A Scourge of Starlings …

https://player.vimeo.com/video/62074237

… or a ‘murmuration,’ ‘constellation,’ ‘filth,’ ‘vulgarity,’ ‘chattering,’ ‘cloud,’ ‘congregation,’ ‘constellation,’ or ‘clutter’ (I’m not making these up). Whatever you choose to call a flock of starlings, these birds are impressive flockers.

The above video was the scene across the street from our house a few days ago. By starling standards, this was a very modest ‘filth.’ Probably only a thousand or so birds were perched on the trees above our neighbor’s house. The impressive part of it was the deafening noise they made on an otherwise quiet morning.

While starlings may be a scourge to many a birder, they are certainly interesting. Not only are they peculiarly loud, they often swarm together in vast numbers, demonstrating principles of emergent behavior on a grand scale. If you haven’t seen the following videos, you have to watch:

https://player.vimeo.com/video/9606636

Starlings in North America have an interesting backstory. Here’s the story, sourced from iBird Pro: one hundred of these non-native birds were released in Central Park in 1890 by an industrialist intent on establishing a U.S. home for all birds mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Now there are 200 million starlings roaming the countryside.

Speaking of. If you enjoy birding and use an iDevice, you owe it to yourself to get iBird Pro. Or Peterson Birds of North America. Or Audubon Birds. I have all three, acquired at different points when they were on sale. They’re all good, each with different strengths. iBird Pro is the most popular and offers a lot of depth, but the UI tends toward the cluttered and confusing; in contrast, Peterson Birds offers a fantastic UI for quickly identifying birds and has outstanding illustrations; Audubon Birds is somewhere in between in terms of UI, but stands out from the pack with a really cool service called eBird, which is an easy way to ‘log’ bird sightings and to see what species have been spotted by citizen birders near your present location. I hesitate to name one of these apps as the ‘best.’ If you enjoy birding, my advice is to wait for app sales and get all of them (I picked up two of these apps for .99 cents).

in iOS | 378 Words

Future of Podcasts

Mike Elgan wrote an interesting piece on Cult of Mac recently that lays out a possible path forward for Apple with regards to the humble podcast. If you haven’t heard, it appears that Apple will break podcasts out into a separate app with the release of iOS 6. This will help to lighten up the iTunes app, which is arguably a bit crowded and unwieldy. That’s a good thing, but what will become of the podcast?  It could go the way of iTunesU, which was stripped out of the iTunes app not too long ago and is now offered as an optional download. That’s what we could call the ‘demotion to obscurity’ path. As Elgan points out, this made sense for iTunesU because the user base for lectures is narrow. For podcasts, however, such a move might signal that Apple doesn’t really care about the podcast medium, choosing instead to focus only on content that makes them money. It might, in short, spell the beginning of the end for the podcast. In less dire terms, it certainly wouldn’t help podcast listenership to grow beyond a relatively small but enthusiastic group of people.

An alternative path might feature a new iOS 6 podcast app that is installed by default with iOS 6, forming the centerpiece of a new content strategy for Apple that combines free podcasts with paid audio. This is Elgan’s speculation, and I think he’s on to something. He essentially says that such a strategy could herald a new dawn for podcasts, in which Apple sets the stage to compete with Audible (by wrapping in Apple audiobooks with the podcast app and cutting ties with Amazon’s competing Audible service); integrate podcasts and other audio content with car stereos employing Siri control (because that’s where a lot of people listen to audio); and adopt the name ‘iPodcasts’ or ‘iPodcast’ to brand the new app (which, Elgan surmises, might give Apple more footing to go after companies profiting by using the word ‘pod’ in their products and services). 

As it now stands, podcast enthusiasts (like me) mostly feel that Apple thinks little of podcasts. In iTunes terms, the podcast is one step up from the ‘Radio’ category. When was the last time you used that feature? It’s a shame, because podcasts serve up consistently great and varied content. I currently subscribe to 41 podcasts. For years, I relied on iTunes for podcast content. And, for years, I’ve cursed at how poorly iTunes manages podcasts and fails at helping people discover great shows.

