Maybe Android did have the right idea with activities

One of the features that will land as part of iOS 9 is a new way to display web content within an app by way of a new view controller called SFSafariViewController, which is nicely covered by Federico Viticci in this article on MacStories. I’ve always been of the (apparently minority) opinion that iOS apps ought to open links in the default browser (which currently is necessarily Mobile Safari), but the Safari view controller might change my mind, because it pretty much removes any drawback the in-app UI/WKWebView-based browsers had: with the Safari view controller I will get a familiar and consistent interface (minus the editable address bar, of course), the same cookies as when I usually browse, my visits will be registered in the history, plus added security (and performance, though WKWebView already had that), etc. Come November, maybe I will stop long-tapping any and all links in my Twitter feed (in Twiterrific, of course) in order to bring the share sheet and open these links in Safari.

Part of my reluctance to use the in-app browsers was that I considered myself grown up enough to switch apps, then switch back to Twitter/Tumblr/whatever when I was done with reading the page: I have never considered app switching to be an inconvenience in the post-iOS 4 world, especially with the iOS 7+ multitasking interface. But I understand the motivation behind wanting to make sure the user goes back to whatever he was doing in the app once he is done reading the web content; and no, it is not about the app developers making sure the user does not stray far from the app (okay, it is not just about that): the user himself may fail to remember that he actually was engaged in a non-web-browsing activity and thus is better served, in my opinion, by a Safari experience contained in-app than he is by having to switch to Safari. For instance, if he is reading a book he would appreciate resuming reading the book as soon as he is done reading the web page given as reference, rather than risk forgetting he was reading a book in the first place and realize it the following day as he reopens the book app (after all, there is no reason why only John Siracusa ebooks should have web links).

And most interestingly, in order to deliver on all these features, the Safari view controller will run in its own process (even if, for app switching purposes for instance, it will still belong to the host app); this is a completely bespoke tech, to the best of my knowledge there is no framework on iOS for executing part of an app in a specific process as part of a different host app (notwithstanding app extensions, which provide a specific service to the host app, rather than the ability to run a part of the containing app). And this reminded me of Android activities.

For those of you not familiar with the Android app architecture, Android applications are organized around activities, each activity representing a level of full-screen interaction, e.g. the screen displaying the scrollable list of tweets complete with navigation bars at the top and/or bottom, with the activity changing when drilling down/back up the app interface, e.g. when tapping a tweet the timeline activity slides out and the tweet details activity slides in its place, with activities organized in a hierarchy. Android activities are roughly equivalent to view controllers on iOS, with a fundamental difference: installed apps can “vend” activities, that other apps can use as part of their activity hierarchy. For instance, a video player app can start with an activity listing the files found in its dedicated folder, then once such a file is tapped it starts the activity to play a single video, all the while also allowing any app, such as an email client or the file browser, that wants to play a video the ability to directly invoke the video-playing activity from within the host app.

I’ve always had reservations with this system: I thought it introduced user confusion as to which app the user “really” is in, which matters for app switching and app state management purposes, for instance. And I still do think so to an extent, but it is clear the approach has a lot of merit when it comes to the browser, given how pervasive visiting web links is even as part of otherwise very app-centric interactions. And maybe it could be worth generalizing and creating on iOS an activity-like system; sure, the web browser is pretty much the killer feature for such a system (I am more guarded about the merits when applying it to file viewing/editing, as in my video player example), but other reasonable applications could be considered.

So I’m asking you, would you like, as a user, to have activity-like features on iOS? Would you like, as a developer, to be able to provide some of your app’s view controllers to other apps, and/or to be able to invoke view controllers from other apps as part of your app?

Thoughts on developer presentation audiences

So after the WWDC 2015 keynote, reading Dr. Drang (via Six Colors) and generally agreeing with his take sparked some reflexions. In particular, as a software developer myself, a side reflexion about what (if anything) is particular about software developer audiences, so that people like Drake and Jimmy Iovine, in the unlikely case they read this, don’t think of software developers as a mean crowd; and who knows, it could be applicable to other show-biz types in case they present at events like Build or Google I/O.

