TRAPPIST-1

NASA:

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

The next episode of Liftoff will be fun.

'Apple Park' Opens in April

Per Apple's press release:

Apple today announced that Apple Park, the company’s new 175-acre campus, will be ready for employees to begin occupying in April. The process of moving more than 12,000 people will take over six months, and construction of the buildings and parklands is scheduled to continue through the summer.

[...]

Steve would have turned 62 this Friday, February 24. To honor his memory and his enduring influence on Apple and the world, the theater at Apple Park will be named the Steve Jobs Theater. Opening later this year, the entrance to the 1,000-seat auditorium is a 20-foot-tall glass cylinder, 165 feet in diameter, supporting a metallic carbon-fiber roof. The Steve Jobs Theater is situated atop a hill — one of the highest points within Apple Park — overlooking meadows and the main building.

I cannot wait to see this thing up close.

Review: Overcast 3

I don't remember exactly the year I started listening to podcasts. It might have been 2010 or 2011, when I was using the iPhone 4/4S. Whenever I started, podcasts have been a constant source of entertainment (and information) for several years. Put another way, if not something in Apple Music, I’m listening to a podcast.

As I’ve listened to podcasts over time, I’ve nomadically moved from app to app to app in a quest to find the best one for me. I’ve used Instacast (since discontinued), Pocket Casts, and even dabbled with Apple’s first-party Podcasts app. Of those three, I used Instacast the longest, but Pocket Casts was definitely the prettiest.

Then Marco Arment released Overcast in 2014, and my journey ended.

Overcast instantly supplanted Pocket Casts as my go-to podcast client for its design, ease of use, and stellar accessibility support. It’s one of my favorite and most heavily-used apps.

Now in 2017, Arment has released version 3.0, which builds on the success of the last three years. The app has gotten better in every way: better features, better design, and importantly for me, better accessibility. After being part of the beta for some time, I’m convinced Overcast 3 further entrenches itself as the best podcast player on iOS.

I spoke with Arment over email about building Overcast 3. His comments will be interspersed throughout this article. (For Arment’s verbatim comments, along with my questions, see here.)

Same App, New Look

Overcast 3 has a refreshed design, as it now uses the "card-like" interface seen in apps like Apple's built-in Music app. The effect makes the app feel more modern, and iOS's swipe gestures work well in Overcast. In my experience, the app feels lighter with this UI refresh—I don't feel as if I'm tapping a thousand times to get from screen to screen. Overall, though, Overcast's user interface is fundamentally the same as it's ever been. While the design has been updated, the layout hasn't been drastically changed. It's still unmistakably Overcast—it's just gotten a bit of a facelift.

Beyond the card-like interface, there are two aspects of Overcast's new design that stand out: UI controls and the Now Playing screen. Both have positive influence on accessibility.

First are the spruced-up UI controls (read: buttons). Visually, they're thicker and more pronounced, which means much higher contrast against the rest of the screen. As someone with low vision, this higher contrast makes it much easier to find, say, the Share button on the Now Playing screen. As I say often, the less eye strain I endure, the more I enjoy using apps. In this sense, Overcast shines.

When I asked about Overcast 3's updated design, Arment told me the advent of large phones (like iPhone 7 Plus) make it easier to navigate apps via gestures. "With the move to larger phones, it’s much easier to use apps that can be navigated largely by big, imprecise swipe gestures. I think the card design makes the app feel much more modern and easier to navigate," he said. "Visually, most of the icons and text have been thickened and/or enlarged, making everything easier to see and read."

Two areas that could be improved, contrast-wise, are the time scrubber and chapter markers on the Now Playing screen. At least in "light mode," it's hard for me to see how far along I am into a podcast, as well as what topic is being discussed. The numbers and text, respectively, could be thicker akin to other controls. It should be noted, however, that using dark mode alleviates these issues. Still, it would be good to see these admittedly nitpicky gripes addressed in a future update.

Secondly, I'm a big fan of how you can swipe on album art on the Now Playing screen to get to settings, chapter markers, and show notes. It feels more efficient than vertically scrolling, and is reminiscent of how Control Center changed in iOS 10. I like it; it's something more apps should adopt.

