Apple just gave me a new smartwatch, for free

Well, not quite, but the latest update from Apple might as well be a new watch. The new operating system, watchOS 3 is one of the best operating system updates I’ve ever seen in the 18 years or so since I’ve been interested technology.

There was a time when a new OS update meant inevitable slowness until you finally succumbed to the marketing and upgraded by either stuffing more RAM into your PC, or shelling our for a brand new machine. This changed in the PC world with Windows 7, which famously had the same operating requirements as it’s then 2 year old predecessor, Windows Vista. Apple hasn’t always been so kind, with new versions of iOS regularly slowing down older hardware, though this hasn’t been so much of a problem since the 64-bit era (2013 iPhone 5S or newer), but even now an iPhone 6 doesn’t feel as snappy as it did 3 years ago.  So it was a nice surprise when Apple announced back in June that its latest incarnation of the operating system for the Apple Watch, watchOS would be focused on performance. This was long overdue. Apple Watch’s main failure was it’s slowness. Unlike a laptop or a phone, a slow smartwatch can be physically painful to use. So for the most part people didn’t it seemed – 3rd party apps were few and far between.

The new version of watchOS achieves this speediness by keeping apps in memory for as long as it can. You now get to choose your 10 favourite apps and place them in a ‘dock’, and they’ll be prioritised over other apps to not only stay in memory but also receive more frequent background updates. Frequent background updates also apply to ‘complications’ (widgets on the watch face). What is striking though is the amount of fit and finish that’s been applied to the system. Now apps do really launch instantly, for the most part. If like me you only use 4 -5 apps of a regular basis, then it’s likely those apps will always be in memory. This results in a much more usable device.

Siri, the voice controlled virtual assistant is now much more efficient at communicating its status as when you ask for something. Instead of having to watch your wrist to see if it managed to understand what you said, you can now drop your wrist and it will subtle tap you when it has your answer, or to tell you if it didn’t understand. A small change, but it makes a big difference to the usefulness of the feature.

You can now draw characters onto the screen to transcribe text. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a nice way to quickly reply when your phone is out of reach. Reminders are now available on the watch, and stay on the screen for up to 8 minutes after you last used the app, so I can walk round the supermarket checking off my shopping list on my wrist. The watch now feels more useful then it did before, when I was only really using it for notifications and fitness tracking (which are still first class).

On my smaller 38mm machine battery life still isn’t great. It seems to be slightly worse than before. Where I would have previously been at 25% at the end of the day, I’m now at 10%. This may well be because I’m using it a lot more now. I’ve long been in the habit of a post-lunch charge at my desk, so it’s not an issue most of the time.

I’ve always been compelled by the idea of having a computer strapped to my wrist, accessible at any time. This ‘ambient computing’ experience is finally realised with watchOS 3. What is really needed now is a watch with it’s own cellular modem, so the phone truly becomes an optional extra.

Better software, not a bigger screen, is what the iPad needs

The iPad Pro

 

The iPad Pro is now available, with its much larger screen. Admittedly I haven't had a chance to try one yet, and having only purchased a new iPad last year, I probably wouldn't consider such a purchase so soon anyway. But as someone who does try and do real work on an iPad, (I enjoy stepping away from my desk from time to time to focus in on something, and the iPad is perfect for this.), I am not frustrated by the iPad's lack of screen real estate (though I've no doubt more is better, it usually is) but by its limited software.

This 'limited software' is not always the fault of Apple, developers purposely try and simplify their iPad releases in an effort to route out the bloat that dogs their desktop equivalents. This is mostly a good thing, as someone who runs complex software projects for a living, I am always a proponent of the KISS philosophy (Keep It Simple, Stupid). However, there haven been numerous times when I've had to walk back to my desk and grab my laptop because something just isn't possible on an iPad.

Take Microsoft Excel. The desktop version may be a horrible, bloated and full of legacy code (it seems to have its own rules on when to wipe your clipboard unexpectedly), but to its credit, it does make a lot of complex, routine tasks very quick and easy. If I have a list of stuff and I want to remove duplicates, it's one click. If I have a CSV file (or values separated by another delimiter), converting this to columns is only 2 or 3 clicks. None of this functionality exists in the iPad version. Microsoft OneNote on the iPad doesn't have Outlook integration (the ability to pull in meeting details), and while Microsoft have recently added support for audio recording to OneNote, it's modal – meaning I can't take notes while I am recording – which is one of my favourite features of the desktop version, because it synchronises your note with the timestamp of the audio recording, meaning you can quickly seek to important parts of a meeting when you're trying to remember what was going on. Again, back to my laptop.

