six colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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Dan Moren for Macworld

How making its iWork and iLife apps free could hurt Apple and its users ↦

“Free” seems like a good thing, right? After all, who doesn’t like not paying for things? This week’s announcement that Apple’s productivity and creative software—namely Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, and iMovie—is now free to all users was mainly greeted with a positive reaction from pundits and consumers alike.

I’ll agree that making these apps (which were already provided no charge to people who bought new Macs, iPhone, and iPads) free across the board is largely a positive move. But that decision does have some consequences that could be a downside for end users, developers, and even Apple.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦



By Jason Snell

One podcaster’s (fruitless) quest to replace Skype

Every now and then when I complain about Skype, which most of my podcast peers and I use for our conversations, someone suggests an alternative voice-over-IP service and asks why we don’t switch.

The truth is, Skype’s terribleness may be overstated—people get cranky when they’re entirely dependent on a single product and that product isn’t reliable—and the product has gotten better recently after a few particularly rocky months.

But it’s not just about abandoning Skype. Yes, there are numerous services that will let multiple people connect over the Internet and have a voice conversation.1 Yes, we could move to Google Hangouts or some other web-based business conferencing tool or video game chat app2.

But here’s the thing: Everybody I know uses Skype. If I’m going to start the painful process of moving house—of getting everyone I’m on a podcast with to, over the course of many months, upgrade their software and get used to a new way of working—I want to move to something that is vastly superior to what we’re currently using. There is no point in dealing with transition costs—inevitably including many lost minutes as everyone waits for someone to install unfamiliar software and figure out how to use it—to make a lateral move.3

Leaving aside the fact that I have no real faith that alternative option X is actually better than Skype—one person’s “I’ve never had any problems” can be another person’s “omigod it was a disaster”—I’ve decided that I’m leaving Skype only if I’m forced to or if I can find a tool that solves other problems specific to podcasters.

Right now, the biggest issues I have with Skype, beyond the occasional bout of unreliability, are related to recording audio. This isn’t Skype’s fault—it wasn’t built with recording podcasts in mind!—but it’s a necessity for podcasters. While I’m doing a podcast, I need to record my own microphone and, ideally, the rest of the conversation—and in separate files or on separate tracks. (You can read more about this in my “How I Podcast: Recording” article.)

On the Mac, this is pretty easy—I bought a bunch of copies of Ecamm Call Recorder for Skype, which is a plug-in that integrates recording right into Skype. For people who don’t have Call Recorder, QuickTime can record audio fairly easily. On Windows, it’s more complicated—the podcast guest guide that I use recommends downloading the free audio app Audacity. More complexity means there are more chances to do something wrong. (This leads me to an additional feature I require: The software involved needs to be dead simple for a novice guest to set up correctly.)

And then there’s iOS, where this is just impossible. You can’t record your microphone locally while talking on Skype. This severely limits iOS podcasting.

Plus there are some things that Skype does really well, that any replacement needs to do a decent job at. Skype massages audio before it reaches you, leveling and boosting audio and removing background noise and echoes. Its servers merge audio streams together so that multi-person conversations can happen even on on low-bandwidth connections. Skype may have its issues, but it’s also got a lot of strengths that I didn’t appreciate until I began investigating alternatives.

So if I’m going to move from Skype, I need to move to something that won’t be dramatically worse than Skype in terms of stability and audio quality, and it needs to make it easier to record podcast audio across all major platforms, desktop and mobile.

This is a big ask. And it turns out, there’s basically no solution today. But there is hope.

The closest we’ve come are two web services, Cast and Zencastr. Both of these services rely on WebRTC, a browser-based set of real-time communication protocols that let browsers transfer audio and video without special plug-ins. Both services automatically record the local audio of participants and upload them to a remote server, so panelists don’t need to install or run any special software to have their high-quality audio captured for later use.

Cast.

Cast costs $10/month for its basic plan. I’ve used it for several months in the recording of the TV Talk Machine podcast, and have found it to be quite reliable. It can’t handle conferences with more than four participants, including the host, which disqualifies it from my large panels on The Incomparable, but most podcasts don’t have panels with five or six people in them. (And an expansion of that limit is forthcoming.)

Zencastr has a basic free tier, but to record with more than one guest it’s $20/month. Zencastr claims it can handle “unlimited” guests, though I haven’t tested this and suspect it will bog down quickly if you have a large panel. I’ve used it a few times and found it a little less reliable than Cast—I’ve seen files cut off a few seconds too early, and the quality of the live audio connection had more artifacts than I’ve seen with Cast.