Recently, I switched from iTunes to so-called ‘podcatcher’ apps. I purchased iCatcher! and Downcast and tried each out for several weeks. I would recommend them both, really. They are solid apps. Having said that, I’m currently using Downcast as my podcatcher of choice because it’s a bit more polished and syncs faster across devices via iCloud. What do podcatcher apps offer over iTunes? Well, syncing across devices for starters. I can stop listening to a podcast on my iPhone and pick up where I left off on my iPad. I can download podcasts (of any size) over 3G. I can manage my podcasts by playlist. I enjoy automatic, untethered podcast updating over WiFi. I could go on. Suffice it to say that Apple’s podcast offerings pale in comparison.

If Apple does stake a claim on ‘iPodcast’ and rolls out a new app this Fall that consolidates both free podcast and paid spoken word content, it would surely be a good thing for the future of the podcast. Of course, it could also mean that apps like Downcast and iCatcher will soon be Sherlocked. And it could also mean that fewer and fewer podcasts would be free in the future, as this might give podcast producers an easy way to charge for episodes without creating stand-alone apps. Who knows. What I do sense is that, as a consumer and producer of podcasts and big fan of spoken word content, this medium is undervalued and underappreciated. 

On Apple

A few loosely-formed notes related to Apple’s latest announcements:
  • The Retina Macbook Pro is lovely. I’m not planning on purchasing it, though. If I were going to get it, I’d spring for expensive upgrades (16 GB of RAM, largest hard drive), as I’ve read that there is apparently no way to upgrade this machine. I also have a more existential concern: if were to buy a Retina laptop, would I still be able to tolerate my crappy external monitor? 
  • The $20 upgrade fee to install Mountain Lion on all your Macs is a good deal. 
  • I’m lamenting the unmistakable signs that the desktop hierarchical file system is going the way of the floppy drive. App libraries are in, in which each app houses its own files and data, iOS style.  I suspect that, within the next iteration or two of OS X, the file system will join Console, Terminal, and Activity Monitor in the utility bin. And as with most Mac utilities, it probably won’t be used by many. Still, as long as access to the file system remains, I’ll be OK. 
  • Here’s one thing that worries me about app libraries. A lot of people organize files on the Mac by topic, not by app. For example, I have documents (created with many different apps) that are related to my house that I’ve tagged and filed away in one place. How will a walled-in app library solution allow me to organize documents across apps? Maybe a tagging solution will be offered. And what of plain text files, which may be opened and manipulated by scores of iOS and desktop apps? That’s the beauty of the flexibility of Dropbox text file storage. It’s so very flexible.
  • Speaking of files, I love my PathFinder. And EagleFiler. And Launchbar. With every OS X release, my insecurity grows about the future of these and many other desktop apps. Imagine how the developers feel.
  • Every time I see more iOS features come to the desktop, I can’t help but think, ‘Winter is coming!’
  • Apple demos of new OS features are consistently drool-worthy and slick, but they need to help us users more in terms of follow-through. My point is that Apple could do a much better job in documenting how to use their apps and operating systems. Updates come fast and furious, but new features and usage scenarios are poorly documented.
  • I’m surprised that Apple has yet to offer a better password solution for logging in to web-based accounts across devices. Stated another way, I’m surprised that Apple hasn’t yet Sherlocked 1Password. Couldn’t you see Apple offering a password solution that syncs across your Mac(s) and devices via iCloud, but only works with Safari to encourage browser lock-in. Speaking of, does anyone know of a site that lists all third party apps that have been Sherlocked over the years?
  • Passbook looks promising. I hope it expands to include supermarkets, chain stores, and gas station membership bar codes. It’s the 21st century. Why do I still need a Petco plastic dongle on my car keychain?
  • What of Dragon Dictate? Curious that I received a newsletter from Nuance for the first time in a long while on the day of the WWDC keynote offering a special discount to buy Dictate for Father’s Day. And I received another similar email today. So I’m wondering if the new OS X dictation feature will obviate the need for Dragon Dictate … or if this product will differentiate itself by offering a more robust voice-recognition package for Mac. I should note that I’m a happy Dragon Dictate user.
  • Facebook integration thoughts: blah. I’m not a fan.
  • Siri’s new ability to open an app by name isn’t enough. What if I don’t remember the name of the app? This is a good step forward, but we need more and better ways to navigate our hundreds of iOS apps. By keyword, for example. Wouldn’t it be nice to ask Siri to serve up all weather-related or board game apps?
  • The Mac Pro update was weak. Did you see that the Mac Pro had a little ‘new’ tag on it in the Apple Store on the day of the keynote? The next day, that notation disappeared … no doubt because of the deluge of feedback from outraged power users who were expecting a real update. That won’t come, apparently, until next year.
  • iTunes remains a bloated mess. 
  • When on Earth is the iWorks desktop suite going to be refreshed?
  • iOS, iTunes, iLife, iEverything. Am I the only one who is sick of the ‘i’ thing?  

