The Safe Mac

If you use iOS or OS X and missed the Mac Power Users podcast this week with Joe Caiati, I highly recommend checking it out. One highlight for me (as the default tech support for a growing circle of people) was the mention of The Safe Mac. The website is "retro" (to put it nicely), but the adware removal tool is top notch – and free (donations recommended). 

It is worth checking out as an option for your loved ones who find themselves installing Flash from some bogus website (something that's shockingly easy to do).

Twitter's New User Problem

Twitter's growth numbers have been a disappointment among investors and a large group of the company's enthusiasts. On one hand, having hundreds of millions of users is an incredible accomplishment. On the other hand, they are having tremendous difficulty bringing new users onto the service and keeping them there, especially for a company whose brand recognition is off the charts.

There are a handful of fundamental issues with both the perception of the service and the new user experience that will prevent this reality from changing. Make no mistake, I am bullish on Twitter and wouldn't think twice about declaring it my favorite thing on the internet, but these roadblocks must be overcome to see any meaningful change. Twitter has the potential to be the central hub for how people experience the digital world around them. It is social, it is news, it is entertainment, it is educational, it is anything and everything you want it to be. So why aren't more people signing up and sticking with the service if it is so versatile and powerful?

The Public (Mis)Perception of Twitter

Twitter has completely lost control over the perception non-users have of the service. People see hash tags on TV shows, periodic mentions of the company on the evening news, and sometimes a scandal or two. To someone who doesn't actively use Twitter, they can't even define what it is for or why they should use it. I frequently ask non-users why they aren't on Twitter and the response is always (I literally mean 100%) some version of, "What would I use it for?"

It is difficult to portray your company clearly when it is so many different things to so many different people. A cohesive message about the service they provide will either only apply to a subset of users, or it will be so miserably vague you will end up with something like Twitter's official Strategy Statement. Even asking the most enthusiastic users what Twitter is doesn't consistently yield a reply that inspires people to sign up. You can describe it as I did earlier, "It can be anything you want it to be," and scare them away because it sounds overwhelming. You can describe it with specific examples that are in line with the inquirer's interests or career and you might have more luck, but then you have to tailor an answer to every person and you will give them a skewed perception of what Twitter actually is. You can say, "Let me show you!" and quickly learn that your Twitter feed is probably only interesting to you while you overwhelm them rapidly navigating the lingo and stream. 

I don't pretend to have the solution to this problem, but I can say with confidence that there is tremendous power in giving potential users the perception of your company that you want them to have. Consider the Apple Watch event where the most common criticism is their lack of their famous "why you need this product" speech that has so famously been an integral piece of all new product releases from modern Apple. 

When users don't understand the need for what you are offering, you're going to have a very tough time getting them to spend time, money, or effort on your product. Twitter is overwhelming, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. Perhaps by fixing the daunting onboarding process Twitter can gradually change the public perception by converting the uninformed into enthusiastic users.

Twitter's New User Experience

Along with the breadth of possibility comes the abundance of complexity and ample confusion. If you can get people to sign up, which is a big if, they now have to navigate turbulent water as they build their network. Start with a few friends, maybe a favorite TV show or sports team, sprinkle in a couple of hobbies, and they've at least got something to look at.

Let's be honest though, the official Google account isn't the interesting source on Twitter for all things Google. Likewise official sports team accounts are usually boring and generic. Products, services, or TV show accounts just spam you with promotions and prompts to retweet content and spread the word. This isn't what makes Twitter great, not by a long shot.

There needs to be a smarter, simpler, and much faster way to show a new user valuable content that they care about. It seems safe to assume that most people who don't use Twitter today would sign up with skepticism, if they signed up at all. This means that every moment matters, every fraction of a second works against you if you aren't providing value. This is the new user experience, and right now Twitter is failing in a big way. 

There is an opportunity to automate this initial experience by leveraging one of the largest data sets in the world to algorithmically determine what a user might be interested in. With some kind of seed to the profiling algorithm Twitter can present the user with high-level topics; then as selections are made, narrow the focus slightly. From here, you give the user a sense of the tweet volume and allow for adjustment via a slider or perhaps even automatically. Based on the frequency the user launches the app, what they do in the app, and how they have it open, you tailor the content in the stream to appeal to them. Very quickly, assuming subtle UI hints (not tutorials) show the user how, the user will hide the auto-followed accounts if they don't like them and start following accounts they do like – both of which improve the algorithm. Depending how good it is, you could even omit the tweet volume slider to simplify the process, just present great tweets on a valuable topic. If you're providing tangible value to the user, they will want to curate a list of people to follow, they will want to spend time on the service getting more value, and they will want to spread the word.

