While it’s been out for quite some time, Air Video has proven itself as an exemplar app for the entire iOS ecosystem. The video streaming app works on two impressive levels:
- Streams a video file to any iOS device from just about any source
- Converts on-the-fly just about any formatted video to any iOS device (or from a mobile one to the Apple TV)
These things, in combination, draw genuine technological awe. And it works very well.
I’m not sure what kind of sorcery is employed by the programmers at In Method, but they designed an app that can work around the limited video formats associated with iOS viewing, access from from any repository (aside from just iTunes, like a shared network drive), stream the content to your device, convert it from any crazy format you encode or find, and even do this from a shared network drive through your iOS device to your TV.
That is seriously impressive.
Air Video comes highly recommended, especially for a paltry $2.99. It does require you have a Mac or Windows PC set up with the free Air Video Server software. And streaming to your TV only works with an Apple TV. From my experience, you can use this thing with a very convoluted setup. Currently, I’m doing the following:
- Streaming videos from a repository on a networked drive
- The networked drive is hooked into an old PowerBook G4 (with USB2)
- This drive is wirelessly being accessed by a MacBook Pro
- The MacBook Pro is running the Air Video Server
The whole thing actually works without any hiccups. And this is with the app’s Live Conversion feature running.
Internet Tendency Vol. 1
Some links gathered through the week:
- MUBI Notebooks – Touted as a “digital magazine of international cinema and film culture.”
- CW&T – Brooklyn design studio of things “hard and soft.”
- FAUXGO – Tumblr tracking fictional logos for companies/organizations throughout film and videogames. (My favorite, of course)
- Fab.com – Curation of designer products with discounts to members.
Maneuvering Around Distractions
A classic from last year, to get things going: Jason Fried on why work doesn’t happen at work:
“The real problems are what I like to call the M&Ms – the managers and the meetings. Those are the real problems in the modern workplace.”
It is amazing that tools of our time are not better encouraged – even enforced – in opposition to the real distractions of the workplace. With email, instant messaging, collaboration tools, and even post-it notes, we live in an age where physical human contact isn’t necessary for making decisions, answering polar questions, or executing a one-off. As Fried points out, even conducting business within the bounds of steel, cubes, and wheeled chairs isn’t necessary – modern distractions are more prominent in those environments than in the comforts of the home. Or at a coffee shop.
But… When Technology Doesn’t Exactly Work
Granted, not all meetings are bad. Or unproductive. You can’t brainstorm solo when far-reaching goals require cooperation. Sometimes gathering a crew into a room with a whiteboard does wonders. And while you could do something very similar with technology – in fact, oftentimes better – it’s hard to change people’s habits and motivations. If the current environment does not encourage (or require) tools for these tasks, the only way to procure cooperation from people is to gather them into a room where participation is mandatory. So while leaving comments or suggestions via an online cooperative tool may provide the perfect distraction-free channel for involvement, it doesn’t work if the process isn’t coaxed into daily routines.
How to solve this dilemma? If M&Ms are really a problem, the best way to move towards a distraction-free environment is through the “Email Segway.” It doesn’t sound like much, and it’s the most boring of all the technologies at our disposal, but it’s the one with which everyone is most familiar.
That does count for something.
Additionally, email requests are most often fulfilled because of a sense of obligation. Let’s face it: what stays in your inbox antagonizes your conscience. And besides, participation isn’t guaranteed even if you do get human bodies into a room. Participation through a less intrusive channel will most likely promote participation from those less inclined to do so in large groups, and email is a great foundation for that.
Using Email More Intelligently
Email does have its own problems, though – we tend to get email overload. (And let’s not kid ourselves – Lotus Notes is the devil incarnate.) Parsing through hundreds of emails a day can become a time-sucking distraction. In most cases: worse than M&Ms. But there’s a process that can work to help reduce the number of incoming emails an individual receives from you. It’s simple, it makes a lot of sense, but hardly anyone does it:
- When something comes up that needs to be addressed, whether it’s a question, a decision, or direction, take note of it. Use Notepad or TextEdit or whatever, affix the name(s) with whom the request is associated, and queue it for email.
- But don’t send the email yet. What you’re actually doing throughout the day is writing a draft.
- Oh, something else came up that needs to be addressed by the same person? Or persons? Add it to the queue.
