App.net Shutting Down March 14

Co-founder Dalton Caldwell:

In May of 2014, App.net entered maintenance mode. At that time we made the difficult decision to put App.net into autopilot mode in an effort to preserve funds and to give it ample time to bake. Since then every dollar App.net has charged has gone towards paying for the hosting and services needed to keep the site running. Unfortunately, revenue has consistently diminished over the past 2+ years, and we have been unable to return the service to active development.

We will be shutting down the App.net service on March 14, 2017. We are immediately turning off new signups and any pending subscription renewals. We are also going to open-source the code behind App.net on our GitHub page. You will have until the shutdown date to export your data. At that time, all user data will be deleted.

From what I can see, the service has been dead for awhile. This signs the death certificate.

'Why Would Apple Release a 10.5" iPad?'

Studio Neat's Dan Provost, writing at Medium:

When the original iPad Pro 12.9" was introduced in September 2015, Phil Schiller demonstrated the reasoning for that sizing by illustrating that the width of the new iPad is the exact same dimension as the height of the 9.7" iPad.

This has the advantage of essentially having two full height iPad apps, side by side.

Now, imagine Apple doing the exact same thing, but with the iPad mini.

As I tweeted earlier today, an iPad like this would be the best of both worlds.

Review: AirPods

I've written about how using the 12.9" iPad Pro as a laptop replacement has made computing more accessible for me, which in turn prompted me to reassess my feelings towards the 5.5" iPhone Plus after using the 4.7" model since its debut in 2014. What I learned is the adage that bigger is better is absolutely true for my needs and tolerances. The large screens on my iPhone 7 Plus and iPad Pro are so great for my vision that they far outweigh any disadvantages in ergonomics and portability. It's a tradeoff that took me time to make.

I sincerely believe my choice to revisit the Plus-sized iPhone was one of the best technological decisions I've ever made. I have been so happy with the large phone (and the large tablet) that I can never again see myself using smaller ones. Contrast my outlook to that of my girlfriend, who's a staunch iPhone SE loyalist. She loves her small phone while despising the bigger ones. Whenever I use her SE—to help her update iOS and whatnot—it feels like a baby's toy compared to my Plus. These moments serve as reminders of how perspectives can change so quickly and starkly; it's kinda surreal.

Yet for all the praise I heap upon big iPhones and iPads, the other side of that coin is I also have great affinity for Apple's small products. Two of these are foremost in my mind: Apple Pencil and AirPods. Both are accessories, albeit important ones, that embody everything that's special about Apple. They're essentially very small computers that not only are engineering marvels, but they possess that "magic" that's historically made Apple products so revered. On their own merits, a strong case can be made that both the Pencil and AirPods are arguably the best products to come out of Cupertino recently.

Regarding the AirPods in particular, my first impressions hold true: AirPods are quintessential Apple. There is both good and bad, especially when it comes to Siri, but the net is unquestionably positive. Like other reviewers, I continue to be delighted by them and am excited to watch them evolve.

Put another way, I adore Apple's big products, but my favorites might be the small ones. And AirPods are a big deal.

Wonderfully Wireless

Beyond being wireless, the banner feature of the AirPods is the effortless pairing process. The flip-open-the-case trick is equal parts whimsical, magical, and accessible.

The idea that Bluetooth pairing is flaky and a pain in the ass certainly is annoying and problematic for anyone, but the pain points can be exacerbated for someone with a disability. This is where the automatic pairing becomes even more of a boon.

The accessibility win here is auto pairing removes the friction of finding and navigating Bluetooth menus. (And because Apple uses iCloud to propagate this info to your other devices, users are saved from the tedium of multiple setup processes.) I say this all the time, but it’s really true: As with many things, this is seemingly an insignificant detail, but the tiniest details often end up making the biggest difference in shaping a positive experience for someone with disabilities. In my case, the fact that I needn’t go to the Bluetooth settings on my iOS devices or my Mac and tap/click a button lessens the load my eyes and fingers need to bear in order to pair the AirPods. Again, a small thing, but the energy savings I get from not having to do that can be put towards other things, and I feel better. It's a win-win.

