iOS App Store's Best of 2013

Apple just unveiled their 2013 Best-Of charts, encompassing all the types of media found on the iTunes Store (music, movies, tv shows, apps, books, and podcasts). Each category is interesting enough to check out, but being the nerd I am, I was mainly interested in the App Store results.

Some highlights that particularly caught my attention:

  • VSCO Cam was runner-up for iPhone App of the Year, and deservedly so. It's the only photo editor I need, and so it's the only one I've been using for the last several months.

  • Ridiculous Fishing received iPhone Game of the Year. This was also very well-deserved, because it's easily one of the most entertaining games I've ever played on iOS. Maybe on any console. The music alone is so good, I even bought the soundtrack.

  • Editorial was mentioned as one of the top 'Smart Productivity' apps. Can't hit the nail much harder on the head than that. I know that my own productivity and overall writing workflow have gotten a huge boost from this app.

  • Basil, a recipe manager for iPad developed by Kyle Baxter, made it into the 'Beautiful Cookbooks' section. Nice going, Kyle!

Many congratulations to all the developers – of which there are way more than I could comfortably list here – who got into top lists in their respective categories. It's been another exciting year for iOS apps, and I'm looking forward to what's in store for 2014.

Jony Ive Biography by Leander Kahney

Released just this morning, Jony Ive by Leander Kahney — editor of Cult of Mac — explores the early life and meteoric rise of Apple's famous product designer. It's not based on direct conversations with its subject in the way that Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs was, but it looks pretty interesting nonetheless.

Jony Ive is available from Amazon in both hardcover ($17) and Kindle ($12) formats, as well as from the iBooks Store ($12).

Mavericks Miscellany

Now that Mac OS X Mavericks is available, there are some things I recommend reading to get up-to-speed:

Apple's October 2013 Keynote

Apple just wrapped up an event that was loaded with new product announcements. I won't bother going into insane detail since the big-name blogs will have it covered, but here's a quick rundown on what was talked about.

Software

The biggest news here is that OS X Mavericks, the iWork suite, and the iLife suite have all been made free (the caveat being that iWork and iLife are only free for newly-purchased devices from this point on) and they're all available for download today. Mavericks will also work on devices dating all the way back to 2007, which I think is pretty cool.

The iWork and iLife apps have been totally redesigned across the board, with new features throughout.

iWork:

  • Full file compatibility across all Mac and iOS devices.
  • Pages has way better text-formatting tools than before.
  • Numbers has interactive charts. For example, you can see your expenses animated over some amount of time.
  • Keynote seems to be the biggest update, with new effects, animations, and transitions, with old transitions being updated with better physics. There's also real-time iCloud collaboration for your presentations now.

iLife:

  • iPhoto now lets you create and order photobooks on the iPad, a feature that previously was only available for the Mac.
  • iMovie now includes a feature called "iMovie Theater", which is a nice-looking collection of all your videos and clips in one place. Reminds me of a media center-type interface.
  • GarageBand on iOS now supports up to 16 tracks (up from 8) and lets you add customizable "drummer tracks" that are recordings of actual session drummers that can automatically play over the song you've created. Projects now sync over iCloud as well.

Hardware

Hardware was really the juiciest part of today's keynote. Along with the iPhone 5s/5c, Apple has now refreshed nearly their entire hardware lineup ahead of the Christmas season (excluding iMacs and cinema displays, basically).

The Retina MacBook Pros have been updated to be more powerful, and yet cheaper to purchase. The 13" model is now $1299 (down from $1499) and the 15" model is $1999 (down from $2199).

The new Mac Pro that will be available in December and starts at $2999, making it the most expensive ashtray I've ever seen. All kidding aside though, it does have some neat features:

  • Fastest processor and memory of any Mac ever
  • Dual-workstation GPUs (a first for Macs)
  • All storage is flash-based — no more spinning HDDs
  • Thunderbolt 2 ports
  • 4K video support, and for multiple displays
  • 70% less energy consumption than the previous Mac Pro
  • It's somehow as quiet as a Mac mini

Now, the new iPads were the most exciting announcement for me personally. Rather than calling the new full-size model 'iPad 5', they went with 'iPad Air', and they're releasing an iPad mini with Retina display!