The fundamental point is that in less than 30 to 60 seconds, the user needs to be immersed in Twitter, and not just the app, but a version of Twitter that is valuable to that individual user. The friction experienced between launching the app and gaining value from it will overwhelmingly determine whether this person will remain a user. With every tiny hiccup, extraneous question, or mundane tap the user has to indulge for the sake of Twitter rather than themselves, the less likely they are to stick.

I mentioned it briefly above, but there will need to be some kind of seed for this algorithm. It doesn't seem likely that you can safely rely on people linking their Facebook profile, and even if they do link it, most people use Twitter so fundamentally differently that you don't want to scare them into thinking this is just a weird version of Facebook. You could ask for access to their contacts and seed it with their friends and who their friends follow, but that isn't a golden ticket either, not to mention the growing disdain for allowing access to your contacts within apps. This strikes me as the hardest problem to solve without having the user fill out some type of survey of their interests, which not only takes time and effort for no immediate apparent value, it's just a generally terrible first launch experience.

Maybe there is some solution in the huge pile of data Twitter has for this, or maybe not, but even a slightly uglier sign up process that generates a meaningful stream of content is better than the new user experience today. There are services like WeFollow and Twtrland that can help you to find people to follow based on search terms, but the average user won't invest this much in building a follow list until they've uncovered the value they get from their effort, if they ever do.

[UPDATE: Twitter has improved this process over the last year or so, but it still feels generic. I am pleased to see a very brief survey of the user's interests yield some suggestions that extended beyond the boring major brand accounts. Unfortunately, at no point during the signup process do they attempt to give the user any kind of idea what Twitter can be to them; nor is there any automated way to refine the list of who a user follows based on their activity. This is definitely a step in the right direction, but not enough to change the minds of people who have previously written off the idea of using the service.]

Now What?

Experienced users have a list of complaints and requests about the service too, many of which I would agree with. However, the public perception of Twitter and the onboarding problem strike me as two major flaws that most directly impact the growth outlook for Twitter. 

Clearly this isn't a simple solution, or Twitter would have done it already. However, there are very basic and obvious roadblocks for the new user experience that prevent Twitter from growing like investors want and enthusiasts imagine. Twitter is one of the greatest services and inventions in recent history, but they're far from realizing their full potential. The overwhelmingly emphatic supporters of Twitter, like myself, are large in number and I believe highly justified in their beliefs, but we seem to be running up against the limit of how widespread the service can get without addressing these basic concerns.

Messaging: Speed or Consistency, Not Both

Messaging is king, especially text-based messaging. Voice is fine, video has its place too, but there is nothing today that can replace the rapid and highly private aspects of text-based messaging – no headphones required. Given this, it is no surprise that iMessage has been a hit, but other cross-platform apps have been even bigger hits (judging by user count). WhatsApp, Telegram, Hangouts, and others are all trying to be the go-to app for messaging.

This isn't a roundup or definitive review. I want to address the (admittedly first world) problem of getting speed or consistency, but never both. What do I mean by that? Let's take iMessage and compare it to Hangouts for the demonstration, but "Hangouts" could just as easily be replaced with WhatsApp or others.

iMessage – Brilliant but Inconsistent

When you open iMessage you immediately get your conversation content because it is stored right there on the device. There is no permanent copy on the cloud (details here). Messages are delivered securely to a device and that's the end of it. The result is a lighting fast feel and a negligible launch time, it doesn't even have to ping a server until you send/receive a message or compose a new one (it checks if they're an iMessage user).

Unfortunately, with iMessage you also get inconsistency if you have more than one device with iMessage activated for the account. When my wife sends me a message and she sees it gets "Delivered" she has no idea which of my devices actually got it. You would hope they all did, but that isn't always the case. Technically each iMessage results in the server having N secure and isolated copies where N is the number of devices on your account. Each copy is treated independently and is only removed after it has been confirmed as delivered or it reaches the 7 day expiration. Although this is how it supposedly works, in practice there must be some logic that only confirms a message was delivered to a device and after a certain (very short) period of time it treats all N copies as delivered. Far too many times have I come back to my iPad after a day of missing iMessages on my phone only to find them on my iPad for my assumption to be patently false.

I will stop here and say iMessage usually handles this correctly (far better than it used to), but not always, and not everyone's experience is as good as mine. Messages showing up out of order or some messages never showing up at all are all common problems if you've got more than one device connected to an iMessage account.

Hangouts – Slow and Steady

Hangouts, on the other hand, never shows messages out of order (or effectively never) and they always show up. Sure you might not get a push notification, but if you open the app they will be there. The main reason behind this is that the master copy of a conversation is on the server, not the device. So if you never get a push notification for a message (which is annoying) the server likely thought you read that message on another device already. This model of having the server as the master means that every time you launch the app it has to ping the server and download updates. Even if you got a push alert with a message, when you launch the app it still pings the server and re-downloads that content that it just showed you in the alert. In iOS you can have a push notification trigger a background download of the message content, but Hangouts doesn't take advantage of this, much to my discontent.

