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I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

Rumored iPod Classic, Shuffle discontinuation

These rumors are certainly plausible.

The iPod Shuffle nicely fills the low-end, rugged, disposable segment. It’s only $49, and it would take a significant breakthrough to offer something like the current Nano ($149) anywhere near that price point.

It’s obvious from the last few revisions that Apple isn’t meaningfully interested in the Shuffle anymore, but it’s also probably selling well enough to keep in the lineup. I don’t think they’ll cancel it until they can sell a Nano at $79 or less, which seems unrealistic today.

The iPod Classic is a different story, though.

It’s 160 GB for $249. Without it, the largest-capacity iPod would be the 64 GB Touch at $399. At this week’s event, an iPod Touch update may increase the top capacity to 128 GB, which would be close enough to the Classic. An update may also decrease the cost of the Touch’s storage, but probably not by enough to approach the Classic’s price per gigabyte.

Like the Shuffle, the Classic has also been kept alive by component economics. The difference is that while there’s probably still large demand for a very small and very cheap audio player, there probably isn’t much demand for a bulky (by today’s standards) audio player with the highest capacity possible that can’t run apps or games.

The Classic is also slightly confusing in the product line, competing with the iPod Touch at the high end. A sale of the Touch is probably worth more to Apple than a sale of the Classic, so eliminating this competition at the high end should slightly boost sales of the Touch.

A lot of people suggest that the Classic sells well to DJs. That may be true. But how many DJs are there, how many of them use iPod Classics instead of laptops, and how many of those are buying new iPods on a regular basis?

Anecdotally, in all of our wedding shoots, we’ve seen a bunch of live bands and a lot of groomsmen with laptops, but very few DJs. Sure, we’re only seeing a small part of the DJ business, but I bet it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s on the decline. How much does Apple really need to care about such a tiny market that’s probably shrinking further?

I bet the Classic will be quietly removed from the lineup on Tuesday.

But I wouldn’t put a lot of money on that. Most of these reasons for its discontinuation have been true for years, and it’s still inexplicably here.

By any other name

I guess the gadget critics are disappointed by Apple’s iPhone event today, but I’m very happy with what was announced.

The iPhone 4 is awesome. In the last few months, since July when new iPhones usually come out, my iPhone 4 never felt old or slow. Even now, after the Apple event that usually causes such perceptions, it still doesn’t.

The iPhone 4S has a much faster CPU, a much faster GPU, a much better camera, a highly advanced voice-AI system like nobody has ever seen, better battery life, an improved antenna, international GSM roaming ability on CDMA-locked phones, a 64 GB option, and better carrier availability. It is extremely likely to become the best-selling smartphone in the world.

Would as many people be disappointed if Apple had released the same device but called it the iPhone 5?

I didn’t know Steve. I never met him. I never worked for him. I never even got one of his famous one-liner email responses.

But it feels like someone close to me has died. He was so intimately involved in his company and its products (which have become critical parts of my career and hobby life), and he has publicly injected so much vision, personality, and care into our entire industry for so long, that I do feel like I knew him, even though I really didn’t.

So while I’m not qualified to write any sort of obituary, I feel moved to write this. It would be callous to keep writing about iPhone minutia without even acknowledging it.

Steve Jobs inspired generations of people to do great things. He certainly inspired me. He will be greatly missed.

I offer my most sincere condolences to his family, friends, and coworkers.

Review: The 2011 $79 Kindle 4 with ads and buttons


New $79 Kindle with ads (left), Kindle 3 (right), asleep

Update, December: Many people have started calling this the Kindle 4, so now I will, too. Referring to it as “the $79 Kindle” as I wrote this seemed too prone to future confusion.

Nearly everything about the $79 Kindle is cheap.

The lock screen shows a giant ad whenever the Kindle is off. Previous Kindles show tasteful pictures of classic authors when they’re off. There’s another ad banner at the bottom of the home (list) screen. You can get the ads removed for $30 more, either at the time of purchase or later from your Kindle management page.

The USB cable in the box is thin, stiff, and cheap-feeling. Little bits of white plastic remain on the connectors’ mold seams.

The usual USB-to-AC power plug is missing. All previous Kindles came with it. If you want to charge this Kindle, you either need to plug it into a computer (which you’d never need to do otherwise) or spend an extra $9.99 for the power adapter.

The Kindle’s case is a silvery color, suggesting that it might be metal, but it’s all plastic with a semi-rubbery-feeling back, just like the Kindle 3.

In fact, the new Kindle is extremely similar to the Kindle 3 in many ways:

The page-turn buttons are also almost identical to the Kindle 3’s, which were a massive downgrade from the Kindle 2’s. On this photo of the 3 and 2, I’ve marked where my thumb goes when holding them, with the bottom-right corner of the Kindle resting in my palm:


Kindle 3, Kindle 2

The new Kindle’s page-turn buttons are almost identical to those on the Kindle 3. They’re slightly deeper around the side, but they feel almost the same as the Kindle 3’s in use, which is passable but not good. The major flaw in both is the uncomfortable way you need to rock your thumb to push the next-page button, since it hinges toward the outside edge. The Kindle 2’s buttons hinged toward the inside, so you didn’t need to try to wrap your thumb around the edge of the Kindle while simultaneously holding the Kindle with its pressure.

The new e-ink screen doesn’t require a full white-black-white “blink” cycle on every page-turn. Instead, like the Nook Simple Touch, it only does a full blink on every sixth page-turn. The problem with this technique is evident when you see why all previous Kindles blinked for every page:


Fresh text after a blink


Text after five non-blinking page-turns: note the degredation and ghosting from previous pages

E-ink pixels are made of a bunch of capsules, and inside each are a bunch of tiny pigmented microcapsules that are pulled around by electrical charges to form an all-black or all-white surface.

