Articles

It’s time to give Watch apps another chance

I’ve had my Series 4 for all of 48 hours, but I am happy and a little surprised to say: Watch apps finally feel usable. The new power and speed in Series 4 feels like a huge leap forward, which is important because I’m trying to cut down on how often I keep my iPhone directly on me.

I’ve owned a Series 0, 2, and now this 4 (space gray aluminum, 44mm, cellular but it isn’t hooked up for now). If it matters, I also upgraded this year from an iPhone X to a XS Max. Since the original Watch, the sentiment about Watch apps has generally been “if it takes longer than a second or two to launch and let me do the thing, I’ll just reach for my phone.” Third-party apps have generally performed poorly on the Watch, causing many people to give up trying and even some companies to scrap their apps entirely.

This Series 4 feels like a breath of fresh air. Third-party apps like Streaks, Carrot Weather, Bear, Things, Drafts, Day One, and Fantastical both launch and are immediately useful for me. I often use Siri on my Watch for a handful of tasks, but it too has always felt sluggish. Now, Siri is instantaneous.

A lot of friction has been removed from the Watch apps experience. Over the weekend, I’ve really liked using my Watch to create and complete tasks, check the Carrot Weather app, save thoughts and article ideas for later, and send messages, all with pleasantly fast feedback and performance.

To be clear, not all apps perform well. But I suspect that is a function of their need of an update or simple poor design, rather than a problem with the Series 4 or watchOS 5.

Developers: if the Watch hasn’t had the performance you want in the past, you might want to check out Series 4. For everyone else: if you gave up or just never tried Watch apps, I definitely recommend giving them a look on a Series 4.

The case for trying Mastodon, a decentralized social network

I’m fed up with Twitter. Over the years the company has deliberately made its products worse in multiple, significant ways. It has also gone out of its way to ensure that racist, dangerous, and violent people have a platform with which to actively ruin society. Most recently, it came to light that CEO Jack Dorsey personally overruled staff to keep Alex Jones—an unhinged, violent conspiracy theorist—and restore Richard Spencer—a literal fucking Nazi.

I think Twitter as a concept can be a useful tool for society. But I worry that Twitter the company is hopelessly lost, and I’m done with it.

Like many other people recently, I jumped ship to Mastodon, an alternative, bite-sized social network with an odd name and some great new ideas. I’ve spent time learning about Mastodon’s mission and open-source, decentralized design, and I’m starting to think that this should be the way forward for social networks in general.

Here are various reasons why, ranging from large fundamental concepts and design decisions, to the smaller details that make a big difference.

The Basics

Mastodon is a simple, familiar social network, quite Twitter-like in daily use. You can post short messages, follow and mention other users, share links, photos, and videos, and add a short profile.

A key differentiator, which I’ll explore in a bit, is that Mastodon is decentralized, working conceptually in many ways like email. There is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.

This is where Mastodon gets pretty interesting, powerful, and liberating.

Apps Are Welcome

Mastodon has an evolving API that welcomes apps. Remember what that was like? Anyone can create Mastodon clients and tools to interact with the service and data in myriad ways.

You can check my collection of Mastodon links for some interesting stuff, like this tool for finding an instance to join based on various criteria, or this visualization of all Mastodon instances. More on instances in a bit.

Chronological Timeline

It’s a little thing that makes a big difference. Facebook, Twitter, and now Instagram added algorithmic timelines because it’s great for manipulative engagement and advertising practices.

Mastodon doesn’t play that game. Your timeline is an actual timeline, one post after the other in the order they were published.

But hey, as far as I know, developers are free to build a client with an algorithmic timeline if they think users might actually prefer it.

Mastodon is Built for People, Not Investors or Nazis

Mastodon is open source. There are no investors, no board, no advertisers—and none of their insidious incentives.

The simple fact is, in an advertising environment like that of Twitter (and Facebook, and Google), controversy is good for business. Which means Nazis, harassment, and trolls are good for business.

It’s why, even if Jack Dorsey claims to not be a white supremacist (for the record: I think he is), his actions of deliberately keeping around people like Alex Jones, David Duke, and Richard Spencer make him and others in management willfully complicit.

I want no part of that.

Mastodon doesn’t have to answer to some board of directors that want to see more more more revenue and monthly active users and #engagement and hey follow all these people who said ‘the’ once in their lives.

It can just be a societal tool, free to build useful features by and for us.

The Decentralized Advantage

Mastodon is decentralized, functioning a bit like email in some ways. Anyone can create a Mastodon instance—sort of like an email server—then choose to allow others to create a Mastodon account on that instance. Don’t worry, though, there are already plenty of instances that are easy to join. Here’s an easy tool for finding one.