It seems small, perhaps even insignificant, but given with text-based messaging I want to be in and out as fast as my fingers can tap. I will often go in and out of conversations many times in a single minute. Hangouts, despite only requiring a few seconds of my time, feels unusable as an iMessage replacement because of the lag. WhatsApp has similar launch lag and every new message has to be downloaded when the app launches instead of being ready for me when I open the app, unlike iMessage.

Note: I know this launch and usage experience is different on Android, it is far less of an issue there. I still believe iMessage to be a superior experience within the limits it imposes, but it is worth pointing out that these shortcomings are based on the iOS app.

Solving the Problem

There is a level of complexity to this problem, as simple as it may sound. You don't want to push alerts to 3 devices for every single message if a user is carrying the conversation on one of them. At the same time you don't want to miss message delivery entirely. None of this even matters if the user experience isn't good enough for the messaging app in question to gain the necessary popularity.

How do you solve it? Keep a master copy on a server? Have a "primary" device option? Have behind-the-scenes read receipts? 

I think a combination of fail-safes built on top of the current iMessage strategy is likely he way to go. Avoiding the server-as-the-master solution is the only way to get a truly fast experience. If there were logic to actually check for per-device delivery as well as read receipts  for the server (without having to turn on actual read receipts), most of the issues seen with iMessage today would likely be avoided. It would also make sense to have a primary device either automatically determined based on usage or manually configurable. This could mean that with 100% certainty a single device would always get every message no matter what. There are issues with that device not being connected, but there are solutions beyond the scope of this piece.

Closing

Text-based messaging is private, convenient, and fast. The private nature makes it intimate and on a personal level makes us trust it and love it in many cases. It is fast, it is reliable (mostly), and it is simple. Anyone can do it regardless of their device or platform; and while we're seeing the proliferation of apps and methods, it has never been more convenient to use text-based messaging to communicate. I believe that the speed and reliability of the experience are key which is why I vastly prefer iMessage to alternatives, the above average level of security helps too. With that being said, I think iMessage has a long way to go for me not to caveat my otherwise emphatic endorsement of it.

Drones: Some Quick Thoughts

There has been no shortage of coverage on drones lately, especially around the holidays when the cheap ones were selling fairly well as toys. I think the industry leaders have a very different view of why drone technology matters, or at least I suspect they do, because there is a drone revolution closer than many people think. The biggest hurdle in the United States is the FAA, but that's outside the scope of this piece.

So what do I mean by a revolution? Much of the common hype is largely misaligned with where the large scale profit opportunities are because the mass market messaging is most easily conveyed when they speak the consumer's language. The message, "a toy your kid can play with" hits home for nearly everyone. The more profound opportunities are the infrastructure applications where something like Amazon's drone delivery service research announcement is only the beginning.

One of the trends we're staring to see, most readily portrayed by the Internet of Things, is the attempt to close the gap between the digital world and the physical world. Drones could help play a large role in this transformation. Drones are highly mobile, they're capable of executing tasks, they are filled with sensors (including cameras), and (of course) they're connected.

This means that we can "be somewhere" without being there and without anyone having ever been there for that matter. Drones allow real time information to be easily transmitted – imagine a group of smart drones that using traffic analysis go to points of congestion and and provide live feeds. One effect is that we no longer need traffic helicopters, but the more interesting options include more advanced rerouting options, entire traffic light grids that re-calibrate to alleviate congestion and learn, better snow plow routes, and of course better criminal tracking capability.

I wouldn't expect most homes to own their own drones, though they might, but I would expect them to use drone based services. Whether that's drone delivery, "eyes in the sky" capability, home or business security, or even seeing how bad the line is at the Apple Store after a new iPhone launches, there will be entire industries that pop up around the shared drone capability model.

All of this discussion is based on our mindset today. People used to say "Who needs a phone with them all of the time?" and now most of us can't imagine life without the supercomputer in our pocket. We're at the early "no idea what is going to hit us" phase of the drone industry lifecycle, this is the beginning of the beginning. Don't be the person everyone is quoting in a decade like Ballmer is with the iPhone saying it had "no chance" of gaining substantial marketshare.

The FAA would be foolish to stand in the way. I know there are problems related to safety, congestion, privacy, ownership and responsibility for accidents, and more. It isn't a simple problem to solve, but it will be solved, and it will be a tremendous commercial success – I can't imagine an America where we bypass that opportunity.

From Back Page to Dock – The Ultimate App Promotion

A few records have been broken today thanks to a little app called Acompli. That's right, the app that Microsoft accidentally leaked their intent to purchase this week. So what do I mean by records?

