A Review to a Kill

Apple is now requiring app developers to use their recently added API for review prompts and is no longer going to allow custom options. This means that developers cannot create their own prompts to ask users to leave a review, nor control how often and when they appear. From the App Store Review Guidelines:

Use the provided API to prompt users to review your app; this functionality allows customers to provide an App Store rating and review without the inconvenience of leaving your app, and we will disallow custom review prompts.

This guideline change is good for two reasons and is part of a wider change to how reviews are going to work. First, it'll put a stop to apps that practically beg for a review every time they're updated. Second, a consistent user experience that allows for in-app reviews is going to make it much easier for users to leave a review, eliminating the need to nag in the first place.

Ryan Christoffel at MacStories shares what might be a concern among developers:

Apple's solution certainly provides a better user experience than custom alternatives, particularly since it allows rating an app without needing to visit the App Store. But the concern from developers may be the loss of control over when, or how often, that prompt is presented.

Ask yourself this: how many apps have you actually reviewed? If you're honest, I bet that number is low. The annoyance of review prompts is largely because of the hoops that users have had to jump through to actually leave a review. This compels most developers to repeatedly ask for reviews, especially when reviews were hidden when a new version of the app was released, because many users simply won't bother.

I think the loss of control is a good thing for everyone involved. The trade-off is that the new prompt allows users to leave a review directly within the app. This is giving developers exactly what they want: a frictionless way for users to leave reviews.

Touchscreen or Not Touchscreen, That Is the Question

Last week, Mark Gurman and Alex Webb wrote a piece for Bloomberg about Apple's upcoming Siri speaker and whether it would have a screen of some kind:

Ahead of Apple's launch, the competition has upgraded their speakers with support for making voice calls, while Amazon's gained a touchscreen. Apple's speaker won't include such a screen, according to people who have seen the product.

After the HomePod was officially announced, John Gruber called Claim Chowder on their claim:

HomePod has a touchscreen on top.

Earlier this evening, Cabel Sasser tweeted a video of the HomePod that includes a close-up of the HomePod display with the following caption:

BTW, here's the "screen" on the HomePod. I'd guess it's RGB LEDs under a diffuser maybe? — ambient, not a display, but a cool "awake" vibe.

I posted a few tweets about this yesterday where I expressed skepticism that this could be considered a touchscreen, especially one that's in some way comparable to that on Amazon's Echo Show.

Whatever the display on the HomePod is, it does support touch controls (as stated on the product page but I'd argue it isn't a screen. Given the context in which Mark and Alex compared the purported screen to the Echo Show, I think it's fair to assume that whatever type of display the HomePod has it certainly isn't something that's supposed to clearly display text or make video calls. It does indeed have no such screen, though that doesn't preclude it from having any sort of display surface.

There's a lot we don't know about HomePod and it's still several months away from shipping, so a lot could change. It could very well be a fully-fledged touchscreen but, if it is, why does Apple not mention it in the tech specs? The only reference to the top of the speaker is:

Tap the top of HomePod to play, pause, or adjust the volume. The top also shows you when Siri is listening, with an LED waveform that animates with your every word.

I'm skeptical it is anything more than just an ambient light show. The ergonomics of a horizontal display would also be a terrible way of communicating information and it limits where it can be positioned. We're still several months away from shipping, so things could change. However, based on the hardware that Apple demoed I don't think Mark and Alex deserve the Claim Chowder as it doesn't appear they were wrong.

The High Cost of iPad Servicing

The display on my 12.9" iPad Pro has been suffering from a noticeable flicker for quite some time, so I made a Genius Bar appointment at my local Apple Store. This is the first fault I've had with any iPad I've owned and within five minutes of arriving and speaking to a Genius, I left the store with a replacement iPad Pro.

The only service option for the iPad is, still, a whole unit replacement. Whatever hardware issue an iPad is suffering from, the solution is to replace the entire device—just like an iPod or Apple Watch. In comparison, hardware issues with a Mac typically involve a repair, with any affected components replaced. The iPhone sits somewhere in the middle as there are some issues that can be resolved by a repair instead of simply swapping the device (e.g., battery, display).

If my iPad Pro hadn't been under warranty, the service cost would've been $599 to replace it through the Genius Bar. Gulp.

In comparison, Mac repair costs are much more favorable. The Apple Store typically charges a labor cost (around $100) and either the cost of the affected component(s) or a flat-rate fee of $475 to send the Mac to their repair facility. This fee covers the cost of any parts needed, so for expensive repairs (e.g., multiple component failure) it's often cheaper1.