But sometimes the microcapsules don’t all move the first time they’re asked, and artifacts remain until the next time the capsule is asked to change its color. The full-screen blinks cycle the pixels enough times that you see much better contrast and less ghosting in the resulting page.

This new method assumes that you won’t mind these artifacts up to about five lazy page-turns worth, and you’ll appreciate seeing fewer blinks, which I’m not sure is necessarily a good tradeoff. Most people stop noticing the blink within minutes of owning a Kindle, so I’m not sure this was a problem that really needed to be (partially) solved, especially at the cost of text quality.

I guess I’m not alone in doubting this change. Amazon has already issued a software update that adds an option to revert to the old-style behavior of blinking on every page-turn.

Another notable change with the new Kindle is that the binder-clip case-attaching holes are gone.1 Cases now need to attach with those annoying corner-bridging strips. But on a slim, light $79 device, are you really going to want to spend $30 or more on a case?

Fortunately, a cut-off DVD bubble envelope for less than $1 is still a great slipcase for the new Kindles, although you can probably go a size smaller for the new one. But you probably won’t even need a case most of the time.

As much as I can complain about the cheapness of this new Kindle, Amazon did deliver exactly what we’ve been asking for: a Kindle that’s smaller and lighter because it finally omitted the rarely-used keyboard and audio components. The new Kindle is effectively a very slightly updated Kindle 3 with those omissions.

But with all of the cost-cutting continued from the Kindle 3, it’s not surprising that nothing about the new Kindle screams quality.

The Kindle 1 and 2 felt like high-quality items, while the 3 and the new Kindle feel disposable. But they’re priced accordingly. The Kindle 1 was $400. This one’s $79 with ads.

Even the ads fit in more than I expected, because this doesn’t feel like a high-end device that commands respect, for better and for worse. Again, cheap, disposable.

Knowing that this new Kindle costs less than the cover for my Kindle 2 is freeing: I can just carry it around uncased and unprotected in a (large) pocket, use it anywhere, and not worry about damaging an expensive electronic item, because it’s not. And it’s so inexpensive that I have no hesitation recommending it to pretty much anyone who ever reads books, because I know that if they end up disliking it or not using it much, it wasn’t a lot of money.

This is exactly what Amazon wants: cheap, ubiquitous devices that run their digital media stores. Because while most people focus on the purchase price, buying a Kindle is a lot like buying a game console: it’s not very useful until you spend more money feeding it with content, and Amazon takes a cut of all content sales.

Amazon’s content availability still blows away its competitors. Other e-readers might have a hardware or pricing advantage here or there, but you’ll regret purchasing an alternative the first time a book isn’t available there but is available for Kindle, which happens a lot.

Honestly, once I got into what I was reading, I forgot about the cheap, crappy page-turn buttons and the tacky ads on the sleep screen. Even the distorted unblinked text isn’t very noticeable when you’re engrossed in a book.

And therein lies Amazon’s true genius with the relentless pace of making the Kindles cheaper in both price and quality: they know that once you’re reading, minor hardware flaws are quickly forgotten.

So if you’re interested in reading books on e-ink, consider the new low-end Kindle. It’s not a high-quality device, but it’s also a very small risk to take. Buy it here and I’ll get a few bucks. (Thanks.)

But if you already have a Kindle 3 and are considering upgrading, it’s probably not worth it. It’s smaller, but is otherwise nearly identical.

If you’re less price-sensitive and aren’t in a rush, it might be worth waiting to see if the Kindle Touch or Kindle Fire, due out in mid-November, are a better fit for you. I’ll be reviewing both of them as soon as I can.

Update: Here are my reviews of the Kindle Touch and the Kindle Fire. But this $79 Kindle 4 is currently my favorite.


  1. As far as I can tell from the website, the Kindle Touch and Kindle Fire also both lack the binder-clip holes. Their respective cases appear to attach by clamping around the entire device. 

Which iPhone 4S should I get?

Good question.

AT&T, Verizon, or Sprint? (U.S.)

(This is U.S.-specific because it’s where I know the carriers. Sorry, rest of the world. You probably have better options and more progressive locking regulations.)

Pick the carrier that’s best for you. It’s that simple.

Even though everyone else complains about AT&T, Verizon and Sprint both serve my area poorly. Verizon phones can’t place calls in my house, and my AT&T iPhone can. Verizon’s data service is barely usable on my commuter trains, and AT&T’s works acceptably. Sprint’s coverage here is worse than Verizon’s. So this is an easy decision for me: I’m sticking with AT&T.

If they all cover your area similarly, it more of a toss-up. Under ideal conditions, AT&T has the best data speeds and Verizon has the best voice quality, but almost nowhere actually provides ideal conditions, so it really depends on which carrier sucks the least in your area.

All three carriers’ plans are priced in the same ballpark.

People often say that Verizon covers fringe areas better, but in my experience, AT&T is comparable — sometimes one works and the other doesn’t, but neither more often than the other.

I don’t have much experience with Sprint, but the little I’ve had suggests that it doesn’t quite provide the coverage and strength that Verizon and AT&T do. Sprint phones can roam on Verizon’s network if there’s absolutely no Sprint signal, but in practice, that doesn’t happen often, and the phones will prefer a weak Sprint signal to a strong Verizon signal.

Sprint is the only carrier offering “unlimited” data.

Verizon messes with your data uncomfortably — they recompress JPEGs to save bandwidth, and they watch the sites you visit to collect (and presumably sell) the aggregate stats.

Doesn’t the iPhone 4S work on any carrier since it has CDMA and GSM?

Not quite the way you probably want.

The iPhone 4S is a “world phone”: every model has both CDMA and GSM radios. But, importantly, any iPhone 4S you buy in the U.S. with a contract at a subsidized price (less than $649) is still carrier-locked. You can’t change carriers later.