Another accessibility win related to pairing is the chime you hear when the AirPods connect. This sound is great because it acts as a secondary cue that lets you know your AirPods are paired. It’s a nice touch, as someone like me doesn’t always need to rely on one sense (my eyesight) to confirm my AirPods are ready to go. Therefore, the chime is an accessibility feature unto itself for the blind and low vision.

Pairing aside, the wireless nature of the AirPods has some clear accessibility gains. As I reported in my first impressions piece, the AirPods mark my first foray into the world of wireless headphones. The experience has been so good that I still kick myself for not exploring this space sooner. Living without wires for the past few weeks has me believing my hypothesis was correct: Not having to mess with headphone jacks and untangling cords is truly liberating and more accessible. Like with the abstraction of Bluetooth settings, the friction inherent to my wired EarPods is completely taken away. It’s less hassle and frustration for me, but more importantly, it maximizes my enjoyment of the AirPods because I’m doing so little work. I feel better; all I have to worry about is not losing one or both—or the case. I need only to be extra careful that they’re safe and sound.

The Case of the Clever Case

The AirPods case has accessibility benefits all its own. In many ways, the case is a product in itself, and adds to the overall delight factor.

What I said in my first impressions piece remains true:

The great thing about the case is its size and weight make it easier for me to keep track of my AirPods. Whereas previously I was always searching for the tangled mess that was my wired EarPods, the AirPods case is much easier to see and feel. Furthermore, the case is great in the way that it “sucks in” the earbuds when you put them in to charge. The use of magnets here not only is clever, but in terms of accessibility, it’s effortless to put away the earbuds. All I need to remember is the left bud goes on the left and the right one goes on the right. In addition to the magnetism, they only go one way, so there’s no struggling to figure out how they go.

I also noted the difficulty in getting the AirPods out of the case, and the method I devised to overcome it. As more time has passed, my skill in getting the AirPods in and out has improved to the point where it's no longer an issue. Granted, this may be troublesome for others with more severe motor delays than mine, but for me it’s a solved problem. Furthermore, the amber/green indicator light for charging is beneficial (similar to the chime) insofar that it’s another cue that lets users know charge status. It’s another nice touch.

The only drawback to the AirPods case I can see is the thing is a notorious lint magnet. I keep the case in my jacket or pants pocket most of the time when I’m out, and I’m constantly wiping it clean with a slightly damp cloth or napkin. It does nothing but satisfy my obsessive-compulsiveness for keeping my devices looking nice and in tip-top shape. It’s just a little maddening that I need to wipe down the case so often.

Siri and the “Voice-First” Interface

I’ve spent most of this review thus far extolling the virtues of the AirPods. But that doesn’t mean the product is without warts. There are areas in which it should improve.

Chief among them is Siri. In an accessibility context, Siri is like the 5-tool baseball player whose career is hamstrung because he's injury-prone. All the talent and potential, but he spends more time on the disabled list than in the lineup.

Hence, I’ve spilled a lot of digital ink on the topic of Siri's performance as an accessibility tool. The gist of my concern is Siri doesn't handle speech impediments very gracefully. (I've found the same is true of Amazon's Alexa, as I recently bought an Echo Dot to try out.) I’m a stutterer, which causes a lot of repetitive sounds and long breaks between words. This seems to confuse the hell out of these voice-driven interfaces. The crux of the problem lies in the fact that if I don’t enunciate perfectly, which leaves several seconds between words, the AI cuts me off and runs with it. Oftentimes, the feedback is weird or I’ll get a “Sorry, I didn’t get that” reply. It’s an exercise in futility, sadly.

There are things I try to do to mitigate this, such as slow down while speaking and hold down the Home button on my iPhone, but the effects are nominal. It’s so frustrating that I've historically avoided Siri altogether, despite how her capabilities have grown over the years. The times I do summon Siri are in instances where I know I can get a command out quickly and accurately (e.g., setting a timer).

Which brings us to Siri and AirPods. It definitely shows glimmers of promise as a Her-type “computer,” whereby you have an persistent, intelligent assistant in your ear at all times. But we're not there yet and we're not close.

