Posts

Apple Opens OS X Beta Program to All

In a surprising move, Apple has opened its OS X beta program to all users. Anyone can register on the OS X Beta Seed Program website, whereas, previously, one needed to have a $99 per year developer subscription to access these betas.

Apple says that this program “gives users the opportunity to run pre-release software. Test-drive beta software and provide quality and usability feedback that will help make OS X even better,” but I’m not sure that this is a good idea. While only the bleeding edge users will install the betas, there will still be a substantial number of users who will run them.

Yes, Apple will get more feedback – but it’s not like they don’t already get plenty – but these users will encounter problems. If they install these betas on their primary Macs, they will find, as all of us who have developer accounts have found, that they are buggy. Only near the end of a beta program do these seeds become stable, and, even then, I don’t install betas on my main Mac until the reach golden master stage; that’s the final release version of the software.

Unlike iOS betas – available through a $99 per year iOS developer program – you can run an OS X beta on a device, then switch back to the release version of OS X. With iOS, you have to dedicate a device to running betas, and it’s not possible to downgrade.

So, a word of warning for those wanting to run OS X betas. Don’t install this on your main Mac, or, if you do, make sure to have two partitions: one with the current version of OS X, and another with a beta. The best way to try out these betas is to install them on an external hard drive, to ensure that you don’t lose any data. Because there is a real risk of a beta crashing and causing you to lose everything on your Mac. (Though, to be fair, this is rare.)

Apple’s opening up the OS X beta program is an odd step. They already don’t fix many of the bugs that those with developer accounts report, so getting many more bug reports is unlikely to make a difference. While this is a good thing for users who are not developers, and who want access to OS X betas – journalists such as my colleagues and I will save $100 a year – I don’t see how expanding beta access will improve anything. But this is a sign of the greater openness we’ve seen since Tim Cook took over the company.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Exclusive: Proof that Apple Will Be Releasing an iWatch

I was exchanging emails with my son about the rumored termination of Nike’s wearable products. He has a Nike+ SportWatch, which he uses when running, and was worried about its future support. As I was typing a reply on my iPhone, I saw this:

2014-04-19 09.15.59.png

Well, if iOS 7 auto-correct says so, it’s got to be true!

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

The Committed Podcast Talks Tips (and More)

The Committed Podcast Icon 1400x1400 01On this week’s The Committed podcast, Ian Schray, Rob Griffiths and I talk tips. We do a round table offering some of our favorite tips for working with OS X, iOS, iTunes and more.

We also discuss Nike+ fuel (because I recently bought a Nike+ Fuelband SE), Dropbox, the cloud, and many other things.

Listen to The Committed podcast, Episode 30: “Tips Extravaganza.”

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

iCloud Is Bloated

I’ve written recently about iCloud; about how it’s a black hole that swallows up your data and documents, and how Apple is stingy with storage. But when you think about it, iCloud is many different services, all wrapped into one. Perhaps there are too many. You often hear people complain that certain apps are bloated; perhaps iCloud is bloated too, and this bloat makes it hard to manage and use.

So what exactly is iCloud? Apple’s website shows the many things it does:

icloud.png

  • Content everywhere: iCloud allows you to access purchases from Apple’s various stores – the iTunes Store, the iBooks Store, the App Store and the Mac App Store – on all your devices. You can buy items, download them on different devices, and have them automatically download to certain devices. And you can stream video content you’ve purchased – or rented – to Apple devices as well.
  • iTunes Match: match your iTunes library, and access your music from iTunes, or an iOS device, anywhere. In theory.
  • iCloud Photo Sharing: this is your Photo Stream. It shares photos from any of your devices to all of your other devices.
  • Find My iPhone, and Find My Mac: this lets you find an Apple device, whether it’s lost or stolen, or whether you simply can’t remember where you put your iPhone.
  • Find My Friends: this lets you keep track of where your friends are.
  • Apps and iCloud: iCloud allows apps to store files and data, making them accessible across devices. This includes files you create with, say, Pages or Numbers, but also data that certain apps can store for you. This uses Apple’s CoreData, which has proven to be complex and unreliable.
  • iWork for iCloud: this recent addition offers web-based versions of Apple’s iCloud apps, which show the same files you’ve created or edited on your Mac or iOS device.
  • Safari: iCloud saves bookmarks, and even lets you access open browser windows on different devices.
  • iCloud Keychain: sync your passwords and credit cards across devices.
  • Mail, Calendar and Contacts: this is the heart of iCloud, and the part of the service that has been around the longest. Email is accessible on all your devices – even non-Apple devices – and on the web; contacts and calendars sync across devices.
  • Backup and Storage: finally, you can back up iOS devices to iCloud, and store files there, from specific apps. This overlaps a bit with Apps and iCloud.