Zencastr

I appreciate Zencastr’s cloud-storage integration: all source files are automatically deposited in my Dropbox after a session is over. In contrast, Cast makes me wait for several minutes before I can download my files.

If you’re recording a podcast with three or four participants, Cast’s $10/month plan is a pretty good deal. If it’s just a one-on-one chat, Zencastr’s free tier is even better. For more than four participants, though, you’re back to Zencastr and you’ll pay $20/month for the privilege. Still, there’s a lot to be said for automatically recording panelist audio without any intervention.

…but then there’s mobile. The fact is, Safari doesn’t support WebRTC right now, so you can’t use either Cast or Zencastr on an iPad or iPhone. It looks like WebKit will support WebRTC at some point in the near future, but we might not see support in iOS until 2018.

In looking for a solution that would work on my iPhone or iPad, I discovered Ringr, which offers built-in microphone recording and supports WebRTC on the desktop and offers iOS and Android apps. Unfortunately, Ringr only supports one-on-one calls, so while it would work great for two-person podcasts, that’s all it supports. A recent Ringr email to customers suggests multi-user conferences are forthcoming.

For the record, business-conference-call apps with desktop and mobile versions don’t support recording of local microphone tracks. Some of them will record the entire conference call on the server, which is cool, but that’s only good for reference—for the best podcast audio, you want to record the microphone at the source.

So the end result of all this? I’ve got a close eye on Zencastr, Cast, and on the progress of implementing WebRTC in WebKit. But for now, there doesn’t seem to be a single voice-over-IP product of any kind that will work on Mac, Windows, and iOS and automatically record local audio.


  1. Since many of my podcasts feature more than two people, two-person tools like FaceTime are not an option. ↩

  2. The open-source gaming VoIP app Mumble offers multi-track recording and mobile clients, but recordings aren’t local (or supported on mobile) and its ease of use is what you’d expect from an open-source project. ↩

  3. This isn’t just about Skype, but the tools people use to record their audio—if we leave Skype, often those tools have to change, too. ↩

[Don't miss all our podcasting articles.]


Linked by Jason Snell

‘How Apple won silicon’

Over at iMore, Rene Ritchie points out Apple’s huge advantage in hardware design:

When it became clear iPhone and future products would require custom silicon, the story goes Steve Jobs set out to find the best chip designers in the world. That’s now evolved into the hardware technologies org, led by senior vice president, Johny Srouji.

One of Apple’s strengths over the years has been to decide when it needs to take its destiny into its own hands—and when it doesn’t need to bother. Its homegrown processor designs are an important bulwark against its competitors. For single-threaded processes, the iPhone 7 is faster than the just-released Samsung Galaxy S8. (Not so for multi-threaded processes, so the ball’s back in Apple’s court.)


Linked by Jason Snell

Apple forces recyclers to shred its products

Tough read from Motherboard about Apple’s recycling policies, which require that recyclers shred all the e-waste they receive:

Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, notes that recycling “should be a last option” because unrecyclable rare earth metals are completely lost and melted down commodities are less valuable and of generally of a lower quality than freshly mined ones. Repair and reuse are much better ways to extend the value of the original mined materials.

To be clear, Apple’s practices are often against the wishes of the recycling companies themselves, who don’t like to shred products that are still valuable. In a weird twist of fate, I visited ECS Refining before I knew that it did recycling for Apple. While I was there, I watched workers crowbar and crack open recent-model MacBook Pro Retinas—worth hundreds of dollars even when they’re completely broken—to be scrapped into their base materials.

I can understand why Apple would prefer to suppress a market in reclaimed and refurbished products. Old and unreliable Frankensteined Macs could harm the reputation of its products, in addition to possibly suppressing sales of new models. There are privacy and security risks regarding data stored on hard drives. But at the same time, it seems rather wasteful to indiscriminately toss usable computers and computer parts into a shredder.


Jason Snell for Macworld

After more than two years, Apple Pay still feels like the future ↦

There’s a lot of negativity out there, on the Web and in the world. People are angry, dissatisfied, tired of political clashes and online arguments and the realization that the Internet connects us directly the best and worst humanity has to offer.

I’m not saying the anger and frustration isn’t justified. If you’re feeling it, you probably have a good reason. But sometimes, even in dark times, it’s worth taking a deep breath, stepping back, and considering the bigger picture about 2017.