But to being with, whose bright idea was it, honestly, to have Apple Music be the “one more thing” of a WWDC keynote? Especially of a keynote that was one of the longest, if not the longest, in recent history (I’d check, but http://www.apple.com/apple-events/ is currently redirecting me to http://www.apple.com/live/2015-june-event/)? Only one of those (“one more thing” or “WWDC keynote”) would have been fine, but not both. You can have, at the end of a long presentation, at a time the attention of the crowd (which, if it needs to be reminded, was up very early and spent a lot of time in line, because otherwise you end up in an overflow room) may be waning, a “one more thing” about something outside of the theme, for instance new hardware announcement, on condition that this announcement relieves some pain points (e.g. new hardware that makes a previously impossible combination now possible, easing the life of developers who use one and develop for the other) or otherwise has elements that can spark the audience’s specific interest so that you can be guaranteed some cheers and applauses and keep the crowd interested. Apple Music, even if it materializes as a good product, does not have that.

Don’t get me wrong, software developers like music just as much as the next guy. And heck, we’ve seen worse, including at WWDC or iPhone SDK events (Farmville, anyone?). In fact, software developers are not a tough crowd; they will almost alway give at least polite applause when cued: I remember the Safari kickoff presentation at WWDC 2010, with an audience therefore presumably dominated by web developers, and Safari extensions ended up being introduced, with one of the presenters presenting… how they ported their ad blocking extension to Safari. To an audience at least in part making a living (directly or indirectly) from web advertising. Even then, he got polite applause at the end of his presentation, like everyone else. And outside of very specific, preexisting situations (it was at Macworld, but could just as well have happened at WWDC) software developers will never boo a presenter offstage. Why is that? Well, an important part is that software developers have been in the presenter’s shoes before; not to this scale, most likely, but they know it’s a tough part, either to have a demo that works (hence why the applause even for incremental features that were even seen on other platforms before), or worse, if there is no demo, to be able to convey the importance of the software you are talking about without being able to show it. And even if the presenter is mediocre, contrary to a mediocre artist, software developers know that applauding the presenter will not make him stay longer, and his script will end soon enough anyway, so might as well politely applaud.

Software developers, as tech enthusiasts, are more generally interested in anything that moves the state of the art forward, even if it has little relation with any technology they will actually make use of in their job, on condition they can see what is new or specific about it; or at least, they want to be able to take the announcement apart, as we’re going to see. Plus they are heavy users of the platforms they are developing for, so anything that makes user’s lives easier makes theirs easier, too, and they will react to that.

But software developers are also a wary bunch. All of them have been burned before; doesn’t matter whether they trusted a company they shouldn’t have or whether they couldn’t have foreseen anything but were betrayed, they all got a past experience of betting on something (a platform, an API, a service, a tool, etc.) and losing their bet. So in presentations they don’t want to be given dreams of an ideal future where the product magically does what we expect of it, but rather they want demos, or at the very least material claims that can be objectively evaluated as soon as anything concrete is provided. Triply so for Internet services. Everything else is just a setup to get to a demo, as far as a software developer is concerned. Also, as a result software developers take apart everything that is being said to try and figure how it works, in particular to foresee any eventual limitation; yes, to an extent it does take out the magic to dissect everything that way, but remember that for software developers this is a matter of survival. Again, triply so for Internet services. Do I need to remark that the Apple Music presentation, even the demo from Eddy Cue, provided little in the way of these material claims? He did show how the user interacts with the service, but, being an Internet service, this does not show how it works, really. Also, this means that the crowd may be too busy trying to make sense of what you are saying to react to your quick quips.

Software developers are also extremely good at math and mental arithmetic. It goes with the job. They will double-check everything you throw at them, live, so don’t ever expect to be able to assert claims that don’t literally add up.

As with any recurring event (as opposed to, say, a concert date, where this is less the case), there is also a lot of lore and unsaid things that are nevertheless known from both the regular presenters and the audience. If you’re not a regular presenter, it’s not something you can tap into (so yes, you will be at a disadvantage from the regular presenters), but you better be briefed about those to avoid running into them by accident. I remember a high school incident where I had an exchange with a classmate that the class couldn’t miss: it was about silex/stone blades, and I can’t remember what the root of the problem was, but I was countering that this was no way to build a hatchet that could chop down trees, to which my classmate countered that chopping down trees was not the guys’ aim. I think I let him have the point at the time; this was presumptuous of him to assume this, but at the same time it was presumptuous for me to assume this use case, this was just something I came up with as a use case for a hatchet at the top of my head. Fast forward a few months, but still in the same year, the class was making an outside trip to a place where they studied stone age tooling, and during his presentation the guy explained that following the methods from these times: preparing and carving the stone, pairing it with a wooden handle and attaching with then-current methods, he got a tool that worked very well, taking as an example that he had been able to chop down a small tree with it.

