Ad Blocking iOS: Not The End of the World

Contrary to what a lot of online chatter says I do not believe that ad blocking on iOS 9 will destroy the internet as we know it. It is not the end of the world, although it might feel like it for a lot of lazy online advertising firms.

For a number of years aggressive advertisers have had free rein on iOS, adding as many trackers, scripts and obnoxious pop-ups as they wished. You know who you are! They have cost many millions of iOS device users money and time that they shouldn’t have had to give up. Not only that, they have lowered people’s enjoyment online. I would guess that many of the people most affected by these data-plan/battery-life pits didn’t even realize that a good portion of their monthly data bill was being devoted to processes running in the background. Those who were not even aware of it obviously didn’t explicitly opt into it. I believe that is the clearest argument in favour of ad blocking (content blocking) in iOS.

Content blockers will give the average user a way to tell the advertisers that enough is enough.

There there will probably be a mini-boom on the App Store when apps such as Crystal and Peace become available very shortly and I think that the developers whose apps empower users should be rewarded.

I understand that advertising is necessary to pay for a very large portion of the content online but I strongly object to how that advertising has generally been carried out. The browsing experience on iOS devices has gotten progressively worse since they gained popularity and that is not the fault of the content or perhaps even the advertisements themselves. It is due to the lazy and invasive way that advertising companies attempt to mine as much data from the viewers as possible in hopes that they can gain a slight amount of added revenue. Whether the viewers intend to buy online or not they are essentially being billed by the advertisers, and the revenue is not even going to the sites they view but to their service providers. This does seem wrong and does not fit into any reasonable model of the contract that exists between the viewers of the site content and the content providers. I know that some well-known sites, such as Daring Fireball, do attempt to monetize without resorting to such tactics. It definitely seems like it is possible. It should be possible.

Ad blocking is not the end of the world as some sponsored publications would try to have you believe. It is simply a wake up call for all of those abusers out there. It is time for a renaissance in advertising. It is time for content providers and advertisers to find new and innovative ways to sell products or services while providing the content that users want. It is time for them to take a deep breath, sit back and rethink how they will do business.

Who knows, they might even be able to find effective ways to sell that are not met with the current diminishing returns they are seeing in spite of their aggressive tactics.

Wouldn’t that be a win for all concerned?

First Week With My Apple Watch – A Personal Review of a Personal Device

First Impressions of my Apple Watch

I found myself really happy with the Apple Watch aesthetically when I received it, and was quite delighted that it did feel more like a watch than a miniature iPhone. One place a lot of the early reviews fell short was on trying to judge it against an iPhone. It is not intended to be a smart-phone replacement and is really an accessory to improve the experience for iPhone users. I have to admit that I have gone into this with a positive expectation. Aside from a few bumps early on I have not been disappointed. It has been a good first week with my Apple Watch.

Initial Setup

The process of starting the watch and pairing it to an iPhone is covered much too well elsewhere for me to go into it here but I will say that I did not have any problems getting my Apple Watch and my iPhone chatting away happily. The (non-removable) Watch app in iOS 8 works fine and I have not had any issues with it so far, although I would like to see power management settings for the Apple Watch perhaps broken out of their current menu and given a bit more attention.

The Few Little Bumps

Like a number of people who have been early adopters of the watch, I did have very frustrating issues with the battery life initially. Charging was taking a very long time (6-10 hours) and was not giving me anywhere near a full day of use. I started with the usual steps for troubleshooting such issues, such as powering down and rebooting the watch, but they did not improve the battery life. After a few frustrating days I decided to reset the watch to factory default and restore my data from a backup. I then ran the battery down to power reserve mode (the low power mode that the watch switches to below 1% battery) and followed by a full charge. The charge took a long 4 hours, but after that initial charge post restore the OS was properly calibrated for the battery. I have been able to charge and use the watch as promised by Apple since then. It seems that for some software-related reason the battery did not calibrate initially, leading the OS to believe the battery had reached 80% charge when in fact it was at a much lower charge and then proceed to slow charge the battery from there, resulting in the ridiculous charge times and improper charges.

