The last few days have seen quite a few posts unrelated to tech. When you’re publishing a book, that tends to happen. But, as it turns out, one of the tools I’ve been using during that process needs and deserves to be recognized.
About a month ago, on a recommendation from Ben Brooks and at a sale price, I picked up Begin. Now, I have todo apps—probably too many of them. There are apps that work great for location-based reminders, apps that I downloaded years ago that have long since languished, Apple’s own reminders app, brilliantly designed list apps that just aren’t for me, and on and on. So why start with Begin?
Number one is always the same: I like exploring new designs and writing about them. Number two is that I was deep in the publication process, a project that could benefit from its own set of reminders and todos, so I went for it.
I already had a makeshift list in Scrivener. I just needed to port it over, and I was ready to go. Here’s how the experiment has worked out.
Begin is great for specific, day-to-day todos. There’s one list. It has fields for today and tomorrow (and an uncompleted section hiding below the main screen). You can complete, delay until tomorrow, restore uncompleted items, and delete. And that’s pretty much it. It’s incredibly simple. And there, Begin shines. I needed a running list that I would address every day and throughout the day, for just one project. For that, Begin is almost perfect.
Some apps deal with priorities on todo items, Begin’s way of managing that is by filing it in Today or Tomorrow and then allowing the user to drag and drop the order. There are no heat maps, no tiers to worry about, and no due date/times.
Now, on the subject of due times, Begin again excels. The app provides a daily reminder system which sends a push notification at the same, user-defined time. If it is your preference, you can set a “last chance” notification for the app, upping the forced interruptions to a whopping two. I love this feature. For my ordinary reminders, such a system would be terrible. In fact, almost the entire point of regular reminders, for me, is to be notified at specific times throughout the day that I should be doing something that I was likely to forget.
Begin sees its list (rightly) in a different way. There are things that need doing today, and you’ll be reminded of those at the start of your day (or your decided time). From there, it’s your responsibility to return to the app and check those items off as the day goes on. If you so choose, you get the second reminder before you leave the office or after lunch (or again, whatever time you predetermine).
It’s refreshing to see an app that works hard to control the amount of times it interrupts the user throughout the day. And for an app that is strongest when users are focusing on a single project, the lack of buzzing distractions will hopefully keep users on task more often and for longer periods. I know it has for me.
You can download Begin for yourself on the App Store. It’s free with a $0.99 in-app purchase (each) for extended features and bonus themes.
Over on my publishing site, BarhamInk.com, I’ve written a couple of posts (one today, one later this week) detailing the cover art portion of the process. They culminate in the reveal of the book cover for my upcoming novel: Fragments.
I hope you all choose to go check it out. The artwork is beautiful. I’m very proud of what the designer and I were able to put together (obviously, she did all the hard work).
From now on, longer posts concerning the book will appear at the Barham Ink blog, though I’ll be linking them here on Think Critical for those who want to follow along with the publishing process but are more interested in reading about tech, apps, games, and Apple.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Theme is more than a simple bullet point to be added amongst the various graphical effects, multiplayer modes, and stat systems. When big name titles aim for thematic resonance, is there ever a possibility in which they can be successful in the way that writing and filmmaking can be? If not, the possibility exists that AAA games are just not the place for thematic subtlety.
Earlier this week, I officially announced that my novel Fragments: Alora’s Tear, Volume I would be published this summer. In the same post, I also promised more information shortly. The response I’ve received so far has been wonderful. Thanks for every share, like, favorite, retweet, and comment that you sent along. Each one means a lot.
In the process of creating the necessary files, researching proper book design techniques, and generally learning about self-publishing, I established Barham Ink: the company name under which all of my personally published works will appear. Along with that, I spent a great deal of time and care creating an online home for Barham Ink and the books that will soon appear there.
One of the things that I found incredibly important in making this site is that it include more than just gigantic links that help direct readers to places where they might purchase books (there’ll be some of those, too). Specifically, readers should be able to find information about writing, the process of creating and publishing one’s own work, and of course, information about the world, characters, and details of the Alora’s Tear series.
So without belaboring the point too much, today I’m announcing BarhamInk.com. Much of the aforementioned material is available on the site already (day one!). And anything that doesn’t appear there is only left out because it might compromise the upcoming story (no spoilers!).
Please, take a moment to have a look around. I’d love to hear your comments. Twitter’s great for this sort of thing. Find me there @natebarham. Also, the contact form on BarhamInk.com would be a great way to test one of the shiny new website features.
Special thanks to Benjamin Brooks for his notes on the site design, Isis Sousa for the brilliant artwork (no cover reveal just yet, but the world map is there if you look for it), and my brother Alex Barham for some of the site’s stunning photography.
Three years ago, I decided to take my opinions about gaming and tech to a public, published place on the web. Big-name writers like John Gruber inspired me. Along the way dozens of others have kept me going. Think Critical was a leap, a bet that an audience existed on the internet who would read the semi-clear thoughts of a guy from Idaho who more than anything just didn’t know anyone personally who cared about this sort of thing.
Today, the leap goes on.
Those paying close attention will have noticed my mentions of the novel I’ve been working on for the last several years. I try to refer to it only occasionally, as it’s not necessarily what an Apple blog reader or a videogame podcast listener signed up for. Now, I can hint at it no longer.
Earlier this year I made the decision to self-publish the work that I’ve poured enormous amounts of time and effort into for far too long. It was time for me to take control of the book’s destiny instead of hoping for destiny to sweep it off its feet and into some publisher’s hands in New York. I immediately hired an editor and booked a cover designer (both of whom were my first choice). Since then, I’ve been working harder than I’ve ever worked on any single project to bring the book to market.
In the coming weeks, that plan goes into action. Today is the beginning: this very post.
I am ridiculously excited to announce that the book’s release is now only weeks away. Written in the epic fantasy tradition, and inspired by all the genre greats, Alora’s Tear, Volume I: Fragments will be available on iBooks, Kindle, and in paperback by the end of the summer!
If you’re reading this, thank you for following my writing here. I sincerely hope you continue to do so. Keep an eye out on this space for news concerning the book. Like I said, this is just the beginning. There’s more, a lot more, and it will be here sooner than you might think.
Or, if you’re the RSS type, subscribe here (it’s a special non-Think Critical feed). You’ll get the updates as soon as they go live.
Much has been said already about Overcast, the new podcast player app from Marco Arment. Out of the gate, I’ll tell you this: I like the apps Marco makes. They tend to solve problems in a way that fits with my mental model, in a style that aligns with my sensibilities. Overcast is much the same in this regard. Additionally I’ve seen comments from people about the release cycle or release machine of big name independent developers like Marco. If this review makes me a cog in the machine, so be it. Think Critical exists as an outlet for me to share the things I like, dislike, find interesting, and think that others will find interesting. If you don’t, my apologies. I call it like I see it.
First things first. If you listen to podcasts, go download Overcast and give it a try. There’s very little reason not to considering the app is free for its basic functionality—including quick trials of the headline audio features. If nothing else, it will help you to better see the design choices you like best in your personal favorite podcast app.
Since I have already addressed the app’s pricing, that leaves just three specific design points I’d like to discuss.
First Run Experience
When you fire up Overcast for the first time, you’re treated to a smooth and personal setup process that is the second reason I recommend downloading it right now. Not only does it cost nothing but time, getting started with shows and subscriptions in the app is as seamless as I can imagine it being. Right of the bat, you set up an Overcast account, complete with the Skeptics FAQ which I found particularly entertaining. It’s a lighthearted take on the heavy privacy language that software so often presents to users. You can see the dense language if you prefer, but I for one was happy to see a realistically readable version.
After signup the import process impresses. You get a list of possible podcast players that you might be using, then specific instructions for exporting (for me it was two taps) and you’re off with Overcast. All the imported shows show up, though as far as I can tell, the state of specific episodes (half-played shows start from the beginning) is not preserved.