Siri on the AirPods suffers from the same issues I encounter on my other devices. It’s too frustrating to try to fumble my way through if she keeps asking me to repeat myself. It’s for this reason that I don’t use Siri at all with AirPods, having changed the setting to enable Play/Pause on double-tap instead (more on this later). It sucks to not use Siri this way—again, the future implications are glaringly obvious—but it’s just not strong enough at reliably parsing my speech. Therefore, AirPods lose some luster because one of its main selling points is effectively inaccessible for a person like me.

I realize learning language is hard, and teaching a robot to understand it is even harder. But if these assistants are supposed to be truly "intelligent," I shouldn’t have to adapt my speech pattern to the assistant; Siri, et al, should be nimble enough to adapt to me. If voice-driven computing is the way of the future, as many in the tech commentariat proclaim, then I surely hope engineers are investigating ways to make Siri and its ilk more accommodating. Voice brings with it new paradigms for accessibility, and, frankly, I worry that users like me will be left behind. If Siri or Alexa can't understand me and I’m frustrated, why bother? I'll do stuff manually.

Despite my beef with Siri, however, there is a silver lining. Its presence in the AirPods highlights the greatest benefit voice-driven UIs have for accessibility: they're hands-free. If you're someone who has normal fluency but limited physical motor abilities, you can easily ask Siri to adjust volume, control playback, and check battery levels. This is where Siri's potential as an assistive technology shines, as it gives users who may not be able to use the tap gestures on the AirPods another method with which to interact with their headphones. In fact, this is precisely why I'm so "meh" on voice-driven AI; Siri and its competitors can do so much for accessibility if it weren't for how poorly they handle non-standard speech. (This is a pitfall of adopting HomeKit devices as well.)

It's important I emphasize that although my focus is on Siri because it’s baked into the AirPods, I’m not placing blame squarely on Apple. The accessibility of Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and others is an industry-wide issue—one that I hope more people pay attention to. I have hope for Siri because Apple leads in accessibility. Whatever is in the labs, I’m sure there are people who are aware of this problem and are working on solutions. As I said, voice has new paradigms for accessibility. We mustn't forget about speech impairments.

Some Gripes

My quibbles with AirPods involve two things: configuration and playback control.

Regarding configuration, I feel the settings pane for AirPods is unnecessarily hidden. As it stands today, you have to tap the “i” next to your AirPods in the Bluetooth source list (Settings → Bluetooth) to access the options screen.

I would prefer Apple add a discrete AirPods pane in the main Settings screen, a la Siri. In terms of accessibility, this more straightforward path would be helpful because its top level placement would mean less tapping and searching. But it’s more than visual/motor considerations—someone with a cognitive delay of some sort may have trouble remembering where to find the option to, say, disable ear detection. Besides, as innovative and strategically important as AirPods are to Apple, it feels right that AirPods should get prime real estate somewhere—its status as an optional accessory be damned. (I'm not saying build it into iOS by default, not yet anyway, but if you do have AirPods, it should be front and center in Settings. Better still, it could be shown in Control Center, which seems like a natural fit.)

As for playback control, this is my biggest annoyance with AirPods, particularly when I’m listening to music. With my wired EarPods, I can use the button on the cord to skip tracks and play/pause audio, whereas with AirPods I can’t. I can double-tap to Play/Pause, but to change tracks, I have to reach for my phone and look at the screen. That isn't always practical or accessible. I wish there was an option to triple-tap your earbud to skip tracks, as that would be analogous to the aforementioned button. Maybe Apple planned this and it didn’t make the cut for the initial version, but I hope it comes someday. Playback control would be much more accessible.

Finally, a note about the double-tap-to-Play/Pause gesture. For as disappointing as Siri is for me, I like Play/Pause even more for accessibility's sake. It's much easier to access via an earbud than it is to dig out my phone and tap a button on the Lock screen. I'm glad I made the switch; it works great.

Bottom Line

Jason Snell at Six Colors sums up the AirPods well. He writes:

Once you’ve cooked a meal or run a mile with no wires coming out of your ears, you will wonder how you ever lived without this product. And isn’t that the most Apple-like feeling of all?