After maybe a beat, the whole class erupted in laughter.

My classmates had clearly not forgotten; the poor presenter was all “Was it something I said?” (I was tempted reach out to him, shake his hand and thank him profusely), and our teacher fortunately came to his rescue by promising to tell him later. There was of course no way he could have been briefed for this, but this is not the case for an event such as WWDC.

And, as a “one more thing”, I think I should close with a mention of the other WWDC keynote audience, those who watch the live stream, and react on Twitter instead. This is not exactly a developer audience, but pretty close. However, the reactions tend to be all over the place, in particular you always get the complaint (that ends up trending each time!) that no new hardware (or no new hardware the poster was interested in) was announced, even though this is a silly expectation to have: you can always hope for some, mind you, but given there is always a lot to say about future OS updates at WWDC, especially now with three major Apple platforms, it’s better for Apple to make these announcements at other times. So it’s hard to get a feel for the WWDC live stream audience.

WWDC 2015 Keynote not-quite-live tweeting

(Times are GMT+2)

  • 10:14 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Looking at the previewed Mac OS X improvement, I think it’s too bad @siracusa is not going to be reviewing them (but it’s his call) #WWDC15
  • 10:16 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Speaking of @siracusa , I’d almost prefer for multitasking dividers not to be repositionable. #positioning #OCD #WWDC15
  • 10:19 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Metal on the Mac: “Of course this means war” #OpenGL #WWDC15
  • 10:21 PM – 8 Jun 2015: At long last we have search in third-party apps on iOS! (viz. http://wanderingcoder.net/2012/01/20/ios-document-filing/ ) #WWDC15
  • 10:23 PM – 8 Jun 2015: (Around the 37 minute mark): It’s funny, because I’m actually exercising as I watch the keynote stream and take these notes. #WWDC15
  • 10:24 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Siri does still rely on network services, so it can’t all “stay on the device”… #WWDC15
  • 10:27 PM – 8 Jun 2015: (Around the 43 minute mark): the Apple guys have turned into Stanley Yankeeball http://crazyapplerumors.com/2006/10/10/another-mac-publication-changes-its-name/ (minus the Stanley) #WWDC15
  • 10:33 PM – 8 Jun 2015: These improvements to notes might be good, or might turn it into a mess(is it a word processor? For structured text? Something else?)#WWDC15
  • 10:35 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Mapping exits of tube stations is great, not even all of the transit systems’ dedicated apps do so. #WWDC15
  • 10:37 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Since it’s only in select countries at first, the new news app is more than just an aggregator and probably has some editorial. #WWDC15
  • 10:39 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Keyboard gestures for editing are great, but are they like cursor keys (more accurate) or more like mouse movement? #WWDC15
  • 10:40 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! Split screen multitasking on iPad! Amply justifies upgrading to the Air 2. #WWDC15
  • 10:41 PM – 8 Jun 2015: I don’t know how practical multi-touch on multiple apps is, but it sure rocks. #WWDC15
  • 10:42 PM – 8 Jun 2015: New low power mode is the battery equivalent of low memory warnings. #WWDC15
  • 10:43 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Apple game development frameworks still aren’t credible as long as Apple is not dogfooding them. We want Apple-made games! #WWDC15
  • 10:45 PM – 8 Jun 2015: With Home Kit through iCloud, better hope that iCloud is secure… (or that this particular part can be disabled). #WWDC15
  • 10:46 PM – 8 Jun 2015: About Swift: open source is nice, standardization would be nicer. Yes, Objective-C isn’t a standard, but C and C++ are. #WWDC15
  • 10:47 PM – 8 Jun 2015: With iOS9 still supporting the iPad 2, get ready to have to support ARMv7 and the Cortex A9 for some time (it’s not hard, mind you). #WWDC15
  • 10:48 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Can’t really comment on watchOS improvements, since I don’t know much about what it currently does anyway. #WWDC15
  • 10:51 PM – 8 Jun 2015: With native Apple Watch apps, get ready for a “Benchmarking on your wrist” post from @chockenberry as soon as watchOS 2.0 lands. #WWDC15
  • 10:52 PM – 8 Jun 2015: (around the 1:40 mark): wasn’t expecting them to be ready to demo the new watchOS features live so soon after Apple Watch release. #WWDC15
  • 10:54 PM – 8 Jun 2015: (around the 1:41 mark): Kevin Lynch was tethered by the wrist during the Apple Watch demo. Is that punishment for Flash? #WWDC15
  • 10:56 PM – 8 Jun 2015: I was even less expecting them to have a new watch OS beta ready today, 6 weeks after the Apple Watch release. #WWDC15
  • 10:57 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Between Jimmy Iovine and the two women (sorry ladies, I did not write down your names), many new presenters, that’s great. #WWDC15
  • 10:58 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Interesting that they would present Apple Music at WWDC, would appear more fitting for an iPhone or music event. #WWDC15
  • 10:59 PM – 8 Jun 2015: I am more interested in music I can keep, though global radio is interesting. #WWDC15
  • 11:01 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Nothing has really replaced the records stores so far when it comes to music discovery. Will Apple Music do better than Ping? #WWDC15
  • 11:02 PM – 8 Jun 2015: With the news app and Apple Music, Apple is doing more editorial/curation than they ever did. #WWDC15
  • 11:03 PM – 8 Jun 2015: I won’t comment on Apple Pay until it reaches France. #WWDC15
  • 11:04 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Sure, you can ask Siri for the music used in Selma, but she’s no Shazam. #WWDC15
  • 11:05 PM – 8 Jun 2015: After the demo, my feeling of Apple Music is: Netflix for music. Android support is interesting… #WWDC15
  • 11:06 PM – 8 Jun 2015: Again, interesting to have a live performance at WWDC, rather than at an iPhone or music event. #WWDC15
  • 11:09 PM – 8 Jun 2015: And that’s it for the #WWDC15 keynote comments. Now back to notifying of new http://wanderingcoder.net/ posts.
  • 8:53 AM – 9 Jun 2015: Some more post-sleep #WWDC15 thoughts before returning to normal:
  • 8:56 AM – 9 Jun 2015: First, there was no homage or reference (that I could spot) in the keynote to @Siracusa and his Mac OS X reviews, I’m disappointed. #WWDC15
  • 9:01 AM – 9 Jun 2015: Second, maybe it’s just me, but I get the impression the keynote is less and less for developer-level features. #WWDC15
  • 9:13 AM – 9 Jun 2015: Third, no free Apple Music tier means people won’t get the impression this is music they can access forever. #WWDC15
  • 9:15 AM – 9 Jun 2015: Fourth and I’ll be done: with Apple global radio, what happens to iTunes Radio? #WWDC15

