Posts tagged Fixes
Google has presented a list of concessions in a bid to address the European Union’s concerns and put an end to a two-year long antitrust probe into its search business. Google wants to avoid paying out a massive fine and facing more legal action.
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Yesterday, Apple made up for one of its biggest mobile missteps yet. No, I’m not talking about Maps (it’s still working on that). The company pushed out an update to its native Podcasts app for iOS, overhauling the interface and tacking on impressive new features. It’s still not the best way to manage podcasts on iOS, but it’s a big step up.
When Apple broke Podcasts out from its native Music (formerly “iPod”) app last year, the end product landed in the App Store with a resounding thud. The app, which BuzzFeed called “the worst app it’s ever made,” garnered Apple some incredibly negative user reviews. Topping off a lackluster user experience and buggy performance was a dose of the unnecessarily skeuomorphic design even Apple devotees love to deride and that Jony Ive is expected to axe.
With version 1.2, Podcasts loses the cheesy reel-to-reel tape graphic, gets a fresh design and borrows features from of the best audio consumption apps out there. For example, the new “Stations” feature feels reminiscent of Stitcher Radio’s smart stations, although with less algorithmic intelligence behind it.
The Alternatives Are Still Better
It’s a very solid and badly needed update. Personally, I don’t find it compelling enough to change my existing mobile audio consumption regimen, which includes Stitcher, Instacast and NPR’s excellent mobile apps. Instacast in particular is a great app for for managing and listening to podcasts. PodCruncher, PocketCasts and Downcast are all very popular as well.
Stitcher Radio has much the same content as the apps mentioned above, but it’s way better at content discovery. Its “smart radio” approach offers more of a “lean back” experience, which is ideal for this of us who want to listen to podcasts in the car without careening off the road to our untimely and tragic demise.
Apple would be wise to mimic the best of these apps even more than it already has. I’ve long said that whoever figures out a way to implement an Instapaper “listen later” button would pretty much win the Internet audio game in my book.
Remember when podcasts were supposed to be the future of media consumption? Things didn’t quite pan out the way they felt poised to in 2005, but it’s an important part of audio content and the future of what we once called radio. How popular are they? Both This American Life and WTF With Marc Maron, two of the most popular podcasts, each see hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode. That’s a pretty good showing, but it doesn’t begin to compare to terrestrial radio or Internet services with radio-like qualities such as Pandora and SoundCloud.
Podcasts might not be a radio-killer, but they certainly complement their analog predecessor in a very significant way. Apple didn’t invent podcasting, but its technology helped fuel the medium’s early innovations and it plays an important role in the history of podcasting. It makes sense for Apple to own this space. They don’t. But with Podcasts 1.2, they’re certainly getting there.
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Smartphones are still kind of dumb. Even for features as essential as the calendar, built-in apps usually deliver the bare minimum instead of nailing the experience. That’s why there’s Fantastical for iPhone from Flexibits, which came out Thursday.
Fantastical is something I have used constantly since the Mac version debuted in 2011, and the iPhone app is superb. Its main feature is the ability to type in events in plain English (or French, German, Italian or Spanish), like “go to the thing at 6 on Thursday,” and have the app translate it into an event on your calendar with the right description, date, time and everything.
There are no time spinners or drop-down menus or fiddly controls. Just describe the event the way it is in your head, and it shows up on your calendar.
Fantastical for iPhone also has the best mobile calendar view that I’ve ever seen. The default view shows a ticker of the past and next two days with today in the center, and there are dots on days where you have events. Below, your upcoming events are listed in chronological order. You can scroll up and down in that list, and the ticker above ticks along accordingly. You can always tap the title bar to return to today.
If you swipe down, it switches to a month calendar, with today’s events displayed below. Swipe down again to return to the ticker. I find that kind of confusing — seems like swiping back up should return to the first view — but it’s still very convenient.
How Fantastical For iPhone Was Made
“We’ve always been thinking about the iPhone,” says Michael Simmons of Flexibits. “We’ve always wanted to do an iPhone version, but we never had something that let us say, ‘This is right. This is going to solve the problem.’” Until May, that is, when Kent Sutherland, the other half of Flexibits, came up with the DayTicker concept.
The Flexibits team was working on a new contacts app for the Mac at the time (teaser screenshots), and they actually put that on hold to build Fantastical for iPhone. It took less than six months.
“For us, Fantastical as an application isn’t about whether it’s a Mac app or an iPhone app,” Simmons says. “It’s about solving a problem with calendaring.” You can enter the event as a single stream of words; it even interprets shortcut words like “lunch” as meaning Noon. The natural language input makes life much easier on screens both big and small.
But phone typing is easier to fumble, so Simmons points to the built-in speech-to-text features of the iPhones 4S and 5 as an even easier way to add events. It’s faster than the interaction with Siri, since it doesn’t have to talk back to you, and having the rest of your calendar at a glance is a much more useful context.
Fantastical for iPhone is available Thursday for $1.99. It will be $3.99 when the launch sale ends.
