This week's sponsor
Layers - A thoughtful design conference for the Apple community. June 5-7 in San Jose, right alongside WWDC.
April 27, 2017 • 54 minutes
On the galaxy’s favorite irreverent tech podcast, the guys throw down about comparing the relative successes of the Apple Watch and Amazon Echo. Then we talk about Dan’s upcoming novel, a possible fix for Lex’s Sonos issues, software that can fake people’s voices (but not well), and, of course, the latest Uber debacle.
April 26, 2017 • 29 minutes
This week join us in riding the Clockwise roller coaster as David Sparks and Macworld’s Caitlin McGarry join Dan and Jason to discuss the breaking announcement of the Amazon Echo Look, deconstruct Uber’s latest bad news, marvel at Samsung’s record Galaxy S8 orders, and cower in fear at tech companies taking personal data and selling it to other tech companies.
By Dan Moren
April 26, 2017 8:46 AM PT
Well, didn’t see this coming.1 Amazon has added a new device to its Echo line-up, but it’s not (as has been rumored) an Echo with a screen. Rather, the company’s new Echo Look has a built-in hands-free camera that’s capable of shooting both stills and video, all in pursuit of helping you pick the right wardrobe.
In addition to all the usual Alexa features, you can tell the Echo Look to take a photo or a video, and the result will pop up in the Echo Look companion app on your phone, letting you tell whether the outfit you’ve got on works. A depth of field effect—à la the iPhone 7 Plus’s Portrait Mode—blurs the background and brings you and your outfit into the foreground. Short videos let you spin around to see yourself from all angles.
There are a couple other related features in the Look: one is the ability to build a lookbook that lets you scroll back through a log of all the outfits you’ve worn and snapped pictures of, letting you find favorites, dispose of ones you don’t wear much, and, I guess help make sure you don’t wear the same thing every day? The other is a more interactive Style Check, which Amazon says combines machine learning with advice from fashion specialists: snap photos of yourself in two different outfits, submit them, and you’ll get advice as to which works better based on fit, current trends, and more. (As with many machine learning algorithms, it supposedly gets better the more you use it.)2
So, what’s in this for Amazon? Well, if you thought to yourself “hey, seems like a great way for Amazon to sell you clothes” then you win a prize. Amazon says “Echo Look helps you discover new brands and styles inspired by your lookbook,” so presumably it can comb through the pictures you’ve taken (with your permission, I would hope) and use algorithms to figure out what other clothes you might want, based on your fashion choices. Then, of course, you’ll be able to order those clothes from your phone via the Amazon app. (Update: It seems you can’t order things via voice from the Echo Look—all purchases must be done via the Amazon app on your phone.)
Basically, the Echo Look is a smart, connected take on an old classic: the mirror. It’s an intriguing move, but one that easily computes with Amazon’s core mission of selling stuff—in some ways, even more clearly than with the original Echo. But what this and other recent developments (like Amazon’s new Lex conversation framework3) tell us is that Amazon is developing Alexa and the Echo into a platform for a variety of different solutions. It would not surprise me to see that rumored screen-based Echo appear as a kitchen-specific device, for example.
It’s also hard not to see this as a product targeted largely, though not exclusively, towards women. I would hardly be surprised if Amazon’s analytics say that its existing products have sold predominantly to men; aiming to bolster sales by aiming at an underserved segment of the market is a smart move. But that can also be a tricky proposition to navigate, so we’ll have to see how it plays out.
Personally, even as an Echo aficionado, the Look isn’t for me. Until last year the only mirror in my apartment was in the bathroom. I mean, come on: I’m a freelance writer who works from home. I don’t need a computer to tell me which pair of sweatpants is more comfy, right?
April 25, 2017 • 1 hour, 54 minutes
This week on Upgrade, Jason and Myke are back together (from their separate offices) to discuss the trouble with free services that take your data and re-sell it to others, and why it’s important to be a savvy and skeptical consumer. They also discuss the future of the iPad Pro app market, changes to Apple’s affiliate program, Apple’s approval to make self-driving cars, and the 1982 classic film “Blade Runner.”
By Jason Snell
April 24, 2017 10:08 AM PT
I spent two decades writing reviews for technology products that featured a mandatory score on a five-point rating scale1. The idea of applying a numerical rating to a product appears to be an early 20th century invention, most famously adopted by film critics.
I was never a fan of the idea, to be honest. Step away from the objective world of precise measurements and things get squishy awfully fast. You end up using the precision of numbers to measure the imprecision of sentiment. Beyond telling you if I like the product or not—if Roger Ebert likes the movie or not—does the difference between a 3.5 and a 4 really tell you much?
(When I started at Macworld, the magazine had just instituted a completely bonkers rating system where every product was scored twice, both out of five stars and out of 100 points (actually out of 10 points with a mandatory tenth rating, wasting a lot of perfectly good periods), so you’d end up with ratings like 4 stars/8.7. If you’re reviewing hard drives I suppose it’s arguable that you might need to differentiate between a 7.3 and a 7.4, but in most cases that level of precision is pointless and arbitrary.)
Anyway, the web changed everything because suddenly anyone could write reviews and share their opinions. The first sites to embrace user ratings loved the idea that this new medium could turn the tables on the old one: Now you can be the critic! You get to rate things out of five stars!
So in an act of defiance against the old order, the web ended up embracing one of the old order’s failings—the arbitrary five- or ten-point scale for rating things. Now you, too, can invent your own personal code for the films you see or the products you buy. The problem is that there’s no one right way to make a ratings system. At Macworld, we had a rubric for reviewers to follow that instructed them what all the ratings levels meant, because we wanted our ratings to be consistent. I could gauge the sentiment of a review by reading it, and equate that to a number.
