Yosemite and iOS 8 are Service Killers

Here are the various apps and services that I use that the latest Apple OS releases could replace:

There are probably more, but these were the ones that struck me immediately. It seems clear: With Yosemite and iOS 8 Apple is going after services in a big way.

Mail
Apple’s Mail is a perfectly good program, but I’ve always preferred the low-load, low-friction of Google’s Gmail in the browser. I also love the ways in which Gmail saves my ass. That said, I’m always teetering on the precipice of ditching Gmail — it just makes me uncomfortable how much information they have about me, and the fact that I have no idea what they do with it, and that I am not considered their customer. Google serves the interests of its advertisers first and foremost. It skeeves me out a lot.

For me, a lot would have to change with email to make me switch from Gmail. I’d love it if there were a server-side only option, for one. I’d also love it if Mail in iOS supported email aliases. Performance would have to get a lot better too. Still, with Cloud Storage integration, we’re one step closer to a Gmail killer. It will be interesting to see just how hard Apple is willing to fight for our email. 

Photos
I’ve also been using Google+ for photo storage and management, as a less than ideal solution. The app and service are almost completely unintegrated into iOS (except for auto-sync). The Google+ app for iOS is not great, and really not geared towards photo management, but Google+ has some nice search tricks (of course!), some nice processing tricks, and it’s free. Still, this is another service I’d ditch if something better came along. ‘Cause: Google.

For integrated photo management — like when I need to get photos from my iOS device to my Mac, or get images into my iPad’s Procreate app — I use Dropbox. Yep. I actually use two apps for image management because Apple’s image management implementation has been so piss poor.

iCloud Photo Library seems to be just the answer to my image woes. It’s fully integrated into iOS and, in time, will be with the Mac as well (hooray!). And it will be very affordable and will, presumably, just work.

Storage
I love Dropbox and have been very happy with it overall. It’s main virtues are that it’s wonderfully reliable, and it has deep hooks into the iOS ecosystem. For image management, particularly when I’m working on comics, it’s the best. But it’s expensive, and their recent policy changes have left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Enter: iCloud Drive. This is basically a Dropbox killer that offers twice the storage at under half the price. And it should be fully integrated with iOS and all its apps pretty much out of the box. If it’s reliable, it will be a no-brainer.

Location
Foursquare is a thing I’ve never really used, but I like the idea of being able to find out where someone I want to meet up with is currently located. Not sure I want or need a third-party app and service for this, and, as with Google, I question how this info will be used by an online service.

Apple is essentially integrating this idea into Messages, which I think is the perfect way to go. It’s integrated, person-specific and event specific. Messages is just the right context for location sharing. I will probably use the hell out of this feature. 

Search
Google’s search doesn’t really present a problem for me. But having to fire up a browser to access it is a minor impediment nonetheless.

Using Spotlight to accomplish the lion’s share of my search needs is an appealing prospect (though if I’m stuck with Bing I may not be sold). Again, Spotlight’s already integrated into my OS, so no trip to the browser is required. I like the idea of searching the web in the same manner and place I search my hard drive. I like the idea, though I wonder if I’ll like the practice. Time will tell.

Conclusion
With Yosemite and iOS 8 Apple is finally really attacking services in a big way. And, I think, in a smart way. Apple offers two things the third-parties can’t: integration and better privacy. Remember, Apple’s business model is built on making devices, apps and now services that make you, the end-user, happy, not on collecting and selling your information. 

The new features in Apple’s latest releases address some major pain points that have, thus far, been tackled by third-parties in often less than satisfying ways. With Apple handling cloud storage and photo management themselves, these services have a good chance at delivering a much better overall experience than the solutions I’ve found. I’m hoping they turn out well.

Super Initial Impressions

Normally on Keynote Day I'm right there, but today was an exception. I have a perfectly nerdy excuse: SAN Installation. So I missed all of toady's Apple announcements. I've only skimmed the info on the new products, but I wanted to get down my very initial impressions.  