I don't want to pick on Microsoft, they make some of the highest quality iPad software out there, and I know all too well that quality, time to market and the number of features are all opposing interests, and Microsoft has made the decision to go for quality over features. There's nothing wrong with that, in fact it's the best decision they could have made in my view, but it doesn't change the fact that the iPad just can't do these seemingly simple things a laptop can. Adobe and Apple both have examples too. I was sent a wireframe that had been hand-drawn and had been scanned and emailed directly from a networked printer/scanner. I wanted to annotate the resulting PDF. On the Mac I would use Preview, on Windows I'd use Adobe's Reader application. Preview on iOS doesn't support annotation, so I used the Adobe Reader app for iOS. It did support annotation, but due to the way the image had been scanned in, it was upside down. Surprisingly, there was no way to rotate the PDF. Back to my laptop, again. Yes with a little help from Google, I'm sure I could find an app that lets me rotate a PDF, but will it also support all the other things the Adobe app does? The bottom line is, it's not feasible to go on an app hunt every time one of the simplified versions of an app comes up short. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in 2007 he made a big deal out of the fact other smartphones only showed you the 'baby web' and the iPhone didn't – we have the same situation on iOS now, we get baby applications.

Then there is the inability to have more than one document open at once. I can now have Twitter and Pages open at the same time, but not two Pages documents. Even just a way to quickly switch between documents would be nice. At the moment I have to close the first document, find the other one (navigate a long list of files and folders), load it (and wait while it loads), and then repeat the process when I want to return to the original document. Writing one document when referring to another is not an uncommon computing task, and yes there are workarounds like exporting one of them as a PDF and opening it in a separate application, but this isn't very clean, and what if I want to edit both documents?

I don't want to take way from the iPad what is is great at; web browsing, writing this blog post, simple spreadsheets, reading books, playing games, managing email, task lists – the list goes on. While I'm sure the iPad Pro is a beautiful device, and if money was no object Id buy one today, I don't think having a bigger screen is going to turn it into a laptop replacement. I would love to be able to work solely on an iPad, but until the software improves, I can't see this happening, no matter how big the screen is.

 

Apple Watch Battery Saving Tips

If you have the smaller version of the Apple Watch, then you may find the battery just about gets you through the day. Over the past 6 weeks of using it I've been experimenting with the various settings to find the best way to save battery life.

Note: Like with battery saving tips for phones, these tips will reduce functionality, so they're not meant for daily use. Apple Watch has a built in power save mode, but with that switched on the watch is less useful than a £10 Casio watch (at least you don't have to press a button to see the screen on one of those!). These tips are meant for those long days or weekends where you want to keep the watch going for as long as possible, while maintaining the fitness tracking and ability to receive notifications (these things are not possible in Power Save mode).

Turn off Wrist Raise

On the watch itself, under Settings > General you can turn off Wrist Raise. This makes the watch a lot less useful because you will have to press a button to see the screen, but if you are out and about on a weekend and don't particularly care about the time, but want to make sure your fitness progress still gets tracked, it's a great way to save significant battery life.

Use the X-Large watch face

If you can do without seeing the weather or other useful widgets on your watch face, the X-Large's use of lots of black and no widgets means it uses far less battery juice, in my experience at least.

Use Power Saving Mode for workouts

In the Apple Watch app on your phone, choose the settings for the 'Workout' app, and select power saving mode. This stops the watch from continuously reading your pulse during workouts – very useful if you're doing long runs or walks, as the heart rate monitor sucks battery life. It will mean however, that your calorie burn stats wont be as accurate.

Turn on Airplane Mode

This one is only slightly better than Power Save mode. You'll still be able to track your activity, receive stand notifications or notifications for appointments already synced to your watch – obviously you wont get any alerts that come from your phone (such as messages). If you're away camping for the weekend, maybe that's OK?

Stay near your phone

I've noticed the battery life is a lot worse when I spend a lot of time away from my desk at work, but leave my phone at my desk. This makes sense – when the phone is within Bluetooth range, the watch will use this connection for things like alerts. When you move away from your phone, it instead has to connect to Wi-Fi directly. Wi-Fi is much less power efficient than Bluetooth.

 

 

Can an iPad replace a laptop, seriously?

Ever since I was convinced to buy an iPad 4 years ago, I’ve been a massive fan and predicted they would eventually replace laptops for most consumers. Just as not everyone needs a truck, not everyone needs a laptop right?

It turns out however, that iPad sales are falling. This is more likely a combination of people having much larger phones, iPads being reliable and not needing replacing, lack of innovation (today’s fifth generation iPad does the same as a second generation, only faster), and the fact that the vast majority of consumers don’t need anything more powerful than a phone. It saddens me that despite the Internet being a place where anyone can publish anything at very low cost (or for free in many cases), most people use it to consume TV and post frivolous Facebook updates that don’t require much more than a mobile phone – but that’s another topic altogether.