Once your subscriptions are imported, the main show and playlist selection screen appears. This is probably the most foreign screen for me as an Instacast user. The mix of text-only playlists and the all shows list with its thumbnails makes the screen seem a bit unfinished. It makes sense to have ended up with this look, but there’s still something about the playlist section that feels hollow.
From there, most users are likely to end up in the playback screen.
So much of Overcast is (apparently) designed for use in the car. Almost all of my podcast listening happens in the car, and though I avoid using the phone (especially for any kind of messaging), features like play, pause, and skip ahead are welcome in Overcast where buttons are larger, better spaced from other controls, and kept to a minimum number. Some podcast apps fill the playback screen with myriad controls and options, horrible for in-car use. Overcast keeps it simple and clear. For that alone, I’ll be keeping it as my default app.
Part and parcel of playback are Overcast’s headline features: Smart Speed and Voice Boost. The latter of these excels, again, in the car. Voices are clearer, more present, and more consistent than with the standard sound settings (or even with the spoken word EQ in the iOS settings). The former feature, Smart Speed, is a bit more controversial. Up until Overcast I rarely listened to podcasts with any playback speed modification. Voices sounded rushed, with unpleasing artifacts and an unnatural cadence. Only in the greatest of need did I use these features (though often with my own shows, where I mostly needed to listen for content concerns). With Overcast’s Smart Speed, I’ve tried to listen with the option both on and off, and I honestly prefer all of my favorite shows with Smart Speed on. It’s not that the shows play faster (though they do), they sound better. The feature tightens up dead time, but not by simply cutting it out, which is one reason that the stock speed options for podcasts sound so awful. Smart Speed shortens pauses, but takes into account that negative space is important in conversation. Personally, I’d love a podcast editing app that used the Smart Speed feature as a starting point, a sort of “Magic Edit” to highlight areas ripe for trimming and with suggested trim amounts (but I digress). Unless you’re an absolute purist, Smart Speed is great.
Overcast’s typography is clear while still retaining that Marco Arment personality. Generally it reminds me more of the choices in The Magazine than in Instapaper. The secondary heading used for dates on the main screen seems oddly angular and stilted, with letter spacing that sometimes makes it difficult to read. The primary heading used in show titles is clear and legibile, pleasant to read and quick to recognize. It’s likely that these are the same font, but that the uppercased and differently spaced dates gives them a contrasting feel.
Overall, this is an excellent 1.0. I’ve noticed some bugs with playlist building (mysteriously vanishing items mostly) and organization, but when it comes to clarity and personality, I’ve yet to see a podcast app that balances the two quite like Overcast. And, more importably for me, it seems to be an app designed with my use cases in mind: mostly listening in the car, appreciative of sound quality and content, but not militant about applying tasteful effects. I’m very interested to see where things go from here. You might be, too. Try it for yourself.
Metal and the investment Apple’s made in its development and support shows that the company’s now taking gaming very seriously, indeed.
I hope he’s right. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big supporter of iOS gaming since the beginning. And while casual gaming is great, and keeps iOS in the gaming picture, the more traditionally graphics-intensive titles are what Metal is going to boost the most.
One of my favorites, Republique, runs on Unity, so I’m hoping for some Metal magic in upcoming episodes. A guy can hope, can’t he?
Dismissive behaviour is usually a mask for envy, moral outrage, character judgement, prejudice of some kind, or even the speaker’s own state of stress. Those are all understandable as reasons for an emotional response. They’re just not excuses.
I often hear this phrase used amongst friends (most often on podcasts, actually) as a play at humor. Gemmell addresses this usage, but the one I find more concerning is the way I see “first world problems” used by certain groups on Twitter and other social media, where it’s generally a bludgeon against an opposing viewpoint, a sort of trumped-up, condescending “nuh-uh.”
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: When does marketing become sheer deception? It’s one thing to manipulate the audience in benign ways, getting them excited for a product that the creators are equally or more so excited about. It’s entirely something else when he marketing dictates what will be included in a game or when a game must be shown in order to generate revenue.
After listening to a recent episode of The Talk Show in which John Gruber and Dave Wiskus discussed the potential future for an iWatch, I started wondering what has pushed the general consensus this far to begin with. We know from sources that Apple has been working with wearable devices and that one of the natural places to start is the wrist. But that’s more or less all we know.
Then, shortly after Gruber and Wiskus, Casey Liss posted some thoughts addressing an angle similar to my line of thinking. Apple’s products, especially in new markets, tend to bring the baseline features that the audience expects, designed in particular Apple style, with something extra added that very few people anticipate. The iPhone is the mother of all examples for this strategy (see The Prompt’s excellent dissection of the original keynote for more details than most could ever want). There were so many features that completely surprised huge segments of the audience. Things like accelerometer rotation, proximity detection, Mac OS X, that scrolling, and on and on.
The iPad had many of the same features as the iPhone, which was the expected part of the announcement. The surprise? The price, for one. But it wasn’t only that. The presenters spent a large portion of the keynote demonstrating how this little slate of aluminum and glass could accomplish productivity tasks in an intuitive way (though they dropped the ball on text-selection and document management). Very few Apple watchers foresaw a (truly) ten-hour tablet that not only ran iOS but did so with an eye on instigating the post-PC movement and did that starting at $500.
I could continue with examples from across the Apple history board (iPod, iTunes, TiBook, iMac, OS X, Cylindrical Mac Pro), but the two iOS devices give us enough to understand the picture as it stands today for wearables, and the seemingly inevitable iWatch. Apple’s greatest hits do something surprising, and their primary use cases tend to be different from the expected. The iPhone is for most people clearly not a phone but a tiny computer with a calls feature. The iPad is a great media device with the potential to replace the primary computer of those who don’t require advanced features (I personally have several friends and family members who only use iPads while their PC’s gather dust) all at the price of a Windows laptop. So how does a wearable fit this picture?
To come to any reasonable conclusion, we have to ask what this device will be for? It’s unlikely to replace the smartphone. UI and current interaction technology preclude this. Our fingers are too big, voice is too inaccurate and distracting to others, and a physical control (think modern day click-wheel) would seem dated regardless of functionality. However, if it doesn’t replace the smartphone, what does it do? The Android solution is that these things are little notification buzzers that dangle from your arm, making glances at incoming information quicker and easier.
This could be the center of a good product if the notifications carried more weight than those on current smartphones. Imagine a screen (LCD or a more static technology) that only showed the most important of your notifications. Our phones have dozens (sometimes hundreds) of notifications that build up over the course of the day. Do we need to look at all of them? No. Do we tend to look at all of them? No. In that case, it stands to reason that surfacing important notifications on a wearable would make sense (think missing a flight, an important meeting, or an insulin shot rather than something like your most recent @ reply on Twitter). Unfortunately, the software and human reality of choosing what is important is an incredibly difficult problem to solve. Unless this is Apple’s surprise, it seems that technology precludes wearables as critical notifications devices.
One of my examples—and with HealthKit, the example that’s on many minds these days—concerns monitoring health, fitness, and medical information. Sensors to do such monitoring are either too invasive or too sensitive to be reliable all day on a wrist device. It isn’t out of the question (in fact, I would be surprised if Apple released a wearable that didn’t address health in some way) but true medical monitoring is better left to the pros, at least as the tech stands today.
If it isn’t notifications and it isn’t health, then what is it that this new device will do or allow us to do that isn’t blatantly obvious? Payments could certainly be easier on a device that is already out and accessible. Though few of us need to shave a couple seconds off a notification check, many have felt the pressure of fiddling with our phones in line at a coffee shop. It’s a bit like being the guy who pays cash in those credit card commercials. And though one usually has to reach into a pocket for a credit card, there’s no unlocking, fingerprinting, app finding, navigating, and so on with a card. Between some of Apple’s new proximity features and a wearable, the payment process could be smoothed considerably.
