The iPad needs more focus on the little things

I’ve been using an iPad Pro instead of a laptop for going on two years now, and have definitely spent more time on it than I have on my personal Mac during that time. Name a major writing app on the iPad and I’ve almost certainly not just tried it but given it a serious spin. We’re talking an 80,000-word novel in Scrivener; short stories, multi-part novellas and blog posts in Ulysses; a screenplay in Slugline; random bits and bobs in Drafts. I’ve made cover art on the iPad. I’ve created shortcuts for arcane conversion and batch processing. I am not an iOS guru, but I don’t think I’m overselling myself if I say I’m a power user. One could argue that the iPad has become my main computer, too. (Maybe “had”? I’ll come back to that.)

It’s always been hard to explain why the Mac works “better” in some subjective way than a Windows PC. It’s not one huge thing; it’s the sum of small, seemingly inconsequential things that add up to a nicer experience. The iPad often feels that way compared to the Mac (or PC), because so many big ticket items—document management, windowing, security–have been radically rethought for the better in iOS.

The problem is the little ticket items, if you will. To get into that, I need to talk about writing on the iPad.

It’s become received wisdom among a certain set that the iPad is great for long-form writing. Here’s tech pundit turned novelist Matt Gemmell back in 2016 talking about using iOS Scrivener for writing novels (he later switched to Ulysses). MacStories’ editor Federico Viticci, who calls his iPad his “main computer,” literally wrote a book called Writing on the iPad. Podcaster and writer/blogger Jason Snell has blogged about his setup, which he’s been using in some form or another since 2014.

The problem—for me, but I would argue I am not a unique, special snowflake among writers—isn’t the writing, it’s the editing.

Editing is what you do after the first draft. Rewrite paragraphs. Move text around. Run a spell check. Change words across the entire document, or even multiple documents. Look at the first part and the last part of the story (or article or whatever) together to make sure you’re staying consistent and not contradicting yourself.

And the iPad is just not good at that stuff.

Let me show you. On the Mac, the arrow keys behave the same way in every editing app, and the modifier keys (nearly) always behave the same way, too. On the iPad, though, it’s not just that behavior isn’t consistent app to app—most editors get at least one basic operation just bonkers wrong. Tap the up arrow repeatedly and at some point the cursor jumps to the start of the line. Option-up jumps to the start of a paragraph and stops rather than continuing to move up. Option-down moves with weird hitches. On the Mac, Shift with any movement operation performs the same operation but selects the text; on the iPad, that’s usually true, but not a given. (I’ve seen at least one app that doesn’t let you use up and down arrows when holding down Shift, and several that don’t get Shift with another modifier key, like Option or Command, right.)

What in blue blazes is going on? Mac apps are built on the crufty and old AppKit framework, while iOS apps are built on the shiny and new UIKit. The problem is that UIKit’s shiny and new text components suck lemon-flavored poop balls. iPad developers are on their own to implement things Mac developers get for free, and, well, the results are sub-optimal.

Okay, the arrow keys are quirky. But come on, you can live with that. But what about running spell check?

I don’t mean “check as you type.” A lot of authors—including me—turn off the red squiggly lines when writing first drafts, and check the document for spelling errors after writing. For each possible misspelling, I can skip that one instance, ignore the word for the rest of that review, or add the word to the dictionary. I can turn on grammar checking, which isn’t great but catches duplicate words, and once in a blue moon catches an actual grammar mistake.

But on the iPad, it’s “check as you type” or nothing—and literally only check as you type. If you open a document full of Lorem ipsum, it will be blissfully, stupidly squiggle-free. There’s no way to ignore words or add words to the dictionary. (The Mac lets you do that even in check-as-you-type mode by right-clicking a word.) What if I’m writing an article of a few thousand words full of technical terms? How about my 110,000-word science fiction novel Kismet, with invented city names and in-world jargon like “totemic” and “cisform?”

Some of my complaints have fixes in iOS 13. Touch (but not keyboard) text selection is getting overhauled; apps can run in multiple windows once compiled against the iOS 13 SDK, which should address both “see two places in the same document at once” and “let me have a notes document and the main document open in the same app at once.” But the final editing that I’m going to go through with this blog post—a spell check and a pass through Marked with its keyword highlighting turned on—that needs a Mac. (You use Marked by having the same file open in both it and your editor simultaneously; I’m not sure that’s even possible in iOS.)

Look, I love that the iPad is rethinking so many big things about the computing experience. And I get the pushback about how the iPad is not a “laptop replacement” in the sense of letting you do what you did on your laptop the same way you’ve always done it. But what I’m talking about here are little ways in which the iPad is not different than the Mac, but objectively worse.

And here’s the thing: despite the common wisdom that iOS is wired and macOS is tired, I’m using iA Writer right now on the Mac and it’s just as good as it is on the iPad—and I can do all those Mac-only things like use Marked with it. What are the iPad-only things I can do with it that don’t have Mac equivalents? There’s no share sheet, but there’s an export command—and to open it simultaneously in Marked, I just dragged the document icon in the title bar to the Marked icon. The iOS counterpart would be “tap the share icon, tap ‘Share…’, tap ‘Marked’ if it existed.” There’s no Shortcuts app, but there’s the Services menu and Automator. And AppleScript. And Keyboard Maestro. If we’re going to insist we cut the iPad slack for doing things differently than the Mac, that needs to go both ways, and the Mac turns out to be pretty good—one might even argue better—at this whole “application interoperability” thing.

