Just A Toy

As part of my Photo 365 project, in which I take a photo every day of the year, I snapped this the other day:

I won’t mention the expletive I used in the photo’s caption, but suffice it to say that seeing this ad immediately struck a nerve with me. The snarky “just a toy” line is, of course, an allusion to the iPad. The insinuation being that a Surface is more capable of doing “real work” than an iPad, presumably because a Surface can run full versions of Windows and Office.

Honestly, what a crock.

Besides being pejorative, Microsoft’s “just a toy” sentiment strikes me as woefully out of touch. The iPad is fast approaching its fourth birthday — have we not by now seen what the iPad is about? Customers sure seem to, judging by iPad’s holiday sales numbers. Moreover, these kinds of ads reek of desparation — Microsoft is so in need of some semblance of traction in the tablet market that it continues to perpetuate the old and tired “consumption versus creation” cliche. As Ben Bajarin tweeted, Microsoft just doesn’t get it.

On a personal level, though, Microsoft’s “just a toy” jab offends me for two reasons.

First, as I’ve written previously, the iPad has become so good at productivity that I gave my old 11-inch MacBook Air — which I originally bought with the intent of using it as a writing machine — to my sister. As a writer, the iPad is fully capable of helping me get my work done. As I mostly work with Markdown files stored in Dropbox and iCloud, Editorial has become my go-to text editor, while Poster helps me post to my blog from the iPad. If I want or need to make HTML and/or CSS changes to my site, I can use Panic’s Diet Coda. In a broader sense, iOS’s one-app-at-a-time concept is refreshing, allowing me to better focus at whatever task is at hand, and it’s satisfying to me knowing that iOS is capable of real work. All of this to say that the iPad is, for all intents and purposes, my “laptop”. It is my mobile computer — I carry it with me everywhere I go — and I don’t forsee myself going back to a traditional Mac laptop.

Secondly, I find the iPad Air to be the best iPad I’ve ever used from an accessibility perspective. Before upgrading to my Air a couple of months ago, I used an iPad 3 for about 18 months. It was a great device, to be sure, but I grew weary of the thicker, heavier body and the way the A5X chip would make the iPad uncomfortably warm after extended periods of use. Thus, upgrading to the iPad Air was not only a huge step in terms of internals — the 64-bit A7 being the prime reason — but, more importantly, the dramatically thinner and lighter chassis makes the Air much easier for me to hold for longer times. As I have cerebral palsy, my condition is such that I suffer from reduced strength in my arms and hands. What this means is that it’s more difficult for me to comfortably hold objects, especially for extended periods. The iPad Air, then, is so thin and so light compared to my iPad 3 that I can comfortably hold it for reading in Instapaper or The New York Times without worrying so much about fatigue setting in. Being able to use the iPad longer means I can enjoy it more. Without question, I feel the iPad Air is the quintessential iPad (for now, anyway). It is the iPad, I think, Steve Jobs probably always envisioned. Its combination of power, thinness, and lightness is simply fantastic. I can’t speak of it highly enough.

It’s so upsetting to see Microsoft denigrate the iPad because I know from personal experience just how capable and powerful it truly is. Extrapolating this point even further, look at what it does for children with special needs, as well as for iOS automation. More to the point, look at how Apple is promoting the iPad. These are not fluke events nor are they pie-in-the-sky concepts. These stories are real — depictions of real people using them in real life. Marine biologists are using iPads in the ocean. What other evidence does Microsoft need to fully realize that the iPad is convincingly and deservingly winning the hearts of millions of customers? Surely Microsoft can’t be so oblivious to the ways in which the iPad is transforming personal computing. And yet, their marketing dollars go toward an asinine campaign in which they stupidly belittle the iPad as “just a toy”. Compare and contrast Microsoft’s campaign to Apple’s, and consider their respective tablet’s place with consumers. The disparity is staggering, in accuracy and in resonance. If the ultimate goal of advertising is to sway consumers into buying product, Apple is Secretariat at the Belmont.

TechCrunch’s Matthew Panzarino gets it, offering this bit of great insight:

In many ways this is the realization of the dream for the original ‘tablet computers’ of Microsoft — something you can view with more or less irony depending on what chances you give the company of succeeding in a crowded space.

It’s Apple who’s fulfilling Microsoft’s vision, a fact that must not go over well in Redmond.

