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Tag Archives: iPhone

Apps and social media fatigue

If I were to graph the number of apps installed on any device I own since I got my first Android phone in the summer of 2011 (an HTC Inspire), it would be left-skewed. A combination of concerns about battery life and storage space, the realization that some websites offer better experiences than their respective apps (especially Facebook), and an overall desire to just have few sources of information has led to delete nearly everything but preloaded apps.

What’s left? Not much.

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What’s more, I haven’t actively searched for a new app in a while. I’m not sure if this says more about me being burned out on data and notifications (they feel so distracting, and I know I have written/read less because of them) or about the maturity of the app market.

I remember when “apps” became part of the lexicon some time in the summer of 2008. I had just moved to Chicago and I still had a Motorola RAZR that might have been cutting-edge in 2005, during my first year of college. When I got online for the first time ever in my first Chicago apartment – via a Dell desktop PC – the App Store was only 2 months old and Google Chrome was less than a week old. On my PC, I didn’t really think of “apps” except for Web browsers and games, and even then I thought of them as “programs.”

In 2009, I had my first brushes apps like Shazam and Grindr that offered something a lot different than what had been available from a PC or Mac. In 2010, I learned about Instagram and was for the first time jealous of people who had iPhones (I still had a dumb phone of some sort at that time). In 2012, I found out about Uber and was briefly enamored with it before it revealed itself as an ethically-challenged organization.

But since then, there haven’t been many “a-ha” moments for me in using mobile apps. The ones I use every day are based on age-old phone conventions like being able to send text messages (starting with SMS and now evolving into iMessage, LINE, etc.) and photos.

There’s also DuckDuckGo (a search engine, one of the oldest forms of exploring the Web), Lyft (since I can’t stand Uber), Flickr (for photo backup) and Tumblr (where I do some of my creative writing). There are ways to pay for my coffee (Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks) and then there’s Yo, which is a novel way to get updates on RSS feeds, Twitter accounts, etc. Although it started a gimmick, I think Yo has a lot of potential. There’s Pocket, my favorite. And 1Password, which simplifies so many headaches.

Part of the reason for the paucity of apps on my phone is that I have never been in love with social networking. With Tumblr, I can just publish from time to time and not worry about my real identity. But I steer clear of Facebook and Twitter on mobile since they just demand too much attention for too little return. I use Snapchat but have never used Secret (I don’t get it) or any dating app like Tinder (I’m married).

What is the future of social networking? Bleak, I hope, since it seems to make so many people anxious or unhappy, worrying about what others are doing and keeping track of when certain people are awake or active. I liked this passage from Tyler Brule:

“I have a theory about social media: that is exists not because people are dying to share everything but because of poor urban planning. The reason these channels have developed on the U.S. west coast stems from millions of people being lonely and trapped in sprawling suburbs. Apparently, the Swiss are among the lowest users of social media in Europe. I’d venture that this is due to village life, good public transport and a sense of community.”

In America, for someone born after 1980, there are so many barriers to meeting up with others unless: 1) you have a car; 2) have access to good public transportation. #1 is an issue for the cash-challenged Millennial generation, yet so much of American infrastructure – from sprawling parking complexes to office parks located in the middle of nowhere – assumes the ownership of one. #2 is surprisingly rare – I would venture to say that one can only comfortably be out and about in a city without having a car as back-up in exactly two American cities: New York and Chicago.

What fills the void? Social media and messaging apps. Maybe part of my own gravitation away from social media has been the fact that I have lived in one of these two cities for the past 7 years. Plus, no longer being single has also eroded a lot of the youthful fascination that once made, say, Facebook so exciting to use. It’s hard for anyone who joined Facebook after roughly 2006 or 2007 to know what it was like in the early years, when it was all single college students who send each other Pokes and edited each other’s Walls at will.

Less social media (and storage space – I settled for a 16GB iPhone 6 Plus) has led to a pretty spartan, utilitarian home screen. But it’s also, I suspect, left me happier since I don’t have to keep tabs on others as part of a lonely suburban existence.

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Strong versus weak dollar (also, Apple)

A fistful of dollars/for a few barrels more
Everyone wants a strong dollar, right? In the U.S., politicians will pay lip service to the notion of a strong dollar – i.e., in their minds, a dollar that trades more evenly against the other major world currencies (sterling, euro, yen) – because A) it sounds good; B) it feels good for American travelers who travel to Europe and Japan and realize that their greenbacks go pretty far.