Thank you, Mr. Siracusa

Today, I learned that John Siracusa had retired from his role of writing the review of each new Mac OS X release for Ars Technica. Well, review is not quite the right word: as I’ve previously written when I had the audacity to review one of his reviews, what are ostensibly articles reviewing Mac OS X are, to my mind, better thought of as book-length essays that aim to vulgarize the progress made in each release of Mac OS X. They will be missed.

It would be hard for me to overstate the influence that John Siracusa’s “reviews” have had on my understanding of Mac OS X and on my writing; you only have to see the various references to John or his reviews I made over the years on this blog (including this bit…). In fact, the very existence of this blog was inspired in part by John: when I wrote him with some additional information in reaction to his Mac OS X Snow Leopard review, he concluded his answer with:

You should actually massage your whole email into a blog post [of] your own.  I’d definitely tweet a link to it! 🙂

to which my reaction was:

Blog? Which blog? On the other hand, it’d be a good way to start one
Hmm

Merely 4 months later, for this reason and others, this blog started (I finally managed to drop the information alluded to in 2012; still waiting for that tweet 😉 ).

And I’ll add that his podcasting output may dwarf his blogging in volume, but, besides the fact I don’t listen to podcasts much, I don’t think they really compare, mostly because podcasts lack the reference aspect of his Mac OS X masterpieces due to the inherent limitations of podcasts (not indexed, hard to link to a specific part, not possible to listen in every context, etc.). But, ultimately, it was his call; as someone, if I remember well, commented on the video of this (the actual video has since gone the way of the dodo): “Dear John, no pressure. Love, the Internet”. Let us not mourn, but rather celebrate, from the Mac OS X developer preview write-ups to the Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite review, the magnum opus he brought to the world. Thank you, Mr. Siracusa.

