Apple’s accessibility strides, ‘hidden’ settings, and the dev response we need

I’ve written another piece for The Guardian on iOS accessibility. This concentrates on motion sickness issues and affordances. In the latter case, Aral Balkan weighs in on the new Button Shapes feature, which lurks in Settings > Accessibility. It adds a grey background to some buttons and hypertext-like link underlines to others. It seems a bit of a mess and strikes me that Apple still hasn’t really figured out how to make interactive components in iOS 7 both beautiful and usable. Hiding away a means of making controls more intuitive also seems perverse on a platform that, as Balkan notes, prides itself on being intuitive.

Apple’s direction in terms of balance accessibility is far better. Back in September, the system was making people sick, and I was fortunate enough to report on this for both Stuff and The Guardian (the Stuff piece being, as far as I know, the first of its kind for any major publication). Although Apple’s inclusive stance regarding accessibility was working well for motor, vision and hearing problems, it seemed balance had been ignored entirely—something I’d also found problematic with OS X. Although I had reason to be cautiously optimistic this would change, I was surprised it took Apple under a month to address the biggest concerns.

With the latest fix, the vast majority of nausea and vertigo triggers are now gone, but that’s not really the end of the story. The buck is now passed to developers, who need to do more to make their apps inclusive. Where Apple provides the tools, developers should ensure their apps are suitable for people with vision, hearing and motor problems. Where Apple doesn’t provide the tools, settings should be supplied accordingly. It’s all very well having bits of interface bouncing around playfully, but also consider an option to turn that off. By default, nothing will change, but the upshot is people like me and possibly millions of others will be able to use your app without accidentally triggering vertigo symptoms that could last for minutes, hours or even days.

March 13, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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Who cares about Office for iPad?

According to the rumour mill, Office for iPad will land this July. Unfortunately for Microsoft, not July 2010, when it might have mattered.

John Gruber explains the problem:

From what I’ve heard, Office for iPad is impressive. It’s been held up chiefly by internal politics.

Expanding on that a little, Microsoft has two major products: Windows and Office. For a long while, it wanted Office everywhere, but then for its own products unwisely forced Windows everywhere. The two collided, resulting in Microsoft holding back Office for iOS in order to use it as a differentiator for its own tablet devices.

This was a spectacularly dumb move, because it merely trained people that they didn’t need Office. Apple’s suite of office apps suffices for the most part on the iPad, and many people have also gravitated towards the free Google Docs, which works pretty well on tablets. But had Office arrived within months of the iPad’s release—or even a year—it could have been a game-changer and a cash-cow for Microsoft.

Even today, I don’t doubt that Office for iPad will sell to some extent. But I’ve a feeling it will—regardless of quality—in many cases sell to people who think they need it, but then don’t actually use it. In plenty of cases, though, I suspect people just won’t buy it at all, especially if it’s tied to a subscription service.

Still, at least Office for iPad will stop people arguing the iPad can’t be used for serious work—although they’ll no doubt smugly use the headline “Now Office for iPad is here, the iPad can finally be used for real work”, thereby leading them to be strangled with a spare iOS device charging cable.

February 19, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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Introducing 365 loops

My day job most often involves writing or design, but my underlying passion remains music. Unfortunately, a lack of time and any kind of commercial success in that area means I often find myself going for some time without creating any new tunes—and if that goes on long enough it can get me down. The thing is, although it doesn’t take me long to write a song, all of the associated bits and pieces—arrangement, vocals, editing, mixing, mastering—can see even a quick project stretch out to months or even years.

Because of this, and even though I’m still intending to release an entirely new album this year, I’ve hit upon the idea for a project that I hope will keep the fires burning regarding creating new music, inspire future work, and possibly lead me in new directions. It’s triggered somewhat by the notion of instilling some kind of routine, in much the same manner as people who take a photo each morning, or writers like Ian Betteridge who are committing to 500 new words per day.

My idea: one new loop, daily, for a year. 365 loops.

Each of these will be uploaded to my Soundcloud account, and I hope you’ll check in occasionally to see how things are going. The first one should be embedded below.


February 17, 2014. Read more in: Music

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iPhone and iPad gaming is broken: here’s what we need to do to fix it

In my earlier piece about Flappy Bird, I argued one thing we could do to boost mobile gaming is shout louder about the games that are great rather than expending a lot of energy complaining about (and therefore drawing attention to) those that aren’t. This is the central theme of my latest op-ed for TechRadar, iPhone and iPad gaming is broken: here’s what we need to do to fix it.

Incidentally, for pacing reasons, the editor hacked down the list of games I recommended (which was originally in three blocks), and so here it is in full:

Threes! The Room. Rymdkapsel. Eliss Infinity. Badland. Magnetic Billiards. Ticket To Ride. Slydris. Gridrunner. Galaxy On Fire. Joining Hands. Icycle. Bubble Pets. I Am Level. The Walking Dead. Spice: Tree of Life. Autumn Dynasty. Tiny Wings. Food Run HD…

Mutant Mudds. Death Ray Manta. Contre Jour. Monsters Ate My Condo. Forget Me Not. Pivvot. QatQi. Slingshot Racing. Dark Nebula 2. Super Hexagon. Beat Sneak Bandit. Mos Speedrun. Device 6. World Of Goo. Zen Bound 2. Blackbar. Stickets. Beyond Ynth. Edge. HungryMaster. Monster’s Valley…

Limbo. Critter Panic. Mikey Hooks. Crush. Impossible Road. Year Walk. Saucelifter. Orbital. Boson X. Letterpress. SpikeDislike2, Trainyard. Bit Pilot. Ridiculous Fishing. SpellTower. Lyne. Super Stickman Golf 2. Pinball Arcade. Kingdom Rush.

