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 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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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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Recreating Photoshop Blend Modes

It’s kind of ironic, but one of the things that has made it easier to move away from Photoshop is the immense popularity of some of its very own features. A good example is the program’s blend modes — darken, multiply, color burn, lighten, screen, color dodge, etc. These have become so popular that when other graphics programs like Acorn, Pixelmator and Sketch implement similar functionality, they generally replicate them almost exactly. Switching made simple.

My favorite of these blend modes, by far, is multiply. As the name suggests, this mode gives you the product of two or more layers, multiplying each pixel on the top layer by the pixel or pixels in the layers directly beneath it. The result is a darker image that is usually quite visually rich. I use it all the time.

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Six Years with Todoist

There was a time that I thought I’d be on the search for the perfect to-do management software forever. That’s what I wrote in this blog post back in 2007, when I first mentioned Todoist, a Web based to-do list application that was then fairly new to me.

But six years later, I find myself still using Todoist, which is kind of amazing to me. I’ve poured thousands and thousands of to-do items into it, and have been faithfully ticking them off and moving them around every single work day. In that time, Todoist has gone from a side project run by its founder, Amir Salihefendic, to a real, profitable company called Doist, with a staff scattered all over the world.

What’s even more amazing to me is that at its core, Todoist is still fundamentally the same; it remains a ridiculously simple bit of software that takes just moments to learn, and it’s still extremely effective. In spite of the many years it’s been in the market, and the many users who have sent in feature wish lists, and the many talented people who have signed on to Amir’s team, it hasn’t become encrusted with complex features geared towards specialized use cases. In the world of software, keeping your feature set essentially unchanged while also keeping it relevant is a real feat. It may not be glamorous, but it’s incredibly hard.

Actually, Todoist has changed in one important way: it’s become more readily available on every platform. Whether you use Chrome or Safari, Android or iOS, Mac or Windows, Todoist is available and fully functional. In fact, today the company just released a brand new version of Todoist for iOS, a fully-fledged, native, beautiful overhaul of its iPhone experience. (At one time, Todoist for iPhone was just a native wrapper around a Web view, and it was exactly as flaky as that sounds. It’s come a long way.). Even better, this new version is optimized for the iPad, too. I fully expect to be using Todoist for the next six years, at least.

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Saying Goodbye to Google Reader

Barring a miraculous, last-minute reprieve from its corporate parents, Google Reader will shut down in just a few days. I’ve been trying out a few alternatives: Feedly, Feedbin and Digg Reader (in beta for the Web but just out today for iOS), among others. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but I’m struck by how much they all look like Google Reader — a list of feeds and folders occupying the left third of the screen and a stream of articles in the right two-thirds.

When Google Reader’s demise was announced, in my head I pictured a slew of new products vying to take its place by reinventing the very idea of an RSS reader. I was looking forward to seeing some radically new user interface approaches that would challenge my notions and habits around feeds. I haven’t seen that, at least not yet.

However, when I think more carefully about what I like and don’t like about these contenders, I realize that in truth I’m actually not looking for something different at all. What I want are the very same paradigms that Google Reader used, the same keyboard shortcuts, the same auxiliary features — basically the exact same interface. When one of these products omits something that Google Reader featured, or takes a slightly different approach, I think to myself, “Well that’s not right.”

Changing habits is hard, especially with something that’s as geared towards expert usage as RSS. It just goes to show how biased towards advanced users Google Reader was; acclimating yourself to its quirks took some time, but once you adopted Google Reader-specific habits, they become ingrained and you never wanted to give them up. Software for experts tends be like this, I find, and in many ways that is exactly the opposite of what a software company wants if they want to build a huge audience. I guess Google Reader never really had a chance.

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iOS 7 Thins Out

Was there a lot that was terribly wrong with the look and feel of iOS 6? Not in my book. It certainly wasn’t perfect, and many swaths of it were begging for some kind of house cleaning, but it didn’t need to be chucked away entirely. Apple decided to do just that, though, in their just announced iOS 7. The new operating system is significantly less ornamental than its predecessor; if you can call something “more minimal,” then iOS 7 looks to be just that. It’s simpler, less cluttered, and decidedly flatter, as folks like to say.

It’s also more like the cosmetics counter at your local department store than ever before, because, apparently, it makes liberal use of the thin or ultra light weights of Helvetica Neue throughout its many revamped interfaces.

Historically, these fonts have figured prominently into the typographic vocabulary of the beauty and fashion industries, where they’ve been used for years to connote notions of modernity, Euro-centric sophistication and near-anorexic thinness. They facilitate aspirational marketing messages, ideals that consumers can aspire to by applying that perfect shade of lipstick or putting on that perfect summer dress. And more often than not they’ve also been meant to indicate femininity.