At the other end of the scale you have business and professional users, who tend to use laptops because they offer much more power. Processing power isn’t as far off as you might think, the power difference is now in the software. Take for example a simple task I needed to achieve last week – downloading an MP3 from a web site (legit I might add! It was to accompany a course I was taking) and add it to my iTunes Match Library so it would be available on all of my devices. This is easy to do on a Mac or Windows laptop, but impossible on an iPad. That’s ridiculous.

The other software issue that holds back these devices is the transient nature of applications. At any time your application might get terminated due to lack of memory. This rarely results in any loss of work, as developers usually code with this in min (until iOS 4, this happened overtime you left an app). Not many developers both to restore the state of an application (as they are suppose to), and even when they do having to wait for it to load again is painful.

So the answer is no, an iPad can’t replace a laptop at the moment. I would like to see Apple push forward with this vision. Why not have a simplified version of Xcode for the iPad? It could be a great way to introduce people to programming (and could feature the Playground function introduced last year). The built in applications should be updated to support ‘Open In’ so I can open that MP3 file in the Music app, for example.

For many users, nothing will beat a dual screen setup with a mouse and keyboard – but I can’t help thinking that 90% of my non-work computing needs could be done on an iPad if the software were better.

Update: 31/5/2015

I’ve been using an external keyboard with my iPad a lot recently, so hardware wise it’s more on par with a laptop. Here’s what I miss most from a full blown Windows/Mac laptop:

  • The a ability to have more than one document open within a single app. Some apps such as Mail support having mutipe drafts open at once, but all the apps I use most frequently such as Microsft Word, Pages and Excel can only open one document at a time. It takes about 30 seconds to close a document and to load another, which just slows me down.
  • Lack of keyboard shortcuts – such as being able to press ‘Enter’ to send a message, or CTRL + Enter to send an email. Also being able to switch between documents / apps using the keyboard would help too.
  • Applications getting unloaded from memory. Or rather lazy developers not bothering to reload the state of an app when it gets reloaded. Again, like with the document switching – it gets in the way when you return to a presentation and find the app has gone back to the open screen. 

Outlook for iPad

Last month Microsoft released Outlook for iPad (based on Acompli, an app it has previously purchased). Since the company I work for uses Exchange 2013, I was able to take advantage of this and try it out. The interface is a breath of fresh air for anyone, like me who is stuck using Outlook 2013’s confusing and dated interface. My favourite feature is the ‘Focused’ inbox with automatically shows you a view of messages deemed important. Newsletters, alerts and other noise are quietly hidden away so you only get to see emails from real people. The ‘other’ inbox is only a swipe away, and the focused view is only that, a view; so it won’t have any effect on your desktop email view. This is surprisingly accurate and didn’t require much training. Replying and managing email is pleasant, with the ability to swipe to archive or flag email quickly.

Outside of the corporate word, the app supports Outlook.com, Gmail and other well-known email providers. I like to keep work and personal email separate, so I haven’t tried these.

 

Attachments

Another surprising feature of Outlook for iPad is the ability to connect to cloud services such as Dropbox and Google Drive 1. A lot of network administrators will loose sleep over this, but ultimately it’s a step forward – especially for users of Office 365 who will be able to access all of their ‘OneDrive for Business’ files and attach them to emails wherever they happen to be.

A week point however is the lack of a system extension, so it’s not possible to share a link from Safari to Outlook, or send and document directly from Word for iPad. I’m sure this is on the way, but I do think it should have been included in the initial version.

 

Calendar

The calendar seems quite basic. It doesn’t seem to do a great job of letting me see other invitees ‘free/busy’ information (the main benefit of using the desktop version of Outlook), but it’s serviceable for a version 1.0 release. It’s quite buggy, for example, I tried to update an appointment start and end date, but it just didn’t work. No crash, no error message, it just didn’t do anything. I’m sure Microsoft’s latest purchase, Sunrise indicates Microsoft is putting some thought into its calendaring strategy, and so major improvements should be on the way. I’m not sure about the unified app approach – I’ve always wished Outlook on the PC were separate applications instead of one big conglomerate (especially since it’s still full of model dialog boxes! I digress…) – separate apps seems especially fitting for iOS, and I can only think it’s a branding decision to go with one big ‘Outlook’ app on iOS.

 

Security Concerns?