April’s Fools 2015

As you probably guessed, the post I made Wednesday was an April’s fools… well, the kind of April’s fools I do here, of course: just because this was for fun does not mean this was no deeper message to that post (now translated to English for your understanding).

In case you missed it, for April the first (besides posting that post) I translated to French my greatest hits (as listed there) and a few other minor posts, replaced all others with a message in French claiming the post in question was being translated, replaced the comicroll with an equivalent one listing French online comics, and translated to French all post titles and all elements of the blog interface: “React”, search, dates, etc. up to the blog title: “Le Programmeur Itinérant” (it stayed that way a bit longer than the initially planned 1-2 days because of unforeseen technical issues, my apologies for the trouble). Thus reminding you, in case my name did not make it clear enough, that even though I publish in English my first language is actually French.

The problem of availability of information, especially technical one, in more than one human language has always interested me, for reasons of inclusiveness among others. It remains a very hard problem (I did get a good laugh at the results of Google translate back to English when applied to my French posts), and so initiatives such as this are very welcome (they translated my “A few things iOS developers…” for instance, but I can’t find the link at the moment).

Lastly, there have been a few influences that led me to do this for April the first, but I want to thank in particular Stéphane Bortzmeyer, who manages to maintain a very technical blog in French; whenever I needed the French translation of a technical term I could typically just look in his blog to see what he uses (or to confirm there was no point in trying, e.g. for “smartphone”, which has no real French translation). Much respect to him for this.

To arms, citizens!

To arms, I say! I just realized the enormous scandal that is the presence in Unicode of the emoji character TOKYO TOWER (U+1F5FC), which you should be able to see if you are equipped with a color set after the colon: 🗼. Scandal, I say, as this thing, which we never talk about at home whenever we talk about Tokyo, and for good reason, as it is in truth a pale imitation of our national tower, the Eiffel tower, that the Japanese made at a time when they found success in imitation… Where was I? Oh, yes, so, that thing managed to steal a spot in Unicode even though our Eiffel tower isn’t in there! Scandal, I say!

Worse yet, this was done with the yankees’ complicity, who shamelessly dominate the Unicode consortium; the collusion is obvious when we see they themselves took advantage of it to slot in the statue of liberty. And I say, no, this shall not pass! Say no to the US-Japan cultural domination! That is why, from now on, my blog will be in French. Too bad for you if you can’t read it. I even started translating my previous posts, starting with my greatest hits, namely A few things iOS developers ought to know about the ARM architecture, Introduction to NEON on iPhone, Benefits (and drawback) to compiling your iOS app for ARMv7 et PSA: Do not release ARMv7s code until you have tested it. And I have no intent of stopping there.

Join me in the protest to demand that the Eiffel tower be added to Unicode! To arms!

(disclaimer)

Unconventional iOS app extension idea: internal thumbnail generator

The arrival (along with similar features) of extensions in iOS 8, even if it does not solve all problems with the platform’s inclusiveness, represents a sea change in what is possible for third-party developers with iOS, enabling many previously unviable apps such as Transmit iOS. But, even with the ostensibly specific scenarios (document provider extensions, share extensions, etc.) app extensions are allowed to hook themselves to, I feel we have only barely begun to realize the potential of extensions. Today I would like to present a less expected problem extensions could solve: fail-safe thumbnail generation.

The problem is one we encountered back in the day when developing CineXPlayer. I describe the use case in a radar (rdar://problem/9115604), but the tl;dr version is we wanted to generate thumbnails for the videos the user loaded in the app, and were afraid of crashing at launch as a result of doing this processing (likely resulting in the user leaving a one-star “review”), so we wanted to do so in a separate process to preserve the app, but the sandbox on iOS does not allow it.

But now in iOS 8 there may be a way to use extensions to get the same result. Remember that extensions are run in their own process, separate from both the host app process and the containing app process; so the idea would be to embed an action extension for a custom type of content that in practice only our app provides, make the videos loaded in the app provided under that type to extensions, and use the ability of action extensions to send back content to the host to send back the generated thumbnail; if our code crashes while generating the thumbnail, we only lose the extension process, and the app remains fine.

