With iOS 15 comes the most powerful tool yet to regain control of your space and time. Here are some thoughts on getting a head start with Focus.
One of the best features coming to iOS 15 from the perspective of personal space and mental health is what Apple calls Focus. This will undoubtedly make its way over to the Android camp eventually. Focus takes over from the old Do Not Disturb setting and expands it to offer a really powerful level of customisation that if used well can help us, at once, take back control of our lives from our many devices. For someone like me, who has been calling for renewed focus on our dwindling attention spans, this feature is a boon. While the entire idea is new, here are some thoughts on making great use of Focus to achieve what I like to call a better tech–life balance.
The primary aim of the old Do Not Disturb mode was to turn off notifications either for select apps or across the board, and similarly either for select contacts or for your entire address book. Focus makes this more granular in some key ways:
- Allowed notifications. This is essentially the old DND, carrying the same options where you allow notifications for select people and apps. And for either group you can choose to start with a clean slate.
- Time-sensitive notifications. This is a new class of notifications Apple identifies as being time-sensitive. This could include reminders or calendar events, certain notifications from people that are due for a certain time etc. This overrides the previous option.
- Sharing focus status. An important part of being able to keep focus is to let others know you are trying to keep focus. Apple now offers a mild-mannered way of informing those trying to get in touch with you that you are focussing on something. This ensures you have others’ co-operation without turning them off.
- Screen customisation. Among the biggest updates Focus brings with it are possibilities for Home and Lock Screen customisation. You can set dedicated screens for each focus mode (more on this below) effectively transforming your phone several times over a day and ensuring it remains an eternal positive companion that boosts your productivity and peace of mind all day long.
- Automation. While DND could be turned on at specified times—as can Focus—we now have the added option of allowing Apple’s on-device neural engine to figure out when to turn on or off which mode. Based on our usage, and with increasing accuracy, iOS 15 will deduce over time just when we might need our phone to enter which Focus mode.
- Multiple focus modes. Gone is the sole focus option called DND (although there still is such a mode that retains legacy behaviour). In its stead we are now free to establish whatever focus modes we choose based on our daily lives. The sky is the limit on this one.
Armed with these settings I ventured into the Focus section of settings.app and began to set things up. Admittedly it might take a couple of modifications along the way when you find yourself wishing for quicker access to something but you can always go back and adjust your Focus mode/s accordingly and with considerable ease.
Focus is what you make it
Before we take a look at examples in the form of Focus modes and set-ups I use, it would be worthwhile to understand some of the subtleties of Focus.
The really great thing about Focus is that nothing is set in stone. While Apple offers some Focus modes out of the box and while these are well-made, you can freely override them with your own modes built around your day from scratch. Personally, I have not yet found a need for this but here is how you could do it: by turning off the Sleep Focus mode that Apple offers and setting up your own, independent of Bedtime settings in the Health app, you can use Shortcut automations to turn on Sleep Focus when you tell Siri to turn off your bedroom light via HomeKit. This can be useful if you sleep at slightly different times every day, reading you bedside book for 15 minutes longer or shorter one day than another.
You could make it even more independent by simply telling Siri to do it. Or if you prefer a more old-fashioned button-click approach you can have a Shortcuts icon on your Home Screen that does the job for you (but also remember there is the control centre option). Like all technology it is important that you make Focus work for you.
Drawing others’ co-operation
Another wonderful feature of Focus is the Focus Status option. You can turn it on for as many or as few Focus modes as you like. What this does is politely tell those attempting to get in touch with you that you would rather be left alone right now. To allow for emergencies, they can still choose to override Focus and notify you:
If you keep good company most people will probably understand and let you be at this point, and should anyone override your Focus you will at least know that the communication is probably critical.
Rethink your Home Screens and App Library
One way to think of Focus modes is like an extension of the old DND, Sleep and DND While Driving modes. But a more helpful way of looking at them is as dynamic iterations of your entire device.
For example, before iOS 15 I used to have my fitness apps on my second Home Screen for quick access because I knew I would need them at least a couple of times daily. Now I can slim down my default (non-Focus) Home Screens because I know that as soon as I switch to Fitness Focus (described in detail below) my Home Screen changes and all my fitness apps will be front and centre. Similarly I used to have my sleep monitor app on my Home Screen as well as a shortcut to play select background music while I work. My Home Screen has now slimmed down and tailored further as these have moved to their respective (Sleep and Work) Focus mode Home Screens.
This also makes the App Library so much more useful as any app I do not use frequently can comfortably be relegated to the App Library knowing I can access it from any Focus mode.
Define your own modes
If you read ahead you are bound to find some of my choices in setting up my Focus modes puzzling. For example more people can contact me during my Personal Focus than during my Work Focus; and my work colleagues cannot contact me during my Work Focus. At first glance this makes no sense, but the trick here is to go beyond traditional definitions and use Focus modes in ways that are meaningful to you.
For example, while I am actually at work I do want to be reachable, especially to my colleagues. In fact, while at work my phone will remain in its default (non-Focus) mode. So what then is my Work Focus mode? It would be better termed my ‘Deep Work Focus’ mode, used when I want to work in a zone for an hour or two—whether at home or at my office—without any disturbance. This is why my Work Focus mode is not automated to turn on when reach my workplace through geofencing.
Similarly my Personal Focus mode is to simply reduce how often I reach for my phone while at home, off-work, with family. In other words, I want to remain reachable and those around me understand as much—such as getting a message from someone while I am watching the evening news and responding to it. For when I am spending one-on-one time with my loved ones, playing a game of cards or going out for dinner, I can always turn on DND straight away.
It is at this point that I would consider a couple of other, more granular Focus modes. I do not use them yet or plan to in the near future but I can see the usefulness of a ‘Professional Focus’ mode for when I am physically at work (cutting off social media apps, consumption apps, magazines etc.) or even a ‘One-on-one Focus’ mode for when I want to restrict myself just a little more to be with those in whose presence I am physically, be it family, friends or someone else, such as at events or casual meetings. These are to be figured out over time of course as we ourselves better understand where our existing Focus modes excel or fall short.
The six Focus modes we all need
Apple thoughtfully provides eight possible Focus modes which include special functionality. There is also an option to create generic Focus modes of our own—complete with glyphs and a theme colour—if these eight do not suffice. Generic custom modes are able to accomplish of all of the five capabilities listed above (only because the sixth is not a capability of an individual mode). But for most of us I suspect the eight will do and of them six are essential: Do Not Disturb, Sleep, Driving, Personal, Work and Fitness.
You may recognise the first three of these from iOS 14 or before, so their intent is clear. The rest are really defined by the user and I suggest that is where you start.
Sleep Focus and DND
The Do Not Disturb and Sleep Focus modes should arguably be the strictest and that is how I have set them up.
In Sleep Focus my immediate family can contact me and phones still come through. I do not see phones as a disturbance—although many might disagree with me on that—because nowadays people call at night only when they really need to reach you. Or at least that is the crowd I am with. Most other leave delayed response communication like e-mails and messages, both of which are not allowed during Sleep Focus. The only other apps that are allowed are health- and sleep-related apps, home automation, shortcuts and password managers. These are highly intentional apps and rarely send me notifications.
Further, time-sensitive notifications are not allowed and a single custom Home Screen is shown that has my alarm app, two shortcuts for quickly starting up my sleep monitoring and setting up a sleep timer to switch off my music, the clock app just in case, the sleep widget, the calendar and reminders widgets to prepare myself for the next day during wind down before I go to bed, and the podcast and music widgets for playing either as a sleeping aid.
Sleep Focus comes with the special capability of tying into your sleep set-up in the Health app, which means it can be automated to turn on during your designated sleep time or—as in my case—from wind down, which is 30 min before sleep time.
The primary difference between Sleep and DND is that DND completely shuts me off from everyone and all apps while retaining my default double Home Screen set-up which I have been using for years. And the DND mode, unlike Sleep Focus, is not automated.
Fitness Focus for physical and mental health
While I do not use my phone for Fitness, the great thing about Focus is that it is instantly shared across devices. My Mac and iPad both go into the same focus mode as my iPhone and, more important in this case, so does my Apple Watch. In fact I can turn on Fitness Focus from my Apple Watch because that is all I leave home with when I head out either to play football or for a morning jog.
I allow similar contact options during Fitness as Sleep with the exception of my fitness apps, Nike Run Club and Nike Training Club. Also, my extended family gets to reach me during this time. They do not call me incessantly, so I know I am not opening up myself to disturbance by doing this. Fitness also allows time-sensitive notifications and uses a custom single Home Screen that includes the weather, all my health and fitness apps and the Fitness widget.
Headspace, which I use for meditation, is also front and centre on my home screen. Finally, a large shortcut widget lets me quickly start playing my favourite workout playlist:
Personal and Work Focus
When I am spending time with my family I like to use the Personal Focus mode. It helps me get off my phone without disconnecting with the world. It also lets me use my phone for things that I might need to use it for while I am with my near and dear ones.
While only my immediate family can contact me during my Work Focus, all my favourites can contact me during Personal Focus. Similarly, while serious, work-related apps can notify me during my Work Focus, a larger selection of apps can notify me during Personal focus. Social media apps are blocked off from all Focus modes, including these; and while I consider WhatsApp social media, iMessage remains open because it is not an endless cesspool of nonsense and encourages more intentional communication.
Both allow time-sensitive notifications and both have dedicated Home Screen set-ups. Work Focus has a large Reminders widget stack with access to two work-related lists and the Files widget on one screen, while a large Calendar app stack with two calendar views occupies another screen along with select apps that I use for my work. To reduce the number of pages, document-editing apps are bunched in an ‘Office’ folder referring to either my work or home office. The Mail.app is of course allowed to notify me since I have long had it set to notify me only for VIPs. I also have a shortcut that plays my Jazz playlist directly on my HomePod because I enjoy listening to some smooth jazz while working.
Personal Focus has just one Home Screen with the Weather, Fitness, Music and Podcast widgets and some handy apps like Wallet, Payment apps, Maps, FaceTime etc. which I am likely to use while in the company of loved ones.
Both of these Focus modes dim the Lock Screen and neither is automated.
A new way to use your devices
With Focus syncing across devices, iOS 15 can truly change how we use our phones and computers. Most users I see will fall into one of two camps: those who will continue to ignore Focus like they ignored DND and Sleep the last couple of years; and those who will dive in and make use of Focus to their advantage.
The latter will no doubt feel the effects of Focus as I myself have felt it in under a month of use. With Focus, one flick of a switch completely changes the way I interact with my devices and, more important, the way the world gets to interact with me through my devices. That is technology in its most human self.
After 100 issues of ‘Briefings’ it is time for newer, better things: an all-new newsletter powered by Buttondown.
What prompted me to start Briefings a decade ago was a sense of adventure. I had been blogging for three years at that point and wanted to shuffle things up. Starting a newsletter seemed like a logical addition to publishing a blog but I was new to e-mail newsletters in general so I looked no further than the most popular solution available then, the good old Mailchimp.
The initial challenge was growing a subscriber base, which took time but was as steady as my writing was interesting. That, however, is fodder for another article. Last month I sent out the 100th issue of Briefings and even as I was writing it, I realised this was the perfect time to improve and refresh things in a meaningful way—both for my readers and myself.