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Hoping Apple Puts Family First

I’m not sure what Apple will announce at its 2013 WWDC Keynote later today, but I suspect the thing at the top of my list is probably not at the top of theirs: significantly more robust multi-user account support throughout iOS.

This is a need that has been sorely felt for some time. To describe it in more detail, I’d break it down into two parts.

First: allow more than one user to login to an iOS device — if not iPhones, which are admittedly intensely personal, then iPads, which are heavily shared devices. Two years ago I called iPads “post-personal computers,” because I saw that they were being readily passed around within households. Since then, I’ve only come to see more of that kind of real world usage. Adding support for those use cases strikes me as not only necessary, but also an opportunity for Apple to gain a meaningful competitive edge over other mobile platforms, which still think in terms of user accounts and not in terms of real usage patterns.

The second part is: allow users to combine their Apple IDs. This is something that I also happened to write about two years ago in a post titled “Multiple User Account Disorder,” and the situation remains unimproved. The gist of it is that people inadvertently create multiple Apple IDs all the time, then find themselves needing to combine them — but Apple has no facility to make that happen, even if you call tech support and elevate your predicament to the highest-ranking and most sympathetic support supervisor you can find. Fixing this problem will relieve untold confusion for many, many users, especially those who are less adept at negotiating the technicalities of having multiple accounts.

I complain that these two elements have not budged much in two years, but that’s not entirely true. In the second half of last year, Apple shipped a modest update to its Apple TV software, which ostensibly runs on iOS, that allows a family to add more than one Apple ID to that device. It’s a bit kludgy, because it requires that users trudge back to the Apple TV’s settings each time they want to switch to a different ID, but I’m hoping it’s a start.

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Weighing Sketch and Photoshop

A few of us on the Etsy design team have started using Sketch instead of Adobe Photoshop for UI design. It took some getting used to, but I’ve been getting very comfortable working with Sketch’s distinctly un-Adobe-like approach to crafting interfaces, in particular the way it delivers all the advantages of working with vector graphics while producing results that are indistinguishable from raster graphics.

I’m planning on posting more of my thoughts on my transition to Sketch soon, but yesterday, when Adobe notified me of an update to Photoshop, I was reminded of another reason why I prefer Sketch so much.

Photoshop vs. Sketch

On the left is the update screen for Photoshop. This particular software patch weighs in at 129 MB — just for the update. Sketch itself weighs in at less than a tenth; just 12 MB — that’s for the entirety of the app, the whole megillah; not just a software update.

You can argue that Photoshop needs to be bigger because it does so much more, but that is just the point. It does too much for my taste, and I’m a little tired of paying the freight costs of all those features I don’t need: the slowness, the crashes, the progressively exploitive pricing. I’m really enjoying Sketch’s more streamlined feature set, and how it is clearly purpose-built for designing user interfaces. Simpler tools are very often better tools.

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Creative Cloud Is Not Suite

Late in December of 2010, I paid US$750 (including taxes and shipping) for an upgrade copy of Adobe Creative Suite 5. I’m still using that software on my Mac at home, and find that it covers most all of my needs. If you amortize that cost out over the roughly thirty months that I’ve owned CS5, it comes to about US$25 per month.

When I first did this math, I expected that figure to be significantly lower than the cost for Adobe’s Creative Cloud software, which offers the same applications as the Creative Suite but via monthly subscription. Existing CS customers can subscribe to Creative Cloud for US$30 a month. Over the course of thirty months, that comes to about US$150 more than what I paid in December 2010. That’s not nothing, but it’s a fair price to pay considering that CC always provides the latest versions of Adobe’s software.

Of course, thirty months is an arbitrary number. I could probably use CS5 for another twelve months, at least, before I would really need to upgrade it. In so doing I’d effectively drive the price down to around US$18 a month, saving me US$510 over the cost of subscribing to Creative Cloud during that extended period of time.

However, as Adobe announced yesterday, going forward the only way to get access to the new versions of Adobe’s key software will be through a Creative Cloud subscription. If you want to use Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, etc. now you must pay a monthly subscription fee. Which is to say, you can no longer buy a single, standalone version and let it amortize out over as long as you like.

Whether this is a good thing or not depends on each customer’s needs, of course. Some people will appreciate the ability to pay only for the months that they need. For businesses and startups, in particular, the ability to put a legal copy of Adobe’s apps in an employee’s hands for US$50 a month (the cost for new customers) instead of several hundred dollars is sure to be a boon.

But for folks like myself, who find that only every second or third of Adobe’s major releases truly warrants the financial and technological hassle of an upgrade, losing that option is not so appealing. It feels less like innovation and more like manipulation.

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