It’s this: It’s twenty seventeen. The. Future. And even though we don’t have flying cars or jetpacks or a colony on Mars, Apple’s done its best to make the future pretty darn amazing.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦


Podcast

The Rebound #133: The Sonos Sub is Delicious

The Rebound

This week, Lex shares the details of his newest audio purchase, Dan and John discuss just how serious the rumors of Bose headphones spying on your music-playing habit really are, and the whole crew talks about the newest iPhone 8 rumors. Plus we take a trip or two down memory lane.


Linked by Dan Moren

Apple environmental chief says the company wants to end mining

Apple vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives Lisa Jackson spoke to Vice News about the company’s latest environmental report, which came out today, and the company’s commitment to upping the amount of recycled material used in its products and stop mining altogether:

The announcement, part of Apple’s 2017 Environment Responsibility Report released Wednesday, will commit the company to making devices entirely from recycled materials such as aluminum, copper, tin, and tungsten. But there’s one hiccup: Apple doesn’t know exactly how it’s going to make that happen.

Apple’s really worked hard to become not just a leader in environmental responsibility over the last decade, but in most respects also a vocal leader. Talk is generally cheap, which is why Apple tends to put its money and its actions where its mouth is. It’s invested heavily in renewable energy (including powering the vast majority of its U.S. facilities with it), worked to reduce packaging waste, and tried to push cleaner standards from its suppliers worldwide.

Stopping all of its mining for rare earth minerals is a laudable goal, even if Apple doesn’t have a concrete plan to put in action. By putting it into words, it opens the door to being held accountable for that goal, and if it doesn’t, people are certainly going to remind the company of it.


Linked by Jason Snell

The Power of the (2009) Mac Pro

Black Pixel’s Daniel Pasco rediscovers the power of a 2009 Mac Pro:

This eight year old machine is a beast. It is everything that I have been missing. It embodies the zenith of industrial hardware design. It is literally bristling with ports, has four internal drive bays, and can support TWO of the most cutting edge graphics cards available on the market today. I’m ditching my 5k iMac.

Pasco’s not the first person I’ve heard from with high-end Mac needs who has shopped for the last generation “cheese grater” Mac Pro enclosure; with spiffy new storage and video cards, it’s amazing that an eight-year-old system can put modern Macs to shame.

I don’t quite agree with Pasco that Apple should just bring the last old Mac Pro back into production—it’s worth Apple building a new enclosure that will last another 10 or 15 years and isn’t designed with optical drive bays in mind. But he’s dead on about the fact that it doesn’t take huge innovation to get Apple back in the high-end computer game—the company just needs to take a few steps back in order to go forward.

[via Dave Mark]


Podcast

Clockwise #185: Add Things to Things

Clockwise

This week on Clockwise, Facebook tackles VR, Nintendo’s emulator shenanigans, moving the Touch ID sensor, and leaving ourselves digital reminders. With special guests Dan Frakes and Scholle McFarland!


Linked by Dan Moren

Report: SNES Classic coming later this year

Eurogamer’s Tom Phillips reports that Nintendo will follow up its successful NES Classic with an SNES Classic later this year:

The SNES mini (or, to continue Nintendo’s official branding, likely the Nintendo Classic Mini: Super Nintendo Entertainment System) is currently scheduled to launch in time for Christmas this year. Development of the device is already under way, our sources have indicated.

Just last week, Nintendo said it was totally done with the NES Classic, which was basically impossible to get during the holiday season due to its immense popularity, which left many folks scratching their heads. Eurogamer’s report claims that the reason Nintendo made no more—besides claiming it was never intended to be a permanent product—is that it ran up against production ramping up for the SNES Classic.

The report suggests that like its predecessor, the SNES Classic will be limited to its included games, though as The Verge’s Chris Plante points out, many popular SNES games are third-party affairs that may require some legal wrangling. Still, you can expect to see the SNES iterations of the Mario, Zelda, and MarioKart franchises, if nothing else.


Linked by Dan Moren

Hajime, the grayhat botnet “securing” IoT devices

Fascinating story from Dan Goodin at Ars Technica about Hajime, a worm that infects Internet of Things devices and…apparently secures them?

Another sign Hajime is a vigilante-style project intended to disrupt Mirai and similar IoT botnets: It blocks access to four ports known to be vectors used to attack many IoT device. Hajime also lacks distributed denial-of-service capabilities or any other attacking code except for the propagation code that allows one infected device to seek out and infect other vulnerable devices.