Mailchimp is great, but it is bloated. It is the Wordpress of newsletters, and I quit Mailchimp for the same reason I left Wordpress: a yearning for simplicity. Likewise, I moved to Buttondown for the same reason why I moved to Hugo; in a lot of ways Buttondown is the Hugo of newsletter services.
Mailchimp is still great for someone looking for a complex management system and a drag-and-drop template-based set-up, but I was myself on the lookout for something simpler. With Mailchimp writing each issue was a chore. It was fun because of what I had to say, but the way I had to put it into words was bothersome. It involved clicking on several boxes, writing in a WYSIWYG editor, hoping any HTML additions I may do not completely mess up, and the process of sending an e-mail took me through a handful of pages.
With Buttondown, things are a lot more streamlined. The interface is second to none. In fact it could be a great example of how a no-frills interface should work. Things are fast and the entire process of writing and sending are on one screen. Designing is done separately which allows for—and this is my favourite part—writing newsletters in Markdown. The usual capabilities exist of course: subscription via RSS, double opt-in, newsletter archival, customised welcome e-mails, a dedicated signup page, optional embeddable forms, spellcheck etc. But the greatest aspect of Buttondown remains its pleasant writing experience—and I am not alone in saying this.
Buttondown also offers a premium newsletter option where we can charge for subscriptions—with Buttondown and Stripe taking a cut of course. This is not on the horizon for me, but it is certainly nice to know the option exists. Analytics is also available along with an option to disable it. More important, it does not focus on building a subscriber profile with names and a myriad fields for each subscriber. I have always only collected subscriber e-mails to keep things lean and straightforward and Buttondown is built around that approach.
It does, however, offer tags for people who want some level of grouping for their subscriber base and emails can be sent based on interest tags. Personally, I like to reduce the number of decisions a reader has to take while considering subscribing to my newsletter which is why there is just one field and a ‘Subscribe’ button. Simple is good.
So much for how this improves things for me. Now how does it better things for my subscribers? Put simply, the ease with which I can send out issues with Buttondown brings back focus to the content of each issue. That helps me make sure things are better than ever before. Once again, this reminds me of how Hugo and iA Writer streamlined my workflow to return all my focus to the content—once I had the design in place, like Buttondown.
However, the changes I plan to make go beyond this. The biggest change is in the length of each issue. I plan to keep it around 300 words, aiming to stay under. This allows me to be concise which prompts me to be careful about what I choose to share. We do not have a dearth of information to consume, so if I can make each issue brief but meaningful—whether that means three links or ten per issue—readers are sure to find it eating into less of their time while offering the same value as before or greater than that.
Also, the idea is to make Dispatch more personal than Briefings. Whereas Briefings had an almost corporate tone to it, I see promise in eschewing that facade for a more personal tone. I intend for Dispatch to read like a letter but with the added perks of its digital format. It will carry an image or two, if necessary, to break the monotony of a wall of text; but it will not have as many images as an issue of Briefings mainly because of its reduced word count.
The structure of each issue will change too. On the outside, I have restarted numbering from Issue 1 rather than continuing at 101 to make it amply clear that this is a whole new thing which carries forward everything my existing subscribers loved about Briefings. But because the two newsletters are so alike in spirit, the final issue of Briefings asked people to opt out of Dispatch if they want to. It was humbling that not only did an extremely small number opt out but a considerable number of new subscribers came onboard. Many asked about the new name which prompted me to put up a new page dedicated to Dispatch.
Finally, what bothered me most about Briefings from a materialistic standpoint was that its design was in no way aligning with that of my website. With Dispatch that issue has been solved. The rickety drag-and-drop interface of Mailchimp has given way to a simple custom CSS text area on Buttondown so everything—from the typefaces (on e-mail clients that support it) to the colours and overall design—is exactly like on the main site.
New issues of Dispatch will be sent out in the first week of every month. If you have not subscribed yet, you can do so right here:
If you ever find yourself looking to continue the conversation about something discussed in an issue, simply hit reply. If you have ideas too, simply reply to any issue to let me know. As with Briefings, my commitment to keeping my newsletter ad-free is renewed for Dispatch. It is one of the things my readers have expressed they like about my newsletter and, since this is a passion project for me, I find it perfectly reasonable to continue ad-free. Thank you for joining the ride; it will no doubt be an exciting and knowledgeable one.
Some thoughts on how we can tame our gadgets and the technology we use everyday to enrich our lives.
The first thought that comes to mind as I sit down to write this essay is Shakespeare’s Taming of the shrew. Whatever your thoughts may be about the misogyny in the play (I am certainly not a fan myself), it helps to think of technology as the Katherina in our lives who needs a bit of taming unto obedience. However, do not be under the impression that I have all the answers here because if the growth and evolution of technology is any indication nobody can claim to have a complete answer. These are thoughts primarily for myself, both as a means of thinking aloud and as an invitation to a discussion, where I consider some simple methods of better controlling the many technologies in our lives and sobering our relationship with them.
Start by acknowledging the problem
Most of us never make it past the first steps and remain at the mercy of our gadgets because we fail to acknowledge that a problem exists. My definition of a problem is rather strict: if you reach for your phone as soon as you get up, while still in bed, for any reason besides turning off your alarm, you have a problem. A milder definition might be this: you have a problem if more than a third of your morning hours before work is spent with your devices1.
Before going any further it is worth defining what we mean by a ‘gadget’. We do not simply mean an electronic gadget: your fancy digital hairdryer or internet-connected toothbrush, for example, are not the sorts of gadgets we are interested in; your television, on the other hand, is. By ‘gadget’ then we mean any device that allows passive consumption of information or multitasking and has no analogue counterpart. This could be your smartphone, laptop, tablet, television, smartwatch etc. It does not include your Kindle because, despite being a tool for passive2 consumption, it has an analogue counterpart in books.
Having a ‘problem’ could be defined, even more broadly, as habitually using your gadgets for over nine hours a day. Although nine might seem like an arbitrary number, the reason I chose it is simple: if you are asleep eight hours a day and are left with 16 waking hours, of which four are spent washing up, cooking, eating, commuting etc., using your gadgets for nine of the remaining 12 hours amounts to three-quarters of your potential work/leisure day spent with your gadgets.
Now we proceed with the assumption that we do have a problem and that we have fully accepted it.
Set up an absolute downtime
It is critical to start with what we feel is the least resistive option while trying to improve our habits: restrict gadget usage roughly around the times you would not normally use your gadgets in the first place. This might seem pointless on the face of it but a little exploration should clear things up nicely.
If you normally sleep at ten and wake up at six—or if you at least want to make that your sleep schedule—set up downtime on your phone to start half-an-hour before and end at the time your awaken i.e. 9:30 pm to 6:00 am. Apple devices have a Screen Time feature that lets you track your phone usage (we will revisit this presently) as do some recent Android devices. On iOS at least you have a downtime option that lets you completely disable apps between preset hours such as 9:30 pm to 6:00 am while whitelisting some apps as ‘Always allowed’.
Pick critical apps like phone, messages, FaceTime or any others that you may need, say, to contact your family a bit late in the night and leave other apps disabled. Disable your e-mail app at any cost. Disable social media apps too. Disable YouTube, Netflix, Apple TV and other such apps. Only keep critical apps enabled via ‘Always allow’ so that your phone is little more than a barebones direct communication device.
Cut down apps
When it comes to an overuse of apps, news aggregators are the biggest culprits. In the guise of being one app that serves all your news-related needs they turn everyone into uncontrolled news junkies. In reality, unless you closely control what sources you get your news from, you are probably getting more noise than signal. One news aggregator is effectively fifty news apps or more. Especially in this day and age it pays to handpick trustworthy news outlets. Pick no more than five news apps, throw them into a folder and call it a day.
Personally, I use two subject-related news apps (physics/science for me), and three national/international news apps. If you are worried about getting a skewed picture, realise that a good news outlet will carry biased opinion pieces but unbiased reportage so the facts should arrive at your desk promptly. If you still harbour doubts, pick a liberal newspaper and a conservative newspaper and one in-between.
If you like to also read magazines, count those as separate apps. But, unlike in the case of news aggregator apps, which might fetch from heavily-skewed free and ‘alternate’ news websites, since most magazines charge subscription fees—as opposed to delivering single articles for free—it pays to get just one newsstand app (my recommendation is Zinio) and enjoy all your magazines on it. This also makes subscription management hassle free. You will still need the magazine’s own app if they do not offer their subscription through an aggregator (trust me, there is always one spoilsport of this sort).
Moving past news aggregators, RSS readers and newsstand apps, think about apps that you use in general. Do you really need the one shiny additional feature an app provides? Or will a stock app do? In the early days of iOS, when the first iPhone was released, there was no App Store; and when the idea of an App Store was created with subsequent iPhones, again during the initial years, Steve Jobs was adamant about rejecting all apps that replicated the behaviour and purpose of any stock app, which mean no calendar apps, no mail apps, no reminder apps etc.
Apple has since relaxed that rule but it is still worth thinking about deeply in our personal lives: will the stock app bundled with my phone serve my purposes or do I need an additional app to do something much more? For instance, do I need a scanner app or will the scanner built into my phone do just fine? But some third-party apps are unique and have no stock alternatives: Instagram, Twitter and other services; chess, two dots and other games; Procreate, Notability and other writing/drawing apps; portfolio management apps, bank apps, calorie counters etc. None of these are exactly replaceable so use them if you find the need, however, keep an eye on your stock apps because sticking with them is often the simplest, most straightforward approach to curbing the number of apps on your phone.
Silence your phone while working
A study by Cary Stothart et. al.3 in the ‘Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human perception and performance’ showed that the act of getting a visual or auditory notification on your phone is just as distracting as acting on said notification. In other words, claiming that you are good to go just because you have developed the discipline of not immediately responding when your phone buzzes or pings or lights up to notify you is wrong. If you notice your phone’s notification, you have as good as picked it up and toyed with it.
The solution to this problem is simple but is something we rarely think about: silence your phone when you expect to be involved in deep work, and then set it face down.
Better yet, the next time an app you install asks you if you want notifications, actually think about it instead of blindly allowing notifications. You do not need notifications from most games; you do not need notifications from social media apps either4; likewise with news apps. For apps you have already installed head to settings and turn off notifications unless having them is critical e.g. for alarm apps or for some apps that backup your data automatically. And for apps that you really need glanceable data from rather than immediate notifications, turn on the option to retain notifications in the notifications sheet while turning off sounds.
The Gmail app is a big culprit in this case, notifying you of every incoming e-mail. The stock mail.app in iOS and macOS is more reasonable: you need to set contacts as VIPs if you want notifications when they e-mail you. All other e-mails arrive silently with the badge updating its count to keep you informed about new e-mails. Eschew the Gmail app—regardless of what security claims Google makes—and stick to the default mail.app on iOS/macOS with an IMAP set-up, especially since the default mail.app simply fetches and never reads your e-mails on a remote server in the middle of nowhere. Not having automatic categorisation is a small price to pay for this5.
The act of switching off notifications for most apps and choosing to keep it on for some is a small step towards taking control of your gadget: you will read the news when you sit down to read it, not when a publisher thinks you should; you will go through your social media notifications on your time, not on someone else’s; and you will know when a notification does arrive that it really is important.
While we are on the subject of e-mails, unsubscribe mercilessly from any newsletters you have signed up for that you no longer find yourself reading (including my own if you see no use for it). All newsletters that are above the board carry an unsubscribe line, usually at the very bottom, in every issue.