So even though it has both radios, an AT&T-subsidized iPhone 4S can’t later be used on Verizon or Sprint, and vice versa.1

What about the unlocked ones?

Starting in November, Apple will sell an unlocked iPhone 4S that works on any GSM carrier with no contract and can switch carriers, but there are two big downsides:

The math makes the unlocked model a pretty poor deal for most people, unless you plan to use AT&T in the U.S., travel internationally a lot, and want to swap SIMs abroad instead of using AT&T’s international roaming rates.

You don’t get a discount on service by not taking the subsidy.

For mostly domestic use, even if you’re unsure about staying on the same carrier for the next two years, it’s still probably cheaper to take that risk and pay the early termination fee if you do need to switch in the future.

Black or white?

That’s up to you. I like them both, but I like black better.

If in doubt, go to an Apple Store and play with them both. If there aren’t any iPhone 4S models on display, just compare the iPhone 4 colors — they’re the same design.

16, 32, or 64 GB?

I regret only getting the 16 GB iPhone 4 last year. I fill it up constantly, especially when shooting video. The camera in the iPhone 4S shoots even larger photos and videos, so I’m not going to make that mistake again.

I also always run into limits when trying to sync a meaningful amount of music, podcasts, and photos from my library.

So after two years of limiting myself to 16 GB, I’m done. I’m going to 64 GB.

64 GB might be overkill for you, and it might not be worth the price. If you ever plan to shoot video, though, I’d strongly suggest getting at least the 32 GB model.

Preorder, phone store, or Apple Store?

Preorders have already started. If you can get one to ship in a reasonable amount of time, feel free to do it.

If you want to get one on launch day and the preorders are all giving long delays, don’t bother going to your local phone store: they usually have very few in stock until they’re plentiful everywhere. The most stock at launch is always at the Apple Stores. Go wait on the line if you want it on day one, and you’ll probably get one.

Good luck.


  1. Technically, the iPhone hacking community has found ways to unlock iPhones, but it’s pretty difficult and risky, it doesn’t work on all models and all software versions, and it’s not something that most people will have access to. 

Size

Part of this great piece by John Gruber is about the disappointment over the new iPhone’s screen size: Apple has probably decided that the iPhone’s 3.5” screen is the right size. They aren’t keeping it “small” because they can’t make it bigger, they just don’t think it should be bigger.

It’s interesting that the expectations by the geeks and gadget bloggers this time were so heavily in favor of a larger screen, and so much of the disappointment was because we didn’t get one. I don’t remember any noticeable disappointment in previous years about it.

As a four-year iPhone user, I’ve never thought, “You know what I don’t like about this phone? The screen’s too small. I’d like to reduce my battery life, and I’d like my phone to protrude from my pocket in a larger and more conspicuous rectangle, to achieve a larger screen that I cannot comfortably use one-handed. That would be completely worth it.”

Not once.

Android phones have been one-upping each other with screen size a lot recently. It’s an interesting tactic that seems to be working, at least relative to other Android phones. When comparing phones side-by-side in a store, the larger screens really do look more appealing, and I bet a lot of people don’t consider the practical downsides.

Screen size is an easy way for the commodity hardware manufacturers to differentiate their products. This is something they know how to do: checklist spec battles. Fragmentation isn’t a concern: Android hardware specs are already extremely fragmented, and the manufacturers couldn’t care less about such costs to the ecosystem anyway.

This has caused two interesting side effects that are probably accidental but work in Android’s favor:

  1. The gadget bloggers accustomed to reviewing seventeen Android phones and one iPhone per year are now considering screen-size increases as must-have upgrades in each new device in a series, on par with faster processors and better cameras.

    Any phone update that keeps the same screen size looks old and disappointing, like keeping the same CPU for two years in a row.

  2. Some people who grow accustomed to large-screened Android phones are probably less likely to want to switch to an iPhone in the future, since they may view the smaller screen as a downgrade.

It’ll certainly be interesting if the latter is shown to be true in meaningful numbers.

But Android is finally getting more of its own identity. As John Gruber said in the aforelinked piece:

People who claim to be disappointed that Apple’s 2011 new iPhone doesn’t have a bigger display or LTE are effectively arguing that the iPhone should be more like Android. Whereas in truth, the iOS and Android platforms are growing more different over time, not less.

Android really is becoming much more differentiated from iOS. Flagship Android phones are looking less like iPhone knockoffs and more like, well, giant screens.

There are people who want that. But I don’t think it’s enough people that Apple should feel compelled to start competing for the largest screen size at the expense of other factors that are more important to Apple and its customers.

Grape Nuts versus Grape Nuts Flakes

I think I might be the only person in the world who bought a box of Grape Nuts Flakes.


58 grams each of Grape Nuts Flakes (left) and real Grape Nuts (right).
The Flakes are 220 calories and the original Grape Nuts are 200.

Grape Nuts are the Neo Geo of cereals: everyone knows one guy who likes them, usually an eccentric distant relative, but most people have never seen or tried them. And that’s for the best.

Most sane people don’t want their breakfast cereal to be gritty, bland, dense, and boring. They don’t want each spoonful of gravel to take an eternity to chew. They don’t want their jaws to feel sore after eating breakfast.

Grape Nuts come in a little box that weighs a ton and is always buried somewhere hard to find in the cereal aisle. On the back of my current Grape Nuts box, where most cereals put children’s games or at least something to read, Post has decided to share a meatloaf recipe (that naturally incorporates Grape Nuts).

But I must be weird, because I like Grape Nuts, along with very few other people.

What, exactly, are Grape Nuts? Barry Newman at the Wall Street Journal explains:

Mixed with yeast (one cup per 2,000 pounds) and water, the flour turns to dough, gets chopped into 10-pound loaves and sent into a huge oven — 1,610 loaves at a time. “Now it gets interesting,” Mr. Vargas said at his workstation, watching the loaves emerge from the oven and catapult into the darkness. An instant later, they hit the fan — a whirling high-speed shredder that rips them to smithereens.

