Dear Apple: we need to talk about Newsstand

The Magazine is shutting down. Created by Marco Arment and taken over in May 2013 by Glenn Fleishman, The Magazine was a pioneer, thinking different about digital magazines. Initially inspired by Arment’s Instapaper, it stripped things back, emphasising content in a manner that chimed with an audience tired of ad-infested websites and poor digital magazine user experiences.

It turns out whatever The Magazine was doing isn’t enough; although it’s been profitable throughout its entire life (extremely rare for any publication), subscriber numbers continue to fall, to the point Fleishman believes the magazine will eventually not be sustainable. Better to go out with a kind of controlled bang than gradually sink into quicksand.

There are undoubtedly all sorts of reasons why The Magazine is closing, some of which are explored in a Cult of Mac interview with Fleishman, but Newsstand seems to be key, having transformed from a well of potential into an empty bucket of pain as far as publishers are concerned. Jim Dalrymple, editor of The Loop, pointedly commented: “Apple should just admit that they don’t give a shit about digital magazines and be done with it.”

He’s right. At one time, Newsstand was touted as Apple redefining magazines, saving an industry in serious decline. In iOS 5 and 6, it resembled iBooks, in being both an app and store, but also used a custom folder to showcase cover images, making new issues very visible. This was irksome for those who didn’t use Newsstand, left with an empty wooden shelf (as ever, Apple could really do with enabling you to disable unused default apps), but handy for publishers and readers alike.

As of iOS 7, Newsstand was overhauled to fit in with Apple’s philosophy of flat design. The icon became a generic picture of four publications, and you now have to tap this to view magazine covers. So instead of a custom folder, Newsstand now has a strange ‘apps within an app’ set-up that doesn’t really seem to benefit anyone. This also means Newsstand now behaves like other iOS apps, in that it can be stashed in a folder. Visibility of new magazine issues has been seriously hit; coupled with this, ongoing abuse of system notifications has led to many disabling them, closing off another avenue for alerting readers about new issues.

Fleishman himself reasons that these changes “did not help [The Magazine] thrive”, and he’s far from alone. In 2011, publishers were full of hope regarding Newsstand; now, pretty much every one of them I know hates it. They think Apple’s practically abandoned Newsstand and just doesn’t care — it’s turned into an afterthought product Apple feels it must have rather than one it wants to keep evolving as part of the core iOS experience.

Perhaps magazines are simply doomed—digital or otherwise. Maybe people just don’t want to pay for content bundles and either want free websites, churn-based humour on Buzzfeed, or some kind of system where they can self-edit and cherry-pick what they think they’ll like (rather than possibly discovering something new). But while some kind of magazine industry does still exist, it’d be great for Apple to do more than turn Newsstand into the publication equivalent of Stocks. Maybe iOS 8.1 should silently admit Newsstand is a failed experiment, and simply remove it entirely. Put individual magazines back on the Home screen as standard apps, with (standard-sized) icons developers can update as and when a new issue goes live and standard alert badges, and therefore provide the flexibility that might reengage readers.

October 10, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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The app-makers on the iPhone 6, iOS 8 and Apple Watch

Hardware is nothing without software. The original iPhone was a perfectly nice device, but it wasn’t until the App Store that its true potential was unleashed. Similarly, Android might have the weight of numbers on its side, but it doesn’t have many of the best apps and games—they tend to come to iOS first.

It was with this in mind that I set about wondering what Apple’s latest releases would mean for the app ecosystem. In a feature for Stuff TV, I interview a number of developers (including Neven Mrgan, James Thomson, Brianna Wu and Gedeon Maheux), in order to explore how the iPhone 6, iOS 8 and Apple Watch might mean for the future of the apps and games you know and love.

September 26, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Technology

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Tech pundits and analysts: iPhone 6 Plus selling out in stores means NOTHING

Here we go again. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are now on sale, causing pundits and analysts alike to froth all over the internet, without first taking even a second to think about what they’re saying. Right now, I’m seeing an awful lot of people springing to conclusions that the 6 Plus is ‘outselling’ the iPhone 6, on the basis that it’s selling out in a lot of stores.

The tiny snag is that we don’t know how many units of each type were manufactured, we don’t know how many were shipped to stores, and we don’t know how many were sold in the stores that are selling out. Remember that a store could ‘sell out’ of the iPhone 6 Plus by ordering one of each model, but still have hundreds of iPhone 6 units in the stockroom. Right now, iPhone 6 Plus sales information we’re seeing is no more indicative than Amazon bar charts that have a small bar for last year, a large bar for this year, and an inexplicably blank y axis.