Or, perhaps the device is passive, hanging there from your wrist “listening” for a number of factors that could aid your smartphone or tablet or Mac to show useful data later. If so, it stands to reason that price would again (as with the iPad) need to be a major factor. For a passive device with no outward dazzle to be successful, customers would need to impulse buy it in addition to their new phones, tablets, etc.
In any case, the Android version of a smartwatch looks less and less like something Apple would bring to market. Even so, there’s a lot of noise around Apple and wearables in general, this post included. For those who like to speculate, and there are a great many of us, the most interesting question is not what Apple’s wearable will do but what Apple’s wearable will do that we don’t expect?
The reality of EHR usage is that – even as late as 2009 – fifty percent of US hospitals were only only halfway electronic. Most just converted the easy stuff to electronic records, like lab results. Less than one percent (!) of them had completely moved beyond paper records. Many still had no electronic records at all.
Yet another rrason the spotlight of the public eye should be cast upon healthcare. How can we expect to have a high-quality modern healthcare system when the industry itself seems so resistant to something as seemingly simple (from the outside) as keeping records in digital form where other hospitals and physicians can see and update them quickly and easily. Isn’t this just the sort of serious, world-changing problem that technology is supposed to solve?
That’s right. Critically Speaking, my podcast with Scott Boren is not dead. Though Do You Have a Mountain Bike? is closing its doors, all subscribers should soon be redirected to our new feed over at ShoutEngine. Scott and I are excited to continue in much the same way as we have been for nearly a year. Apologies for the lapse in time as we arranged our affairs with the new hosting solution. Hopefully, we won’t miss a beat from here on out.
On Episode 38:
What qualifies someone who is passionate about a topic? Be it art, film, or gaming, there is a tendency to designate between those who feel strongly about a medium—and demonstrate those feelings by spending vast amounts of time on it—and those who simply care enough to spend what little time they have being involved. With games, this designation usually produces negativity. Is there a way to be both passionate and spend less time than others or even your past self?
$99 with a full set of entertainment options, but no gaming
$179 with a full set of entertainment options, plus gaming
This TV product would be on an annual release cycle; average consumers would only upgrade every few years (the core OS and most games would support 3 generations), while more serious gamers would upgrade every year providing a nice bit of recurring revenue (this would be much more feasible today, as developers have long since developed the expertise to make games available across multiple architectures).
If Apple were to follow this strategy, and the hints are present in iOS 8 and the videos from WWDC to suggest they might, it would likely be enough to keep me—a lifelong gamer with a gaming podcast, a self-built gaming PC, and a list of past console purchases—from ever buying an Xbox One or PS4. All it would take is the right buy-in from third-party developers, and I’d be sold. In fact, I can’t think of many adult gamers who would continue with the old ways if this were a viable option.
The first version would be underpowered in comparison to a PS4; that’s certain. But if users were able to afford an upgrade every year—or every two years—the consoles simply wouldn’t be able to keep up after only a handful of cycles. Meanwhile, the majority of consumer dollars could go to the games themselves (and the obligatory percentage to the App Store). It’s a future that I hope comes to pass, as I already like the Apple TV and want nothing more than to see it become the hub around which all of my large-screen entertainment centers. If I can add gaming to that list, all the better.
Also, read Thompson’s whole article. This is a guy who gets the industry in a way that many writers seem to not even recognize, let alone have the capability to articulate.
June is always an interesting time. Before I started this site, June was interesting because I was excited to see the new Apple products that I’d likely not be able to buy. Then it became the time of year that I would learn about the new iPhone, whose subsidized pricing made it possible for me not only to own one, but to own a new one everytime there was one. It’s third iteration came as the time of year I was most excited to write about, simply because so much was being said, and the allure of participating was incredibly strong.
This year I find myself loving the keynote, excited about the products, and intrigued by the developer-related information. And yet, I’m unable to write about this June’s news the way that I’ve written in the past.
For one thing, there’s the simple fact that I’m not a developer, and this is the most developer-centered WWDC I can remember. But it’s the second thing that makes me hesitant to comment this time around. There are just so many people of absolutely excellent quality writing about Apple these days. Perhaps they’ve always been out there and as the years go on, I just find more and more of them, but something tells me that it’s more than that. Apple, as a topic, has become crowded.
Even so, amid the teeming thousands of responses to this year’s WWDC keynote, I keep coming back to this bit from Jim Dalrymple:
Apple showed that it’s not just the data that is following the user through iCloud to a variety of devices, but it’s bigger than that—it’s a uniform experience that is following the user.
Now obviously Jim isn’t a personality I had to dive very deep to get to, but sometimes the big names are as big as they are for a reason.
Once again, I’m not a developer, and though announcements like Apple’s new Swift programming language make me wonder if I could ever learn, my propensity for juggling too many side projects makes it unlikely to ever come to pass. But Jim’s piece, and this paragraph in particular, helped me realize something about this year’s presentation that matters immensely to non-developers: Apple’s WWDC 2014 message is one of convergence and philosophy.
For quite some time, the Apple community has speculated about the convergence of Mac OS X and iOS. And time after time, Apple has seemingly rebuffed this notion. But WWDC 2014 reveals to us that the two operating systems are indeed on a collision course, though not in the way the knee-jerk tech pundits predicted.
Apple, as is it’s wont, is playing the long game. The short game says to be platform agnostic with browser-based apps like Google, or to build one OS to rule them all like Microsoft with Windows 8. But these strategies place too much focus (unsurprisingly) on the tech, specifically the services, and not enough on the average user. There is a company that does focus on the user, and that company is Apple. However, though this year looks to be about tech and services like its rivals, it’s really about devices and users.
In 2014 users want cloud-connected, access anywhere, high-utility computing on whichever device is handiest at the moment. It’s akin to the old camera saying in which the best camera is the one you have with you. Users not only want that feeling in the current PC and Post PC market, they expect it. Google and Microsoft provide this by creating an entity that users interact with through their device. They seem to say “buy a Samsung or a Nokia and you can access Google or access Microsoft.” These entities have all of your stuff, whether it be Word documents or Gmail messages, someone (or something) has your stuff and you can get to it if you buy a device and use the attending software.
Apple, on the other hand, has designed their system around the device. Think, “I am using my Mac,” or “I am using my iPhone.” Unlike Microsoft and Google, for whom the device is a layer of abstraction between the user and the primary product, which is the respective company’s services, Apple’s devices are zero layers of abstraction from their primary product: the device itself.
Swift and extensions and widgets and all the others make a better Mac, and a better iPad, and a better iPhone, and a better (most likely) Apple TV or iWearable. Apple seems to see its customers saying “I love using my iPhone, but this feels like something I’d rather finish on my Mac or my iPad. Oh, look at that. I can just work on it there too,” which in turn makes the user love the Mac, iPad, and iPhone even more.
For so long now, we’ve become used to the idea of trashing iCloud as a second class citizen within Apple. “When will they get server-side design and engineering the way they do other parts of their business?” we say on our podcasts and blogs and Twitter streams. The thing is, all of Apple’s services, be it developer or cloud, OS or language, are second class citizens to the device itself.
Apple wants you to love holding, using, and owning its devices. Everything they do supports that philosophy. To them, iCloud is only a problem if it makes people enjoy their devices less. A 4-inch iPhone screen is only a problem if people like their iPhones less because of it. Inter-app communication is only important when it starts to make people like using their iPads less or their phones less than another brand. And the same can be said for all of these in reverse. If it’s making the device worse to use, it will be marked for revision or death (be it slow and steady or quick and merciless).