“It’s bread,” Mr. Vargas said.

The ingredient list is refreshingly short for a mass-market boxed cereal: whole grain wheat flour, malted barley flour, salt, dried yeast. It’s a recipe that’s been barely touched for 113 years.

But to make the Flakes, Post had to puff them up somehow and add sugar and vegetable oil.

The result is a disaster.

It’s not that the Flakes taste bad — rather, like Ocean’s Twelve, they’re bland, unmemorable, and a complete waste of a cereal-eating opportunity. After eating a bowl, I don’t feel full or even satisfied. Like most sugary flakes, I’d need a truckload of them (and their sugar, and their calories) to feel like I had a satisfactory breakfast, which is one of the reasons I stay away from most cereals and eat Grape Nuts in the first place.

Grape Nuts fans will think they’re too sweet and delicate. Normal human beings will think they’re bland, boring, and a waste of calories. If you’re going to eat Grape Nuts, there’s no substitute, and if you’re going to eat sugary flakes, you can do a lot better.

I don’t know who Post made these for.

November 25


To see your date, use the “Check your eligibility” links here.

This post on TheNextWeb seems to have the most information on how AT&T calculates eligibility dates for customers to upgrade to the iPhone 4S at the fully subsidized prices. Reader Julien Deveraux discovered:

  • “Tier 1 customers,” aka those who spend the most money per month (unlimited minutes + 2gb data + unlimited texts) are eligible every 12 months for early upgrade.
  • “Tier 2 customers,” aka [almost every subscriber,] who have either the 900 or the 450 minute plan but who still use the highest data plan and highest texting plan are eligible every 18 months.
  • “Tier 3 customers,” the ones who spend as little as possible and or the ones who’ve had late pays or service interruptions must wait the full 24 [months].

I’m one of the unlucky1 customers unknowingly in Tier 2 this year with the November 25 subsidy date. It’s the first year I haven’t been able to get the full subsidy on day one of the new iPhone. My rate plan hasn’t significantly changed in the last four years that I’ve been with AT&T, and I have a perfect payment history, so it looks like they raised the tier 1 boundary sometime in the last year.

I called AT&T today to see if they could move my date forward, and the rep (“Kevin”) was extremely helpful in calling around to various departments and even local store managers to see what they could do, but nobody could actually move my date, despite his opinion that I was one of their “best customers”.

I did learn a few things, though:

I’d love to know the monthly-bill-price boundary to be a Tier 1 customer, but I can tell you that it’s almost certainly above the ~$80/month that I’ve spent for the last year. Knowing this number could make plan add-ons, such as tethering, more worthwhile.


  1. I recognize how much of a first-world problem this is. 

Cleaning…

This is going to be a problem:


(Screenshot by someone on Twitter two weeks ago. I can’t find the tweet now — sorry.)

Every iOS app has its own “home” directory where it can store files. Every file and directory that an app puts there, except anything in a Caches or tmp directory, gets backed up when you sync your device to iTunes.

Prior to iOS 5, the system never deleted the contents of Caches and tmp, so they were safe places for apps to put data that should always be available but could be redownloaded if the user did a complete restore or otherwise lost all data, and therefore shouldn’t be taking up space in backups and slowing down syncs.

In iOS 5, since iCloud backups are now possible, Apple has started cracking down on apps that store too much in any backed-up directory, such as Documents. Many developers have recently received emails from Apple like this:

In recent testing it appears that [your app] stores a fair amount of data in its Documents folder.

Since iCloud backups are performed daily over Wi-Fi for each user’s iOS device, it’s important to ensure the best possible user experience by minimizing the amount of data being stored by your app.

In addition to purchased music, apps, books, Camera roll, and device settings, everything in your app’s home directory, including its Documents folder, is backed up to iCloud.

Data stored in the application bundle itself, the caches directory, and the temp directory is not backed up to iCloud. Your app should store data in these locations according to the iCloud Data Storage Guidelines on <http://developer.apple.com/icloud/documentation/data-storage/>.

Please review these guidelines, make any required changes to your app, and submit an update to the App Store.

And that documentation page makes it pretty clear:

  1. Only documents and other data that is user-generated, or that cannot otherwise be recreated by your application, should be stored in the <Application_Home>/Documents directory and will be automatically backed up by iCloud.
  2. Data that can be downloaded again or regenerated should be stored in the <Application_Home>/Library/Caches directory. Examples of files you should put in the Caches directory include database cache files and downloadable content, such as that used by magazine, newspaper, and map applications.

Sounds easy: just move anything that can be redownloaded to Caches.

Instapaper has stored its downloaded articles in Caches for years, since I didn’t want to slow down iTunes syncing for my customers or enlarge their backups unnecessarily, and full restores don’t happen often enough for it to be a problem for most people. This new policy now locks me into using Caches: I no longer have a choice.

But in iOS 5, there’s an important change: Caches and tmp — the only two directories that aren’t backed up — are “cleaned” out when the device is low on space.

A handful of developers reported this problem happening to them with Instapaper before iOS 5 was even released to the public — I’m dreading the influx of reports about this now that iOS 5 is available to everyone.

There’s no longer anywhere to store files that don’t need to be backed up (or can’t be, by the new policy) but shouldn’t be randomly deleted. This is problematic for lots of apps, including this quick list off the top of my head:

The common theme is offline. It’s easy to assume that this isn’t a big problem — that surely, anything downloadable can be redownloaded at any time. But that’s not the case.

