Apple: it’s time to bin the Home indicator when we’re playing games

I wrote yesterday, with a perhaps uncharacteristic lack of snark and cynicism, about Apple’s latest event. Much of my disappointment was in other people being disappointed about Apple having apparently done something entirely different in these people’s dreams from reality. (Such is life.) But I was largely happy with what Apple showed. I will however make one exception – and it’s readily apparent in a big chunk of the Apple Arcade section of the keynote video. Once again, I’m talking about the dreaded Home indicator.

Said indicator is the strip that appears at the bottom of every iPhone and iPad that lacks a Home button. It more or less replaces a physical control with a virtual one, providing a place to swipe that switches apps or takes you back to the Home screen. Given that Apple was roundly – and rightly – criticised for a lack of affordances in the overly minimal iOS 7 overhaul, this indicator is a necessary and useful piece of interface design.

The snag is that it’s in certain cases abhorrent. Apple wisely has it fade out when you’re watching video, because it would otherwise wreck the immersive experience, much in the same way your telly wouldn’t be the same if someone scrawled across the bottom of the screen with a fat marker pen. But video isn’t the only immersive experience on iOS. In reading apps – especially with comics – the Home indicator is a distraction. And in games, the indicator is an eyesore – the worst of interface design.

Whatever you’re doing, the Home indicator remains, scything its way across the bottom of the display, often in a contrasting colour that makes it the most prominent thing that’s visible on the screen. (Check out the bright white stripe in Capcom’s game demo at around the eight-minute mark of the keynote video.) Some games fade the Home indicator, and a few have somehow figured out how to turn it off entirely; but it always springs back to life when you interact with the screen. In videogames – and this might come as a shock to Apple execs, who probably don’t play games that often – this tends to happen rather frequently.

The Home indicator should be on by default. I have no argument with that. But reading apps and games should be allowed to disable this interface component. And if that’s too much for Apple to stomach, users should be able to delve into Settings and turn it off themselves.

September 13, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Design, Opinions, Technology

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On being disappointed at the latest Apple keynote

I earlier saw a prominent tech pundit complain about Apple’s latest event. Said event was branded as “by innovation only”, but the pundit argued the updates were small, and even the new iPhone cameras didn’t do much more than those on rival devices.

My take is this: if you are disappointed with Apple keynotes – and especially if you are disappointed on a regular basis – you should perhaps take stock of why. If it’s because of a play on words that’s a traditional part of every Apple invite, and that as often relates to its ethos as a company as what’s going to be announced, more fool you. And if it’s because the vast majority of updates from Apple – and indeed all technology companies – are iterative, perhaps stop reading Apple rumour sites. They constantly argue Apple will revolutionise everything in tech, every few months, because that’s what gets eyes on pages. Reality has never agreed.

I’m actually quite happy with my predictions piece for Stuff on the event. I’ve long directed those columns away from the hyperbolic, instead being more concerned about what is likely to happen, and what that means for end users. I had a few misses this time – Apple Pencil for iPhone; Apple Watch sleep tracking; Apple TV update; the fact Apple did update an iPad – but was I disappointed? Not really.

The new iPhones look fantastic. The Apple Watch gets its most-requested feature (an always-on screen). Apple Arcade when demoed didn’t grab me, but the subsequent information from Apple’s press site did. I didn’t find the iPad announcement thrilling, but when I mentioned the price to my wife, her only response was: “That’s really good value”.

So perhaps it’s time to take a step back, reflect on the amazing devices – from Apple and others – we are fortunate enough to be able to use, and provide insight to readers in how they can improve their lives. Then we can stop griping about unfulfilled wishes based on outlandish rumours.

September 12, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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How Apple Arcade is set to upend iOS gaming forever

Apple yesterday revealed the final details about Apple Arcade. The subscription gaming service will arrive on iPhone on 19 September, and then roll out to other Apple devices over the following four weeks. It will cost a fiver a month – and supports Family Sharing.

This has all sorts of ramifications for iOS gaming – and the potential to upend everything on the platform. First, the obvious positive is Apple is now taking gaming seriously. I’m hoping cross-device sync will work well, the games will be mostly worth playing, and that Apple won’t just get bored in a year and shutter the whole thing. (Anyone remember game Center?) But right now, the outlook is good.

Apple has priced this service sensibly. It’ll work on Mac, iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, and Apple TV. Also, you’ll be able to use MFi, PS4 and Xbox One controllers with many titles, rather than having to grapple with the Siri Remote, or play complex console-style fare using touchscreen controls.

The question is where this leaves pretty much all other gaming on Apple platforms – particularly iOS. At launch, Apple Arcade will have dozens of titles, and over 100 will arrive within “the coming weeks”; Apple is planning to add more titles every month. So for the price of a single premium iOS game each month, you’ll get access to hundreds. Quite how premium games are going to compete – even in the short term – I’ve no idea.