Without a single hardware announcement, Apple has done more with this keynote to reinforce its position as a device company than all the Surfaces and all the Nexuses and all the Glasses put together. Because for Microsoft and Google, those are just another dumb screen that can see their services. For Apple, the services are there to do just that: serve. They serve the needs of the hardware which serves the needs of the user. The primary need? An enjoyable experience with the device.
So how does this all relate to convergence? With one WWDC, Apple has taken a bigger step toward it than ever before. But it’s where they are converging that matters most. Apple and the developer community around it now have the ability to give us the one device that does it all. That device? The one that’s in your hand or your lap or on your desk right now.
I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of Microsoft’s Surface. Sure, it seems a bit too divided, a bit too “I can just have everything, can’t I?” But despite its obvious conceptual shortcomings, a device that is all things to all people has an appeal.
On more than one occasion I’ve talked about using the iPad for work, writing in particular. I see it as the future of computing and if Apple plays their cards right, the primary non-smartphone computing platform.
After the introduction of the surface Pro 3, discussions arose around the announcement and a piece by Ben Thompson in which he calls for the end of the Surface line.
Even in my clearly Apple-biased view, this makes little sense from a product and marketing standpoint even while it makes a great deal of sense on a profit to loss basis.
Microsoft fell behind when the internet first showed signs of growing into what it has now become, and it bought and crushed its way back into the space. It fell behind again when Vista was a flop, but most spectacularly with the smartphone. They were caught flat-footed (as was everyone) but weren’t able to force their way back to power. And though Windows Phone isn’t dead, it sure doesn’t look all that promising.
With the Surface, Microsoft has the potential to be ahead of the curve. They’re doing taking a different tact with tablets, zigging when everyone else is doing a variation on Apple’s zag.
If there is a future in which the primary work device is a tablet with a desktop operating system, then the Surface could give Microsoft the edge they’ve long needed. They’re thinking differently (yeah, I know) though we’ll have to wait and see whether it’s different good or different not so good.
The AI level designer would respond to comments like these by assembling realistic worlds and objects – not procedurally generated stuff, which would look intentionally random, but realistically generated stuff: a tarp covering a leaky roof; dog’s nose prints on a storm door; soggy U-Haul boxes; a stack of mail. The game developers will think they’ve built a design tool, but what they’ll actually have built is the death of software as we know it.
Something about this idea has me both intrigued and repulsed. The thought of an AI this capable is equal parts creepy and fascinating. I don’t know whether to hope I live to see this or to hope that it never happens. Either way, great thoughts from Sinclair.
Internet friend o’ mine and all around interesting guy, Linus Edwards has started up a new site he’s calling The Otherside. He also calls it an experiment, and maybe it is, but what it sounds like to me is the culmination of his thoughts on writing for the web over the last six months to a year.
There’s no date system in the design, no endless most-recent-first articles list, no comments. It starts with two sections: Ideas and Stories. The first takes you to writing that resembles an ordinary blog, but unlike many other sites (this one included), you’ll find no linked-list items, just thoughtful, full-length articles. The second section is even more interesting. Beyond the Stories link, you’ll find Linus’s short fiction.
At the moment there are three short stories, each with a clear personality that helps to set the tone for the site in general. The current crop ranges from an introspective videogame protagonist to a dystopian orphanage resident, each thrumming with atmosphere and a looming sense of unease.
I’m intrigued to watch this new site grow. And though I’ve always been a fan of the articles Linus writes on VintageZen, I’m eager to read more of his fiction. It’s always good to see writers pushing their own boundaries and stretching the expectations for content on the web.
Check it out. Even the longest of the Stories only requires a few minutes.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: If purchasing decisions tie less and less to the opinion of a published review, what place do reviews have in the gaming industry? This week Scott and I discuss the neccesity of gaming reviews and their power over sales.
We’ve had the iOS 7 design for a year now. It was about time someone decided that it needs to go. And because I can’t resist such debates, I’ll engage.
Jon Mitchell on his site, Everything is ablaze! has had enough of icon grids, be they shiny and reflective or flat and simplified. But more so than the look of the icons, he’s had it with what they do.
The problem is that these icons do not neatly correspond with the actions I want to take from my phone, and since they’re so indistinct, I end up staring, studying my home screen when I should be doing something and then putting my phone away. That’s frustrating.
I agree that this situation is frustrating, but what Mitchell assumes here, and throughout his article is that users want an action-based interface. The brilliance of the iPhone interface was—and is—in the simple genius of “Tap to open an app, home button to close.” If a user taps Mail, they get email. If they tap Calculator, they get calculator, Weather for weather, Calendar for calendar, and so on.
In a truly action-based interface, the Text action could possibly take me to any of these as well as Notes, Reminders, and countless others. What used to take me one tap in a familiar app now takes at least two taps, one of which includes a leap of faith that the action I’ve chosen corresponds to the secondary actions that might follow. So instead of finding the app that does my task I’m stuck trying to choose the type of content I want to create and what to do with it before I’m even in the area of the interface that lets me make the choice.
Let’s say I want to send an email. Instead of tapping Mail, I go to Text which could be used for anything text-related. Now, for me that isn’t a stretch, and it might even be nice if I want to send the text into or through various channels before it gets to the final destination of email. However, for someone less tech-savvy and geeky, this is a significantly worse situation. If I’m an ordinary user, I now in fact cannot find email or accomplish the task at all because Text does not necessarily connote email to me.
Mitchell’s article uses Launch Center Pro as the closest example available on iOS today. Not to go fully into the argument uneducated, I downloaded Launch Center Pro and used it as he suggests.
The first issue I encountered in working with Launch Center Pro is that it’s just plain complicated to convert the ideas of where you go to do something into what you want to do. Let’s say I want to search Twitter for a person whose handle I don’t know so I can follow them (virtually the only thing I ever want to search on Twitter). Step one is to make sure that my Twitter client is supported (and since I use Tweetbot, I’m lucky on that front). Now I need to assign an action that somehow does what I want. There’s one to search for a user, but then I need to add a prompt to the action so I can type in my query. If you’re able to figure all of that out, Launch Center Pro sends you out to Tweetbot which then gives an error that the user could not be found (I tested using a person who is in fact on Twitter, so there’s a problem somewhere). In addition, the app isn’t even in the right navigational area (according to my mental map) to search users, which in turn means that I can’t even search manually once I’m in the app.
Not a good experience, especially when I would argue that the ordinary user would never have gone past the “What action corresponds to my place-based mental model?” question.
Now, I know Mitchell has his reasons for such a post—not the least of which being that it’s fun to speculate and talk about design details—but I think it brings to light one of Apple biggest current challenges. Power users want a better way to work with iOS, whether work means tasks that are more commonly associated with the mouse and keyboard paradigm or simply just a way to do the things that iOS can already do in a faster and more efficient manner. On the other side are the folks who (though the likely don’t realize it) have gravitated toward iOS because it lacks these additional complexities, even if they were to be hidden.
Take a look at the recent apps tray from iOS 6 and the similar interface from iOS 7. Both are meant to help out power-users of iOS by giving the user access to information about the apps they have been running or that might possibly still be doing some kind of multitasking in the background. Both are fairly well hidden from the average user, requiring either a double home button tap or a multitasking gesture. The effect of this feature has generally been one of increased negativity. Power-users find it too limiting (which will be true until they have full control of every detail that is available on a desktop system) while ordinary users find that it only adds stress.
Think about it. How many stories (and real-life examples) do you know of in which a non tech-savvy person has made a ritual of opening the recent apps view and killing all of the apps within it? And then, on top of that, they usually describe it as a remedy for system slowdown or a way to keep their iPhone from filling up, meanwhile they can’t install the latest updates because every picture they’ve ever taken is on the device which only further strengthens their belief that quitting the apps will help them as their phone is constantly reporting that it is out of storage space.
