What stands out the most about Apple’s yearly release cycle for iOS (and now, it seems, OS X as well), is the manner in which it removes the holiness of the OS upgrade. A decade ago, upgrading to a new operating system was a big deal. Outside of simply a monetary investment, that OS was the product of several years of work. It was a company saying that this is your new playground and toolbox for years to come. On a yearly upgrade cycle, there’s little to break and little to change. That’s something evident in each iteration of iOS. Certainly there are tweaks evident across the system, but aside from several, often not so exciting, headline features, these releases don’t bring much change. Additions like iOS 5’s Notification Center are more than welcome, but as a development, it’s nothing more than an improvement to a basic interaction. iOS 6 then, perhaps more than any iteration that proceeded it, is a drab release in a broader sense.
It’s important to note, however, that this doesn’t, and almost cannot, mean that it’s a bad release. Microsoft hurt itself in a major way with a release like Vista. It took years to come out and was no improvement over its predecessor, to say the least. iOS 6, though touting no great amount of polish, is simply this year’s iOS. Next year it’ll be somewhere else. iOS 6’s improvements are minor. We finally see Facebook integration. It’s been something that was tangibly missing, and Apple has finally adopted the type of integration that Windows Phone saw from its debut. Unfortunately, for those of us who aren’t Facebook friends with only the several dozen people who we actually care about - that is, none of us - our calendar and address book will be filled with birthdays and emails and addresses that we couldn’t care less about. Facebook can be hidden from Contacts, but Notification Center is filled with acquaintances’ birthdays. Windows Phone has a similar implementation, but it’s still unfortunate that we’re given an all or nothing option. It only makes sense to automatically populate our contacts with their most recent images, but we don’t necessarily need contacts without actual phone numbers.
The most notable change here is Maps. Apple and Google are in something of a tiff, and Apple has replaced the five year old Google Maps app with one of their own making. There has been something of an uproar about its quality. Looking across the areas that I’m familiar with (highly populated US cities), Apple’s maps do a fine enough job. They don’t always emphasize items in the way that Google Maps does, highlighting major markers that you didn’t realize that you were looking for. Stylistically, it adopts a charming enough paper cut-out look. Yelp data is scattered across the map as you zoom in, and slick pages appear when you tap on them. Perhaps the finest feature here, one unmentioned by Apple, is that their Maps app seems to save data for often used locations. This means that even without service you’ll be able to see your immediate area in detail, Yelp information included. This is very useful - talk to anyone trying to figure out how to navigate a subway - although it can’t quite make up for the fact that Apple’s maps are unnecessary. It’s a bold move in a battle between two companies and not a move aimed at improving our experience. The maps are good enough, but they’re not better.
Maps comes with two headline features itself. The first is a slick 3D mode, which is gorgeous to look at, like a real life Sim City, but is unfortunately only available in major cities. The more important one is turn by turn navigation. It has a great, clean interface, and works better than any stand alone GPS that I’ve used. For those with cars, this is a fantastic and important addition. For everyone else, it’s something that will go unused, and their attention will instead go to Apple Maps’s lack of public transit information. This is a major issue. While Google’s information wasn’t always spot on, it was important information that certainly many users took advantage of. Apple now kicks you to the App Store to look for area specific apps. Though certainly these apps are more thorough than any one-size-fits-all implementation, such apps simply don’t exist for every city. Pittsburgh, which has a fairly thorough public transit system, has no app for its public transit. This means constant Googling for the 54C’s PDF schedule, and that thing is a pain to read.
Otherwise, minor, albeit useful, tweaks are all we’re given. Siri has some powerful new functionality relating to sports and movies, in addition to now being able to tackle some previously missing basic tasks. Safari gets tab syncing with its desktop counterpart - something Google beat Apple to on its own turf. Their Chrome for iOS has been doing that since its debut early this summer. It’s worth noting that FaceTime calls are now allowed over cellular. Apple has also introduced Passbook, a clever way of slowly moving our wallet to our phone. Unfortunately, it seems that Passbook requires brand specific apps to be installed and to support the feature. As of this writing, there’s no more than a dozen. It’s likely this will be adopted quickly - some major names are already on there - but its an unfortunately slow debut.
