Last week’s 40th anniversary of the Mac got me thinking. I’ve also been contemplating this week’s release of Apple Vision Pro.
It feels like we’re at a crossroads for platforms, but one that’s impossible to pass.
I was one of the folks who bought a Mac in 1984. At the time I was a member of a team building a Unix workstation from the ground up. We had bigger displays, better networking, faster processors, more memory, and larger disks.
But we were all jealous of what the team at Apple had done. That first Mac and its system software was brimming with new user interface ideas and techniques. Better ways of doing everything we had done.
And you can say the same thing about Apple Vision Pro and visionOS.
Except there is a problem.
If you’re a software developer, the Apple Vision Pro cannot be used standalone for your work. You’ll be able to use it as much as you do an iPad. You can experiment in Playgrounds and build some simple apps, but you’ll quickly hit a wall.
That’s because developers use a lot of processes. And these processes talk to each other in very creative ways. Maybe it’s as simple as creating child processes to handle work. Maybe it’s a more complicated process like a Docker container running a web server that talks to a database process via a Ruby on Rails process. There are processes everywhere you look.
And in an Apple sandbox, you get one process. You can’t fork and exec a child. And if you query the Mach kernel for information about another process, you get back KERN_FAILURE.
(To get a very good idea of what’s possible at the fringes of a sandbox, take a look at a-Shell on your mobile device. It does an amazing number of things, but you’ll quickly feel frustrated that ps, kill, top, and anything else that deals with processes is missing.)
There is a good reason for apps only having visibility of their own state. Imagine the kind of fingerprinting that Google and Facebook could do by seeing what apps you’re using. We’ve already seen apps trying to do the same thing using URL schemes.
When my pal John Gruber talks about Macs doing the heavy lifting, it’s not just about complex and resource-intensive tasks. It’s also about the security exposure: the Mac is the only “dangerous” Apple platform.
There is a thing that developers love almost much as processes: windows. We have so damn many. Hundreds on a good day. Thousands on a really good day.
And this is why I get frustrated every time I see a demo of Apple’s headset. I can easily imagine fitting my work into a space with an infinitely large interaction surface.
But you’ll still be carrying the Mac around to get any work done. Somewhat ironically, the Apple Vision Pro is not doing the heavy lifting, but it will be the thing that’s cumbersome in your daily life.
Here’s a comparison of the headset’s carrying case and a MacBook Air:
The Apple Vision Pro is almost 15 times taller than the MacBook Air. Even worse, I can’t even close my backpack, much less fit in a laptop:
After the Mac was introduced, you didn’t have to carry around an Apple ][ or Lisa to do software development.
This isn’t a sustainable situation for the next 40 years. Without some low-level structural changes in visionOS, it will never thrive as a developer platform. Just as the iPad has not.
It also doesn’t bode well for the Mac. I’m sure Apple can continue to add incremental changes to satisfy developers, but there won’t be anything revolutionary with how we work. There is also little incentive for Apple to change here: you are buying an Apple Vision Pro along with a MacBook, after all.
One of the extrordinary things that happened back in 1984 was the ability to have more than one terminal window. Even though my Mac had to be connected to a VAX 11/780 over a serial cable (sound familiar?), this was a completely new way of working. We were suddenly free of working within the confines of a single 24×80 character display.
And here’s the thing: developers don’t come up with these ideas unless they have a place to experiment. Seeing multiple windows that contained code, debugging, and other tools led some folks to start thinking about integrating this environment using the new interaction mechanisms.
Those same kind of folks may find inspiration in spatial computing, but will ultimately get thwarted by the restrictions of a single process. An architecture developed for mobile devices with only one app on the screen is now being used for apps on an infinitely large screen.
The new visual appearance and functionality of watchOS 10 is a welcome change. There was clearly a lot of design and engineering effort put into this new interface and the improvements are tangible for most apps.
Unfortunately, the app that I use the most on the Apple Watch has lost much of its usability, both in functionality and accessibility.
I’m talking about the Timer app.