A quick rundown:

iPad Air:

  • Thinner, lighter, and more powerful.
  • Bezel is 43% smaller.
  • 7.5mm thick, which is 20% thinner than the iPad 4.
  • Only weights 1lb, down from 1.4lb.
  • Reduced battery size, yet same battery life as before (10 hours).
  • A7 chip and M7 coprocessor (same as iPhone 5s).
  • Support for even more LTE bands, meaning better connectivity.
  • Available in two colors: silver/white and space gray/black.
  • Available at $499 (non-LTE) and $629 (LTE), and starts shipping Nov 1.
  • iPad 2 still available as a lower-cost full-size model at $399.

iPad mini:

  • Retina display!
  • A7 chip, but no mention of M7 that I can recall. (UPDATE: I've been informed by my buddy Nate that it does indeed have an M7 chip.)
  • 10-hour battery life.
  • Thinner than a pencil (as shown in a great video that I imagine will be available online soon)
  • Priced at $399 (no LTE) and $529 (with LTE).
  • New Smart Covers ($39) and new leather cases ($79). Both are available in Product (RED) in addition to the standard colors.
  • The non-Retina iPad mini is still available, and has been lowered from $329 to $299.

Overall, this was a huge announcement by Apple. This holiday season is sure to be exciting for a lot of people.

Photographer Peter Belanger on Shooting for Apple

The Verge interviews the man behind Apple's iconic product images. The Apple stuff is interesting of course, but I particularly liked this part:

“What do you photograph for fun?”

“My kids! I know that sounds boring but it’s not. I’ve been taking a photograph of them everyday since they were born. This is a great outlet for me because it’s very different than my normal work. It’s something I can do and not worry what a client or anyone else thinks. Without that pressure I can take risks and experiment. I’m the dad that shows up to baseball games with a 400mm lens. I can hear my kids say to their friends, "It’s just what my dad does — ignore him.”

'The iOS7 Power User Challenge'

Frasier Spiers looks at the history of iOS:

“Three times in my career, Apple has shipped software that conventional wisdom said basically couldn't be done. The first was the Carbon layer of Mac OS X: most of the Mac toolbox running on a preemptively multitasking, protected memory Unix kernel. The second was Rosetta: PowerPC apps running unmodified and, for the most part, perfectly well on Intel processors.

iOS was the third. Conventional wisdom said that you couldn't possibly get a desktop OS running on a phone. Conventional wisdom said that you couldn't get rid of a user-visible filesystem. Conventional wisdom said you couldn't require all software on the platform to come through a first-party app store.

Right now, just before WWDC 2013, I think it's important to take time to appreciate exactly what iOS has achieved.”

He presents some fantastic data points, then delves into items he believes iOS should improve on for power users. Highly recommended reading, so grab a cup of coffee and go check it out.

"Very, Very Flat"

I don't typically dabble in Apple rumors around here, but this one makes me very excited, with only a slight tinge of worry:

“According to multiple people who have either seen or have been briefed on the upcoming iOS 7, the operating system sports a redesigned user-interface that will be attractive to new iOS users, but potentially unsettling for those who are long-accustomed to the platform...”

'Delicate Balance'

Gruber:

“The last thing Apple should do is ignore Samsung, to just sit there and take it, stoically. I think Microsoft took that stance against Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign and it hurt them. When you’re the market leader, you do need to be more graceful, it’s harder, but you still need to fight. That’s why Pepsi will trash Coke by name, but Coke will never mention Pepsi. ”

Couldn't agree more. It's kind of hard to believe that, despite the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" campaign from only a few years ago, people thought Apple wouldn't be the type to directly respond to Samsung's recent (and popular) attack ads.

