Going big

I switched to the “plus” sized iPhones as soon as they were available. They can be somewhat unwieldy at times, and occasionally struggle to fit comfortably into pockets. With last year’s iPhone X, with a larger screen in a smaller shell, I thought I had found a happy middle ground. There is always an appetite for more screen, however, and after fumbling with a family member’s plus size phone to see if I could still handle it, I took the plunge and ordered an iPhone Xs Max.

I stuck with silver. The gold is novel, but not to my personal taste. The black would hide the size better, but I love the chrome rim on the silver.

The series 4 watch is a no-brainer. Despite having smaller wrists, I made the upgrade from 38 to 42 mm a couple years ago, and the larger screen was a revelation. My eyes aren’t getting any younger, so 44 mm it is. Silver aluminum this year instead of black. The stainless looks better, but is weightier and doesn’t  seem to fit as well with my preferred band, the sport loop. Gold aluminum veers a little too close to the pink spectrum for my tastes.

I might splurge on a blue band this year – both the indigo and Cape Cod versions look appealing.

My AirPods are dead

Not the AirPods themselves, but rather the charging case. After a final trip through the washer and dryer, the case will no longer charge, this rendering the AirPods useless. I’ve realized how much I mess the convenience of being able to pop the AirPods in on a whim, without needing to fumble with a cable or even take my phone out of my pocket.

The sound quality even seems better than the standard headphones. I suspect this is due to the absence of a cable, allowing the earbuds to sit more securely in place. I haven’t replace them yet, knowing that Apple is due to release a new AirPower compatible charging case shortly, but it the wait is tiring, which speaks to how great a product this is.

Success by a thousand cuts

In many initial reviews, the Apple Watch was criticized for being an unfocused product, trying to do too many things without a clear purpose. It’s natural to ask “what is it for” and “do I really need this” when a new product category emerges. Having used the Watch for nearly a month, I’m struck by the similarity to the iPhone. I have found the Watch to be an invaluable addition, but it’s not any one particular function that elevates it to a core piece of technology in my life. It’s rather that it combines a host of useful functionality in a single piece of technology.

I stopped wearing a watch years ago. While it may have been more convenient to glance at my wrist than pull out my phone, it wasn’t better enough to warrant wearing something additional. A traditional watch might display the time and the date, which my Watch will do as well. I also get a timer display, the temperature, and my next appointment (and could choose different pieces of information to use as watch face “complications” if it suited me). Add to this the activity monitoring and workout tracking that integrates with HealthKit, providing superior tracking, heart rate monitoring, and other functionality when compared to competing fitness trackers like the FitBit. This combination would be worthwhile in and of itself, but quickly the watch starts seeming like those late night infomercials (“but wait, there’s more!”). Order now and the Watch also will offer you a more convenient way to use Apple Pay, easier access to important notifications, a convenient speakerphone, and a quick way to reply to important messages.

It’s the opposite of “death by a thousand cuts”. It’s combining functions that in and of themselves are minor conveniences and producing a product that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Watch This Space

My Apple Watch arrived 5 days ago, so I have only had a brief time with it. With such a new product category, it’s too early for me to provide any sort of substantive review, but here are a few first impressions:

Build quality: I have the stainless steel model with the Milanese loop. The fit and finish are fantastic, and it looks great. Men don’t have many ways to “accessorize”, and watches can either be a beneficial stylistic addition or a detractor. The Pebble struck me as clunky appearing and awkward, but the Apple Watch looks like a legitimate piece of jewelry. I wear the smaller 38mm model given my relatively modest wrists, and it does not look bulky or out of place.

The screen: It’s sharp and beautiful, though some of the smaller text can strain my aging eyes. I have not needed to adjust the font size, however. I cannot see the black border around the screen: the screen itself is so dark when off, that it seamlessly blends with the border, an excellent visual effect and an advantage of the OLED technology used.

Battery life: Everyone will have a different experience based on usage patterns, but I’m finding it more than adequate. I have not yet dipped below 50% by the end of the day, despite frequent checks.

Functionality: The main utility of the Apple Watch at this point is to display information that would normally go only to your phone. In that sense, it’s just like a traditional watch, but with a broader scope than just time. I may look at my watch to check the time, but now it also shows me the weather, my activity, my next appointment, or my current timer.