If Apple is serious about the iPad Pro being a PC replacement, the time has come to rethink their strategy and pricing around iPad servicing. A faulty Smart Connector or camera shouldn't cost the same to fix as an iPad that doesn't power on, and it certainly shouldn't be more expensive than a Mac that went for a swim.

Considering how the iPad is constructed, it's unlikely we'll see in-store repairs conducted by Apple, at least not in a similar way to the Mac or iPhone. An alternative would be for Apple to be more flexible with the replacement cost so it's appropriate for the issue reported. For example, it could cost $100 to replace an iPad if the volume button is faulty, whereas a shattered display or liquid damage could cost the full $599.

This isn't a concept that Apple would be unfamiliar with as they already offer battery replacement pricing. If the battery is worn out, Apple will replace the iPad for just $99. Similarly, AppleCare+ customers can replace a damaged iPad (a maximum of twice) for the meager sum of $49.

Given the longevity of the iPad, I hope that Apple considers offering more affordable service options. AppleCare+ for iPad offers only two years of coverage and I don't have any intention of replacing my iPad Pro for quite a long time after that. If it does develop a fault after those two years are up, it's going to be very costly.

  1. My wife's 12" MacBook also needed to be taken to the Genius Bar recently as the USB-C port wasn't working correctly. Since it's covered by AppleCare, the Genius specified the flat-rate fee and sent it off for repair.

Initial Thoughts About iOS 11 for iPad

The 2017 WWDC keynote was packed full of new features and announcements. Along with the release of a new 10.7" iPad Pro (that replaces the 9.7"), there was a special focus on iPad improvements in iOS 11.

I've spent a few hours test driving the first iOS 11 beta on an iPad Air 2 and wanted to share some thoughts on a few features (some of which are clearly not quite finished). Unsurprisingly, it's quite buggy and exceedingly slow at times. Again, it's a beta, and the first one at that, so expect it to be rough around the edges.

Screen recording

iOS 11 includes built-in screen recording functionality, a game changer for anyone who creates iOS screencasts. It can also capture microphone audio and even works with an external mic that's connected using the Lightning to USB 3 camera adapter.

This is one of those features that, until now, required a Mac. With iOS 11, it's now possible to create a screencast from start to finish using an iOS device.

QuickType keyboard

The new keyboard was a little disorientating when I first started to use it, but I'm already in love with it. In particular, I can now enter some passwords without needing to cycle through the keyboard layouts, something that's especially tedious when you're dealing with a mixture of cases, numerals, and symbols.

QuickType

Notes improvements

I love Notes, but one of its drawbacks has been the extremely limited Share Sheet action. In iOS 11, you can finally search for the note you want to add content to, rather than just pick from a list. If you're creating a new note, you can specify which folder to create it in.

Sharing to Notes is a much better experience

Documentation scanning in Notes is a great feature. I'll likely stick with Scanbot so I can continue organizing documents in iCloud Drive, but I can see this being one of the most important features of Notes.

Files

The new Files app is a regression in how Apple wants users to interact with files in iOS, and I couldn't be happier. Rather than continue to push their own vision of what iOS file management should be like, Apple appears to have relented. Tags are also a feature of Files. While I've never really been one to use them in the Finder, it's a feature that I feel is going to be much better suited to iOS.

Files in iOS 11

What really surprised me about Files is its upcoming support for third-party services like Dropbox. I had expected it to only support iCloud but Apple seems to be open-minded about how it wants users to interact with it. This is a smart move as services are incentivized to use it, while Apple can ensure a consistent experience. I'm excited for what developers are going to be able to do here and to see what functionality it'll offer in the future.

Files also makes use of an upcoming iCloud sharing feature that seems to work in the same way as notes are shared. You can share a link to a file and the receiving person can view it either on the web or in Files too. I haven't tested it much but it does seem functional.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Files matures over the coming months. One hope I have is for external storage devices—Files seems to be ideal for this. I did test a USB drive using the Lightning to USB camera adapter, though nothing happened.

Notification Center

I use widgets regularly, and the changes to Notification Center feel far too clunky. The old layout had plenty of room for improvement but these changes feel like a huge step back. The iPad's two-column layout for widgets in landscape also appears to have gone, at least on the 9.7". One column on the iPad always felt like a waste of screen real estate.