February 10, 2014. Read more in: Gaming

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What we can all learn from Flappy Bird

So one-thumb survival game and viral hit Flappy Bird flew too close to the sun and got deleted from the App Store by the developer. This morning, writers are aiming to make sense of what happened, such as in Keith Stuart’s piece for The Guardian, where he likens the game’s “cheerful sadism” to 1980s arcade games, worries that negative reactions were xenophobic in nature, and argues Flappy Bird was well-tuned and balanced—in effect, a model other games designers should learn from rather than scorn.

I wouldn’t go quite that far. I played Flappy Bird a bunch of times over a day or two, and I saw nothing that made me think it was anything more than a mediocre survival game. Judging by the response on my Twitter feed, the game was hugely divisive, with some getting totally addicted and others wondering what all the fuss was about. But I do agree with Stuart, in that there are things we can all learn from Flappy Bird’s short-lived success.

If it’s free, people will try anything. There are plenty of people who argue that free gaming will be the death of iOS, but I’ve never seen it that way. Although I will continue to champion great games with a price-tag, the fact is free games remove a barrier to entry. If something’s free, pretty much anyone will try not only something they were recommended as a good experience, but also something they just ‘have to see’. If you can make such an app compelling enough to make money, free can be a good starting point; just don’t gouge your users.

Design for on-the-move play. Some iOS titles, such as the superb Eliss Infinity, are very much sit-down experiences, but many people play mobile games on the go. I quite often get people on Twitter asking me for games that would work during a commute, when they’re standing on a train, only able to interact with an iPhone with a single digit. This is where Flappy Bird got everything right: it worked in portrait; a thumb didn’t cover the gameplay; controls used one digit; and games were short, meaning you could always fit one in. This of course isn’t the recipe for mobile gaming, but certainly a recipe, and there are oddly few short one-thumb titles that work in portrait.

Success is immediately cloned. Flappy Bird was not a remotely original concept—endless avoid ’em ups have existed since the dawn of gaming. But the App Store and Google Play are both cesspits when it comes to IP infringement. As Flappy Bird stormed the charts, a slew of imitators appeared. At the time of writing, various clones were flying high in the charts, having merrily stolen artwork from other developers, shoving ‘Flappy’ in their names, and in one particularly egregious case having welded IAP to the concept. One of the things that first drew me to iOS was the sheer innovation on display; these days, mobile gaming is increasingly full of crappy knock-offs.

People can be really nasty. In an earlier Guardian piece on Flappy Bird, Stuart Dredge said the game had “put the noses of a few gaming snobs out of joint along the way”. He later clarified to me that this wasn’t a response to critics offering a constructive opinion, but people responding in a mean or vicious manner to those who liked the game. Rather than argue about the game’s merits (or lack thereof), some accused others of being stupid for liking it. Worse, the developer has now been getting death threats on Twitter due to having removed the game. It’s depressing what people get so worked up about these days—imagine if all that energy was put into something worthwhile.

Reporters need to investigate more. Another related issue in terms of communication was the slew of reports about Flappy Bird, most of which didn’t investigate but instead assumed. Figures were bandied about regarding the small fortune the dev was making daily, and about him having ripped images from Nintendo titles; elsewhere, accusations of chart-rigging weren’t offered as a possibility, but as facts. The dev himself, freaking out under a deluge of press requests, pled for peace, which only made reporters write yet more about him, adding a ‘mysterious’ label. With writing being the profession in which I now spend most of my time, the lack of research into the Flappy Bird phenomenon, and assumptions and guesswork trotted out as facts, was merely indicative of reporting as a whole—but that in itself is deeply worrying.

We need to champion better games. The final point—and one I explore in more depth in an upcoming piece for TechRadar—is that we need to shout louder when great games come along. Flappy Bird was not an objectively great game; at best, it was a compelling, convenient and free time killer. But iOS and Android both have reputations that are being flushed down the toilet, to take their place among a sea of IAP and freemium effluent. But mobile gaming can be brilliant. Mobile gaming gave the industry a kick up the arse, combining the innovation then seen on Nintendo handhelds with the kind of open audience access only previously available to people working on the PC. Even now, despite the dross, there are titles being released for the iPad, iPhone and Android devices that are wonderful and simply couldn’t have existed on any other kind of system. But devs that succeed in making great games are increasingly failing, because discoverability on the App Store and Google Play is so poor; we need to do more to bring such titles to people’s attention, before it gets to the point such titles are no longer viable, and all we’re left with is the Flappy Birds and Dungeon Keepers of this world.

February 10, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Gaming

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