This all makes iOS 6 out to sound rather dull. It’s features are nice, they simply aren’t often impressive or worth getting excited about, at least not outside of turn-by-turn navigation. What is important, however, is that iOS 6 in many ways feels faster than iOS 5. Perhaps it’s simply an adjustment of animations, but screens seem to switch quicker and simply feel snappier. There are small UI adjustments throughout, and though they hint no more legitimately of a change than Quicktime’s black stylings do, they’re certainly improvements. The Music app is styled unlike anything else in iOS. It’s a slick look that’s less playful and more digital, although comfortably so. Touches like the status bar sometimes adopting the color of the app beneath it bring a bit more vibrance to the increasingly safe look of iOS.
It would hardly matter if iOS 6 was bad, unless it reached buggy. It simply isn’t exciting. Apple’s new Maps app may be a major misstep for some users, but it’s easy to suspect that it will be something that most users will overlook. For those who aren’t in patchy areas, they’ll hardly notice. Otherwise, iOS 6 is another slow build toward something larger. There are bigger plans for pieces like Siri and Passbook, they simply aren’t where Apple’s focus was this year. Perhaps it was a mistake to dedicate this time to maps, but it won’t make a difference. iOS 6 is as good as any other iteration of iOS, which is to say, it’s the tightest mobile operating system, and it will continue to be so. For those of us closely following its paces, it’s not the shiniest of releases, but it’s little touches show a constant fine tuning. Each release is hardly a new operating system. They’re all updates to one slowly, steadily growing OS.
It might not hit that Christmas like feeling of a new product release, but a new OS launch could be the tech Thanksgiving, when we look to appreciate our current devices all over again. Mountain Lion, Apple’s latest version of OS X, went live in the App Store yesterday morning, selling for just under twenty dollars, the lowest yet of the increasingly lower prices Apple slaps on its OS X updates (how long until it’s free like with iOS?). It may well be that Apple doesn’t do big OS releases any longer - it’s an interesting and smart strategy, almost akin to the accelerated development that quickly allowed Chrome to dominate in the browser market. Lion was a big release - it began in a very major way the inevitable merging of OS X and iOS. Mountain Lion, as its name suggests, isn’t starkly different from its predecessor. It is, however, the smartest next step that Apple could make. Mountain Lion is hardly a change in the operating system paradigm, instead, it seeks to remedy the lack of feature parity between Apple’s desktop and mobile platforms and move us ever closer to a persistent user experience.
Looking at Mountain Lion, it’s almost hard to tell what’s new. In many ways, it’s more of an app pack than an OS update. We get Notes, Reminders, and Game Center. There’s another piece to be written on the strategy behind Game Center and bringing it cross platform, but otherwise these are no more than desktop versions of Apple’s simple stock iOS applications. They’re necessary components in a world with an iCloud backbone, but it’s hard to get excited about a notepad application, let alone one filled with skeuomorphisms (seriously Apple, can we have a word about Game Center?). Reminders in particular is going to add some serious productivity to its users’ workflow, but otherwise there isn’t much to see here.
The most notable crossover is Notification Center. For longtime Growl users, not much is going to change. You’ll close Growl (a third party notification app with significant developer support), and you’ll get a more effective solution. For everyone else, notifications have been long missing. It’s easy to forget that notifications, up until yesterday, haven’t been baked into OS X. They’re remarkably similar to iOS’s implementation, even down to the charcoal linen background. It’s a smart implementation, even discretely throwing in a quick access button for composing tweets (and come this fall, Facebook posts). Though Notification Center can be accessed by clicking on the menu bar icon, the gesture definitely isn’t the easiest for a casual user. That said, it’s pretty brilliant. Working off of Notification Center as this omnipresent box just off of the screen’s edge, the gesture requires you swiping left from off of the trackpad’s right edge and onto the trackpad itself. It’s super slick, and it really speaks to Apple’s interest in creating a more natural interaction between users and their devices. Seriously, I’ve tried to trick this thing, and it just isn’t having it. The swipe begins off of the trackpad’s edge, and it makes complete sense.