A reader recently posted a comment to one of my articles saying that “iCloud just works.” Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. As I mentioned above, iCloud swallows up your data and documents, only giving access to the specific app that created them. Document syncing can be wonky, and I’ve lost files, and have heard from many readers who have had that problem too. (Have a browse of Apple’s iCloud support forums to see some of the many problems.)

I’ve found that data often doesn’t sync in a timely manner, doesn’t update regularly, and sometimes doesn’t update at all. I’ve had problems with contacts, repeatedly, and have had to zero my contacts and re-add them all again.

As for email, it’s fine when it works, which is most of the time. Oh, except the fact that iCloud deletes certain emails when it sees keywords it doesn’t like; it doesn’t tell you, whether they’re emails you’ve sent, or ones sent to you.

Safari bookmarks sync most of the time, but I have to wait a while if I want to open a web page that I’m looking at on my Mac on a different device. iCloud tabs works, but it’s slow.

iTunes Match sort of works for many users, but I get plenty of emails from users who have problems. I often get errors when updating iTunes Match, and the way it works is inscrutable. Problems with iTunes Match are legion.

Apps that sync data with iCloud often have problems. Granted, this may be partly because of the apps themselves not working correctly with iCloud, but there are enough developers with iCloud troubleshooting pages to suggest that the problem is systemic. Some developers simply gave up trying to get iCloud to work. And, don’t forget, only apps sold in Apple’s stores can even use iCloud, limiting its use. The Verge has a long article about apps and developers who have had problems with iCloud, mentioning many who simply gave up.

And regarding storage; again, 5 GB is not a lot, considering that I’ve spent, well, thousands of dollars on Apple devices. I don’t keep a lot of email on my mail servers, and my iCloud email address is not my main account. But I know people who do, and their email eats up a good share of their 5 GB. But there’s not much I can do with that storage, other than back up my iOS devices and store files created with iCloud-compatible apps. I can’t put files there to share with other users, as I used to be able to do with the iDisk (which was part of MobileMe). Yes, I use Dropbox, but if Apple wants people to integrate iCloud into their lives, a file receptacle is essential.

Apple has never been successful with online services. From iTools to .Mac, from MobileMe to iCloud, there have always been problems. Apple has constantly rebranded these services, hoping that users would forget the previous problems, but it’s still a nightmare for many users.

Perhaps Apple is trying to do too much with iCloud. Perhaps they need to scale back the service, or not lump so many things together. I don’t know what the solution is, but I’d really like iCloud to just work.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Here’s How Apple Could Make Music Streaming Work

The word is out that iTunes Radio isn’t performing as Apple had hoped. Album sales are down, streaming revenue is up. iTunes Radio may not be the appropriate model for Apple to use to compensate for a drop in music sales in the iTunes Store. It is said that Apple is in talks with record labels to set up a music streaming service. This wouldn’t be like iTunes Radio, but an on-demand streaming service, like Spotify and others.

I looked at the math in Is Streaming the Future of Music?, but now I want to look at how I think Apple could make a streaming service work. My main points here show why I don’t like current streaming services; obviously, other listeners have other ways of listening, so their ideas may be different. Feel free to post comments about changes you would make to have a streaming service that works for you.