  • The first time I've promoted an app from the back page to my dock.
  • The first time I'm strongly considering replacing the native iOS email client entirely.
  • The first email client I've ever opened and been unable to find any glaring shortcomings.

I am picky with my email clients. I was not a fan of Google's new Inbox and it only took me about half a day to download, adopt, then delete Dropbox's Mailbox. Email doesn't have to be terrible, and as surprising as many "power users" find it, I found the native iOS email client to be a top tier solution for my phone.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Unified inbox (if you want, I do)
  • Actionable notifications
  • System integration
  • Keeps Safari as the browser
  • Basic swipe gestures that make sense
  • No frills, feature complete
  • Ultra-responsive – I don't want to be waiting for a webpage to load to see my inbox

So here are some quick thoughts on why Acompli is likely to remain in my dock (note the overlap on the first 6 bullets with the list above).

  • Unified inbox (if you want, I do)
  • Actionable notifications
  • Keeps Safari as the browser by default, but is configurable
  • Basic swipe gestures that make sense
  • Feature complete, including excellent calendar integration
  • Responsive – not quite as responsive as the iOS email client, but almost indistinguishably slower
  • Push for Gmail – ever since Google stopped supporting Exchange I'd managed to remain lucky and keep my push Gmail, until recently. I've been heartbroken by this loss. Not just for the push email but also...
  • Calendar event RSVP support – When your Google Calendar is a CalDAV account on your iPhone, invites don't show in the "Inbox" of your calendar, so RSVPing (which can't be done from the iOS email client) is a huge pain in the ass. This was never the case when we had Exchange for Gmail.
  • Featured Inbox – I remain skeptical as I generally prefer a single inbox with everything in it from all accounts... however so far the algorithm to determine what is featured and what is "other" is quite good. I like that these are both unified across accounts, so I have a single featured inbox and a single other inbox. Plus, if I decide I don't like it, I can turn it off.
  • Email creation is a breeze and allows you to attach anything or create an invite from within an already-composed draft.
  • Attachment support is extensive and powerful, though admittedly this is somewhat rarely a requirement for me.
  • Scheduling – Boomerang/Inbox-like message scheduling is crucial to effective email management and attaining inbox zero without overlooking commitments or missing messages.
  • There is a search bar to quickly find folders/labels when moving messages, it is fast and works very well. If you've got a lot of labels or folders you know what a pain it can be scrolling through them to find the right one.

The only primary drawback so far is logging into some of my most critical accounts (email, cloud storage) within a third party app. As you would expect, the list of permissions you grant the app can be daunting. If Microsoft acquires them, it'll bolster my faith in their commitment to security.

Frankly, I'm still in shock. There has never been an email client that has even come close to replacing the iOS client. The most highly regarded apps, the most praised apps, the most downloaded apps... none even came close. Until Acompli.

After starting on the back page, Acompli has received the ultimate promotion and will remain in my dock until further notice. I'd like to extend my sincere thanks and congratulations to the folks at Acompli on an extraordinary app!

[Update] - The acquisition is now official. I am curious to see what happens regarding the future of the Acompli app. Will features be rolled into Outlook then the app retired? As long as they support the base of email services that they currently support, that might not be a terrible outcome. Microsoft has stated:

We’re excited about what’s possible as we build on the app’s success and bring it together with work currently in progress by the Outlook team. Our goal is to deliver fantastic cross-platform apps that support the variety of email services people use today and help them accomplish more.

Either way, a huge congrats to Javier and the team on a well deserved victory!

Keep your Inbox, Google

Unlike many people out there, I have no problem with email. It is a convenient way to communicate and maintains a permanent, searchable record of conversations. Sure you get the long-winded amateur novelists sending you page long emails, but for the most part I find it entirely manageable for the 40-100 emails per day I tend to get (which I acknowledge is not a lot, but my system held strong at 300-500 per day – which is definitely above average I'd bet).

Still, I use email on my phone and the Gmail web interface a lot, exclusively in fact (other than the iPad which tends to come in a distant third). So when a new paradigm comes along offering efficiency, email scheduling, and a slick UI, you have my full attention.

So here's a rundown of the upside and the downside for Google Inbox. The upside section is short, but that's largely because I'm focusing on the things I don't believe have been adequately covered yet.

Upside

Scheduling

Scheduling is wonderful. When I'm short on time, I use Boomerang on the desktop to help maintain a clean inbox without losing track of things. Having the ability to get an email out of your way temporarily and return it as a reminder when you need it (or as a just-in-case for event details at the time of that event, for example) is really convenient. Inbox takes this a step further and enables location-based return-to-inbox functionality. Two thumbs up. When using iOS's native email client, anything I want Boomeranged has to wait until I get to a computer; I rarely find this to be a noticeable inconvenience, but still worth noting. This is far and away the best feature of Google Inbox.