This would not be ideal, of course, as the user would have to perform an explicit action on each and every file (I haven’t checked to see whether there would be sneaky ways to process all files with one extension invocation), but I think it would be worth trying if I were still working on CineXPlayer; and if after deployment Apple eventually wises up to it, well, I would answer them that it’s only up to them to provide better ways to solve this issue.

Apple is all grown up. It needs to act like it

Look. I have already argued about Apple reaching hubris. I have previously written about what seriously looked like power abuses, then chronicled in the past how their credibility may be eroding (while adding a jab at how I thought they were stretching the truth). And rest assured there are many other events I did not cover in this ongoing iPhone shenanigans category. But here I really have to wonder whether Apple is currently engaged in a oneupmanship match with itself in that regard.

The latest events, of which the Transmit iOS feature expulsion is but the most visible, have made me think and eventually reach the conclusion that the iOS (and Mac, to an extent) platform is not governed in a way suitable for a platform of this importance, to put it lightly; even less so coming from the richest company on Earth. Apple has clearly outgrown their capability to manage the platform in a fair and coherent way (if it ever was managed that way), at least given their current structures, yet they act as if everything was fine; the last structural change in this domain was the publication of the App Store Review Guidelines in 2010, and even then, those were supposed to be, you know, guidelines. Not rules or laws. And yet guidelines like those are used as normative references to justify rejections and similar feature removal requests. This is not sustainable.

Back at the time of the Briefs saga, I was of the opinion that the problem was not so much the repeated rejection decisions than the developer being repeatedly led to believe that with this change or maybe that change Briefs could be accepted, only for his hopes to be squashed each time. Look, I get that the Apple developer evangelists at DTS (Developer Technical Support) honestly thought Briefs would be a worthwhile addition to the iOS platform and genuinely were interested in this app seeing the light of the day on the iOS App Store; but at the end of the day, it was Rob Rhyne’s time and effort and livelihood that was on the line, not theirs, so yes, the fault for the whole Briefs debacle lies with them, not the iOS App Review Team. Today, the same way I wonder whether the fault really lies with the iOS App Review team. Okay, okay, before you go ahead and drown me under the encrypted core dumps reported from users of your iOS and Mac apps, hear me out. To begin with, no matter how desirable (including for some people at Apple) a rejected app is, if the higher ups at Apple were to start issuing executive orders overriding App Review Team decisions, or if pressure was put on reviewers by other Apple employees to accept an app, it would undermine the work of the App Review Team at a fundamental level, their authority would become a joke, and anyone worthwhile working there would quit, leaving the rest to handle the reviews. I don’t think that is what anyone wants. So yes, this means that regardless of the great work on new APIs from the OS software teams, regardless of the interest from Apple leaders to have on iOS, say, more apps for teaching computing, regardless of the desire of the iOS App Store editorial staff or Apple ad teams to feature innovative apps, regardless of the willingness of DTS to help quirky apps come to life, this means that regardless of all this, if the App Review Team isn’t on board, none of that will be of use. So its power needs to be limited, certainly, but not just about any random way.

“It is a timeless experience that any man with power is brought to abuse it […] So that power cannot be abused, the dispositions of things must be such that power stops power.” De l’Esprit des Lois, Livre XI, chapitre IV. I think it may be time for Apple to apply the rantings[fr] of an obscure magistrate from the Bordeaux area (link and expression courtesy Maitre Eolas[fr]). To begin with, all app review decisions must refer to normative texts published before the app was submitted (no retroactive application). I can already hear reviewers (even though I know they will never say it out loud) complain that they cannot possibly predict every situation in advance and need the flexibility to come up with new rules on demand, to which I answer: shut up, shut up, shut up. To me, that line of thinking (which just oozes out of the Introduction to the [iOS] App Store Review Guidelines) sounds suspiciously like a George III or Louis XIV. Even if you reviewer thinks an app should not be part of the App Store, if this app has to be accepted for lack of a rule prohibiting it, then so be it; if the rule makers (which are of course different from those applying these rules) are interested, they will come up with a new rule, at which point it can be enforced on new apps. Speaking of which, secondly, enforcing rules on app updates should not be done the same way as on new apps: blocking an app update must be balanced against the drawbacks, namely leaving a buggy, out-of-date version available on the iOS App Store; this goes especially if that previous version was already violating the rule in question (but on the other hand, they do need to be able to enforce the rules in some way even if previous app versions violating these rules were accepted, as otherwise rules would quickly become unenforceable). Third, the detailed reasoning of the rejection (with references to the relevant rules) will have to be provided to the developer, and app review decisions can only be overturned by a proper appeals process attacking this reasoning. Fourth, the person arguing against an app must be different from the person making the decision, and the app developer must be able to provide counterarguments. Fifth, for these violations that directly concern users, there has to be a way for these users to complain about such a violation so as to avoid inconsistent and unfair application of the rules (Ninjawords, anyone?). Etc. In short, at least a proper judicial process based on Rules and a proper process to come up with these rules.