The Dock and multitasking

The iPad is getting a Mac-like dock in iOS 11, replacing the traditional row that could hold up to six apps or folders. It can hold many more apps, and can be invoked within any app, so no need to go back to the home screen to switch apps.

The new dock is also a fundamental part of the changes to how multitasking works, though it doesn't seem to have made that big an improvement. Currently, only apps located in the dock can be used in multitasking. For instance, if you have Safari open and want to place Mail next to it but don't the app in the dock, you can't—Mail must be in the dock.

Using it is remarkable and I especially like the new "Spaces" layout. It's now possible to keep app pairings together, so you can easily return to spaces that contain apps you regularly use.

Overall this is still a very early version and it looks promising, but it's definitely a work in progress. If they can improve the way apps can be used for multitasking, it'll be a welcome improvement, especially for 12.9" iPad Pro users.

Podcasts

The Podcasts app has been revamped and feels very much like Apple Music. I particularly like the organization of shows and episodes, and a new "Best of the Podcast" is included when looking through a show's episode list.

Podcasts in iOS 11

Screenshots

I take a lot of screenshots, so my Photos app is often littered with them. The new flow for screenshots means I can immediately annotate and send the screenshots to where they need to go. It even works with multiple screenshots. Once done, iOS prompts you to either save the screenshot or simply delete it.

Screenshot management in iOS 11

HomeKit

iOS 11 introduces some new automation options that allow for more flexibility. Sunrise and Sunset schedules can be adjusted so actions take place a certain time before or after. For instance, lights can be turned on 15 minutes before sunset.

HomeKit automation improvements

I'm also happy to see that location-based automations now work with multiple people, not just one person. This provides more flexibility so actions can be created when no-one is at home, not just the administrator.

HomeKit location improvements

Further reading

Here are some useful links if you want to know more about what's new in iOS 11.

Creating Self-Hosted VPN Servers With Algo

When the Senate voted to repeal internet privacy rules and allow ISPs to sell data about their customers without consent, recommendations for third-party VPN services increased. These services keep your internet connection on public networks safe and secure, but they shouldn't be relied upon if you value your privacy. While your internet traffic is encrypted between your device and the VPN service, it's still being routed—and likely logged—through someone else's server. Ultimately, you can never know for sure what they do with this data or who has access to it.

Reputable VPN services make this quite clear. Peter Sagerson, one of the co-founders of Cloak, wrote a detailed blog post in 2013 explaining what his service can and cannot do:

Cloak is designed to keep you safe from threats on public and untrusted networks, like at coffee shops, airports, hotels, and conferences. We believe that our policies strike a strong balance for meeting this goal.

This said, we wish to remind you that Cloak is not intended to keep you safe from repressive governments, to provide you with online anonymity, or to otherwise shield you from potential data collection on the Internet at large. We are of the opinion that no third party VPN service is sufficient to meet these goals, regardless of logging policies or legal jurisdiction. If you need true anonymity, or you need to stay safe from repressive regimes, we strongly recommend avoiding all third party VPNs (including Cloak!). Instead, you might consider using something like the TOR Browser Bundle — although even TOR is no panacea.

A self-hosted VPN server is another option worth considering as you have complete control over it. They're generally not recommended, however, because of the level of complexity in creating and maintaining them. But thanks to security firm Trail of Bits, the entire process can be done automatically.

Algo is an open-source command-line tool that automatically creates a VPN server using any of the supported cloud-hosting platforms. Don't let the fact that it's a command-line tool put you off; all it needs is an API key for your chosen platform and answers to a few yes or no questions. The entire process takes less than ten minutes, most of which is spent watching Algo's various scripts set up and configure the server.

After using Algo, I had a VPN server set up on Digital Ocean that was ready to use immediately. Algo even creates configuration profiles for macOS and iOS so these devices can be automatically configured1.

Each VPN server created with Algo is fully disposable. If you're concerned there may be some issues with the VPN server you've created, or only needed one temporarily, just delete it when you're done—you can create a new one at any time. This is especially useful as an alternative to ongoing server maintenance since you can simply create and delete VPN servers as needed.

If you use a VPN service or are considering using one, I highly recommend you check out Algo.

  1. Configuration profiles for iOS can only be installed if they were received via email (in Mail) or have a direct link that's opened using Safari. I used Algo on a Linux server via Coda on my iPad and downloaded the profile, but couldn't do anything with it until I emailed it to myself and opened the attachment in Mail.