“Yeah, but the iPad is young, and you need to cut it some slack.” Fine, but for how long? The iPad is nearly a decade old, and iOS is even older. I’m not asking why we can’t still can’t sideload even signed and notarized apps, or install non-toy development environments, or even just make Chrome our default browser. All those things are good questions—questions that, if the iPad is truly the future of computing, Apple needs to deal with—but I’m just asking why I can’t add a word to the system dictionary. I’m asking why, when I connect a Bluetooth keyboard, I can’t expect consistent behavior from the fucking arrow keys.

It’s nice that Apple focuses on big moments of wonder and delight on iOS—but in truth, the Mac can still be pretty wonderful and delightful, too. I’m happy I let myself be surprised at how nice using an iPad as a main computing device can be. But I suspect some of the more partisan iPad users would be surprised at how nice using a Mac is if they let themselves. I love how those big-picture Computing Experiences are being rethought on the iPad, but it’s past time for iOS to go after the prosaic bits and bobs that the Mac had nailed before the turn of the century.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not giving up my iPad. Who knows what iPadOS 14 will bring? But in the meantime, I confess I’m watching what happens with the next MacBook Air revision pretty closely.

Review: Brydge 12.9″ Keyboard Pro

promotional photograph of the Brydge Keyboard Pro with an iPad Pro

I take my 12.9″ iPad Pro to the office every weekday, where I sneak in writing during lunch breaks. On weekends, some weeknights, and even the occasional work-from-home Thursday it travels to coffee shops and microbreweries around San Francisco Bay. For the past couple of years, when I’ve traveled the iPad has been my sole computer. I may use it more than I use my iMac.

So when Brydge announced they were making their keyboard for the new iPad Pros, I jumped. It’s beloved of (some) heavy iPad users. Mine came at the end of May, and I’ve been using it for over a month now. I absolutely see why people like it.

To my surprise, though, I’m not a convert.

Let me be clear: if you want “laptop running iOS,” there’s a lot to recommend it. Unlike most iPad keyboard solutions, you can set it in your lap. You can adjust the “screen” to any viewing angle. It’s terrific. This is stuff I miss when I just pair the iPad with the Magic Keyboard.

The Brydge keyboard itself is about as thick as the keyboard part of a MacBook Pro. So thin! Well…actually, no. That was the first (literally) big problem. The MBP just has a screen on top of it, but the Brydge has an iPad. The “BrydgeBook” they form together is thicker and weighs more than a 13″ MacBook Pro, let alone a MacBook Air. If you carry this thing around with you, you notice the weight penalty.1

The iPad clips to the Brydge with little rubber clamps that act as hinges. It’s a clever design, but they grip the iPad so tightly it’s difficult to get the iPad out quickly and even harder to get it back in and lined up just so. Maybe I’d get better at this with practice, but I’ve been practicing for over a month. I also worry about the stress this puts on the iPad’s corners and sides; “opening the lid” means gripping one edge of the iPad and lifting it up, rotating the hinges—which take a lot of force to move, as they need to be tight enough to hold the weight of the iPad up at an angle—by using the iPad as a lever.

But I still haven’t talked about the keyboard part of the keyboard, have I? I like the real inverted “T” for the arrow keys and the dedicated home button; I don’t like the dedicated Siri key. The keys themselves feel a little mushy yet a little too resistant at the same time. Maybe it’s the stiffness, maybe it’s the gumminess, maybe it’s the way the keyboard itself is recessed more deeply than other laptops, but I miss letters more often on the Brydge than on any keyboard I recall using in years.

I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a bad keyboard. It’s not. I just don’t like it as much as the Magic Keyboard, or the older Apple bluetooth keyboard, which has some of the same gumminness, at least when compared to the Magic Keyboard, but less resistance. I don’t even like it as much as the polarizing “butterfly” keyboard (talking just about key feel, mind you, not reliability).

Before getting the Brydge, I thought “If you want a MacBook, just get a MacBook” was a dumb criticism. Now I’m not so sure. A BrydgeBook is the only way to get a laptop that runs iOS (er, iPadOS), and if that alone is enough to get you to buy it, I totally understand! But it’s a bulky, heavy laptop with a so-so keyboard, and opening and closing its “lid” puts stress on your iPad in ways it almost certainly wasn’t designed to handle. If what you truly want is a laptop, and you’re not wedded to iOS, look at the 2019 MacBook Air. If what you truly want is iOS, and you’re not wedded to the specific things you get with a laptop that you don’t with any other iPad keyboard solution, well…think twice about the Brydge.

My previous—and now again current—travel setup is the iPad in the non-keyboard Smart Folio cover and a Magic Keyboard in Waterfield Design’s slip case, toted around in a Tom Bihn café bag. The BrydgeBook is way faster to pull out and start using, and I can use it in my lap rather than needing table space or a lap desk (which I use in the living room). But my iPad retains its essential iPad-ness. I don’t have to take the keyboard out at all. I can leave the keyboard where it is and pick up the iPad instantly. It feels true to the iPad’s intent. And If I bring my Compass Pro, I can stand the iPad up in portrait mode, which turns out to be pretty damn cool for writing sprints.