It’s a design nightmare. How is that person going to navigate an action-based system? The answer is that they’re not. Perhaps with some future version if iOS made for a Pro caliber device, we’ll see actions and quick menus ala Launch Center Pro. I just hope that in that future very app is able to support the actions because in my time as an action-based iOS user that was not the case. My favorite apps didn’t support actions, and if they did, they didn’t behave how I expected them to. And that’s the name of the “computers for the rest of us” game.
When I interact with my device, does it intuitively do what I expect? If yes, we’re at least on the right track. If no, well, at least we nerds will have a new design feature to complain about.
Another retirement was announced at Apple and people clutched their pearls. What could it mean? They must not like it there! That means things are bad! There’s more than one person that is leaving! That must be really bad!
Then everyone forgot about that crisis by the afternoon because there was a new rumor that Apple was buying Beats…
I was going to write about this, but Steel pretty much says it all. Personally, I wouldn’t have went with the sun-will come-out-tomorrow bit, as I love speculating about Apple and all its related topics—it’s why I created the site. Where I agree most though, and the reason I probably won’t have much more to say on the subject is this:
Since switching to Markdown, I want to write. I want to take notes, I want to record my thoughts and ideas properly, I want to document things. And after two years of doing it, I still want to write. This is no fad. Markdown takes the hassle out of writing, and removes the barriers to get started.
Though I’ve spent a lot of words explaining why the iPad is great for writing, heaping praise on Scrivener, and critiquing other writing apps for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, the truth is this: there would be no Think Critical without Markdown. I use it for much more now than just posts on this site, but of all the software tools that I use, Markdown is the one that I can’t imagine writing without.
I’ve never adopted it into my fiction workflow, though I can see why using it would make life significantly easier in multiple respects. Maybe I’ll give it a shot when I start my next project.
It’s funny—to me at least—that I started Think Critical after realizing that Daring Fireball was the first blog that made sense to me from a creative perspective. I could see myself creating content in that fashion. And, once I discovered Markdown, I could enjoy both the content and the process. I was sold. Here’s to many more Markdown formatted posts.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Every genre has a defining title that sets the stage for a new, more polished generation. But at some point, the product reaches a quality that requires more effort to improve than the return benefit. While no game or series is perfect, sometimes the right response is to strike out into new territory in search of the next diamond in the rough.
I am a big proponent for high production value games on iOS. I’ve made no secret of this. I openly supported and backed the Republique Kickstarter and even interviewed the lead developer for the game on Critically Speaking. There are few topics that I’ve argued as fervently for and few (in the realm of tech) that I’d like more to see become reality.
Now, there a plenty of examples if you want great iOS games, but most of them come from small teams with small budgets (though frequently with big ideas). Typical titles from the big budget companies tend to be cash grabs (Infinity Blade being the most prominent exception, and to a lesser degree XCOM: Enemy Unknown). Many are variations upon the themes of endless runner, city builder, or match three. There are a handful (probably a large hand) of spinoff games based on popular console titles, but when it comes to complete, self-contained gaming experiences, iOS is almost all indie.
And don’t get me wrong. I’ve gushed about more than just Republique on this site—Sword and Sworcery and Bastion come to mind. However, it’s somehow refreshing to see a big, well-established gaming company with a history of quality and success stepping into the iOS space with a complete and polished product.
That company is Blizzard and that product is Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. One look at this game and you know that much has been left on the iOS gaming table in terms of sheer attention to detail. The key to a great iOS game is native interaction, and Hearthstone has it. Cards move with a fluidity that makes them feel lightweight, as though you’re a casino dealer in a Vegas movie. Flip a card here, slap a spell card down there, rifle through your unplayed cards, every move tracks directly with your fingers—just as all great iOS apps do—and so few traditional games on the platform do.
In essence Hearthstone is a Magic: the Gathering-style collectible card game, only everything happens digitally. No actual dead tree and ink items to collect. The game, made for two players, pits the various classes from World of Warcraft against each other. Each turn, players gain an additional mana point with which they can play spell or creature cards. And that’ s the gist: build a deck, execute your strategy, react to the other player’s deck, and try to bring their health to zero. This is not special. It’s standard for just about any game of this type. The brilliance of Hearthstone is in its execution.
My first memories of Blizzard games all the way back to Warcraft: Orcs and Humans are of the sound effects and music. Specifically, Warcraft 2: Tides of Darkness had units with specific spoken dialogue when selected, commanded to move, attack, or stay, and of course when clicked too much. Both humans and orcs had differing sounds, and to a junior-high boy of twelve or so, they were hilarious. In addition, the musical score set the scene, building a mental visual for Azeroth when the technology for visuals was still in its early stages.
Hearthstone recalls and expands upon those memories. During loading sequences, the old soundtracks make an appearance, creature cards speak the old lines (though re-recorded for higher quality audio and consistency), and they all have that quirky and often amusingly immature Blizzard humor. I no longer laugh out loud, but I do smile and shake my head, thinking of bouts of hysterical laughter out of the past.
But it’s not all nostalgia. Hearthstone’s visuals impress across the board, from opening new packs of cards, to flipping those cards over, to the initial opening of the Hearthstone box that begins the game. The frame rate is smooth, not as one expects from a usual iOS game, but with the smoothness we expect from iOS apps in general (think, “Scrolls like butter,” and you’ve got it). Creature icons fracture and crumble, each with a satisfying crunch or explosion that only further increases the physicality of player actions. Spell effects are gorgeous, yet not overreaching. No spell takes up a full screen nor do they waste time with unnecessary flourishes.
Above all, Hearthstone is a game that constantly thinks about the user, thanks in part to extensive player testing, but also because of the experience Blizzard brings to the table after years of producing polished games to one of the most demanding audiences in the industry.
Assuming you have an iPad, there’s really no excuse to not download this game. It’s free on the App Store and will not pester you with in-app purchase options (though you can buy card packs if you feel so inclined). If nothing else, load it up and see what iOS gaming can look like when a big traditional games company focuses on players more than quick-hit profits.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Games have always striven toward the goal of creating believable virtual worlds, but with the recent advancements from Oculus and Sony’s Project Morpheus, VR is closer to becoming a reality than ever before. What happens when the world you choose to escape to is populated by your Facebook friends list?
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Sometimes the best topics come stright from the news of the day. This week’s episode does just that. CryEngine on SteamOS, a Crisis for the console market, and a handful of PC and iOS games fill out the discussion.
A couple of weeks ago, the usual suspects were abuzz with a new app. I’ve made it a point to take a look at releases like these, as they often come with a lot of fanfare, praise, and even a few pledges to replace coveted home screen real estate. This time, the app is Checkmark 2, a to-do list with focus on location-based reminders.
First off, and honestly the bit that I think garners Checkmark a place in lists like these to begin with, is the visual design. Animations are smooth and lively; check circles (instead of boxes) swivel like spun coins, strikethrough lines sweep across the item cell, colors shift subtly to indicate state. By most measures the app is beautiful. But that isn’t enough. This is a to-do app. And in such a popular category, the bar is already high.
Next is Checkmark’s most impressive feature. Location-based reminders. Regardless of the rest of the app, and the rest of this review, no other app I’ve used even comes close here. In fact, were Apple to add the same functionality to its own reminders app, I can think of no greater single way that they could improve it. Here, the most important feature is the ability to add a location by dropping a pin. It’s quick, easy, and so brilliantly obvious that I find it difficult to understand why Apple hasn’t been doing it this way all along. On top of that, when you add a location, a selector comes up at the bottom of the screen indicating the size of the geofencing area. I found this incredibly useful when needing a reminder for “when I get into town.” Location based reminders are the reason I’m still using Checkmark and why I will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
I do have a couple of criticisms, however. There’s an issue (or at least I’m assuming that it isn’t intended) where the map view readjusts to a too-near zoom level when selecting the area for a new location. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but one that users will encounter frequently when first starting out with the app. The more locations added, the more unwanted zooms and re-zooms.