To start with, the main problem with many streaming services is that they are designed for people who listen to songs. A listener wants to hear the latest song by their favorite artist, and they search for it, then listen to it. It’s unlikely that they want to hear an entire album, but they might want to listen to a few tracks of the latest album. They’ll choose them one at a time, or make a playlist with them.

But some listeners are more album-oriented. You can do this with streaming services, but it’s not as simple. With Spotify, on the Desktop, it’s simple to listen to an album, but in their iOS app, it’s not the same. There’s actually no button that lets you play an album. You can listen to an album in shuffle mode; there’s a great big button for that. You can add the album to a playlist; tap the … button at the top right, then tap Add to Playlist. Or you can tap on a track, and add it to a playlist.


2014 03 25 10 16 51       2014 03 25 10 16 59

My guess is that the occasional listeners – the ones who want to listen to songs – will continue with ad-supported streaming services, but album listeners, or those with broad, eclectic tastes – the ones who keep the music industry afloat – would be willing to pay, if these services welcomed them.

Here’s what I think needs to be done:

  • It should be easy to find music, by artist name, song name, album name, etc. This currently isn’t the case with Spotify; they’re search isn’t very good (I’m not familiar enough with other streaming services, because there aren’t many available in the UK). iTunes searches are good enough: you can search by album, artist, song, etc., and, in general, you find what you want, even if it’s somewhat obscure.
  • You should be able to play an entire album with a single click or tap.
  • You should be able to access a full history of what you have listened to. Spotify has a Play Queue – a sort of “Up Next” – and there’s a History tab, which should show everything I’ve listened to. I haven’t used Spotify in a while, and the History tab only contains what I’ve listened to on my computer. If I look on my other Mac, nothing shows up; nothing is listed from what I’ve listened to on mobile devices. This Recently Played playlist should contain everything I’ve listened to with my account, from every device, and should be available on every device as well.
  • You should be able to rate music, not just “star” it, using a five-point scale, as you can do in your iTunes library. You should be able to record what you like and what you don’t, because if you listen to a lot of music, it’s hard to remember.
  • If iTunes becomes a streaming service, you should be able to stream any music from the iTunes Store (as long as labels have opted in). It should be transparent as to what you can and can’t stream, and streaming should be as easy as buying.
  • You should be able to add streaming tracks to your iTunes library. This is the killer feature. Just as you can have tracks “in the cloud” in your iTunes library, and use them as part of a playlist, you should be able to do the same with streaming tracks. They should become part of your library, combined with your purchased music, and you should be able to play them as if they were in your library.
  • iTunes should cache what you listen to, so it doesn’t have to keep re-downloading the same tracks; so, rather than streaming each time, it would store tracks – in encrypted form – in a cache.
  • You should be able to sync streaming tracks to your iOS device, either via iTunes Match or by a connected sync. In other words, the difference between what you physically own and what you stream should disappear. iTunes should be able to sync cached files or download streaming tracks for offline playing, so you can sync them to an iPhone and listen to them without worrying about paying for mobile data. (You should have the choice as to whether you want to sync actual tracks or just pointers, to later grab them on your iOS device.)

What I’m suggesting, in essence, is that the wall between your music library and the entire iTunes Store library be torn down, for a fee. Apple is the only company that can do this, because of the integration of the iTunes Store and the iTunes app, and its ability to sync content to mobile devices. If Apple were to do this, they would have literally no competitors, at least on iOS devices.

However, if this is the case, who would buy music? I would still buy some CDs, because I want to own music, but I can’t imagine that I’d buy any more digital music. This is the problem with streaming services: if they’re too good, they will cannibalize sales. However, streaming done right could cannibalize piracy as well.

And there, as they say, is the rub. If you make streaming too good, no one will buy music any more. If streaming is mediocre, not enough people will pay for it. If streaming is going to generate enough income to keep musicians and record labels afloat, maybe it’s time to make a big leap into the unknown. Right now, only Apple can do this.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

iCloud Is a Black Hole

IcloudI recently wrote about how 5 GB is insufficient for an iCloud account for many users, especially those who have multiple iOS devices. It would be a lot more logical for Apple to offer additional space when you buy a device from them. Heck, I’ve got two Macs, an iPhone, iPad Air, iPad mini, and an iPod touch. I don’t use much of my iCloud storage, because I don’t back up a lot of data from the iOS devices. But still; what if I wanted to back them all up, and found that I hit the limit?