In general, all Mastodon users can follow, mention, mute, and block all other users, regardless of instance. Instance admins can block other instances, and so can we in our account settings. This comes in handy when, say, a bunch of Nazis or a troll army spins up an instance (which they probably have to, since most other instances kick them off pretty quickly). Instead of having to block every individual jerk that wanders into your mentions, you or your admin can head ‘em off at the pass with a single click. I have already seen it happen, and it’s great.

Instances can have their own rules and CoC, such as prohibiting abuse (a common rule), advertising, or NSFW content. Some instances allow NSFW stuff as long as members use the Content Warning option to hide the content behind a hidden block.

Yes, Mastodon and all apps I’ve tried have an official ‘Content Warning’ option. I quite like it.

Instances and Multiple Timelines

Some of the largest instances are open to everyone, as long as you follow their generally welcoming CoC. But many instances cater to various topics or communities, such as technology, LGBT, or photography. This is useful in a few ways.

To be clear, I asked around and it doesn’t seem like topic-centric instances will kick anyone out for not posting about the topic X times a week or month.

The purpose of an instance catering to a topic is to help people find other like-minded folks. Think of it like attending a topical meetup or networking event—the central topic brought you all together, but many conversations will veer elsewhere. This probably makes the most difference when it comes to Mastodon’s three timelines:

  • The standard Home Timeline of all the people you follow
  • The Local Timeline of all the people on your instance—this is where picking a topical instance can be useful, but not necessary
  • The Federated Timeline Of your instance, everyone you follow, and people they follow

Mastodon Cannot Die

Because of Mastodon’s decentralized structure and open source foundation, there is no single company that needs funding or can get shut down.

Some instances may come and go. But users can simply move their accounts and content to another instance, or spin up their own instance that still interacts with the overall fediverse of connected instances.

This aspect poses unique potential and perhaps challenges for the way Mastodon and, more specifically, its instances can manage moderation, funding, and maintenance. But those are good discussions for other blog posts.

Public and Private Posts

Something I’m very happy to see in Mastodon is the option to post privately to varying degrees:

  • Unlisted– You can post to your local instance and followers, but not the public timeline
  • Followers-only – Only for your followers, not the public, Local, or Federated timelines
  • Direct – Direct messages that support multiple recipients

Give It a Shot

Like everything in life, Mastodon is not without its challenges and problems. But it has been fun and interesting and useful in all the ways that social networks used to be. Except this time, we have more power and fewer dangerous incentives, which gives me an optimism I haven’t felt in a while.

You can learn more at JoinMastodon.org, and scroll down about halfway to find a sign up tool with a growing directory of open instances. You can find me at mastodon.cloud/@chartier.

Watch Anecdotes: People from the IL DMV and emissions offices

Watch Anecdotes: People from the IL DMV and emissions offices

I love talking to regular, non-tech/nerdy folks about how they use their tech. I think it’s a great way to get out of my industry perspective bubble.

Between checking our car’s emissions and renewing my license, I’ve spent some time in Illinois government facilities over the past two weeks. One thing I noticed was Apple Watches on a good number of employee wrists. Both people I worked with owned one, and both happened to be middle-aged women. Once we got chatty, I asked them how they like and use their Watches.

Here is a roundup of the anecdotes they shared:

  • They both really like their Apple Watches
  • Both stated early on, almost apologetically, that they were “not very technical,” and “I don’t know everything this does. I just know what I like.” Somehow we’ve made too many non-tech folks feel bad for not having PhDs in their gadgets
  • They both text fairly often
  • They make more phone calls than they expected to
  • They like the nudges to get more active
  • One had RunKeeper installed but she didn’t mention it
  • One said she likes to look at her pictures, and made a point to add an album of just the ones she wants
  • They both use some notifications to stay in touch with things but “definitely turned off a lot of them”
  • Both hope to get 4G model so they can leave their phones home sometimes. “I can do everything I want most days without it, so that would be nice”
  • On that point, one said “my girlfriend’s Watch has the red dot so you know it’s the nicer one”
  • Neither of them seemed worried about the extra fee required to use 4G on their watch. One said “oh it will be totally worth it”

I don’t have a grand thesis. But maybe this can help inform some of our thinking around the Watch’s surprising popularity and the appeal of the 4G version, especially when it comes to semi-untethering the Watch from the iPhone.

Medium is becoming an interesting writing community that actually pays

To get it out of the way, the pros and cons of Medium have been discussed thoroughly elsewhere. But in a recent newsletter, the company shared some stats about its paid membership program that I think are at least worthy of discussion.