A common scenario: an Instapaper customer is stocking up an iPad for a long flight. She syncs a bunch of movies and podcasts, downloads some magazines, and buys a few new games, leaving very little free space. Right before boarding, she remembers to download the newest issue of The Economist. (I think highly of my customers.) This causes free space to fall below the threshold that triggers the cleaner, which — in the background, unbeknownst to her — deletes everything that was saved in Instapaper. Later in the flight, with no internet connectivity, she goes to launch Instapaper and finds it completely empty.

(Last week, almost this exact scenario happened to one of my customers.)

It creates a terrible experience for everyone:

It gets worse as you consider how often redownloading data isn’t a good option or isn’t even possible:

But even with available, fast, unlimited internet connectivity, randomly deleting an app’s data is still a problem:

When customers save an article with Instapaper, get a book in iBooks, or download a podcast with Instacast, they expect it to be there next time they launch the app. Even though it’s technically redownloadable, customers see that as their data — they put it there, and it’s theirs to remove if and when they see fit.

When the cleaner wipes it out, it appears that the app has failed and deleted their data. And customers won’t know that it’s an iOS 5 behavior — they’ll understandably blame the app developers. Even though it’s not our fault, it’s certainly going to become our problem.

There needs to be a file storage location that behaves the way Caches did before iOS 5: it’s not backed up to iTunes or iCloud, it’s not synced, but it’s also never deleted unless the app is deleted.

UPDATE: In iOS 5.0.1, Apple has added a method for developers to mark files outside of Caches and tmp as “do not back up”. Presumably, once developers adopt this as necessary, this problem should be solved.

Introducing Instapaper 4.0 for iPad and iPhone

This is a big update. (Impatient? App Store link.)

Navigation

The iPad browsing interface has been completely redesigned to feel more at home in the iPad environment. Instead of just being a blown-up full-screen list, it’s now a more touch-friendly grid, with all navigation available in any orientation:


The iPad list screen

On iPhone, the navigation has also been unified and restyled:


The iPhone list screens

Reading

The iPhone reading screens also no longer show the top status bar by default (but there’s an option to put it back). This gives a larger, less distracting reading area without sacrificing easy access to the toolbar or annoying customers with finicky full-screen tap modes.


The iPhone reading screen (dark mode, right)

Want to check the time periodically without leaving the status bar visible all the time? Just tap the Actions button in the toolbar and the status bar will slide in.

Articles from many sites now display the site title, author name, and published date when available:


(Availability of author, title, and date information will increase over time.)

The scroll bar on the right side is now draggable: simply touch the indicator for a moment to activate it, then drag to quickly scroll through an article. With the small activation delay, you won’t accidentally invoke it when scrolling normally, but it’s easy to activate when you want to.

Reading at night in dark mode is now even better, because under iOS 5, Instapaper now supports true hardware brightness control. Adjustable brightness is now also available on iPhone for the first time:

To finally end the long-standing confusion and debates between Archiving and Deleting articles, they now peacefully coexist everywhere:

When you’ve Liked an article, the Delete option is not shown, since deleting it would also remove it from your Liked list.

Wikipedia

Selecting text and tapping Define can now look up terms in Wikipedia (online) in addition to the offline dictionary:

Footnotes

Footnotes from most websites are now converted to a “…” button that shows them in a popover so you don’t need to jump to the bottom to read them:

This is a huge improvement in the usefulness of footnotes while reading. Showing similar popups with Javascript to all web browsers should really be a feature of all blogging software that generates footnotes.

Multi-select

Articles can now be multi-selected, like Apple’s Mail and Photos apps, for archiving, deleting, or moving to folders:

Browsing

Instead of just showing Liked articles from online friends who use Instapaper, the Friends panel can now show all links posted to your Facebook news feed, Twitter timeline, or Tumblr Dashboard:

So even if your friends don’t use Instapaper as much as you do, you can still find plenty of great articles to read.

For more great articles, the Editors section has been rewritten. Now sourced exclusively from Give Me Something To Read (a.k.a. Editor’s Picks), the new interface is faster to load, faster to browse, and faster to save articles to read later:

Search

Instapaper now has a true search feature, available as part of the $1/month Subscription.

Subscribers can now search the full contents of every article they’ve ever saved to Instapaper: unread, filed into folders, or in the Archive. (Deleted items can’t be searched because they’re really deleted.)

The new search feature is built right into the app:


(This replaces the old downloaded-articles-only search in the app.)

Search is available for all Subscribers in the app today. It will be available on the website next week.

You can also now subscribe via In-App Purchase. It’s called Search Subscription. The website Subscription and the new Search Subscription in the app are the same thing, with the same features, just purchased in different ways: either PayPal or In-App Purchase.

App Directory

The new App Directory showcases apps that integrate with Instapaper in various ways, such as sending articles to Instapaper or receiving links and selected text from the Share panel:

And more

Other changes in the 4.0 app:

This is a great update. Download it now.

How to bring good design to a platform

  1. Demonstrate from the top that high quality and attention to detail are prioritized and appreciated above everything else, including being the first to market, having the most features, or having the most aggressive prices. If you can get those as well, that’s great, but quality will not be sacrificed to do so.
  2. Instill these values in your staff. If you can’t, hire a staff for which you can. Better yet, hire a staff for which you don’t need to.
  3. Aggressively pursue simplification, elegance, craftsmanship, and the highest-class user experiences in the product line. Ruthlessly cut or hold features or entire products that aren’t good enough.
  4. Make it pretty.

How not to bring good design to a platform

  1. Skip steps 1–3 above.

“I finally cracked it”

My wife and I watch TV shows on a TV set, but I wouldn’t say that we “watch TV”.

To me, “watching TV” means turning on a TV set to watch whatever is “on”. More specifically, turning on the TV set and a cable box (and, for many people, a standalone audio receiver as well), to watch whatever is being broadcast on cable TV at the moment, possibly flipping through channels regularly, in order to kill time. It’s an inherently passive activity: infinite entertainment passes by with no effort or interaction required. When one show ends, another begins.