The team designing watchOS clearly knows what it’s doing. Using the infinitely large corners of the Apple Watch display to leverage Fitt’s Law shows remarkable insight. The new gestures, while unfamiliar at first, feel like they will be as transformative as when phones no longer had Home buttons.
The only explanation I can find for the Timer’s design regressions is an unfamiliarity with some use cases. In the following critique, I’ll focus on how the watch is used in the kitchen and how older customers struggle with the new layout. Suggestions will be kept to a minimum: the effort here is to be descriptive, not prescriptive.
The Timer has been my favorite app since it debuted in the first version of watchOS. It was basic: you could only set one timer and you had to do it manually (there were no presets).
Why was this interface so useful to me? Because I spend a lot of time cooking.
My watch became the perfect timer. It went with me wherever I was making a meal. No more situations where you set a reminder in the kitchen and don’t hear it go off because you are outside at the barbecue.
The next version of the Timer added presets for 1, 3, 5, 10, 15, and 30 minutes along with settings for 1 or 2 hours. This, to me, was the pinnacle of its design on watchOS. Why?
Those time settings, placed in a neat grid, provided all the functionality I needed. I only used the first six timers, but I used them often.
But more importantly, the navigation of that magic grid could be done without hands. Any cook can tell you that there are times where uncooked food on your hands is either dangerous or messy. Dressing a chicken, gutting a fish, or making meatballs are all times where you will not want to touch an Apple Watch.
Instead, you will navigate with your nose.
That’s right, a capacitive screen works with any part of your body. I can easily start a new timer or cancel a ringing timer just by holding it up to my face. And when you’re cooking, you do that often.
Which leads to the next interation of the watchOS Timer. The addition of Recents made getting to the 1/3/5/10/15/30 settings more challenging because scrolling with your nose is significantly more difficult. Thankfully, once you positioned the magic grid on the device, going into and out of timers could be done quickly and easily.
And the efficency of selecting a timer is very important when you are setting a dozen of them every hour. How can that happen?
So now let’s look at some of the specific things that cooks need from the Timer app. To give you an idea of the basic challenge, you can ask this simple question:
How long does it take to carmelize an onion?
The correct answer is: “I have no idea”. There are too many factors involved:
How much water content is in the onion?
How large is the onion?
What’s the ambient temperature in the kitchen?
What kind of pan are you using?
What’s your current elevation?
What you do know is that it will take about 15 minutes for the onion to soften up at a medium heat. And then you check it. And probably lower the heat and set a timer for 10 minutes. And check it again. And then probably do a 3 or 5 minute timer on low heat a couple times. And when that’s done, you go with one minute and do your best to not burn them. This is how you end up setting a dozen timers in an hour.
All cooks have this inherent knowledge: when a recipe says “15 minutes” you know that means “check it at 10 minutes” and go from there. I don’t even trust times on frozen pizzas: are you absolutely sure that your oven temperature is 425º F?
This is exactly why the magic grid in the Timer app is so important. It has all the common checkpoints a cook needs. It’s also why Recents are a non-feature while cooking: after you’ve done your 5 minute checkpoint and go back to Recents you need a timer for one minute but 5, 30, 15, and 3 are the most recent.
Another aspect to cooking is that you’re typically in a hurry and juggling multiple tasks. Setting a timer manually is much quicker and safer than relying on Siri. A kitchen also tends to be a noisy place, with multiple conversations and background music. If Siri doesn’t understand what you’ve said, you’re going to end up with burnt onions.
The challenges of growing older are numerous, but the one that I struggle with the most is vision. My eyes suck.
If you’re a young designer, you have no idea what’s coming. I didn’t.
It’s common for aging eyes to be affected by presbyopia. The focal difficulties associated with this disease means you have to concentrate more to read small text. That is exacerbated when the text contains repeated symbols. The contrast of the text against a background is also important.
In short, symbols like “01:00” and “10:00” increase cognitive load because they can’t be read at a glance.
Also of note: your health is a much bigger concern as you grow older. You are reminded of your mortality every day when you struggle to put on your socks. The Apple Watch’s health monitoring features become essential as you enter this stage of your life. I’m confident that Apple has a lot of aging users for this device.