That sounds great, though Goodin links to a blog post by a Symantec engineer pointing out why this is, at best, a Band-Aid. Long story short: most of these “fixes” only last until the device is rebooted. Which leads to this imagination-sparking scenario:

One day a device may belong to the Mirai botnet, after the next reboot it could belong to Hajime, then the next, any of the many other IoT malware/worms that are out there scanning for devices with hardcoded passwords. This cycle will continue with each reboot until the device is updated with a newer, more secure firmware.

Annnnd I think I’ve got the premise for my next novel…


Linked by Dan Moren

iWork, iMovie, GarageBand apps now free for all Apple users

Apple has decided to open up its apps to everybody: MacRumors reports that the Pages, Numbers, Keynote, GarageBand, and iMovie apps are now free to all users. Previously you were eligible to download the apps for free when you purchased a new Mac or iOS device. Otherwise, the Mac versions of the iWork apps were $20 apiece and the iOS versions were $10 each; iMovie and GarageBand were both $5 for iOS and GarageBand was $5 on the Mac while iMovie was $15.

This definitely helps simplify what was otherwise kind of a confusing policy based on the dates when you got a new device. Given that the apps themselves bring a lot of functionality to Apple’s devices—not only basic productivity usage like word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations, but also creative uses—they’re more like overall selling points for the hardware. It seems doubtful that they were particularly big revenue generators, especially since most Mac/iOS buyers probably bought more than one device.

While the company has not yet confirmed the price and policy change, a quick stroll through the webpages for the App Store and Mac App Store pages for the apps confirms that they’re now marked as Free.


Linked by Dan Moren

Report: Apple prepping new flagship phone, two overhauled phones for fall

Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman and Min Jeong Lee have posted a lengthy dive into what they’ve heard about the new iPhones due out this fall, which reportedly include a redesigned new high-end phone as well as upgraded versions of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus:

For the premium model, Apple is testing a screen that covers almost the entire front of the device, according to people familiar with the matter. That results in a display slightly larger than that of the iPhone 7 Plus but an overall size closer to the iPhone 7, the people said. Apple is also aiming to reduce the overall size of the handset by integrating the home button into the screen itself via software in a similar manner to Samsung’s S8, the people said.

Also said to be in the work for the new iPhones are OLED displays, a vertical dual camera array possibly to be used for AR features, and a potentially relocated Touch ID sensor if the company can’t figure out how to embed it in the display.

None of those seem outlandish, though the relocation of the Touch ID sensor would no doubt trigger some sound and fury. OLED screens have recently become more cost-effective—see the Galaxy S8, for which reviews dropped this morning—and Apple’s made a habit of trying to push its displays forward on a regular basis.

Rumors of an edge-to-edge screen have been prevalent for the last several years, and since I doubt Apple wants to make its phones any larger physically, bigger screens in a roughly similar sized chassis are currently the only option. That does, however, mean retraining a legion of iPhone users not only with regard to the Touch ID sensor, but also to however the company decides to handle the embedded Home button. I’ve gotten perfectly used to the iPhone 7’s ersatz Home button over the last six months or so1, but a software-designed button might have a sharper curve.

Of course, the big caveat is that all of this is subject to change, since the thrust of the story actually seems to suggest that Apple has not finalized the design of this fall’s smartphones.

The other big question mark is the shipping. Lots of rumors have suggested that the new phone may not ship immediately, thanks to supply and manufacturing challenges. That won’t stop many from ordering them, but in concert with the lengthy wait times for AirPods, it definitely paints an unflattering picture of Apple’s supply chain these days—especially given that’s supposed to be Tim Cook’s particular specialty.


  1. Except occasionally when the phone is powered off and I stab at the button and remember that it’s just one big slab.  ↩


By Jason Snell

Four months using AirPods everywhere… almost

AirPodsCase-PF-Open_AirPods-PF-Float_PR-PRINT

In the four months since I got a set of AirPods, they have colonized my life in ways both surprising and unsurprising. As someone who would never have been caught dead using a pair of Apple’s wired earbuds—either originals or EarPods—I’m a little surprised about this myself.

Yes, the AirPods sound better than I expected (and to be fair, I generally use them for podcasts, not music), and after a period of adjustment I’ve figured out how to get them to stay in my ears and not cause me discomfort. But honestly, it’s the fact that they’re entirely wireless that is the biggest appeal. My older set of wireless Bluetooth earbuds—with a cord running between them—haven’t been turned on a single time since I got the AirPods.

So yes, four months with the AirPods and I’m a believer. Except for all the times when I don’t use them.