September 22, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions

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Apple, motion sickness triggers and OS X Yosemite — Why Apple should bring Reduce Motion ‘back to the Mac’

I’m not a developer, but I know enough about development to realise what a big deal WWDC 2014 was. Apple outlined the future of its two operating systems, with some major upgrades that will ensure iOS and OS X both mature and seamlessly integrate. There were also some ‘Back to the Mac’ moments, notably in terms of interface: although OS X isn’t yet as flat as iOS, Yosemite is simpler and cleaner than Mavericks.

Although all the new technology and interfaces are exciting, I’m hoping that it will be fourth time lucky regarding motion sickness and balance accessibility. I’ve been writing for over two years now about such issues as relating to Apple’s operating systems, including an open letter to Apple on this site, and then articles for Stuff magazine and The Guardian, specifically about iOS 7, which had become unusable to me and many others.

Apple listened. Within a month, major animations could be switched for a subtle cross-fade; as of iOS 7.1, the vast majority of other issues were dealt with too, as I reported on in a follow-up piece for The Guardian. Individual third-party apps are now the most common triggers (through developers getting a bit animation-happy), and those can be avoided.

I was truly thrilled at Apple’s response to the iOS 7 problems, and it meant I could use my iPad again, without fear of accidentally triggering the app-switcher and having to take a 15-minute break while trying not to throw up. (And I’m fortunate: many people with similar issues can be knocked out for days after being triggered.) But I’m also disappointed that Apple has fundamentally ignored this issue in three major versions of its desktop-based operating system.

With OS X Lion, perhaps, this is forgivable. Motion/balance accessibility is not well known, and Apple to its credit offers a huge range of accessibility controls and add-ons for people that require assistance for vision, hearing or motor. But then Mountain Lion arrived, followed a year later by Mavericks. Still the full-screen animation remained; still you transitioned between apps with a full-screen slide; still certain apps persisted in utilising similar animations.

As per iOS 7, I’m not hoping for any change in default behaviour. Apple’s existing animations provide a sense of space and location for people using them, and that’s great. What I am hoping for is that Apple brings one more thing ‘Back to the Mac’ for OS X Yosemite: Reduce Motion. Put a checkbox in accessibility that switches out these animations for something less jarring. Better: add more granular controls, and place them in context, rather than hiding them away. Given that TotalSpaces2 can override the app transition animation in full screen, offering six alternatives and an off switch, there’s no reason Apple can’t do the same. More to the point, Apple should do the same, unless it’s a company that believes, for some reason, there’s a cut-off point when it comes to accessibility and user inclusivity on the desktop.

June 9, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Design

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Number crunching iPhone 6 screen resolution rumours

So 9to5 Mac’s going with the argument Apple’s next iPhone will have a 1704-by-960 display. The report might well turn out to be right, but there are some curious arguments within the text.

Apple claims that a display density over 300 PPI is considered “Retina” quality

Apple’s played fast and loose with what it deems a Retina display, and as Richard Gaywood pointed out long ago, high-res displays are reliant on context. Larger screens tend to be used further away, meaning they need a lower ppi to be considered Retina. The iPad Air, for example, clocks in at 264 ppi, but Apple’s hardly shied away from saying that device has a Retina display, despite the screen’s pixel density being lower than an iPhone’s. On that basis, there’s no reason Apple couldn’t keep much the same resolution as on the current iPhone, but just make the screen bigger.

9to5Mac, however, argues that we’re going to see 1704-by-960, and it rationalises this on the basis that it’s akin to a 3x mode; the logic is iOS has a base resolution (568-by-320), and existing Retina devices are 2x (1136-by-640). The suggestion is that in merely adding another ‘x’, things will be relatively easy for developers:

According to sources familiar with the new iPhone displays in testing, if an unoptimized iPhone 5 app is run on the iPhone 6, the app will fill the entire screen but the non-3X images within the app will be blurrier. Troughton-Smith’s applications scale well because they were built with vector graphics. This transition from 2X to 3X will be reminiscent to the transition from 1X to 2X when the first iPhones with Retina displays launched in 2010.

This seems hugely optimistic. The shift from 1x to 2x was relatively simple, in that apps could simply be doubled and still look reasonably OK. Today, however, all apps must be Retina, or they’re likely to be rejected from the App Store. Support for 1x is therefore now pretty ropey.

When it comes to 3x, then, we’d not see sharp but jagged upscaling from 1x, but a blurred mess as apps designed for existing Retina screens are upscaled to 150 per cent. Perhaps this is what Apple has in mind, but if so, countless games and apps are going to look like absolute crap on such a display. And even with iOS 7’s design dialling down reliance on texture-heavy raster-graphics, adding yet another resolution and, potentially, another scaling factor is something likely to have developers headdesking until their foreheads bleed.

May 14, 2014. Read more in: Apple

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