When I visited Italy in 2008, I remember that the USD-EUR exchange rate was unfavorable to me (I’m American) and accordingly I felt the pinch of 50 EUR cab rides and 14 EUR gelato cones in Florence. At the same time, I remember fuel being expensive that entire year, with it peaking at near $150 per barrel that summer when Russia invaded Georgia.

That all feels like a 1000 years ago now. The dollar has strengthened mightily against the euro and oil trading for less than one-third of what it did the summer before Barack Obama was first elected. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud of Saudi Arabia, whom George W. Bush begged that same year to increase oil production as energy costs skyrocketed in the run-up to the Lehman collapse, is dead. Bush himself is reduced to speaking at events in the Cayman Islands, an unmentionable even among his own party. Russia, though still ruled with vim by Vladimir Putin, is in economic and diplomatic free-fall.

Apple
But the strong dollar isn’t everyone’s friend. For starters, it is burden on corporations that sell goods around the world. Tech analyst Ben Thompson recently framed the problem in stunning terms, in ridiculing the widespread perception that Apple is always on the verge of catastrophe:

“It’s difficult to overstate just how absurd this is, but here’s my best attempt: last quarter Apple’s revenue was downright decimated by the strengthening U.S. dollar; currency fluctuations reduced Apple’s revenue by 5% — a cool $3.73 billion dollars. That, though, is more than Google made in profit last quarter ($2.83 billion). Apple lost more money to currency fluctuations than Google makes in a quarter. And yet it’s Google that is feared, and Apple that is feared for.”

I have been trying to wrap my head around this all day. All those seemingly minor variations in currency trading, piled up over and entire quarter at the scale of Apple’s business, ended up taking a cut out of Apple larger than Google’s entire quarterly profit – and Apple still managed the best quarter of all time, with $18 billion in profit.

Turnaround
Apple’s turnaround over the past 18 years is probably the greatest business story of all time. if you look at a chart of all the biggest quarterly results in history, it’s dominated by oil companies (Gazprom, Royal Dutch Shell, etc.) and Apple and no one else. It’s a neat coincidence that Apple keeps outdoing itself at a time when oil – seemingly its only competitor in terms of product profitability – is taking a nosedive.

Growing up in the 1990s, this is all so surreal. For a kid growing up in rural America, at the peak of Windows (I had just turned 9 when Windows 95 was released) era, when every class at school was built largely around writing things in MS Works/Word and saving it to a floppy, Apple was nowhere to be seen. I remember reading about Macs when playing some Sierra On-Line games that were built for both PC and Mac, but I never even used one until 1999, in a school in Gallipolis, Ohio. Apple was on the margins.

Not anymore. To quote almost any stat about Apple anymore is to send the mind fruitlessly in search of anything else like it. The company’s iPhone business alone – just the iPhone, without even taking the iPad, Mac, iPod and iTunes into account – brought in more revenue than Google and Microsoft combined in the most recent quarter. Each quarter, it makes more profit than Amazon has ever made. It has enough cash to buy IBM outright at IBM’s current market cap – and still have tens of billions left over.

Paradoxically, the vast complexities of Apple’s supply chains as well as the efficiency of its manufacturing and marketing processes have ensured that simplicity wins out. The iPhone and its brethren feel natural and easy to use (despite mounting software issues, which is a topic for another conversation), reinforcing what I have always thought: that one significant part of the success of iOS in particular is that it eliminates the paradox of choice that is so paralyzing with Android or almost any other computing platform. It’s a good design, like John Gruber recently noted:

“Who knows how long Apple’s ride at the top will last, but this is a moment worth savoring. A toast to the value of good design.”

Stephen King’s “Cell” and the pre-iPhone era

Just started reading a Stephen King novel from 2006, “Cell.” Right before 9/11, I went through a phase in which I read most of his 1970s and 1980s work, before my reading time was taken up by more academic novels for English classes. I eventually got back into him in late 2011, ten years later, following the release of his novel “11.22.1963” about the Kennedy assassination.