Like many modern geeks, we don’t have cable TV service. Our TV set is merely a monitor for game consoles and media players. We can watch movies and TV shows, but not live — only via iTunes and Netflix. It’s more limited than cable TV: relatively few shows are available, and we’re usually pretty far “behind” the broadcast schedule for current shows, making it difficult to talk to people about current TV shows. (This may be a feature, not a bug.) And it requires effort: when a TV episode or movie ends, nothing happens. It’s up to us to decide what to do next and make it happen: either find something else to watch, or turn off the TV and do something else.

This arrangement dramatically changed the way we watched TV. We can watch whenever we want: everything accessible to us is “on demand”. We can pause anything and resume it at any time. We haven’t regularly seen commercials since we cancelled our cable service five years ago. And we only watch shows that we actually think are good, rather than killing countless hours watching whatever’s “on” because it’s not quite bad enough to turn off.

It’s great.

Cable TV customers have attempted to gain these benefits with the DVR, but it’s a bad hack. Even the best results are more like an automated VCR than true on-demand video, and almost nobody reliably gets perfect results. The way to escape the dysfunction of broadcast TV isn’t to record it and play it back later.

But there’s seemingly no way around cable TV operators. They have effectively infinite money coming in (consider how many U.S. households are paying them $60 or more per month), they fight very hard to keep it that way, and they’ve locked up more content deals than any internet video service could hope for.

Some geeks like us are willing to accept the limitations of cable-less TV watching, but most of the mass market isn’t.

So I’m curious what Steve Jobs was planning for Apple’s TV, and whether such a product is under active development. As The Washington Post reports from Steve’s biography by Walter Isaacson:

“[Jobs] very much wanted to do for television sets what he had done for computers, music players, and phones: make them simple and elegant,” Isaacson wrote.

Isaacson continued: “‘I’d like to create an integrated television set that is completely easy to use,’ he told me. ‘It would be seamlessly synced with all of your devices and with iCloud.’ No longer would users have to fiddle with complex remotes for DVD players and cable channels. ‘It will have the simplest user interface you could imagine. I finally cracked it.’”

The simplest interpretation is that this theoretical Apple TV set would be similar to the TVs that we know today, but built with Apple’s quality and style, and with an Apple control interface. Like other TVs on the market, it would have a handful of HDMI inputs on the back for plugging in your crappy cable box and your obsolete game consoles. It would include an ATSC tuner so it can tune to your boring over-the-air networks with your crappy antenna if you aren’t paying a crappy cable company for crappy cable service. If you are paying a crappy cable company, maybe it would have a CableCARD slot or two. Either way, it can replace your crappy DVR with a less-crappy DVR implementation. And it would have all of the current Apple TV box’s functionality built in, with a nice little remote and a simple menu navigation system.

I really hope that isn’t it. That doesn’t sound like Apple.

Apple makes a class of obviously disruptive products, such as the iPhone and iPad, that blow away the industries that existed before them. They also make another class of products, such as the Airport Extreme, that don’t revolutionize their category but simply stand as high-quality implementations of what everyone else is doing. If Steve was excited about Apple’s potential entrance into the TV market, he probably intended to revolutionize it, not just make a nicer version of everyone else’s TV set.

The way to revolutionize the TV market is to cut out all of the legacy. No cable companies. No broadcast tuners. No channels. No DVRs. All internet delivery. All on-demand. No commercials.

But that’s an incredibly tall order. Apple can do a lot, but I’m not sure that they can do that, given how much of it is out of their control.

If all they do is make a really nice TV set like everyone else’s, it’ll probably be as interesting as the Airport Extreme: a nice product in its category, but not exciting or scaring the crap out of anyone.

But if they’ve managed to pull off something more interesting, I’d hate to be in the TV business when it’s released.

Official Marco.org in-depth review of the iPhone 4S

It’s just like the iPhone 4, but faster, with a better camera, and with Siri.

Recommended.

15” MacBook Pro heat update

I’m getting emails almost every day asking about updates to my 15” MacBook Pro heat and fan-noise drama. Here’s the gripping conclusion to that incredibly interesting saga:

The 2.0 GHz, 6490M-equipped replacement model does indeed run much cooler than the 2.3 GHz with the 6750M that I returned. The 2.0 has far less fan noise under normal usage, with the fans only spinning up audibly when the CPUs are under a sustained moderate to heavy load.

I think my 2.3 was a lemon and exhibited its heat and fan problems unusually severely, but even a properly working one has a lot more heat to move in most usage than the 2.0 GHz model. Both the 2.3 GHz CPU and the 6750M GPU run significantly hotter than the 2.0 GHz CPU and the 6490M GPU, respectively.

The battery life of the 2.0 isn’t much better than the 2.3: if I’m conservative with brightness, force the use of integrated graphics, and don’t stress the CPU much, I can get about 3–4 hours out of it. That would have been great five years ago, but our standards are higher today.

This discussion has become mostly moot, though. A few days ago, Apple stopped selling both models and quietly updated the CPUs and GPUs across the entire MacBook Pro line. Neither a 2.0 GHz CPU nor the 6490M are available anymore: the coolest-running 15” configuration is now the maybe-too-hot 2.2 GHz CPU with the definitely-too-hot 6750M GPU. The high-end configuration, at 2.4 GHz, has an even hotter 6770M GPU.

Neither the CPU nor the GPU have undergone a die shrink and both upgrades are higher-clocked versions of their predecessors, so the heat has likely increased substantially. And now, the cooler-running configuration is gone.

Both the CPU (with Ivy Bridge) and the GPU (with the 7000 series) families are slated for significant die shrinks soon, which should cut the heat and substantially increase battery life. Increased performance of the integrated graphics with Ivy Bridge may even allow the next 15” to cut the discrete GPU entirely for even more power and heat savings. These savings could finally allow a MacBook Air-style redesign of the 15” MacBook Pro.