And I have what I consider to be the best travel keyboard ever made.

I have a Touchtype Pro case on order, which—may or may not be my ideal. I’m not sure yet. It’ll solve some issues with the Brydge for me (giving me my beloved Magic Keyboard) while creating other ones (even more weight). When it arrives, I’ll give it a month, too.

I’m not sure what I’m going to do with my Brydge. While they do have a return policy, it’s not the most generous one out there, and I’m past my own return window anyway. I may come back to it later and give it a second round. If it continues to not stick, I’ll try to sell it; as I noted, a lot of people love it, and my lack of enthusiasm doesn’t mean it might not be perfect for someone else.


  1. I know some argue that if you want portability you want the 11″ iPad Pro, because the 12.9″ is just so much of a gosh darn huge monster it’s crazy anyone would carry it with them. I just disagree. The 12.9″ iPad Pro is close in size to the old 11″ MacBook Air and noticeably lighter, even when paired with some (non-Brydge) keyboards. And you get a lot of benefit from that extra screen real-estate. [return]

Medium thinks it's a brand

There’s a lot of reasons people are down on Medium, Ev Williams’ ongoing whatever-the-hell-it-is. It’s a platform! It’s a publication! It’s a platform for publications! It’s a clean, clutter-free reading experience, except for all the clutter!

There have been a few great stories written about this; my favorites are reporter Laura Hazard Owen’s “The long, complicated, and extremely frustrating history of Medium” and acerbic typographer Matthew Butterick’s “The Billionaire’s Typewriter.” (He occasionally updates this, most recently linking to Owen’s article.) Butterick critiques Medium’s design from an ethical standpoint, which turns out to be bang on point with Medium’s ultimate underlying problem:

Medium thinks it’s a brand.

What most bothers me when I click on a Medium link these days isn’t the increasingly dispiriting design (nothing says “great reading experience” like fixed-position bars at the top of and bottom of the window imploring you to sign in and/or pay money and/or download the app). No, that annoyance has been eclipsed by watching ever more articles on Medium go behind a paywall. You can only read three “premium” articles for free a month, just like The New Yorker, like The Wall Street Journal, like The Atlantic.

And indeed, when you go to Medium’s upsell page, they’re pushing articles written by the sorts of authors you’d expect to see in a New Yorker issue: Roxane Gay, Dave Eggers, even Margaret Atwood, and namedropping publications that offer a selection of “curated” articles on Medium.

So, their value proposition is:

  • Publications you’ve heard of also publish their stuff on our site, like they do on Apple News! Think of us like a Readers’ Digest for hipsters. (Some of this content may be original, but a glance at Medium’s page for New York magazine shows that the only difference is that everything they put up on their own site for free is behind a paywall on Medium. Which, to be fair, is fucking brilliant if they can get away with it.)
  • Authors you’ve heard of published what may or may not be original content on Medium at least once! This piece from Margaret Atwood is from 2017, and she wrote a couple other things here in 2015, but it’s Margaret Goddamn Atwood, people!
  • By paying us, you get access to a whole world of other content from people you’ve never heard of, “curated” through the editorial mechanism of those authors clicking a checkbox saying “put this behind a paywall and let the checks roll in, please!”

Butterick asks what he dubs “the $132 million question”:

Who’s going to pay $50 every year for this? People dissatisfied with the unlimited free clickbait available elsewhere? Gulls, rubes, and saps? Dogs with credit cards?

While the aspiration to become the premier literary journal of our time by aggregating blog posts seems relatively new, this belief in its own essential brandness, its brandosity, forms Medium’s original sin. If you have a Medium account, your “front page” when you sign in isn’t a list of new articles from people you follow, like a Tumblr dashboard or, heaven forbid, an RSS reader. Goodness, no! Instead, it’s a Netflix landing page: articles they want to push at you, articles popular across the network, articles “recommended” based on your history.

The design changes over the years, but the fundamental notion that you go to Medium™ to read Medium™ Stories remains. What makes a story a Medium™ Story? Who the hell knows? Medium™ surely doesn’t. They can’t. They have no control over their own content. Can you imagine Automattic deciding that because dozens of well-known authors run blogs on WordPress.com, they should charge $50 a year for access to blogs hosted on it? Hey, you can get three free reads a month to get a sense of what the WordPress editorial voice is like! This is essentially what Medium is doing, except that you get only one theme and don’t get to give your blog a title. (There was a point you could create a “publication” on Medium, which meant “give your blog a title,” but that’s gone, along with the ability to use custom domains. Remember: Medium thinks it’s a brand.)

In what’s probably their thirteenth or fourteenth pivot at this point, Medium has brought back the idea of edited “magazines” with staff writers hosted there. They’ve done this before and the results were, what’s a good word, ruinous, but Owens quotes Ev Williams’s statement to Bloomberg in December 2018: “We are going to significantly increase our investment in original editorial in the next year, and we are absolutely not going to pull the football away this time, Charlie Brown.”

I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’m missing. If you’re paying for Medium, I’m genuinely curious why, and if you think you’re getting value out of it. Also, I’d like to know if you’re a Golden Retriever with an Amex.