We considered three mice to be the beginning of the positive part of the ratings scale. For us, three mice meant “this product isn’t without its flaws, but you should buy it.” Of course, the makers of three-mouse products rarely saw it that way. And some reviewers had a different definition too.
Numbers in ratings systems don’t have fundamental meanings. For me, everything starts at three and you have to earn or lose extra stars to nudge me from my default. But if you’re an Uber driver anything but five stars is a disaster. If you’re rating movies on IMDB in an attempt to nudge the average rating (rather than just curating your own personal movie database), you’re better off rating every movie you like 10 out of 10 and every movie you hate 1 out of 10, because it will have a bigger impact on the average.
Say you’re Netflix, which has allowed its users to apply five-star ratings to movies since its inception. Netflix offered user ratings because it’s always been focused on improving its own recommendation engine, so that it can look at your tastes and suggest other movies you might like—and use your ratings to feed the recommendation engine of viewers who share your tastes, too.
At some point, Netflix must have looked at its data and realized that their five-star rating system wasn’t really improving its recommendations. It was just adding noise. Does knowing that one user gave a movie four stars while another one gave it five stars really provide more information? The answer is clearly no, because Netflix eliminated star ratings and now only seeks a thumbs up or a thumbs down, just like YouTube did in 2009. In the end, you can obsess over whether a movie deserves three or four of your precious personal stars2, but Netflix doesn’t care. It just wants to know if you liked the movie or not, because that’s all that really matters.
Take it from Gene Siskel, via that same Roger Ebert piece:
Gene Siskel boiled it down: “What’s the first thing people ask you? Should I see this movie? They don’t want a speech on the director’s career. Thumbs up—yes. Thumbs down—no.”
Or as John Gruber succinctly put it, star ratings are garbage—“thumbs-up/thumbs-down is the way to go—everyone agrees what those mean.”
Siskel and Ebert had it right. The two critics were forced to provide star ratings for their newspapers, but when they created their own TV movie-reviews show, they famously boiled the whole thing down to thumbs up and thumbs down. And they were critics who reviewed hundreds of films a year! If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for the rest of us—and for the algorithms fed by our sentiment.
So if you’re using a service like Uber (which you probably shouldn’t) that still demands a five-star rating system, it’s time to swallow your inner film critic and embrace the extremes. If four stars is a bad rating, you’re not really using a five-star rating system. There are only two valid ratings: five stars, and one star. Thumbs up and thumbs down. The rest of it is just a relic of the old days when the internet needed to lend itself an air of legitimacy by aping the newspapers and magazines it has now supplanted.
By Dan Moren
April 24, 2017 6:37 AM PT
Update: The always-great Dr. Drang wrote an AppleScript to automatically purge completed reminders every 30 days. Also, as a few people have pointed out, on the Mac you can select a bunch of reminders (or all of them) and batch delete them.
Last week on Clockwise, we discussed how we use Apple’s Reminders app, and I lamented that there was no option to have old, checked-off reminders automatically discarded. If I look at my Shopping List, for example, there are more than 1100 completed reminders that I really don’t need to keep around.1 But there’s no easy way to get rid of them, except to go through and delete them one-by-one. Which I’m not going to do.
Listener Stephen pointed out, however, that there is an option to remove all your old completed reminders—it’s just not in an obvious place, because it’s not available in the macOS or iOS Reminders app.
That’s right, it’s on iCloud.
Log in to iCloud.com and open the Reminders web app, then hit the disclosure triangle next to the number of completed tasks. In addition to all your bygone to-do items, you’ll see a button for Clear Completed; click it and you’ll be warned that all the completed tasks on that list will be permanently deleted. Confirm and voilà: you now have a nice clean reminders list.
Now, of course, this doesn’t completely solve the problem, since those completed items will just begin to stack up again. It would be great if, as I suggested on the show, Apple provided an option to have those completed tasks automatically deleted after a certain amount of time—30 days would work great for me—and even better if it allowed you to choose the interval.
Reminders, in general, is not a particularly featureful app. In general, that’s okay, because I like how light and streamlined it is. But this is definitely one place where Apple could stand to add a couple extra capabilities for the sake of keeping the app simple and uncluttered.
Though I’m sure historians of the future will be delighted at this veritable treasure trove. “He bought cereal in the fall of 2015! Do you know what this means?” ↩
Dan Moren for Macworld
April 23, 2017 1:31 PM PT
“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.
April 22, 2017 9:00 AM PT
My thanks to YNAB for sponsoring Six Colors this week.
YNAB is a budgeting app with award-winning mobile and web apps, yes, but it’s more than that. YNAB has a team of teachers offering online courses about money management. It focuses on the cash you’ve got, and avoids forecasting into the future.
This is a service that gives you the tools to save and the insight about how to get your budget in order so that you can get your money in order. Six Colors readers can try YNAB for 34 days free to get a real sense for what changes you can make in just a month.
By Jason Snell
April 21, 2017 4:04 PM PT
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. And all of my panelists need to record their own microphones, locally, at full quality. (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, and distributed them to my most frequent panelists. 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 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.
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.
Since many of my podcasts feature more than two people, two-person tools like FaceTime are not an option. ↩
The open-source gaming VoIP app Mumble offers multi-track recording and mobile clients, but recordings aren’t supported on mobile and its ease of use is what you’d expect from an open-source project. ↩
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.]
Jason Snell for Macworld
April 20, 2017 8:35 AM PT
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.
April 20, 2017 • 40 minutes
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.