It seems to me that Microsoft is doing anything they can to try to stay relevant in the mobile space — unfortunately, if these Surface ads are any indicator, they’re failing miserably. I don’t mean to imply that the Surface in and of itself is a bad product; in fact, I actually rather like the keyboard cover idea, especially that of the Surface Pro. What’s bad is the way in which Microsoft is hoping to woo customers. Instead of touting the Surface on its own merits, Microsoft has misguidingly decided to degrade the iPad. Furthermore, the implicit notion that you must have Windows and Office to be productive is a sign that Microsoft is unable (unwilling?) to distance itself from its desktop-dominating past. But mobile is where the technology industry is now, and Microsoft is light years behind Apple and Google. These ads make Microsof look as if they’re in denial, as though they’re still who they once were. What does it say about a company’s faith in their product when they resort to baseless name-calling? The bottom line is these Surface ads reflect a serious cultural problem within Microsoft. Either they’re so full of themselves so as to believe their way is markedly better while being completely dismissive of the iPad’s success (i.e., “just a toy”), or they just plain can’t see the writing on the tablet market wall. (And lest we forget the disaster that is Windows 8.) Whatever the reason, it’s sad.

Microsoft just doesn’t get it, and probably never will.

Making the Case for Better Document Management on iOS

For my birthday two years ago, I treated myself to an 11-inch MacBook Air. I bought it with the intention of using it mainly as a writing machine away from home, for my blog and for school. It was (and still is) a terrific little dynamo of a computer, but I eventually grew tired of the burden of managing multiple Macs. Thus, I decided to bequeath the Air to my sister, and committed myself to using my iPad 3 as my "laptop".

I adore working from my iPad, but there is one constant point of friction that at times makes me yearn for my old Air: managing files — in my case, text files — is a pain. It's a problem that certainly isn't insurmountable, but one that throws a wrench into my otherwise seamless workflow.

Like most nerds I know, I use Dropbox to store and sync my data across my devices. All of my important documents are spread across folders inside of folders. Dropbox's hierarchical file system works well for the most part, but it's not perfect. I still have to navigate folders and then use iOS's 'Open In' command to get to the file I want. On an operating system where Apple's purposely abstracted the file system from users (nerds included) in an effort to eliminate complexity, using one effectively bolted on (the Dropbox app) feels weird and, as Rene Ritchie writes, downright archaic.

By contrast, I don't know anyone who uses Dropbox outside of my fellow nerd friends on the Internet. That is to say, none of my "regular" user family and friends have a Dropbox account. In fact, I would go so far as to say that most of them have no clue what Dropbox is or does. Moreover, I'm positive that these same family and friends have no clue (or care, really) about the complexities of iCloud — more to the point, they don't understand iCloud's many idiosyncrasies involving sync.

iCloud For Everything

Given this context, and given how much Apple pushes iCloud as the "everything" solution, I think it would make sense for them to give users a central location on their iOS devices from which to access and browse their documents. Apple's servers will always be the canonical place, of course, but an iCloud Documents app would, in my view, be a more straightforward and easier to understand concept than having to remember which app one used to create a document, and bear in mind that said document can only be opened in the same app. While I feel completely comfortable navigating my myriad of files in Dropbox, I would like a simpler, more forward-thinking way to manage my documents. Ideally, such a solution would use iCloud because, when it works, it works like magic. To that end, an iCloud Documents app for iOS is highly desirable to me. All your documents, all in one convenient place. If Apple sells iCloud as being "the easiest way to manage your content", then it surely should include a one-stop shop for one's important documents.

Here's how I envision such a hypothetical iCloud Documents app working. First, as I stated before, it would house all the user's documents within the app. Apple could design the user interface in such a way that it would automatically separate document types. You could have a toolbar at the top with tabs allowing you to switch to and from text files and Keynote decks, for example. Most of all, though, it would be searchable, as well as offer optional folder creation, a la Photos today. Programmatically, Apple would create a Photos app-type app where, instead of the ImagePicker API, it used a FilePicker API to find and display documents.

In addition to the iCloud Documents app, Apple could also incorporate a dedicated iCloud Documents Web app into iCloud.com. The idea would be the same as on iOS: one central place that keeps all your documents, all up to date. Furthermore, it could be built could so that a user could choose to open, say, a text file in Byword or iA Writer on their Mac, or Notepad if on Windows.

While using iCloud to sync documents would seem to be the perfect solution — I use it for a few things, and it generally performs well for me —, it does have its share of hiccups. For one thing, iCloud can be notoriously unreliable. Another issue is that documents in iCloud are confined to their own silos. iOS itself is similar in this regard, which is great in terms of security, but not so much when it comes to accessing documents.

Yet another stumbling block is iOS's Open In command. It works, but it only works so well. The big problem with Open In, as Federico Viticci writes, is that users end up with multiple copies of files spread across a multitude of apps, which in turn causes headaches when deciding which copy is the canonical version. Again, Open In does work to an extent, but it's messy and far from the ideal solution. I try my best to avoid Open In, because I know its limitations, and, frankly, Dropbox is much easier to use.