As Jason says, “hearing is believing.” If you're an Apple user, AirPods are a no-brainer purchase.

The "secret sauce" Apple's added to AirPods, enabled by the wizardry of its W1 chip, makes AirPods 1.0 a pretty impressive product all around. As I wrote at the outset, they are classic Apple: delightful, magical, and, yes, accessible.

For as much as I love the ever-burgeoning power of my iPad Pro and the supercomputer-in-my-pocket that is my iPhone, it's been a while since I've been so smitten by a product as am I with my AirPods. They're fun to use, and are way more accessible than any other headphones I've ever used.

Go order a set right now. You'll get them… eventually.

'A Magic Moment'

Casey Liss shared a great story about sharing AirPods with his wife:

I’ll forget AirPods one day. I won’t forget the opening of 2017. With my little family, all huddled in one hotel room bed, celebrating together, each in our own little way.

Apple often makes decisions I don’t agree with, but when everything comes together—like with the AirPods—the result is amazing. What’s more, these silly little devices, working together with an iPhone, can make for a truly memorable and magical moment.

Casey's been (rightfully) gushing over AirPods on ATP the last few weeks.

On the Mac's Startup Chime and Accessibility

Alex Jurgensen at Apple World Today makes a great argument for keeping the Mac's startup chime:

A use of the startup chime that may not be widely known is that it is used by blind and partially sighted users to determine if the computer is booting up. As a legally blind Mac user, I have found this increasingly important since Macs have become quieter due to improvements in hardware such as solid state drives and the removal of optical drives.

[...]

Although Apple's reasoning makes sense on the surface, it leaves blind and partially sighted users in the dark as to whether or not the computer is booting. A better approach would be to restore the startup chime but provide a easy to find setting to disable it in System Preferences. Perhaps Apple could rename the "Startup Disk" preference pane to simply "Startup" to accommodate this new setting. While it is possible to reenable the startup sound, the fact that it is disabled by default on the MacBook Pro makes the job of supporting the Macs of others more difficult for blind and partially sighted users. We therefore ask Apple to bring this iconic and highly useful sound back.

Apple removed the chime in the Touch Bar MacBook Pro, but you can bring it back.

I've wrote many times about the value of multiple sensory cues for people with disabilities—Jurgensen's request is along those lines. For blind and low vision users, myself included, the startup chime is a cue that my Mac is powering on. It's an edge case scenario, sure, but as is true with everything accessibility-related, the tiniest of details add up to make the biggest difference in terms of a positive experience for people with disabilities.

'Apple Watch, New Year's Resolutions, and Losing 50 Pounds'

Nice story by Zac Hall at 9to5 Mac:

Apple Watch has absolutely been an effective motivational coach that has pushed me toward my goal of being more active. Below I’ll detail my experience and share some of what I’ve learned along my journey.

One of my biggest personal achievements, lifestyle-wise, in 2016 was I eliminated soda from my diet. I used to be a hardcore junkie, downing glass after glass, day after day. I finally decided I'd had enough, so I resolved to quit drinking it. With the help of Water Minder on my iPhone and Apple Watch, all I drink now—coffee aside—is water. I feel healthier, more hydrated, and have completely lost my taste for soda. I'll have some every now and then, and I don't like the flavor nor the carbonation. I'm very proud of myself.

'The Internet of Very Small Computers Masquerading as Things'

Excellent piece by Sam Gerstenzang on Medium:

Apple is making a series of very small connected computers: the Pencil, the Airpod, the Watch and the Touch Bar. What’s important here is that each of these computers is something else first (pencil, headphones, watch), and only a computer to make that object function better.

This is what the “Internet of Things” missed… the important part wasn’t the internet, but the “thing.” The “internet” is grabbing the telescope by the wrong end: what’s important is that this very small computer has the affordances of a pencil but is making its own decisions and is now orbiting my phone.

[…]

Apple is quietly getting very good at shipping very small computers that charge very rapidly, and thus can be unanchored ––unlike Google Home or Amazon Echo. Over time, as power and size requirements decrease, a direct internet connection might add value. But for now, Bluetooth allows a connection to your phone (which is still quite obviously and self-consciously a computer) and that’s enough.