Another little bump I faced was a rash that developed on my wrist while wearing the sport band. As it is summer here in Japan and hovering at a constant 35°C+ with high humidity it is a bit hard not to sweat a bit pretty much all day. With my slightly sensitive skin the combination of sweat, sunscreen and fluoroelastomer proved to be a bit too much. I have since switched to a leather band and so far I am not having any further issues. I will reserve the sport band for purely sporting activities.

Daily Use

I find the Apple Watch to be a wonderful device for daily use, and it has fit into my lifestyle exactly as I expected it to so far. Once I learned to trust that notifications were, in fact, being mirrored to my watch I quickly stopped my compulsive habit of pulling my iPhone out of my pocket to check my messages. The taptic engine tapping out notification alerts on my wrist works much better for me than the usual vibration on a phone as I have never really been able to feel phone vibrations on my leg while moving and felt the need to check my iPhone regularly. Notifications alone have me pretty satisfied with my new watch. I have also found some use in quickly being able to reply to messages without pulling out my iPhone, but I do find this of limited utility outside of my home for anything more than simple emoji or canned replies as I am currently living in Japan and the noise levels pretty much everywhere here make accurate use of medium-long dictation using Siri quite difficult. That being said, short Siri queries have generally given me the results I expected. Although generally happy with the OS, I am really looking forward to WatchOS 2.0 in the fall.

Workouts and Activity

As I have been using a Nike+ Fuelband for the better part of a year I was interested in moving to the built-in Workouts and Activity apps to change over to a multi-function piece of wrist hardware. Unfortunately, likely due to the lack of sensor access for 3rd party developers, you cannot really track Nike+ Fuel with an Apple Watch yet.

Resigned to having to wear two devices I had my Apple Watch on my left wrist and my Fuelband on my right. I used both for the better part of a day, but then, perhaps out of envy, my Fuelband proceeded to become erratic. Screen glitches, syncing issues (over Bluetooth and USB) and other problems just started to occur. Even a factory reset has not been able to resolve the issue.

Now I am just wearing an Apple Watch and have been pretty happy with the built-in fitness capabilities. One thing that I think really needs work is the limited way in which one can interact with the Workout app. It requires touch screen use for all of its functionality. This is a big issue because, well, when people workout they sweat; liquid and touch screens are not the best of friends. A button/digital crown assignment to at least start and stop workouts would make the app much better. Of course, adding a few more categories of workout would not be amiss either.

Other Nice Things: Parents and Children

In an age when pretty much everyone is attached to their smartphones and use them for communication, entertainment and information it is easy to forget about the little social things: eye contact and paying attention to ones family. Walking around Japan a large percentage of parents (mostly mothers) I see spend a lot of time ignoring their babies/toddlers/children. They are instead engaged with their phones. I know that children should not need 100% engagement all of the time but surely paying more attention to them while walking in traffic or if just parent and child are sitting at a table is preferable. I am sure that Japan is not really unique in this. I always feel a bit concerned for a generation that grows up knowing their parents are more interested in their devices than them. I do believe that one should only minimally use phones, tablets, etc in front of their young children. This is particularly true when those children are trying to engage their attention or simply looking to them for examples of proper social behaviour. I highly doubt that the current generation of device-oriented parents with kids are going to change anytime soon, but I think that wearables can be of some help.

Devices like the Apple Watch and Pebble can free many people from their addictions to their devices. If they learn to use something like the watch as a filter and only engage their device when there is a real reason to I think that people can both give their children the attention they need for proper development and stay connected to their online lives. A quick glance at a watch to see if a notification needs attention is a lot less likely to disengage parent from child than pulling a phone out of a pocket or bag, unlocking it, checking the message and perhaps feeling obliged to deal with it then or becoming distracted by other apps.

There are other advantages as well. If you are dictating a message or giving commands to Siri, you are most likely speaking clearly and using standard language. For very young children, this will likely have some benefit as they learn absolutely no language skills from seeing you typing away. Parents who become used to using Siri on their watches can even keep regular eye/face contact with their children while getting things done, for example “Hey Siri Remind me to buy diapers today!!!”