Design

Google made a focused effort to design this with elegance and simplicity in mind, and that is mostly clear to the user. They weren't shy about using colors, yet it isn't obnoxious. There are previews of certain things like images in the message preview from the inbox list view, some are even actionable like calendar invites. They manage to do this without cluttering the interface too much, though it does drastically change how many messages you might be seeing in the list at any given time. I'll leave the deep analysis to actual designers, but overall the look is appealing for the most part. 

Downside

Load... time...

I may not mind email, I even often prefer it, but that doesn't mean my life revolves around it. Using respectable broadband (though not the best), loading the app takes a shockingly long time. You can expect an average app load time plus an average website load time (a largely visual one, in fact), so expect 5-8 seconds to load the app even without many emails in your inbox. Once loaded, it begins the process of grabbing new emails. I understand how pedantic and ridiculous it sounds to complain about waiting 5 seconds, but doing this repeatedly throughout the day is extremely noticeable. Perhaps it is better to think of it as a 1000%+ increase* in load time compared to the native email client. If you're used to using the Gmail app for iOS, it shouldn't be much different.

*I tried measuring load time on my iOS client, it never took long enough that I could time it by hand, so I picked 1000% since it was certainly less than half a second.

This was one of the biggest complaints I have with Inbox. There is no excuse for it, iOS allows background downloading. The user experience on launch is terrible as a result. It is worsened by the fact that the list of messages you see on launch represents the inbox the last time you launched Inbox, meaning by the time you're skimming, reading, and reaching to tap one, the page will refresh and you'll be looking at (perhaps even unknowingly opening) an entirely different message.

Emails Get Lost

The new method for grouping messages can be useful, particularly to decrease your odds of losing an important email in the pile of update and promo emails that most of us wake up to. However, when you triage the inbox and get things trimmed down, what remains is effectively a to-do list, if anything remains at all. Then a new email comes in, then a few more, and suddenly the message that you had sitting right there as a reminder to do something is lost in a group somewhere. You could create a reminder with the (theoretically) handy reminders functionality, but that's an extra step and if I'm saving a message for later as a reminder I often am short on time to begin with.

I think some combination of pinned emails and reminders can solve this, so it is safe to chalk this one up to a lack of familiarity to some extent, but it was much easier to lose track of emails than it should have been.

Smart Features aren't That Smart

The "smart features" like detecting flights and reservations are nice, but most people don't realize that many daily (or frequent) benefits here. The smart event creation is either absent or utterly worthless when an email with subject "lunch on 12/2 at 12pm" can't be turned into an event on the spot like it can with the native iOS email client. Overall it is a neat idea that is useful when you need it, but the benefits aren't realized frequently enough to change the fact that the focus of Inbox is not on the content of the emails, it is on getting those emails out of your inbox.

More taps to semi-junk

You know those emails that you might skim, but almost never save or click on? Most of us have at least a few of those. I unsubscribe to the ones I don't want to get, but I do still get a a few. The new layout of Inbox means more taps to open them since they're now bundled in the "Promos" grouping. This has introduced a step (and subsequent load time) on messages that I barely consider worth the one tap they used to get. Yes, you can disable bundling of each message, but I barely cared enough to click once, I really don't want to have to go out of my way to manage rules for semi-junk. This isn't too big of a deal since it has the upside of making the initial view of your inbox more useful, but the downside of requiring weeks of training the app which ones to include or not include in the group. Ultimately, adding steps to manage the junk that's just barely important enough to make it to my inbox isn't a welcome change.

Missing Delete

I know some people have a hard time with archiving versus deleting messages, but there are those of us who pay for storage space from Google and don't love the image-heavy junk mail eating that space up. Trust us, there are enough people who can handle both the archive and the delete concept that we still want a delete feature. EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that delete still exists, it was just buried and I missed it. Not ideal, but that helps.

Missing the Details

I have a tremendous appreciation for apps that sweat the details – the tiny little things that most people don't even know took the developer hours or days of effort. Marco Arment using math and vectors to draw his graphics in Overcast, for instance. Tweetbot's tap-and-hold power features built in for fast account switching or retweeting from a different account. Path's clock as you scroll through the timeline and the animation when you tap + to add a post. Details matter.

Inbox is missing a few key ones. The design uses the concept of closing a message rather than going back, it seems subtle, but this means you're reaching for the X on the top left rather than using the swipe gesture from the left edge of the screen. My iPhone 6 (4.7" screen) makes this hard, I can't imagine using an iPhone 6 Plus.