Apple is a company with plenty of fight in it, don't worry.

Samsung Unveils Passbook-Like "Wallet"

Dan Seifert, writing for The Verge:

"The Wallet app is designed to let users store things such as event tickets, boarding passes, membership cards, and coupons in one central location, much in the same fashion as Apple's Passbook app for iOS."

Jordan Kahn of 9to5Google:

"As for the Apple influence, aside from the look and feel of the app and icon (pictured above), the Samsung Wallet app doesn’t seem to provide any additional functionality above and beyond what Passbook already offers."

Passbook has been around for a while now, but I have yet to be impressed by it in my personal life. In fact, I think it was a pretty poor launch on Apple's part.

Say what you want about their penchant for copying Apple, but this could have been Samsung's chance to blow the competition out of the water. Sounds like they blew it.

The New 128GB iPad

An interesting thing happened today. Although we're only a few months into the iPad 4's product cycle, Apple introduced a 128GB model to the lineup this morning, which will be sold at $799 for the wifi-only model and $929 for the wifi+cellular model.

But the most interesting aspect of this isn't even the mid-cycle thing, it's the idea that Apple is pushing to reframe the iPad as a device for pros. Of course, plenty of professionals already own and use iPads for work, but Apple seems to be strongly suggesting that anyone currently using MacBooks for work should start thinking about making the switch to iPad, and soon.

And why not? A 128GB iPad combined with a keyboard case or similar accessory is certainly a compelling choice even compared to a MacBook Air. I'd wager that most people are perfectly capable of getting their work done on an iPad and have no real need for a laptop anymore. There are limitations within iOS that may keep true Power Users™ using their MacBooks even years from now, but these people are fringe cases and their numbers are ever-dwindling.

Not everyone uses nerdy stuff like Keyboard Maestro macros or TextExpander snippets or application launchers like Alfred/LaunchBar. Most people aren't writing AppleScripts to accomplish tasks. All they need is the right kind of app for a specific task, and iOS is a goldmine for things like that.

I expect the next few years to be pretty interesting, since Apple appears to be rapidly chipping away at Microsoft's iron grip on the work/productivity market.

'Keeping Safari a Secret'

Interesting story by Don Melton, former Engineering Director of Internet Technologies at Apple:

"Not only was I tasked by Scott Forstall with building a browser and building a team to build that browser, I had to keep the whole damn project a secret. Which, by the way, really complicated the shit out of hiring most of the original team since I couldn’t tell them what they were working on until they took the job. Talk about your management challenges."

via The Loop

On Dropbox and iCloud

Ben Brooks:

"Dropbox is a power user tool/service/feature — a damned good one — just not something the average user is going to leverage in the way that others do. iCloud is a consumer level feature. It’s good enough for power users if they are willing to relinquish control and trust Apple, but mostly it’s a drop-dead simple solution for everyone."

[...]

"In that light I truly believe that Dropbox is the past and not the future of cloud based file storage. Managing files is just not something that a user should need to do any longer."

I think Ben is onto something here, but I have reservations about this idea going around that Apple will build iCloud up to the point that nobody needs a service like Dropbox anymore. People have been saying the same thing about other Apple services for years.

Safari's Reading List, Podcasts.app, iOS camera improvements, Apple Maps, iMessage...these are all products that were expected to put entire swaths of 3rd-party services out of business, but it hasn't panned out that way because Apple isn't trying to cater to the same niche markets as those services. They want to reach the broadest possible audience, a tactic that works very well for them, but there will always be a group of people that demands more features and greater control than Apple likes to provide.

I think a key word Ben used in his piece is "trust". Users have to trust that their data is safe with another company, knowing that they have absolutely no way of interfacing with any of it outside of specific apps. iA Writer, an example used by Ben as a fully self-contained solution, could go out of business someday. What happens to that data? Does Apple allow you to export it for use in other apps?