The second issue I had was with location groups, a great feature with which you can select several related locations that trigger a single reminder item. The best example is the grocery store. There are likely several in your town or city, and all of them likely sell milk or eggs or whatever it is you need to pick up. With groups, Checkmark will remind you when you arrive at any store that’s grouped into that category.
My issue was with understanding this functionality without having read a review like this one. In the app, location groups appear to be a way that you can organize your locations. For instance, I tried to drag and drop all the locations in my town into one group labeled with the town’s name. Needless to say, the behavior didn’t align with my mental model. A hint, triggered upon first use, would go a long way in remedying this situation; or, if that seems too ham-fisted, a visual cue that suggests these items will trigger together rather be grouped in a folder, sub-folder sort of way.
Lastly, I find myself jumping around in the app too much. Most of my time is spent navigating from one section to the next when it should be a simple, drop in, check an item, drop out process (a recent update greatly improves this).
So, I’ve labeled this post with consider rather than recommended not because I think Checkmark isn’t worth your time or money. On the contrary, it is. Just be sure you know what you’re getting: a beautiful app, like most apps that hit the usual Mac nerd blogs, but one that’s a bit high-maintenance for certain situations. If location based reminders are a staple for you, it’s easily worth the purchase price.
For my everyday reminders, I’ll still be using Fantastical.
I don’t see an easy way to solve this problem. It seems users have this conflicted nature of wanting both simplicity and complexity, and app developers can’t keep both sides happy.
A great article and idea from Linus, but I found myself shaking my head by the end, not because I think it’s a bad argument (I don’t, of course) but because I see this “churn” as a blessing rather than a problem.
Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
As it is with life, so it is with software. The cruft of the old is swept away by the new and fresh, “unbruised” as Shakespeare might have said and unburdened by the cares of the past.
But unlike life, at least unlike human life, software evolves at breakneck speed. The accruing complexity of an app like Castro or an operating system like iOS, is near enough to the mistakes of its forebears to learn from them.
Simplified writing apps (about which I know a little) tend to add complexity just like any other app does. But not even the most complicated and poorly managed will ever end up with the monstrosity that is Word’s Ribbon Interface. And even though my guess would be that most of Microsoft’s designers hate the Ribbon just as much, they are faced with being the crufty and old. Their customers would never allow even a mild simplification, let alone the steps necessary to make Word into a pleasant user experience. Look no further than Windows 8 (and furthermore 8.1) for your evidence.
It took the compound complexity of Windows and OS X to spur the development of iOS (and Windows Phone). Designers must follow the branches of the complicated in order to create the essential versions that come later.
When I’m not writing this site or teaching high school students, a large portion of my time is given over to fiction. After several years’ work, I have a novel (possibly two, depending on what one considers appropriate length) which I’ve been shopping around to agents for the last six months or so.
In writing said novel, I primarily used three1 applications. Two of these I could hardly consider writing another book without. One is Scrivener. No review I could write would do that program justice. Let it suffice to say that Scrivener is the tool for serious writers. It has a significant learning curve, but the capabilities are well worth the investment of time and laughably small (relative to its utility) amount of money.
The second app essential to my fiction writing process is OmniOutliner. And though Scrivener has an outline function that I also use, sometimes a tool built for a specific task is just the right choice no matter how good your all-purpose tool is. With the recent release of OmniOutliner 4, now seems like a great time to give a recommendation.
Some minds think linearly while others are more spatial. I’m a linear thinker. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely find OmniOutliner an indispensable application. Take a look at the last piece of fiction you wrote. Sure enough, there’s likely a timeline in the notes. Whether it came into being as the words flowed onto the page or was painstakingly constructed before the drafting process began, every story has a point A from which to begin and a point B at which to end. OmniOutliner helps writers plan the spaces between.
Essentially, OmniOutliner is a program that creates topics and subtopics. Like most well-made software, it boils down easily to its primary elements. Why would you want a tool that seemingly does so little? Well, as ever, it’s all in the details.
Navigating lists and topics happens quickly and fluidly. The new version leverages many of the graphical bells and whistles of modern OS X applications, though never just for the sake of the flourish. Sub categories slide in and out of place, aiding the user in visualizing hierarchy and order. Controls for customizing the look and feel of each item and sub-item do everything from color code for organization to stylize for print or electronic publication.
The entire list system is drag and drop friendly. Just click an item and place it anywhere within the outline at any hierarchical level. In fiction, this is an incredibly useful feature. For every planned story beat, a half-dozen more sprout up as the characters move through their journeys. In such cases, a quick drag and drop reorders the events and helps to visualize areas of the story that drag or are unnecessary. Sort, resort, collapse, expand. Everything is smooth and serves the purpose of the writer.
OmniOutliner surprises as note-taking application as well. Items can even be assigned check boxes for task-oriented users. In addition, any list item can take on an attachment: an image if you happen to have a photo or video to take the place of a description, even an audio note recorded on the device or attached from elsewhere. Personally, my outlines are text only, but the app allows much to be done by those who would utilize all of its features.
And though it’s been a pleasure to use, and a tool I’d rather not write without any time soon, there are some shortcomings. The Omni Group’s applications tend to stay fairly close to the Apple defaults; Outliner is no exception. Unfortunately that means window placement is only stored and refreshed if the user has opted to restore all windows from the previous session in the OS preferences.
I use OmniOutliner for fiction primarily, but I also have a handful of documents that I use in my job as a teacher. Restoring from last session is useless for me, causing far more grief than convenience. So I turn it off. Then, when the weekends come along and I have more time, I open up my writing environment (which an Automator script handles as there are a number of applications and files). Before version 4.0, I was able to keep my several Outliner windows positioned such that I could easily switch between current story outline, timelines, character spreadsheets (in Numbers), and others. Now that positioning has to be laid out each time I sit down to write. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but a seemingly unnecessary one. Even Apple’s own iWork apps remember window state. It’s an extra inconvenience for the user, and a company as good about user experience design as The Omni Group should recognize this.
Despite this, and a few other lesser quibbles, OmniOutliner is still an excellent application and downright essential for writers who think and write well in a classic category-sub category format. Pick it up for $49.99 in the Mac App Store2.
The third is Pages, but Scrivener has fully taken over as the app where I do all of my drafting and editing. ↩
Or for iPad, though I do not own and have not used this version. ↩
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Time will outlast us all, if it even exists, but in gaming, time is often a tool or a feature or altogether absent. What happens if games focus on time in a different way? In life, we grow, we live, we build families and communities, and then we die. The story doesn’t end there. Future generations carry on the legacy. Could the same be made true for our in-game selves?
Over the last week or so, the conversation around podcasts turned to the question of ads and editorial integrity. I’ve stayed mostly out of it, but then I read Jaime Ryan’s impassioned piece from this weekend. In his own words:
Much of the conversation centred around podcasts and whether or not the host(s) of a podcast would be able to freely discuss a topic that may potentially paint a sponsor in a bad light. As far as I’ve seen this is all still hypothetical because nobody actually has a solid example of where this has already happened.
As he explains further, I don’t have any skin in the game insofar as Critically Speaking doesn’t run ads, but I do in the sense that I record a show every week, consider my audience, and hope some day to generate income from my online content creation efforts.1
For me this argument is not, and never has been, about editorial integrity. Audiences are difficult to acquire, difficult to maintain, and extremely fragile. The trust a writer builds with his or her audience is possibly the most important factor in creating a successful online presence. Betraying that trust is very different from when similar conflicts happen in other media. Often in such cases, show hosts, reporters, and columnists have massive audiences maintained by the monolithic, old-media outlets for which they produce content. Unless the whole audience (or at least an enormous segment) is offended, these producers have little to worry about. This is not the case on the web, especially with podcasts.