iPhone Doesn’t Have a Mute Switch

It has a ‘Ring/Silent’ switch. If you’re not familiar with last week’s mute switch controversy, start with this post from John Gruber. Then read Andy Ihnatko’s post. Finally, read Dan Benjamin’s take.

I agree that you can’t design around every edge case, and it’s logical to assume that most people want alarms to make noise so important events are not missed (e.g., waking up in the morning). I am such a user. I typically leave silent mode engaged, but I rely on my phone to wake me up for work. That said, I’m sure that many users will naturally assume that the ‘mute’ button on the iPhone mutes. Everything. That’s a logical assumption.

How can we satisfy the need to make our iPhones emit noise in some situations and to remain silent in others? Some have suggested introducing software controls so users can choose on a per-event basis. Others have envisioned an intelligent rules-based system based on GPS location (e.g. remain silent when at the coordinates of the Lincoln Center Plaza). I think both solutions are overly complicated.

Here’s a simpler idea that would catch most user edge cases: leave the ‘silent mode’ functionality as is. When the phone is set to mute, the phone is silent except for events (alarms) that the user has explicitly set. Add, by default, one minute of vibration prior to sounding manually-set alarms when silent mode is engaged.

In most cases, users in concert halls and staff meetings will be physically alerted by their vibrating phone. They’ll have time to pull the phone out and cancel the event before an audible alarm sounds. Sure, some users won’t hear or feel the vibrating phone because it’s buried in a jacket pocket hung behind a seat or stuffed in a purse. But most people will. They’ll have time to react.

in iOS | 307 Words

Spotified

Spotify launched in the U.S., I signed up for a Premium account for $10 per month. Now that I’m nearing the two-month membership mark,  I’m familiar enough with the service to share some thoughts.  I should start by noting that I’m not the type of person who regularly signs up for paid services. I don’t even subscribe to a cable TV package.

So why do I think Spotify Premium is worth the price of admission?

First and foremost, access to millions upon millions of tracks. While my musical tastes tend toward the eclectic and obscure, I’ve been able to find most of what I was looking for.  Second, the Premium service allows me to stream all the content I can reasonably consume, without ads, on my Mac or on my iPhone. Third, Premium serves up higher-quality audio. Fourth, I can cache songs for offline listening,  useful for my daily train commute through farm country with spotty 3G service. And, finally, I can listen to most of my iTunes music on-the-go (provided I have a connection), as Spotify reads what I own and matches what it can with copies in the cloud.

Spotify is a different sort of service from that of Pandora or Last.fm. It’s better suited for people who know what they want, or at least are willing to take the time to explore. While there is an ‘Artist Radio’ function to stream similar artists, it’s not a well-promoted feature.  To be honest, I didn’t even notice this feature for the first month and have never had the urge to use it. Instead, I tend to seek out a specific artist, then choose from a list of Spotify-suggested related artists. This often leads to uncharted territory and new artist discoveries. I like it because I feel that I am in direct control of the discovery process.  

Unfortunately, all  that I just described in the previous paragraph is available only on the desktop. The iPhone app is geared towards playing tracks already lined up in a playlist, with the exception of seeking out a specific artist, album, or track. In other words, I can search the Spotify database from the iPhone, but I have to know what I’m looking for. There is no ‘Artist Radio’ streaming option and no ‘Related Artists’ category on the mobile app. That’s a shame.