You might ask, "What makes a hypothetical iCloud Documents app better than just directly going to the app in which you created the file?" That works, to be sure, but the my point is I believe documents needn't be strewn across a bunch of apps. If you're like me and use your iPad for productivity, there should be one place, one app, where you can see all your documents — and it should be different from Dropbox or Google Drive or whatever. You shouldn't have to remember that you created that parent newsletter in Pages. Rather, you should just be able to open iCloud Documents, tap on the file, and have it automatically open in Pages on your iPhone or iPad. Again, the current methodologies work, but they're far from ideal.

To be clear, The ideas I posit in this piece are not meant to imply that Dropbox is bad, or that I don't appreciate it for what it does. On the contrary, I love Dropbox. My argument is simply that I agree with Rene Ritchie insofar that Dropbox is a system built on the past, whereas iCloud, with all its mystic magic, feels like the future. Steve Jobs himself said as much when he said "the truth is in the cloud". More to the point, Apple gets a lot of flak, and rightly so, for not doing Internet services well. I feel iCloud has a lot of good points, but right now it isn't living up to its full potential. And, frankly, I feel, with all the talk of past and future, that a solution built on iCloud is better suited than Dropbox for the long-term, indispensable as Dropbox may be at this point.

I so enjoy working from my iPad not only because the tablet, hardware-wise, is so thin and light and power-sipping, but because iOS is so powerful. Thanks in no small part to third-party developers, the app ecosystem is rife with desktop-class apps that are so good that I don't require a Mac to get the majority of my serious work done. Add in iOS's one-app-at-a-time approach, which I find refreshing and which helps keep me focused, and the iPad truly is one terrific productivity device. As a writer, I couldn't be happier that my iPad's become my laptop. On the whole, the experience of getting real work done on my iPad has been awesome. That I (and others) are able to do so is a testament to just how powerful Apple's made the iPad and iOS. The reality is that, as a nerd, I get by fine with Dropbox. However, just because one solution works for me doesn't mean Dropbox is the answer, or that iOS and iCloud are above improvement. On the contrary, this piece (hopefully) illustrates that iOS and iCloud can be much better at certain things, like document management.

It's only one piece of a very complex puzzle, but it's my opinion that an iCloud Documents app would be a big step in solving the problem of how to directly access files on a system where, at least on the surface, the classic file system doesn't exist. My hope is that sooner or later, Apple will give users direct access to documents much in the same way Photos gives direct access to photos, and Passbook gives direct access to movie tickets, boarding passes, and so on. Such access would make working from my iPad orders of magnitude better, and make me quit longing for my old MacBook Air.

A Requiem for ‘Classic’ iOS

On the iOS 7 Design page, Apple says:

The interface is purposely unobtrusive. Conspicuous ornamentation has been stripped away. Unnecessary bars and buttons have been removed. And in taking away design elements that don’t add value, suddenly there’s greater focus on what matters most: your content.

In the weeks following the WWDC keynote, much has been written about iOS 7's redesigned user interface. The word that keeps coming up to describe the changes is polarizing. Some people like it, whereas others hate it; there seems to be no middle ground. However, I think it's fair to say that everyone can agree that iOS was long overdue for a facelift.

While I'm in full agreement that iOS needed its user interface refreshed, a part of me is genuinely sad to be losing the "classic", Forstall-era iOS. For all Apple's boasting about doing away with "conspicuous ornamentation". I very much enjoy several of the skeuomorphic elements of iOS, such as the faux wooden shelving in iBooks and Newsstand. Other graphical favorites of mine include the paper-shredding animation in Passbook, as well as Cover Flow in Music. These bits of eye candy give iOS personality and an air of playfulness, and I'm going to miss them. Conversely, there are elements I won’t miss, like the Corinthian leather in Find My Friends and the yellow legal pad in Notes.

The arrival of iOS 7 this fall will truly mark the end of an era. That iOS's user interface has undergone such a dramatic overhaul is great in the sense that it's more modern and fresh-looking, but it's also a clear sign that Apple has driven a stake through the heart of the canonical design. That's sad for me, because not only am I losing beloved graphical elements like Cover Flow, it feels like the iconic design is gone forever. In other words, the iOS that made the iPhone and iPad what they are today will soon be a relic, ancient history. ((To be clear, iOS 7, conceptually, remains true to the iterations before it. What I'm addressing here is purely the Jobs and Forstall-influenced aesthetic.))

Of course, the impetus for giving iOS a complete makeover is precisely because it was looking like an ancient relic. My feelings are conflicted, though: on one hand, I feel wistful towards the "classic" design, yet on the other I use my iPhone 4S running iOS 6, and it looks and feels old. It reminds me that iOS needed a change, and makes me even more excited for iOS 7.