Set up ‘Walden zones’
In my review of William Powers’s book Hamlet’s Blackberry I mentioned his proposal of creating ‘Walden zones’ in our homes. This is something I have taken to doing myself, recently. The idea of a Walden zone, inspired by Thoreau’s Walden, is to designate gadget-free areas at home, at least during specific hours; this is meant particularly for the bedroom, at least at night if not all day long. Of course you are free to extend your Walden zone wherever you may please but, like any idea, you may start despising the idea itself if you overdid it.
Start with the bedroom and end there if you must. Make sure none of your gadgets come into your bedroom except as tools or for charging. Minimise the number of devices you charge by your bedside too if you can afford to. Most of us use our phones as alarms with good reason, so our phones get to stay despite being arguably the biggest culprits around. However, your laptop and tablet and, above all, television should have no place in the bedroom.
When you start out this idea may be hard to implement, but there is no need to be hard on yourself for that. Take it one step at a time and try to make things easy by never bringing devices into your bedroom; but if you do bring one in, take note of it consciously and walk out immediately, sit elsewhere and finish your work before you return to your bedroom. As brain scientist Matt Walker explained in his excellent TED talk on sleeping, ‘…your brain will very quickly associate your bedroom with the place of wakefulness, and you need to break that association. So only return to bed when you are sleepy…’
Rein in your tabs
Browsing the web no doubt accounts for a large part of our gadget usage, especially when that gadget is a phone or a laptop or a tablet. Who has not found themselves sitting before fifty tabs that have remained open and unused since a week? Even if your number is not this alarming—and especially if it worse—try to cut down tabs by setting simple rules for yourself. It is true that we are terrible at following our own rules, but there is little else that can reliably handle this problem on our behalf.
I still remember when tabs became a prominent feature in browsers around 2003 with Firebird (now Mozilla Firefox) and Opera taking the lead, with Apple’s Safari leading in the idea of a cookie-suspended Private tab. Although tabs themselves had been invented nearly a decade earlier in InternetWorks, it was not until these mainstream browsers incorporated the feature that people started using heavily. The idea here is that tabs were a ‘feature’ much like air conditioning systems (called ‘weather conditioners’ back then) were advertised as ‘available at an extra cost’ in cars in the 1940s.
People used to pay extra for air conditioning once upon a time but it eventually became so common that not having it is now like missing a wheel entirely. Browser tabs too are just as common now that we simply take them for granted to be a standard feature in any browser.
Rather than use tabs to do something simultaneously—which is why tabs were invented in the first place—we now routinely use tabs to create markers for our own browsing history. As evinced by a quick study by Patrick Dubroy, made about half-a-decade after tabs entered mainstream browsers, people had, on average, about ten browser tabs open at any given time. This was ten years ago and it is not hard to fathom that the numbers today would be several times greater. A poll on OpenSource.com, for instance, now shows most people have 20+ tabs open (no specific higher number is given, unfortunately). For the curious, iOS Safari has a maximum tab limit of 500. You can check how many tabs you have open on your iPhone by long pressing the new tab button; if the number is less than 100 and you have been using your phone for over six months, drop me an e-mail.
The trouble with tabs is that they create an attention divide. However, the reason we have so many tabs open is not a lack of attention span, rather it is due to loss aversion believes Adam Stiles, the inventor of browser tabs (as opposed to tabs in general—they existed in HTML editor programs well before browser tabs). Mr Stiles explains that because whatever is on a tab is hard to find we find it hard to close tabs. That is to say, because we subconsciously consider prominently the effort that it took to find the information we currently have opened on a particular tab, we find it hard to close it; we do not want to lose that information especially since we feel losses more than we do gains.
If you take a step back, though, the problem with too many browser tabs is not entirely new. Before 2003 people had too many bookmarks. Tabs simply fit themselves snugly between open windows and bookmarks acting as containers for web pages not important enough to bookmark but important enough to keep around for just a little while longer. However, too many bookmarks is not a bad thing because bookmarks are mostly out of our sight and not, like tabs, constantly vying for our attention and dividing it. Try to limit the number of browser tabs you use; a quick reference would be that most desktops have screens wide enough to allow for around ten browser tabs to be open before you have to scroll through the tab bar to reach a tab. At that point, restart your browser. This has the added benefit of clearing up temporary space occupied by the browser too, which is usually a good thing.
In case of smartphones, make it a habit to spend five minutes over weekends to go through and clear out all your browser tabs. Much like a physical object you own, if you have not used a browser tab across a few browsing sessions, you can probably do without whatever is on that tab.
Identify problematic tech and useful tech
Not all technology is bad. The problem why most ‘tame your tech’ style arguments fail to bother readers is because they attack technologies left, right and centre without making space for exceptions. As someone who is, both professionally and otherwise, an avid user of technology in one form or another, I am staunchly of the opinion that any technology—whether hardware or software—falls into one of two categories: tools and entertainment, or creation and consumption if you will. Where a technology provides a tool it is an enabler; where it offers entertainment it becomes a distraction.
Of course in either case your methods of using it go a long way to make technology what it is—much like any tool—but we can all agree that the Netflix app and your spreadsheet app are two different classes of technology: one is purely entertainment, often a bit too much; and the other we all wish was more entertaining than it currently is.
In most cases it is not the ‘tool’ category of tech that demand our attention. This is because such technologies are almost always part of an implementation intention. When was the last time you opened Keynote or Numbers or Excel or Powerpoint at random and then started to think of something to do now that you have opened that app? Compare this to YouTube or Instagram—entertainment-type technologies—which are not part of an implementation intention: we usually mindlessly (or sometimes mindfully) open these apps and then think of something to do with them.
Start by identifying and classifying your everyday tech into one of these parts. Knowing what apps and programs you need to pay attention to versus what you can let slip because you obviously use them only when forced to can ease your life and help you tame your technology more efficiently.
Set up Screen Time by type and by verb
Apple introduced Screen Time with iOS 12, which Google quickly followed with a similar feature they called ‘Digital wellbeing’. While most Android devices do not have this feature, all Apple devices do. Furthermore if you own multiple Apple devices, like a Mac and an iPhone, Screen Time can be shared across devices to get a better picture not only of how you use your phone but how you use your gadgets on the whole. As useful as this feature is, its greatest weakness is your greatest weakness: willpower, or simply users being far too tempted by an app causing them to skip Screen Time.
If you have never set up Screen Time, do so. If you have and it does not seem to work for you, here are some points worth considering:
- Screen Time will inevitably come down to how you choose to obey it, so make it your priority: obey whatever Screen Time tells you.
- Use the ten-minute rule: when you find you have exceeded your Screen Time limit, instead of clicking ‘Ignore limit’ take ten minutes away from that app and then reconsider if you want to break your Screen Time limit anyway, then return to the app if you must.
- Understand that Apple cannot possibly block off apps permanently like a stern parent disciplining their child; people would be up in arms claiming Apple is controlling their decisions if the company did this. Instead, Screen Time is about awareness: if you have set an hour of Screen Time for an app or group of apps and you hit the limit, when your device tells you as much, you know how much time you have spent on it. The key is awareness.
- Another idea behind screen time is extraneous steps: by adding a couple of extra steps between you and the app—by adding planned inconvenience—your device tries to deter you from using the app unless you have enough of a reason to go over those extra steps to get to the app.
- Take things a step further by setting up a Screen Time passcode. Make this a unconventional four digit number—that is, make sure it is not your birth year—and keep changing it frequently. That way, you need to pause and think about your Screen Time passcode and the additional inconvenience acts as an even more powerful deterrent.
- The trick to using Screen Time effectively is to bundle apps in a sensible manner, not set it up for just one or few apps. The more the number of apps blocking you off, the harder it is for you to get from app to app without an annoying screen blocking you, which means the more effective your Screen Time blocks become.
Implementing these simple steps has proved effective for me personally. One of my measures of what I gain from this is my reading habit: since I started working with blanket Screen Time (and Downtime, see the first heading in this essay) across all my devices three weeks ago, I have finished reading three books. This used to be my pace before I got a smartphone and I am thrilled to return to it. Of course this is not to lay all blame on my smartphone; much like any new tool we users need some time to strike a proper balance with, I believe we tend to also take time to balance our relationships with our phones6.
When setting up Screen Time cover all apps except your ‘Always allowed’ apps. Divide them up by category and verb. For categories, Apple uses whatever type developers suggest for their apps so what is really a social media app might masquerade as a reading and reference app just because it has some reading component in it e.g. Goodreads classifies itself under ‘Books’. Take your own decision, therefore. Spend fifteen minutes at a stretch if you must because it will be worth it. Think of this as an investment in yourself. As for dividing by verb, think of what you do with the apps rather than what classifies the apps, e.g. reading apps, watching apps, educating apps, and use these along with classified apps, e.g. social media, news, games.
With Screen Time set up suitably, so long as you obey it religiously, you have nothing to worry. Not only does Screen Time coupled with Downtime allow you to take your mind off you tech usage habits—all you need to do is listen when Screen Time tells you you should probably not be using an app—but it also ensures you do not need to enforce more rules upon yourself e.g. the old way to get over FoMo used to be to restrict your news habits to the mornings; now, with Screen Time you can enforce a time limit on yourself while freely glancing at your news apps occasionally through the day (which is better for getting your news fix) while resting assured that you would not be overdoing it (which is great for you personally).
Again, the trick is to have as many apps as possible under Screen Time and Downtime restrictions. When one app stops you, getting past it is easy; when nearly all your apps stop you they act together as a powerful deterrent to prevent you from overusing your gadgets.
Do not be a luddite
Unfortunately the idea of becoming a stark raving minimalist, or even a luddite, is rarely far from any discussion involving controlling our use of technology. This is awkward considering how no other discussion prompts such extreme responses from people. Technology has the potential to be an efficiency booster, a tool that makes our work easy and polished, and an all-round enabler. And like any tool it has the potential to derail us.
While some parts of technology are definitely designed to distract, the tools themselves—the hardware especially—is not, nor is the operating system. The idea of hooking people onto an app is often restricted at just the app-level, which means everything else about technology is in our hands. The good news is that most apps that attempt to hook us are also apps that are not all that functional, apps that add little to our lives, apps that are, in a sense, disposable.
So dispose of what you can, take better decisions when it comes to your notifications, employ Screen Time features strategically and obey them, control your tabs, create Walden zones and take control of the tech in your life instead of letting it decide things for you. Strive to be a responsible user and tame your tech.
By this measure, if you get up at 6 am and leave for work at 8:30 am it would mean the time you spend with your gadgets should be a little over half-an-hour, which is reasonable. ↩︎
A few of my readers will likely be preparing to get up in arms about my calling reading a ‘passive’ activity. I am of the opinion that while some reading constitutes a mentally active task most reading does not; think magazines like Cosmo. ↩︎
For those of you who do not want to read the entire paper, here is a relevant part of the abstract: ‘Although these notifications are generally short in duration, they can prompt task-irrelevant thoughts, or mind wandering, which has been shown to damage task performance. We found that cellular phone notifications alone significantly disrupted performance on an attention-demanding task, even when participants did not directly interact with a mobile device during the task. The magnitude of observed distraction effects was comparable in magnitude to those seen when users actively used a mobile phone, either for voice calls or text message.’ ↩︎
‘The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,’ according to a former Facebook VP of User Growth, Chamath Palihapitiya. Notifications we receive trigger dopamine release in our brains which makes us feel good. Coupled with the unpredictable nature of notifications (read, feel-good reward systems) this quickly makes phone usage a habit and eventually an addiction. ↩︎
And a relief if you ask me. Gmail’s hopeless categorisation system has no doubt cost many a person lots of time thanks to its very presence. Let us handle our own e-mails. ↩︎
Some of my readers wrote to me wondering if I overstepped the point I made rather loudly in my review of Nir Eyal’s Indistractable (please read the review for context) so here is my explanation: In my review of Mr Eyal’s book I said social media must share the blame for our distractions because it was built with the expression intention of ‘hooking’ us; here I clear our smartphones of the blame (not social media, note the difference) because smartphones were always built as tools to enable us to do better (tool-type technology) and never to ‘hook’ us on anything (entertainment-type technology). ↩︎
Nir Eyal tries to convince readers that it is them and not their gadgets or environment that is the problem, and he does it rather well.