Being able to keep ones eyes on one’s child while checking an important message with only a glance is also much safer than not watching out for them.

Although I do see wearables as perhaps a better way to pull different facets of parents lives together, I still think that limiting unnecessary device interaction in front of the very small is preferable.

A Humble Recommendation For Apple Watch Users

Rather than having all notifications from your phone mirrored to your watch, only turn on notifications for apps that actually require your regular attention. It will likely improve your experience with the watch, improve battery life and generally help you filter.

That’s It

That’s about it for my first weeks impressions. I haven’t really covered a lot of detail on the general features of the Apple Watch in this review, but you can find more generalized information published on the Apple Store, Daring Fireball and many other mainstream sites. I will try to post more specific reviews and information as time goes on. Thanks as always for giving my review a read.

Becoming a Programmer

print “Hello, World!”

Since childhood I have worked with scripts and code, modified work by others and got by. For a number of years I have been thinking about making the shift to becoming a real programmer. Learning an object-oriented language in a proper manner and learning to make my own programs is a new goal of mine. Luckily for me I have a lot going for me (including a supportive brother who happens to be a professional).

For a start I am working on learning Python as it is popular and there are a lot of resources for learning it. After I get comfortable with Python I plan to move on to learning how to use Xcode and start working on Swift. Swift seems to be an up-and-coming language and it might be nice to get comfortable with it from the start!

I was trying to take a course online, but it was a bit pricey as it charges by the month and it is hard for me to make much time at the moment. I will move back to self-study and see how it goes. Wish me luck!

My Solar Power Setup

I have always been interested in alternative power, and my interests have particularly focussed on solar power. Over the last few years I have managed to get my solar power setup working pretty efficiently and have managed to move a lot of my small power requirements off the grid. I would love to move everything off the grid, but that is just not realistic in a normal rental apartment in Tokyo.

My Solar SystemWith my current setup I find that I can charge most of my small devices using solar energy. I am currently charging my iPhone, GoPro 2, Eneloop batteries (used in various things), Knog Blinder Road 3 and Blinder Rear lights, Garmin 800, and my DSLR batteries. I do occasionally charge my iPad as well but it really draws too much power to be able to charge it entirely off solar while charging my phone everyday.

So, as you can see, I am by no means off the grid but a lot of my convenience devices, all of my electronic bike gear and my cameras are charged with solar. As for emergency use, assuming a moderate number of sunny days I would be able to keep enough lights, a radio, iPhones and other little bits running pretty much indefinitely. Along side a gas stove, a good supply of water, sufficient food and emergency toilet supplies I would be reasonably comfortable in the short term as long as I could stay at or near my apartment.

What is my setup? Well, I am running 3 portable solar panels (2 Goal Zero Nomad 7s and a Nomad 13) in series for a theoretical total of 27 watts. I really expect no where near that output in anything but ideal conditions. I have a Goal Zero Yeti 150 solar generator, which has slightly upwards of 150Wh of power storage and a supplementary 10.4Ah Li-ion battery pack with 2 USB outputs. All together it has cost me about $450 over the last few years for the hardware. I find that using the sun to trickle charge the Yeti 150 and then using it to charge the Li-ion battery pack works pretty well. That way I can top off my Yeti 150 regularly with good run of sunny days while using the Li-ion battery pack for my daily iPhone and small device charging needs. I very rarely lose any solar power that my panels are pulling in through this setup. The only time I would lose any potential power is if I were to go on a vacation of some kind and be away from home for 5 days or so. Even then I would come home to nice full batteries!

As for the charging time for the system, it seems to take anywhere between 12-30 hours to charge the Yeti 150. I am generally using the panels behind glass in my room which really cuts down on efficiency. Luckily, the windows in typical apartments here in Japan are thin, single-pane and do not appear to have any UV or other coatings. My apartment bedroom window is facing 165°S so the panels can get direct sun exposure from sunrise until around 11am or so. I do find that even on cloudy days my panels pull some charge but really not enough to do much more than charge 2 AA batteries in a morning.