Apple’s next iteration of Safari, and their iChat and iMessage amalgam, Messages, are two fine additions to Mountain Lion, but they don’t quite sell themselves. Safari touts a lot of strengths over Chrome, particularly its heavily Mac specific features like tap to zoom, but it isn’t as elegant of an experience. Safari feels heavier, and it’s unfortunate that tab switching doesn’t have an associated gesture. It implements eye catching features like Reader really well, but Chrome implements things like being a responsive browser. It’s great to see tab syncing between OS X and iOS finally happening, but Chrome has already beat Apple there too. Somehow, even though Chrome for iOS is forced to run slower than Safari, the app itself still operates more quickly. As far as Messages goes, it’s a nice evolution of the increasingly unnecessary iChat. While replying to iMessages on the desktop is a fantastic idea, it’s unfortunate that the app itself needs to be kept running at all times to make this happen. Not that it’s a hassle to leave an app open, but the opportunity it affords you isn’t worth the resulting loss in computing zen.
There is certainly a rounding of Lion’s edges here. It’s not hugely noticeable - there’s small changes in the momentum of scrolls and screen switches, there are new places you can zoom. Things like the three finger tap to define a word are significantly more responsive and smooth. There’s a search box in Launchpad that smartly reacts to immediate typing without the need to select the search field. It’s super quick, and it functions as a heavily visual Spotlight search specific to apps. There are also share buttons all over the place here, and though that isn’t the finest functionality, it’s the inkling of a move toward a more social operating system. Features like Power Nap are brilliant but subtle from a user’s perspective. While asleep, Macs running Mountain Lion can download and install updates, backup to a Time Machine drive, and sync files across iCloud. After running my Macbook Air’s massive battery down to almost nothing, I found it exactly where I’d left it several hours later, and a notification alerted me that an update had been downloaded.
As the first of hint of Siri one day being on our desktop, we’ve got Apple’s dictation built in to Mountain Lion. It works well enough, but the built in microphone isn’t as good as what the iPhone has, and this leads to a lot more errors. It’s still pretty good, but not quite what you’d get on the 4S, where I find maybe one minor error per transcription. Another small, but deeply significant change is Mountain Lion’s new policy of not allowing ‘random’ apps to be installed by default. This means an app, if not vetted through the App Store, must at least be signed by a recognized developer. If something goes awry, Apple can send out a message for the app to be pulled from users’ computers. It’s a really smart and simple implementation. It’s invisible to the user and causes little stress to a developer - it’s a free registration, and it gives credibility to the app. That said, I’ve already had to turn the feature off so that I could update Dropbox, which clearly is yet to sign up. It’s likely that adoption will quickly increase among developers as Mountain Lion gains a user base.
Finally, there’s much to be said of the iCloud integration within Mountain Lion. It runs deep. When Apple made iOS they decided to do away with the notion of a file system. In a lot of ways it’s an antiquated idea - like the desktop, it’s a metaphor that we cling to to ease us in to computing. iCloud is slowly replacing the filesystem as our computer’s backbone. Rather than a file being in an arbitrary array of folders, files are associate with a specific application. Why wouldn’t a Pages document save within Pages? That’s exactly where you need it to be. Of course, this leads to a number of issues. We’re used to easily moving files between applications and systems, and obscuring the actual file adds additional steps to the process. On something like iOS it’s even more difficult - you need to install something like Dropbox to give yourself a pseudo file system. This new paradigm clearly isn’t fully baked yet, though it’s clear it one day will be. Apple’s moving toward it, and they’re doing it quickly. For now, there’s bound to be confusion over iCloud storage limits and default save locations. Most apps seem to default to saving to iCloud. This means that we have it locally, and we can maybe access it via iCloud, and definitely access it via another Apple device with the same app installed. It’s a bizarre middle man right now rather than a true backbone, and it’s disconcerting to see that bar push nearer to our five gigabyte limit. If it’s such a natural part of our interaction with OS X (it is the default, after all), what are we expected to do then?