- Okay – nearing the end of the day. You have a nice little draft for a few people, and even sets of people. Guess those items didn’t need to be addressed so quickly after all? And you didn’t need to pester them with multiple emails throughout the day.
- Send the email(s).
Now, instead of being harassed by emails throughout the day that probably wouldn’t have been acted upon until later or even the next day (unless action was immediately required), said parties will receive the email with all the requests at the best time of day: the next morning. Why? Everyone checks their email and queues up their tasks for the day accordingly. It’s the best time to reach anyone – when they’re fresh – and it best prepares an individual to execute without having to constantly add to a list of to-dos during the day that would have resulted otherwise.
The New Yorker App Success
The New Yorker has succeeded where others have failed. The Atlantic Wire reports the journal has grossed one million dollars from the sale of its iPad app. An update on their subscription numbers:
75,000 of the subscriptions are print subscribers given the option of an iPad subscription. The other 20,000 are new subscribers who paid $59.99 for a subscription from the iTunes store. “Several thousand” people, on average, also buy the digital magazine for $4.99 a week.
While I’m sure tens of thousands of those 75,000 aren’t using the iPad app (I’m not, but only because I don’t have an iPad), those are still strong numbers coming from new subscribers. Where the brand-new The Daily has seemingly bombed, the venerable New Yorker has succeeded. Instead of heavy, cumbersome daily issues with a mess of graphic design, videos, photo galleries, and interactive content, the New Yorker has listened to sound reading advice:
“There are some bells and whistles, but we’re very careful about that. We think about whether or not they add any value. And if they don’t, out the window they go,” said deputy editor Pamela Maffei McCarthy.
As others have written extensively before, reading on the iPad is actually best when handled by a dedicated RSS feed or read-later app. Shawn Blanc’s Reading on the iPad covers the gamut of why this is important. Basically:
Instead of trying to find that spot between print and iOS, they should leave the historical traditions of print design altogether. Instead of leaning on the perceived value of a physical printed periodical they should look to the iPad’s new value of delight, ubiquity, and instantaneous digital access. Moreover, they need to find better ways to bring their articles to their iPad readership. Magazines need to cater their layout design and interaction design to the iPad rather than attempting to fit the iPad around their previous print-tested designs.
The New Yorker app has had criticisms in the past (notably by the New York Times’ ex editor and design expert, Khoi Vinh), most pointing to its overly complex Flash-descendant system of flicking through text “images.” It does seem like Conde Nast (New Yorker’s publisher) is moving in the right direction, though. Combining the print subscription with free access to the digital subscription is promising — if they have the option to turn off print subscriptions in the future, they’ve achieved a glorious thing: reducing the manufacturing and distribution costs of a print version while retaining digital subscribers at the same pricing.
If the New Yorker continues to refine its iPad app experience, ensuring that excessive features are removed to optimize the reading experience, they have a winning formula. Transitioning to a mobilized website, however, isn’t the answer — as Khoi Vinh has proposed in the past. The New Yorker has a lockdown on accessing content via its website; in fact, the journal may have the most successful implementation of a pay wall on the Internet. If it continues to present accessibility challenges to its content but offers flexible, attractively priced solutions as license to read, both its print and digital subscriptions will continue to sustain journalistic value into the future.
Deflex, like Llamasoft/Jeff Minter’s other works of digital insanity, is confounded by bleary visuals and wrangled voice clips, supported by a dreamily dynamic piano soundtrack. I don’t know how he codes a game like this – it’s really something you need to see to understand. It’s arthouse interactivity for the iOS folks. Many will cringe, others will hate, but for those patient enough to tap bottom-left and bottom-right indiscriminately, satisfaction can be had.
The game adheres to a simple concept: the player summons two kinds of “deflectors” via a two-tap conceptntrol scheme, both of which bounce a mysteriously pulsating orb around the screen. Your goal is to collect an entire map’s themed on-screen targets (think oxen, “frightened” bananas, and “parked” camels). A scoring system prods the player on, with the rapid accumulation of targets generating multiplier points. With the visual treatment it receives, Deflex plays like a deranged vision of pinball-meets-Pacman.
The joys of the game are primarily derived from the musical score — light piano touches crescendo or diminuendo based on your retrieval of in-game targets. Think Portal 2 puzzles but with much more orchestral finesse. Since the orb you’re pushing around the board diminishes as the session proceeds and as you continually deflect it, the musical cues begin to fade, drifting into the astrological-challenged cosmos.
