Storehouse

Even as tablets get ever more popular, it still strikes me that we’re not fully tapping their inherent, unique potential to get people making things. To some extent, the early indictment that they are primarily consumption devices is more true than I thought would be the case four years after their debut.

We tried to change this perception with Mixel, but we didn’t make nearly as much progress as I had hoped. That’s why I was so excited when my friend Mark Kawano started a company with the express purpose of transforming the iPad into an intuitive, powerful, emotionally immersive storytelling platform. Today, Storehouse debuts in the App Store and it’s beautiful.

Storehouse

Storehouse bills itself as “The easiest way to way to create, share, and discover beautiful stories.” It lets you pull in your images from everywhere and arrange them into superbly elegant narratives — all within one of the most amazingly supple editing environments ever built on iOS (and that’s saying something). It’s a total joy to use.

Full disclosure: aside from being a friend of Mark’s, I’m also an advisor to Storehouse Media Inc. But that shouldn’t stop you from downloading it and deciding for yourself, because Storehouse is completely free.

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The Pain of Previewing iOS Apps

We’re starting to roll out preview builds of our iPhone app at Wildcard. If you’d like to get your hands on one, sign up for access on our home page and we’ll add you to the list.

Distributing previews of iOS software is notoriously difficult and has gotten only incrementally easier over the years. There’s no method that anyone would call elegant or even low-friction, TestFlight, HockeyApp and corporate IT-brewed solutions included.

Worse, the logistical complexity of getting a preview build on a device that belongs to a novice user can often spoil the mindset of that tester. If you’re building an app that’s ostensibly trying to make life easier for someone, yet the very act of installing it on that person’s device is fraught with points of failure, you stand a pretty good chance of losing their faith in your product.

This happens so often that at Wildcard we decided that the least we could do was to explain how it works with much greater specificity, to try and fill in all of the gaps in the process. My colleague Steve Meszaros put together this preview installation guide, which includes detailed instructions and screen grabs from the key UI elements to be found throughout the whole, convoluted process. We revised it several times, and will probably keep revising it, as we try to make it as helpful as possible for our users.

Still, as we worked on it, we were practically laughing with incredulity that something like this was even necessary. It seems to me that Apple’s desire to keep developer-distributed software on a tight leash, which is at the root of the complexity in this process, is in no way inherently opposed to the idea that a test user’s installation experience can be simple, elegant, even delightful. Things should be much easier than this.

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Sonos vs. AirPlay vs. Our House

At Christmas, we flirted with a Sonos sound system in my household, but ultimately decided to return it. I know smart people who adore their Sonos systems, but when I’ve played with the hardware and software in the past I’ve never been more than mildly impressed. So when it came time to commit to installing another technical system in my household — the Sonos meant more plugs, more boxes, more management — I just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to outweigh the hefty price premium that Sonos charges.

Frankly, we’re an Apple household, so by my reckoning, we already get most of the benefit that Sonos offers from the AirPlay system that’s in the house already. We’re heavy users of our Apple TV for all kinds of video — iTunes movie rentals, Netflix, Hulu Plus, even ripped MP4s streamed from other computers in the house — and we rely on it heavily for audio, too. It’s hooked up to a pretty powerful Onkyo home theater system in the living room and out of the box it streams my entire music library from iTunes Match, which is what we listen to most often.

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Unbearably Light Icons

Love it or hate it, the wispy, thread-like aesthetic of iOS 7’s icon language is here to stay, at least for a while. Designers of stock icons are embracing it too, and if the sheer volume of new icons they’re turning out is any indication, this visual vernacular is probably not the most laborious style to work within.

Morphix Design Studio’s long-standing Picons catalog has just released a Picons Thin set, which includes five hundred icons for just US$49. That’s less than 11¢ each!

Picons Thin

Not to be outdone, Vincent Le Moign’s new Streamline Icons pack comes with one thousand, six-hundred and forty icons for US$67 — but they’re on sale at a “launch price” of US$47 until this evening.

Which one is the better set? I’m not sure there’s a value judgment to be made between them. You can buy both and cover all of your icon needs for less than a hundred dollars, which is a ridiculous bargain. Let’s take stock: we live in a time when designers’ tools have become almost unreasonably plentiful and inexpensive.

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Nelson Mandela on Apple.com

Nelson Mandela’s passing at age ninety-five is being honored everywhere, including the Apple home page.

Nelson Mandela on Apple.com

This is going to seem churlish of me, but I can’t help but think that it would be more in keeping with Mandela’s legacy if, rather than waiting until a truly great black man dies to put his image on their home page, Apple could routinely allow a worthy living black man to appear on this page:

Apple Executives
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Offline Magazine

Among the many things I’ve been working on for the past six months is spending a bit of time helping entrepreneurs Tom Smith and Brad Flaugher realize their very canny vision for mobile publishing. It’s called Offline Magazine, and it debuts today in the App Store.

Each month, Offline delivers five essays about culture, comedy or design, curated as a proper issue (I wrote one of the pieces in the debut edition). The Offline app itself is beautifully designed (not by me, but by Trevor Baum) and purpose-built for mobile reading. That last bit is incredibly important; this is a reading experience expressly designed to complement reading habits on phones and tablets, not demand new, unnatural ones.

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Time Stamps in iOS 7 Messages

With each passing day, my unfinished writeup of thoughts on iOS 7 seems less and less like it’s going to happen. Hopefully in the next week sometime.

Meanwhile, here’s something I discovered in iOS 7 last night: if you pull the speech bubbles in Messages to the left just slightly, the interface reveals time stamps for each individual message. There’s also a subtle but noticeable color change in the blue bubbles, drawing attention away from them towards the new information coming onto the stage. Fantastic.