At twenty dollars, Mountain Lion is more of a ‘why not’ purchase than anything else. If you’re coming from an OS prior to Lion, then Mountain Lion is a steal. These past two versions are a distinctly different era of OS X, and they’re the finest and most polished interactions with an OS that I’ve ever had. Mountain Lion is by no means a must have, but it’s an easy enough sell at its price point. Power Nap is downright cool, and Notification Center is life changing, at least for those who haven’t been using for Growl for years. This is a necessary release for OS X, not a major one, and it definitely speaks toward Apple’s reducing price points. iOS has always been iterative, and it looks like OS X is moving in this direction too. Perhaps charging for an OS update is an old paradigm - perhaps an OS update being a major deal is old too. Mountain Lion is better than Lion, that’s for certain. Though it can’t stand close to what Lion did for OS X, that doesn’t make it any less fine of a release.
As usual, when Apple puts on a keynote, they deliver something exciting in a way no other company right now can really match. They showed off a number of products last Monday, perhaps the most notable being a MacBook Pro with a high resolution display. It’s a bit pricy now, but the reviews have been rolling in, and it’s a powerful machine. Of course, this technology will be more exciting as it proliferates throughout the extent of their notebook line (and competitors as well). Aside from this, Apple showed off the next version of their mobile operating system, iOS 6. There’s some great tweaks and features in there including turn by turn navigation, expanded abilities for Siri, and finally some Facebook support. Apple also announced a new app called Passbook, and though it may only seem to be a minor feature, this could be the trojan horse of something much much larger.
On the surface, Passbook is a simple, if not elegant collection of your gift cards and tickets. Plenty of apps have worked on this already, though none with such a fine UI (Passbook may be a bit skeuomorphic, but it doesn’t rely on standard fare UI elements, which is a notable departure for an Apple app that may foreshadow what’s to come - but this is another discussion). Passbook will likely have traction for several reasons. It solves a real problem of simplifying one’s wallet. Equally importantly, it’s on everyone’s phone, which means that companies will jump to support it. Finer yet, it can work in the background in a way other apps can’t. This means that when you walk by your favorite coffee shop, their icon will pop up reminding you that you have money left on your gift card. What company wouldn’t want their logo showing up when you’re in their vicinity?
This seems simple then. It holds your gift cards, your tickets for movies, planes, and events. But it’s likely that this is only the tip of what Passbook can become. There’s a major, largely fruitless battle occurring right now over the mobile wallet. Google has Google Wallet, and AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon have partnered to create Isis. These all revolve around special chips in your phone, and of course, support by wherever it is you’d like to pay. Neither of these solutions have seen much success. There’s a lot of friction here. You’re giving users a solution to something they haven’t looked for. They don’t want to pay with their cell phone because it’s no more convenient for them. They have to set up their cell phone and then find a place that it actually works.
Apple is yet to touch the mobile payment space, but it’d be surprising for that to go on indefinitely. Instead, Passbook could one day evolve into something of the sort. It’s a natural way to acclimate users with taking their phone out at the register. Add in a loyalty system and the phone will come out every time. Combine this with over 200 million iTunes accounts with credit cards on file, and suddenly there’s no friction in getting the phone out to pay.
It may be a long way from it, but Passbook might just be Apple’s tentative steps into the mobile wallet space. They’re starting with what you’ve already purchased, and this is the smartest place to begin. There’s no reason for a consumer not to use Passbook, it only makes life easier. From there, the potential for expansion is increasingly clear, especially with the background location checks (on another note, if Apple can do background location like this, then what of an eventual API for apps like Highlight?). It’ll be interesting to watch how this evolves. If they truly intend to beat out these companies individual apps, features like loyalty points and buying credits or whatnot will be necessary. Features like these can only make Passbook evolve into a much more serious app than what it’s showing with these playful beginnings.