Gruber makes a great point about the Touch Bar on the latest episode of The Talk Show, saying that it's effectively a computer in a computer. It's an iOS device embedded in a macOS device—the fact it's so well integrated is wholly due to Apple controlling the whole stack, hardware and software. It gives Apple a huge competitive advantage.

'Has the Internet Killed Curly Quotes?'

Fascinating read by my friend Glenn Fleishman, writing for The Atlantic.

I've said numerous times that I fancy myself somewhat of a typography nerd, and I wholeheartedly prefer curly quotes to the straight kind. In fact, the font I use here on Steven's Blog, Open Sans, uses straight quotes and it bugs the hell out of me. Like many others, I really prefer the look of curly quotation marks.

'How Apple Built Accessibility Features Into the iPhone, iPad, and Mac'

Nice piece by Andrew Griffin for The Indepedent on Apple's accessibility efforts, with an emphasis on the video Apple played to open its October 27 MacBook Pro media event.

My quibble with this story is with the subhead. That the video "suggests a new focus" isn't accurate—Apple has always focused on accessibility, going back to the Jobs/Forstall era. (I've heard Forstall in particular was very gung-ho in supporting people with disabilities in iOS.) The "focus" is only new in the sense that accessibility has been more openly talked about, which I think is a reflection of Tim Cook's leadership. Accessibility is more of a focus in the press (cf. this piece) and on stage (cf. the video). But it's always been important to Apple internally; helping people with disabilities, as a company value, has only been amplified externally under Cook. So, no, nothing about the "Sady" video suggests anything new at Apple. Rather, accessibility features may be all-new to its intended audience.

First Impressions of AirPods

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Apple's AirPods are finally here—they're backordered, but they are available for purchase.

Like everyone else I know in the Apple journalism world, I've been eagerly anticipating their debut since news broke in late October that their release would be delayed, with Apple saying they "needed a little more time" to get the product just right. The last time I saw AirPods in person was in the hands-on area at the September 7 press event for iPhone 7.

Fast-forward to the present, and I've been using a set since last Friday. My overall take after a few days with them is short: It’s a great product. They’re yet another example of quintessential Apple—the weaving of hardware and software that works so well you'd swear it's due more to wizard-like magic than it is to bonafide engineering prowess. Along with Apple Pencil, AirPods is the best, most Apple-y product the company has released in a long time. Both may be accessories, but they’re nonetheless important. They’re every bit as technologically advanced and forward-thinking as an iPhone 7 or iPad Pro.

With these sentiments in mind, here are some assorted thoughts on Apple's wireless marvels.

Pairing & Controls. For better or for worse, the AirPods represent my first foray with wireless headphones. The setup process is simple and clever: flip open the top of the case, and a screen appears on your iOS device with a picture of the AirPods and a giant "Connect" button. Tap it and that's it. Your AirPods are paired with your device. (Apple uses iCloud to propagate pairing to your other devices.) This isn't only easy and convenient, but from an accessibility perspective, the lack of multiple setup processes saves on eye and muscle fatigue, since I'm not expelling precious energy finding menus and pressing buttons to pair my AirPods. One nicety: When your AirPods connect to a device, you hear a “ding.” It’s a nice touch, as this secondary cue makes knowing whether you’re connected more accessible. You don’t need to check the Bluetooth menu.

Controls-wise, I do have two small complaints. First, in my testing, it seems the double-tap-the-earbud-to-invoke-Siri gesture only works with the right earbud. (UPDATE: I'm told double-tapping the left earbud does work. I just tried it twice and, sure enough, it works. Maybe I just wasn't tapping hard enough or in the right place.) I'd rather it also work with the left one, because my left is my dominant side and I instinctively reach with my left hand to tap. I can do it with my right, but it doesn't feel nearly as comfortable because of the decidedly weakened muscles on the right side of my body. A preference here would be welcome.

Secondly, I wish there was a dedicated pane for AirPods in Settings from which to configure preferences. As it is now, you have to go to the Bluetooth pane and tap the "i" next to your AirPods to access its settings. It's not that much work, but the menu feels unnecessarily hidden. I was confused at how to find it, then I read Jason Snell's FAQ on Six Colors to find the answer. Ideally, it'd be great to see Apple add this functionality to Control Center. It seems like a natural place for it, since it's there that you change the audio source.