Messages in iOS 7

When I mentioned this on Twitter, some folks complained that, clever as it is, it’s not very discoverable. Normally, hiding this feature in this way would seem somewhat user-unfriendly. But I think this is an elegant solution to a long-running but minor complaint about this app.

Since its inception, Messages has only selectively displayed time stamps, usually after a long lull between exchanged messages. I admit having wanted to see the time stamps on plenty of occasions, but not so much so that it broke the experience of using the app for me. In fact, I think that Apple made the right call originally: only show time stamps where they add meaningful value; anything more is superfluous. I still regard these time stamps as superfluous; but this new availability is the best of both worlds: the time stamps are there, but they add no visual clutter until the user actively calls for them.

I still take issue with iOS 7’s many glaring imperfections, but I admit that I’m finding it really enjoyable too. Stuff like this, small as it is, counts for a lot.

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Passing Around Passwords

My devotion to and affection for Agile Bits’ 1Password has been continual and unabated since I first started using this indispensable security utility several years ago. I rely on it many, many times a day, across several different devices, and it never lets me down. In fact, though I ostensibly use it to remember and generate passwords, I’m fond of saying that the real reason I use 1Password is so that I can tell other people how awesome 1Password is.

Yet 1Password is for the individual use case. It’s not so helpful for situations when passwords need to be shared by more than one person, in teams.

There are a few would be contenders trying to solve that problem by turning password management into a cloud service. Earlier tonight I tried Mitro. They have an attractively designed Web page but I found the product itself pretty lacking — it looks like it’s not even finished. To that point, Mitro currently ships only with an extension for Google Chrome, at least for now. I actively use three desktop browsers and at least two mobile browsers, and 1Password covers almost all of these scenarios — anything less is a tough pill to swallow.

To the Mitro’s credit, when I emailed the company about their missing browser extensions, someone got back to me right away, within minutes. Then again, when I sent a follow-up query, it went unanswered.

Compare that with competitor TeamPassword, whose founder and CEO Brian Sierakowski both emailed me and instant messaged me almost as soon as I signed up. Brian was super-friendly and helpful, and he promises that the TeamPassword solution is much closer to ‘1Password but for teams’ than Mitro’s, which is enticing. Still, I hit some snags in the login process, and while Brian is working with me to get them sorted, I have yet to get access to TeamPassword.

I also heard from members of the founding teams of both SimpleSafe and Meldium, which seem to do similar things. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to try either of them out.

Obviously, this is a problem that a lot of people are thinking about actively, which makes me happy in spite of the unimpressive results so far. Even Agile Bits is working on this problem; the current iOS versions of 1Password incorporate a workflow for sharing passwords, and the Mac version will have the same soon, as the company details in this blog post. Their approach is similar to the one that LastPass uses, from what I understand. That is, they offer a means to send a password, but not a channel for doing so; there’s no cloud service attached to 1Password’s sharing mechanism. That’s a little disappointing, but in the end, it may be sufficient for what I need, because at the very least it will let me keep telling everyone I use 1Password.

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iPhone 5 Button Issues

One of the so-called “geniuses” at my local Apple Store told me that the iPhone’s home button, which was so problematic on the iPhone 4 is now a serviceable part on the iPhone 5. Apple apparently identified the root causes of that problem and accounted for them in the design and manufacturing of its current model. The new home button shouldn’t become unresponsive over time as its predecessor so frequently did — but if it does, Apple can repair the button itself rather than replacing the entire unit, as it used to do.

It’s been almost a year since the iPhone 5 was introduced, so why should I care? Well, I had to bring my own unit into the Apple Store for repair recently, which is when I learned about this incremental bit of hardware progress. Thankfully, my iPhone 5’s home button has been working without a hitch, but sadly the same can’t be said of its power button. That piece recently started losing responsiveness, just like the iPhone 4’s home button used to, often requiring two or three hard presses to turn the unit on or off. For me, just one person, that’s frustrating. But from anecdotal evidence, lots of folks with iPhone 5s of similar vintage have been experiencing the same troubles, which leads me to believe this is a common hardware defect.

Apple’s solution? Well, unfortunately the iPhone 5’s power button is not a serviceable part, so the entire unit had to be replaced. Apple did this for me under warranty, thankfully, so I can’t complain too much about getting a brand new phone for free. But if I can gently offer a little advice to our friends in Cupertino: someone wise once said, “Skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

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Requiem for a Back Button

iOS 6’s Back ButtonI’m working up to writing at greater length about iOS 7 because, well, blogging. In the meantime, I thought I’d make one specific point. The thing that bothers me most about the new operating system is the completely revised back button, which is now less of a button and more of a left-facing arrow that looks a bit like a compressed bracket, plus a text label. I’m not going to critique it extensively right now, except to say that my least favorite thing about it is that it’s not the old back button.

If you ask me, that back button, the one that has been with us since the iPhone debuted, was the best back button design of all time. Most back buttons, like the ones in desktop browsers, are just an arrow-shaped icon with a text label above or below that says only “Back.” If you want to know where they’ll take you, you usually have to click and hold on the button to reveal a list of the screens you previously viewed.

The pre-iOS 7 back button consolidated these things into a single button shape that tapers into an arrowhead on the left side, and it housed a text description of where the button would lead you. It basically did three jobs with a single element. First, it visually signaled the way back, so that even if you didn’t read the descriptor text, you would still recognize the button’s function instantly. Second, if you did read what it said, it gave you the title of the previous view, without forcing you to tap and hold or take some secondary action to reveal that information. And finally, unlike the new back button in iOS 7, it was explicit about what you could tap and where; the target area was clearly demarcated by the button shape, and managed to do so without crowding the title of the view to its right (by contrast iOS 7’s new back button text often seems to run right into the title of the screen).

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