All of this might seem outlandish for a company to implement: to the best of my knowledge, this has never been put in place by a private entity before. But as long as Apple has these claims to try and dictate large aspects of which features apps should and should not provide to users, I see no way they can sustainably avoid such a separation of powers given how large and incoherent in this regard Apple has become; and this is even if they were allow iOS apps outside the iOS App Store and give up on Mac App Store exclusive APIs (e.g. iCloud), as the iOS App Store and Mac App Store have become too important for them to avoid such a rationalization. Look, I’m not asking for anything like a full due process or enforced independence of judges. No one’s liberty (or, God forbid, life) is at stake here. But the livelihood of developers and the credibility of the iOS platform certainly are. Apple has too many responsibilities and has grown too much to keep acting like an inconsequential teenager. Apple is all grown up, and it needs to act like it.

I, for one, welcome our new, more inclusive Apple

In case you have not been following closely, at this year’s WWDC Apple introduced a number of technologies that reverse many long-standing policies on what iOS apps were, or to be more accurate, were not allowed to do: technologies such as app extensions, third-party keyboards, Touch ID APIs, manual camera controls, Cloud Kit, or simply the ability to sell apps in bundles on the iOS App Store. I would be remiss if I did not mention a few of my pet peeves that apparently remain unaddressed, such as searching inside third-party apps from the iOS Springboard, real support for trials on the iOS App Store and the Mac App Store (more on that in a later post), any way to distribute iOS apps outside the iOS App Store, or the fact many of the changes in Mac OS X Yosemite are either better integration with iOS, or Lion and Mountain Lion-style “iOS-ification”, both of which would be better solved by transitioning the Mac to iOS, etc.

But in the end, the attitude change from Apple matters more than the specifics of what will come in iOS 8. And it was (as Matt Drance wrote) not just the announcements themselves: for instance with the video shown at the start of the keynote where iPhone and iPad users praise apps and the developers who made them, Apple wants us to know that they care for us developers and want us to succeed, which is a welcome change from the lack of visible consideration developers were treated with so far (with the limitation that this video frames the situation as developers directly providing their wares to users: don’t expect any change to how Apple sees middleware suppliers).

So I welcome this attitude change from Apple, and like Matt Drance, I am glad this seems to be coming from a place of confidence rather than concession (indeed, while the Google Play Store is much more inclusive1, the limited willingness of Android users to pay for apps means Apple probably does not feel much pressure in this area), which means that it’s likely only the first step: what we did not get at this WWDC, we can always hope to get in iOS 9, and at least the situation evolves in the right direction. I do not know where this change of heart comes from, I do not think any obvious event triggered it, I am just thankful that the Powers That Be at Apple decided to be pragmatic and cling less tightly to principles that, while potentially justified five years ago, were these days holding back the platform.

A caveat, though, is that I see one case where a new iOS 8 functionality, rather than giving me hope for the future, will actually hamper future improvements: iCloud Drive. While that feature may appear to address one of my longstanding pet peeves, anyone who thinks we were clamoring for merely a return to the traditional files and folders organization hasn’t really read what I or others have written on the matter; but this is exactly what iCloud Drive proposes (even if only documents are present in there, and even for just the files shared between different iOS apps, we expected better than that). Besides not improving on the current desktop status quo, the issue is that shipping it as such will create compatibility constraints (both from a user interface and API standpoint) which will make it hard for Apple to improve on it in the future, whereas Apple could have taken advantage of its experience and of the hindsight coming from having been without that feature for all this time to propose a better fundamental organization paradigm.