I have had to dismiss or tap "Got it" on more tutorials than I care to count. I don't wholly agree with the following notion, but it has a point worth considering – if you need a tutorial, you failed in design. I don't remember who said it and I know the quote isn't verbatim, but the point remains. One tutorial/how-to I can live with, 5? 10? Come on. I understand that creating a whole new interaction model, structure, and experience to manage email requires some teaching, but there has to be a better balance than this.

I was surprised to see that my email signature from Gmail wasn't there when I used Inbox. This is the case in the Gmail app too, no signature at all. I can chose a mobile signature "instead of my desktop signature" (according to the setting in the Gmail app), but neither Gmail or Inbox adopts the desktop signature when that toggle is off and I don't even see relevant signature settings (or a place to add a signature, for that matter) in Inbox.

unread counts

I don't like seeing unread email counts, anywhere. The "mark all as done" feature is nice (though rarely do I blow off a whole chunk of emails without at least making sure they're okay to archive), but it keeps them marked as unread. This means that if they got auto-labled by my filters, as many do, I now have labels with unread counts. I understand that the alternative isn't ideal either though, marking an email as read when it wasn't actually opened is violating the basic understanding of read/unread, but it still makes the "mark all as done" feature much less useful.

Website

The website gets its own section since it was clearly an afterthought. I don't hold the app responsible for the faults of the website. I do, however, use email on a laptop often enough that the website matters; often I found myself back at the Gmail site to get things done. Let's move through these quickly:

  • It is Chrome only. I feel like it is 1998 getting "IE Only" notices. No thanks. (This is obviously temporary and likely for good reason, but it sends almost an alpha message on this beta product.)
  • There is no indication of how many unread emails you have; it doesn't say in the page title bar like Gmail does. When emails are grouped it tells you how many emails are in the group, then it makes the sender's name bold if there is a new email in that thread, but this isn't useful beyond a few new messages. You can count the number of bold names per message grouping, that gets you in the right ballpark, but that is ridiculous. 
  • I had Chrome open with one tab – Inbox – in the background while typing this. I noticed by battery dropped by 40% in less than an hour and checked which apps were sucking the power... Chrome, and only Chrome. I guess whatever Chrome-only-isms they are embracing are a work in progress with regard to efficiency also.
  • New hangouts messages don't flash, so unless you're on the page and paying attention to the conversation you really don't see that a new message has come in.  I also miss being able to click the header for the IM itself to minimize/maximize it, but that's not a big deal.
  • The initial look hides labels and Hangouts, which leaves a lot of white space. The simplicity is nice at first, but ultimately I wound up wanting Hangouts and labels visible all (or most) of the time. The resulting page looked like an afterthought rather than an intentionally designed webpage.

Closing Thoughts

The take-away is that Inbox focuses on getting emails out of your inbox rather than on the content of the emails themselves. In some cases the content is more of a burden than an asset, but I can't help but feel like Google assumes all email is spam unless proven otherwise – guilty until proven innocent if you will. As it stands today, I will not be switching to use Google's Inbox for my email needs. I will, however, be watching it grow and develop in hopes that with time they address some of the key issues. There is always the possibility that I return should they get these things sorted out.

The rave reviews for Inbox aren't entirely unjustified. It is an aesthetically pleasing app from a company that really knows email. I can't help but feel a hint of hope when I see this contemporary approach to addressing a pain point for millions of daily users – the inbox. If you're drowning in email and can't find a system to keep on top of it, this is worth a try, but in general I'd advise most people to steer clear, at least until the product matures more.

A Few Thoughts on the Apple Watch

A few months ago I made it very clear I had no expectation for there to be an "iWatch" (tentatively named at the time) in 2014. I even pegged 2015 as unlikely. I was partially right – there is no Apple Watch available to consumers in 2014, but there is very much an Apple Watch available only a few months later. 

The timeline isn't terribly relevant, but they were definitely ahead of where I expected them to be. It was no question that they had one in the works, but Apple did the exact thing that I wasn't sure they'd do – take direct aim at the fashion industry. I love that they did, and the general response is that the Apple Watch is more on par with premium watches than it is with the smart watches of today*.

What Is Missing, What Isn't

What Apple is doing here is what they've always done, with one fairly major missing piece. What they're doing is producing a device of extraordinary quality that feels incredible in the hand (or on the wrist), so incredible it elicits an emotional response whether you realize it or not. The feature list is simple yet compelling, and there is a new interaction model. This last part is critical and I cannot wait to see how it pans out. I have stated in the past that there will be an interaction model post-touchscreen that isn't voice, and I am curious to see if this is it (for small screened devices). It has strong ties to the original iPod from what I can tell.

