Angry Robot

Magic Notebook

I wrote seven years ago about magic books. By that I meant various technologies that were transforming the way I/we read: RSS, read later services like Instapaper, e-readers like the Kindle, audiobooks and podcasts, etc. etc. What would a magic notebook be? Something that transformed the way we create, not just consume? For many years this has been a notebook computer, i.e. a laptop. But for me, the magic notebook is now the iPad Pro.

Pencil

Let me go out on a limb and declare writing with a pen or pencil as far more natural-feeling than typing on a keyboard. We learn to do it earlier, and because it’s easier to switch to drawing, and to use space to arrange your writing, it’s more versatile. I love handwriting, especially for brainstorming. But I’m not a Moleskine dude. I’m terrible at keeping track of physical pieces of paper and I am so totally into having everything all digital and linkable and searchable and easily revised.

I’ve had iPads since the first and almost as early on I was buying various styli. My dream was, I hand write something onto the sheer sparkling glass of the iPad and it converts itself into glorious digital text. Now that’s a magic notebook. But it was not to be, not then. The early styli felt like writing with someone else’s finger. But I knew I wanted to play around with the iPad Pros once they came out, more or less because of the Pencil.

So I got one. (Note: I got one a couple months ago, so I’m referring to the previous generation iPad Pro 9.7”, not the new ones that just came out (d’oh!).) And: my dream isn’t here, but it’s a hell of a lot closer.

The pencil works really well for my purposes, which are short on drawing, long on hand-written notes. I use OneNote and although the Pencil support isn’t the greatest, it lets me keep everything in one place. Also, it has handwriting-to-text! It’s not great, especially as my handwriting looks like something you might write in mud with a stick as death spasms wracked your mutilated body. Plus, seems that feature only works on Microsoft OSes right now (speaking of death spasms).

But it’s getting there. So let’s imagine a near-future utopian world in which Microsoft has enabled this on the iPad. Then let’s imagine that same world where the machine vision craziness has continued to proceed apace. Assuming we’re not all cowering in the muck as T1000s hunt us down to force us into indentured servitude in SkyNet’s underground sugar mills – or something – then perhaps my dream will be here. Writing longhand, tapping convert and leaning back as my insta-posted genius blog post / promo script goes out into the world and somehow causes dollar bills basically to start flying out of my screen as I give a double thumbs up and grin wildly, revealing a full set of solid gold shark teeth…

Sorry, where was I?

Something something iPad something.

The Other Accessories

So anyway, I’m using it for brainstorming and rough notes and then kinda formulating my first draft with an actual keyboard. And oddly enough, here’s where two other Microsoft products make an appearance, in hardware form.

Number one is a $5 loop with adhesive, the Surface Pen Loop, which you can use to affix your Apple Pencil… well, anywhere really, but I’m sticking it to the edge of my case like so:

That way the pencil’s always with the iPad.

The case is a cheapo number, the Moko Ultra Slim. I’m… very fussy. There, I admitted it. So I bought two other cases and returned them, and tried a few others in-store, and this $17 Moko is my favourite. It’s like an Apple Smart Cover in principle, except a lot cheaper and the back is clear plastic. Importantly for me, it’s light and slim.

When I do need a keyboard I have Microsoft product number two, The Microsoft Universal Foldable Keyboard. Like I said I tried a lot of cases, including the two premier keyboard cases, the Apple Smart Keyboard and the Logitech Create. I didn’t find the Apple Keyboard comfortable to type on. The Logitech Create was great for typing, but as a case it’s not great – it doubles the weight of the iPad, for one. And both of them are expensive. The Microsoft folding one is thin and light, costs half as much, and stays in my bag until I need it. Most of the time I don’t need the keyboard, and so the iPad is as light and portable as possible until I do. in that case it folds out wider than the screen of the tablet, giving the keys more room. I will not lie: some of them are still cramped. But I find it quite agreeable to type on. I still have a full-sized Bluetooth keyboard at home and I figure if I ever need to write for hours on my iPad I will bring that.

The Experience

Short answer: I fucking love this thing.