Ivy Bridge probably isn’t shipping until next spring. So if you’re not in a rush, I wouldn’t suggest getting the current 15” MacBook Pro. The next update is probably going to be a huge improvement.

Double-dipping

I bought my first iPad magazine1 last weekend: one issue of The New Yorker.

It was $4.99. Most entire apps (including mine) cost $4.99 or less, once, and this magazine is $4.99 for just one issue. Ignoring what content and apps “should” cost, and despite knowing that this is a very good magazine, this felt expensive.

As I was flipping through it, when I saw the first of many full-page ads, I was offended. I thought, “I paid good money for this and it’s full of ads?”

Consumers have tolerated double-dipping — products that cost customers money and have ads — for over a century. It doesn’t feel as offensive in contexts that have always had it, such as printed newspapers and magazines, or cable TV.

But ads shoved into a non-free iPad or web publication feel wrong to me.

I don’t regret paying for Ars Premier or Consumer Reports because I get a clean, ad-free, reader-friendly experience in exchange. But I hesitate to pay for The New York Times because I know it’s still going to be full of ads, paginated stories, and distractions.

Maybe these different standards are because the contexts are so different: magazines, newspapers, and TV all feel cheap, since they’ve shat on consumers to make a few more cents for decades, but the iPad or a well-designed website are clean, high quality, and customer-centric.

Or maybe it’s just me. I just don’t feel comfortable paying for an iPad or web publication, no matter how good it is, and then having ads shoved down my throat. It makes me feel ripped off: what did I pay for?


  1. Yes, I probably should try iPad magazines and newspapers more often, given the business I’m in. 

Informal e-reader library comparison

In the past, I’ve always recommended the Kindle over other e-ink readers, and buying Kindle books instead of iBooks on iOS, because Amazon had the biggest library of relevant titles and strongest content ecosystem.

But Amazon’s advantage is no longer as clear in my casual searching.

This isn’t anything like a formal study, so take this with a grain of salt. I think searches like this are the best way to decide which e-reader ecosystem to buy into: search for a bunch of things you might want to read, plus the last few books you bought, and see which platform has the best availability for you.

Here are some books, newspapers, and magazines I’ve searched for recently in the four biggest ebook stores, plus a few new and old bestsellers for some diversity:

 KindleNookKoboiBooks
Walter Isaacson: Steve Jobs$16.99$16.99$16.99$16.99
Stephen King: On Writing$12.99$12.99$12.99$12.99
Nicholas Sparks: The Best of Me$12.99$12.99$12.99$12.99
Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex$9.99$9.99$9.99$9.99
David Simon: Homicide$9.99$9.99$9.99$9.99
Haruki Murakami: Kafka on the Shore$11.99$11.99$11.99$11.99
George Carlin: Last Words$9.99$9.99$9.99$9.99
Thomas Sowell: Basic Economics (4th Ed.)$17.68$31.96$28.79$19.99
Scott Berkun: Confessions of a Public Speaker$9.99$9.99$16.39$19.99
Michael Lopp: Being Geek$9.99$9.99$16.39X
Steve Hagen: Buddhism Plain and Simple$9.99$9.99XX
Alexander Aciman and Emmett Rensin: TwitteratureXX$10.99$10.99
Don Norman: Living with Complexity$14.72XXX

(Prices in yellow are noticeably higher than the others.)

Kobo and iBooks both appear to suffer with back-catalog and niche-publisher availability, and Kobo often has higher pricing on the less popular titles, but availability and pricing of current popular titles is even across the board.

I’m particularly impressed by Kobo here: they’re much bigger than I expected.

Periodicals are a little different, since iBooks doesn’t include them directly: they must have iOS apps. Assuming that most people don’t consider the iPhone an e-reader, I limited this to iPad apps.

All periodical prices are the per-month subscription price. Where a monthly subscription wasn’t available, I used the smallest time increment available above single issues and divided accordingly:

 KindleNookKoboiPad app
The New York Times$19.98$19.99$19.99$19.99
The Wall Street Journal$14.99$14.99$14.99$17.29
The Los Angeles Times$9.99$9.99Xfree
The Columbus Dispatch$6.99$6.99$6.99$28.99
The New Yorker$2.99$2.99X$5.99
TIME$2.99$2.99X$21.62
Newsweek$2.99$2.99X$4.99
The Economist$9.99$10.49X$13.33
The Atlantic$1.99$1.99X$1.83
The Nation$1.99$1.99$1.99$1.99
Car and DriverX$0.99X$1.99
Reader’s Digest$1.49$1.49X$1.99

Kobo suffered badly here: its periodical selection is very poor. (This is it.)

Kindle and Nook both did very well. I’m impressed with how much the Nook periodical selection has improved since my Nook Simple Touch review — at the time, the selection was very sad, but now it seems competitive with the Kindle’s.

Magazines that are mostly graphical or richly formatted, such as Martha Stewart’s Living, are better on tablets, not e-ink readers. I didn’t include them here, but if you primarily read them, you probably want an iPad or a Nook Color.

The newspaper and magazine experience on the iPad is very different from traditional e-readers, since they’re all individual apps instead of being built into the system reading environment. This can be good and bad: some of these publications, like the L.A. Times, TIME, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, have pretty poor iPad apps. Others, like The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Economist, are much better experiences than any other e-reader provides.

The iPad’s color screen helps periodicals a lot, but the Nook Color and upcoming Kindle Fire have color screens, too. What helps most is the iPad’s fast and responsive navigation and interaction, and the highly advanced software components that the magazine apps can all easily use. You can read books well on any e-reader, but periodicals truly shine on the iPad. (And if your favorite periodical isn’t available, you can always go to their website — an option not usually present and usable on e-readers.)