As far as Indistractable goes Matt Haig’s testimonial nails it; this book, he says, is what we need to ‘focus on what is important, rather than the dazzling, illuminated, unsatisfying distractions of modern life’. If there is just one thing you need to know about Indistractable this is it. I normally only review books that, to a good degree, evoke a considerable response in me—whether in a good way or not. To speak highly (or low) of such a book simply makes it particularly good (or horrible) for me.
Hardly any review of Mr Eyal’s latest book can avoid talking about the elephant in the room: his earlier best seller, nay tech-world bible, Hooked was the literal antithesis of Indistractable. Few authors can get away with such a 180º turn. While Hooked talks so effectively about how technology can be built to develop habit forming practices in users that it is among the most faithfully read books among software designers trying to rope users in and make them addicted to their product (think of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or some games you found yourself unable to put down), Indistractable does the exact opposite, explaining to people how they can refuse to be distracted by the things around them and focus on what matters.
Mr Eyal himself argues that it is not a 180º as much as ‘an insight that I have into both questions’. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if he is simply trying to redeem himself from the aftermath of Hooked1. Putting all that aside we had better look at Indistractable based solely on its merits and not with any perceived context. And I do think that, as it stands, this is a pretty good book.
Indistractable is divided into four parts (with a couple more flanking them). The shadow of Hooked appears to loom large on occasion with Mr Eyal insisting that the route to becoming indistractable is not about avoiding potential distraction but learning to handle ourselves better. Even if I am wrong about this being prompted by the author’s previous book, I tend to agree with this fundamental principle he enforces. A digital detox, he insists, is not the answer. He makes it a point, repeatedly, to take the blame away from gadgets and software. The antidote to getting distracted is to plan ahead and follow through on your intentions, he says and I agree, somewhat.
The four-step process involves mastering internal triggers, making time for traction, fighting back external triggers, and preventing distraction altogether with pacts. The term ‘distraction’ is defined as arising from the word ‘traction’ which refers to any action that pulls us towards our goal. This definition is important to keep in mind throughout this book as it sets the stage for what we can consider a distraction in the first place before we attempt to deal with it.
One of the arguments Mr Eyal makes to clarify why blaming technology will not do, which I particularly liked, involves a game of billiards. The coloured balls go into the pocket because of the cue ball, but the cue ball is not responsible. He points out that the real responsibility lies in the player whose actions are the root cause for the coloured balls to be pocketed; the cue ball was simply a proximate cause. Smartphones and other gadgets are proximate causes, he says. And, further, they offer us an escape from reality—particularly social media—which is fundamentally what distraction is: an escape from reality.
Anther cause for distraction is boredom, says Mr Eyal, but I find it hard to agree with his argument especially since I have myself called for people to allow themselves to be bored a lot more. However, I do agree that his other proposed reasons, such as our inherent negativity bias, rumination etc., can well be causes that prompt us to look for distraction. To deal with it then, we need ACT—Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Mr Eyal compares this to smoking and quotes an interesting study as an example. Flight attendants with a smoking habit were put into two groups and asked to go off on a three-hour and ten-hour flight and rate their craving. It was found that those on the ten-hour flight had much less craving after three hours than their counterparts on the three-hour flight. The reason for this was acceptance: the flight attendants had accepted that they were not allowed to smoke while on a flight and that they would not be able to smoke until they landed. So, after three hours, the group which knew they could smoke felt a greater craving than that which knew they could not smoke for another seven hours. It was not about how long it had been since they last smoke so much as how long they had left to be able to smoke.
The approach to acceptance comes down to four of its own steps: one, look for the emotion preceding distraction; two, write down the internal trigger; three, explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt2; and four, be extra cautious during liminal moments. Funnily, Mr Eyals cites impulsive searching on Google as an example of urges to accept before bringing under control. The next time you want an answer to something, do not whip out your smartphone and google it; be more mindful, pause, take note and then work on whether you really need to do it right then and now. This reminds me of another book called The knowledge illusion which does a good job of addressing why we like to Google: it gives us the feeling that we know something while in fact we do not know it, we just were able to access it—the access to knowledge is addictive because it is mistaken with the possession of knowledge. This is a uniquely 21st century problem. In any case, the first step is to acknowledge it and not blindly fight it.
On a similar note—beware I do not know how scientific this is—trying to will our way through distraction i.e. planning to simply control distraction through our will power will be futile because, says Mr Eyal, will power is an emotion like any other: it ebbs and flows based on the environment you are in. So if will power is what you plan to use, do not fall for the idea that you ran out of it, know that your environment and lots of other subsidiary factors can affect, exhaust and even replenish it.
There are a couple of mathematical bastardisations in the book, much like in a corporate motivation book3. One of these is B=M+A+T which is supposed to stand for Behaviour being a combination of Motivation, Ability and Trigger. The reason this equation stood out is because, following this, Mr Eyal talks about how this formula led Mike Krieger to develop the infamously addictive Instagram. The app has a motivation in the form of its social offerings; ability in the form of prompting next steps for users with likes, infinite scrolls and such; and triggers such as notifications—the ‘pings, dings and rings’ as Mr Eyal refers to them so often in this book. The environment Instagram created in this way routinely makes our will to resist it flail.
Speaking of our environment, an interesting point made in this book involves keeping our environment tidy in order to keep our mind sharp and undistracted. Apparently, a study by Princeton researchers4 showed that the more clutter we have in our view, the poorer our performance of tasks gets. So keeping our environment tidy is, among others, a key external trigger that we can exploit to make ourselves indistractable. This applies as much to the digital world as to the physical.
After discussing identifying internal and external triggers, and traction and distraction, all of which tell us how we can deal with distractions, Mr Eyal discusses how we can prevent ourselves from sliding into distraction. In the final chapters of his book he recommends using pacts or pre-commitments to ‘remove future choice and overcome our impulsivity’. I particularly liked this idea. This is something that can be used along with techniques like calendar blocking. He starts off with the story of Ulysses where the titular character demanded that his deck hands tie him to a pole with ropes until his ship crossed a particular island from where singing could be heard—songs that could deviate and sink ships. In effect, although the song (which was supposed to be beautiful by the way) could distract him, tying him made it physically impossible for him to give in to that distraction.
Of course not all of us can tie ourselves up, and tying is, more often than not, not even a real solution to the distractions most of us face (how many open tabs do you have right now and how many do you need?) the spirit of Ulysses’s story is that he used the idea of pacts to force himself to focus. Named after the man himself, a Ulysses pact is a freely-made decision designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. Mr Eyal cites fixed retirement accounts, medical planning and the like as real world examples where we already use pacts: we promise to do something setting it up so the cost of not doing it is harder to bear than actually doing it.
Mr Eyal recommends we cement intentions when clear-headed with effort pacts which make distractions harder to reach, price pacts where we set aside money that we lose if we do not finish a task and identity pacts where we think of actions as our identity rather than actions that we need to choose to do. This last one especially can do with an explanation and the one Mr Eyal gives is interesting, not to mention particularly relevant to me: do not think, he says, of what you can or cannot do; think instead of what you are—I am indistractable—and strengthen this by teaching others because teaching empowers us to improve ourselves while helping others5. In what sounds like clever marketing he even encourages us to share this book with others as a form of teaching—well, Mr Eyal, consider this review my teaching.
Overall this is an interesting book filled with actionable advice, sometimes even specific apps or technologies we can use to help our journey towards becoming indistractable. It is hard to say how applicable such unusually specific suggestions are; app recommendations do not make for a particularly evergreen read, moreover it makes the book sound like a blog post. Perhaps it does aim to leave paper for the web at times since Mr Eyal has a web page set up for this book where worksheets and downloads are available: these are tools of the sort that I have seen before but rarely found real benefits from so I will refrain from commenting on them.
This book is more practical than philosophical, even a bit too practical at times—if something can even be that one wonders, but then I find that any other description of this book falls short. If you want more perspective on how to save yourself from distraction, this is a good book, but, despite its planned division into four parts, it offered to me, in the end, more insights into how triggers around us—especially technologies—work us than anything else, and followed it up with some handy but nonetheless popular solutions that lay blame primarily on anything but technology.
With this I want to finally bring Hooked back to the picture, because I think that while technology is not the only problem we have, it is part of the problem and it most certainly is not entirely blameless. When Mike Krieger designed an app adhering to the principles of B=M+A+T with the express intention of keeping us on the app for as long as possible, and when Facebook and Twitter and Google (especially with YouTube) have worked so hard for so long to make sure their apps can retain users and increase the time they spend on their apps and websites—not for social engagement, rather for increased exposure to ads and for the subsequent revenue that flows from this—and when there is talk of legislation to ban techniques like infinite scrolling which literally make social media and other websites endless wells, it is obnoxious to claim that software developers and tech companies are blameless.
Thankfully we have, of late, seen some companies accept and address this issue. Mr Eyal’s recommended ACT is probably something tech companies can benefit from too. Apple introduced a host of features to prevent overuse of devices—and in turn of certain other tech products like social media—and smaller companies like DuckDuckGo and Mozilla have been fighting with similar interests in mind although their size and reach seem to restrict each other. Technology is to blame in part but technology can also provide answers and work on making products less about user retention and more sincerely about user experience and value gained, which will deal with distractions too.
In the final bits of the book is an interesting set of chapters that talks about helping children with distractions and making sure they can keep things under control. The same is then extended to society as a whole; Mr Eyal talks about two especially interesting ideas while comparing uncontrolled gadget usage in otherwise unconventional situations to smoking. Smartphone overuse, for example, he prophecies will one day be looked back at like smoking was in the 60s. We should develop a ‘social antibody’ to this, he says, urging people to decently, often indirectly, nudge others to make them aware of their smartphone usage so they can rethink their decision to use their device in that particular situation. We need to make people aware when they are phubbing he says, using the portmanteau created by Australia’s Macquarie dictionary to mean snubbing someone by using your phone in their presence.
However, what turned my thoughts about the book from decent to doubtful was this bit in chapter 29, during the final quarter of the book, when Mr Eyal says the following:
Of course technology plays a role. Smartphone apps and video games are designed to be engaging, just as sugar is meant to be delicious. But like the parent who blames a ‘sugar high’ for their kid’s bad behaviour, blaming devices is a superficial answer to a deep question.
