Apple’s butterfly keyboard failed by prioritizing form over function

From Chaim Gartenberg at The Verge:

But the deeper issue isn’t that the butterfly switches often break; it’s the flawed design goals that led Apple to make a bad button in the first place. Apple chose to make an entire keyboard full of buttons that resulted in a more aesthetically pleasing design with shorter travel and a thinner overall laptop, rather than making ones that are mechanically functional. And it nearly wrecked an entire generation of Apple’s laptops.

Apple is a massive company that has a ton of stakeholders but I honestly believe that one of the biggest mistakes Tim Cook made was to give the reigns to Jony Ive with no real counterweight. With a lot of the other voices in the room silenced or gone (such as Scott Forstall), Apple leaned way too hard into form over function, and many of their products have suffered as a result. iOS 7 was a mess and many of the hardware products from 2015-2020 were also way too focused on how something looked rather than how people used them.

Ive was a visionary in a ton of ways and he’s not completely to blame for many of the issues Apple have had with their hardware and software design in the last half decade. But with strong leadership at the top, a team of rivals approach tends to get better results. Let’s hope the next 5 years are more focused on users and their needs as opposed to just making things as thin as possible.

Spotify Finally Removes 10k Song Limit

From Felipe Carvalho on Twitter:

After today, you can add as many songs as you like to your Liked Songs on @Spotify I’ve been working with a small team on the refactoring necessary to pull this off for a while now. Very happy to see this finally out.

This definitely falls into the Finally™ territory, as I’ve been complaining about this for years now. Really happy they finally listened to users who hit the cap a long time ago and have had to come up with creative ways to get around it.

A little too late for me though as I recently moved back to Apple Music and have been very happy there.

Thoughts on Spotify’s podcast push

Joe Rogan, one of biggest podcasters out there, is going to be exclusively on Spotify starting next year. This is a huge get for Spotify, who is trying to become a bigger player in the podcast space.

Spotify is making a move to be more like Netflix in a lot of ways. With music licensing costs rising proportionate to their user growth, Spotify is still bleeding cash despite being a leader in the streaming music space. However, if they can start pushing users toward original content, insert their own ads into those podcasts and skim some off of that, they have another revenue stream that isn’t tied to licensing content. Additionally, it might give them an even larger user base to sell ads against. Good for Spotify! However, I worry about what it means for the future of podcasting.

If Spotify is successful, what does this mean for a further splintering of the market? Is the podcast world moving to a place where you’ll need 3-5 different apps just to listen to the shows you want? Even if they remain ad-supported and won’t require yet another monthly subscription, that’s just a lot for most people to deal with.

Not to be melodramatic about it, but this feels like we’re entering a new phase where “independent” podcasting is at risk. I think that the good news for me personally is that most of the shows I listen to aren’t candidates to get tempted by Spotify’s siren song any time soon and seem to take pride in being niche, indie shows. That said, once the ad money starts to dry up and all go to one place, it will indirectly affect the shows I listen to as well. Will some of the larger sponsors pour their money into Spotify’s ad platform or continue to pay for ad reads by the hosts? It’s yet to be seen, but marketing folks love their metrics.

The best thing you can do right now? Be sure to support the open, decentralized podcasting world by using apps like Overcast, Pocket Casts, Castro and even Apple’s Podcast app.

WWDC 2020 Wishlist

WWDC is about a month away! You know what that means – wishlist time!

Becky Hansmeyer has a great breakdown of her WWDC wishlist.  David Smith’s WatchOS 7 list has a ton of great nuggets too.

So, in that spirit I thought I’d throw in my WWDC wishlist for iOS/iPadOS/MacOS updates. If I get even a low double digit percentage of these it’ll be a good year.

Mac updates

  • Make Catalyst apps just decent. The text still renders in a way that seems blurry, keyboard shortcuts I expect to work won’t work, and it all just feels half baked. I think that Catalyst apps can be a solution for cross platform games and such but most productivity style apps just don’t work well (yet?).
  • Make Messages on par with the iOS counterpart
  • Continue to invest in breaking Music apart from other apps on the Mac. Fix some of the nitpicks I have from a previous post.