 Mac OS X Mavericks

The new  version of Mac OS X was announced today. The name is a little corny, but I have to admit it's catchy and it's already growing on me. Time will tell. 

 Yes. I am excited about Finder Tabs.

Yes. I am excited about Finder Tabs.

Feature-wise, I audibly called out, "Finally!" multiple times while skimming the list. Don't get me wrong, I'm pleased as punch about a number of the new features — tags, tabs, books for Christ's sake, yes! — but really, what took you so long? Some of this stuff is great, but a little obvious and a bit of a reach. Makes it looks like Apple might be short on new ideas.

iOS 7

When Microsoft released its mobile OS a few years back I really liked the look of it: flat, simple, classy and downright minimalist. It was a terrific contrast to Apple's bouncy translucent eye candy. 

But now iOS 7 is taking a similar approach, and while the new look holds a certain appeal, I can't help feeling they borrowed the idea from Microsoft. I also worry they may have taken things a bit too far, with control screens that look more like software prototypes than actual working apps.

 Does this button do anything?

Does this button do anything?

Again, though, time will tell, and reading about a product is by no means the same as using it. 

MacBook Air 

Each iteration brings the Air one step closer to a product I can use. This release is no different, with solid — though hardly surprising — gains in performance.

The real story here, though, is the battery life. A very competent computer with battery life that rivals the iPad? Very cool!  

Mac Pro 

Most of today's announcements were hardly earth-shattering. But the Mac Pro is just that

When I first opened the page I said to myself, "Why is there a picture of a giant lens? Where's the computer?" Slowly it dawned on me: That is the computer. 

 Is that the barrel of a gun? No, it's a Mac Pro.

Is that the barrel of a gun? No, it's a Mac Pro.

From an industrial design standpoint, the new Mac Pro is a wonder. It's the sexiest thing Apple's released since the iPhone. It's straight up beautiful. But perhaps more important is the fact that it's geared towards professional computer users. Here you have an extremely beautiful, thoughtful, exciting product in a category most people had written off. Apple hasn't done something this exciting in this space for perhaps a decade. And I didn't think they ever would again. 

The new Mac Pro may prove me wrong.

I have yet to even look at the specs or talk to my pro user friends. But if the new Mac Pro is only a symbol, it could just be the sort of symbol pros need to take Apple seriously again. It's the first sign we've seen of Apple making something that at least looks amazing specifically for pros since Final Cut Pro X. We all know how that turned out. Or do we? 

Apple's stance on the pro market has been unclear over the past few years. The Mac Pro makes it a bit clearer. It remains to be seen what this machine's really all about. Does it have what it takes to win over pros? But it's heartening to see Apple making a real effort. Though only time will tell if it's enough. 

Either way, I can't wait to read all about it. Which is what I'll be doing for the rest of the night.

Happy Keynote, everyone! 

 

CardDAV: Sync Google Contacts to iOS

For some time now I've been syncing my iOS calendars with Google Calendar using the CalDAV protocol. And of course my email of choice has been Gmail for the better part of a decade, and this has synced seamlessly using the magic of IMAP. Up until recently, though, there was no good way for me to sync my Google contacts.

Instead of using a server-side protocol like CardDAV (similar to CalDAV for calendar syncing) to sync my Google Contacts with my devices, I was using Apple's Contacts app to sync to Google Contacts on my Mac, then syncing this to my iOS devices. This was indescribably clunky and prone to all sorts of collisions and failures, and it required syncing contacts to my iOS devices using iTunes. I've been looking for a better way for some time. And yesterday I found it.

Google now supports CardDAV. This means that, in the same way I sync my calendars, and similar to how I sync my mail, I can now seamlessly sync my iOS Contacts with my Google Contacts.