While I agree that the ‘sugar high’ is a myth—and science has said as much—what I find troubling is Mr Eyal’s outright refusal to say that smartphone apps and video games are designed to be addictive and therefore distracting. ‘Engaging’ is one of many intentions, but rarely is it either the primary one or the most critical. Softening the blow hurts more than helps Mr Eyal’s case. It would have been great to see Mr Eyal admit the addictive quotient built into these things rather than insist that technology can never be a root cause. It would have been great to see him accept technology’s flaws and then point to counter examples of how technology can be useful in broader terms than just suggesting specific apps that may soon become irrelevant (knowing technology years). It would have been great to see this book teaching people to reign themselves in while also being a prominent voice to call tech companies out on their nastier habits.
Despite leaving me with mixed feelings, this book does have something for everyone and is certainly worth a read if you have time to spare. After all, knowing how our enemies work is half the battle won.
The word is, not only did Mr Eyal work with several tech companies and help them build products, he has also of late defended his methods as useful outside tech too (such as in helping someone build positive habits like exercise) and, in 2018 commented about how simply turning off addictive apps can help. I have not read Hooked myself so I cannot make any comments on it, but Mr Eyal’s path from Hooked to Indistractable has been an interesting one. ↩︎
This is a comma on thread throughout the book: go easy on yourself when you fail or when something is negative because that will allow you to get back on your feet faster than if you were hard on yourself. ↩︎
Such gimmicks are why I used to detest a certain class of self-help books, but Indistractable thankfully has a lot more to offer that more than offsets its embrace of silly maths. Classics like Who moved my cheese and Jonathan Livingston Seagull do not resort to low measures. ↩︎
This is a high point in the book, a great explanation of why we need to teach others something even if we are not perfect at it ourselves. As a teacher myself I am intimately familiar with the imperfection Mr Eyal speaks of (and he is a teacher too). But, to say nothing of the fact that we may never be perfect, teaching what we do know well enough empowers us to become better learners (or even just learners in the first place) while also helping others. ↩︎
With iOS 13 iPad truly becomes a standalone device for everything but the most resource-intensive jobs. As far as mundane everyday tasks are concerned, for most people, laptops are dead.
With about a month having passed since iPadOS released I am extremely impressed with everything it brings to the table. I have been experimenting with a few changes in my approach to how I use technology and returning to the month-long iPad-only challenge I had taken two years ago was my first step. Back in 2017, with my friend and colleague as witness, I had taken it upon myself to only use my iPad at work for an entire month. It was a successful affair by some measure although not as successful as I would have hoped. Now, things have changed drastically for the better.
I decided to make my 12.9-inch iPad my main device on a daily basis and, having spent some time with the new iPadOS (read, iOS 13) it was quite clear what the limitations were. Here is a sample of tasks I had planned for my iPad, listed by increasing complexity:
- Browsing, reading magazines and books etc. (text-based consumption)
- iMessage, e-mail, FaceTime (communication)
- Watching stuff on Netflix, YouTube etc. (visual communication)
- Documents, spreadsheets and presentations (text-based creation)
- Photo editing and uploading to my portfolio
- Painting and illustrations — not photoshop (visual creation)
- LaTeX for teaching and other academic work
- Photo and other asset downloads and management
- Git repositories, markdown editing and some code (programming)
All of these can of course be done on my Mac, but with iPadOS redefining what a mobile device of its form can do we had better start leaving only the most extreme tasks for the Mac. I keep web design and development, Photoshop-based works, and app development for my Mac. Nobody ever claimed that the iPad could do everything; it can certainly do most everyday tasks. As I am not a web developer by profession, for example, it is a frequent but not daily task for me which means I can always get to it when I get to my Mac. Knowing these limits makes using iPad as a daily driver so much easier.
By contrast, with older versions of iOS numbers 3 and 4 in the list above were doable; 5, 6 and 8 were manageable but not ideal; and 7 was near impossible (except in case of photos from a camera perhaps, and that too with some trouble).
The iPad Pro does not get hot on your lap like a MacBook would, the second generation folio keyboard is stable (unlike the first generation model which used to tilt over thanks to its rear-heavy frame) and allows for easy typing on your lap while on the couch. And the all-day battery life brings immense peace of mind. When I first did this experiment back in 2017 I recall running out of battery on many days towards late evenings. Now I routinely end my day with 25% or more after 12 solid hours of use. In effect this device is capable of beating the Macbook’s already brilliant battery and then some. Plus, it charges reasonably quickly as well, often hitting 100% in just a few hours.
At the end of the day there was always more of an overlap between a Mac and an iPad than there ever was between an iPad and an iPhone. It is likely iPad started off with iOS rather than macOS because the technology was not there yet back when Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad. However, since then — as someone once rightly pointed out — while Microsoft has been trying to make tablets of its laptops Apple has rightly been making a laptop of its tablet.
One thing that really stands out with the 12.9 inch iPad is that it feels a lot smaller than you expect it to. This feeling is doubly so if you had seen the older 12.9 inch iPad with thicker bezels which was much, much larger. I recall seeing the older one in the store a few years ago and refusing to buy it because of its bulk. Perhaps if I had bought that back then I would have shied away from the current model. This 12.9 inch iPad Pro is actually compact, incredibly thin and light, and is a breeze to carry — all this even after the Smart Keyboard folio adds its bulk to the device. The best way I can explain my whole experience — between all the heavy weight I imagined would come with a 12.9 inch iPad Pro and the breezy pleasures that I actually got from it — is to compare it to the current temperature and the ‘feels like’ temperature.
Using my 12.9” iPad still feels like the future. Something about the dimensions of the screen coupled with the thinness of it feels impossible, like a movie prop. Walking around with a movie playing doesn’t feel like it should be physically possible.— Spike ⛏ Rundle (@flyosity) May 17, 2018
The Apple Pencil has been central to my use of iPad Pro: it writes exactly like a pen would on paper which is the only way a stylus is ever usable. I always felt my previous 9.7 inch iPads were too small for easy writing which is one reason I opted for the larger model (the other is easier typing, something I badly need if I am to make iPad my central device). The 12.9 inch iPad Pro is almost exactly the size of A4 paper so as far as writing space is concerned all discussions are closed.
The second generation Apple Pencil is less slippery, has no parts which makes it one less part to lose, and charges more conveniently. It literally sticks to the iPad with unusually strong magnets that give you some peace of mind. This means you have no excuse to not use it frequently and no excuse to have left it somewhere too far away to fetch. It also has a thin, flat edge meant for charging but this design makes the Pencil easier to grip; another perk of this design is the double-tap gesture which can be used to quickly switch tools. This is all-in-all pretty useful and makes using the Pencil as efficient as convenient and natural.
The larger screen allows for more efficient use of slide over and split view, making space (no pun intended) for two full apps rather than two half apps as on the 9.7 inch version. This of course was never a problem on 9.7 inch iPad because the issue really lay with iOS: whereas iOS 12 and 11 which both had split view (called app spaces formerly) and slide over, neither did a great job of executing it. It was as though the features were there should you need it but Apple was hoping you did not. With iPadOS the entire experience feels seamless and natural and intuitive — even on 9.7 inch iPads.
Once again iPadOS does wonders here. With the new OS the whole experience on iPad just makes a lot more sense and, to put it simply, is a lot more Apple-like at last. A large part of this is probably due to the consistent, cross-device gesture-based UI that Apple is slowly building which takes ideas from iPhone X (where these gestures debuted) and improves on them thankfully taking full advantage of the larger screen of an iPad.
Take for instance the new three-finger pick and drop gestures for copying/cutting and pasting are great to use. If they feel odd it is only because they are new gestures for users to learn, not because the gestures are unnatural. Drag and drop on iPadOS too has improved: it is more reliable and easier to perform. Take triaging emails for example; I find that it is faster on iPad than on my Mac (now that is something I never thought I would say) as I can simply press and hold an e-mail, then press any number of other emails to select many at a time (much like rearranging apps) and then toss them into folders. It is frankly easier done than explained.
While I have settled in with my iPad workflow rather well, primarily being aware of what I cannot do rather than what I might take for granted, I find that the best workflows can be discovered when we’re are freely exploring iPadOS without the weight of a deadline looming. I suppose this can be said of any new device and workflow for just about anyone but the urge to reach for my Mac when urgency hits is slimming down with iPadOS.
Another great feeling I have about the square-cut, handsome 12.9 inch iPad Pro is that it will last a long, long time. I have had this feeling twice more unlike ever before: when I got my new 13 inch MacBook Pro a month back and, two years ago, when I got my iPhone X. I have always believed that Apple products were investments of sorts: reliable, heavy duty, capable and future proof in technology years. Happily, I have not yet been proved wrong. My ongoing iPad-only experiment is coming to an end only because using my iPad as my main device is no longer just an experiment.
Under the guise of ‘aiming to make the web better for all’ Google is ferociously pushing its pet project AMP to internet users everywhere while taking control away from both publishers and consumers.
In October 2015 Google unveiled an HTML-like markup language project called Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) with the intent to make the internet faster. AMP would load webpages more quickly, particularly focussing on mobile devices, the company promised, and, like some of their other projects, Google made AMP open-source. While the intention seems great on the outside, and while we can all benefit from a faster web, the execution was dangerous: besides a set of custom tags AMP relied heavily on caching and serving webpages from Google’s servers, automatically (and often inelegantly) stripping some data in the process and generally taking away visual and functional control from the owners of those webpages. Worse still, users who clicked on Google search results would be delivered AMP-driven webpages whether they wanted it or not. As of August 2019, there is still no way to turn this off.
Alex Russell was one of the first people to speak out against AMP back in 2016, less than a year after AMP was launched. Back then he wrote about how Google might be stealing website traffic by delivering cached, AMP-driven pages from their servers; and there is reason to believe his intervention may have pushed Google to prioritise adding the ‘View original’ button that today has taken a step back to become a more inconspicuous ⓘ icon. Users need to click on this and then on a link shown in grey next to a more catchy, blue ‘More info about AMP’ link (see picture).
AMP casually disfigures the web
AMP delivers a mediocre web. Given that nearly everyone uses Google as an awkward launchpad (including those who first look up the word ‘Google’ on their address bar only to open a Google search page with results for the term ‘Google’ and then erase the search field and repopulate it with their actual search term) the use of AMP is simply skewing people’s experience of the web and helping Google create a monopoly. Look at the following two versions of a BBC article, keeping in mind that BBC specifically supports AMP on their website:
On the left is the BBC webpage as BBC intends it to look; on the right is the webpage as AMP renders it. While there are huge differences between the two let us go over just the ten most obvious ones:
- There is additional padding around the whole page (the white border you see on AMP) and—as anyone with any experience at all in web design will tell you—this can potentially mess up page layouts making webpages look on your device like they actually would on much smaller devices.
- The sharing options are out of place on AMP.
- The ‘Entertainment & Arts’ category link is at the top on BBC but AMP puts it next to the date and restyles it.
- The clock next to the date is misaligned on AMP.
- The cover image caption has some rather ugly additional padding.
- The byline is restyled.
- The top menu bar (BBC/Log in/Home/News/More) is gone, and in its place is the AMP bar with a redundant share button.
- The page does not respect native scroll behaviour with the address bar and bottom bar both in place while scrolling rather than giving way to a beautifully immersive fullscreen experience like Safari does by default.
- Hitting the status bar while on an AMP page does not scroll to top. This is not something visible in screenshots, but it is another example of AMP disobeying native operating system behaviour.
- The URI on the BBC webpage is bbc.com while on AMP we are viewing the contents of bbc.com while not actually being on that site: we are on google.com instead.