The game’s blaring diffusions of light, indecisive font placements, and directionless gameplay discriminate against those with any form of epilepsy or gameing sanity. But for those willing to submit to the visual style and enjoy pop arcade gameplay mechanics, the $2.00 is worth it.
I would also add a degeneration in journalistic integrity.
OS X Lion UI Impressions
I know: everyone is weighing in on their OS X Lion impressions. The release is significant in a number of ways, most notably its departure from physical disk installation (you get it via a 3.75GB download on the Mac App Store). While there are several important feature implementations and updated applications, the most glaring changes are in the user interface. And surprisingly, these small details define the new feel of using a Mac, for good or bad.
The state of scrolling
The first thing that greets the user once you’re logged into Lion is the Scrolling in Lion prompt. This prepares you for the monumental shift in how scrolling within windows is handled – it’s reversed.
It is by far the most alarming change from previous OS versions, and will undoubtably be met by most users with aversion. Scrolling – initiated by two fingers on a trackpad, one on a mouse – is reversed to reflect the iOS mentality of actually interacting with the element within a window. Thus, scrolling no longer reflects the scrollbar, it reflects an interaction with whatever content is inside of a window. Application windows, therefore, are demoted to mere static frames for the actual content inside them. You get accustomed to this change after using Lion for a few days.
While I’m indifferent to “natural” scrolling, the full implementation of enertia scrolling plus rubberbanding (think elasticity) is brilliant. When you make swipes for scrolling up or down, and the content within an application window ends, the content pulls in the direction of the swipe with rubberband physics, like you’re trying to pull something away from another object that cannot be done.
It’s exactly like its implementation in iOS, and you can execute with it in the same manner. It’s one of those “natural” touch interfaces that dissolves into the experience – and after a few hours of use, its dissolves away into the experience.
The state of windows and their content
Speaking of scrollbars – Lion has completely removed them when using either the trackpad or Magic Mouse. This is probably the second-most unexpected change in the behavior of using the OS. Again, this mechnical shift is influenced by iOS. Removing scrollbars tidies the aesthetic of every Application and Finder window, further minimalizing the OS. But at the same time, it invites a significant learning curve – you need to remap how you’ve perceived desktop windows for the past few decades. The design is so clean that nothing actually suggests that a user should continue to swipe down (or is it swipe up now?) to reveal more content. In the past, the scrollbar operated as a metric indicating how much vertical information existed within a window. Now you only see that indication when you actually scroll, whereby an understated bar appears and disappears once the touch action is executed.
Additionally, every window frame in Lion has a slightly rounded corner.
While this isn’t a drastic change, it is ubiquitous throughout the OS and frankly it’s a strange choice. While those few corner pixels may not seem like important screen real estate, and while you do accustom yourself to this change quicker than the scrolling changes, it’s noticeable in full-screen applications.
And, on a sidenote, all windows can now be resized from any side or corner – in the past, this had been relegated to only the bottom-right corner. Apparently there are a few additional tricks for resizing, too.
The full-screen thing
I initially disliked the early preview concepts for Lion’s full-screen applications, but once you actually use it, you end up liking it. When full-screen mode is activated (on a supported application), everything on-screen is removed except the application’s main interface. Most applications will probably need to be tweaked to fully take advantage of the capabilities with this API, but the ones that currently support it demonstrate how slick the system is. Menu bars and other distractions dissolve away in Safari1 (even the dock is disabled), and you’re left with a roomy full-screen browser. Same goes for iTunes, iCal, etc.
What’s really neat about full-screen applications is how they’re handled. When you initiate a full-screen application, it slides into its own virtual desktop space (managed by Mission Control, which is Lion’s evolution of Exposé). Each applications gets its own “space”, ala iOS. This means you can use a space-swapping gesture to slide between open applications. The system is simple and fast, and is absolutely accessible to just about anyone willing to remember how to swipe with three or four fingers.
Gestures complete the general user experience changes made in Apple’s latest OS. While they introduced minor innovations in previous versions of the OS, only with the introduction of the Magic Mouse and repositioning of the Trackpad as the “Magic Trackpad” did gestures gain their rightful place in the OS. Even so, these amazingly intuitive tools weren’t used to their potentials (each able to receive 9 unique touch inputs simultaneously). Only a few gestures had been implemented, and you needed to seek out additional utilities that permitted for customized gestures (like Jitouch).