I do hope to have a proper solar system in place one day, but for now I will just make the best of what I’ve got 😉

First Impressions of iOS 7 Beta

iOS7

A lot has been said about the new design for iOS 7, and there have definitely been a great variety of strong reactions. From people criticising the visual design to applauding it, from pointing out similarities to other OS’s in regards to functionality or features, it seems like pretty much everyone in the tech and design realms has an opinion about it and have passed on their first impressions of iOS 7 beta, so here I go!

The Visual Side

As for visual design, I would say that I really like the overall impression of the new iOS. Although I might not necessarily agree with the colour palette used in the version shown at WWDC or some of the icon design, I think that it is a base that can easily be built upon. The previous versions of iOS appeared to be a bit of a dead-end visually and were getting quite long in the tooth. Although I can see elements of Android and Metro in there, I do not think the design is so much about copying them as it is about breaking away from the previous conceptions that iOS had been operating under. I am sure that with this new look as a base, refinement and gradual development of a new style can progress much more easily that it previously has. After all, by dumping a lot of the skeuomorphic baggage iOS can embrace a new symbology that can be comfortable for users and yet not try to imitate non-digital analogues. Don’t get me wrong, I love the textures that we find in the real world: the grain of wood, the texture of fabric, endless fields of green felt. But I can enjoy those things in the real world more than I ever have in the digital realm. I want functional digital design to express a certain simple aesthetic and utility that makes it a wonderful tool and allows it to evolve along its own lines over time. And besides, simplicity is part of the elegance of Apple hardware and having that reflected in iOS is not necessarily inappropriate.

That is not to say that I think all digital design needs to be flat and overly simplistic. I believe that digital design should always push to innovate and stretch the limits of technology while challenging the world artistically. Modern technology can do so many beautiful things when in the hands of a skilled designer. I just tend to think that simulating the real world has its place but is not a necessity for digital design. iOS making a break from imitating the real world could allow it to go in a new and interesting direction that might not previously have been considered. Wouldn’t that be nice!

The Functional Side

On a functional design side, it appears that Apple has done quite a good job of creating something that appears to be a big departure and yet should still be easily accessible and familiar for most users. I think this is a big and important step in transitioning forward that has perhaps been missed by some others (ahem, Windows 8). As for the observation that there are features included from such rivals as Android and WebOS, I think that people tend to forget a really important thing: design is a constant dialogue of imitation, refinement and innovation. As long as patents aren’t violated I am not sure why people react so strongly when such dialogue happens. Just because Volvo first incorporated the modern seat belt as standard equipment in its cars in 1959, does that mean that people should have been outraged when other manufactures took up the practice and copied Volvo? If a feature or design has good utility and can enhance the experience of the user of a product, shouldn’t other competing products also adopt it and work to gradually refine it as a conversation in design between rivals?

I think that this kind of adoption and refinement is what makes things better for the end-user and should not be controversial or disappointing. Would it not be more of an oddity if Apple did not adopt a logical element of functional design simply because someone did it once before? In iOS 7, Apple has introduced Control Center which has a strong analogue in Android, but would iOS users really be happier if they avoided introducing that type of feature simply because Android had it earlier. Besides, it is not as if a quick settings menu was even innovative when Android did it. It has been seen in many versions in many pieces of software over the years. This can be said for several of the features in iOS 7 that have been introduced and criticized. Maybe the angry Droids should remember that ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ (as long as it doesn’t involve a patent dispute). I think that too much energy is wasted on such arguments and criticisms that could be spent productively.

Conclusion

Although there has been a certain amount of borrowing involved in putting together iOS 7 there has also been some innovation as well and I think that the design team at Apple has made a very good start on breaking away from legacy iOS baggage while taking iOS into a more open future. It would seem that people are getting confused and a bit too focussed on skeuomorphism vs minimal modernism and are overestimating it as a factor in Jony Ive’s design choices. Although he and Jobs had different preferences regarding those aspects of design, they both have expressed that there has to be a function behind the design. I think that Ive has focussed on function as well as the design changes and is trying to make it a comprehensive package. Sure, there still appear to be a few features missing that I would like (and there would no doubt be more controversy about as some of those are already on Android) but I have to say that I am quite excited to see (and use) the final product when it is released in the fall!