- I know I said ten but let us throw in a bonus observation while we are listing things: AMP completely blocks off Safari webpage search. Oh, yes, it is that ridiculous.
The question that remains is, given all the mess and trade offs with AMP, is the two seconds quicker page load time worth it? To me, it clearly is not. I would rather read peacefully as BBC intended. I would just as eagerly hope that my readers view essays and other writings on my website the way I intended it after careful, precise designing. John Gruber calls this ‘publication independence’ (more on this below).
Keep in mind, though, that in the example above the BBC opted into AMP—probably because search result carousels (and search results in general, probably) prioritise AMP-powered links. This makes sense for news websites but makes no sense whatsoever for all sites on the web. Delivering all webpages on AMP is like going into an upscale restaurant and having the chef toss some stuff carelessly onto your plate and tossing it on your table with sauce spilling from the side because, well, you have the same ingredients after all, plus they served it faster. Faster is not always better as Alex puts it:
I don’t know why I do it, but for some reason it just doesn’t feel “right” to me to consume the content through the AMP. It feels slightly off, and I want the real deal even if it takes a few seconds extra to load.
On the one hand Google gives publishers the option to implement AMP if they like it (I, for example, have not and will not do so—nor will Alex and lots of other website owners) but on the other they give users no option to disable it. This makes no sense whatsoever: why deliver mediocre solutions and do so forcibly?
Well-developed websites can make AMP meaningless
John Gruber pointed out rather blatantly back in mid-2017 that ‘Google has no respect for the platform. If I had my way, Mobile Safari would refuse to render AMP pages. It’s a deliberate effort by Google to break the open web.’ Honestly, AMP deserves more caustic criticism than this, and Gruber delivers:
I’m on the record as being strongly opposed to AMP simply on the grounds of publication independence. I’d stand by that even if the implementation were great. But the implementation is not great — it’s terrible. Yes, AMP pages load fast, but you don’t need AMP for fast-loading web pages. If you are a publisher and your web pages don’t load fast, the sane solution is to fix your f—ing website so that pages load fast, not to throw your hands up in the air and implement AMP.
The trouble, as I said earlier, is not for individual website owners but publishers. As an individual, my website is wholly under my hands and is not driven by publicity rather by relevance. However, for publishers and commercial websites ranking high on Google search results can make or break their business. BBC is a publisher much like TNW, and they both rely AMP. The bad news is not that they opted into AMP but that the option is not what it seems: publishers not opting into AMP not only fall in search rankings but also lose a place on the news carousel at the top of search results. By forcing AMP—indirectly on publishers and directly on consumers—Google is fundamentally changing the nature of interactions on the web. And this is change for the worse.
Google’s walled garden
Earlier that same year Kyle Schreiber wrote about how AMP is really a cheap shot from Google as it tries to lock publishers into its own standards, controlled by its own team of employees who call the shots even as the AMP project itself masquerades as an open-source initiative:
Make no mistake. AMP is about lock-in for Google. AMP is meant to keep publishers tied to Google. Clicking on an AMP link feels like you never even leave the search page, and links to AMP content are displayed prominently in Google’s news carousel. This is their response to…Facebook and Apple… However, Google’s implementation of AMP is more broad and far reaching than the Apple and Facebook equivalents. Google’s implementation of AMP is on the open web and isn’t limited to just an app like Facebook or Apple.
…Google already makes deleting AMP pages difficult. Despite touting AMP HTML as an open standard, every one of the AMP Project’s core developers appears to be a Google employee…This keeps the AMP HTML specification squarely in the hands of Google, who will be able to take it in any direction that they see fit without input from the community at large. This guise of openness is perhaps even worse than the Apple News Format, which at the very least does not pretend to be an open standard.
This was all back in 2017. The following year, around February 2018, Google came out and said as much at AMP Conf 2018. Barry Adams on Polemic Digital points out how much of an open secret Google has made this seem:
Google doesn’t quite come out and say this explicitly, but they’ve been hinting at it for quite a while. It was part of the discussion at AMP Conf 2018 in Amsterdam, and these latest Search Console messages are not-so-subtle hints at publishers: fully embracing AMP as the default front-end codebase for their websites is the path of least resistance.
That’s what Google wants. They want websites to become fully AMP, every page AMP compliant and adhering to the limitations of the AMP standard.
That is the problem: Google wants to push aside an open, well-established standard like HTML and force users into slowly switching to its AMP code. This will let Google control every nook and cranny of a user’s experience on the web. After all straightening things out and presenting pieces of the web in a seemingly organised manner has been what Google Search has been since day one. AMP is then like Google on steroids. AMP will allow Google to crawl sites better and make future changes more easily, all on Google’s own servers since it is from there that AMP webpages are served.
AMP is a bane to the web and has the potential to undo its open nature by slowly and methodically taking it over, one website at a time. Most content-heavy sites can be read on Safari reader view (I am sure other browsers offer equivalent options) without waiting for the entire page to load, and most websites in general can benefit from better code that can make webpage rendering quicker.
As a publisher, I have disabled AMP on this site and still find that webpages load quickly enough. As a user, Google, to me, is on its way out: I have already started using DuckDuckGo as my default search engine across all my devices and have had no regrets for the past six months. In today’s world of privacy scarcity and monopolies by tech companies famously devoid of humanity, DuckDuckGo makes a splendid case for itself. The web will be safer to a good extent again the day AMP is shuttered, but that, unfortunately, does not seem to be in Google’s best interests and such a day is nowhere in sight; the AMP lightning symbol, though, has started becoming an eyesore. If more websites take Google up on AMP there will soon come a day when we search on Google, visit a result on Google (via AMP) never leaving the search engine and going to another website. The internet will not be a web anymore. The internet will be centralised and the old joke about Google being the internet will come true and it will not be as funny anymore.
An insightful although, disappointingly, not a first-hand look at the man who took over from Steve Jobs.
When Steve Jobs died many people were critical about Tim Cook taking over the reins as CEO of Apple. I was one of them. This was despite news that Mr Cook had been running the show for several months already while Jobs was alive. But of course, Jobs would have still been calling the shots, would he not? Apparently not: while he was close to death Jobs told his successor not to keep asking himself, ‘What would Steve Jobs do?’ and instead just ‘do what is right’. It turns out the rest of us had been viewing Mr Cook rather unfairly, wondering all along, ‘What would Steve Jobs do?’
It is hard to imagine the immense pressure Mr Cook would have been under when taking over from an almost mythical figure like Jobs. Add to that the negative limelight the world media cast him in and the way Mr Cook braved things during in the first few years of his leadership at Apple makes for an inspirational tale. I have myself rarely been happier to be proved wrong and I am sure a lot of us felt bad for not having more faith in the company we liked so much. I would not be surprised if Mr Kahney was among such people who originally doubted Mr Cook because this book feels like the writing of a man overcompensating for once doubting the venerable CEO of Apple by downplaying his weaknesses and extolling his strengths.
Then again, one is left to wonder if Mr Cook is not a really great human being and an incredibly capable leader after all. Rather than his story being too good to be true, is it truly so good we find it hard to believe?
Disappointingly, the CEO of Apple himself had nothing to do with this book. The author bases his writing on heavily researched but second-hand content with not a single interview with the titular character himself. From a book called ‘Tim Cook’ readers can be excused for being displeased with anything less than an actual conversation with the man himself. Perhaps Mr Kahney would have done better to call it ‘Apple under Tim Cook’.
Put any expectations of Tim Cook’s involvement aside and you have a pretty interesting read, both from the perspective of an Apple customer and someone interested in learning what good leadership looks like. Equally important, Mr Kahney is not new to the world of Apple: he is editor of Cult of Mac, former editor of Wired, and wrote the popular book The Cult of Mac where he compared Apple and its fans to a cult. Mr Kahney knows his stuff and it shows in his research.
The book briefly details Mr Cook’s upbringing, his first exposure to racism as a young child, and explores his college years. It then builds on this to show how the choices Mr Cook made as Apple’s current CEO were somewhat uniquely shaped by his experiences. This may seem like it blinds Cook towards areas that are not his forte, but you cannot blame a man for playing on his strengths. And play he did: following Steve Jobs’s death Tim Cook took the company he had left Compaq for in a different direction than its founder might have—and for the better, if Mr Kahney is to be believed. He defined six areas of focus for Apple: accessibility, education, environment, supplier responsibility, inclusion and diversity, and privacy and security.
At this point the book delves into these six topics and forgets that its subject matter is the man behind it himself. The book becomes more a biography of Apple under Tim Cook rather than a deep dive into Mr Cook and his life and what drives him. Given that Mr Cook himself was never talked to, it is not surprise that Mr Kahney managed to gather little information about him and diverted instead towards a conversation about Apple: Tim Cook has always been an intensely private person.
Where Jobs focused on building Apple into a company that spewed one innovative product after another, Mr Cook has focused on stabilising the company and arming it with enough to take on whatever the future brings. It would be wrong to argue, though, that Apple has not innovated under Mr Cook; it may not have had entirely new products (if you discount the Apple Watch and the Airpod, that is, but why would you discount them at all?) but the company is now innovating at a different level entirely. Innovation changes direction after a while. I recall Jony Ive once comparing it to how cars are still innovating internally while on the outside you still get a four-wheeler with a steering wheel and chassis and some seats, windows and a windscreen.
Mr Kahney talks a lot about how Tim Cook and Apple stood up to the FBI and refused to crack open an iPhone because of the treacherous precedent it would set for government surveillance and privacy in the future. He is right to do this and Apple deserves a lot of credit for this; there is little doubt any other company would have folded under pressure here. But then he criticises—in what is the only criticism of Apple in this book—for not being diverse enough or supporting open systems. This is funny and somewhat inaccurate because if any company today is known for its diversity, it is Apple, be it gender- or race-based.
Apple under Tim Cook also came up with a new coding language in Swift and made it open source thanks to which many people benefitted (me, for example, as my first ever app was built with Swift), a move which was in stark contrast to Apple’s otherwise closed-source and secretive nature. They also invested heavily in education releasing a line of extremely capable iPads meant especially for education—my wife uses one of these and she loves it. Yet Mr Kahney gives Apple little credit for all this.
My particularly favourite part of the book is where the author talks about Scott Forstall’s colossal failures with Siri and Apple Maps (remember when it directed people into the sea?) for which Mr Cook asked him to apologise publicly. Mr Forstall refused and Tim Cook had him fired, which he followed with a public apology that he himself gave, marking arguably the first move Apple made under Tim Cook that would have been unheard of in Steve Jobs’s Apple. The move told the world Apple was a more human company now: this was Apple under Tim Cook.
In the end Mr Kahney boldly claims that Mr Cook is Apple’s best CEO. I like this claim and I would like to believe it but I am not sure Mr Cook himself would agree. If traditional CEO-like activities are concerned Steve Jobs may not rank at the top of the crop but he did lift Apple out of bankruptcy. Perhaps Mr Kahney would have done better to say Jobs was the CEO Apple needed when Jobs was the CEO, and Mr Cook was the best choice to lead Apple in this decade and make it more human. The two are extremely different leaders who focused on what they did best which in turn shaped the company and took it to greater heights.
If you want a look at the man who brought humanness to Apple, who is a beacon of leadership today, and if you want a bird’s eye view of the man whose tenure as CEO will shape Apple’s future for the coming decades, this is a good book. It is not a look at Tim Cook as much as a look at Apple under him and is decidedly the perspective of a well-informed outsider.