Fit & Sound Quality. Prior to Friday, the only headphones that I regularly used were Apple’s EarPods. Everyone’s ears are different, so lots of people dislike them, but I’ve always liked them for several reasons. They’re “free” (in the box), they fit comfortably in my ears, and they sound fine for my needs.

Fortunately for me, AirPods effectively are EarPods with the cable cut off. AirPods fit just as well in my ears as EarPods do, and they stay in fine too. I’ve tried jumping up and down, moving my head from side to side—they don’t fall out. The only time they’ve fallen out is if I accidentally pull on the stem with enough force that they dislodge, but that’s only happened once or twice. In terms of sound quality, AirPods sound great. Where by “great,” I don’t mean audiophile-level great, but for listening to podcasts and music, they’re perfectly acceptable.

On Siri & Living Without Wires. Using the AirPods, I’m distinctly reminded of Joaquin Phoenix’s character in the 2013 film, Her. The voice assistant in the movie is far more persistent and interactive than Siri is on the AirPods, but the broad strokes are definitely there. Especially for the visually impaired, having Siri literally in your ear is far more accessible than having her on a screen. Double-tapping the earbud may prove inaccessible to those with certain fine-motor delays, but the future potential for Siri is clear. One day, perhaps sooner than later, Siri will be as persistent as Scarlett Johansson’s character in Her. Today, though, I’m tempted to change the double tap’s behavior to play/pause audio, since Siri still has accessibility issues of her own to work out.

As for using wireless earbuds, I’ve found the experience truly liberating. I’ve been kicking myself for not trying this technology earlier, as the accessibility gains have been plentiful. As I wrote in relation to the iPhone 7, the greatest benefit is I no longer have to plug in anything, nor do I need to spend time untangling a cable. It saves much energy and frustration, and I couldn’t be happier. I’ve only had the AirPods less than a week, but already I can unequivocally state that I don’t foresee myself ever going back to wired headphones. Wireless is the way to go, and the “special sauce” Apple’s added with the AirPods (thanks to the W1 chip) makes the decision a no-brainer if, like me, you’re knee-deep in Cupertino’s ecosystem.

The Charging Case. I’m a fan of the AirPods’ charging case for a couple reasons. I just like holding the thing in my hand; I turn it over and over like a worry stone, and I’m always flipping the case open and closed. It’s silly and amusing at the same time, but I like it. I’ve even been asked a couple times if the case was my dental floss container.

Playfulness aside, the great thing about the case is its size and weight make it easier for me to keep track of my AirPods. Whereas previously I was always searching for the tangled mess that was my wired EarPods, the AirPods case is much easier to see and feel. Furthermore, the case is great in the way that it “sucks in” the earbuds when you put them in to charge. The use of magnets here not only is clever, but in terms of accessibility, it’s effortless to put away the earbuds. All I need to remember is the left bud goes on the left and the right one goes on the right. In addition to the magnetism, they only go one way, so there’s no struggling to figure out how they go.

The only issue I have with the case is getting the AirPods out. As someone with less than optimal fine-motor skills, it’s somewhat tricky to get them out at times. I’ve developed a method whereby I hold the case at an angle facing downward, then grab the top of the earbud and pull. I’ve gotten quite good at this, but someone with more severe delays than I do may have more trouble. I don’t know of a solution other than asking for help, but there’s definitely potential for trouble here depending on your needs and tolerances.

On VoiceOver. I want to include a quick note on the AirPods and VoiceOver, as it’s the most common question I’ve gotten from people going back to the September event.

Full disclosure: I’m by no means a VoiceOver power user. As I tweeted recently, VoiceOver works wonderfully with AirPods. I noticed no lag whatsoever; everything I tried routed accurately to the AirPods with clean, crisp sound. I’m sure there are bugs somewhere—I’ve run into one where audio stops working with AirPods and the source changes—but the AirPods passed with flying colors in my rudimentary tests.