These core strengths are in the experience and emotional response from using the device.  Experience or emotionally based "features" are challenging to capture in writing, I suspect this plays a part in why Apple has so much fashion exposure on it. In addition to the obvious fact that it is a fashion product, the fashion industry understands that beauty and craftsmanship reach people on an emotional level; this is true for all of Apple's devices, but I suspect the Apple Watch takes it to a whole new level.

So what is missing? Ben Thompson captured it well here – Apple never told us why we need the Apple Watch. What problem is it solving? Where does it fit in our digital lives? I think this is at least partially because they don't entirely know yet. They have some great ideas, intimate communication is going to be key. With voice being a primary interaction method there is no doubt that they're focusing heavily on the tap, haptic, and other aspects of the communication methods for the device. Their demos don't show it well because this is just too new. It is still tough to picture as a core piece of our interactions. We can't effectively communicate much substance with tiny doodles and we aren't all going to learn morse code, but there will be some intermediate level of brief communication that will become commonplace. 

Design

  • Shape - A circular design is appealing, but the drawbacks don't necessarily make up for the advantages. I have always liked certain square watches, the shape is not a negative as many have proposed (usually in comparison to the Moto 360).
  • Thickness - The device doesn't seem to be quite as thick as some of the promo shots make it look. I believe the roundedness of it make it appear thicker than it is, but I really don't know. It does look thick, but I'm a fan of very slim watches.
  • Size - Having two sizes was a no-brainer. There has to be substantial focus on smaller wrists, often generalized as "female wrists", but it applies more broadly. Many people do not like huge watches, and I suspect the watch will shrink substantially in overall appearance (by making it thinner) in coming years much like the iPhone did. It will be "too thick" when looking back on it in a few years, but it isn't necessarily too thick for a first generation device.
  • Bands - Apple created a genuinely elegant solution here, I think this will help sales substantially. Like others, I am curious what they will do considering the high end Edition watch's digital crown will be color matched to the band the watch was purchased with.

Price

I think John Gruber is on the right track.

Closing

Overall I like the watch. I am really excited to see what direction it heads and to see how they develop this new interaction model as well as the new intimate communication. I am also curious to see how the adoption is across sexes, classes, and outside the nerd community. My grandparents have iPhones and iPads; I am having a hard time picturing them getting an Apple Watch, but only because of what it looks like today, I think there is a big opportunity to change that very quickly.

Will I buy one? We'll see. My tentative thought at the moment is that I won't. I held off on the phone for a few generations (3GS), though that was largely because of the AT&T restriction, but I caved and switched in 2009. With the only restriction being my willingness to spend the money, there are fewer barriers than with the iPhone.

There is tremendous potential here and I cannot wait to see how it plays out. 

 

*At face value, this statement is easily refuted. The feature list comparison shows that the Apple Watch doesn't stand out compared to the current top tier Android smart watch, the Moto 360. This type of comparison overlooks the strengths that make Apple who they are, but neither Apple's strengths nor the feature list points are important to everyone, so of course it all comes down to what each person values in a device like this.

Apple's Opportunity to Take Two Factor Authentication Mainstream

Touch ID has brought a level of convenience, speed, and security to consumer electronics that has never been seen before. Your fingers are always with you, they're unique, and the fingerprint recognition is incredibly fast. In addition to that, an image of the fingerprint itself is not stored on the device, and what does get stored is kept in an ultra-secure enclave within the phone - never sent over the Internet. Each of these pieces is fundamentally critical to enabling mainstream adoption of two factor authentication. If the scanning were slower or less reliable, even only slightly, that could be enough to invalidation my entire assertion below.

Right now you've got people who not only avoid two factor authentication, many use the same password for everything, store passwords in a text file, use really simple and obvious words, or any number of other terrible practices. Then if they're hacked, they are surprised. Whether we like admitting it or not, the fact is that without an extraordinary amount of convenience, more secure practices will not become commonplace. 

The Potential

Apple has an opportunity to make two factor authentication commonplace; hopefully it will be instilled as a societal expectation that a hardware vendor provide a secure solution on par with this, but that's getting ahead of myself. So what does this hypothetical two factor authentication using Touch ID look like?

Apple releases an API so that websites support two factor authentication with Touch ID. When you log into the website with a username and password a request is sent to the device of your choosing, let's say an iPhone for now. Your phone lights up with the standard Touch ID authentication push alert with some basic information about the website that is making the request. Your fingerprint is never sent over the network, let alone to a third party website, but instead (much like third party apps in iOS 8) a simple "yes" or "no" is sent back to verify the user.

The push alert appears within a second or two, the scan doesn't require unlocking the device or anything, and in fractions of a second the fingerprint scan completes. Done. You now have an account that is nearly impossible to access without your permission (assuming the third party doesn't have some security loophole elsewhere).