But there’s another problem with iCloud: it’s a black hole. When used as designed, you don’t see a file system. Each app that stores data on iCloud does so in its own space, and you can only access that data or those files from those specific apps.

This is an annoyance. Say you’ve created a file with an app that stores your data on iCloud, and you want to view or open it in another app? On OS X, you can export the file, but on iOS you’re stuck.

Imagine this scenario. You created a file with an app, and for some reason, that app doesn’t work for you. It crashes, or misbehaves, and perhaps you can’t re-download it right away, or the new version has the same problem. I’ve seen this happen with some iOS apps, and the developers have to wait for Apple to approve an update that fixes the bugs.

Your data or files are locked into the black hole that this app, and only this app, accesses. There’s no way to get the file. Again, on OS X, there are workarounds. iCloud files are saved locally, in ~/Library/Mobile Documents; even those files you created on iOS devices, with iOS-only apps. (There are also apps that let you access these files more easily.) But if you don’t have access to a Mac, there’s no way to get them. You can’t even access them from the iCloud web site; but, of course, you can’t access that site from an iOS device anyway.

Another anomaly is that you can save certain documents to iCloud with Apple apps, yet not be able to access them on iOS devices. Create files with Preview or TextEdit; you can get to them on your Mac, but not on an iPad.

Apple needs to open up iCloud storage. Let apps store files in their own space, but let users access those files if necessary. Ideally, there would be a Dropbox-like app to navigate the iCloud file storage space, and allow users to email files, or open them with other apps that can read the same file formats. I’m not suggesting full access to the file system on iOS; I know Apple will never allow that. I simply want to access files that I’ve saved to iCloud from any app.

iCloud, as it is now, makes no sense. I hope that, in the next versions of iOS and OS X, Apple rebuilds iCloud. It’s a great idea, but the way it works, it’s more trouble than it’s worth, and bad things can happen.

Update: a developer friend pointed out something that’s worth mentioning. OS X apps can only use iCloud if they’re sold through the Mac App Store. (The same is true for iOS apps, but they cannot be sold otherwise, except for jailbroken iOS devices.) Apple should consider dropping this restriction, so more apps can use iCloud, though only if iCloud becomes more flexible. If they want the service to be useful, it needs to become ubiquitous.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

Why Does Apple Only Offer 5 GB Storage with iCloud?

Apple’s iCloud is used for several purposes. You may use it for email; you can use it to sync your contacts and calendars; you can store files there, notably for Apple’s iWork apps; and you can use it to back up your iOS devices.

But what if you have several iOS devices, and also use iCloud for email and documents? If you back up your iOS devices to the cloud, you’ll quickly hit the 5 GB limit. I explain how to trim iOS device iCloud backups, but, still, some people will hit that limit quickly.

Apple’s free 5 GB is a good thing; it entices people to use iCloud. But it’s not enough. If they want people to use iCloud, they should make it easier to use. Apple’s prices for storage are quite expensive:

002.png

Yes, you can get an extra 10 GB for only $20 a year; that’s enough to back up a couple more devices, but it’s pretty stingy. For $100 a year, you only get 55 GB (the free 5 GB plus another 50). Cloud storage prices are plummeting, and Dropbox, for example, gives you 100 GB for $100 a year, and Dropbox’s storage is much more flexible, since you can access it directly from a Mac.

Apple needs to move to a model where they give you more storage, perhaps 5 GB per device. It’s not that hard to manage; they could give you the storage when you buy the device, and have you register it, and then, say, once a year, have you connect to iCloud with the device to verify that you still own it. Or, if they were smart, they’d just give you a lot more storage free. After all, OS X is free, iOS is free, and the iWork apps are now free as well. Why make it so hard to manage file storage and backups?