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Facebook’s Native Mobile Problem With Open Graph
In 2010, Facebook attempted to redefine the meaning of “verbs” in the Web Era. The company’s Open Graph turned users actions (such “Jon ran” or “Susie listened”) into status updates, tied to Web apps. The Open Graph opened up a new world of data to Facebook and its developer community. But there was a hitch and, like many of Facebook’s recent issues, the source was mobile. In the Mobile Era, Facebook’s Web-centric approach has caused it many problems, from monetization to user experience in its mobile app on iOS and Android.
On the other hand, Facebook’s biggest strength is its ability to make connections between its users’ friends, what they “like” and what they do. The more threads that Facebook can tie to a user, the better able it is to sell advertising to them. That makes Open Graph the biggest single innovation Facebook has introduced in the last few years.
Integrating Open Graph has been a problem since the it was announced in 2010 and expanded in late 2011 to include the new Timeline profile. Apps with Web-based back ends, such as Spotify, have been easily able to use Open Graph but the option for most native developers was beyond their means. But developers with “native” mobile apps had to go through extraordinary lengths to tie the Open Graph to their applications and only a handful of well-funded startups (such as Instagram or RunKeeper) with big development teams have been able to pull it off. The problem was that the backend systems for native mobile apps are difficult to optimize to Open Graph.
Kinvey’s Middle Point
A startup in Boston is aiming to fix that. Kinvey, a “Backend-as-a-Service” provider for mobile application development, has created a simple way for native developers to connect their apps to Open Graph and allow users to use easily use more “verbs” on their timelines from their smartphones and tablets.
Open Graph functions by pulling in data from Web endpoints by connecting the action (verbs like “run,” “cook,” “listen” etc.) with metadata from the Web app. So, if I am baking cookies, I can hit the “I baked cookies” button on some webpage and Facebook will crawl for the metadata associated with that action and post it to Timeline. This works only because the webpage has metadata, stored on the Web, that Facebook can crawl. Mobile apps do not often have this type of metadata available to be searched, nor any backend system or URL that Facebook can crawl.
Kinvey has a simple solution. It takes the metadata (known as the “object”) from a mobile app and hosts it on its own servers. It then takes that data and creates its own Web endpoints for Facebook to crawl. It is a clever bit of integration. Kinvey is not changing the basic nature of Open Graph nor doing anything extraordinarily technical, rather it is creating a new middle point between a developers’ apps and the Open Graph – with an interface that lets them push or retrieve data. Kinvey sets up the entire system on its own and handles the data flow for the developers.
Good For Everyone?
The benefit for mobile developers is clear: they can extend native apps actions to Facebook’s entire population and make them accessible on Timeline without creating an entirely new structure.
Facebook benefits because it does not have to completely reconfigure Open Graph to serve the large native mobile developer environment. Plus, it gets previously unavailable data from smartphone and tablet users. This could significantly help Facebook spread through the app ecosytem just as it has already done with Web pages.
Users get the benefits of Open Graph on the Web extended to mobile applications.
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Twitter’s features need some work. It has search, and it has a discovery tab, but they’re weak. Twitter is so focused on what’s happening right this second that it lets deeper searching and browsing go by the wayside.
Enter PostPost. It has been around for a while as a Twitter search engine that actually remembers things that happened more than a couple days ago. But now it has a new feature called the Timeline Topline, which surfaces topics discussed by the most important people in your stream.
The Twitter search page says, in huge letters, “See what’s happening right now.” It’ll show you that, sure. But if you’re looking for something more than moments old, good luck. Twitter is working on search, buying start-ups and so forth, but we’re still waiting on results. Twitter search can be useful, but it’s severely limited. If you use the tools Twitter provides, tweets that are more than few days old fall off the edge of the Earth.
In December, Twitter launched its latest redesign, centered around the “Discover” tab. “Discover” shows trends, hashtags, popular and promoted stuff. It’s the ads page. There aren’t many compelling reasons to use it for discovering anything, especially considering what kinds of mind-numbing topics tend to trend on Twitter.
PostPost is better than Twitter itself for solving both of these problems. The search, which I’ve been using for a while, is especially good. It’s not just that it finds older content; I think the PostPost algorithm provides more accurate results than Twitter search. Just type in a word, name or hashtag, and the results come back at lightning speed. You can also filter results by ‘”Everything,’ ‘Links,’ ‘Photos’ and ‘Videos.’
The new “Timeline Topline” feature builds on those algorithmic smarts to surface more topics to explore. It’s personalized to you, unlike Twitter’s Discover tab. It picks out 150 people who are most relevant to you, mixing people you mention most and people who are popular globally. The Topline displays topics in red, but it also shows via links for the people who are talking about them.
As you can see, not all the topics are clickable. But they’re better than #TenAttractivePeopleIFollow, and I know who the people are, so I’m still inclined to see what @fromedome has to say about love.
Why 150? Dunbar’s Number, the theoretical limit of the number of people with whom anyone can maintain a relationship. It’s the same limit Path imposes on the number of friends.
This is a light discovery tool. It’s not the deep-diving Twitter sonar offered by Bottlenose. But I think of PostPost as a more digestible add-on to Twitter that doesn’t dispense with the past. It’s simple and Twitter-like, it just does things that Twitter, for some strange reason, doesn’t do itself.
Image of Henry Rollins’ back tattoo via Rawfit
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