Apple Watch starting to be useful

Even after the Time for Coffee app has been updated for WatchOS 2.0 support last year and my Apple Watch has become significantly more useful, the fact that the complication didn’t get a chance to update very often and the fact that launching the app took an eternity kind of detracted from the experience.

Which lead to me not really using the watch most of the time. I’m not a watch person. Never was. And while the temptation of playing with a new gadget lead to me wearing it on and off, I was still waiting for the killer feature to come around.

This summer, this has changed a lot.

I’m in the developer program, so I’m running this summer’s beta versions and Apple has also launched Apple Pay here in Switzerland.

So suddenly, by wearing the watch, I get access to a lot of very nice features that present themselves as huge user experience improvements:

  • While «Time for Coffee»’s complication currently is flaky at best, I can easily attribute this to WatchOSes current Beta state. But that doesn’t matter anyways, because the Watch now keeps apps running, so whenever I need public transport departure information and when the complication is flaky, I can just launch the app which now comes up instantly and loads the information within less than a second.
  • Speaking of leaving apps running: The watch can now be configured to revert to the clock face only after more than 8 minutes have passed since the last use. This is perfect for the Bring shopping list app which now suddenly is useful. No more taking the phone out while shopping.
  • Auto-Unlocking the Mac by the presence of an unlocked and worn watch has gone from not working at all, to working rarely, to working most of the time as the beta releases have progressed (and since Beta 4 we also got the explanation that WiFi needs to be enabled on the to-be-unlocked mac, so now it works on all machines). This is very convenient.
  • While most of the banks here in Switzerland boycott Apple Pay (a topic for another blog entry – both the banks and Apple are in the wrong), I did get a Cornèrcard which does work with Apple Pay. Being able to pay contactless with the watch even for amounts larger than CHF 50 (which is the limit for passive cards) is amazing.

Between all these features, I think there’s finally enough justification for me to actually wear the watch. It still happens that I forget to put it on here and then, but overall, this has totally put new life into this gadget, to the point where I’m inclined to say that it’s a totally new and actually very good experience now.

If you were on the fence before, give it a try come next autumn. It’s really great now.

The new AppleTV

When the 2nd generation of the AppleTV came out and offered AirPlay support, I bought one more or less for curiosity value, but it worked so well in conjunction with AirVideo that it has completely replaced my previous attempts at an in-home media center system.

It was silent, never really required OS or application updates, never crashed and never overheated. And thanks to AirVideo it was able to play everthing I could throw at it (at the cost of a server running in the closet of course).

The only inconvenience was the fact that I needed too many devices. Playing a video involved my TV, the AppleTV and my iOS device. Plus remotes for TV and AppleTV. Personally, I didn’t really mind much, but while I would have loved to give my parents access to my media library (1 Gbit/s upstream FTW), the requirement to use three devices and to correctly switch on AirPlay has made this a complete impossibility due to the complexity.

So I patiently awaited the day when the AppleTV would finally be able to run apps itself. There was no technical reason to prevent that – the AppleTV totally was powerful enough for this and it was already running iOS.

You can imagine how happy I was when finally I got what I wanted and the new 4th generation AppleTV was announced. Finally a solution my parents can use. Finally something to help me to ditch the majority of the devices involved.

So of course I bought the new device the moment it became available.

I even had to go through additional trouble due to the lack of the optical digital port (the old AppleTV was connected to a Sonos playbar), but I found an audio extractor that works well enough.

So now after a few weeks of use, the one thing that actually pushed me to write this post here is the fact that the new AppleTV is probably the most unfinished and unpolished product that I have ever bought from Apple. Does it work? Yes. But the list of small oversights and missing pieces is as big as I have never seen in an Apple product. Ever.

Let me give you a list – quite like what I’ve done 12 years ago for a very different device

