Computers vs Humans

Spotify's approach

John Paul Titlow:

"Fresh Finds is a distillation of the hippest users on Spotify," says Whitman, pulling up a list of 38 tracks projected against the conference room wall. "These are the artists that are going to break out soon because they're being listened to by these people."

I don't recognize any of the artists on the list. Neither did he, Whitman admits. But now many of them have made their way into his daily rotation. "Just wait a few weeks and people will start talking more and more about them and they'll take off."

How does he know? The machines told him, naturally. Fresh Finds takes a central component of The Echo Nest's original methodology—its web content crawler and natural language processing technology—to mine music blogs and reviews from sites like Pitchfork and NME and figure out which artists are starting to generate buzz, but don't yet have the listenership to show for it. Using natural language processing, the system analyzes the text of these editorial sources to try and understand the sentiment around new artists. For instance, a blogger might write that a band's "new EP blends an early '90s throwback grunge sound with mid-'80s-style synthesizers and production—and it's the best thing to come out of Detroit in years." If this imaginary act goes on tour and writers in Brooklyn dole out praise of their own, the bots will pick up on it. It helps address an issue some people have voiced early on with Apple Music, that its selections aren't adventurous and it tends to recommend things you already like rather than things you might like.

vs. Apple's approach

Michael Rundle:

"When I met a lot of our competitors in the field the first thing they said to me was, 'Look we don't have anything to do with music, we're a utility'" Iovine says. "[But] no matter how you shake it, when you listen to a radio station that was programmed purely by an algorithm you will go comfortably numb."

Apple's advantage, Iovine says, is one of scale: the scale of the resources it can put into human curation, and the scale of its ambition to do curation properly.

"Algorithms are great but they're very limited in what they can do as far as playing songs and playing a mood... And a lot of these companies they just go and hire somebody who used to work in the record business 25 years ago. Well, great. You have one person. We have hundreds... We have one of the great tech companies of all time building what we need."

Wi-Fi Assist in iOS 9

In the most recent iOS 9 beta, a new option showed up under celluar settings called Wi-Fi Assist. This will automatically allow your iPhone (and Apple Watch) use cellular data when Wi-Fi connectivity is poor.

This is going to be huge for Siri. One of the places that I typically use Siri is backing out of the driveway at home or the parking lot at work. Wi-Fi is just strong enough in both of those locations to stay connected, but have a hard time transmitting data. To a user, Siri is not working, but in reality it's just a poor Wi-Fi connection.

This feature is going to change that perception.

Update: See tweet below. While this hasn't been my experience (Siri struggles when my Wi-Fi is poor. The person tweeting does work for Apple.

Blink 1.1

Blink is my favorite way to create afiliate links on my iOS devices. Blink 1.1 was released today with some great new features.

Global Linking – Most iTunes content is region restricted. If I send you a link to a movie generated in the US iTunes Store and you tap it while signed into the iTunes Store for Austrailia, you will get an error. “Geo” prefixing links fixes that. If the equivalent content is in both stores, users of your links are directed to the correct version.

The iTunes Link Maker is the only way to generate these links right now, but with Blink 1.1, users can add a “geo” prefix to any link created with the app. Blink extension goes even further. If you convert a link from country other than the one you selected in Blink’s settings, the converted link includes a “geo” prefix automatically so it will work in your home store and any other store that offers the media to which you are linking.

Music – Affiliate commissions are different for Apple Music and the iTunes Store. With Blink 1.1, you can choose to direct users to either destination. You can also generate affiliate links to Apple Music-only content like playlists and radio shows. Developer Analytics – Blink 1.1 lets app developers create links to their apps that include a Provider ID token so they can track the performance of those links using iTunes Connect Analytics.

If you write on iOS, this app is a must have. It's on the App Store for $4.99.