First is, of course, when I’m recording and editing podcasts. I have a dedicated set of wired in-ear headphones that I use for podcast purposes. A wired connection has zero latency—Bluetooth can still have a noticeable delay—and the in-ear nature of those headphones ensure that my microphone can’t pick up any of the sound I’m receiving, which eliminates unpleasant echoes on the final recording.

Next up is when I’m mowing the lawn: As frustrated as I get by my headphone cord being snagged on various parts of the mower as I’m working, I can’t use the AirPods. The reason is noise: The AirPods let in a lot of ambient noise. That’s great if I’m walking or even riding a bike, because I can hear my iPhone audio and ambient sound equally. But when you’re a foot away from a loud lawnmower, it’s no good. I have to turn the volume up so loud that it hurts my ears, and even then, my podcasts are largely inaudible. I’ve returned to the wired in-ear headphones—and the occasional snag.

For the same reasons, AirPods are no good for me on airplanes. The ambient noise of the airplane is loud enough that it greatly decreases my appreciation of the music or podcasts I’m listening to. Many people use noise-cancelling headphones when they’re on a plane; my solution isn’t to cancel the noise but to block it entirely—the custom silicone tips of my in-ear headphones seal me off almost completely from the outside world. The result is good listening on planes, and no intrusive noise. (I’ve actually stuck my headphones in, sans cord, at loud rock concerts for the same effect.)

And… that’s it. Seriously, when I’m around loud noises or recording podcasts are the only times I don’t break out the AirPods. In every other scenario—doing the dishes, walking the dog, running, walking through an airport to get to my gate, waiting in passport control, riding the train—they are my constant companion. But when I traveled to Europe last week, I brought both my AirPods and my wired in-ear headphones, and used both of them a lot. I love these AirPods, but I just can’t commit to them exclusively.


Linked by Dan Moren

Coachella iPhone thief foiled by Find My iPhone

A guy who stole 100+ phones at music festival of Coachella was caught when a bunch of the victims used Find My iPhone to track him down. (But wait, whose phone did they use the app on?!) Perhaps they should rename it “Find My iPhone’s Thief.”


Linked by Jason Snell

Don’t fear the flipside

Over at 512 Pixels, Stephen Hackett comments on a rumor that the OLED screen on Apple’s rumored high-end iPhone might not be able to feature a Touch ID sensor embedded into the front of the screen.

I’m with Stephen—doing an iPhone without any sort of Touch ID seems like a non-starter. But I’m also with Stephen about the prospect of moving the Touch ID sensor to the back of the phone:

Having reviewed and used several Android devices with this setup, I can say with confidence that it would not be the end of the world. There are downsides — mainly, unlocking the phone if its on a table — but the rest of the time, the location is totally fine. In fact, I think I prefer moving my finger over on the back of the back of an Android phone over wrenching my thumb over to the bottom-center of my iPhone.

My reference Android phone is a Nexus 5X, which has a fingerprint sensor on its back side. I really, really like the placement of the sensor there. It fits naturally into how I hold the phone, so I can grab it and touch the sensor with my index finger, and the phone unlocks. Yes, it has drawbacks, but just because a back-side sensor isn’t something Apple has done before doesn’t mean it’s not any good. In fact, many people might find it a superior experience.


Linked by Dan Moren

Building a tiny classic Mac out of Lego blocks

Piggybacking on today’s nostalgia theme, here’s how Jannis Hermanns built a classic Macintosh using an e-paper display, a Raspberry Pi, and Lego blocks. And you can follow the instructions to build one yourself—it only requires a little bit of Dremel-ing.


Linked by Jason Snell

Mac emulation in a web page

The Internet Archive is now offering old Mac operating systems and apps, which run in emulation in a web page. The entire Mac emulator runs in JavaScript.

Now people searching for a half-remembered old Mac program may be able to click on a search result, click the start button at the top of the page, and use the program. It’s testament to how powerful today’s computers and software technologies have gotten. This is an important part of history, and now it’s available for everyone to see and use.


Dan Moren for Macworld

iTunes needs to go (well, the name, anyway) ↦

I’ve been giving some thought to the future of iTunes and I’ve reached the conclusion that, well, it probably doesn’t have one. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news and all that.

Almost two years ago, around the time Apple was rolling out Apple Music, I reasoned that it was a good opportunity to break up iTunes, the app—which, if you’re keeping score, didn’t happen. But the longer I’ve considered the matter, the more I’ve come to think that the name iTunes is due to ride into the sunset. And how about this for confirmation: Apple just rebranded iTunes Podcasts as Apple Podcasts. iTunes, your days are numbered.

Continue reading on Macworld ↦