Slightly longer: this iPad is my favourite thing for: reading the news, browsing the web, editing photos, writing, and general purpose computing. Certain things I still need a computer for: video editing, web stuff (although thanks to the incredible Coda I still do a bunch on the iPad), design. The pro apps are still lacking on the iPad. I love the portability compared to a laptop – I mostly have it in my bag by default.

The Future

My iPad is already out of date with the advent of the 10.5″ model, which has a slightly bigger and significantly better screen, is faster, and boasts better pencil performance. Thing is, I’m happy enough with this one to not care. I’m good. Mine is already overkill in all of those areas. (It could be, though, that the Smart Keyboard is greatly improved by the added width; that’s my one regret with this model, but it’s not much of one.)

IOS 11 has a shitload of iPad-specific improvements: easier app switching, better multitasking, a file browser, and more pencil functions. I’m excited about all of those.

The area that needs real improvement is the pro app world. I can’t find a good pro video editor: where is Final Cut iOS? I am having trouble finding a design app that meets my needs. I’ve run into situations with relatively simple photo manipulations, say wanting to rotate a batch of images at once, where the stock photos app doesn’t do the trick and I don’t know where to turn. Hopefully Apple pushes forward in this area. It certainly looks like they are. They’ve been touting the iPad as the future of computing for a while, and only recently have they begun to back that up. And only recently do I think I agree with them.

Tim Cook Says Apple Focused on Autonomous Systems in Cars Push – Bloomberg

Sure but no way Apple will sell some system that goes into someone else’s car models. So this is like a half-assed denial that they are making a car, despite all the permits they are applying for.

Apple WWDC Keynote 2017

Some not particularly unique thoughts.

WatchOS stuff was all welcome, but relatively minor. Would like to see third party faces and maybe smart complications, i.e. same principle as the Siri watch face except for any face. But I suppose it’s been a good year for the watch, so there’s no need to rock the boat.

Mac stuff: OS and app stuff not particularly thrilling. New Macs! It’s nice to see them revving the MacBooks Pro so soon after the latest update – it’s gotten so that Apple refreshing hardware at faster than yearly pace is eyebrow-raising. I think it’s been longer than that for the other Macs, but they updated a lot of things at once: modern GPUs! VR support!

The iMac Pro looks sweet but obvs so expensive that I doubt I will ever get near one. Although I suppose it does put them back into contention in the workstation class.

As usual there was a lot more heat on the iOS front, and especially for the iPad. They implemented almost the entirety of an iPad nerd’s wishlist: improved multitasking, drag and drop, pencil improvements, proper file browser. Interesting to see Apple Notes getting a lot of improvements including a document scanner. And of course new iPads Pro to seal the deal. I just bought a new 9.7” iPad Pro a couple months ago, but I don’t even feel bad about it. For one, it’s waaay faster than I need it to be already, and for two I will get all the software improvements anyway.

The ARkit stuff is interesting. I’m fairly sure Apple will release some sort of AR device at some point in the near future (Apple Glasses? Apple Monocle? Apple Telescoping EyePiece?), and this is a significant step in that direction.

And the speaker. It’s overpriced, which is not really a shocker considering we’re talking about Apple here. Especially so if you consider it an Amazon Echo competitor, which Apple doesn’t want you to. They positioned it as a cross between an Echo and a Sonos. I have two Sonos speakers, so I have a dog in this hunt. I went with Sonos not so much because of the multi-room capability but because they deliver reliable wireless playback. Neither Bluetooth nor Apple’s AirPlay was able to do that for me, and believe me, I gave it a shot. So no matter how good this thing is I doubt I’ll sell my Sonoses as I love them, but I’d pay special attention to how reliable AirPlay 2 is.

Notes From An Emergency

Speaking of Maciej Cegłowski, here is the text of a recent talk. Lots here on the rise of the nationalist right and its use of tech, the “feudal internet” of huge tech companies that dominate our online lives, and what can be done about it.

Apple Is Manufacturing a Siri Speaker to Outdo Google and Amazon

Screen Plus Speakers Equals… Wait a Minnit

Amazon announced their long-rumoured Echo with a screen today and frankly I think this thing is a dog, but what do I know.