I initially used the “modular” watch face, but soon switch to “utility”, which I find less cluttered. It forces you to be more selective with “complications” (the little information additions to the watch face like temperature, moon phase, etc.), which is a good thing. I currently add the date, the temperature, a timer (which I use frequently), and my next appointment. All have proven useful, but the time still appropriately takes the bulk of the display.

I’m still learning how to take advantage of “glances”, the mini-apps you get by swiping up, but in many cases these seem more convenient and just as useful as many of the full-blown apps. The watch is best for quickly accessing information, not for lengthy interactions.

Easy access to notifications are one of the main advantages of having the watch, and it’s key that you carefully curate what gets pushed to your wrist. Fortunately, Apple’s watch app for the iPhone makes this fairly easy. For example, my watch displays a banner whenever I get an email, but my Watch only notifies me if the email is from someone I have tagged as a “VIP”.

The taptic engine is great, but I wish the notifications were a little more prominent. I have the “prominent haptic” feature turned on, which makes the tactile notification stronger for certain alerts, and this works well, but I sometimes miss alerts that don’t use this feature. This is something that could be tweaked with software updates in the future.

The biggest surprise so far has been how much better Apple Pay is on the watch compared to the phone. I thought it would be awkward paying with the watch, but in fact it’s more discrete and faster than using the iPhone. I want to pay for everything this way. I was initially skeptical about how much time Apple Pay would save compared to simply swiping a credit card, but particularly with the Watch, it’s striking how quick and easy it is.

Downsides? None of the third party apps have been particularly useful so far. I think it will take some time for everyone to figure out the best ways to use this new platform. Trying to replicate iPhone apps on a smaller screen is not really useful, particularly if extended interaction is required. The current WatchKit approach (which will be superseded by true native apps later this year) is also far too slow.

Do we need WiGig?

Fastest Wi-Fi ever is almost ready for real-world use | Ars Technica

Wilocity is one of the main proponents of the even faster WiGig (or “wireless gigabit”), which can theoretically hit speeds of up to 7Gbps, with the downside of using frequencies that are easily blocked by walls. Even thin cubicle walls may block signals, Wilocity acknowledged.

I have 5 Ghz 802.11n throughout my home, but I never reach anywhere close to the theoretical maximums because the signal is easily blocked by walls. I don’t see the appeal of faster Wifi if you basically have to be in a line of sight with the router. More than speed improvements, we need resilience to physical obstacles and interference.

iWatch, do you?

As everyone waits for the long-fabled Apple television set, a new, and more viable, rumor has emerged. Today, the blogs lit up with discussion of a potential Apple watch. Just as telephony makes up only a small part of the iPhone’s functionality, this project isn’t about a venture into time-telling devices, but rather an move into wearable computers.

What’s the problem that wearable computers solve? Watch wearing has almost certainly been decimated in the wake of accelerated smartphone adoption. Why wear a time-telling contraption on your wrist, when one in your pocket keeps perfect time and can do much more? The problem is that every time you need to check the time, or a text, or an alert, you must rifle through pockets (or purse, or wherever your smartphone lives) to glance at your phone. A wrist-based screen requires just a flick of the wrist.

Today’s watches don’t do enough – they just tell time. Yet a watch-sized screen is too limiting for the range of activities we now demand of our devices. However, low-power short range wireless technologies like the now-ubiquitous Bluetooth 4.0 offer the potential for the best of both worlds. The brains remain in the smartphone, which remains the main device for composing messages, viewing complex information, or other demanding tasks. For quick viewing of information such as short messages or, gasp, the time, the key bits could be wirelessly relayed to the low-power screen.

Watches are not the only option for wearable computing. Google’s Glass project puts the information right in front of the user’s face in the form of high-tech glasses. While this has some advantages, so many of us already have our faces buried in screens as it is. Glass requires you to wear another screen constantly on your face and has a greater potential of being disruptive. Where else could we place a wearable screen? There are few logical options other than the wrist. Unlike Google’s Glass, the watch can be checked as much, or as little, as the user wants.

The category is a no-brainer, but the execution is critical. It’s easy to make a bad watch. It’s exceedingly difficult to create a new category of device that no one realizes they need. But this is exactly the kind of transformation that Apple has been so good at in the past.