(Note: when I bought my Android phone, it came with an extra 50 GB storage on Google Drive for two years; that’s in addition to the default 15 GB.)

By the way, I’ve paid for Apple’s online services since the beginning: iTools, MobileMe and .Mac. I very much regretted the loss of the iDisk – even though it didn’t work very well – but Dropbox has stepped in to to that type of receptacle, useful for sharing large files, the right way. I wouldn’t mind paying Apple for iCloud, if the service were good enough, and if there were enough storage. But let’s wait and see: with their big data centers, I have a feeling they may be planning something for the next big versions of OS X and iOS.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone

The Problem with Content Channels on Set-Top Boxes and Smart TVs

Amazon yesterday released its Fire TV, a set-top box designed to stream Amazon Instant Video, along with other services. You can use it to watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services. But you can’t use it to access the movies and TV shows you bought from the iTunes Store.

On Apple’s side, their Apple TV lets you access Netflix, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and several other services, but not Amazon Instant Video. I have a smart TV; it’s smart enough to let me watch Netflix, but not Amazon Instant Video. I also have a Blu-ray player: a Cambridge Audio 651 BD, a high-end, multi-region, CD, DVD and Blu-ray player. This is an expensive device, but it’s designed for quality playback, and doesn’t come with apps for streaming services as cheaper Blu-ray players do.

So what’s a guy to do? I would like to watch Amazon Instant Video, which was recently introduced in the UK, where I live, but the only way I can currently do that is to either stream it from my Mac or iPad, using AirPlay, or get some kind of device that has this “channel.” I could buy Amazon’s Fire TV, but; oh, wait, it’s not available in the UK yet. I could buy a cheap Blu-ray player; that might actually cost less than Amazon’s Fire TV (when it’s released in the UK), but I would use it for nothing than than Amazon Instant Video, or maybe also use it for Netflix, instead of using my smart TV for that.

I understand that there’s a lot of competition among the different companies whose devices act as conduits for entertainment channels. But this is getting out of hand. If you want to watch a specific service — other than Netflix, which seems to be available on every device that connects to a TV — you may or may not be able to do it with your TV, Blu-ray player or other device. And things like smart TVs and Blu-Ray players rarely get updates with additional channels. So that Panasonic TV I bought last year, because it has a good picture, and was available at a good price, is well, a good TV, and not much more. If Amazon Instant Video had been available last year, I would more likely have looked for a TV that offered this service. But I’m not going to change TVs just to watch Amazon videos.

The sort of channels, or apps, that you get on smart TVs and set-top boxes should be available on all devices, if you so desire. All this fragmentation does — and, of course, this is the goal — is incite people to buy more devices. But we don’t need any more; our homes are full of devices that connect to TVs and computers. We need the One True Device that will allow us to access all these channels. Just as TVs can display all the channels available in a given area, these other devices should be able to do the same thing. They should be easily upgradable, so, when new services arrived, we can add them, in order to end this war between different companies.

The content providers would love this, of course. My guess is that some companies include specific channels, such as Netflix, because they know these channels are popular, but others content providers have to pay to be present on a set-top box or other device. Apple is, of course, one of the culprits, because they refuse to allow any non-Apple devices to display any of their content, whether it’s a video or e-books. (I only buy Kindle e-books because I can read them on just about any device with a screen.) One of the main reasons Apple pushed to drop DRM on music was because of anti-competition investigations in Europe, alleging that this DRM prevented interoperability. It’s time to do the same thing for content channels.

It’s in the interest of consumers that this tangled web of channels and apps becomes less of a headache. It’s in the interest of content providers that anyone with a device capable of playing this type of channel be able to do so. And, finally, it really is in the interest of companies selling devices that they allow as many channels as possible to be present. After all, wouldn’t Apple sell more Apple TVs if you can also watch Amazon Instant? Wouldn’t Amazon sell more of their Fire TV if you can also watch movies from the iTunes Store? We consumers are the losers in this game; it would be nice if we didn’t have to worry about which channels are available on all these different devices so we could buy just one and use it to watch what we want.

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInEmail this to someone