For instance, off the top of my head I can think of two ways to improve the experience of working on the same document from different apps:

  • Instead of (or on top of) “open in…”, have “also open in…”, which would also work by selecting an app among the ones supporting that document type. After that command, the document would appear in a specific section of the document picker of the first app, section with would be marked with the icon of the second app: in other words, this section would contain all documents shared between the first and second app. The same would go in the second app: the shared document would appear in a section marked with the icon of the first app. That way some sort of intuitive organization would be automatically provided. A document shared between more than two apps could appear in two sections at the same time, or could be put in the area where documents are available to all apps.
  • Introduce see-through folders. A paradox of hierarchical filing is that, as you start creating folders to organize your documents so as to more easily find something in the future, you may make documents harder to locate because they become “hidden” behind a folder. With see-through folders any folder you create would start with being just a roundrect drawn around the documents it would contain (say up to 4 contained documents), with the documents still being visible in their full size from the top level view, except there would be this roundrect around them. Then as the folder starts containing more and more documents, these documents would appear smaller and smaller from the top level view, so in practice you would have to “focus” on the folder by tapping on the folder name, so as to list only the documents contained in that folder, in full size, in order to select one document. When you have more than one level of folders, this would allow quickly scanning subfolders that contain only a few documents, since these documents would appear at full size when browsing the parent of these subfolders, so the document could either quickly be found in there, or else we would know it is in the “big” subfolder.

There are of course many other ways this could be improved, such as document tagging, or other metadata-based innovations. There are so many ways hierarchical document storage could be improved that Apple announcing they would merely go with pretty much the status quo for multi-app document collaboration tells me that in all likelihood no one who matters at Apple really cares about document management, which I find sad: even if not all such concocted improvements are actually viable, there is bound to be some that are and that they could have used instead.

(As for Swift, it is a subject with a very different scope that is deserving of its own post.)

But overall, these new developments seen at WWDC 2014 make me optimistic for the future of the Apple platforms and Apple in general. Even if it is not necessarily everything we wanted, change always starts with first steps like these.


  1. “Open” implies a binary situation, where a platform would be either “open” or “closed”; but situations are clearly more nuanced, with a whole continuum of “openness” between different cases such as game consoles, the iOS platform, the Android platform, or Windows. So I refer to platforms as being “more inclusive” or “less inclusive”, which allows for a range of, well, inclusiveness, rather than use “open” and the absolutes it implies.

Vote

This post, I’m afraid, will only be of interest to my European Union readers. If you are not a E.U. citizen, sorry, and thanks for visiting.

Fellow Europeans, it is very important for you to go and vote in the coming European elections. Indeed, the European parliament in Strasbourg is the only democratically elected European institution, and it is important in this specific opportunity to make our voice and our vote heard.

  • It is important because, following the 2008 financial crisis, the Union had to take a more important role in order to help the countries most affected by the crisis, and this revealed the need for a more transparent and more democratic E.U. decision process.
  • It is important because we now realize that a common market will end up implying common food and product safety services, among others: when the next food safety crisis occurs, it will make no sense to have state-specific reactions for products that circulate in the whole of the Union.
  • It is important because subjects that matter a lot in technology, such as privacy, net neutrality, or competition regulation, are by necessity increasingly decided at the E.U. level, when they aren’t already.
  • It is important because, in contrast with the common market, we still have made little to no progress on common social protections and labor laws, and the contrast between these two situations is more and more noticeable, hampering development of a common personal services market.
  • It is important so that, as the geopolitical situation evolves, we can have a credible E.U. foreign affairs department that can claim to represent the European people.

But most importantly, it is important for as many of you as possible to cast your vote, in order to make the parliament’s legitimacy indisputable so as to give it real decision power over E.U. affairs, rather than have our fates decided by less democratic, parochially charged negotiations between the head of states. So for these reasons, and many others, go vote for your European parliament representatives in the next few days1.

And be wary of these sovereignty parties who promise you a better tomorrow but in fact only offer at best unconstructive criticism of the unification process, and do not detail how they could possibly manage either (depending on the situation) getting out of the Euro, or out of the Schengen zone, or out of any other E.U. commitment, as their cure could very well be worse than any disease.


  1. In fact, while I vote this Sunday, May the 25th 2014 in France, I learned today that some countries, including the United Kingdom, are voting today already, which is another thing we may need to agree on: how can we have a pan-European election campaign if not every country votes at the same time?