Some news and rumors out of Google last week. First, Google released a promo video for Project Glass, their (previously top secret) augmented reality glasses. The video shows map overlays, location based alerts, and deep Google+ integration. Everyone seems to be using Google+, so it’s clear that this is a vision of the future. Really, being a ‘vision’ seems to be the problem here. Anyone can throw together a prototype video or a mockup for a groundbreaking product . What matters is if these glasses will actually function as well as Google’s vision of them suggests.
It’s hard to tell if this is a technology that may become ubiquitous. It’s a scary notion that we may one day have Google+ alerts in the corner of our eye at every moment of the day. Is this something we want? Won’t a phone alert be good enough? I previously chided Google for continually racing to catch up rather than looking toward the future. It’s good to see that they can still be forward thinkers, but we’re still a long way away from determining if their view is brilliant or crazy. Reportedly, Robert Scoble caught Sergey Brin wearing the glasses in public but wasn’t allowed a look. The Verge reports Brin saying, “right now you really just see it reboot.” It’s not that much of a surprise. Hopefully a year from now Google has something exciting to show for themselves - something remotely near to their video.
Also out last week were further rumors of a Google branded tablet. There have been rumors for a while now, even suggesting it might launch soon, but The Verge reports that it’s been pushed to July for cost cutting efforts. Google’s tablet is rumored to be the same seven inch form factor as the Kindle Fire, and it’s clear that the Fire is what Google is looking to compete with. Amazon has essentially commandeered Android for themselves. The Fire entirely hides its Android roots, and its OS is fully branded as Amazon. It isn’t the finest tablet in the world, but at $200, it’s selling wildly and has a massive hold on the Android tablet market.
Eric Schmidt is quoted as saying that Google plans to release “a tablet of the highest quality,” within this time frame. But with Google looking to keep the price low enough to compete with the Fire, this is going to be quite a feat. At $200 you can only get so much performance. No one is looking for this machine to be a powerhouse, but making the tablet run smoothly would be a nice feature. It’s possible that Google will end up heavily subsidizing these tablets (that is, taking a nice big loss), so that they can make an impact in their favor. Right now, they really need it.
Without doubt, Google would like to go after the iPad, but again, at $200 you’re dealing with an entirely different class of product. For a while now there have been rumors that Apple is looking into making a seven(ish) inch iPad. John Gruber of Daring Fireball has stated that he knows of prototypes of the machine inside of Apple. This certainly doesn’t mean that it will come to market, and it’s likely that it wouldn’t make it for as low as $200. It might cannibalize sales of Apple’s higher end iPad, but it’s clear that Apple doesn’t mind doing this if it means taking the market from their competition as well. Unless Google’s tablet truly is “of the highest quality”, a cheaper iPad would likely hurt Google’s efforts.
Admittedly, these impressions are secondhand, but I’m very interested in what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8. The metro interface is brilliant, and it looks great. It’s surprisingly elegant, a mix of modern design and usability. The tiles inform the user, and they make the interface a joy to look at.
For a while now it’s been apparent that Microsoft needed to make significant changes to Windows if they wanted to stop the growing exodus toward OS X. Perhaps it’s unnecessary. Microsoft is still dominant in the space, particularly enterprise, which seems to be their main interest profit wise. Realistically, they could do little for another decade (a lot like the last decade), and at the end, they would probably still have plenty in the bank. Of course, with Apple making absurd profits, oil company style profits, perhaps there is a growing pressure from shareholders to do better. Apple seems to have a culture that fosters great products - they won’t release something less-than. This has always seemed to be conspicuously absent from Microsoft. Lately though, what they’ve done with the 360 shows a strong step forward (and did anyone else really want a Courier? That was the first sign of things changing at Microsoft. That said, canceling it was a sign that things haven’t changed enough).