As I mentioned earlier, Spotify allows syncing of tracks from iTunes. The promise is that this will mostly alleviate the need to fire up the other music platform. I’ve found this to be largely true. While the service only syncs non-DRM protected music from an iTunes library, that’s not that big of a deal. I can always search out those missing files from Spotify’s database, provided they’re available. 

I can also listen to most of my iTunes library on my iPhone or iPad without worrying about managing playlists due to limited storage space (provided I don’t overdo it with offline caching). Spotify automatically matches the tunes in my iTunes library with online versions in Spotify’s massive database. It’s seamless.

Unfortunately, a fair number of my more obscure tracks and albums aren’t available in Spotify’s database. If I want these tracks to be available, I have to choose to sync them locally for offline listening. I’ve also noticed that some of my iTunes tracks appear on my phone with little link symbols. I had to look up what this meant. It indicates that (for some reason) the version of the song that I own isn’t available to play in my country, so Spotify has substituted it for a playable version. 

I admit I am mystified as to why some material isn’t in the Spotify catalog, and why some tracks or albums are not available to U.S. customers. I’m sure it’s based on agreements that Spotify has worked out with labels, but it can be frustrating because it can be so … random. For instance, when I first started the service I downloaded ‘De Stilj’ by the White Stripes. A day later, this album vanished from my playlist. That album is no longer available to stream in the U.S. However, all other White Stripes albums are available. In terms of explanation, all I get from Spotify is a notice that the tracks ‘are not currently available in the United States.’ I can only imagine the convoluted paperwork that Spotify legal is juggling to keep this service going, so this isn’t really a complaint. I’m impressed that they got it off the ground at all. I’m just a bit miffed that I can’t stream some albums and tracks that I’d like to hear. Oddly, I’ve even come across many cases where all but one or two songs on a given album are available to stream. What’s so special about those songs? Arg!

Another example: The first disc of ‘Brewing Up With Billy Bragg,’ circa 1984, is available if you search for it via the Spotify desktop app. However, the second disc in this two-disc set is unavailable in the U.S. How odd. Worse, if I search for this album via the iPhone app, the album doesn’t appear at all. And a minor annoyance: that Billy Bragg album shows up as published in 2006. I’m guessing that’s a re-release date. I’ve found this time and again with albums I’ve sought out. The years don’t match up with actual release dates. I’ve also found that the same album often appears many times over in search results, but I can only listen to one of those albums in my country. I surmise that there are different licensed versions for different regions of the world.  It would be nice to have the option within Spotify’s preferences to hide the albums and tracks that I can’t stream. It’s the same thing to me as if those tracks and albums didn’t exist at all, so I don’t want to see them.

Functionally speaking, the desktop and mobile Spotify apps work quite well, with a few caveats regarding playlists. The main problem I’ve encountered is that the service doesn’t import smart playlists from iTunes, which is how nearly all of my nearly 8,000 files in iTunes are organized. The remedy for this, of course, is to make new playlists. It’s a simple task to copy and paste the contents of a smart playlist into a ‘dumb’ playlist within iTunes, and then import that. But that’s annoying. And speaking of smart playlists, Spotify absolutely needs some sort of intelligent playlist functionality to sort through and categorize Spotify music. Dumb playlists just don’t cut it.  

Here’s a round-up of what I’d like to see in future Spotify app releases:

  • More social sharing options. Right now, it’s only Facebook. I have no urge to share anything with Facebook. Actually, I’m not sure I’m inclined to share my personal music library via any service, but I’m sure that many users would appreciate greater choice.
  • Tooltips. The meaning of some of Spotify’s color-coding and iconography isn’t always obvious. Simple tooltips would help.
  • It would be nice to have ‘Related Artists’ and ‘Artist Radio’ on the mobile app.
  • I would appreciate the option to hide music that is not available for my country. I only want to see it if I can stream it.
  • Smart playlists: the ability to import from iTunes, and to create within Spotify. Perhaps there may be patent/legal issues here to prevent some of this functionality, but surely Spotify could devise some sort of ‘intelligent’ playlist capability. It’s an all-you-can-eat music service, so we need better organization options.
  • The user interface isn’t always intuitive. For instance, on the desktop app, you can’t get more information about an artist, or seek more albums/tracks from an artist, by selecting the artist name from within one of your playlists. You have to enter the name in the search box. When you do search for and select an artist, Spotify returns an interface with four tabs: an Overview, Biography, Related Artists, and Artist Radio. Maybe it’s just me, but I didn’t even notice the tabs at first. Oddly, the main window (the artist ‘Overview’ tab) displays the beginning sentence or two of the artist biography and a short list of a few related artists. Since there’s not much space here, only a fraction of the biography and related artists are visible, yet you can’t select one of these items to access the full bio or related artist entries. You just get to see a tiny fraction of the content. There isn’t even an option to scroll through the rest of the content. The only way to access this content is to select one of the tabs. Check out the screenshot below to see what I mean. Why not link the short blurbs on the ‘Overview’ page to the sub-tabs for Biography and Related Artists?