  • While the AppleTV provides you with an option to touch it with an iOS device for the configuration of the Wifi and the appleid settings, I still had to type in my appleid password twice: Once for the AppStore and once for the game center. Mind you, my appleid password is 30 characters long, containing uppercase, lowercase digits and symbols. Have fun doing this on the on-screen keyboard
  • The UI is laggy. The reason for having to type in the game center password was because the UI was still loading the system appleid as I was pressing the “Press here to login button”. First nothing happened, then the button turned into a “Press here to sign out button” and then the device reacted to my button press. Thank you
  • The old AppleTV supported either the Remote app on an iPhone or even a bluetooth keyboard for character entry. The new one doesn’t support any of this, so there’s really no way around the crappy on-screen keyboard.
  • While the device allows you to turn off automatic app updates, there is no list of apps with pending updates. There’s only “Recently updated”, but that’s a) limited to 20 apps, b) lists all recently updated apps, c) gives no indication what app is updated yet and what isn’t and finally d) isn’t even sorted by date of the last update. This UI is barely acceptable for enabled automatic updates, but completely unusable if you want them disabled to the point that I decided to just bite the bullet and enable them.
  • The sound settings offer “Automatic”, “Stereo” and “Dolby Surround”. Now, “Dolby Surround” is a technology from the mid-90-ies that encodes one additional back-channel in a stereo signal and is definitely not what you want (which would be “Dolby Digital”). Of course I’ve assumed that there’s some “helpfulnes” at work here, detecting the fact that my TV doesn’t support Dolby Digital (but the playbar does, so it’s perfectly fine to send out AC/3 sinal). Only after quite a bit of debugging I found out that what Apple calls “Dolby Surround” is actually “Dolby Digital”. WHY??
  • The remote is way too sensitive. If you so much as lift it up, you’ll start seeking your video (which works way better than anything I’ve seen before, but still…)
  • Until the first update (provided without changelog or anything the like), the youtube app would start to constantly interrupt playback and reload the stream once you paused a video once.
  • Of course in Switzerland, Siri doesn’t work, even though I would totally be able to use it in english (or german – it’s available in Germany after all) Not that it matters because the Swiss store is devoid of media I’d actually be interested in anyways and there’s no way for third-parties to integrate into the consolidated system-wide interface for media browsing.
  • Home Sharing doesn’t work for me. At. All. Even after typing in my Apple ID password a third time (which, yes, it asked me to).
  • It still doesn’t wake up on network access, nor appear in the list of Airplay-able devices of my phone when it’s in sleep mode. This only happens in one segment of my network, so it might be an issue with a switch though – wouldn’t be the first time :/

I’m sure as time goes on we’ll see updates to fix this mess, but I cannot for the life of me understand why Apple thought that the time was ready to release this.

Again: It works fine and I will be brining one to my mother next Friday because I know she’ll be able to use it just fine (especially using the Plex app). But this kind of lack of polish we’re used to on Android and Windows. How can Apple produce something like this?

protecting siri

Over the last weekend, 9to5mac.com posted about a hack which shows that it’s possible to run Siri on a iPhone 4 and
an iPod Touch 4g and possibly even oder devices – considering how much of Siri
is running on Apple’s servers.

We’ve always suspected that the decision to restrict Siri to the 4S is
basically a marketing decision and I don’t really care about this either.
Nobody is forcing you to use Siri and thus nobody is forcing you to update to
anything.

Siri is Apple’s product and so are the various iPhones. It’s their decision
whom they want to sell what to.

What I find more interesting is that it was even possible to have a hacked
Siri on a non 4S-phone talk to Apple’s servers. If I were in Apple’s shoes, I
would have made that (practically) impossible.

And here’s how:

Having a device that you put into users hands and trusting it is always a very
hard, if impossible thing to do as the device can (more or less) easily be
tampered with.

So to solve this problem, we need some component that we know reasonably well
to be safe from the user’s tampering and we need to find a way for that
component to prove to the server that indeed the component is available and
healthy.

I would do that using public key crypto and specialized hardware that works
like a TPM. So that would be a chip that contains a private key embedded in
hardware, likely not updatable. Also, that private key will never leave that
device. There is no API to read it.

The only API the chip provides is either a relatively high-level API to sign
an arbitrary binary blob or, more likely, a lower level one to encrypt some
small input (a SHA1 hash for example) with the private key.

OK. Now we have that device (also, it’s likely that the iPhone already has
something like that for its secured boot process). What’s next?

Next you make sure that the initial handshake with your servers requires that
device. Have the server post a challenge to the phone. Have the phone solve it
and have the response signed by that crypto device.

On your server, you will have the matching public key. If the signature checks
out, you talk to the device. If not, you don’t.

Now, it is possible using very expensive hardware to extract that key from the
hardware (by opening the chip’s casing and using a microscope and a lot of
skills). If you are really concerned about this, give each device a unique
private key. If a key gets compromised, blacklist it.

This greatly complicates the manufacturing process of course, so you might go
ahead with just one private key per hardware type and hope that cracking the
key will take longer than the lifetime of the hardware (which is very likely).

This isn’t at all specific to Siri of course. Whenever you have to trust a
device that you put into consumers hands, this is the way to go and I’m sure
we’ll be seeing more of this in the future (imagine the uses for copy
protection – let’s hope we don’t end up there).

I’m not particularly happy that this is possible, but I’d rather talk about it
than to hope that it’s never going to happen – it will and I’ll be pissed.

For now I’m just wondering why Apple wasn’t doing it to protect Siri.

Sticking to the iPhone

Recently, I got a chance to play around with a Nexus One phone and I was using it as my main phone with the intent to use it as my new main phone. I had enough of the lack of background apps and the closedness of the iPhone, so I thought, I should really go through with this.