iOS updates

  • Vidoeconferencing fixes (side/side still uses video, same for switching video). You would imagine the pandemic has raised this as a huge blocker for iPads in particular.
  • Apple Music should have the ability to make smart playlists, edit metadata etc.
  • Better privacy settings around photos and location. I’d love to give weather apps city-level GPS data but not specific location data. Additionally, I would love to allow to grant photo upload permission but not to view my entire library.
  • Homescreen customization. Doesn’t have to be full-on Android style but it’s time to make managing and organizing apps less of a pain.
  • Connecting multiple Google Drive accounts to the Files app should be possible. I have a personal and work account, but can’t access both buckets in Files.
  • Fix the selection cursor! The new way without the magnification was a mistake and they should either go back or enhance what they have now.
  • Open up the system to set some default apps. I’d love to be able to set a default music service (I switched back to Apple Music recently but would love the option to have more future flexibility), reminders app (for use with Siri), email and web browser.
  • Allow users to do more with ‘now playing’ screen for media. Let me love tracks, add them to my library, etc. Oddly, a form of this used to exist for Apple Music and was dropped. Even more oddly, some apps still have a form of this (Pocket Casts, Spotify) but it seems very limited.
  • Devtools for Safari
  • Revamp the Siri interface and put more of it on device, like Google announced last year. Siri shouldn’t take over the entire screen, nor should basic requests require the cloud.
  • “Smart unlock” style features – when paired to a watch, don’t require touch / face ID. Same goes for when you’re on a WiFi network or at a geofenced area. Make this optional but would be another great selling point for the Apple Watch.
  • Make a smarter dialer – use data about frequent calls to auto populate a favorites list. Allow users to select a standard notification for incoming calls instead of a full-screen takeover.
  • Better management of caches etc. Sometimes apps get so bloated and there’s little we can do to fix it other than delete the app and reinstall.
  • Offline Maps mode

iPadOS specific updates

  • Better tab persistence in Safari. One of the biggest differences between using a Mac and the iPad Pro is how quickly tabs get dropped from memory and I expect better.
  • Control center on iPads needs a rethink.  It currently looks and acts just like the tiny iPhone version. 
  • Make better use of the status bar. I get it on the iPhone, real estate is limited. But on the 11” and 12.9” iPad Pros in particular, there’s tons of wasted space up there.
  • More keyboard shortcuts. I currently use an older external Bluetooth keyboard with my iPad and if I ever went the Magic Keyboard route I’d really miss the function row for brightness and media playback. I’d love shortcuts to show slideover apps as well.
  • While in Split View, allow me to change which app I’m focused on so that I can use keyboard shortcuts for that app.
  • When performing a spotlight search, let me choose from the application list instead of just the first result.
  • More advanced keyboard & trackpad settings. I want to adjust key repeat rate, tracking speed, etc.
  • Some sort of way to invoke widgets quickly. The scenario I’m thinking of is being able to quickly add a task in Things. Maybe allow a keyboard shortcut to invoke a widget or all widgets. Dashboard 2.0!
  • True external monitor support for the iPad. I’d love to be able to plug a monitor in, have the monitor be the “app” UI and maybe leave the iPad as a second screen with the home screen showing by default?
  • Use Apple Watch to unlock the iPad as well as FaceID

Other updates

  • 3rd party Siri integrations. Music is the obvious first step here.
  • Allow for multiple queries to Siri like the other guys allow. Queries like “turn off the lights AND play Rick Astley” should be possible. Same goes for Siri listening for your next command after finishing the current one.
  • Kill the paper texture on Notes.
  • Collaborative playlists on Apple Music. DO IT.
  • Invest in Apple Mail on all platforms. Better priority/VIP notification settings, snoozing emails etc would go a long way to making the default ‘good enough’ for most folks.

Square announces permanent work-from-home policy

From The Verge:

“We want employees to be able to work where they feel most creative and productive,” a company spokesperson told The Verge. “Moving forward, Squares will be able to work from home permanently, even once offices begin to reopen. Over the past several weeks, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes for people to effectively perform roles outside of an office, and we will continue to learn as we go.”

Another one.

More and more tech companies seem to be moving in this direction. Very interested to see what it means for commercial real estate, tech company salaries and the future of Silicon Valley as the “hub” for a lot of these companies.

Casting Google’s Speakers Aside

See what I did there?

As mentioned recently, I have switched over to Apple Music from Spotify. Part of the decision was based on personal preferences around the 2 services, but the reason that I was reluctant to drop Spotify in the first place was the lock-in I had with Google’s Chromecast ecosystem. As it turns out, by looking to invest in nicer speakers I ended up switching services and voice assistants along the way. I thought it’d be worth discussion as to why I decided to move to Sonos from the Chromecast setup we had, and some of the pros and cons I’ve noticed in the past few months.

Google stops playing (and sounding) nice

Something funny happened in the past year or so. Google, long known as the ‘open’ ecosystem, became a bit less so. With continued integration between the Nest and Google lines, it’s becoming less open and more of an ecosystem play with Google’s products. That’s fine, but it’s not why I initially bought Chromecasts, Google (now Nest) Hubs, etc. I was hopeful they’d give me the best shot of buying nearly any smart home product and they’d work.