In Defense of Twitter

Many early fans of Twitter are up in arms over recent business-driven changes to Twitter’s rules: limiting the ability of other services to access follower lists and setting future limits on the number of accounts third party clients can have.

I’m not an advocate of these changes – I would love to have unlimited access to follower lists and third party clients. However, I understand the logic behind Twitter’s moves and, frankly, they are not all that surprising given that Twitter is trying to move toward a sustainable business model.

The first limit became obvious when Twitter blocked the ability of users to pull their Twitter follower lists into Instagram. Instead of finding your friends one by one when you joined Instagram, you could leverage its connection to Twitter to instantly follow anyone who you already followed on Twitter. When Twitter blocked this feature, it was excused because Facebook had bought Instagram, and there’s an obvious competition between the two services. When Twitter did the same to Tumblr, the reaction was more fierce. Tumblr isn’t viewed by many as a real Twitter competitor, and one could argue, as John Gruber has, that there is a symbiotic relationship between the two systems. Tumblr can post announcements of posts to Twitter, provided content to Twitter while also directing traffic to Tumblr.

But is that really what’s happening? I’d argue that, in many ways, Tumblr is a Twitter competitor. It’s a system that allows users to make short posts of text, pictures, or links and share them with “followers”. Yes, Tumblr posts can be longer, but they aren’t always, and both services are evolving. Let’s say Tumblr moved more in the direction of Twitter in the future. Maybe some users stop posting to Twitter and rely on Tumblr alone. Or their Twitter stream simply becomes a list of links to their Tumblr. Allowing user to easily copy the list of people they are following from Twitter to Tumblr would make it that much easier to let Tumblr take over Twitter’s business. Many users of both systems would argue that the differences between the systems are too great, that Tumblr’s vision is different from Twitter’s. Maybe so, but what if a true Twitter competitor could do the same? Why should Twitter make it easier for a competitor to leverage the follower lists build on Twitter’s infrastructure? In the case of Tumblr, Twitter felt the risk:reward ratio was too great. In fact, I could see this feature being blocked completely for any service: there’s simply not enough value for Twitter.

Regarding third party clients, the situation is more complex. Twitter has announced that future clients will be limited to 100,000 users each, and that existing clients max out at twice their existing user base if they are already over the limit. I use Tweetbot on the Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and far prefer it to the web interface and Twitter’s own apps. I’ve paid for the iOS clients despite the fact that the “official” clients are free for one reason: they’re better. The diversity and added functionality that these third party clients have added to Twitter have made the experience far richer…for the users. But does it help Twitter?

I’d argue it did, in the early days of Twitter, because it reduced the friction to adding posts to Twitter, and made the community much livelier than it otherwise would have been. Times have changed now, though, and Twitter wants to make money. Their plan includes “promoted tweets” (ads) and more complex tweet structures called cards. There may be additional features in the works, and you can be sure that Twitter’s own clients will promote these heavily. But what about third party clients? How excited would an advertiser be if they knew that their ads could be avoided by using a popular third-party client? Maybe Twitter could take an Apple like approach, adding requirements that third-party clients support promoted tweets, cards, and whatever else they have in store. But how would this work in practice? Each time Twitter wanted to add a new feature, they would have to give developers time to respond to new guidelines instead of just pushing out an update to their own software. They would have to review the software to make sure it complies with the rules. If it didn’t, they’d have to pull the plug on a potentially popular piece of software. Twitter wants to control the experience of what Twitter is, and this necessitates blocking, or at least limiting the audience of, third party clients. These changes are a consequence of the business model that Twitter has chosen.

App.net has chosen a different model: charging customers directly. Will this model succeed? Probably not, but who knows. Maybe if it becomes cheap enough, and allows for a better experience, it will catch on. It’s up to Twitter now to ensure that the experience for the users remains compelling. Or at least, compelling enough.

Time to leave

Complaints about AT&T have been rampant since the iPhone launched, but I have been relatively happy with the service over the years. Even after the iPhone launched on Verizion, I’ve stuck with AT&T. AT&T’s 3G has faster data and allows simultaneous data and voice, which kept me away from Verizon despite the widely touted coverage advantages.