Lion comes full circle and allows for more granular mapping of gestures to the mouse and trackpad, but it still isn’t quite as flexible as Jitouch. And the defaults are a jarring transition from Snow Leopard. I had grown accustomed to three-finger horizontal swipes for back/forward movement across application pages. This, by default, changed to full-screen or desktop “spaces” switching (it can be modified, though). But why would Apple change this gesture mapping to a default setting?
Regardless, gestures introduce a unique, new “shortcut” user interface that is very powerful for people who don’t like memorizing keyboard shortcuts. Apple does seem to be taking a shy stance on the mechanics of their implementation, though. Yes, most gestures work exactly how you’d imagine they would (pinching or double-tapping in appropriate applications zooms or stretches the content), but there should be a human user interface guide for how gestures are used in a desktop OS. Apple more or less defined these guidelines for iOS back in 2007 with the iPhone. Apparently they feel you can do much more with gestures in OS X Lion (which you theoretically can because your fingers engage external components like a trackpad or mouse as opposed to the actual screen of interactive content). Going forward, this is something I hope they address to refine the way gestures are perceived and used in OS X.
In fact, you gain real estate pixels in some applications. If you use tabs in Safari, there is only 62 pixels of head room for the application at the top of the screen when in full-screen mode, as opposed to 97 pixels when it’s a standalone window. ↩
Mac OS X has seen its share of brilliant writing applications over the last several years, but it’s increasing hard to justify investing in any new ones. In particular, one of the latest newcomers in distraction-free/minimal writing environments, iA Writer, has me frothing with pixel lust. But since I already own a solid collection of word processing applications, there isn’t any real benefit in acquiring another one that the others can’t do nearly as well.
Unless, of course, there’s a sweet reason to. One of the great features iA Writer touts is the ability to transform a Markdown-formatted document into HTML. It’s a nifty, convenient trick. And completely useful if your brain is wired in Markdown markup language. So: how can we do something similar if we already have other tools?
Minimal Writing Environment with Markdown + HTML Export
For this example, we’ll using the following tools, all of which I have acquired over the years, and you may already use:
I’ve been sitting on Writeroom for months, not having much enthusiasm to pick it up and hammer text into it (I was too enthralled with Notational Velocity). My copy of Writeroom had come with a Macheist package back in the day, and as per usual, only a few of those applications really catch your attention. But recently, I took an interest in another product from Hog Bay Software, called QuickCursor. Its release on the Mac App Store quickly rejuvinated my use of Writeroom. (With a global shortcut, QuickCursor automates the process of moving text from one application to another for editing, and back again — e.g., from a form field in your browser to a word processor.) Ah-ha! No longer would Writeroom die a slow, neglected death in my Applications folder!
Now, while I love the aesthetic and typographic choices made in iA Writer, I found they could be nearly duplicated in Writeroom. Here’s how:
Plus, you’re going to want to spruce up the writing environment for colors in Writeroom’s Preference pane:
Preferences > Full Screen, Full Screen Colors > Gray Scale Slider with the following:
- Text Color: 25%
- Page Color: 90%
- Background Color: 90%
Boom. A great colored font shelled in an off-white background. Change your font to Inconsolata. Ah, wonderful.
And, depending on your screen resolution, set the full screen page width at an appropriate width (so page width hits about 65 characters):
Preferences > Full Screen, Full Screen Window
- Pixel Page Width: 735px
Now simply compose in Writeroom, copy-paste your work into Coda and run the plug-in (ideally, down the road, this will be easier to do if Coda gets QuickCursor support — I’m sure you could write a slick little AppleScript to automate the process in the meantime.)
Distraction-free Becomes a Distraction
It’s a damned complex solution to mimick features of another application — especially if you don’t even have the other applications needed for this particular workaround. And, seriously: iA Writer is only $18.00, whereas the other two combined clock in at $125.00. Don’t be a cheap-ass.
And read this before you even begin thinking in terms of “distraction-free” writing environments. It can be a lot of nonsense and noise.
Shawn Blanc recently posted a comprehensive look into the sub-culture of nerds with respect to their habits of checking news/personal items via mail, RSS, and Twitter. (To support some of his opinion, he had posted a survey several hours earlier requesting input from his readership on the subject.)
There is some good stuff here, especially this:
However, if there are feeds which you just can’t miss then you’re likely to put them in your RSS inbox because it will sit there until you do something with it. You either read it, skim it, or mark it as read. But you have to deal with it, even if dealing with it means you ignore it.