The release of Windows Phone 7 was the next major step ahead. It was late to the game, but Microsoft made a bold step into that game - it was the only way they could make an impact. They haven’t, yet, but I suspect that it’s coming. It looks like a great OS. Largely, it seems the ecosystem is the issue. Still, it looks much stronger than Android, which is the most they can hope for, for now. Design wise, it seems to dominate iOS. iOS has become boring. It’s functional and looks nice, but it lacks the color and information of Windows Phone. In day to day use I suppose I don’t mind this. iOS works so darn well that, who can care? But on the iPad particularly, the small square icons start to look silly. There’s a massive amount of empty space. I suppose this is simply the “desktop” - even less than that. It’s only meant as a means to begin your experience. But it should still be more interesting that a grid of buttons.
Windows 8 seems to have been developed with a focus on tablets. It looks perfect on one - like it would be fun to use. But having looked through videos, there are a number of nagging concerns. On a smaller, polish level, Windows 8 lacks the fluidity of OS X or iOS. When dealing with a touch interface, this is a massive issue. This is still a preview build, so things may change, but if Microsoft is trying to make an impression, now is the time to do it. The gestures on Apple devices result in graphical representations that seems to closely mimic what your hand is doing. It makes the UX feel natural. All of the gestures I’ve seen on Windows 8 seem just a bit off. They seem to lag behind and awkwardly pop in once the hardware has recognized it. On iOS, I feel like I’m dragging something around. In Windows 8, it seems more like a gesture that results in an action - and this isn’t right. It makes the UX clunky. Just about everything seems a step off from natural. Hopefully this will change in the coming months.
But the main issue with Windows 8 is the desktop. On one hand, Microsoft is ahead of Apple. Apple is slowly working toward a converged ecosystem, a sort of “iOS X”. Microsoft will have beaten them to the punch. One OS for desktops, tablets and phones (although, I suppose phone is currently separate, though I would suspect it isn’t far behind. Regardless, there is a visual unity here). The issue however is that while Windows 8 makes for a brilliant touch interface, this hardly translates to the desktop. You scroll up and down to make Start move left and right. There is no natural way, as with a touch gesture, to switch between applications or to return to Start. It’s an awkward interface for a mouse and keyboard, and the issue of touch interfaces on a laptop has yet to be solved (that being, stopping the user’s arm from going numb).
I applaud Microsoft for effectively ditching the desktop. Its a massive step forward from a tired metaphor and interface. I rarely use the desktop on OS X any more, and I prefer not to. But Microsoft isn’t fully sticking to it, and this will hurt them. The desktop is still there, and there is no reason for this. Not only that, but it’s still in their old Aero style. At least make it Metro, make it fit in. But instead, Microsoft is just throwing more and more onto their old OS. In the end, I have to wonder how Windows 8 will handle. It’s true, OS X hardly has errors or crashes or slowdowns. Is Windows 8’s Metro ‘area’ truly separate? Will it handle as well as OS X? It’s issues like these - having to wait to open programs, frequent crashes, malware vulnerability - that have been killing Microsoft for the past decade as OS X has started to thrive. I have to wonder if the desktop has remained for the comfort of enterprise users. Making people learn a new interface is going to be a hard sell in the enterprise world, so perhaps this is why Microsoft is leaving it be. On the other hand, I suspect this could make adoption stall. Why upgrade if what’s new has to be taught, and what you have works well enough.
In the end, I wish Microsoft had been brave enough to entirely ditch the desktop. On the other hand, they need to rethink Metro for desktop computers. It’s as simple as changing the scroll direction and making a persistent navigation bar. Or, make gestures akin to what Apple uses on it’s laptop trackpads - which really seems to be the optimal solution. Instead, what Microsoft seems to be releasing with Windows 8 is a pastiche of their own work, and a sloppy one at that. The Metro interface is exciting, and for once I’m rooting for Microsoft to succeed - it’s a great idea. Hopefully they can fix these things before launch. And hopefully, it isn’t just another layer on an already clunky OS.