Combine that with an increasing discomfort with Google’s data collection across more and more areas and mediocre sound quality on the Google Homes (and especially the Nest Hub & Home Minis), and I was interested in checking out a different approach to whole-home audio.

A few months ago I had posted an article about Google slowly locking down their smart assistant ecosystem and how I felt like it was time to explore a change. My home setup was a few Google Home & Minis, 2 Chromecast Audios plugged into existing speaker setups on our deck and patio areas, and a Google Nest Hub in our kitchen. We used Spotify for the most part, but I missed the feeling I used to have when using iTunes / Apple Music in years prior. Specifically, I’ve always been more interested in albums and Spotify is very playlist and “mood” centric. I think there’s a time an place for that but in general I was questioning the value of paying for Spotify despite its strengths compared to Apple Music.

Outside of the Google Home stuff, most of our “smart home” stuff is pretty platform agnostic:

  • 2 Nest thermostats
  • A bunch of Wemo and iHome smart plug
  • MyQ garage door
  • A Roomba
  • A HomePod (obviously the biggest outlier)

I’ve mostly relied on using Homebridge via a Raspberry Pi to stitch everything together so that we can use HomeKit scenes to automate most of our scenes (morning, evening, leaving & arriving home). We don’t really automate a ton, but I like being able to make sure the garage is closed if we’re both not home for a certain period of time, the lights are off if we’re away, or they come on if we are home and it’s almost sunset. Overall, pretty basic stuff – I’ve grown kind of sour on most of the stuff “smart” home devices offer these days so we’ve kept things pretty simple at our new house.

If we were going to ditch the Google Homes, we needed something to replace them with something that provided great sound, integrated with whatever music service we wanted, and worked in multiple rooms. Enter Sonos.

Why did I choose Sonos?

I’d been thinking about getting Sonos speakers for years now, as I wanted to get something that was service and platform agnostic. Sonos nails that – they integrate with all of the major streaming services, podcast services, audiobook vendors and even offer multiple options for voice assistants (Google Assistant and Alexa). Throw in Airplay 2 support and it was a no-brainer to upgrade most of our Google Home devices with Sonos Ones. One of my favorite things about the Sonos ecosystem is that you can control the speakers via their app or most services’ default apps (Apple Music is an exception, no huge surprise there).

There was a catch with our house – we have outdoor speakers that wouldn’t be easy to hook up to a Sonos speaker. To get our deck wired up, we replaced the Chromecast Audios we were using with 2 Airport Express units that I bought off of eBay. They’re AirPlay 2 compatible, so I was able to plug them straight into the amps for the 2 outdoor speakers we have and we had an Airplay 2 optimized home. Instead of spending hundreds for a Sonos amp, I was able to get something “good enough” for around $45.

Comparing AirPlay 2 to Casting

Previously, we had an entire setup that was all Google Cast powered, so we could ask any speaker to play music and it’d start playing Spotify wherever we wanted. With Sonos speakers, we introduced some small trade offs for the additional flexibility and sound quality. Some of the key differences between Airplay 2 and Casting:

  • Casting isn’t tied to your device at all. Airplay 2 still relies on a source to stream to each audio source, so that means if you were to stray too far away from your WiFi while controlling music it’d stop playing eventually. That’s not the case with Sonos, only Airplay 2 based streams.
  • Native iOS integration of Airplay 2 means that management of whole-home audio is much easier than it was from Spotify or the Google Home app (from control center or the Apple Watch now playing screen you can control any speaker that’s playing music)
  • Google Cast allows you to create named groups to send music to, while Airplay 2 uses your house layout to dictate grouping. Invoking an entire floor is pretty easy on both platforms but if I want to only call on a subset of speakers I could name that subset with Cast, where on Airplay I’d need to ask for each room when invoking that subset. Hoping I can eventually use HomePod shortcuts integration to fix this.
  • I use apps to invoke music way more than by voice now. This is actually a good thing because previously I’d typically ask for the same few playlists over and over. It’s similar to how I panic and order the same meal every time at a restaurant when pressed. Now, I find myself queueing up different albums and playlists all the time.

Add a dash of HomePod

Airplay 2 stuff won’t work with the Sonos system so I have to control them with my phone or iPad if I want to play music everywhere, but this really isn’t a big deal. If we ever want to go 100% into the Sonos world, we can always get something like the Sonos Amp, but I can’t really imagine that happening, to be honest. The only time we really need whole-home audio are if we’re having some sort of group gathering and want to play music everywhere. For now, if I want to play anything on our Sonos setup, outdoor speakers and my office don’t fit into the picture. But as previously mentioned, Sonos speakers are all Airplay 2 compatible, so if I want to play a song everywhere I just have to invoke the music from my phone, iPad or Mac.