Ultra fast. Ultra secure. Ultra convenient. Easy to understand and setup. It just works.

Longer Term

Longer term you could take this a step farther and include the Apple Watch. Right now, once authenticated, the Apple Watch doesn't require a PIN until contact with the skin is broken. Eventually the sensors on the back of the watch might to be able to use your biometrics (blood pressure, heart beat pattern, etc.) to create a unique identifier for you. The two factor authentication could be as simple as tapping "yes" on your watch face since the device already knows it is you.

What's the Hold Up?

There is nothing stopping Apple from doing this today. The hooks are already built into iOS to enable the Touch ID prompt from a third party. The API and third party implementation of the API is really the only big piece missing. It isn't trivial, but it is well within the scope of realistic.

One important consideration is how do you manage the situation where you've lost your phone? That's a tough one, likely a recovery password coupled with something else, maybe even a webcam based facial recognition option (which also has drawbacks). This isn't a perfect solution, but the benefits vastly outweigh the drawbacks as far as I can tell.

Closing Thoughts

I think Apple has a lot to gain here (for their image alone, if nothing else) and they're in a position to educate users how to take better care of their digital belongings. I cannot imagine any process that is more convenient that offers even a fraction of this level of security. Apple would be wise to roll this out as soon as possible, especially now that Touch ID equipped devices are numbering well into the tens of millions. I know I would use it for nearly everything, and I think this just might be enough for the average person to want to protect themselves.

Microsoft Buying Minecraft's Creator is a Long Play

If you haven't heard, Microsoft is buying Minecraft's creator for $2.5B. The young people hardly even know what Microsoft does and the older audience is thinking, "Mine what?" So here's why I think this, if positioned correctly, could be a vital long play for Microsoft.

It is no secret that Microsoft is having a miserable time launching Windows Phone into relevance. I suspect they'll keep up with the effort they have, however, by buying Minecraft's creator (who has a very loyal following) they can effectively admit defeat on the market of anyone 16 and over today and target those that are younger.

Obviously not many young teens or children buy flagship smartphones, but if Microsoft can slowly transition a Minecraft following into a Microsoft platform following, they'll have people (now grown up) with a decade of loyal love for the brand. Once these young buyers are the vital 18 to 25 year olds in the market there will be a decade of Windows Phone first (or Windows Phone exclusive) launches to bolster the image of their platform.

Microsoft is well aware they've lost the battle for now, but while all the competitors are fighting for sales today, Microsoft just made a wise long play for a decade from now. Keep in mind, execution of this is not guaranteed; in fact it will be challenging to keep their eye on a prize that far into the future, but make no mistake how loyal and enormous the Minecraft following is.

NFC on the iPhone 6 Just Might Happen

NFC is a neat technology, but it isn't terribly useful without a rich ecosystem in which to use it. Payments come to mind, but a lot of people have tried this before. While prior efforts haven't been a total flop, they aren't exactly exploding with popularity.

Every year there are rumors of the iPhone gaining NFC. Every year the event passes without mention of NFC. Until now, maybe.

I'm not sold on the notion that the iPhone 6 will have NFC, but I wouldn't bet against it at this point like I would have confidently in years past. If Apple does add NFC it will be accompanied by a launch of a rich platform in an attempt to drive their solution to complete ubiquity - on iOS devices only, naturally.

They already have hundreds of millions of credit cards on file. They already have a secure payment infrastructure. Apple is uniquely positioned to offer services to their customers that are tremendously secure and protect your data. Apple makes money from devices and that requires people trust their devices. Other services, offered for free, are rarely incentivized to provide the same level of protection. Coupled with iBeacon you could make the argument that a "retail 2.0" experience could be possible should Apple be successful in their hypothetical effort. There are speed bumps though. This would require a lot of retailers getting a lot of new hardware - though inexpensive, it is still nontrivial.

If they launch a wallet solution like they launched Passbook*, I don't have much confidence we'll see it take off. I also don't see them doing something like that. With Bluetooth Low Energy, Apple has very little reason to add NFC unless they are going to hit a grand slam with it.

The wallet is a concept that is painfully ready to be redesigned from the ground up. There are privacy and security concerns to slow down progress, not to mention legal concerns given the need to carry a photo ID as an adult.

I think that Apple is uniquely positioned to do something about it, at least in the US. Their devices are "everywhere," they have a tremendous incentive to keep your data totally secure, people trust them, governments trust them more than most tech companies, and the more they can lock you into their walled garden the better (for them).

I think it is safe to say that September 9, 2014 will be a day to remember for many reasons. If nothing else, it just might finally be the day that the annual NFC predictions finally come to fruition. 

*I love Passbook, but it hasn't exactly gone mainstream and adding passes is tremendously confusing for most people, especially when it launched with very little app support.