It’s likely that the problems faced by a large portion of the customer base aren’t known by a young design team. I’m hoping this essay will help with that.
Now that we’ve covered some of the specific needs of old farts and people who like to cook, let’s look at how changes in watchOS 10 affect both functionality and usability for these groups.
As we discuss these changes, I’ll be referring to the image below which shows how things looked before (left) and after (right) the new watchOS version:
The root of the problem on watchOS 10 is that setting a timer is now done in a modal presentation (with a close button in the upper-left corner).
This means that no position is maintained between uses: the Recents are always at the top and have the ordering problem noted above. The magic 1/3/5/10/15/30 grid is only accessible by scrolling.
The new UI is impossible to use hands-free. Cooks who want to set or change a timer while deboning a chicken are out of luck.
This problem could be remedied if the last position in the modal view was maintained as in previous versions of watchOS. If maintaining the scroll position is not possible, an affordance to remove or collapse Recents would help by putting the magic 1/3/5/10/15/30 grid at the top of the view.
Additionally, the All Timers list begins with a big plus button. This breaks the muscle memory associated with 1 minute being in the top-left position – it’s now in the top-right.
In my experience, adding a timer is a rare occurance. I’ve done it twice in the 8 years I have owned an Apple Watch. Both were for laundry: one for a washing cycle and another for a drying cycle.
Putting the big plus button at the end of the list, and closer to Edit, feels like a better solution that makes the list more readable and familiar.
When you compare the screenshots of the previous and current versions you can easily see that watchOS 10 is more consistent. The list is also shorter because favorites have been folded into All Timers. These are both good things.
But the consistency works against me and my failing eyesight. Everything looks the same and it’s difficult to know where I am within the list. (Remember that you only seeing four of the circles on the watch face: there are points while scrolling where you can’t know if you’re in Recents or All Timers.)
As noted above, differentiating between “01:00” and “10:00” takes more effort. Not only is the text smaller, but there’s a lot of extra noise that affects readability. The text in watchOS 9 used “1 MIN” and “10 MIN”, with the numbers presented in an accent color to emphasize the minutes. It was much more readable.
The need for leading and trailing zeros to maintain consistency also leads to a situation where timers that are longer than 59 minutes get smaller text that’s harder to read. Luckily, the need for a 10 hour timer in my life is unlikely, so I don’t have to deal with reading a tiny “10:00:00” and “01:00:00”.
The leading and trailing zeros made some sense in watchOS 9’s Favorites and Recents list where each button’s label aligned well with its siblings. But with the grid layout in watchOS 10, the need for zero padding is not necessary and just feels like visual noise.
(Note that users with VoiceOver hear “one minute”, not “zero one colon zero zero” or “one minute zero seconds”. Visual noise for normal eyesight should be reduced just as it is with the spoken audio.)
My first thought was that these changes on watchOS were an effort to get consistency across platforms, especially with the addition of multiple timers in iOS 17. This does not appear to be the case:
I have also wondered why seconds are shown as a part of the standard format on watchOS. I’m sure there are people that set timers for 12 minutes and 34 seconds, but they are certainly the outliers. When was the last time you had a pizza that needed 11:45 in the oven or a load of laundry that took 45:11?
People think in minutes, so minimize their cognitive load by focusing on that unit of time. By doing this, you could improve accessibility for everyone by using BIGGER NUMBERS on a small screen.
(Seconds could be handled in a way similar to the new Modular Ultra watch face. Dimming the trailing seconds would allow someone to know that “1:23” is one minute and 23 seconds and not one hour and 23 minutes. Again, minutes are the thing that’s most important to people.)
In summary, this is a rare case where less consistency would make for a better and more accessible user interface.
One final accessibility problem in the new Timer app is when one completes. Here is what you see, both with and without accessibility features turned on:
The image on the left has bold text turned on with the default text size. On the right, you see what happens when you make the text size larger and increase the contrast.
The timer length on this screen is not accessible and cannot be improved with accessibility settings. The dim text on a bright orange background is incredibly hard for me to read. I think the information hierarchy is the root of the problem.