A digression about Facebook

Around this time last year, I was contacted by a recruiter from Facebook wanting me to apply for a technical writing position there. We talked for a little bit, I got the job information; it sounded pretty interesting, and the folks I know here in Silicon Valley who work for FB generally love it. They take care of their employees as much as modern tech companies do, and that’s not meant as a slight; while FB is more prone to the “constant frat party vibe woo” stereotype than possibly any other company as large as it is, they pay incredibly well, and have generous benefits with respect to bonuses, vacation, insurance, and retirement. And, at this point, I’d been out of work for a few months; part of that was by choice, in that I didn’t start looking for new work right after being laid off from Realm in September of 2017, but I’d just had a couple dispiriting rejections after trying to get back into the workforce and was feeling a little desperate.

But…I didn’t feel good about working for Facebook.

This is not about politics, per se; it’s about the way Facebook aggregates, synthesizes, and applies data. It is not an exaggeration to say that they’re the biggest intelligence-gathering organization in the world. We willingly tell them who our friends are and what groups we belong to; they can infer information we didn’t explicitly offer, based on who our friends associate with and what groups they belong with. They know what ads you’ve clicked on, even ones that aren’t on Facebook, since they supply advertising networks to other web sites and increasingly run free wifi at coffee shops and other businesses (just log into your Facebook account to connect). They know what you’ve searched for on Facebook, but they kind of know what you’ve searched for anywhere else, because they served you ads based on the search keywords you used and, hey, you’re logged into Facebook, so it’s you, welcome back! They know things you don’t tell your friends, or at least don’t tell all of them. They probably know if you’re gay, even if you’re still in the closet. They know you’re a science fiction fan, or a Golden State Warriors fan. They know you’re a furry. They also know you’re an alcoholic, or that you have a gambling problem, or that you have an STD. You’ve never explicitly told them any of those things, sure, but they’ve designed their platform to be one giant automated private investigation service…all in the service of giving you better, more targeted ads.

They’d tell you that their mission isn’t just to serve you ads, of course, it’s to “connect the world.” But that makes it a little worse in some ways, doesn’t it? That gives them a philosophical backing for their ends-justify-the-means mentality. Isn’t connection good? Does that end not justify virtually any mean? Can’t any problems just be written off as collateral damage?

Well, no. No, they can’t. Again, this isn’t about politics, per se, but on a meta level, it kind of is: Facebook wants us engaged, and we get engaged by clickbait. We’re engaged when we’re outraged. We’re engaged when we see which of our so-called friends are so very, very wrong about whatever’s got us fired up. Facebook has “connected” us with people we probably didn’t really need to stay in contact with beyond the occasional Christmas card. We think we’re expanding our social circle tenfold, but too often we’re fraying it, click after click.

So I called the recruiter back and said that I couldn’t pursue the position.

Nothing that happened since then has made me feel that was a bad call. Every month seems to bring a new story about Facebook’s essentially unethical behavior. And it is hard to overstate how much reach and power Facebook has in our economy and our society right now; the claims critics made just a year or two ago that seemed bombastic and ridiculous keep being proven right. It’s frankly not a good, healthy place to be, either as an employee or a customer.

So far I’ve avoided deleting my Facebook account, because there are still people who I will literally only hear from if I remember to check FB (which I increasingly do not, for the record). It is so woven into the fabric of hundreds of millions of lives that the notion that someone you care about is not seeing your Facebook posts seems almost absurd. But I’m not checking very often, and I don’t expect that to change. It’s not impossible that 2019 will see me deleting the account entirely.

Let's talk about the Tumblrpocalypse

Did you hear Tumblr’s getting rid of all the adult sites?

Yes, the news is going around.

Man, if only Apple wasn’t so prudish!

Come again?

This is all because Apple pulled the Tumblr app in mid-November after they found child porn on the site.

Apple did pull the app because of that, yes, but there’s no evidence Apple is insisting Tumblr get rid of all NSFW material across the entire site as a condition to get back into the App Store. Besides, Apple has a “17+” rating category for apps, which Tumblr has been in since early 2013. There’s no sign that they’ve been purging other apps in that category.

But we keep hearing about how strict Apple is! Walled garden and all that. They keep cracking down on user-generated content.

Apple’s actual guidelines prohibit services “that end up being used primarily for pornographic content,” so sure, there’s not going to be a Pornhub iOS app any time soon. But “incidental NSFW content” is explicitly (stop it) allowed.

Tumblr’s NSFW stuff is more than just incidental.

Arguably, but Tumblr’s iOS app has been on the App Store since 2009–almost since there was an App Store to be on. Tumblr said Apple found child porn hosted on Tumblr in a “routine audit”; the word routine implies they audit a random sample of Tumblr sites through the iOS app at least semi-regularly. So it’s damn unlikely it took nearly ten years for Apple to be prudishly horrified by a naughty catgirl pinup.

Well, if it’s not Apple’s fault, why would Tumblr do this? It’s going to kill their site deader than a doornail.

Were doornails ever alive?

It’s just an expression.

Right. Well, okay. “Tumblr is for porn” has become received wisdom, but there are conflicting reports as to just how much porn is there. In 2012, Tumblr creator and then-CEO David Karp estimated it at 2–4% of the blogs. A web analytics firm a year later estimated it at 11.4%, and a study in 2016 estimated it at a mere 1%, but estimated 22% of the audience was there for the porn.

That’s all over the map.