At last, a smartwatch that would make me look beyond a mechanical timepiece—except for occasions.
Few gadgets give you the sense that they will last with you for a long time to come. Apple Watch Series 4 is (for me, anyway) one such device. It seems Apple is on a roll once again—now under Tim Cook as it once famously was under Steve Jobs—with a series of brilliant hardware and software releases. The last time I felt this was just about a year ago when I got my 13-inch MacBook Pro to replace my old MacBook Air; and the time before that was when I got my iPhone X. It is hard to tell how long Apple can keep this up, and I would not be surprised if this is yet another great year for the company, but the Series 4 was good enough to make me consider giving my mechanical favourites some well-deserved rest. And that, trust me, is no mean feat.
A great fit and feel
The Apple Watch is, first and foremost, a wearable. An accessory in fashion terms. This makes its fit, heft and feel on the skin incredibly important. I cannot speak for the stainless steel model but my 44mm space grey Aluminium Series 4 sits beautifully on my wrist, has precisely the right heft, and just enough of a presence to remind me it is there should I need it while never drawing undue attention to itself. This is just how I like it, but keep in mind that everything said so far is highly subjective.
What is not subjective is how the Apple Watch Series 4 is a huge step up from the previous four generations (the first ever edition had no ‘Series’ number). It comes with a bigger display without an increase in footprint thanks to better screen technology. It also has a subtler look on the crown, and that beautiful haptic feedback that has been making using iPhones a pleasure since the iPhone 7 (think spinning a date picker on iOS, but better). And it also has a much better processor that—I say this based on hearsay—makes watchOS buttery smooth unlike its jittery ancestors.
The experience of an Apple Watch
I knew from the start that only a GPS + Cellular Apple Watch would even make me consider using it as a mainstream device. For one, I am not a big fan of cellular devices (no iPad I have ever owned has had cellular capability), and two, my preferred service provider does not offer an eSIM. Yet, the Apple Watch in its cellular variant offered enough to make me switch my carrier.
My insistence on the cellular variant comes from two use cases. First, when I cycle or hit the gym it would be great to leave my iPhone at home and travel light. This is possible with the GPS + Cellular Apple Watch because this means I lose nothing. While I might not be able to browse the web or read the news, I will get calls, iMessages, SMS etc. and have a good data connection for any other needs while tracking my workouts and listening to Beats Radio or Apple Music via bluetooth earphones.
Second, with the Apple Watch tapping my with notifications I really need to see, I have found that I can reduce the time I spend staring at my phone—and hence the time I risk getting lost in the internet void—and focus better on my work while balancing technology with near-zero effort from my part. Things such as meditation, time-boxing, calorie tracking, water consumption tracking etc. that I do use on a daily basis to keep up my productivity and health can all be done from my Apple Watch—these processes are simple and straightforward too. And with everything syncing beautifully to Apple Health, I only ever need to reach for my iPhone to get an overview of my health status and that of other select apps. With watchOS 6 brining Apple Health summaries to the Watch later this year the former need may drop too.
Moving from Fitbit
My first—and until now only—fitness tracker was a Fitbit Charge 2. Back when I first wrote about it (you can still read the article in my archives) I mentioned somewhat loudly and clearly that the one thing I disliked about my then-new Fitbit was that it refused to sync with Apple Health. ‘The Fitbit app refuses to talk to Apple Health,’ I had written back then. ‘There are workarounds… but they are convoluted… and it would not have been this way were it not for Fitbit’s stubbornness in keeping its app single.’ This was back in July 2016. Since then the problem has only increasingly gotten on my nerves.
A couple of months prior to getting my Apple Watch I recall rarely using my Fitbit. This was primarily because it refused to play nice with all my other apps. Even my calorie counting app prompted me to use a Garmin, and I know Garmin plays nice because my wife has one and hers syncs perfectly well with Apple Health. Perhaps it is age and experience, with Garmin being a much older, better established company than Fitbit (1989 v 2007).
The importance of Apple Health is not that it is an app made by Apple; it is not even that it is an app that comes preinstalled on iPhones. The importance of Apple Health is twofold: one, the app is a central database for everything health-related. (The app itself does little by way of data collection that other devices or apps do not already do better.) The purpose of Apple Health is not to collect data, rather to accumulate it from various apps, trim it down into easily understandable stats and present it in such a way that you can look and corelate and spot trends and take decisions. Two, when it comes to privacy and security Apple Health is second to none. It is simply in a user’s best interest that fitness devices and apps should sync to Apple Health. Fitbit refuses to oblige.
On mechanical timepieces
I remember that everytime the Apple Watch crossed my mind in the past I always noticed how nobody ever had any complaints about the device. Hodinkee the magazine that describes itself as one that carries ‘in-depth reviews, critiques, and reports on watches of a particularly high quality’ interviewd Sir Jonathan Ive, who heads Apple’s design team, sometime in May last year. Hodinkee had, at least up to that point, been aware of the universal complaint watch enthusiasts like myself (or horophiles if you prefer) had bellowed time and again. A smartwatch is not a real watch, and smartwatches are trying out oust real watches.
Call it resistance to change but over time two things became clear to most of us: one, smartwatches are here to stay; two, mechanical timepieces are—somewhat ironically—not going away anytime soon. They can coexist.
Equally pleasing to find was that Jony Ive, and most of Apple’s design team, were not new to watches. Ive’s first was an Omega Speedmaster. Most of the team has always had a personal interest in watches, says Ive in the interview. He also goes on to say how Apple talked to experts in horology as part of the product development for Apple Watch. They discussed with the horologist Will Andrewes; the Curator Emeritus of the Royal Observatory in the UK, Jonathan Betts; the historian and horologist Dominique Fléchon; the historian of Geneva’s Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, Grégory Gardinetti; the writer Claudia Hammond; the astrophysicist Chris Lintott; and the keeper of technologies at the Science Museum in London, David Rooney.
Having used mechanical timepieces for most of my life transitioning to a smartwatch was never going to be easy. I’ve long disliked even digital watches—except perhaps the quirkier ones. But the fact is that the Apple Watch is more than just a smartwatch.
When Hodinkee asked Ive if the crown was an intentional homage to mechanical watchmaking, he replied, ‘No, because if that was a nod towards origin that would, to me, have been superficial. A sort of exercise in marketing. Everything we did was in the pursuit of what we thought was the best solution… we found that as you moved your arm around, the several years of developing principal forms of interaction for the phone and iPad was only a partial solution for this product.’ And he goes on to say, ‘It took a modicum of courage to understand that this secondary device—the crown—was a fantastic solution for scrolling and making choices. It also allowed us to offer a ‘second button’ on the device. We were predisposed to thinking direct manipulation was sort of a panacea.’
So the Apple Watch was indeed more than just a smartwatch, more than a miniaturised iPhone- or iPad-like screen sitting on your wrist. While it is undoubtedly ‘smart’ it certainly is much more than just a watch; at least that is what living with my new Apple Watch has showed me.
Living with Apple Watch
Like all Apple products in my experience, my Apple Watch has fundamentally altered the way I do little things in my daily life. The overarching change is probably that I handle my phone a lot less now. Especially while I am at home, screentime tells me my pickups have more than halved. Thankfully there is a tracker, with beeps and flashes, that lets me find my iPhone when I’ve lost it somewhere around the house.
The second change is that I have trimmed down notifications to only the most important ones: e-mails from VIPs, all messages, all fitness-related notifications, Twitter DMs and mentions, and reminders and other stock app notifications. None of these are intrusive; all other notifications are disabled on my Apple Watch and I get to them on my time when I pick up my iPhone. That is not to say I do not carry my phone around, just that even when I do, I pick it up a lot less.
While this seems, on the face of it, unintuitive because it appears as though I had to physically keep my phone away to save myself from notifications, the reality is much deeper. Apple Watch is, in my opinion, the first of a wave of devices that will fundamentally change how we interact with our technology. And if Apple Watch is any indication of things to come, the future seems to be rather bright. If I had to boil things down to one sentence it would be this: by trimming down how I interact with technology Apple Watch has given me considerably more control over it.
I wake up every morning, put on my Apple Watch where I used to put on my Fitbit or, before that, one of my mechanical watches. I get on with my day knowing that I can quickly track my water and food intake, glance at my to-do list and calendar, keep track of my Activity rings, even check the weather later that day. I can focus on the things that matter because these utilitarian stuff now take much less time than they used to. iPhones were already more straightforward and faster than other devices; Apple Watch tops that in whatever functionality it shares with my iPhone.
Talking to Siri is pleasanter too. I just raise my wrist and say what I want and Siri responds—about 75% of the time anyway—without the ‘Hey, Siri…’ call phrase. Manually calling Siri is possible too, of course, but when the ‘raise to speak’ magic works, why bother?
One of my main uses for Apple Watch is to track my health and fitness goals. I use it at the gym and when I cycle, both reasons to prompt my purchase of the cellular edition so I can safely leave my iPhone back home. And in both these cases Apple Watch excels where my Fitbit Charge 2 failed. Fitbit has GPS models too now, but they still do not do all that the Apple Watch does. I can play music to my bluetooth earphones, track my ride with GPS, all while knowing I will not be missing an important text, call or e-mail. Or, and perhaps more important, should I ever need assistance, I can make a call from Apple Watch even without my iPhone.
Coming from Fitbit and the step-counting tribe, something I thought was missing from Apple Watch was counting steps. I later realised that the watch does count steps but not as a primary function. Heading to the Activity app and scrolling down a bit shows the day’s step count, but Apple characteristically does things a bit differently—and, arguably, better. Activity directly tracks calories burnt based on my movement and heart rate, while separately tracking exercise by time and standing hours. While step counts are meaningful, these three parameters (activity rings) are together more sensible than just a sole measure like steps. It took me a couple of days but I managed to find the right calorie burn goal that ensures I hit about 10,000 steps every day by the time my activity and exercise rings close. This is a great middle ground in my opinion, and a good start for people who are unable to determine their ideal calorie burn count.
Besides all this what makes the Apple watch a good fitness tracker is that it does something rather cleverly. In my experience at least, when comparing data between Strava on my iPhone, my Fitbit Charge 2 and the Workout app on my Apple Watch, against known control data, the Apple watch managed to track trends nearly perfectly, and—this is the important bit—when it got something slightly wrong it always underestimated my workout. Any day I prefer a tracker that underestimates my workout rather than one that overestimates it. This was true of both outdoor cycling and on the treadmill.
Information display is key to every smartwatch but one does not always want a lot of information on the screen. Apple tackles this well by allowing users to set up a string of watch faces to quickly change between. I use six of them, all analogue unless I have no option: I have one default face (infograph), one for the gym or for cycling (modular), one for occassions (simple), one for weekends and vacations (photos, with pictures of my family), one for daily use as an alternative to my default (utility, just in case), and one playful face (Mickey Mouse).
However, we only get to choose from among Apple’s offering of watch faces and pick ‘complications’ of our choice—little widgets that show off information from our apps, like the weather, moon phases, calendar, upcoming reminders and events, music etc. A section dedicated to watch faces in the upcoming watchOS 6, which includes a dedicated Apple Watch App Store, would not have hurt. Hopefully Apple will open this up to developers at some point down the road. It is likely Apple fears that allowing custom watch faces will take away some of the uniqueness that comes with their pricey Nike+ and Hermés offerings because somebody will undoubtedly replicate those faces for the ‘regular’ watches the rest of us buy.