Setting this up is very easy. The only oddity is that it's not yet part of the standard Google account setup. It must be set up as a separate account. I'll also mention that if you were syncing your contacts via iTunes, once this is set up and working well, you can turn off iTunes syncing of contacts.

Here are Google's instructions on the matter. They are about as clear as can be, so I'll just leave it at that.

I've only been using this for a day, so I can't speak to it's long term reliability. But in testing, CardDAV for Google contacts worked brilliantly for me. I was able to add a contact to my Google Contacts via a web browser and have it show up on my iPhone almost immediately. I could then edit or add a contact on my iPhone and watch the changes occur in Google in my Mac's browser nearly instantly.

For me, this is a pretty big deal. I'm now able to have all my mail, calendar and contacts centrally located on Google's servers and sync those things to all my devices. It's pretty special.

UPDATE: This has worked seamlessly for me from day one. But lots of folks have been having problems. The main complaint seems to be that contacts only partially import to iOS. One reader seems to have found a possible — if somewhat annoying — solution. Jump to Lyallp's comments for the full explanation. The nutshell version is that iOS gets stuck on certain contacts that it deems malformed in some way. The solution is to export your contacts in small chunks and import these chunks into iOS to find the culprit. It's kind of like Battleship for Contacts. Fun times!

Lyallp also notes that control characters (^) were present in parts of his VCF file. So you might search for these and possibly other problem characters as well.

Anyway, thanks, Lyallp, for the info. Much appreciated.

In Defense of Maps

First off, let me just say, people need to chill the fuck out and quit all the bitching. Yes, I grasp the irony of bitching about people bitching. But the fact is that, before the iPhone all cell phones were total pieces of shit, and no one ever complained about it. Now Apple releases a new and better iPhone every year and all people do is complain about it. It reminds me of Louis CK's brilliant Everything's Amazing and No One's Happy bit.

Second, and along similar lines, I want to take a moment to respond to a ridiculous attempt at tech punditry by the New York Times' Joe Nocera. Let me be clear from the outset: I am not a tech pundit. I make no claim to be able to write competently about business, tech or otherwise. When all's said and done, I'm a technician. But I've been following Apple and using and supporting their products for over a decade now. And I have a brain and a perspective, and these things lead me to call bullshit on Nocera's article.

Nocera is basically arguing that, now that Apple is big and Steve Jobs is gone, the company will never be innovative again. And his Exhibit A is the iPhone 5 and the new Maps application. Let's go through his article bit by bit and see where things fall apart.

Nocera starts off by invoking the Ghost of Steve Jobs:

As Apple’s chief executive, Jobs was a perfectionist. He had no tolerance for corner-cutting or mediocre products.

This is certainly true. But Jobs also knew when to ship. And he knew that shipping great products was as important as making them. And Jobs understood that 1.0 releases would be feature incomplete and imperfect. And that that was okay. Take any new Apple release from the last decade — like, I don't know, the first iPhone — and you'll see what I mean. I'd argue that Maps is not mediocre, it's just new.

Nocera then writes:

The three devices that made Apple the most valuable company in America — the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — were all genuine innovations that forced every other technology company to play catch-up.

This is certainly true. But suggesting that this level of innovation is possible on a yearly basis is folly. These are once-in-a-decade releases. Most innovation comes not in leaps and bounds, but rather in baby steps. Take Mac OS X, the iPod or even iOS as examples of consistent, year over year evolutions. This is how it works.

Nocera complains a bit more about Apple's recent lack of innovation, and then goes on to criticize the new Maps application:

In rolling out a new operating system for the iPhone 5, Apple replaced Google’s map application — the mapping gold standard — with its own, vastly inferior, application, which has infuriated its customers. With maps now such a critical feature of smartphones, it seems to be an inexplicable mistake.

