I can think of are options to clear all notifications, access mobile data via the Settings icon, and controlling flashlight intensity via the flashlight icon in the Control Centre: all important changes but far too few in number.

With iOS 10 releasing next month, the OS already looks underwhelming, forcing users to learn a bunch of new interactions that are simply not worth the minor changes they bring along. What bothers me, though, are the new iPhones coming around the same time: all rumours (some of which will turn out to be false, a lot of which will be true, if the past is any indication) point to the larger iPhone having perks and the design of iPhones remaining same for the most part.

The second point is not troubling on its own: I do not see the need for a religious design change with every release. However, look at it in context and it really makes one wonder: when the biggest change in the phone is the positioning of antennae while possibly the biggest design flaw, the protruding camera lens, stays put for the third year in a row, it gives the impression that someone has got their priorities all mixed up. I could have lived with a phone 1mm thicker (even with the plastic antenna bands) if, instead, I got a flush camera with OIS and a beefier battery.

The first point is no less troubling because Apple seems to be making a somewhat unfortunate distinction between its iPhones based solely on screen — and hence chasis — dimension. The 7 Plus (or whatever the upcoming 5.5inch model will be called) is rumoured to carry two camera lenses based on LinX technology from a company Apple acquired last year. This is understandable because a dual lens setup will occupy more space than a single lens setup and only the plus sized model will be able to offer the space to fit it in without making the battery unbearably small or the phone unwieldily thick. But, at least partly, the point of innovating is all about successfully putting a dual lens setup on the 4.7inch phone without any sacrifices. Without this, the choice becomes more than just one between screen sizes, which should never be the case. I have nothing against 5.5inch phones, and it is not always about the price either: I have used phablets for years now, including the 6 Plus, but eventually found the 4.7inch screen of the 6S more to my liking — handy, comfortable, inconspicuous. The point is, some of us just prefer the 4.7inch size, and what is this year’s iPhone 7 likely going to offer us? Nothing much at all. Different antennae arrangement, improved camera; both of these, incidentally, have been features of the S-model released every other year.

Granted, everything I said about iOS 10 is based on the betas and everything I said about the upcoming iPhones is based on popular rumours. But, for years now, neither of these have been too far off from the facts we go on to learn on the actual date of release. The rumours are, to a reasonable extent, representative of the new iPhones (the leaked photographs are often uncannily accurate) and the last of the betas are identical in almost every way to the Gold Master or the first stable release that comes with the new iPhones — perhaps with improved stability and battery life, but carrying nothing radically different in any case.

Has Apple stopped innovating? It is hard to say, especially since nobody knows what goes on in their headquarters. Perhaps they have slowed down, perhaps they are refocussing, perhaps they lost footing and are getting back up, perhaps they are gambling on another year of slow growth to make 2017, the tenth anniversary of iPhone, a memorable one (I agree the last point could just be us dreaming), but the same people who have been calling the shots for years are calling the shots now, so there is no need to dramatically call this anything but an unsurprising period of slow growth. I do look forward to a time when the size of screens does not cause any discrimination between people because innovation guarantees that the features come in all sizes and the only difference between the 4.7inch and 5.5inch phones are the screen sizes. Right now having extras on the phablet model makes as much sense as the gold iPhone alone having faster Touch ID, the silver alone iPhone having OIS, the space grey iPhone alone having a flush camera etc. There should be only one iPhone available in two screen offerings. Not two wholly different iPhones, which is precisely what is happening now.

Think of the iPad Pro in 12.9inch and 9.7inch. They are basically the same thing with different screen sizes and improvements in the 9.7inch model simply because it came much later in the year. If iPhone 6S and 7 have differences, that is understandable, but two iPhones released alongside each other simply should not — besides screen size. Whatever your view on Apple’s marketing strategy is, the only thing that is certain is that 2016 has not been the best of years for us as Apple customers, and we can only hope to look forward to better things next year.

Apple Notes and Evernote: apples and oranges

I see a huge number of people on the hunt for a good note–taking application these days, and most attempts at an answer involve some sort of comparison between Evernote — the reigning king — and Microsoft’s OneNote, which has its own, growing tribe of followers. And they are both, at some point, almost inevitably, compared to the inbuilt Notes.app provided by Apple. This is simply wrong and should be avoided.