The odd Spotify ‘Overview’ PaneMy overall experience? I love it. Prior to Spotify, I had hundreds of dollars of albums in my ‘Wish List’ basket in iTunes. Now I’m listening to all of those albums. Yes, I’m paying $120 dollars a year for the privilege, but I’m consuming far more music than I ever could afford to buy outright. My interest in discovering new artists is greater than it has been since I was in my 20s. Now when I learn of an interesting new artist or album, I don’t have to read second-hand reviews or settle for short previews. And I don’t have to add items to a ‘Wish List.’ I just cue it up and experience it for myself. If I don’t like it, I can just as easily remove it. It’s a liberating experience.

On the flip side, unlimited and instant access to millions of tracks means that it’s easy to listen for one minute and then dump an album. Too easy. If I paid for an album, I would never do this. I’d listen to it over and over. I try to keep this habit with Spotify. Sure, I may still not like an album after a few listens. More often, though, I only begin to appreciate and enjoy an album after several weeks or months. Spotify’s all-you-can-eat buffet can destroy this practiced patience if you let it.

At any rate, I’m enjoying the service. Still, I am trying to keep my tracks well organized should I someday wish to cancel my subscription. What if fees get too steep? What if label agreements break down and the catalog drastically shrinks in size? My strategy is to carefully cultivate what I really like through playlists and by ‘starring’ favorites. Should I need to leave and return to iTunes,  I’ll have a good idea of which artist albums and tracks I want to buy and which I can do without.

Of course, I hope that day won’t arrive anytime soon. I’d love to see Spotify-like models appear for other content. I would consider signing up for similar services for audiobook, digital magazines, and ebook subscriptions. Hhave you heard the rumor that Amazon.com may soon roll out ebook rentals?

 

British Library App for iPad

new iPad app launched this week by the British Library that provides access to scanned copies of original versions of 19th century books. This app is free for now with 1,000 titles, but will soon be a paid app offering more than 60,000 titles.

The stand-out feature of the new app is that it offers full scans of original versions. While you can’t search or highlight text, take notes, or get word definitions, you do get to enjoy the real deal: aged paper, author notes in margins, embossed covers, engraved illustrations, and colored plates. I can almost smell it (I admit it, I love the smell of old books). Perusing through ‘Woods and Lakes of Maine,’ I was struck by how much context and texture is missing from straight-text digitized ebooks.

So this is an immersive way to explore old books on a modern device, but I have to admit that I’ve been spoiled by the interactivity of digital books à la Kindle and iBooks. The British Library app is almost like reading a real book, which is a great thing. But the lack of ability to draw on pages,  search text, highlight passages, or define words seems like a missed opportunity to harness the platform.

Since many of these texts have already been digitized, wouldn’t it be fantastic to offer users the ability to switch (or overlay, or display side-by-side) a scanned original page in a book and its corresponding digitized text? Then we could have the best of both worlds. At a minimum, we need a way to take some notes and add multiple bookmarks. That said, this is a great app for the book junkie. It’s free for now.

in iOS | 282 Words

Initial Thoughts of a New iPad 2 User

I’ve had an iPad 2 for four days and a Smart Cover for a day and a half. I’m not going to post a detailed review. There have been enough of those.  I will, though, share a few initial impressions as a first-time iPad owner.