So this is basically… a smart TV for your kitchen? Is there any other room in the prototypical house for which this would be an appropriate arrangement of screens and speakers? In a living room a TV would probably be better, on a desk a computer would be better, and in a bedroom basically any one of tablet/laptop/TV would be better. My problem is I haven’t tried a normal Echo, and I gather it’s distinguished by an unusually effective voice service, so maybe if I got hooked on Alexa I’d want one of these.

There are plenty of rumours now of Apple getting into this game, and Phil Schiller spoke up saying he thought screenless smart speakers weren’t that useful. But I don’t think that means Apple is bringing out a smart speaker with a screen. I think it means they’ll bring out a smart speaker that will send stuff to your Apple devices that have screens, which is pretty much all of them. Apple needs to bring Siri up to the level of Alexa, integrate more smart home stuff with HomeKit, and make Siri something that is essentially ubiquitous in your home (could be the speaker, but the Watch gets you 90% there), and it could dominate this category right quick. Easier said than done, I guess.

OCR in OneNote

Here’s a note about notes. It turns out that there is some serious OCR (optical character recognition) in OneNote. I knew text in images and PDFs would show up in searches, which is handy but not mind-blowing as it’s been in Evernote for like 10 years. But what I didn’t know is:

  1. You can copy the text ‘out of’ an image and paste it as regular text, or simply convert it. I have been wanting this… For like 10 years.
  2. OneNote will OCR hand-written notes. I mean if your hardwiring has fallen into disrepair for lack of use like mine, it will be rocky, but OneNote will give it the college try.

Yup, it’s how I made this note. I wrote it last night with the Apple Pencil on an iPad Pro. I converted it and had to do some editing, and there’s the downside. Of course it’s not 100% or even 80% accurate (again, I mostly blame my handwriting). But also you can’t actually convert to text on the iPad. I’m using the Windows client right now which is the most full-featured, perhaps unsurprisingly. Checking…

No, you can’t do it on the Mac app either. That’s a shame. OCR is working in the background, indexing images so they show up in search results, but there is no feature in the interface that will convert to text.

Anyway, when this feature makes its way into the iOS client, this will be a wonderful option for note-taking. I definitely prefer handwriting for meetings, brainstorming, and some other uses – it’s great just to get away from a keyboard for a bit. It’s certainly one of those things that tablets are good at and feel a lot more delightful than typing. But the ability to turn that scrawl into usable text is to me, kind of a killer app.

The iPad These Days

So the iPad has issues. After exploding out of the gate in 2010, with sales growth greater even than the iPhone, sales have decreased over the past few years, as Horace Dediu discusses in iPad Optics:

The iPad is considered to be failing, with a presumption of an end of life in the near future. The evidence of this failure the year-on-year decline in units sold… The iPad decline is paired with a steady increase in the Mac. The iPad exhibits a four year decrease in overall volumes. This has, as they say, bad optics.

Neil Cybart notes:

A quick look at overall iPad sales reveals an ominous trend. Sales have declined for 12 consecutive quarters. After topping out 74M units in 1Q14, the annualized iPad sales rate has declined by 42% to 43M units.

Yeowch! Except it’s not all gloom. As Dediu notes,

the iPad is still a much loved and much used product. … Tablet ownership among US adults increased from 45% in April 2015 to 48% in April 2016 and 51% in November 2016. The rise has been steady. Although this counts tablets, the iPad had 85% share of the U.S. market for tablets priced above $200 so it’s a fair assumption that the iPad audience is growing.

Furthermore, iPads are still growing in “non-consuming” markets. iPad posted double-digit growth in both Mainland China and India, it continues to attract a very high percentage of first-time tablet buyers.

His explanation for the odd numbers is that “iPads remain in use far longer than phones, and perhaps even longer than some computers.”

Interestingly, Cybart blames iPad’s troubles on something else: its little brother.