Unfortunately though, this didn’t work out so well.

People who haven’t tried both devices would probably never understand this, but the Nexus One touch screen is really, really bad. The bit of squigglyness you see on the picture in the linked article seems like no big deal, but after one week of Nexus One and then going back to the iPhone, you can’t imagine how smooth it feels to use the iPhone again.

It’s like being in a very noisy environment and then stepping back into a quiet one.

Why did I try the iPhone again?

While I got Podcast listening to work correctly on the Android phone, I noticed that a lot of my commuting time is not just spent by listening to podcasts, but that some games (currently Doodle Jump and Plants vs. Zombies) play a huge role too and the supply of games on the Android plattform is really, really bad.

And don’t get me started on the keyboard: Neither the built-in one nor the one I had switched to even comes close to what the iPhone provides. I’m about 5 times as fast on the iPhone than on the Android. Worse: After switching to the Nexus One, I again began dreading having to write SMSes which usually spells death to any phone for me.

Speaking of keyboard: The built-in one is completely unusable for multilingual people: The text I write on a phone is about 50% english and 50% german. The Android keyboard doesn’t allow switching the language on the fly (while the english and german keyboards are quite alike, the keyboard language also determines the auto correction language), and it couples the keyboard language to the phone UI language.

This is really bad, as over the years I bacame so accustomed to english UIs that I frankly cannot work with german UIs any more – also because of the usually really bad translations. Eek.

So, let’s tally.

iPhone Android Device
Advantages
  • Working touch screen
  • Smoother graphics and thus more fluent usage.
  • Never crashes
  • Apps I learned to depend on are available (Wemlin, Doodle Jump […])
  • No background noise in the headphones
  • Background-Applications (I wanted this for working IM as the notification based solutions on the iPhone never seemed to work)
  • Built-in applications can be replaced at will
  • Ability to buzz pictures (yeah. I know. Who needs this?)
  • On-the-fly podcast download.
Disadvantages
  • Can’t replace internal apps by better ones
  • Needs iTunes to download podcasts
  • No background apps
  • No buzzing of pictures (at least not if you want a location attached to your buzz)
  • Really bad touch screen (jumpy, inaccurate, sometimes losing calibration until I reboot it)
  • Very mediocre applications available
  • UI sometimes slow
  • Very bad battery life (doesn’t make it through one day even when not heavily used)
  • Crashes about once a day
  • Did I already write “really bad touch screen” – I guess I did, but: “really bad touch screen”
  • Sometimes really bad, sometimes just bad background noise in the headphones. According to HTC, this can be fixed by periodically turning off the phone and removing the battery(!).
  • No audible support (I know I could probably remove the DRM, but why bother at the moment?)

While I thought I could live with the touch screen, the moment I turned on the iPhone again to play a round of “Plants vs. Zombies” that just came out for the i-Devices, I’ve seen how a touch screen is supposed to work and I could not bring myself around to going back, but I still wanted some of the one big iPhone disadvantage, which is lack of non-SMS-based messaging fixed for me, so here’s what I’ve done:

  • WhatsApp on the iPhone works really well as an SMS replacement (something I was after for a very long time)
  • meebo so far never disconnected me on the iPhone which is something all other iPhone IM clients have done for me – and even on the android, meebo tended to disconnect and not reconnect.

For me, that’s it. No more experiments. What ever I tried to get away from Apple’s dictate, it always failed. The N900 is a geeks heaven but doesn’t support my expensive in-ear iPhone headset and doesn’t provide any halfway interesting games. Android has a bad touchscreen, next to no battery life, is slow and crashy.

It’s really hard to admit for me as a geek and strong believer in freedom to use something I bought for whatever purpose I want to use it for, but Apple, even after two years, still rules the phone market in usability and hardware build quality.

Can’t wait to see what the next iteration of the iPhone will be, though they don’t have to change anything as long as their competition still thinks it’s ok to save $2 on each phone by using a crappy touchscreen and a crappy battery.

Apple TV – Second try

When Apple announced their AppleTV a couple of months (or was it years?) ago, I was very skeptical of the general idea behind the device. Think of it: What was the big success behind the iPod? That it could run proprietary AAC files people buy from the music store?

No. That thing didn’t even exist back then. The reason for the success was the total easy (and FAST – remember: Back in the days, we had 1.1 MB/s USB which every MP3 player used vs. 40MB/s Firewire of the iPod) handling and the fact that it was an MP3 player – playing the files everyone already had.

It was a device for playing the content that was available at the time.

The AppleTV in its first incarnation was a device capable of playing content that wasn’t exactly available. Sure it could play the two video podcasts that existed back then (maybe more, but you get the point). And you could buy TV shows and movies in subpar quality on your PC (Windows or Mac) and then transfer them to the device. But the content that was available back then was in a different format: XVID dominated the scene. x264 was a newcomer and MP4 (and mov) wasn’t exactly used.