On Accessibility in Particular

In my Overcast 1.0 review, I wrote:

Marco is empathetic towards the accessibility community, and tries his best to accommodate disabled users who use his apps by including technologies like VoiceOver. This sentiment is apparent throughout Overcast.

Arment's commitment to serving people with disabilities by making Overcast as accessible as possible remains steadfast. As when it first came out, Overcast is a shining example of the ideal iOS app: well-designed with strong support for accessibility. There are well-designed apps on the App Store, but to be made with accessibility in mind by design is a tremendous, sadly overlooked, benefit. Accessibility is a tough concept to grasp for many developers, so it's great to have apps like Overcast, among others, leading the way in this regard. Arment has created an app that should be aspirational.

Arment believes making apps accessible by all isn't only about doing the right thing—it makes good business sense too. "I see accessibility as a part of whether an app works correctly or not. If my app’s layout breaks on a certain screen size, for instance, that’s a serious bug that needs to be fixed, because some of my customers won’t be able to use it," he said. "Whether an app works properly with different accessibility needs, settings, and technologies is just as important to me for the same reason: if I screw it up, some of my customers can’t use the app."

Of course, due credit goes to Apple for providing the frameworks upon which developers like Arment can build accessible software. The APIs make this all possible.

"The biggest cause of poor app accessibility isn’t a shortcoming in the APIs—it’s developers forgetting to test iOS's accessibility features with our apps, or not knowing they’re there in the first place," Arment said. "There’s really no excuse for major shortcomings in most apps’ accessibility."

Elsewhere, Arment told me Overcast's VoiceOver support has gotten better in the new version. He said the refinement is thanks to "some great full-time VoiceOver users as beta testers, who provide excellent feedback and catch any mistakes that I don't."

The Bottom Line

As long as Marco wants to keep making Overcast, I'll continue using it. It'll always have a place on my phone's Home screen.

Like other nerds, I appreciate design: things like visual flourishes, typography, and the like. Overcast possesses these qualities. But the thing that really pushes me to adore Overcast as I do is its completeness. As I wrote earlier, Overcast isn't just a well-crafted, nice-looking app. It's accessible too—as someone with disabilities, I truly appreciate that. Using it every day makes me feel like I'm eating the moistest, most flavorful cake in the world. It's delicious in itself, but to have a great frosting on top? That's what makes it the best. That's what Overcast is to me.

It's the best, most accessible podcast player on iOS today.

Apple Moves WWDC (Back) to San Jose

I opened Twitter this morning to the news Apple announced this year's WWDC.

The news is this year's conference isn't in San Francisco—it's in San Jose. The annual developer conference will run June 5-9 at the McEnery Convention Center.

The change in venue is surprising, but not unprecedented. WWDC was held in San Jose for many years before relocating to San Francisco. “It feels like WWDC is going home,” Phil Schiller, Apple's SVP of Worldwide Marketing, said to Daring Fireball's John Gruber.

Donald Lau, Chief Fortune Writer, Quits

Tod Perry, writing for Good Food:

For 30 years, Lau served in the unique position of “Chief Fortune Writer” at Wonton Foods—America’s largest fortune cookie producer. Sadly, Lau has been forced to is step down due to an affliction that has stymied even the world’s most prolific scribes. “I have writer’s block,” says Donald Lau, “I used to write 100 a year, but I’ve only written two or three a month over the past year.”

(via The Loop)

'Gestures Are Defining Apple Watch'

Interesting piece by Bernard Desarnauts, on a Wristly survey about how people use their Apple Watch. The consensus seems to be Siri and the "flick of the wrist" (to bring up the watch face) has changed the way people use their iPhone, because both allow the phone to stay in one's pocket more. Desarnauts describes it as the Watch stealing "eye share."

For me, the Watch remains an indispensable tool for what it does for accessibility.

(via The Loop)

'Where My Data Lives'

Stephen Hackett wrote a piece on how he manages his data, replete with an adorable mind map.