Yeah. The analytics firm used “explicit domain names” as a marker for porn production, which is likely to overestimate, and the later study classified Tumblrs as porn if they could be found by “a large number of search engine queries containing pornographic keywords,” which I suspect underestimates. The chances are that Karp’s estimate was likely the best. While it’s an old estimate, I doubt the percentage of porn Tumblrs increased under Yahoo’s watch, given the Great Tumblr Porn Crackdown of 2013. Let’s keep it on the high end and say 5%, though.

No way. There are millions of pornographic Tumblrs!

It’s easy to lose track of just how big the numbers involved are on an absolute rather than percentage basis. There are about 250 million Tumblr users. Suppose only a quarter of them actually post, and only 5% of those post porn. That’s still millions of pornographic Tumblrs.

What about that figure of 22% of the audience being there for the porn? Is that suspect, too?

This is really difficult to quantify, because the vast majority of Tumblr users who look at some NSFW content don’t look exclusively at NSFW content. Also, thanks to Tumblr’s reblog feature, you may see NSFW content you don’t explicitly (stop it!) intend to see; that 2016 study estimated more users saw porn that way than saw it by following Tumblrs they’d categorized as pornographic.

So the real question isn’t how many people see NSFW stuff on Tumblr, the question is how many people will stop using Tumblr if they stop seeing NSFW stuff on it.

So what’s the answer?

No idea. I guess we’ll know in a year.

I still think it’s gonna die. look at sites like LiveJournal and MySpace. Once people start leaving, they don’t come back, especially if the creators they follow aren’t there.

That’s the million-dollar question, right? They’re going to take a big hit initially, but they probably figure it’ll be balanced out. But there’s a real chance that the big hit gets followed by a slow slide.

You sound pretty sanguine about this. Doesn’t Tumblr making this move bother you?

It does. I have a soft spot in my heart for Tumblr; my old tech blog wouldn’t have taken off if it hadn’t been hosted on Tumblr (and probably wouldn’t have survived a few initial “Fireballings” when John Gruber linked to it). I’ve always thought it was underrated as a pure blogging platform. And, yes, I think it’s worthwhile to have a place to share NSFW content.

But the bottom line comes down to the bottom line. Tumblr is on its third owner at this point and still largely resists monetization, and current owner Verizon is not going to keep running it as a social good. As risky as it might seem to bet that kicking off the pronz will increase ad revenue, it wouldn’t be a bet they’d make if Tumblr as it is now were a sustainable business.

Do you think it’ll work?

Maybe? I mean, if you’re asking if I think Tumblr will “die in a month,” or even a year, absolutely not. LiveJournal, MySpace, and Digg are all still around. Fucking Ask.com is still around. Tumblr could have an indefinite life ahead of it as an irrelevant artifact of internet history.

Come on, give me an actual prediction.

Okay, here’s the thing. Tumblr hasn’t really changed much in years, and that’s a risk. Making an unpopular policy change that drives high-follower-count users off the site is also a risk. Tumblr can survive those as long as there isn’t anything else that does the job it does, but both of these moves open up space for disruption.

But as usual with disruptors, we shouldn’t expect The Thing That Replaces Tumblr to look like Tumblr. It might not even be just one thing at all. In fact, LiveJournal’s decline might be a good study: they, too, opened up space for disruption through a combination of site stagnation and stupid policy decisions, but their users didn’t end up all migrating to some LJ-but-better service. LJ was ultimately rendered irrelevant by the one-two punch of Twitter and, ironically, Tumblr.

So what do you think the lesson is that anyone trying to disrupt Tumblr should draw from all this?

Money first, naughty catgirl pinups later.

The new iPad Pro

So I bought a new iPad yesterday.

After a lot of waffling, I made some seemingly counter-intuitive choices:

  • The 12.9” model (up from my original 9.7”)
  • Only 64G of storage
  • WiFi only, not cellular

The rationale for the first one is simple enough. I’ve been using my iPad more than my laptop, and moving to the bigger screen pushes it that much closer to my only-needed portable computing device. Over the last two years I’ve knocked down nearly all the “showstoppers” that keep me from doing my personal work on the iPad, although there are still clunky points–many of which are more due to constraints in iOS.

So if that’s the case, why go with the big iPad but the baseline version? That’s crazy!

Well, okay. It is, sort of. But when I checked my previous iPad just a few days ago, you know how much of its 128G storage I was using? 30G. And the three biggest apps were Grim Fandango (which I haven’t played in a year), Garage Band (which I don’t use), and iMovie (which I don’t use). By either deleting or “offloading” a few of the biggest apps, I’m now using less than 24G. The reality is that I don’t edit media, I stream it. When I travel, I’m more likely to have podcasts or books with me on planes than movies. And I keep a lot of documents in cloud storage. I’m not a big photographer, but even if I start seriously using iCloud Photo Library, the iPad isn’t going to need to keep all or even most of the photos on it–that’s what the point of “cloud” is, right?

Honestly, if Apple had had a 128G version for just $50 more, like they do with the iPhone XR, I’d have taken it. But they’re playing their stupid storage pricing game, as usual, and I’m not.

As far as the cellular radio goes: I’ll be honest. That was tough. I’m still not positive I made the right call. I end up using cellular tethering a fair amount; I’m using it right now, in fact, typing this at lunch at the office (I don’t want to connect the iPad to the corporate network). Doesn’t that make me a perfect candidate for this?