During my sophomore year in high school, everyone in our English class had to do a study about a literary author. I don’t remember whom I choose, but one of my best friends at the time picked King, a choice that our teacher initially balked at but acquiesced to after admitting that he had produced a “significant enough” body of work. I was jealous. Plus, I agreed with her final judgment – my experience of King superseded whatever criticism I had read about his work.

“Cell,” even in its first pages, reminds me of why King is an enduring institution. There’s the distinctive, seen-it-all-before narrative voice that comes off as both grizzled and humorous, as well as the sharp cultural observations. “Cell” was released on the eve of the first iPhone and it captured the peak of a different mobile era, when phones were all very different from each other, with fanciful designs, custom ringtones, and dramatically different apps depending on the manufacturer and carrier:

“The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved – was it called ‘Axel F’? … The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Peppermint-colored? Crazy Frog (“who” topped the charts around this time, with a ringtone)? They became relics almost overnight as the iPhone and its imitators made standard-issue ringtones and a limited selection of design options – black or white; silver/gold/space gray in the iPhone’s case – the norm. Phones, from 2007 on, became part of the tradition that Andy Warhol once identified:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

The president’s iPhone and your iPhone are essentially the same, give or take storage capacity differences and coloration. There’s an attractive egalitarianism and homogeneity there. What I like about the above passage from “Cell” is how it hints at what’s to come: there’s the “exactly the same” haircuts, conveniently about the “iPod headphones,” which had already done to the MP3 player and headphones markets what iPhone would do to phones. Then there’s “Pixie Light and Pixie Dark” – it’s like “Cloud White” or “Midnight Blue” or “Space Grey” or “Gold” when buying a phone.

Excited about this book already. Expect a few more entries, especially about its premise of mobile phones spreading an apocalyptic disease.

The how and the why of Yo

Yo.

Yo the Word

It’s a simple greeting with a complex etymology. It may come from the Old English and Norwegian words for yes (ġēa and jo, respectively) and was first recorded as a greeting in 1859, though it probably has a longer history. In the U.S., Philadelphia seems to have been pivotal in its spread as slang, demonstrating once again the City of Brotherly Love’s unique role in the evolution of American English.

Yo the App

Yo.

It’s also one of the simplest apps of all time. Its iOS icon is a blank purple square. The app originally included just one feature – the ability to send the word “Yo” to a friend. You add your friends based on phone numbers or invitations, then tap their name in the app to send them a message that just says “Yo.” But, yo, it has become something else.

Of all the words I would normally text someone, “yo” is not among them – usually “hey” or even “ok” makes the cut instead. I can see how it might be useful to yo at certain times. Say your mom is expecting you at the airport. When you land, you just send her a Yo and she knows everything she needs to. Granted, this requires both of you to have the app installed, so it’s inconvenient at first, but could be a time-saver in the long run.

Yo is barely a messaging service; it’s more like an app that just sends you notifications and nothing else.

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Sample Yo notifications in Notification Center

Notification are ways to get attention, which, given the amount of free apps and publications out there (Facebook and BuzzFeed immediately come to mind), is a sort of currency now. Yo doesn’t run ads or monetize in any way, but it’s like a clearinghouse for notifications from others. It’s potentially the ultimate subscription service.

Yo the Index

Yo.

The Yo Index is a list of sites, services, and brands that are on Yo. If you subscribe to one of them – i.e., add them as friends – then you can interact with actively and/or passively:

  • Actively: you tap to send a Yo and get something in return. For example, you can Yo StumbleUpon to get a random link. You can Yo IFTTT to trigger a recipe such as publishing a Tweet or dimming your Wi-Fi connected Philips Hue lightbulbs.
  • Passively: You can get a Yo every time a site or service has an update. The best examples are the NBA feed, which sends you intermittent news, buzzer-beaters, and rankings. You can also set Yo up as an RSS reader, so that you get a Yo (with a link embedded) each time the feed is updated (similarly, you can set it up to notify you each time a YouTube channel is updated). TechCrunch also has a great trigger – it will Yo you each time a certain tweet gets retweeted at least 200 times.
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An example of the NBA’s index of Yo services, with different triggers listed.