My Apple Watch Review

Me over at Tools and Toys:

I’m actually surprised how little I use Apple Watch day to day. This is a huge positive to me. I’ve got enough problems keeping away from screens that I wanted a device to help put technology in its place. When I get home from work, my iPhone is placed on my night stand, and I rarely look at it until my kids go to bed. If someone calls, I’ll get notified. If an important iMessages comes through, I can respond. I won’t be tempted to pull up Twitter or check Instagram from the watch (yes, I know they offer apps, but it’s not a good experience). The magic in Apple Watch lies in what it can’t do. There is no web browser. There is no App Store on the device. It’s providing just enough data to keep you in touch and informed, without being a distraction. If Apple Watch owners are simply more aware of what is going on around them, then the product is a success in my mind. It’s allowing us to have access to great technology, but still live in the real world. I wonder if we will look back at the world where people have their eyes glued to their iPhones as an era where people didn’t know how to control themselves.

I took a different slant than a lot of reviews. Instead of just talking about Apple Watch, I talk about about two days of my life while wearing it.

The New Evernote Plans

Evernote has introduced a new mid tier paid plan called Evernote Plus. You can read the blog post here. They've also shifted some features from free to paid only plans.

Evernote Free
This plan includes the ability to sync notebooks, share notebooks, and use their cloud-based OCR for printed and handwritten text in images. You can upload 60 MB a month with a max note size of 25 MB.

Evernote Plus
With this plan, you get 1 GB of monthly uploads with a 50 MB note size. You also get the ability to send notes into your database via email (previously a free feature). You can also set notebooks to be offline on mobile devices. This plan is $2.99/month or $24.99/year.

Evernote Premium
With this plan, you get unlimited monthly uploads and a 200 MB note size. It also includes the ability search inside of PDF, Office docs, and attachments. You can also annotate attached PDFs, scan and digitize business cards, view previous note revisions, see related content, and the ability to turn notes into presentations. This plan is $5.99/mo or $49.99/year.

What is the best plan?
I always thought that Evernote gave away a lot of features on their free plan, so I don't blame them for moving some into a paid plan (especially the send to Evernote from email). Everyone has to eat, so I am happy to keep paying them. I'll likely stay on the premium plan as I use search inside of Office docs frequently. This move seems aimed to getting free users who didn't want to pay $50/year to at least pay $3/month.

You can check out this support article for more information on the plan differences.

I'm Not Using iCloud Photos, but You Probably Should

Over the years, I've talked a lot about photo management in the smart phone era. I'm not going to recap that here other than to say:

  1. We are taking a ton of photos
  2. No one has a clue how to organize them

With the release of Mac OS X 10.10.3 , Apple has unified their photo management solution. It's called iCloud Photos, and they have apps for iOS and Mac. The simple version is that all your photos are in sync everywhere without requiring you to store them locally. With that feature alone, I am going to recommend that everyone I know use it. That solves most of the photo managements issues for iOS and Mac users.

I have a very specific method for organizing my photo library (2015 Folder with a 2015-04 inside of it), and I want to keep that. I've got every photo since 2005 (when I got a digital camera) organized with that method. It's backed up in multiple places, and I feel very secure with the safety of my most treasured items. Photos.app is similar to iPhoto in that the photos are stored inside a database file. I know you can link them on the initial import, but new photos would have to be added to the database. My concern is that I'd have to give up my preferred organization method, and it would be a pain to break it back up again if I ever wanted to leave. My method will easily scale up for 20-30 years. One area that it really needs to address is sharing your entire library with a spouse. I imagine this will eventually be a feature of Family Sharing, though.

If you've got more than 5 GB of photos, iCloud Photos isn't going to be free. The pricing is a bit high in my opinion. I'd like to see 20 GB be the free trier and 200 GB be closer to $1.99/month. We can argue about hardware margins vs cloud storage costs, but Apple is not in that business. They are in the business of solutions.

Overall, Apple has provided a solution that will work for 99% of its customers. They took the guesswork out of syncing and backing up. In my experiences, the syncing worked very well. I'm just in the 1% that takes the time to organize their photos. I have zero complaints against Photos.app and iCloud Photos, other than that say that it wasn't built for my needs.

I'm not using iCloud Photos, but you probably should.