So what you got was a device, but no content (and the compatible content you had was in subpar quality compared to the incompatible content that was available). And you needed a PC, so it wasn’t exactly a device I could hook to my parents PC for example.

All these things were fixed by Apple today:

  • There is a huge library of content available right here, right now (at least in the US): The new movie rental service. Granted. I think it’s not quite there yet price vs. usability-wise (I think $5 is a totally acceptable price for a movie with unlimited replayability), but at least we have the content.
  • It works without a PC. I can hook this thing up to my parents TV and they can immediately use it.
  • The quality is OK. Actually, it’s more than OK. There is HD content available (though maybe only 720p one, but frankly, on my expensive 1080p projector, I don’t see that much of a difference between 720p and 1080p)
  • It can still access the scarce content that was available before.

The fact that this provides very easy to use video-on-demand to a huge amount of people is what makes me think that this little device is even more of a disruptive technology than the iPod or the iPhone. Think of it: Countless of companies are trying to make people pay for content these days. It’s the telcos, it’s cable companies and it’s device manufacturers. But what do we get? Crappy, constantly crashing devices, which are way too complicated for a non-geek and way too limited in functionality for a geek.

Now we got something that’s perfect for the non-geek. It has the content. It has the ease-of-use. Plug it in, watch your movie. Done. This is what a whole industry tried to do and failed so miserably.

I for my part will still prefer the flexibility given by my custom Windows Media Center solution. I will still prefer the openness provided by illegal copies of movies. I totally refuse to pay multiple times for something just because someone says that I have to. But that’s me.

And even I may sooner or later prefer the comfort of select-now-watch-now to the current procedure (log into private tracker, download torrent, wait for download to finish, watch – torrents are not streamable, even if the bandwith would easily suffice in my case – the packets arrive out of order), so even for me, the AppleTV could be interesting.

This was yet another perfect move by Apple. Ignore the analysts out there who expected more out of this latest keynote. Ignore the bad reception of the keynote by the marked (I hear that Apple stock just dropped a little bit). Ignore all that and listen to yourself: This wonderful device will certainly revolutionize the way we consume video content.

I’m writing this as a constant sceptic – as a person always trying to see a flaw in a certain device. But I’m sure that this time around, they really got it. Nice work!

Mail filtering belongs on the server

Different people who got their iPhone are complaining about SPAM reaching their inbox and want Junk Mail controls on their new gadget, failing to realize the big problem with that approach:

Even if the iPhone is updated with a SPAM filter, the messages will get transmitted and filtered there, which means that you pay for receiving the junk just to throw it away afterwards.

Additionally, Bayes filter still seem to be the way to go with junk mail filtering. The Bayes rules can get pretty large, so this means that you either have to retrain your phone or that the seed data must be synchronized with the phone which will take both a lot of time and space better used for something else.

No. SPAM filtering is a task for the mail server.

I’m using SpamAssassin and DSPAM to check the incoming mail for junk and then I’m using the server side filtering capabilities of our Exchange server to filter mail recognized as SPAM into the “Junk E-Mail” box.

If the filter is easy enough (checking for header values and moving into boxes), even though it is defined in Outlook, the server can process them regardless of which client is connecting to it to fetch the mail (Apple Mail, Thunderbird and the IMAP client on my W880i in my case). This means that all my junk is sorted away into the “Junk Email” folder just when it arrives. It never reaches the INBOX and I never see it.

I don’t have an iPhone and I don’t want to have one (I depend on bluetooth modem functionality and a real keypad), but the same thing applies to any mobile emailing solution. You don’t want SPAM on your Blackberry and especially not on your even simpler non-smartphone.

Speaking of transferring data: The other thing I really don’t like about the iPhone is the browser. Sure: It’s standard compliant, it renders nice, it supports AJAX and supports small-screen-rendering but it transmits the websites uncompressed.

Let me make an example: The digg.com frontpage in Opera Mini causes 10KB of data to be tranferred. It looks perfectly fine on my SonyEricsson W880 and works as such (minus some javascript functionality). Digg.com when accessed via Firefox causes 319 KB to be transmitted.

One MB costs CHF 7 here (though you can have some inclusive MB’s depending on contract) which is around EUR 4.50, so for that money I could watch digg.com three times with the iPhone or 100 times with Opera Mini. The end-user experience is largely the same on both platforms – at least close enough not to warrant the 33 times more expensive access via a browser that works without a special proxy.

As long as GPRS data traffic is prohibitively expensive, junk mail filtering on the server and a prerendering-proxy based browser are a must. Even more so than the other stuff missing in the iPhone.