The first release had no security requirements at all, so if your system administrator had mandated users have a passcode on their device, Outlook would ignore it. This has been resolved, though unfortunately it requires you set a PIN at a system level on the device, rather than just for the app (as had been the case with the pervious OWA app). I liked the fact I could have more lax security on my personal device (e.g. ‘Ask me for a PIN after 1 hour’) while the app could be much more strict (‘ask me for a pin after 5 minutes’) – this worked in the old OWA app, but not anymore; which is a major disappointment. Some system administrators might lament the fact the then app will store your emails on Amazon’s AWS servers (soon to be Azure, I have to believe), but it does allow the app to do lots of cloud processing that ultimately benefits users. The fact that Microsoft just released the app without any warning and a way to block the app is probably the bigger concern in my views, as I can understand organisations who have various security practises (ISO et al) not being very happy about being caught off-guard like this.

 

Conclusion

Overall, Outlook for iPad solidifies the iPad as a tool for business and makes me think that one day, many users will be able to use an iPad (or similar device) exclusively at work.

It’s missing some key features at the moment (you can’t set your ‘Out of Office’), but I’m certain they will come in time. The bigger question is whether tablet-devices will ever replace traditional PCs in the workplace. This is probably the subject of a future blog post, but with Outlook, Office and the cloud it’s becoming an increasing possibility. I personally use Outlook for iPad as more of a sidekick device than a laptop replacement, but then my job does involve using a lot of traditional desktop software such as Visual Studio, or macro-enabled spreadsheets. That said, for many enterprise users, an iPad with a decent hardware keyboard is now a viable alternative, if not for the small screen size.

 

 

 

1. Great to see Microsoft embracing interoperability, in contrast to Google, who refuse to support Windows Phone.

iPhone OS 3

While self confessed geeks and technology enthusiasts like myself may get 2 or 3 years out of a device (if that, I know many people who switch phone multiple times a year), normal people expect to get a bit more out of these expensive gadgets. I found a first gen iPod Touch in my dad’s glove box today and thought I’d reminisce about how much iOS (then called iPhone OS) had changed, yet in some ways hasn’t much at all.

Home screen

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This was how it looked from iPhone OS 1 through to 3 – the metallic dock. The iPod Touch always had separate ‘Music’ and ‘Video’ apps, whereas iPhones has a single app called  ‘iPod’. No wallpaper, but apart from that it stayed pretty much the same until iOS 7 moved Spotlight search to the top instead of being on the left.

Lock Screen

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The lock screen stayed exactly the same until iOS 7 – the only minor change was the additional of a camera button in iOS 5.1.

Home button

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The days before ‘multitasking’ (aka recent task switching) meant the home button ‘double tap’ action could be customised. I always remember having it be set to launch the music player. If you had ‘Show iPod Controls’ selected then you would get an alert box with music controls, no matter which app you were in. Multitasking.

iTunes Store

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The iTunes Store was a major selling point of the iPod Touch. Being able to wirelessly buy and play an album within minutes was pretty darn mind blowing at the time.

Wallpaper

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The bundled lock screen images seem very ‘of their time’ – silhouettes with white ear buds.  

No Speaker

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This setting is a carry over from the classic iPod. The original iPod Touch had no loudspeaker. The noises it could make were on par with a Casio watch.

About

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Released in 2007, the iPod Touch got its last software update on February 2nd 2010.

Is it time to stop assuming users have Flash installed?

Remember when the iPad first came out in 2010, and the first thing everybody said was it was doomed because it didn’t have Flash? Well, it turns out most web site owners were able to accommodate this requirement, and these days even Android tablets and phones lack the once ubiquitous browser plugin. Yet, if you’ve ever browsed the web on an iOS device or an Android device (the chances are you have) you’ll know that in the vast majority of cases, everything has continued to work as normal. Staples of the Internet from BBC News to YouTube keep on working – when it comes to video at least (if you want to run Farmville sans plugin then you’re out of luck).

So when setting up my MacBook with a clean installation of OS X 10.9, I decided to see if it was possible to live without Flash. My guess was it would be, and why not? One less thing installed on your system means a reduced attack surface for malware, fewer processes running and hence better longer life, and in my experience, fewer browser hangs. I was wrong however – instead of using “feature detection” (as good web developers should) to determine whether the browser supports the Flash alternative to video, “HTML5 Video”– it seems the vast majority of sites employ user agent sniffing and will only show you the non-Flash version if you’re on a known mobile device. I kept on being asked to install Flash, even though my iPad works just fine without it. User agent sniffing is the reason why sites designed for IE6 will ask you to “upgrade” if you visit in IE11 –I can forgive any web developer working back when IE6 came out in 2001 for following what was then a standard industry practice, but User Agent Sniffing is now generally considered outdated, so why are so many sites still doing it when it comes to playing video?