Of course one could say the same about Dropbox, but at least those files exist in a place where you can see them, such as your computer. They're easily copied/pasted elsewhere, and can be backed up in the manner of your choosing. Most users may not care about this, but the aforementioned group of demanding power users will always care about it.

If Apple is really going to put Dropbox out of business, they'll need to allow users more direct control over their files, and that's simply not going to happen. One of the big selling points of iCloud is that it does away with all that muss and fuss.

iCloud and Dropbox are simply two products for two different crowds, and that's okay. There's plenty of room for both to exist.

Microsoft's Stage Presence

Watching the Windows 8 announcement live, I can't help but notice the stark contrasts between Microsoft's and Apple's presentation styles. A few thoughts so far:

  • There's no theatricality. No "magic". Just bland statements about upcoming features.
  • They hardly even display any of these new features while talking about them. During Ballmer's own presentation there were slides on-screen behind him for several minutes, never changing to reflect whatever he was talking about at the time.
  • I don't think I saw Ballmer smile once *during* the presentation, only briefly as he came on stage and when he left. Seemed almost bored with what he was talking about.
  • Other presenters were stumbling over their words, as if they hadn't rehearsed enough. In fact, I think Ballmer might have been reading from a prompter on the floor.
  • At one point, the stage was practically littered with the various products that Windows 8 will support. It looked like a miniature Best Buy showroom up there. The presenters had to weave in and out of the various pedestals like some kind of obstacle course. Bizarre.

I found myself getting bored watching these presentations, and that's a bad thing. I actually think Microsoft's products lately have displayed some interesting concepts, but that won't be enough to get any iPad owners to switch to a Surface. There are tangible benefits to having some showmanship, and Microsoft has always been lacking in that area.

Not once did I find myself drifting out during the Apple Keynote, because they know how to keep things interesting from start to finish, even when talking about products I'm not necessarily interested in buying.

Ah, Entitlement

Speaking of publishing, Roger Cheng (writing for CNET) has decided to abuse this privilege to complain about the new iPad.

Apple, I thought we had a deal.

I buy one of your products, and I’m guaranteed roughly a year feeling like I’ve got the latest and greatest that Apple has to offer. That’s primarily been your product cycle, and it’s worked out fairly well for everyone.

Which is why I’m shocked, and more than a little annoyed, to see a new iPad unveiled a half a year after I bought the “new iPad.”

I'm always in disbelief after reading something like this. What planet do people live on where it truly matters that the thing they bought months ago isn't the new shiny thing anymore?

The question one should ask themselves is this: "Does [x] meet my needs?" If the answer is yes, it's time to be quiet and stop writing these whiny pieces. Having an "obsolete" thing is not something any sane person should even think about, much less be ashamed of. Cheng even goes on to frame a quote from someone else like this:

Vaknin compares the pain to what Android users have to endure:

"Pain"? "Endure"? Give me a break.

Update: I also just noticed that he filed the post under "Legal." Yeesh.

'Regarding Passbook'

Rene Ritchie, writing for iMore:

With Newsstand, Apple didn’t go the iTunes or iBooks route, didn’t establish a specific format and present the content is a consistent manner. They outsourced to publishers, and the experience suffered. With Passbook, Apple didn’t offer the iTunes transaction system, didn’t establish a specific process in a consistent manner. They outsourced to retailers, and the experience suffered.

Couldn't agree more. I was one of the users who had problems with Passbook after upgrading to iOS 6, because tapping the App Store button at the bottom of the empty "wallet" would give me an error. Even when it started working days later, it was unclear what exactly I was supposed to be doing.

I went in expecting a seamless experience, but what I found is that you have to actually download all these other apps you don't need just so you can tell those apps to add a card to your Passbook. The whole point of Passbook, in my mind, was to eliminate the need for those dozens of other apps. It's pretty disappointing that Apple took such a great idea and released it this way.

Go read the rest of Rene's post, it's full of other insights.