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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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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On Apple TV 2014 rumours and the future of Apple’s little black box

I recently wrote for Stuff about the Apple TV. I think it’s a great device, and we use ours all the time, for renting movies, watching Netflix, and sending all manner of content from iOS devices to the TV and amp. It being an Apple product, the rumour mill’s now going nuts about how the device will evolve this year, not least because Apple finally ‘promoted’ it on the Apple Store, rather than burying it as an iPod accessory.

Macworld’s Karen Haslam has rounded up all of the rumours, which (as ever) vary from the sensible to outlandish craziness. And even things that might seem an obvious path for Apple to take are sometimes fraught with problems.

Games on the Apple TV. This is something people have been banging on about for a while, arguing Apple should be taking on Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, despite not really having a clue about gaming. If anything, the recent iOS controllers mess should showcase Apple still has a lot to learn about gaming in general, with the company absurdly fragmenting hardware from the get-go.

More importantly, though, as Haslam hints at, the Apple TV would effectively be an entirely different platform from ‘standard’ iOS, merely sharing code. Games would lack touch and need to be controlled remotely. On that basis, Apple’s controller idea makes more sense—games that are fully compatible with the controllers (menus and all) could potentially work with Apple TV games. After all, the Apple TV is essentially a headless iPod. But for that to happen widely, controllers need to be far better and far cheaper, the games need to work more fully with controllers, and the Apple TV would need way more storage than the 8 GB it currently has, which would ramp up the price and move it away from being an impulse purchase.

Integrated storage and live TV recording. Macworld’s article talks about DVR recording, boosting content available to users. I imagine any argument the Apple TV will suddenly get a ton of internal storage to facilitate this is way off base, and, as Haslam argues, content will be primarily streamed. As for storing TV shows in the cloud, I think it’ll be tough for Apple to persuade many companies to go down that route, and it would also obviously impact on Apple’s own iTunes Store sales. Still, as someone outside of the USA, this won’t make a great deal of odds to me anyway—if Apple does provide an Apple TV with any kind of live-TV recording feature, it won’t make it beyond the USA for years.

TV Tuner for live TV. This would just be an added cost, and also duplicate something the vast majority of people already have. It seems unlikely in the extreme. More integration with existing on-demand services over the web, however, would be sensible. In other words, I want BBC iPlayer and 4oD on my TV.

Integrated AirPort Express. One of the stranger Apple TV reports claims the new model would include an AirPort Express router. Purely from a cost and complexity standpoint, this seems staggeringly unlikely.

More content‚TV shows and entertainment. This one’s a no-brainer, but my hope here is Apple encourages (as much as it can) faster worldwide rollouts of channels, and also looks to popular local channels outside of the US more often. Again, it’s insane Brits don’t yet have access to the likes of iPlayer and 4oD on the Apple TV.

Apps and an App Store. Similar issues exist here as with gaming, but apps are already on the Apple TV, such as The Weather Channel. The real question is how many people want to use their TV as a giant app screen. Television use has historically primarily been passive, gaming being the main exception. Apple’s ideal is to foist as many devices on people as possible, which points to continuing to encourage integration between iPads/iPhones and the Apple TV (via AirPlay) rather than attempting to get loads of apps for its black box. The obvious exception: aforementioned media channels.

Motion control or voice activation. A short quote from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy should suffice here:

A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wave bands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive–you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.

New Interface. This is a must regardless of what happens next. The basic interface is fine, but more editing control is desperately needed. Right now, you’re limited to deleting apps via the hacky method of using parental controls. Apple needs to provide a much more discoverable show/hide interface if it adds more apps and games.

Another question that Macworld doesn’t address directly is whether the Apple TV line will grow. The basic unit could continue, and new models could be released with more storage, to cater for things like games and apps. However, right now, the Apple TV isn’t a particularly big seller and it’s already competing with a slew of low-cost and quite high-quality rivals. Apple has to tread carefully to find that sweet spot of pricing, features and quality that would enable the Apple TV to thrive in the future, rather than become another tech also-ran. It also must ensure it doesn’t promote buyer’s doubt. It’s one thing to have a single cheap unit people will just buy, but it’s quite another to make people choose between several and worry about buying the wrong one.

 

January 31, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Opinions, Technology

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Apple to close down, because the company is just so sick of analysts

Tension was in the air yesterday as Apple announced its financial results for its fiscal 2014 first quarter, ended December 28, 2013. “We posted record quarterly revenue of $57.6 billion, and sold 51 million iPhones,” said Tim Cook, angrily adding: “But we could have been responsible for every smartphone sale worldwide and made $200 billion in profit, and it still wouldn’t have been enough for those analyst jerks.”

Cook said Apple should have been happy with its 4.8 million Macs sold, record iPad sales, and monstrous profits of $13.1 billion, resulting in Apple’s cash mountain reaching unprecedented levels. “The thing is, we know thousands of hacks worldwide are already smashing their heads against their keyboards, ham-fistedly trying to spin our success into failure, and say that—yet again—Apple is doomed,” fumed Cook. “Fuckers,” interjected Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer, kicking his chair out of the window and storming out of the room.

“I’m just so sick of it,” seethed Cook, “and so we’re shutting the whole thing down. As of tomorrow, no more Apple. I’m going to spend my time hiking and getting to grips with whatever piece of shit Android I’ll now have to use—and you’d best get used to that too. I’m done here.”

Analysts reacted positively to Cook’s statement, noting that while, in the short term, Apple shutting down entirely was not a positive step, it would finally provide plenty of room for meteoric growth should the company decide to reopen again at some point in the future. In after-hours trading, AAPL was up 37 per cent.

January 28, 2014. Read more in: Apple, Humour, Television

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