Well, sure. But it’s a $150 option now, and after paying that upcharge, then it’s either add it to my cell plan for another $10 a month or pick a “pay as you go” option. A lot of folks do that, treating the cellular radio as insurance and almost never using it. Well, okay, but if you almost never use it, you have less reason not to just put up with the inconvenience of tethering. I use it enough that I’m still considering taking the iPad back within the 14-day window and exchanging it. But it just feels like a lot to pay to save five seconds–yes, those five seconds could add up to a minute or two a week. But even so. Again, if this was a $50 upgrade, I’d have taken it almost without thinking about it.

So how am I feeling about the new iPad? After less than 24 hours, I love it. I’ll see how it goes in real world usage, but it’s pretty awesome paired with the Canopy and Magic Keyboard (it is so close in width to the Magic Keyboard it almost looks like they were meant to go together). Do I worry I haven’t “future-proofed” this purchase? A little. But I think in practice I’ll be more than okay.

Edit: I exchanged it for the 256GB iPad Pro, still no cellular (and still in Space Gray), on November 20th. Yes, I decided I needed a little future-proofing, just in case. As of February 2019 I am still not using very much space on it, though.

Low cognitive load blogging

Hey, did you know I used to be a blogger?

Okay, it’s not quite fair to say that I’m no longer a blogger; if you check the Journal tab of my website, I’ve made about a half-dozen posts this year. But that’s way down from the original Tumblr-hosted Coyote Tracks; in the earlier parts of this decade I was at least managing a few posts a month, and occasionally even a few posts a week.

Ironically, this post is going to join the rest of this year’s flock as another post about blogging. The truth is that I simultaneously miss it and don’t want the cognitive burden of committing to it again.

I’m edging toward making this microblog my “real, canonical” blog; after all, it can accept long posts like this one, it crossposts to Twitter and can be followed via Mastodon, and it would let me quietly move my main web site off WordPress onto…well, frankly, I don’t know yet, although I’m perversely considering saying to hell with “generators” and moving to pure hand-coded HTML.

But the main advantage that moving to the microblog—as well as moving to the static site not-a-generator—would give me is freedom from that cognitive load. Okay, too strong: a reduction of that cognitive load. I don’t have to worry about templates more complicated than what BBEdit handles for the main site, and the journal can be updated with any Micropub client (including, of course, Micro.blog’s own client).

The million-dollar question: if I go ahead and make this change, will I actually start blogging again? When I think, “I should write about the problems I see looming ahead for Apple,” or “maybe I should write about why I’m considering going iPad-only for portable computing despite that last thought,” or “I feel a little like ranting about how ridiculous it is to deride Nancy Pelosi as a toothless centrist,” will I actually do it?

I don’t know. But I know that making it easier for myself to get there probably can’t hurt.

Apple's topsy-turvy iPhone lineup

I started thinking about this yesterday, and originally was going to say crazy, as in irrationally expensive. William Schuth expresses this well:

My strategy had been to buy the mid-tier spec of the best iPhone offered. My iPhone 6S Plus cost me $849 at launch; the mid-tier XS Max is $1,249. That’s a whole Apple Watch worth of price inflation in three years.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it’s not as simple as “Apple jacked up the price of the best phone a lot.” They did do that, no question. But they also made the “less-best” phones a lot better. In the iPhone 6, 6S and 7 years, the calculation was pretty straightforward:

  • Get the normal model
  • Pay extra for the Plus model, which got you a bigger screen, bigger battery, and better camera

Last year, though, the calculation changed a little:

  • Get the normal model (iPhone 8)
  • Pay extra for the iPhone 8 Plus, which got you a bigger screen, bigger battery, and better camera
  • Pay even more for the iPhone X, which got you Face ID, an OLED screen, a bigger battery, the Plus’s camera, and an edge-to-edge screen bigger than the iPhone 8 but not as big as the iPhone 8 Plus

This year, though, things are even weirder. All of these phones now have Face ID and an edge-to-edge screen. So:

  • Get the presumably normal model, the iPhone XS, which is “iPhone X with some bumps” (like most “S” model years)
  • Pay extra for the iPhone XS Max, which gets you a bigger screen and bigger battery (but the same camera)
  • Pay less for the iPhone XR, which still gets you a bigger screen and bigger battery than the iPhone XS, but drops back to an LCD screen and a slightly worse camera

So while Schuth’s heuristic ostensibly leads to the $1,249 XS Max, this isn’t the same scenario as we had with the iPhone 6, 6S and 7 where the difference between normal and Plus was obvious, nor is it like last year’s scenario, where the iPhone 8 and iPhone X were starkly different. This year, you have to really want that OLED screen and dual lens camera to make the XS worth it, and you have to really want the Galaxy Note-sized screen to make the XS Max worth it. In many (albeit not all) ways, the XR is the true successor to the Plus versions of years past, and it’s priced like it. The mid-tier XR is $849.

I wonder how this is going to affect iPhone sales next year. Does the ASP go up, because of the Max, or down, because of the XR? I’m betting the latter is at least possible. Unlike the iPhone 8 vs. the iPhone X, the XR provides a huge chunk of the ooh cool new shiny of the iPhone X, it’s available in unique colors, and it’s not a grimace-inducing price. (Well, no more than the Plus phones were, at the least.)