People aren’t buying as many iPad mini devices these days. Excluding 7.9-inch iPad mini sales from overall iPad sales results in a completely different sales picture… iPad mini unit sales have declined 70% after peaking in 4Q13 and 1Q14. The product’s value proposition has been permanently reduced due to larger iPhones. Apple has clearly experienced Peak iPad Mini.

Whatever the reasons for the “bad optics” are, Apple is suddenly pushing iPad really hard, as Cybart notes. And they’re pushing it in two different directions, as indicated by the two main model lines. The Pro is more expensive than a normal iPad and has added hardware features, mainly the pencil and the keyboard. The iPad Pros are the subject of a new ad campaign, which Apple is clearly targeting at people who want a PC replacement.

Going the other direction, the regular ol’ iPad has just been refreshed. The biggest change is that they dropped the starting price to $329 US. That’s a big deal! The cheap new iPad will compete with Chromebooks in education, it will entice owners of ancient iPads, and it has at least a chance of competing against cheap Android tabs.

There’s a lot interesting about Apple’s strategy on both fronts: they think iPads are their best chance in education, and they think iPads are their best chance at switchers. It wasn’t so long ago it was to the Mac they were encouraging PC users to switch. We’ve known for some time that the iPad was Apple’s “vision for the future of personal computing”. But its latest moves indicate it’s their vision for the present.

Daring Fireball: The Mac Pro Lives

Apple has acquired Workflow

Crazy! I’ve been using this app a ton lately and it’s really impressive

Apple Debuts New 9.7-Inch iPad With A9 Chip to Replace iPad Air 2, Starting at $329

Very interesting! The rumours of a new 9.7″ iPad were probably of this one, and it’s priced much lower than a new, full-sized iPad has ever been (the first iPad in 2010 was $499 US and they have stayed the same starting price ever since, except for the usual discount on old models, and the $100 premium for the 9.7″ pro).

This looks like Apple’s new education model. Also interesting that there is now a near-$300 price gulf between this and the start of the Pro line. Is the rumoured new 10.5″ Pro coming soon, or is it not until next year? Will it see a price drop too?

Apple’s Next Big Thing: Augmented Reality

This does not surprise me. It can be rolled out to iPhones earlier and then the glasses would come later. The watch could also be cool for AR – if there was a camera on the buckle I guess.

iPhone 8 Will Include ‘Revolutionary’ Front Camera With 3D Sensing Abilities

Apple Vowed To Revolutionize Television. An Inside Look at Why It Hasn’t

AppleTV definitely needs help. A lot of potential, but not much happening on it right now to justify the price tag

iPhone 8 to Feature 5.8-Inch OLED Display With 5.15-Inch Main Screen and Virtual Buttons Below

Similar size to the 4.7″, yet big screen

Apple strategy in ‘smart home’ race threatened by Amazon

I don’t completely buy that narrative. The smart home world is young still, and Apple’s install base is orders of magnitude larger than Amazon’s. Wouldn’t you guess Apple will get into the speaker/AI/home hub game soon?

Apple Set to Join Amazon, Google, Facebook in AI Research Group

Looking Back, Looking Ahead—2017 Edition – The Omni Group

I love Omni, the Mac developers of OmniFocus which I use everyday, all day.

Apple Watch: The Pretty, The Bad, and The Pretty Damn Cool

Ed. Note: this is my first post in a series on the Apple Watch. I mostly wrote it in September, in the weeks after I first got the watch. My views have changed somewhat since, but rather than rewrite this whole damned thing I’m just posting it as-is. It’s still got some good points.

I sat out the first incarnation because it sounded bad. Slow, mostly; too fussy; unnecessary.

I started to change my mind with reports of speed and interface improvements in WatchOS 3. And with the new hardware announced at the event last September, I decided to pony up.

I got the “Series 1” model, because price is an issue, and I don’t need full waterproofing or GPS, not being a swimmer or a jogger. (What they’re calling Series 1 has the same processors as the Series 2 models.)

Pretty Things

I always liked the look of the things in the abstract, but was surprised at how striking the hardware is in person. My plan was to swap out the strap with third party (read: cheaper) ones anyway, so I got the rubber strap, which I really like. It feels and looks great.