“Done” is not the most important thing on this screen when you have a timer that completes: the length of what just finished is most significant. People will know what a bright orange screen and ringing means. They may not know which timer fired, and that can only be determined by reading “1 MIN” in dimmed out text at a much smaller size.
While counting, the current state of the timer belongs in large white text. When the count is complete, the length of the timer that finished has that same level of importance. This significance increases when you have multiple timers.
(Confusing timers with similar lengths is an easy thing to do: I nearly screwed up two COVID tests at a time when they were in extremely short supply. This happened because I didn’t notice the “5 MIN” and “15 MIN” text.)
At least the timer text in the screenshots above is not “01:00”. Please don’t make this consistent, too.
I’m honestly not looking forward to the next year with the Timer app. It’s going to be an irritation dozens of times every day.
My only hope is the other great improvements in watchOS 10, especially with workouts and activity tracking, will make up for it. 🤞
If you need to get in touch with me about any of this, there’s FB13212554. If you’re a developer who feels similarly about these regressions, please dupe this feedback (it’s a copy of this blog post). Otherwise, you can send your comments to Apple directly.
There’s a new “feature” in Sonoma, and no one besides Apple is quite sure what it is.
Alerts for deprecated APIs are now appearing frequently. Sometimes when you launch an app, and sometimes at random. Here are three I got the other day after waking a MacBook from sleep:
From a UI point-of-view, these alerts have serious issues:
They are scary and not actionable.
The only unique information is the title. The name, however, is not something I recognize.
I know what a deprecated API is and how its removal can be a bad thing, but ordinary users won’t.
There is no mention of what API caused the alert.
I’m advised to contact the developer for an updated version, but there is no information on who that developer is. (In the screenshot above, I’m assuming the developer is Apple itself, so I notified them with FB12560773, FB12560774, FB12560776).
But the UI is just the beginning of the fun. Once the developer is notified, the lack of information for this “feature” prevents the deprecation from being addressed.
This alert is mentioned in the release notes for the first beta for Sonoma. The brevity of that note is surprising for such a prominent and important addition to macOS.
I suspect that the brevity of the alert’s text is to shield the customer from unfamiliar terminology and complexity. It’s like a check engine light in your car: it comes on and you know to get to a mechanic ASAP.
When you get to the mechanic, they have diagnostic tools that let them understand what’s wrong (the engine control unit will typically store a unique code).
The difference with this “feature” is that folks like me are the mechanics and we have no diagnostic code. Supposedly, this alert should only appear with the use of ATS or ATSUI (per the release notes), but I find it hard to believe that modern system framework components shown above are using Apple Type Services that were replaced 13 years ago. But maybe they are – we all embed frameworks into our apps, some where we have source code, others where we do not.
The alerts also have another hideous “feature”. They turn themselves off as soon as you hit the OK button. They never repeat, so it’s impossible to bisect the code to find and verify a fix.
It’s like having your check engine like go off the next time you start the car, and the diagnostic code being removed by the time you get to the repair shop. A developer’s reaction to these reports will be the same as your local mechanic: “I don’t know what’s wrong. Good luck.”
If Apple wants developers to repair these deprecations they need to make major changes:
Document the behavior, including all of the APIs that trigger it.
Tell developers if this is something that will only appear in the beta or if it will be a part of the final release.
Give the customer something to work with when communicating with the developer. A diagnostic code at a minimum.
Log information about what caused the issue: remember that it may not be the developer’s own code triggering the alert. Plugins, embedded libraries, and external frameworks should be a part of the log. These logs should be available to customers so they can provide them to developers.
Give developers a way to reset the alerts. Make fixes testable.
Without these changes a Mac user’s future is one with a lot of crashes caused by deprecated code.
NOTE: This blog post has been submitted as feedback. If you find this situation intolerable, please submit a duplicate titled “Mysterious deprecation alerts in Sonoma” with a reference to FB12560999 and a link to this blog post.