First of all, there are broadly two classifications of note–taking applications: on the one hand are swift, simple (humble?) jotting applications and on the other are file organisers. A note is a type of file at the end of the day which makes Evernote squarely a file organiser whereas Notes.app is a simpler, more straightforward note–taking application. It is much easier to jot something down and get done with it on the stock Notes.app. Evernote feels too bulky for this sort of thing. On the other end of the spectrum, Evernote excels at handling long notes, taken over a longer duration, often built upon, edited, re–worked and filed often as part of a larger collection of related notes. Generally speaking, one often needs both types of note–taking applications.

Simplicity goes a long way

I often find myself using Evernote about ten times a month often (across all devices), but have, on occasion, used it as often as several times a week. To me, the premium plan that Evernote pushes so frequently in my face does not make much sense. At the end of the day, I have a Pro subscription to Dropbox that I can use for storage, but Evernote’s organisational and notes handling capability is what keeps me with it — plus the scanner app, Scanable, from the makers of Evernote is excellent and naturally ties well with Evernote. There is a monthly upload limit on Evernote (reset to zero every month) which I have never reached till date. If Dropbox’s Paper takes off and sheds its current confines within the Dropbox environment, it would make an appealing alternative to Evernote. But, like Google, the fact that Dropbox nonchalantly shuttered an excellent product such as Mailbox does little to give users faith that Paper will last. Evernote, on the other hand, has a good business model that will help it sustain itself1.

Think of Evernote as a notebook and Notes.app as a sticky note. You don’t always need all hundred sheets of your notebook to jot things down quickly and move on.

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Coming back to the stock Notes app: Apple’s Note–taking solution is simpler and easier to follow. It is easy to get lost in Evernote. However, they each have their own strengths, and the first I can think of is that sharing to an existing note is easy on the stock notes app, but not on Evernote; however, clipping a webpage on Evernote (though it takes longer) helpfully saves the page contents unlike in the stock Notes .pp where only the link is saved.

Another thing that Notes.app does beautifully and simply is it serves as an all-in-one storage unit: drawings, text, attachments, lists, heading/subheading structures, images and links can all be put into the same note, complete with style and formatting. And then you can lock that note safely with your fingerprint via Touch ID (I have not really found a justifiable use for this yet since my secure notes have long been on 1Password). Notes can be put into folders one level deep and while that is as far as organisation itself goes, using Notes.app since iOS 9, I have found it to be more than enough: there is almost never an inclination to over–organise and in the process lose all meaning of productivity.

One last qualm I have, since we are speaking of simplicity, is how Apple never got rid of the textured background from their Notes and Reminders applications when they famously dropped their old skeuomorphic designs in iOS 7 and again in iOS 8, and yet again in iOS 9. This forces them to add a bad–looking text shadow, all of which I hope they wrap and toss aside in iOS 10 coming later this year.

A note–taking style

Another important observation to consider is how we make notes in the first place: some of us love to use markdown2, some of us make largely plaintext notes, some of us draw a lot and so on. It is important to be able to move this around, should anything happen or should you ever change your mind. This migration is an advantage with some third–party solutions like Notational Velocity (and later Brett Terpstra’s fork, nvALT) because they store plaintext notes. A solution would be to use the likes of Evernote for attachments alone, but if you are not paying for the OCR and offline storage perks that comes with a paid account, you might as well throw things into your Dropbox or Google Drive or what have you. Unfortunately, Notational Velocity (or nvALT for that matter) both seem to be somewhat abandoned and have no good iOS counterpart. Simplenote does what it can and would probably have been my choice had Apple not magnificently overhauled the stock Notes app. (On a side note, I wish all stock apps get that treatment in iOS 10).

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Notes.app: robust, capable, and skeuomorphic?

What Evernote does is store its notes in a proprietary .ENEX format, which, like anything else proprietary, is not good news. It does export to HTML, however, but this too is of little use. This was the case when Jason Burk addressed the issue last year and remains as I go over the programme on my MacBook even now. In all fairness, however, as Mr Burk explains, the same case regarding inflexible migration can be made against Notes.app as well since it only exports as .pdf, which I personally think is worse than an .ENEX or an .html file. However, Notes.app now supports importing .ENEX files from Evernote3.