But what Nocera fails to grasp is that it's not a mistake at all. Maps is an example of the very innovation that Nocera claims Apple now fails to attempt. Let's face it, the old Maps app hadn't been significantly updated since iOS 1. And with relations between Apple and Google strained, getting Google to improve the product was, I'd guess, an increasingly daunting task. Apple's belief was that they could do it themselves and do it better. The new Maps is the first iteration of that gamble.

Nocera then goes on to write about how this never would have happened without Jobs, and then:

Apple’s current executive team is no doubt trying to maintain the same demanding, innovative culture, but it’s just not the same without the man himself [Jobs] looking over everybody’s shoulder. If the map glitch tells us anything, it is that.

No, the Maps "glitch" is exactly the kind of innovative nudge Jobs would've done. It is, in fact, precisely how Apple has innovated over the past decade: by destroying the old and rebuilding it. The current team, to my eye, seems to be behaving perfectly in the Jobsian style, even if they may not be able to sell it as well.

Next, Nocera begins to contradict his very own argument:

When Jobs returned to the company in 1997, after 12 years in exile, Apple was in deep trouble. It could afford to take big risks and, indeed, to search for a new business model, because it had nothing to lose.

So wait, you're saying that Apple has just replaced the "mapping gold standard" on its flagship products with what it believes will one day be a better solution, thus pissing off lots of people, taking huge amounts of criticism and possibly hurting the brand, at least in the short run, but that they're no longer willing to take big risks? Whatever their motivation, and despite what you may think of the app, replacing Maps with their own, non-Google version is a hugely ballsy move and shows that that's just not true.

Nocera then goes on to make the inevitable Microsoft comparison, followed by some erroneous assumptions:

Once an ally, Google is now a rival, and the thought of allowing Google to promote its maps on Apple’s platform had become anathema. More to the point, Apple wants to force its customers to use its own products, even when they are not as good as those from rivals.

This is just wrong. From what I understand, Apple's license with Google had simply expired and they needed to decide if they would extend that license or go a new way. Apple has allowed a Google-branded YouTube application onto iOS, as well as Google's Chrome browser. And it's my understanding that a Google-branded mapping solution is in the works. If it's not, you can only blame Google for this. If it is, I have little doubt that it will soon be available in the App Store along with all the other Google products. This isn't Apple being anti-competitive, it's Apple being competitive. Apple thinks they can win here, not by forcing people to use its own products, but rather by making better ones.

Whether Maps is a good app or not is arguable. It has features not found in Google's maps app, but lacks some of that app's functionality as well. I've used it and I think it's good for a version 1 product. I certainly think the turn-by-turn navigation is very well implemented. And for most daily uses I think I'll be able to get by just as well with this new Maps, though, being in New York City, I will dearly miss street view in certain instances. Innovation always incurs tradeoffs, though. We technicians are well aware of this.

But Maps is not an indication of Apple being in decline or failing to innovate. If anything, it's just the opposite. This seems to be the same old Apple, making year-over-year improvements and taking the occasional risk that a change that pisses people off today may just be the thing everyone wants in a year or two. They're not always right about this, but they keep trying, and Maps and the iPhone 5 are the proof — not the refutation — of this.

Addendum:

One other thing has occurred to me while reading more about Apple's difficulties with the Maps launch. I keep reading that Google has had turn-by-turn directions in the Android version of its Maps app for some time now. But we've never seen this feature in iOS. This seems a strong indication to me that Google was not in any huge hurry to update its iOS Maps offering. Turn-by-turn is a feature — admittedly, perhaps the only one right now — where the new Apple Maps is actually better than the Google-made Maps. And its an important feature to a very large chunk of potential iPhone buyers. But more importantly, the addition of turn-by-turn is evidence that Apple wanted to make the Maps product better but was not getting any help from Google.

The fact is, none of us — not Joe Nocera, and certainly not me — knows what really went on behind the scenes to make this Maps deal go down. It's clearly been in the works for some time and there have likely been numerous factors at work. But I do believe that at least part of the decision was based on Apple making a better product for its customers.