I’m happy to announce the release of a new tvOS app called Blank. It turns your screen black and keeps it that way until you press any button on a remote. Seriously, that’s all it does. Here’s the screen you see when you launch the app for the first time:
That second paragraph hints at why this is important, despite the app’s simplicity.
As you get older, a good night’s sleep becomes harder to achieve. One thing that works well for my wife and me is to lower light levels before bedtime.
A big ass screen in the living room makes this hard to achieve. If you want to listen to music or a podcast before going to bed, it’s impossible to avoid a bright now playing screen or animated screen saver.
So I wrote Blank as a way to address this problem. Of course, it’s FREE so people besides me and my wife can benefit from it.
New & Improved
The first version I submitted didn’t meet Guideline 4.2 for “Design – Minimum Functionality”. Understandable, because this app was basically the “anti-flashlight” and we all know how that played out.
I took this initial rejection in stride and started working on an update that added some minimal functionality.
When you launch the app, or press any button on the remote, you get a screen with an inspirational quote. After you’ve had time to read it, the message disappears, and the screen goes black. It’s a nice addition and folks who are using the app love it.
I’m glad I did this extra work, and it’s a case where App Review helps a developer improve their product. Here’s what the quote screen looks like:
After some back-and-forth with App Review, the app was approved with these changes. Yay!
But That’s Not All!
An additional benefit became apparent after we started using Blank: it significantly lowers the energy consumption of the screen.
All modern TVs have circuits that detect a blank signal and turn off LEDs to reduce the power required by the device. If you’ve ever felt heat coming off your big screen, Blank makes that go away.
So besides improving your sleep, you’re also helping out our ever warming planet.
There Is None More Black
So there you have it: another addition to our ever growing list of “little apps”. Just open up the App Store on your Apple TV, search for Blank, and click to download the app for FREE.
A prick pulled the plug. And what bothers me most about it is how Phony Stark did it.
My mom passed away just before Christmas. Her decline was something everyone in the family saw coming and we prepared for her demise. It still hurts like hell, but she left with love and dignity. That makes all the difference when it comes to coping with loss.
(Note today’s date and the one on our announcement – the fuckwads missed our 16th anniversary by a couple of days! King Shithead probably thought Friday the 13th was lol. I’d love some proof that the API went down at 04:20 in UTC +1.)
Like my mom, the API has been declining for awhile. Endpoints were removed, new features were unavailable to third parties, and rate limiting restricted what we could do. And like my mom, we struggled on and did the best we could, trying to stay upbeat about it all.
What bothers me about Twitterrific’s final day is that it was not dignified. There was no advance notice for its creators, customers just got a weird error, and no one is explaining what’s going on. We had no chance to thank customers who have been with us for over a decade. Instead, it’s just another scene in their ongoing shit show.
But I guess that’s what you should expect from a shitty person.
First, arrogant bastards love seeing their names on tweets and other media. I want to starve him of the things that money can’t buy: respect and attention. Do the same by simply ignoring him and his kingdom.
Secondly, for the past several months I’ve been thinking about where we go from here. When you see decline, you plan for a demise. It was the last thing mom taught me.
One thing I’ve noticed is that everyone is going to great lengths to make something that replaces the clients we’ve known for years. That’s an excellent goal that eases a transition in the short-term, but ignores how a new open standard (ActivityPub) can be leveraged in new and different ways.
Federation exposes a lot of different data sources that you’d want to follow. Not all of these sources will be Mastodon instances: you may want to stay up-to-date with someone’s Micro.blog, or maybe another person’s Tumblr, or someone else’s photo feed. There are many apps and servers for you to choose from.
One thing I remember from these early days: no one had any idea what they were doing. It was all new and things like @screen_name, #hashtags, or RT hadn’t been invented yet. Heck, we didn’t even call them “tweets” or use a bird icon at first! The best ideas came from people using the service: all of the things mentioned above grew organically from a need.
That’s where I want to be in the future. Exploring unknown territory that empowers others and adapts to the needs of a community.
There’s no sense in clinging to the personal whims of a clown leading a shit show. Especially when his circus will end up being a $44 billion version of MySpace.