While playing music through Apple Watch is great, with a full featured ‘Now playing’ list with shuffle and repeat buttons, it requires connection to bluetooth speakers or earphones. This means I cannot hop into my car, leave my iPhone at home and play music on my stereo. The Apple Watch neither connects to my (or any) car stereo, nor does it play music from its own impressive speakers.
Speaking of leaving my iPhone at home, it is important to remember that Apple Watch was never meant to replace your iPhone. It takes some of the load off the iPhone, it gives better context to the technology in the Apple ecosystem with which we interact everyday, and it truly helps take the focus off hand-held screens and brings it onto daily life—if you can keep yourself from reaching for your iPhone once you get a notification on your Apple Watch. In short, Apple has done their part; as the user, you have some of yours to do too.
All said and done, Apple Watch has some benefits over a mechanical watch, a piece of jewellery that a gadget such as this should never be compared to. It is not fair to either object. I will still wear my mechanical timepieces to the most formal of events, but my Apple Watch will sit on my wrist more of the time on any given day. While the charms of these two devices are entirely different, I think the greatest victory of Apple Watch is that it feels like a watch, not like yet another tech gadget.
There are some subtle lessons one can learn only after having built a real world app.
Over the past couple of weeks I have been spending my leisure time outside of work on a little side project: building an iOS app. The app is something that appeals to my literary side while also serving as a platform for other interests that lie along the same line. Called Quotepad the iPhone-only app (for now anyway) is like a pocket book of quotes carrying over one-thousand quotes and affirmations along with functionality that lets users add and save their own quotes, collect favourites, discard unfavourites, and keep everything synced with iCloud.
The project is off to a great start and I feel like I have learnt some important lessons that I just might forget as I move forward so I record them here, primarily for my own future reference but also for anyone else who might find themselves in the same boat.
When a friend and I started dabbling with Swift earlier this year, Quotepad was born as an idea for a ‘simple’ app that I wanted to make personally to practise my coding skills while ending up with a nice little product that my wife—who loves quotes and motivational stuff—could find some use for. As I started building it, though, I felt there was enough of a market to it and that it was worth taking Quotepad out of the personal garage and taking it mainstream. While the app initially only carried a few tens of quotes, and its only job was to show one random quote at a time, it was my wife who suggested I should look into adding affirmations because there was a seemingly untapped market for it, and, following conversations with a friend/business partner (I suppose) we decided to develop the app and aim for a worldwide release on the App Store. By launch date the app had almost a couple of thousand quotes and several hundred affirmations.
Get beta testers and consider their feedback earnestly
Maintaining a few thousand lines of code can be manageable in the beginning but keeping track of things over time takes focus away from fixing bugs. Despite everything appearing to work perfectly during initial testing there are inevitably going to be bugs you will catch only weeks down the line, by which time it will probably be too late to do much. Shipping breaking changes during public release is an obvious no-no.
Having a good team of people beta testing your app is essential in more ways than one. We had about 25 testers in all, which is paltry compared to some big-name apps (WhatsApp beta, for example, has long hit TestFlight’s limit of 10,000 beta testers) but for independent developers without huge funding, and for apps on a medium scale like Quotepad, this number is good enough to catch most bugs before release.
We sent out two breaking changes to our beta testers and their feedback helped us catch bugs and make major overhauls. Twenty-two of our testers chose to remain anonymous during testing (Apple keeps testflight user identities anonymous by default for obvious reasons). So thank you Adam Webber, Doug Griffin and of course Vaishnavi Kulkarni. We had a host of big UI changes by launch time that we could not have made ourselves without good feedback.
It is important to be open to feedback while not losing sight of the core principles of your app because beta testers draw ideas from what they see, and their understanding of your app will be derived from yours; their understanding of what drives your app will never be exactly the same as your own. Consequently, their feedback is representative of how users feel while they use your app, rarely of what drives the app—that balance is yours to keep in its entirety.
Sharing analytics—a personal opinion
I have always been one to disallow sending anonymous feedback to developers despite Apple handling the privacy and security end of the deal, and despite no information that can identify you being sent to developers. Perhaps this was because I had never really seen (or understood?) what developers see or do not see, and how; or perhaps it was because I was never in the same boat as them.
However, now that I have had a good look at App Store Connect—the developer dashboard that Apple provides through which we developers can analyse mass user data without ever being able to identify users (essentially, we see trends and nothing else)—I see how helpful it can be to have anonymous user data. Users’ identities are of no consequence in this scenario. But, more important, I see how unreliable this data can be when most users have not allowed their devices to share usage data with developers.
None of this is to make a case for sharing your own data with developers. Indeed I see a lot of sense in my being cautious earlier and I urge you to see things your own way but I for one will no longer be preventing anonymised usage data from being sent to developers.
The risks are real
When people use your app they rely on it to some extent. This might not apply to people who are simply testing your app out, but it does apply to people who jump in and start using your app regularly. It is these people that we developers are answerable to in some ways.
Users’ reliance on your app comes in certain specific ways: first, they assume your app is here to stay; second, they assume the data they put into your app will not go missing or corrupt; third, they assume that their investment, whether in time or money, will not go waste in that the app will prove to outlast its worth.
The luxury of beta testing is breaking changes. Once your app is out there the things you can do to it are greatly diminished at least in that you need to think a lot more about how you will solve problems or add features. The risks then are quite real. The consequences of every update or code change or overhaul will have ripples that can potentially decide whether you gain or lose users. This dawns on you right around the time when you first submit an app to the App Store.
Handling App Store rejections
While Apple’s App Store has exponentially more rejections than Google’s Play Store, reviewers do get back with reasons why they rejected your app. When Quotepad was first submitted we were rejected for a silly reason that we could have avoided: our 5.5-inch and 4.7-inch device screenshots were incorrectly uploaded. Rectifying this was great, but in the one day between rejection and resubmission we managed to catch a couple of last-minute bugs, make quick improvements and make our app better for launch.
Take advantage of the rejection. App Store guidelines may be strict (Apple have over one-hundred rules apps must comply with for approval) but it is this curation that sets the App Store apart from other mobile stores that came after it. Users trust apps from the App Store; except for the occasional one that manages to slip through review apps are expected to be of an incredibly high quality and look, feel and behave premium. And both iOS and macOS users alike have come to expect a certain baseline quality. So look at an App Store review process as just that: a review and correction stage where Apple itself helps you make sure your app is up to the mark.
Design and functionality: Minute things count
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that App Store apps are some of the best designed mobile apps in existence. While your app may or may not qualify for the same title, try to keep its design top notch. It has to be unique without being difficult. From the themes to the layout to—and perhaps most importantly—the use of negative space, the little things can go a long way in making a difference.
But with a focus on design it is important not to oversee the functionality. Most users interact with many apps a day. Whether you like it or not when you break from some common interactions people tend to resist to the point where they abandon your app because it acts like a recluse. Swiping, pressing buttons, and other gestures must behave like users expect it to. It does not take a genius to map one gesture to an unconventional action just for the sake of it. Unless you have a really good reason, stick to the device convention for your user’s sake. Clever design does not stand out for the sake of it.
That said, some interesting ideas can—and ought to—be implemented to make your app stand out, especially if it helps ease the user experience. Across our app we use taps and press-and-hold gestures to accomplish tasks and views respectively. As we maintain this throughout the app it quickly becomes second nature to users. The same is true of button placement: a button on the left in one screen, if it carries over to another, should remain on the left or—under circumstances that warrant it—move further left. If it switches position to the right-side of the screen consider your user flabbergasted and turned off.
Lastly, think carefully about certain things like how the interface responds to the user’s expectations rather than just their actions. For example, if the only job a user has on a screen is to type something in and this is clear enough, save them the trouble and just show them the keyboard as soon as they enter that screen. Do the tough work in the backend, thinking about as many scenarios as possible (users love to push apps to the limit, especially when they have some free time on their hands) so use your thinking, coding and beta testers’ feedback to make sure the design and functionality of your app is sound enough that it does not break when pushed.
Data management is a headache
Those of you who have ever handled large chunks of data will know precisely how unweildy they can get. In no time you will go from loading some samples to struggling to manage huge swathes of data.
We started out with a text file-based workflow to read and save quotes but that quickly got old and inflexible. For example, storing quotes, authors, dates and owners in csv files can get ugly fast; storing them on separate lines means you have no way of telling one from the other. Consider this: if you only have two repeating fields, you can refer to one as the even field and the other as the odd field and identify pairs. But what if you have three fields A, B and C? You might think of going in threes but you will quickly reach the sixth entry which is really of the type B but because it is divisible by three the computer is tempted to think of it as a type C entry. This will throw your data into a disarray.
iCloud gets a lot of things right in this regard, from querying and sorting to simply storing values and being able to fetch them reliably. Use this. And keep an eye on users’ privacy. With Quotepad we store every user’s data in private databases accessible by the user alone and that too via the app alone. This means nobody, neither us nor Apple, will ever even be capable of accessing this data.
On top of all this I was dead set against user sign-up forms for Quotepad, which meant we had to somehow be able to identify users individually without explicitly asking them for their e-mail or asking them to create a password. We decided to tie things to their iCloud. After all, if you have no iCloud Quotepad works locally and erases itself when you delete the app or reset your phone (this keeping in mind that everyone with an Apple device likely has an Apple ID and therefore an iCloud account too). And if you have in fact signed in to your iCloud, Quotepad cleverly uses that to identify you everywhere without explicitly reading your e-mail address; instead we use a unique, app-specific iCloud ID randomly generated during the app’s first launch. This ID will remain fixed across your devices so long as you use this app and have the same Apple ID (without which you will lose all your apps anyway). This is great for users because they can start using Quotepad with almos no set-up at all if they wish.
Lastly, we need to address the elephant in the room: what is our business model and why? Users these days find it important to know how app developers plan to support their development. If an app generates no income to at least compensate developers for their time it becomes highly unlikely that an app will last long on the market.
For starters, this rules out anyone getting Quotepad for free. As much as I love free apps myself, I understand that developers put in a lot of thought and work to get things right and create a product to be sold—for money—much like any other product. Would you ask for free furniture?
That said, what price is right for an app like Quotepad? I asked around some and to most people the $2 mark seemed apt. Both of us developers too agreed that asking for about $2 (2€ or ₹150) was fair—at least to begin with. We have huge updates planned and will likely test out a subscription based model where users have to pay just about $1 (1€ or ₹80) per year. If we ever switch to that model older users will be grandfathered in because it is simply the right thing to do, and newer users will be able to get a week’s trial.
We understand, and agree, that to ask for a subscription we need to offer continuous benefits. This will come in the form of monthly additions of quotes and certain other planned features that we would like to keep under wraps for now. Our TestFlight invitation is always open to those who would like to join the beta and test the app out with us, while providing feedback and suggestions we would love to consider and probably even incorporate into our app.
Overall, developing an app has been a fresh and thoroughly enjoyable experience; it has been something new that I have enjoyed immensely after a long time. And if it bears fruit this might just become more than a side project going forwards.
Just minutes before I published this, we received our approval from the App Store and our app is now available worldwide for purchase for just around $2. We hope you take a look, even decide to buy it, and, above all, we hope it adds something worthwhile to your beautiful lives.