This is my upgrade year (I’m on an iPhone 6, no “S”), and it’s going to be a tough decision for me.

Form over frolic: Jony Ive’s quest for boring perfection

Form over frolic: Jony Ive’s quest for boring perfection

Apple still has the best industrial design on the market, but they’re not much fun anymore

Right now I’m sitting in front of a 27″ iMac. It’s the best computer I’ve ever owned, with a 5K display, high color gamut, 24 gigs of RAM and 512 gigs of SSD storage. It’s beautiful and minimalist, just like every iMac they’ve released since they switched to aluminum in 2007.

It’s also the least modifiable desktop computer I’ve ever owned. This trend also goes back to that aluminum iMac, in which — like today’s — only the RAM is user-upgradeable. (Since 2012, even that’s no longer true of the smaller 21″ iMac.) It’s hard not to ask: why is thinness the priority in all of Apple’s designs?

You know the answer: Jony Ive. It’s clear by now that he would like everything Apple produces to look as close to a pure pane of glass as he can make it, with minimal, unadorned metallic frames, as close to unbroken and symmetrical as functionality allows. And Ive’s team is perfectly willing to sacrifice functionality in pursuit of this goal. A female Lightning port is fractionally thinner than a female USB-C port, and now you know why the iPhone will never get USB-C ports. Sorry. You’re lucky the one-port MacBook’s one port isn’t a Lightning port. (I have it on good authority that was under consideration.)

This often gets portrayed as a choice between staying chained to legacy hardware and forging ahead to the future. But if you were using Macs a decade ago, do you remember the way the power indicator light on a Mac, both desktop and laptop, used to slowly pulse when it was asleep, as if it were slowly breathing? Or the way batteries on laptops, both replaceable and permanent, used to let you check charge levels without turning on or waking up the machine. Or, as recently as last year, the way power plugs changed color to show charging state. All of that — along with the illuminated Apple logo and, now, the cheerful startup chime — has gone away.

All the price of progress, right?

A couple years ago, Shawn Blanc published a book about “how to make good things great” called Delight is in the Details. That phrase captures an essential paradox: we want our products to stay out of our way in everyday use, yet products that convert us from merely satisfied customers to fans have little touches that call attention to themselves in just the right way. When I start my Mazda, its display lights up with the words “Zoom Zoom” for just a few seconds. It’s stupid, but after six years it still makes me smile.

“Little touches that call attention to themselves” are the opposite of Ive’s guiding aesthetic. He creates beautiful objects you can appreciate as works of art. You can’t help but marvel at the lengths to which his team will go to make a perfect fusion of glass and metal, to craft UIs that appear to directly manipulate data, to make the hardware disappear while you’re using it. Under Ive’s direction, Apple delivers works which are closer to the science fiction future than any other major consumer electronics company. And yet his designs are relentlessly whimsy-free. There won’t be a moment that catches you off-guard and makes you smile. Ive’s work never aspires to make you giggle with delight.

Software doesn’t escape his penchant for austerity, either. The Ive era of software UX has been about flattening, removing, relentlessly stamping out skeuomorphism. The “traffic light” window controls are just circles now; the swirling barber pole progress bars are simple blue, with a subtle pulse; we don’t even get the little puff of smoke when we pull icons off the dock. I’m surprised the iOS icons still jiggle-dance when they’re in rearrangement mode. I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that we’re seeing a software analog to Apple’s quest for thinness, but I’m not sure it isn’t, either.

I’d hardly be the first one to complain about a perceived drop in software and UX quality, or to question whether Apple’s being a little too aggressive in dropping legacy ports. Yet it feels like that’s always been part of the deal, right? We’re taking away the floppy drive, or only giving you these weird USB ports, or sealing the battery in, but look at how cool we can make this thing now! It’s not like anything else on the market. It’s fun.

This iMac is the best computer I’ve ever owned, but nothing about it screams fun. The quirkiest thing about it is my mechanical keyboard, something Apple would never dream of making on their own these days. (So gauche.)

Yes, but you keep talking about the Mac line. The future is in iOS! Despite revealing myself in past posts as a Mac partisan, I think this is not only true but, overall, good. I’m a fan of that science fiction future, and it’s not one in which I see many people sitting down in front of 27″ monitors and keyboards for their computing needs — even if the monitors are holographic and the keyboards aren’t physical.

But man, talk about the “pure pane of glass” ideal, right?

The argument Apple is implicitly making is that computers — especially the computers of the future that the iPad typifies — are appliances. Appliances can be beautiful, but they shouldn’t exhibit frippery. They should be focused. We should prefer the Kitchen-Aid stand mixer to the plastic knockoff that does twice as much at half the price, because it won’t do any of those things well and it’ll fall apart in a year. (Besides, you can do all those things with the Kitchen-Aid, anyway; you’ll just need to buy some dongles.)

That’s all true. Maybe Ive knows best. But if you showed me a table with an iPad Pro, a Surface Pro, and a Surface Book on it and asked me to rank them in order of Cool Factor, I’d be hard-pressed to put the iPad at the head of the line. Microsoft isn’t trying for tiny-quirk delight, which is just as well (“It looks like you’re trying to add personality to your UX! Can I help?”), but they’re sweating small, thoughtful details. Apple sweats the details of manufacturing processes. That’s great, but it’s not the same thing.