With the upcoming iPhone 5, the calculation changes. The new phone is almost certain to support LTE, and Verizon’s LTE coverage is far superior to AT&T’s. LTE on Verizon also allows use of data and voice at the same time. Furthermore, there’s the little issue of actually being able to make calls.

No cell provider is perfect, and dropped calls can be expected with any. However, AT&T has worsened significantly over the past year, at least in the Boston area. I routinely first find out about missed calls via the sudden appearance of voicemails, and there have been several instances over the past months where I’ve been unable to place calls.

Today, AT&T dropped the bomb that FaceTime over cellular, a signature feature of the upcoming iOS 6, will only be available for purchasers of their “Mobile Share” plans. This is not an isolated incident. AT&T was also one of the last carriers to support the mobile hotspot on the phone, and this too was accompanied by an extra charge (though eventually included extra data as part of the package).

I’ve had enough. The ETF is intimidating, but offset by the new user discount obtained by signing up with Verizon.

I hate my remote

The Logitech Harmony 880 is a hugely popular universal remote control. After reading rave reviews online, and extensively reviewing the alternatives, I decided to purchase one several years ago. It’s not inexpensive, currently selling for $229.99 at Amazon. That’s more than an entry-level, current-generation iPod Touch. I paid a bit less, but it’s a lot of money regardless, especially for a remote that was released in 2005. Most reviews justify the price by highlighting its extensive programmability via a relatively friendly computer-based interface. The remote is oriented around “actions”, so I can press one button (e.g. “Watch Apple TV”) and my remote will send appropriate commands to turn on my TV, set it to the correct input, turn my receiver to the correct setting, and turn on my Apple TV. Sounds wonderful, right?

IMG 0083

Wrong.

If I don’t have the remote pointed in just the right direction, one of the devices might miss the signal and my setup ends up in a Frankenstein-like mishmash of settings – the Apple TV’s on but the receiver is still set for my Blu-Ray player while my TV remains off. Even though a failure is usually evident early in the process, I have to wait for the remote to complete it’s sequence before I can turn everything off and try again.

The lady doth protest too much, right? I should just get off the couch and set everything up manually. Unfortunately, that’s not even possible – many of today’s components require the remote to access many functions (including, in my TV’s case, turning on from sleep mode).

The remote is frustratingly sluggish, often causing me to overshoot while attempting to navigate a list of options. While the Harmony comes with what should be an elegant charging cradle, the contacts often fail to connect, requiring ginger repositioning to successfully initiate a charge (during which the remote makes a series of annoy and incomprehensible beeping sounds while displaying a “screen saver” – does a remote really need a screen saver?).

Remember that friendly computer-based interface for adjusting your remote? Granted, it’s not frequent that I’d need to adjust a setting, but there’s no way to do this from the remote itself. When I do need to make a change, I need to ensure some custom software from Logitech is installed, remember my rarely-used login to Logitech’s website, and find the mini-USB cable that I know was just here somewhere.

I hope there is something better out there, but I haven’t found it yet.

Speaking with machines

Nuance Communications Wants a World of Voice Recognition – NYTimes.com.

Here, Mr. Sejnoha, the company’s chief technology officer, and other executives are plotting a voice-enabled future where human speech brings responses from not only smartphones and televisions, cars and computers, but also coffee makers, refrigerators, thermostats, alarm systems and other smart devices and appliances.It is a wildly disruptive idea. But such systems are already beginning to change the way we interact with the world and, for better and worse, how we think about technology. Until now, after all, we’ve talked only to one another. What if we begin talking to all sorts of machines, too — and, like Siri, those machines respond as if they were human?

I’ve accumulated increasing faith in voice interactions ever since I acquired the iPhone 4S. I use Siri on a regular basis and, for the most part, it’s a great time saver. However, speech recognition is far from perfect, and it’s that lack of faith that it’s going to work that often limits my use of it. I think there’s a threshold with this technology that needs to be passed. The faith that a command is going to be correctly interpreted needs to outweigh our annoyance when there are errors. Siri is right at that boundary. For simple commands and common phrases, it works very well. For more complex queries with unusual words, it often stumbles.

In a way, though, a phone is more of a stress test. An appliance with a more limited set of options (e.g. a thermostat or coffee maker) is more likely to succeed with speech recognition because the potential vocabulary is more restricted.