In short, Medium’s membership program sounds kinda like Netflix. It charges readers $5/month, then divides that money between the writers of all the articles people read. For now, Medium doesn’t even take a cut off that $5; the full amount goes to writers.

Eventually, I wager Medium will have to do something like either raise that price or start taking a cut. But I applaud the company’s effort to avoid advertising.

For example, here are a few of July’s payment stats:

  • 47% of authors or publications who wrote at least one story for members earned money. 9.8% of active authors earned over $100.
  • $16,007.02 was the most earned by an author, and $2,260.42 was the most earned by a publication.
  • $2,059.72 was the most earned for a single story.

Medium also put out a call for stories on topics they want to feature in August. I think the company is doing a good job venturing beyond its tech roots:

  • Code as Art: Stories celebrating the creative side of coding.
  • Losing My Religion: Perspectives on parting ways with faith, for better or for worse.
  • Not Another First Time Story: Reflections on doing something unexpected for the first time (particularly off the beaten path, so no: first ex; yes: first hex).

If you write something in any of these ballparks, email editors@medium.com with the subject line “Partner Program Submission” and the title of your piece.

AirPods are the new iPod earbuds

AirPods are the new iPod earbuds

Or, anecdotally, let’s take my beloved home of Chicago. I travel in and around the city quite a bit and AirPods are everywhere. They’re on the train, in the parks, on sidewalks, in meetings, at desks, in bars, and at large, busy outdoor public events.

AirPods are also used by everyone. Kids on the train, sometimes their parents, cyclists on the lakefront, post-millennials, all genders, exasperated businesspeople in suits on phone calls, joggers, tourists, pre-millennials, startup coworking types, the young, the old, intrallennials, you name it.

I wonder if AirPods are the most visible “there’s an Apple customer” since the first iPod and its earbuds. I think it’s more significant this time around, though, since AirPods are not included with any product (yet?). AirPods are a deliberate purchase.

They are also probably outside the realm of what many owners previously paid for headphones, if they ever have. If I’m right, going from paying $0 to $159 for headphones seems like a big deal.

Like any company, Apple has had its stumbles lately. But the AirPods seem like a phenomenon on another level. I’m excited to see how Apple evolves them.

The problem with Slack’s approach to accounts versus Discord

Most of you have probably used Slack long enough to get invited to at least a couple rooms. Or maybe 5. Or 12. We technically have to create a new account for each room, even if we choose to use the same email and password for each one (but please use unique passwords).

This separation of Slack rooms into islands unto themselves makes sense for Slack from a business perspective. Some rooms want or need stringent data retention and security policies, so Slack offers paid options on a per-room basis. But many other Slack rooms are just people hanging out in the spiritual descendent of an IRC chat room.

This system creates an increasingly tedious burden for users who join multiple communities. Even if you use a password manager, you still have to manually log into each room. Slack tried to ease this friction by sending authenticated emails that will automatically log you into every Slack room tied to that particular address. But this is problematic on a couple of levels.

The most important is that it’s a duct-taped solution that creates clutter and friction. Have some communities spun down, but still lumber on? Did you leave some communities which weren’t useful anymore (but not delete your account, because how do we even do that)? Too bad, Slack’s email will still automatically log you back into every one.

I get why Slack’s business model is designed this way, but I don’t expect it to change any time soon. This makes me wish more casual communities would consider Discord as an alternative. It started with a focus on the gaming community, but has since expanded its features for a broader audience. For starters, you create a single account, then use it to join multiple rooms. Adding and DMing friends is also room-agnostic. Think of it like Facebook, where you can join multiple groups with a single account, though you do have the option to customize your profile details on a per-room basis.

Discord has many of the same features as Slack, including free standard accounts, strong mobile apps, file and media sharing, separate channels, account permissions, and integrations with 3rd party services. It also adds free, low-latency voice and video channels that support multiple people.

In my experience, Discord seems to be much more popular almost everywhere outside of tech. For example, many communities and creators on Patreon, YouTube, and Kickstarter will offer access to a private Discord room.

However, Discord’s business model is focused on the individual, not rooms. Rooms are free to spin up (you can even create them from an iPhone or iPad), and you can join as many as you want. If you—the individual, not a room admin—want to score a few extra perks and support Discord, you can pay for Discord Nitro. It adds things like a higher upload size, an animated avatar, and the ability to use custom/animated emoji across all rooms (a perk that makes way more sense than manually uploading them to multiple Slack rooms).

Slack is great and possibly a better fit for some companies that must adhere to industry regulations. But I would love to see more tech communities give Discord a try.