Maybe — just maybe — a little frippery is okay, even if it adds a half-millimeter in depth to a product, or adds a touch of (gasp) skeuomorphism to the UI here and there, or allows a slightly less restrained, tasteful pigment on the anodized aluminum case. Injecting a bit of fun, even weirdness, to their computers in the late ’90s helped pull Apple back from the brink. It may be time for another injection.

Being Kitchen-Aid is a fine goal, but you know what? They sell that stand mixer in nearly three dozen colors.

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Shifts in the blogging tide

Shifts in the blogging tide

Which semi-open platform do I like better?

I’m reading “How Yahoo derailed Tumblr,” an excellent story by Seth Fiegerman over on Mashable, and it’s making me think of my own relationship — such as it is — with Tumblr.

I have more than one friend who thinks of Tumblr as the domain of endless streaming GIFs and disaffected armchair activists looking for things to be angry about. It is these things, in much the same way that LiveJournal was the domain of angsty, oft self-confessional high school students in the early 2000s. LiveJournal was also the domain of a lot of fan communities — again, not unlike Tumblr today — and even of a lot of writers. (Some names you might recognize, like George R.R. Martin, still use LiveJournal as their primary blogging platform.) But Tumblr is also the domain of a surprising number of company blogs, photographers, news organizations, and even the occasional coyote tech blogger. People are sometimes surprised that Coyote Tracks is a Tumblr, but it is.

Arguably, if it hadn’t been a Tumblr, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be reading this now. A few of my posts got significant attention after being reblogged by Tumblr users with greater audiences, most notably Marco Arment; many of my still few Twitter followers found me because of that Tumblr-based tech blog; many of my even fewer Medium followers found me via Twitter. (Or because “Mr. Money Mustache” linked back to my story about him, which still drives ~70 reads a week a year later. I should eventually return to that, if only to clarify that my skepticism wasn’t about Mr. Mustache’s advice, but only about how widespread its applicability is.)

Earlier today, though, I came across a post from Stowe Boyd called “Moving from Tumblr to Medium.” He pegged his concerns about Tumblr to what he calls “social affordances”:

Tumblr is now a social mess: Disqus comments embedded into themes, fan mail, likes, and reposts never solidify into a social space where reciprocity and response can be balanced. I think Medium is a better way.
Oh, sweet cheese and crackers.

As much as Tumblr’s unique reblogging ability has benefited me, he’s right. There’s no native comment system, only Disqus embedding, and that’s only available with certain themes. Reblogging is terrific for sharing; it’s not so good for conversation. This is intentional design on Tumblr’s part; its mission was always to be a place to share interesting flotsam and jetsam found in your travels around the internet. “Tumblr” comes from “tumblelog,” a blogging style described on Kottke.org in 2005:

A tumblelog is a quick and dirty stream of consciousness, a bit like a linklog but with more than just links. They remind me of an older style of blogging, back when people did sites by hand, before Movable Type made post titles all but mandatory, blog entries turned into short magazine articles, and posts belonged to a conversation distributed throughout the entire blogosphere.

In practice, Tumblr’s certainly powerful enough to be a solid blogging and journaling platform, but I’m aware that using it for long-form writing is swimming against the tide. It doesn’t help my impressions that it’s strangely overrun with spam followers; of the 140,000 followers Coyote Tracks has, I’d be surprised if even 5% are both real and still active.

I’ve been thinking about moving to Medium for a while. here’s my thought process:

  • While I agree with the notion that you should own your own identity, well, I own ranea.org. If I’m sufficiently motivated, I can set up a URL redirect on my end to Medium.
  • Medium has a built-in export tool; Tumblr doesn’t, its quasi-official backup tool broke years ago, and third-party tools are fiddly and fragile. If I’m more concerned about saving my writing, Medium is arguably better.
  • Speaking of web presences, I’ve been trying to bring my “writing” and “tech” presences closer together. (Clearly Mac aficionados should like fantasy and science fiction stories with talking animal people, and vice-versa.) Unifying on one new platform is tempting.
  • I can post directly to Medium from Ulysses if I’m inclined. Medium has a terrific web editor, though. (Although Medium’s web editor only works on the desktop, and their iOS app’s editor is…less than terrific.)

The best counter-argument: lock-in. Tumblr’s original design decision to let you bring your own domain for free is admirable, but its post permalinks contain Tumblr-specific ID values. (This is, I should note, also a problem with Medium.) Unless a new platform can set up redirects on the old URLs, I’m stuck either leaving the Tumblr in place and starting on a new site anyway, or breaking old links. But I’m not averse to the first option.

There’s always moving to self-hosted WordPress, which has a lot of advantages: complete control, unlimited customization, easy embedding everywhere, no concerns about ownership. But just like those ubiquitous podcast ads about Squarespace keep reminding us, doing all that work kind of sucks. (And, yes, I’ve looked into Squarespace in the past; it’s got a lot to recommend it as a web site builder, but not as a blogging-style publishing platform.) I may not love all of Medium’s design decisions, but they’re more in line with the kinds of decisions I’d make myself. That’s a big deal.

I haven’t made any decisions about this either way. At least I’m telling myself that; that I’m posting this on Medium might suggest which direction I’m leaning. We’ll see.