I'm sure that once I've used iOS 7 for awhile that I'll love it, and complain that some of my "legacy" apps look dated within the context of the new design. My sentiments aside, I know updating iOS's design was the right thing to do, long-term. I understand that iOS 7 is about putting content first. I look forward to seeing how Jony Ive and his team evolve the operating system from here on out. It's an exciting time — iOS 7 lays the foundation for the next phase of the OS's life.

I think the iOS as we know it today will always have a place in my heart. I'm going to miss the page-turning animation in iBooks and the reflections of the icons in the Dock. I'll even miss the linen and the ON/OFF toggle switches. But I am undoubtedly excited for iOS 7 and beyond, and I realize change is good and inevitable. The good part is I still have my original iPad running iOS 5. If I ever find myself getting sentimental over the old design, I can always fire up the old iPad. That'll be a nice stroll down memory lane.

Well, until I see Game Center's green felt.

On WWDC 2013 and Accessibility

Much has been made of Apple’s keynote this year at WWDC, what with its fast-paced yet relaxed vibe, digs at leather stitching and green felt, and Phil Schiller’s “Can’t innovate, my ass!” quip. Without a doubt, the star of the show was the unveiling of iOS 7. It was such a star, in fact, that the audience gave Tim Cook a standing ovation after watching the iOS 7 promo video. From the redesigned user interface to new features like Control Center to the new developer APIs, iOS 7 undoubtedly marks the most radical change in the operating system’s history. As Marco Arment wrote, Apple’s set fire to iOS. The company, third-party developers, and consumers stand at the beginning of a new frontier.

Among the consumers standing at the new frontier are hundreds of millions of users with disabilities, myself included. The new design language inherent in iOS 7 is bound to have a not-so-insignificant impact on disabled users, particularly those with vision impairments. The “whiteness” of the UI, the redrawn buttons and toolbars, the new icons, the new typography, and the new color palette are all going to have huge effects on the accessibility community. As a visually impaired user, judging by the screenshots, I can say with confidence that iOS 7 is going to be a huge adjustment. Needless to say, I eagerly anticipate iOS 7’s final release so that I can use the new software for myself. (I don’t have a developer account, so I have no access to the betas.)

However, given that iOS 7 will be such a huge adjustment to those with disabilities, I am disappointed that Craig Federighi spent no time whatsoever highlighting any new accessibility features. I’ve been told that the new functionality is under NDA, but that there’s a lot to like. That sounds great, but I’m still left somewhat bummed that there was no acknowledgment of accessibility, save for a slide listing a Guided Access API for developers. I just find it curious that Apple didn’t devote a few minutes to mention anything related to accessibility, since they *have* to know that iOS 7 is going to have a profound impact on users like myself.

My disappointment over accessibility’s neglect this year is exacerbated by the fact that, during the WWDC 2012 keynote, Scott Forstall dedicated a series of slides discussing Guided Access and Single App Mode, both new additions to iOS 6. I realize time and brevity must have factored into Federighi omitting accessibility, but it’s a bummer nonetheless. Watching the keynote, I kept waiting for Federighi to get to iOS 7’s accessibility features, but alas, he never did. If Forstall made time last year, I thought, why couldn’t Federighi do the same this year? It wasn’t the end of the world that he didn’t, but it was too bad. If I were Apple, I would take every step necessary to ensure that accessibility on iOS (and on the Mac, for that matter) gets as much airtime as possible. We (those in the accessibility community) watch the keynotes too, and I’m positive that I’m not the only soul in the Apple nerd universe who’s excited about enabling technologies. [pullquote]We matter, because we embody Apple’s ethos of making their products usable for everyone[/pullquote]

I always get excited when Apple makes improvements to iOS’s accessibility options, because they are so full of breadth and depth. I get even *more* excited when Apple makes a point to address these features onstage, because they *are* so good and it shows that the company recognizes the importance of accessibility community. We matter, because we embody Apple’s ethos of making their products usable for everyone. Those with disabilities use iPhones and iPads too, and I feel strongly that making software accessible is one of the most important (and certainly underrated, in my opinion) aspects of design. That said, it’s awesome that Apple’s shown such a strong commitment to serving this segment of the iOS user base. We deserve to be recognized, and it’s great that Apple does so most of the time. Still, I think Apple could do an even better job of making sure accessibility gets time to shine. Again, we *matter*.

I’m hoping that sometime this fall, when Apple holds another media event to reveal new hardware, that they’ll spend a few minutes talking up iOS 7’s accessibility features. Maybe they’ll even demo one or two running on the new iPhone and/or iPad. That would be awesome; it would definitely take some of the sting out of the slight — however unintentional, I’m sure — at WWDC.