But Apple Arcade will impact on free and freemium titles as well. Apple has stated Apple Arcade titles can have no advertising, and no in-app purchases. Once a player’s immersed in that system, the vast majority of free App Store titles are from a user experience perspective going to range from irritating (ads being periodically thrown in your face) to downright skeevy. Clearly, developers will have to up their game in this regard – or hope that people would rather pay nothing and put up with a terrible UX than venture towards a subscription.

It’s an interesting time for Apple and games, then, and one that is filled with much promise. But it does feel ironic that the one time Apple finally gets interested in games, it may make the rest of the iOS gaming ecosystem even less viable. Here’s hoping it has the opposite effect – acting as a halo that draws more gamers to Apple devices, and finds them venturing from the Arcade tab to the Games one, and exploring the many goodies found within.

September 11, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Gaming, News, Opinions, Technology

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Apple must eradicate predatory App Store IAP ‘scams’ gaming the system

I’m all for developers of apps and games making money, whether by one-off payments or subscriptions. Although many now opt for the latter – and, frankly, in rather optimistic fashion, given the price-hikes that often occur – that’s fine if the user is at no point hoodwinked into signing up. Sadly, many apps are now using predatory tactics to game the system – and Apple needs to crush this horror.

The example I’m going to use here is Selfie Art, which is currently being advertised across a number of games. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill app that I nonetheless imagine quite a few people might enjoy, transforming photographs into comic-style illustrations. The ad is sleek and inviting. As is, to some extent, the app itself when it first appears. However, on examining the initial screen, there are a number of red flags.

First, this is a doorslam. There is no way to escape the screen and use even a feature-limited version of the app. The FREE FOR NEW USERS button shimmers and animates, and the header states you can “access all features for free”. However, beneath the shimmering button is a comparatively dull one, outlining a staggering £24.49 fee – for a filter app. This is clearly designed to drive people to prod the free button; but take another look and you see some really faint grey text below, which notes that the trial is for just three days. After that point, you’ll be charged a monstrous £8.49 per week – more even than that monthly fee.

Sure enough, tap the button labelled FREE under the heading that says ‘For Free’, and you’re invited to join a piffling three-day free trial that then converts into an £8.49 per week charge. On older iPhones, this is horribly easy to trigger in error – automatic, if your thumb’s already on the Home button. Newer devices require a double-click of the Side button, but even then many users do this without thinking. Should you make that error and not notice (if you don’t track your App Store receipts), you’ll be down 300 quid a year – again, for a filters app.

Clearly, this is not OK. Apple really needs to have stricter policies in place to weed out such predatory charging, in order to protect its users. Two obvious options spring to mind:

1. Make it so charges are outlined in the same fonts, at broadly the same size, and in crystal-clear text. No more buttons marked FREE, unless that’s followed by FOR THREE DAYS, say.

2. Notify users when trials end, and have them confirm sign-up again.

I imagine lots of devs would be horrified by the prospect of users having to confirm a subscription a second time – on the basis a lot of people wouldn’t. If that’s you, perhaps petition Apple to strictly enforce IAP listing rules that are fair, obvious, and clear. And if your apps aren’t already all of those things regarding payment options, redesign them right now. Don’t be the bad guy, tricking people into signing up; be someone where people splash out on a subscription solely because they want ongoing access to a great app or game you’ve made.

August 19, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Apple Maps in iOS 13 still isn’t a Google Maps killer

As iOS 13 rampages towards us, half the Apple press has lost itself in a squee love-in, glowingly reporting that Apple Maps is now a Google Maps killer.

I’ve used the new Apple Maps quite a bit, and it is an improvement. Apple’s Street View rip-off, ‘Look Around’, not only sounds like a terrible 1970s BBC family TV show, but it’s smoother and more useful (what with inline POIs) than Google’s equivalent. Also, Apple now gives you shareable collections, and still actually knows what colour roads are supposed to be on maps in the UK. (Hint, Google: motorways are BLUE; A roads are GREEN.)

But the wheels come off unless you’re living in a big US city, and armed with as much data as your phone can eat – on a connection that never dies. Head beyond a handful of US cities and Look Around vanishes entirely. The lack of a map download option means Apple Maps is effectively useless unless you’re online.

I’ve no doubt future Apple Maps revisions will address these shortcomings. In fact, it doesn’t take a tech genius to recognise that in a few years, these apps will enable you to download offline mapping info for the entire world. But my assessment of software and services is based on what I see right now, and where I happen to live and work, rather than in a bubble – virtual or otherwise – that exists around Cupertino.

August 12, 2019. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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