First, the Smart Cover. It’s remarkable. As remarkable as the iPad. That’s no small achievement, and it deserves to win design awards. In case you missed the iFixit breakdown of this cover, it’s worth your time to check out the magnetic gadgetry that makes this device work. It’s easy to use. More, it’s a pleasure to use. I love how the iPad instantly turns on when I open the cover. I love the ease with which I can stand my iPad up in two positions.

It doesn’t really clean the glass surface, though. Apple claims that it ‘brightens up your iPad.’ That’s true to an extent. But they also say it ‘gently buffs off any smudges or fingerprints as you move, [so your] iPad always looks good on arrival.’ That’s not quite true. Certainly, the surface looks better than it would without the cover. But the gentle buffing is no substitute for wiping the glass screen with a microfiber cloth.  What I’ve found is that the cover—as I move it to and fro—gently removes oily smudges from the surfaces from the areas where the microfiber makes contact. But the microfiber only hits the glass in the ribs of the cover. Between the ribs, in the creases of the cover that allow it to be easily folded up, there is no contact. The oily residue remains in those spaces, appearing as Zebra strips of smudge over the glass surface. It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting that I still need to manually clean the surface.

Another minor annoyance I have with the cover is that it doesn’t magnetically seal when flipped to the back of the device (when I’m using the iPad). It flops around a bit. I imagine that design constraints limit where magnets can be placed within the iPad, and these constraints account for the lack of a magnetic hold when the cover is flipped around to the back of the device. Still, it’s not a big deal. It’s easy to rip the cover off and toss it aside.

My final concern regarding the Smart Cover is that it doesn’t protect the back of the device. I’m worried about scratching the aluminum. I’m not too worried, though. I trust that third-party vendors will soon offer stick-on protective coatings to address this issue. I’d rather go that route than plunge the iPad in a thick protective case. I don’t want the device to be any thicker than it is. I want to hold the thin aluminum back in my hand when I use it. It’s an important part of the tactile experience.

The last thing I have to say about the cover concerns material. I expected that the appearance of the leather model would shame that of the cheaper Polyurethane skin, but found that both models look very nice. In 5by5’s ‘The Talk Show’ podcast, Dan Benjamin described the surface of the cheaper model akin to the ‘Trapper Keeper’ plastic those of us of a certain age will surely recall from childhood. It’s kind of like that, but it’s really much nicer to behold. It’s nice enough that I went with a neutral grey polyurethane model and saved some money. I think it looks great.

As for the iPad 2 itself, I should note that I spent 10 minutes trying out a Motorola Xoom at my local Costco a week ago. This device is, as far as I know, the current ‘best of breed’ alternative. I thought the Xoom was competent, but it felt choppy and clumsy to the touch. A bit half baked. Now that I have spent considerable time on an iPad 2, I can you assure you that there is no comparison. It’s a device that’s living up to my childhood expectations of what 21st century tech might be. 

Is the iPad 2 perfect? No. There’s plenty of room to improve. Is it the best mobile device I’ve ever used? Yes. Interestingly, a minor change made it more so. Based on a tip I read on TUAW, I upgraded to XCode 4, which allowed me to enable some new multi-gesture devices for the device. These gestures enable rotation through open apps with a gesture, a swipe to see all background apps, and a swipe to get back to the Home screen.

These seem like minor improvements, but they are not. They make a huge difference in ease of use, akin to how the Smart Cover makes a huge difference by waking up the device when you flip it open. That tiny convenience of auto-waking the device with the Cover vice having to press the ‘Home’ button makes the iPad that much easier to use. Likewise, these few extra gestures make navigating scores of apps that much more seamless and enjoyable.  I hope to see these additional gestures in the next iOS release. As for the fears that these features hint that the Home button is destined for the trash bin, who can say? I don’t really care. I prefer to avoid using the Home button if possible.

My final note concerns the lack of software keyboard support for Dvorak. The lack of the Dvorak layout on my iPhone is no big deal. The screen is too small to accommodate full-handed typing. Not so on the iPad. I suspect I speak for Dvorak-typing Apple enthusiasts everywhere when I say that a software layout option is very important. Without it, we’re reduced to hunt-and-peck typing on the iPad screen using an unfamiliar keyboard layout, or we’re forced to buy an external keyboard to use iOS hardware Dvorak support. Attention Apple: this is a very simple fix.

in iOS | 991 Words