When you Yo someone/something, you can do three things:

  • Single tap: This just sends the standard “Yo”
  • Double tap: This sends your location – it can be used to, say, retrieve a list of nearby coffee shops
  • Tap and hold: This sends a link (whatever is on the clipboard)

The interface is a little tricky at first, especially since it’s just a bunch of big colored bars. Once you get used to it, though, Yo can be an interesting way to stay on top of things that you otherwise have to hunt around for in apps. You can be notified when a certain Instagram account posts a new photo, when Marc Andreessen starts a tweetstorm, or when the LA Times publishes a new infographic.

Yo the Conclusion

Yo.

The Yo home screen with the list of subscribed feeds, settings in the lower right and the Yo Index in the lower left.

The Yo home screen with the list of subscribed feeds, settings in the lower right and the Yo Index in the lower left.

This post is almost over. Yo is free so it may be worth your time if you’re someone who likes to tinker with technology and is bored by your current set of apps. It started out as a joke, but, yo, a lot of important things seemed silly at first too, like Dropbox, Facebook, and BuzzFeed.

(Android) Notifications: Useful Apps and Extensions

Android Notifications

Just another day at the Android 4.3 notification office.

Notifications are the one thing that Android has always done better than iOS. Even Android 1.0 from 2008 had status bar notifications, a feature that the iPhone et al did not get until the addition of Notification Center in iOS 5 in late 2011, at which point Apple opted for the familiar pull-down gesture that was already widespread on the seas of Gingerbread and Froyo phones.

iOS 7 has a lot of promise in its revamped approach to notifications, but Jelly Bean raised the bar and has kept Android in the lead on this score at least. Expandable notifications gave a user a window into rich content and enabled an endless array of quick actions. Want to type out a quick text without opening the SMS app? Want to archive an email instantly? Want to view a list of items? There’s an app notification for that.

In a way, I think that Google’s insane focus on notifications was the first step toward bring Android at least level with iOS in quality. The system notification UI – so neatly grouped in that pull-down menu – provided a common framework from which a user could interact with apps without having to actually enter the apps as much, hence mitigating annoyances like aesthetic gaps between iOS and Android versions or the shittiness of garbage collected languages (read: Java) on mobile and in the hands of devs who don’t do manual collection.

Here are twelve apps and two Chrome extensions that can up the notification game.

Eye in Sky

What it is: A top-shelf weather app.

Notification perks: 1) persistent, regularly updated temperature figure in the status bar; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) expandable weather notification with customizable icons and forecasts.

Sleep as Android

What it is: A handy sleep tracker app that catalogs your deep and light sleep percentages and also features an alarm clock.

Notification perks: 1) sleep tracker toggle in notification bar

Notif Pro

What it is: A custom notifications app.

Notifications perk: 1) expandable; 2) lists; 3) alerts; 4) photos

PushBullet

What it is: An app that can receive pushed images, files, and/or lists from its accompanying Chrome extension.

Notification perks: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) expandable notification for lists and image previews

Desktop Notifications

What it is: a way to connect your Android notifications with your desktop instance of Chrome or Firefox.

Notification perks: shows all Android notifications in a popup in the lower-right in Chrome or Firefox. I love using this on Chrome OS with its extension.

Battery Widget Reborn

What it is: A battery conservation and tracking tool.

Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with usage chart/time remaining estimate; 2) Dashclock extension; 3) Daydream; 4) lockscreen widget

Sliding Messaging Pro

What it is: An SMS client and a huge upgrade over stock (and it gets updated all the time)

Notification perks: gee, where to begin: 1) Dashclock extension; 2) multiple widgets; 3) persistent quick text notification in status bar; 4) expandable notifications with read/reply options for new messages; 5) scrollable widget that can be overlaid inside of any app.

Spotify

What it is: A music streaming service. I assume you’ve heard of it.

Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with forward/backward/play/pause control and add to playlist button

Pocket Casts

What it is: A podcasting client.

Notification perks: 1) expandable notification with rewind/fast forward (not just forward/back) and play/pause controls

DashClock Widget

What is: A lockscreen notification center which I’ve written about here.

Notification perks: Out-of-the-box compatibilty with Gmail, SMS, weather, Google Calendar etc. Customizable with numerous extensions.

ActiveNotifications

What it is: A way to bring the Moto X’s distinctive (and somewhat intrusive) notifications to any Android phone

Notification perks: 1) screen wakes with specific information about each notification’s content.