Or a HomePod.

Another purchase I made about a year ago was a HomePod. They were on sale at Best Buy, so I picked on up, figuring I’d either return it or sell it eventually. The sound is fantastic, filling my office with very rich sound and serving as a HomeKit hub. Obviously, there are limitations to using a HomePod as well – currently it’s very ecosystem-limited. You can Airplay nearly anything to it but as far as native integration goes, it’s Apple Music or the highway. But it’s by far the best sounding speaker I own. It has smarts to auto tune itself for the room that it’s in, and it shows.

For a while, I just used it when I was working from home but once we made the Sonos switch, I started thinking more about moving to Apple Music. Originally, moving to Sonos wasn’t really about moving away from Spotify. That happened after messing around with the possibilities of an AirPlay 2 based whole-home audio setup. With HomePod + AirPlay 2 you can use your phone to control the HomePod and make that the primary audio source, sending music to the other speakers throughout the house. That way, you don’t run into most of the limitations that AirPlay 2 has compared to Chromecast. Since the HomePod is streaming music to all of the other speakers in our house instead of my phone, it’s really the best of both worlds. If Apple ends up allowing Spotify as a native HomePod integration later this year, it’ll be an even more elegant solution.

Google Assistant to Alexa

My original goals were to replace the Google Homes with better sounding speakers but leave nearly everything else in tact. However, one that original choice was set into motion I found myself making other tweaks as I went – integration with the HomePod, focusing more on Airplay 2, and then switching the default assistant on the Sonos speakers to use Alexa.

The reason is simply the cascading effects of moving to Apple Music. Alexa works with Apple, while Google does not. It’s still too early to have a ton of observations about Alexa vs Google Assistant but I will say that the UX of the Alexa app is light years better than the nested options hellscape Google has put out.

Conclusion

I’ve definitely added a little bit of short term complexity to how we were playing music in our house by making this switch. I know my wife has had a few instances where she throws her hands up with my constant experimentation with this sort of stuff. However, the trade offs have been worth it so far for me:

Pros

  • Way better sounding speakers overall.
  • More choices & service integration.
  • I’ve been really happy with Apple Music as a Spotify convert.
  • More music variety as a result of me invoking music via apps instead of voice.
  • Moving to Alexa puts my tech eggs in more baskets, and reduces my dependence on Google.

Cons

  • The previous setup was more streamlined compared to what we have right now. We could invoke music to any speaker via voice and it just worked.

I’ll be interested to see what Apple has in store for the HomePod as opening it up will further improve the flexibility of what we can play across the entire home. If Apple ends up releasing a mini version or one with a screen (my dream product), then we’d really be cooking.

Dang, The iPad Pro Magic Keyboard Looks Cool in X-Rays

From iFixit:

New trackpad designs, double-loaded hinges, quirky wiring and magnet arrangements—an X-ray peek inside the Smart Keyboard is a trip into some serious engineering.

Looks like a full-fledged laptop X-ray. The $300 (or $350!) price tag is definitely steep for the Magic Keyboard but it does appear to be an engineering marvel. What’s interesting to me is the lack of innovation by 3rd parties when it comes to the smart connectors. Wonder if Brydge or others can give consumers more choice at different price points.

Rebuilding our tech stack for the new Facebook.com

From Facebook Engineering Blog:

When we thought about how we would build a new web app — one designed for today’s browsers, with the features people expect from Facebook — we realized that our existing tech stack wasn’t able to support the app-like feel and performance we needed. A complete rewrite is extremely rare, but in this case, since so much has changed on the web over the course of the past decade, we knew it was the only way we’d be able to achieve our goals for performance and sustainable future growth. Today, we’re sharing the lessons we’ve learned while rearchitecting Facebook.com, using React (a declarative JavaScript library for building user interfaces) and Relay (a GraphQL client for React).

Tons of great nuggets in here, and a lot that I can relate to in what’s we’ve been up to at my job.

Facebook reduced their CSS by 80%, added code splitting and added code budgets to help deliver what’s needed only when it’s needed. They also moved to GraphQL to modernize their data fetching.

It’s a shame Facebook makes products that are so terrible for society, because they really do build world-class software.

The Senate just voted to let the government keep surveilling your online life without a warrant

From Recode:

the Senate voted on Wednesday not to protect Americans’ internet browsing and search history data from secret and warrantless surveillance by law enforcement. The measure needed 60 votes to pass. It got 59.

I barely recognize this country anymore.

It’s also worth noting, this is yet another reason to use DuckDuckGo as your search engine (they don’t save your searches or track you), and reconsider using browser history sync. A VPN will also help if you’re worried about your ISP selling or otherwise turning your data over.