I canceled our Amazon Prime membership

I canceled our Amazon Prime membership

As you may know, Amazon is raising the price of Prime to $120 per year. Initially that struck me as too much, but after sleeping on it, today I decided to cancel our membership. I did it for two reasons.

Value

Over the years, Amazon has been packing Prime with a ton of different services including streaming video, music, and discounts on certain product categories. But the only thing Jessi and I cared about was two-day shipping. Prime makes a lot of sense if you use some of the other things it offers, but we simply don’t.

And while free two-day shipping on most (but not all) stuff is great, it isn’t that novel anymore. A lot of companies offer the same thing, and none that I’ve used require a membership for it. There’s usually a minimum purchase amount, but with the way we shop online, it isn’t a problem for us.

In other words: the one thing that made Amazon Prime valuable to us has been eclipsed—internally by all the other features Amazon stuffed into Prime, and externally by an industry that stepped up to compete.

Principles

This is the tougher one to discuss and quantify, but in short: I’ve grown to dislike Amazon, the company. Some of its warehouse workers have to pee into bottles to avoid punishment or losing their jobs. It has far too many stories about employee intimidation and making them wear tracking devices. I get that some consider tracking to be a standard in some parts of the warehouse industry. I’ve worked in warehouses and on assembly lines, so I get it. But this discussion is for another time.

Amazon is also quietly one of the last major holdout advertisers on Breitbart, a dangerous and destructive website that frequently publishes anti-Semitic screeds, insidious propaganda, and drivel like “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” No I’m not linking that one. Yes it’s still online.

Sum of the parts

Individually, would any of these reasons be enough for Jessi and me to cancel Prime? Outside of ‘we don’t get our money’s worth,’ maybe not. But I haven’t even touched on other increasingly important problems plaguing Amazon, like counterfeit products and fake reviews. It’s getting harder to just find the legitimate product I want and trust that its reviews are from genuine owners who bought and actually used it.

After a good night’s sleep and a morning cup of coffee, all of this added up to a clear answer for us. Our Prime membership ends in May. But I started shopping elsewhere a couple months ago ago to see what life was like after Amazon Prime.

It’s fine.

Photo by Jesse Bowser, Unsplash

What if we didn’t have to grant access to *all* contacts?

What if we didn’t have to grant access to *all* contacts?

Granting permission for an app or service to upload our contacts can be quite useful. It can also be dangerous to the privacy of everyone involved, and people are understandably losing trust in large parts of the tech industry.

But what if it wasn’t a binary, all-or-nothing permission? What if we could limit access to a specific set of contacts?

Maybe it’s a group we add contacts to, maybe it’s a switch we could flip on each contact (something like ‘Shareable’ or ‘Public’). It would be nice if we could also flip this switch on our own cards, for when we share them with someone new.

An obvious drawback is that the onus is on the user. I might be willing to flip that switch when a friend or colleague asks, but I wager a lot of people wouldn’t want to bother. It might lesson the very meaning of having this mechanism. A possible logical conclusion of all this might be some kind of centralized service for storing, sharing, and controlling our contact information (setting aside my distaste for the business side of Facebook, it does have some great options here, right down to controlling which friends, if any, can see each personal detail such as your home address, email, and phone). But that’s another discussion.

I don’t think these controls would be a panacea, but they might give more people the flexibility and privacy to use contact-powered apps and features. Between some of my contacts being my various doctors and a few friends who don’t want their information uploaded to most services (for good reason), I would certainly like to see more attention spent on these problems.

When you have to choose between your arm or your phone

From a friend of mine, in a chat thread about portable battery packs:

Fun fact: when we’ve had amputees test myoelectric limbs we’re developing, they often volunteer that they’d like a USB charging port so they can charge their phones from the big battery in the limb. We then explain that it’s a big engineering challenge to get the limb to last all day on a charge, as things are, so there’s not residual capacity for phone charging. They inevitably reply “If I have to choose between my arm working or my phone, I’m going to choose my phone.”

Other perspectives on the Touch Bar

I think a lot of hate for the MacBook Pro Touch Bar comes from I Hate Change-ism or just plain group-think. I think this happens with a lot of new products and tech, and I find it to be obnoxious and repetitive. There, I said it.

Anecdotally, I’ve struck up conversations with a few strangers in cafes and lounges, and they’ve had positive, unique perspectives on it. Generally they like it, they don’t miss the F keys since they “barely” or “never” used them, and they have fun discovering the new or previously hard-to-access features that apps place in the Touch Bar.

But there are also plenty of happy experiences and positive anecdotes to be found. Here’s a brief selection of links I’ve been collecting:

I hope these can help some people see how the Touch Bar is an improvement for good portion of users.