At the end of the day, however, Evernote does all this too, but only matter–of–factly, because its true power lies elsewhere. I do not believe Notes.app is an Evernote replacement, although it is undoubtedly perfect for anyone who is either overwhelmed with Evernote or just need a simpler solution. Unless everything you do and everything you ever jot down is one mega project, you probably do not need the capabilities of Evernote (and if all you are doing is hoarding notes like a dust bin, you are probably using Evernote all wrong). The best analogy I can think go involves a notebook and a bunch of post–it or sticky notes: you don’t always need all hundred sheets of your notebook to jot things down quickly and move on. Think of Evernote as the notebook and Notes.app as a sticky note. They both do their job well, but they do not do the same job. And for your day–to–day life, you will probably find the stock Notes.app to be just fine to help you navigate your way around, while Evernote will show its worth in the long run to organise your life, store documents and keep track of everything noteworthy.

*No pun is intended in the title

An iOS 10 wishlist

June this year will see the release of Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 10, during their annual World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) at the Moscone West convention centre in California. Abiding by the usual secrecy company which the company always keeps, no feature of the upcoming operating system has been talked about anywhere in official capacity.

On the one hand, this means considerable suspense builds up prior to launch — which is what Apple’s publicity team likely wants — and on the other, it means we are free to build castles in the air. Apple has probably surged far enough in its development cycle that it will not be in a position to listen to any user requests right now and accommodate features into the system, but there have been some things in the air already which may have made it into the upcoming OS. In any case, these are a few things I hope to see in iOS 10.


 

1. Customisable control centre

The control centre is possibly the most useful feature added since iOS 7 and it needs an important change: customisability. Something as simple as there being five toggles and shortcuts could be replaced with six, customisable toggles which can be 3D touched for more options (there are Cydia tweaks that help users achieve similar things). This would make the control centre vastly more useful. Music scrubbing is a good feature tying with Apple Music, but having buttons to favourite a song and add a song to an existing playlist would be welcome additions.

2. Custom default applications (and an option to uninstall bloatware)

I would have put this first had we users not been asking for this since time immemorial. Most had, it is safe to assume, given up hope until Tim Cook, in an interview with Buzzfeed last year hinted that the company was contemplating allowing users to uninstall pre-loaded applications. Hopefully this will include the option to choose default applications as well. Many would love to replace Safari with Chrome or Apple Music with Spotify, but my main intentions are just two: to replace Apple Maps with Google Maps and the default camera app with something like Camera+ which has full manual control and TIFF support, to be called from the lock screen — unless #3 on my wishlist below becomes a reality.

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Apple v the FBI — Apple should stand up for encryption

Ever since Snowden’s leaking of NSA data raised public awareness about encryption and government breach of privacy, everyone has been scrambling to make their devices safe. Apple has been a leading voice in improving encryption and their own encryption is top notch.

At the outset, the entire Apple v the FBI case was bound to happen sooner or later, and I would be extremely mistaken if Tim Cook had not already prepared himself for this. But it is ultimately such hard, yet necessary decisions that have shaped Apple and made it an admirable company in more ways than one. And right now, Apple is risking quite a lot to stand up for privacy and encryption, and it is doing the right thing.

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iOS apps more than sufficient? — Part II">Are stock iOS apps more than sufficient? — Part II

Exactly one year ago I wrote an article on using stock apps on iOS. Specifically, the case I was making was that for most people, stock apps will do just fine and our seemingly natural gravitation towards third-party apps exists, not always as a consequence of their being better, but as a result of us not giving stock apps enough time to show us their worth. Once again this is mostly because we are used to encountering shoddy bundled apps elsewhere and the trend that stock apps are all bad just sticks.

Now, having spent an entire year with my iPhone, I decided to return to address the same issue (naturally with the same title), and with considerably more experience backing me. One particularly useful trend I noticed through the year as I switched to third-party alternatives was that I found myself returning to stock apps. At the end of the day, this stands as an opinion piece, but one that is worthwhile to everyone contemplating this issue — and especially to those who discard stock Apple apps just by habit.

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