In podcasting, the audience shows up every week for the particular voice of the host(s). And not just in the physical sense. The best shows, the ones that not only make it onto my devices but those that actually get played, have a personality and connection to the audience unlike any other medium I’ve ever experienced. In addition, aside from a few massive shows, the audience numbers are much smaller overall with podcasts, so each individual is more present as an audience member than with other forms where the subscriber count is higher.
So what does that mean for ad-driven podcasts vs. ad-free? It boils down to this. It is my opinion that some people simply hate ads. They spoil site designs, add elements of unpredictability from a user (and sometimes creator) perspective, are often repetitive or only loosely connected to the content of the show, and generally represent the established, click-obsessed web. The question of integrity is merely an additional item in this list, another reason for certain creators to keep ads at arms length—especially when they hate all of the others listed above.
In the end we’re dealing with a question of user experience. As a content creator, podcaster or otherwise, do you want your audience to hear a handful of (sometimes overlong, sometimes repetitive) ads in return for a viable monetization strategy, or do you want to preserve the (perceived) cleanness and clarity of an ad-free production while somehow generating money through other avenues or by producing your show for free? Either way, the acceptance of ad revenue does not implicate any sort of editorial bias. It does create the possibility, just as it creates the possibility of a listener dropping the show on account of ad fatigue. And, it does not mean that the ad-free show chose to stay as such solely because the host is afraid of having their editorial voice placed in jeopardy (whether they claim it or not).
The possibility of bad behavior does not guarantee its inevitability. Both models are design choices and, as long as the producer has the audience in mind (and the importance of audience trust only further ensures that it will), both can provide great material.
All things I assume we have in common, though he is already generating revenue. ↩
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: In life everyone has their pet peeves, and the same is true with videogames. Whether it’s piles of junk everywhere or slow travel from place to place or stilted dialogue, game designers should keep an eye out for the things that bring their audiences to nails-on-the-chalkboard levels of irritation.
At the University of Idaho, where I earned my undergraduate degree, there’s a room with two floor-to-ceiling glass-paneled sides. One of its three entrances connects to the Einstein Brothers bagel shop (which in my day was simply a campus cafe called Common Grounds). I spent many afternoons in the glass-paneled room; it has a name, but I always preferred to call it the Quiet Room. There was a no talking policy, no noise at all in fact, except for the baby grand piano in the corner, often played beautifully by an elderly man who stopped by for fifteen minutes or so every couple of days. I never asked his name.
One day, ensconced in one of the faux-leather chairs, PowerBook in my lap, unfinished literary essay in a long since forgotten version of Word for OS X open behind my web browser, I paged idly through Slashdot or Digg or MacRumors. Glancing up from the screen, I saw a young man making his way across the room towards me.
"So, you’re a Mac guy?" he asked, but it wasn’t really a question.
Now, I am not what you might call comfortable in social situations and even more so with a stranger approaching me in my silent sanctuary.
"Uh, yeah." I tried to smile in the way an affable, approachable Mac user might.
"Nice, man." He flopped into the chair next to mine, rummaging through a messenger bag (a rarity at the time), finally producing a thin black USB hard drive, the cord wrapped in a snarl around its center. "I got into ‘em because of the music. What about you?"
I said something about ease of use; at the time I couldn’t say what I know now—that I love hardware and software that pays an unusual amount of attention to details that average users rarely, if ever, notice.
“We gotta stick together, you know? Check this out,” he continued.
With a flick of his wrist, he popped open his computer (a white plastic iBook), plugged in the portable drive, and brought up the Finder. Inside were folders and folders of music, easily thousands of songs. He aimed the screen at me. “See anything you like?”
Now it’s important to remember that this was many years ago. My thoughts on pirated music or software have shifted greatly since then, mostly in response to my desire to become someone who makes a portion of their income from content creation. But on that day in the Quiet Room, I was a cheap, naive college student in a bizarrely high-pressure social situation.
Whether I took the guy up on his offer or not is beside the point. We went on to talk a bit more about the Mac, until we started drawing looks from others in the room. Naturally, I wasn’t the only person who came to this place in order to get away from the noise. Eventually, he packed up his machine and headed out with a wave and a smile.
To this day I wonder if he would’ve approached me had I been typing away on a Dell or a Sony or a (then IBM) ThinkPad.
During the summer months I still take classes at the University of Idaho. It’s only a short walk from my house, and the course content still teaches me something new every time. And some days I sit in the Quiet Room in the same chair, wondering if someone were to come through the glass doors with a MacBook under their arm, would they see the Apple logo on my iPad and strike up a conversation? Or, in light of Apple’s recent popularity, would they see not a kindred spirit—another person who gets it—and instead see nothing at all, just a student (a little old for the university scene these days) hunched over a glowing screen, like everybody else.
Isn’t that what 2003 me wanted? An Apple computer in virtually everyone’s hands, a diminished Microsoft, computers thin and light enough that you’d hardly notice them in a backpack, battery life that lasts all day. It was. But now, instead of being “the Mac guy,” I’m just another guy with a Mac.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Sometimes our characters talk, and other times we make them talk. What happens when our choices mean as little in the first case as they do in the second? Can a game take away player agency and still be better for it? For character dialogue, that just might be true.
In our case, given 39 years of success, it’s more about reinvention. We’ve had great successes, but our future is not about our past success. It’s going to be about whether we will invent things that are really going to drive our future.
Well, that’s certainly a nice way to begin as Microsoft’s new CEO. It will be interesting to see if this self awareness translates to the products and services that reach their customers. Though I’m not and haven’t been a big Microsoft supporter over the years, I do want to see significant competition for Apple and other tech companies. It’s easy to forget that Apple interested me in the first place because they create amazing things with technology. The more companies doing that, the better.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Nothing is a pure original, but if that is true, then what does it mean when videogame protagonists are so homogenized that they can be boiled down to a series of journal entries of no more than a paragraph?
You have to be able to open the creaking door to your own personal archive, fumble for the light switch, then stroll in and rummage around until you find something that helps illustrate a certain point, or drives a particular narrative. It’s a perverse, backwards process, because that’s not how our lives work. Those experiences are writing us.
And then the author—a character himself—his story written by his own experience, pens a fictional entity, a representation of his feelings toward the events which started it all.
It is here that we advance our understanding. Authors serve to filter a nonsensical reality into clarified commentary, producible only through the combination of experience and reflection.
Nothing crazy about it though, the iPad and iPhone, seem to me to be the perfect writing machines. They are regularly always with you so they allow you to start writing almost anytime and anywhere. When one can let go of the fear and let built in tools like auto-correct help, you might be surprised how fast one can become on the built in keyboard. But, as explained, part of the benefit is that it also can slow one down just enough to be more intentional with the words they choose and careful about the accuracy of the typing. I actually find I make less typos and am more quick to catch those I do when doing so in this way. In short, the iPad and iPhone help me write more often, in more situations, and write better.
I wish I could communicate this convincingly in my day job. The iPad often requires a reconsideration of one’s approach to a task, not a limitation to whether that task is possible. And as time goes on, more and more tools appear to do incredible things with computing devices that are light, friendly, and infinitely more accessible than their forebears.
Next week, Critical Distance will be running a special edition of This Week in Videogame Blogging in honor of Black History Month. Similar to how our Women’s History Month roundup worked last year, this special will exclusively feature work by and curation from black writers.
I worry I might eventually get lost along the way, not able to keep up with the rapid pace of ever changing networks the same way as when I was younger. I’ll get stuck in some dying network, while people younger than me will continue to adopt the newest and shiniest networks. By the time I catch on to those new networks, they will already be in decline and on their way out. I’ll never be able to catch up.