Proclaimations of the death of RSS and, consequently, Twitter ascending as its superior descendant have been a discussion of late in nerd circles, but it seems that there’s a missing piece to the argument: the fact that Twitter “feeds” rely entirely on RSS? Whether you’re leveraging something like twitterfeed or some other means, Twitter must be fed some kind of data pipe for news articles, posts, entries, and so forth. The current standards for this are RSS and Atom [Syndication Format]. You can’t effectively declare a standard dead to an usurper when the new method relies on the old. Granted, Mr. Blanc’s assessment of these news-aggregating mediums has more to do with how we use them rather than platform supremacy. If you’re beholden to RSS applications like NetNewsWire, Reeder, and Fever — or simply viewing your feeds from a browser or the Google Reader page — you’re accessing and following a structured process for news consumption. Twitter merely repurposes this process into an arguably messier set of affairs without regard to organization1.
Now, I do understand that there’s a difference in perception — Twitter “killing” RSS feeds doesn’t mean it’s killing the hand that feeds it, but killing the medium that distributes it. RSS is like a direct connection to individual entries to a website, and Twitter could be seen as a more accessible medium that masks the direct connection of RSS into a more friendly feed. Either way, Mr. Blanc declares (based on his survey) that the ratio of a site’s RSS subscriptions to its Twitter followers is 5.78:12. This explains that Twitter is in no way doing any detrimental damage to RSS readership, nor is it encroaching upon the use of “friendly feed mediums” like NetNewsWire, Reeder, Fever, and Google Reader.
Is there a problem in deciding how users access your site’s news feed? Should webmasters not only provide an RSS link, but also a link to follow the main site’s Twitter feed? As much as I enjoy aggregating and organizing my feeds for convenient consumption, how about trying something else — like creating an enjoyable website at which to read content? I still bookmark sites to visit (though less frequently than those in my RSS subscriptions), based purely on the design of the site. RSS subscriptions (and the read-later service, Instapaper) are fantastic, efficient ways to keep your frequently visited sites organized and updated on a daily basis, but they also (typically) do something else: provide the text of the article free of advertisements and pagination. Some advertisements are good, but the employment of others can be such a jarring experience that RSS or Instapaper are the only ways to avoid the hostile reading environment. Create well-designed and fast sites and you won’t have to worry so much about providing links to RSS and Twitter feeds and Twitter, let alone a pointless debate over the death of RSS. In addition, you can enjoy much more thorough analytics than something like Feedburner and the non-existent analytics of Twitter.
I’m well aware that this data set is coming directly from a tech-centric readership and indicates nothing near the data that would represent the greater consumer base. But then again, this article and its subject matter are probably completely foreign to anyone outside of a particularly well-understood technological bubble. ↩
Good design requires sound decisions about what not to include rather than what to include. Netflix has been trimming down and streamlining several areas of its website. Two recent changes have stood out:
- Removal of profile attributes to customer reviewers (avatar image, nick name, and bio)
- Immediate playability of films while browsing thumbnails within featured categories (namely on a member’s logged in home page)
Netflix just announced its decision to remove avatar images and associated attributes to customer reviewers. It seems to be effective immediately. Their reasoning:
“…very few Netflix members use them.”
If these features aren’t used by the majority of Netflix members, or if they are simply getting in the way of writing a review, what justifies their existence?
For anyone who’s been paying attention, Netflix as an organization seems rather hostile towards the entire “social” media scene. They’ve never had a very good social platform for connecting with other users who like film (even though they permitted member profiles, avatar images, etc.). And note that there is no use of any social plugins for third-party platforms anywhere (e.g., Facebook and Twitter). If their internal data shows that these social functions are popular or used (face it: people love Netflix because the service provides immediately accessible, quality streams of a deep selection of film and television shows), it’s in their best interest to minimize the user experience.
The same goes for another design choice recently employed: the immediate playability of the Watch Instantly catalog. Instead of clicking on a film poster thumbnail, arriving at the film description page, and then clicking “Watch Now”, you have the option of simply clicking/tapping the film poster thumbnail and immediately triggering the film to begin. It can be guessed that the time spent on film description pages from the homepage and category pages (not search) was so low that Netflix merely optimized the speed for users getting to their desired destination: playing the actual video.