Our Favorite Podcast Client for iOS

There are many podcast clients in the App Store. Our new pick for what we consider to be the best podcast client for iOS is Overcast. Overcast has a very easy-to-use interface, in the year since it was released it has seen frequent updates, and it’s available as a universal iOS app and a web-based player. But best of all are Overcast’s two most useful and compelling features: Smart Speed and Voice Boost (which we’ll get into later).

I've been listening to podcasts since the beginning, and Overcast is my favorite app. Read my review over at The Sweet Setup.

Force Conference Room Display on Apple TV

Fraser Speirs:

Apple TV comes out of the box with all of Apple's movie and TV services enabled, as well as all the additional channels that keep appearing on the Apple TV home screen.

In times past, the typical practice was to laboriously go through and hide all the channels. This becomes a game of whack-a-mole as channels come and go.

There is a way, however, to have the Apple TV boot into Conference Room mode by default. Conference Room mode is a view that hides all of the extraneous features and just provides information about how to connect to the Apple TV.

Saving this to Evernote.

Disney’s $1 Billion Bet on a Magical Wristband

Cliff Kuang:

It’s amazing how much friction Disney has engineered away: There’s no need to rent a car or waste time at the baggage carousel. You don’t need to carry cash, because the MagicBand is linked to your credit card. You don’t need to wait in long lines. You don’t even have to go to the trouble of taking out your wallet when your kid grabs a stuffed Olaf, looks up at you, and promises to be good if you’ll just let them have this one thing, please.

This is just what the experience looks like to you, the visitor. For Disney, the MagicBands, the thousands of sensors they talk with, and the 100 systems linked together to create MyMagicPlus turn the park into a giant computer—streaming real-time data about where guests are, what they’re doing, and what they want. It’s designed to anticipate your desires.

Which makes it exactly the type of thing Apple, Facebook, and Google are trying to build. Except Disney World isn’t just an app or a phone—it’s both, wrapped in an idealized vision of life that’s as safely self-contained as a snow globe. Disney is thus granted permission to explore services that might seem invasive anywhere else. But then, that’s the trick: Every new experience with technology tends to gently nudge our notions of what we’re comfortable with.

I went last fall, and it was impressive. Cliff nails it when he says that it removes friction. Disney World is a well oiled machine. Their free Wi-Fi isn't half bad either.

My Favorite Run Tracking App

I’m a firm believer in the mantra that what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done. Did your doctor want you to start running 3-4 days a week? Did you? If you don’t track it, then it probably won’t happen. All that is standing between you and tracking your run is an app download.

If you already use your iPhone while running to listen to music, there is really no reason to not track your runs using the built-in GPS. The apps provide useful statistics during and after your run. Likewise, It’s helpful to know your current pace and distance. It helps keep you on track and on pace with your desired speed.

I wrote all about iPhone running apps. Which one is my favorite? Read the review here.

How to Manage Subscriptions

Rishabh Dassani:

So, why shouldn’t you sign up for yearly subscriptions? Many subscriptions offer discounts if you subscribe on a yearly basis, but a year is simply too long a time to accurately determine if you’re using the service and/or deriving real value from it.

I spoke about this on managing digital subscriptions on Mac Powers Users back in January. Rishabh makes a great point on yearly subscriptions. You'd be a lot better off to do the monthly option for a few months to make sure that you will want it for a year.

You might also choose to sign up for a service intermittently. For instance, I have a Netflix account that I only pay for occasionally when I know that I’ll make time for watching films in a given month. It also makes watching TV more active versus watching it passively, and the same goes for magazines, online subscriptions, online services, etc.

Another great point.

Chipping Away at Amazon's Retail Dominance

Amazon is my default place to buy just about everything. I'm a big fan of Harry's for all of my shaving products, though. The products are great quality at fair prices. They are not sold at Amazon. Brands like Harry's are, in my opinion, a big threat to Amazon long term.

Does Amazon sell shaving products? Absolutely. Do they sell Harry's? No, they do not. It doesn't matter what prices that Amazon can sell razors for because they don't carry the brand that I want. In talking with my wife, she said there are a number of makeup brands that she prefers that aren't on Amazon (unless it's a third party seller, and they are usually knock-offs). They only are sold through makeup specific retailers.