If you’re going to primarily read periodicals, get the iPad. If you’re going to read books, all of these platforms look like safe options.

The Kindle still looks like the best ecosystem for the titles I searched for, but just barely — its advantage is much smaller than it used to be.

Some responses to the magazine counterarguments

I’ve gotten hundreds of Twitter and email messages about my post on iPad-magazine ads. I thought I was being clear that this was simply how I felt, but that post has irritated a lot of magazine and newspaper people who seem to be misinterpreting my argument. So I’ll restate it, in brief:

I feel ripped off when I pay for an iPad or web publication and it still contains ads.

It’s not even an argument, really. It’s a feeling. From a customer. I’ve also gotten a lot of emails and tweets in agreement, so this might represent the feelings of a nontrivial amount of potential customers.

Ads as content

For many magazine genres, such as fashion or lifestyle, the ads are a desirable part of the content. I’m not talking about those here: I’m talking about magazines in which the most desirable content is the non-ad text. (“I read it for the articles.”)

“The problem isn’t ads, it’s intrusive ads”

No, the problem is ads. Ads signify to me that the money I paid isn’t enough to give me the product I thought I paid for. That’s what I called “double-dipping”: I paid with the expectation that I was paying for the entire product, and then I was unexpectedly sold out, which offends me.

(Again, this is my opinion.)

This is the same reason I find “Rate this app!” dialogs in paid apps distasteful. I paid for the app, and then it intrudes into my usage to solicit an advertisement from me to attract more buyers.

The tangible product

When I pay for a printed magazine issue — which only ever happens if I’m flying somewhere and pick up The Economist for taxi, takeoff, and landing — I don’t feel ripped off that there are ads in it.

Maybe it’s because the cover price feels like it’s paying for the physical product, and the ads feel like they’re paying for the content. But I don’t feel that distinction when buying a digital issue: that just feels like I’m paying for the content, since there’s no physical artifact. Again, I’m talking about feelings here.

“Subscribers pay far less than $4.99 per issue”

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me, as people from the industry respond, that ads are the primary business for most magazines and newspapers — that the business depends more on ad revenue than subscription fees or newsstand sales.

I don’t know the business, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that the reason subscriptions are so heavily discounted from the per-issue prices is that the publishers want to encourage as many subscribers as possible, which makes their ad sales more lucrative against a guaranteed minimum audience (for whom they have lots of reliable demographic information). If the per-issue prices were very low, it wouldn’t encourage as many subscribers and the targeting would therefore be more vague, weakening the value to advertisers.

But to a new customer — someone who just bought their first single issue — it’s pretty clear that they’re getting the worst deal possible. That’s not a good way to grow a base of recurring customers.

How are newspaper and magazine subscription numbers looking these days? Not great, right? Wouldn’t it be in their best interests to encourage new customers?

“Nobody would pay the full cost, so ads are necessary”

As I said, I don’t know what I’m talking about with the specifics of the business, as so many of you have pointed out. But permit me to let my mind wander for a minute:

Ads are supposedly necessary to subsidize the publications so they can be sold at an acceptable cost to most readers. But if ads didn’t need to be sold, the staff and operations related to ad sales could be cut, reducing the cost of delivering each issue.

If the publication went digital-only, the entire infrastructure for printing and distribution could be cut, too.

If all readership is on the website and an iPad app, how much of the layout staff is necessary? Web publications don’t need custom layouts for each post. On the iPad, I find that the magazine-like layouts get in the way and make the reading experience more difficult. iPad magazine content shouldn’t look like scanned printed-magazine pages.

Are incredibly complex and expensive-to-develop iPad apps necessary, or would simpler ones suffice? Are enough customers really demanding the expensive features — especially those with big per-issue costs, like all of the multimedia “extras” — to make them worth their costs, or would most of the readership still pay the same amount for just the text and a few optional photos in a nice, reusable template? That’s how most websites publish their content, and we’re all fine with it. In many ways, such a structure could result in much better apps: adjustable fonts, text selection, highlighting, and many other reader-friendly features become much simpler to implement in such an environment. Higher quality, lower cost. (And this is a business that I can speak authoritatively on.)

With a smaller staff, and with most resources allocated to content generation, how much management and support staff could be cut? And would the huge offices in prime Manhattan locations still be necessary?

What percentage of a major publication’s cost per issue is directly responsible for the authoring and editing of the content today? Much less than half, I’d guess. (I’d love to know real numbers on this.) How much could we increase that by cutting these departments that are irrelevant or unnecessary in a modern, digital-only publication?

You can continue to call me an idiot or tell me that I have no idea what I’m talking about. (Many do, every day. It’s the cost of having a blog, an app, or an email address, and I have all three.) But there are much more interesting questions I’d like to see discussed by the people who know this business, not how much of an ass I am for feeling like paying for ads is a bad deal.

Maybe the problem isn’t my opinion on double-dipping, or the need to “educate” consumers on how much we should pay and how many ads we should tolerate, or how ads and direct payments and selling our personal information are all necessary to pay the immense cost of production.

Maybe the cost of production is the problem.

This isn’t a new argument. (Not even close.) But it’s hard for me to justify excusing an industry’s high costs that pay for work I didn’t ask for and don’t need in order to have great articles and news to read on my iPad.

Those are big problems to solve. But they’re the publishers’ problems, not the customers’. They’re implementation details. I don’t need to know why $4.99 is insufficient to pay for 15 articles on my iPad. I just know that it feels like a premium price for such a relatively small amount of content, and I don’t feel right paying premium prices for ad-subsidized products.

Maybe I’m the only one. But what does it mean for the business if I’m not? If you’re in the business, wouldn’t addressing that question be a more productive use of your time than telling potential customers that their feelings are wrong?

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