I think I’ll be alright to watch the throng kids—with their wild haircuts and indecipherable slang—as they stumble their way home from some trendy new nightclub while I head to the diner for my morning coffee with the guys1.
But as a reader, I only use my phone to read when I’m in between places. And that reading is very shallow, a cursory look at items that would be consumed in more depth at some later time. So I had hoped that there would be an iPad version as well.
I feel the same way. Though I like Unread on iPhone, I think I’d love it on the iPad.
Every few weeks, a well-known indie developer releases a new app. You’ve seen it. Twitter timelines fill with links to reviews or 140-character praises or the grinning confessions of beta testers. They mention each other, and you gape on, thumb hovering above the install button—just a password or fingerprint away from becoming one with the stream.
The latest in this phenomenon is Unread by Jared Sinclair, an iPhone RSS client of quiet clarity and express purpose.
"Read, don’t skim," it seems to say. And so went the chorus through the echo chamber to which I now add a reverberation of my own.
And a touch of criticism. Ok, mostly criticism.
You’ll see I’ve labeled this post with “consider” rather than my usual, “recommended,” and that’s because I can’t wholeheartedly encourage a purchase just yet. Unread is a good app (maybe even a great one), but it’s not for everyone.
Unread begins with feed presentation that will be unfamiliar to many longtime Reeder users (like myself) who are accustomed to seeing only the feeds that remain unread. Instead, Unread shows all feeds, even when they have no new items. I found it very off putting at first and am only now, after a few days usage, coming around to the idea of focusing on my unread list at large as opposed to working my way through categories and individual feeds. A few days is probably much longer than the average person would subject themselves to a design difference which causes any amount of friction at all. This may be just such an example.
Next, read items persist even after they have been marked as such, which further increases the resistance certain users feel when moving through item lists, especially if you prefer to sort by oldest first. Doing so means scrolling through a number of unread items before you reach new material. There’s a setting that remedies this—and which puts an ugly red box around unread counts—but even then, the feature isn’t immediately understandable by its description. I tried it because it was one of the few things I could change. Luckily it did the trick.
As far as I can tell, there is no option for adding and removing feeds at this time, an unfortunate feature omission when Unread seems to encourage users to reduce their number of subscriptions and focus more on the best sites. Over the last few days, many of the people in my Twitter stream are dropping subs like they were Apple shares after a quarterly report. I’m as much a victim of this behavior as anyone. My list needed pruning, and Unread provides the necessary nudge.
Further, the app doesn’t include an inline Readability text-only view (by design) which means that on a number of sites, you’ll spend your time in the in-app web browser. That on its own would be fine, but Unread’s web view is kind of a mess. Others won’t say it, but I will. Perhaps Sinclair over-designed or under-designed here, but it’s just not working as is. Pages stay on the browser until a new one takes their place. It’s jarring to be reading about app design, only to tap a link and see the screenshots from the game review I was reading earlier in the day. That experience alone seems counter to the focused, thoughtful reading environment that unread provides most of the time. The web view toolbar is even rougher around the edges. The back and forward buttons, and their neighboring lines (which apparently remind the user of Unread’s gesture navigation), look somehow less polished than the rest of the app and only serve to duplicate the gesture functionality.
Now of course there are some positives to Unread, and if your internet sources are anything like mine, you know them already. There’s the article list, with its long previews and precise use of white space. Hopefully it’s a bug, but currently the preview does not match the format of the actual site, smashing block quotes up into the intro text on many posts. Above all however, is the full screen reading view, which is light and peacefully focused. Something about the font that Sinclair has chosen just begs to be read. It makes me wish I could custom typeset more apps to match.
For now, I’m heeding the call of the bloggers and indie developer cheerleading squad that praises the newest app as the one to take the place of “X” on their home screens. But I do so tentatively. I want to like Unread. I really do, and there’s so much of it that I prefer over all other RSS apps. If you’re reading this and haven’t yet decided to pull the trigger on a purchase (I mean, it’s only $2.99 during launch), I don’t know how much help I can be. I will say this: if you like the screenshots of the full screen reading view and the large-preview article list, it won’t be a wasted three bucks. In other words, consider it.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: Without action there can be no stealth. Or is it, without stealth there can be no action? Either way, sneaking, hiding, and gathering information in order to get the upper hand on NPCs or other players is a fascinating and thrilling experience when done right.
Rumors and opinions abound concerning a larger iPhone and its importance to Apple. I’ll say it right now. No fake financial analysis or amateur design tips (though I’m usually happy to give the latter). No historical Apple ethos justification. Just this.
I don’t want one.
In the fifteen or so years that I’ve been following Apple, there are fewer than a handful of products ever released that I didn’t want on some level. This would be one of them. I’m not suggesting that Apple shouldn’t make such a device, or even that other people wouldn’t want it, just that I don’t think Apple will make one. I don’t see the utility, the benefit, the ergonomics, nothing.
So why take such an unabashedly narcissistic stance? I mean, Apple doesn’t exist solely to fulfill my over-privileged technology desires. For one, with rumors and predictions, virtually everyone is just going with their educated gut instinct. Mine says that Apple tends to make products I like and want time and again. Even the square iPods or the Mac Mini held some sort of allure, but a 5” phone? Every version of such a thing that I’ve come into contact with is unwieldy and seems trapped in the not-a-tablet, not-a-smartphone wasteland similar to the space occupied by the Microsoft Surface.
Now, if there were a larger iPhone option, I wouldn’t turn up my nose for no reason. It’s the 5+ inch rumors with which I take issue. Unless Apple is able to defy physics, making a device that’s physically smaller than its screen, an extra large iPhone would simply be too big for a device used mostly in one hand that spends the rest of its life placed comfortably in a pocket.
Honestly, I’d love the fabled and oft concept rendered edge-to-edge iPhone with a larger screen. I just don’t think it’s worth growing the device’s physical size more than a few millimeters at most.
Everyone, in other words, seems to have strong opinions about what Apple should be doing. And a remarkable percentage of the people who share their thoughts state them not as a suggestion or a preference but as an imperative so absolute that ignoring it could plunge the company into crisis.
I try to do my best to avoid prescribing courses of action for companies. And though that is my intent, I’m sure intrepid archive searchers could find instances where I haven’t qualified my opinions. However (and McCracken does this himself in the article) when giving opinions on technology, it’s difficult not to frame some of it as advice.
The section I agree with least, though, comes in at the end of the piece. McCracken mentions that Microsoft has recently received a rush of similar must advice and that the company still keeps its head above water. This is true, but it seems that Apple draws this kind of story in anticipation of the company faltering, whereas Microsoft has several measurable places in which the company is already having difficulties.
Perhaps it’s only my opinion and perspective, but of the two companies, Microsoft seems the better candidate for suggestions on what it should do to remain successful now and in the future than Apple. And above it all, it’s important to remember that the opinions of tech writers (professional and amateur) are of no consequence to these companies, though readerships often show up for just this sort of commentary.
On this week’s Critically Speaking podcast: special guest Ryan Payton of Camouflaj joins us for a discussion on his studio’s new iOS game, République, as well as the Kickstarter process that led to its development and release.
It’s a good one. If you haven’t listened to Critically Speaking yet, this would be a great episode to get started with.
Against all the advice for boosting page-views and amplifying social engagement, I refuse to stick to a single narrow topic, like tech (or like writing fiction). I just can’t do it, because – like you – I’m interested in so many damned other things.
Matt is one of my favorite writers on the internet, no, just one of my favorite writers, period. For now, this post is my paltry contribution to his endeavor. As another writer with a passion for fiction and a novel in pursuit of a publisher, I have nothing but the best of wishes for him.
Click through to his article if you haven’t yet read it. Like virtually all of his work, it’s worth reading all on its own. No life-changing decision necessary.