Amazon, in some ways, relies on brands not mattering to the customer. What they rely on is you trusting the Amazon brand and the Amazon shopping experience. Amazon's biggest threat isn't Apple or Google, it's everyone else. As Amazon continues to grow as a store, they are open to smaller brands chipping away at their retail dominance.

Our Favorite iPhone Timers

Over at The Sweet Setup, I took a look at the state of the iPhone timer market.

Timers are one of those things made better because of the iPhone. Gone are the days of fiddling with the timer on the stove or microwave. Simply ask Siri and you can have a countdown going effortlessly. For some tasks, however, the iOS built-in tool doesn’t offer enough flexibility or power.

This was a fun article to write, so I hope you will check it out.

A Few Pointers for Surviving Holiday Tech Support

Me, over at the Sweet Setup:

The Christmas season is a magical time of the year for our families. This is the time of year when we get to provide in home technical support for all of their products. They’ve got you as a captive audience for a few hours, and they’ve been waiting all year to ask you a number of questions. We decided to make a list of things you need to do to be proactive in taking care of your family members’ iOS devices and Macs.

They've been waiting for us since last year.

The Post-Mobile Era

Fraser Speirs:

When you work in educational technology, you have to be a little like the Roman god Janus and look both forward and backward. You look backward because everyone else is behind you: pupils, parents, colleagues, administrators, regulators, government. These are the people you have to take with you into the new.

At the same time, we have to periodically make very clear judgment calls about what is happening right now - without reference to the past or the future. This is what happens in your summer refresh: it doesn't matter what's coming out in October or at CES and it doesn't much matter what you've deployed in the past - you have to sign your PO in June and the trucks roll up in August with whatever is the best possible decision at the time. Such are the hard scheduling realities of school life.

This is what I call "real talk".

Taking Control of My iPhone

My first iPhone was the iPhone 3G. I then went to the iPhone 4, 4s, 5, and now the iPhone 6. The iPhone is a magical device. Let's list all the practical things it can do:

  1. GPS enabled maps
  2. An incredible camera that is always available
  3. Mobile media player with access to a lifetime of content (music, book, movies, etc)

That's just the three I came up with in ten seconds of brainstorming. It can do a ton more. It's literally a portable computer in your pocket. It's more powerful than the PC I had in college in 2002. Do you know what the problem is with a portable computer in your pocket? You have a portable computer in your pocket. It's begging to be fed. It wants your attention. With every notifications and vibration, it's an opportunity to be distracted. Up until a few weeks ago, I was all in on notifications. This included Twitter, Email, Slack, etc. It was too much.

The problem with notifications is we are thinking there is going to be something we are going to miss. "I've got to check that email. It might be Tim Cook emailing me to get some advice on Apple's latest product". Let's be honest: how many notification have you gotten in the past year that required immediate action? I'd bet that for 99% of us, it's 0.

Here is what I've done to take control of my iPhone:

  • Email doesn't show badges and only downloads new messages when I open the app. Not only has this resulted in better battery life, but I've not missed out on anything important. If something is urgent, I will get a phone call or a text message.
  • No social media notifications (Twitter, Instagram, etc)
  • Slack is set to only push @replies
  • Do Not Disturb runs from 5:00 PM to 7:00 AM, but allows phone calls. This makes my iPhone act like an actual phone.

These small changes have resulted in me feeling less attached to my phone. It can stay in my pocket for hours without a single vibration. I can pull it out to take a photo without seeing pages of notifications. I check in with email and social media when it's convenient for me. Technology is supposed to be an enabler. For many of us, it has become a chain. This is my attempt to reverse that.

My Favorite Way to Easily Share Files, Images, and Links

Me Over at The Sweet Setup:

The Apple ecosystem has no shortage of ways to share files. There are countless apps and services that aim to make this as easy as possible. With a lot of the articles we write here at The Sweet Setup, we are comparing apps and services that are virtually identical outside of user interface. With this category, that is not the case. These apps, while appearing similar, all have a different focus.

Spoiler: it's Droplr