Personally, my setup is more simplistic and more reliant on iCloud:

iCloud

  • Documents
  • Safari bookmarks
  • Device backups
  • Personal email
  • Calendars
  • Notes
  • 1Password sync (plus secure notes)

I know a lot of nerds, like Stephen, use Dropbox as a de-facto file system on iOS, but I really don't. I've been very fortunate that document syncing via iCloud has worked flawlessly for me—knock on wood—between all my devices (I use Ulysses on iOS and the Mac). For my use, Dropbox exists for archival purposes—anything I want to permanently keep, such as article drafts, go into Dropbox and my web of folders. I probably should use Dropbox sync for reliability, but I like living on the edge.

Dropbox

  • Long-term storage

Other

The email for Steven's Blog is handled by Hover. I bought a mailbox when I got the domain for the site, so it's hosted and managed there. On my devices, I have the account set up as standard IMAP and it's been rock-solid.

On Vacationing with Apple Watch Series 2

Jason Snell:

If you haven’t heard, Hawaii is sunny. (Except when it’s raining, but wait a little while and that’ll pass.) I spent the better part of the week walking around in bright sunlight wearing sunglasses. At home I noticed that the Series 2 Apple Watch was brighter (Apple says twice as bright!) as my original Apple Watch, but the real validation came when I was on vacation: Despite my sunglasses and the bright light, I never had a problem reading my Apple Watch at any point. That’s not something I could say about the original Apple Watch.

I've never written about the Apple Watch Series 2, mainly because its banner features (fitness, etc) aren't anything very compelling to me or relevant to my life. (The performance gains are admittedly nice, but watchOS 3 has greatly improved the experience on my Series 0 model, so I don't feel like I'm missing that much.) That said, I have wondered what the Series 2's brighter screen is like from an accessibility standpoint. My Series 0 is difficult to read in bright sunshine, and it'd be interesting to compare the two. By Jason's account, the difference is dramatic.

Computing in 2025

Jason Snell, writing about the iPad in this week's More Color column for Macworld:

Look out to 2025 and imagine a futuristic computing device made from Apple that’s larger than a phone, filling the ecosystem that currently is filled by laptops and iPads (and maybe even desktop Macs). This is a thin, light device, with battery life and sensors and other features that we can only dream about today.

Now draw a line to that device from one of Apple’s current devices: the iPad or the Mac. Which device is more likely to morph into that 2025 computing device in your mind? Apple is capable of taking either in that direction, but if I had to pick one, I’d pick the iPad, not the Mac.

In a similar vein, I generally prefer an iPad to a Mac not because macOS is inaccessible. The Mac is highly accessible—the thing is, as I've said many times, is iOS is naturally more accessible simply for its interaction model. For me, using my fingers to manipulate my computer is easier than chasing around an arrow with a mouse. I can use a mouse, but Multi-Touch is better (and more fun).

'I've Never Spent So Much Time on Signage'

Fascinating piece by Julia Love for Reuters, on Apple's approach to designing Campus 2:

Tolerances, the distance materials may deviate from desired measurements, were a particular focus. On many projects, the standard is 1/8 of an inch at best; Apple often demanded far less, even for hidden surfaces.

The company's keen design sense enhanced the project, but its expectations sometimes clashed with construction realities, a former architect said.

"With phones, you can build to very, very minute tolerances," he said. "You would never design to that level of tolerance on a building. Your doors would jam."

I'm really looking forward to the grand opening of Apple's "spaceship."

The Spotlight Gateway Project

The Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco and the Lighthouse Guild in New York City, in collaboration with the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) and Bookshare, have announced the Spotlight Gateway Project.

The goal of the initiative is to make books more accessible and available to people who are blind and visually impaired. There's an iPad app called Spotlight Text, which readers use to access their library, is called "the first ebook reader specifically for individuals with vision loss."

This sounds like a great program—accessibility remains a prime reason to be bullish about the iPad as an empowering, inclusive way of computing. It also shows that iOS has the best software to support this kind of endeavor. Apple clearly leads in this technology; that the iPad is the foundation for this program is further proof.

Apple Wins 2017 Louis Braille Award

Mikey Campbell, reporting for Apple Insider:

Announced through the ASB's website, Apple received the prestigious Braille Award for its efforts in building accessibility functions into products like iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch and Mac.

An institution since 1957, the Louis Braille Award honors individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions on behalf of individuals who are blind or visually impaired, the ASB says. The award has also been handed out to blind or visually impaired people who overcome great obstacles to accomplish outstanding achievements.