The “rings”, the visualization of physical activity, are inspired design. They fit into a tiny complication, they can be understood at a glance, and they match the general iconography of timekeeping in a way a straight step or calorie count number doesn’t. Closing one’s rings feels like a physical act itself.

apple watch rings
The outside ring is active calories burned, the middle is minutes of exercise, and the inside is times you've stood for a minute each hour.

Bad Things

Pricey, sleepy, and needy. The three worst dwarfs, and also the problems with The Watch. It costs a lot. I think the numbers may not be that bad in the US but in Canada they seem really high for something that doesn’t really do anything your phone can’t do. They would sell a lot more if you could get in for like $200.

The screen doesn’t always stay on. I understand why, but I don’t like it. “Raise to wake” means you have to do a big, pantomime stage-acting I AM LOOKING AT MY WATCH gesture. Or you can tap it. But you can’t discreetly glance at it hoping to see how long the meeting is dragging on for. This makes it worse than a normal watch in a significant way. Hopefully at some point soon they can squeeze out enough power to let it stay on indefinitely, perhaps at low brightness.

Needy as in, this watch needs an iPhone to work. Things will get more interesting once it has its own cell modem and one has options to maybe not bring a phone, maybe to not even have a phone.

Pretty Damn Cool Things

This watch may be unnecessary, but it is still a pretty awesome gadget. Paying for things with your watch is strictly baller behaviour. Same goes for controlling your TV, lights and speakers with it. And people seem to love the idea that you can answer phone calls with it (more than I find it useful, certainly).

As a fitness tracker, and a fitness encourager, it works really well. Not having used a FitBit I don’t know which is better. But I know I like the way the Watch works for this.

Siri is a little bit hit and miss but I’m still using it and there is definitely something cool about responding to a text by speaking into your wrist, Kirk-style. Phone-siri doesn’t work properly in my car, so it’s nice to be able to ask wrist-Siri to play whatever song it is my kid wants to hear.

The Watch is in some ways the anti-phone. One of its greatest strengths – and one it is difficult for Apple to highlight in marketing materials – is how it saves you from having to fuss with your phone too much. This is mostly about sneaking a peek at incoming notifications without having to do anything more than look at your wrist. When you think about this it’s more useful the more active your are, as if you’re already looking at a screen at that moment it won’t help you. But when you’re out, active, and maybe holding groceries with your other hand, being able to triage notifications with a glance is a big help.

I love complications. Basically the idea is your different software watch faces have little areas for customizable data display slash quick links to open apps. A simple example is having a date display that when tapped opens the calendar app. The different faces have spots for three to five of these things.

What’s really cool is with the latest OS, it’s easy to switch between watch faces, which means you can set up different faces for different modes of your day. I have one face for the morning, which shows weather in detail, plus sunrise, the date, the next calendar appointment, and a link to a transit tracking app. Once I’m out of the house I have a moving around face that has activity rings, weather, the workout app and transit again. At work I have a different one that features OmniFocus, and for home later on I focus on a timer, the AppleTV remote app, and something to control the Sonos system. For timers alone this thing is really handy – I use them a lot when cooking and that’s also when I tend to have wet/dirty hands which makes using my phone a little awkward.

That’s it for now – next I’m going to write up how I’m currently using watch faces, and which apps I use the most. Beyond that – third party bands! Totally obsessed!

Apple reportedly wants hit TV dramas of its own

Starting a Netflix-style service that would be bundled with Apple Music.

Why I’m an (Almost) Everyday Apple Watch Wearer

Good albeit too-detailed rundown of how the Apple Watch comes in handy through its complications and watch faces. I have a bunch of drafts about the watch sitting around that I will get around to posting soon.

App Extensions Are Not a Replacement for User Automation

by Sal Soghoian, legendary AppleScript master who is no longer at Apple.

Why Would Apple Release a 10.5″ iPad Air?

Testing

Robert Scoble – Exclusive news: Apple and Zeiss working on Augmented Reality Glasses

I mean, what are the odds that Apple ISN’T working on AR glasses?

Apple has lost the functional high ground