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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: It’s time to expand the Apple Watch line

Since first introducing the Apple Watch, Apple has worked hard to clarify the product, steering it to where most users found it the most useful — notifications and activity tracking. The fanciful dream of the Apple Watch taking over every single task once managed by the iPhone is mostly dead and gone.


This change has happened in both hardware and software.

At first, Apple positioned the stainless steel model as the default Apple Watch, with the cheaper aluminum “sport” model as somewhat of a step down. Unsurprisingly, it seems that the vast majority of Apple Watches sold are of the aluminum variant, and Apple has shifted, putting a larger focus on those models—leaving fancier finishes on sale, but maybe a little on the back burner.

watchOS has changed drastically over its short lifespan. I’m hard pressed to think what other operating system and platform has seen so much fundamental change in just five years. Watch apps can now run natively on device, have access to things like LTE and can even sync directly with web servers, bypassing the iPhone. They can even be installed directly via the Apple Watch App Store.

All of this has been successful. While Apple doesn’t publish sales figures, the company’s wearables division continues to rake in the cash, and market research shows that the Apple Watch is by far the most popular smartwatch, and even beats out simpler devices like Fitbits.

All of this has me thinking about where the Apple Watch could go next. When the iPod came out in 2001, it was just a single model. Less than three years later, the wildly popular iPod mini showed up, followed by the iPod shuffle in January 2005 and the iPod nano that fall. Each time a new model was added to the lineup, Apple was clear that it was going after other markets that existed downstream of its original 5 GB player.

I think the Apple Watch could take a similar path, and there’s one possibility that I am very interested in: an Apple Watch without a screen.

For the last several years, I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with my Apple Watch. There are times where I don’t want notifications pinging my wrist and would rather wear a traditional watch. In those seasons, I often only wear my Apple Watch when I exercise, as I prefer Apple’s features to those of other fitness trackers.

I would love to be able to split the difference by wearing a screen-less bracelet that communicated with the Fitness (neè Activity) app on my iPhone. There, I could see my daily progress, deal with workouts and more. This would be even easier in the widget-filled world of iOS 14.

This class of device could get bonkers-good battery life, look less techy than an Apple Watch and would probably prove less fragile in the instance of, say, a bicycle crash.

It would also allow Apple to move down-market, taking on more traditional Fitbit models, which start at $100. I don’t imagine Apple going that low, but a $149 screen-less Apple fitness tracker could be very tempting for consumers who don’t want the full-blown Apple Watch experience.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: When Apple stumbles

Ping

With iOS 14 now humming along in beta form, many people (myself included) are excited about the possibilities of widgets. I’m excited to see what the developers of some of my favorite apps do with them over the coming months.

However, I can’t help but think that we’ll all suffer from a little Widget Madness before scaling back to what we find truly useful.

That’s not to say that I don’t think widgets will be popular and successful — I just think that there will see a spike in popularity before things level off.

Of course, not all technology that Apple ships does level off. Some things miss the mark with consumers and wither on the vine. Here are a few examples in recent history that come to mind for me.

iMessage Apps

With 2016’s iOS 10, Apple attempted to make Messages more than just a replacement for SMS that could sync between all of a user’s devices. That year, the company announced iMessage apps and sticker packs.

The first was a wide-ranging vision of what the iMessages app could become through the power of third-party applications being able to do their thing right inline with a text conversation. No longer would a user have to jump out to another app to schedule a meeting or order food or even play a game — they could do it all without leaving their conversation.

In his iOS 10 review, here’s what Federico Viticci wrote about the feature:

The stakes are high. For millions of users, their messaging app is a second Home screen – a highly personal, heavily curated gateway to contacts, private conversations, and shared memories. Messaging isn’t just texting anymore; it’s the touchstone of today’s mobile lifestyle, a condensation of everything smartphones have become.

Apple won’t pass up this opportunity. Not this time. In opening up their most used app, Apple hopes that developers will take iMessage further with new ways to share and enrich our conversations.

Apple’s hope was that the iMessage application could become a small home screen in and of itself, through the power of the iMessage App Store.

Today, that’s all still present, and third-party apps do often include iMessage apps, but most of them are in the one category that landed with consumers: stickers.

Even then, the expansion of stickers we saw in the early days of this feature has slowed down to a crawl. Emoji are more universal and easier to use, and have kept the high ground in this ridiculous war.

Animoji

A year later, in 2017, Apple announced another addition to Messages: Animoji.

Powered by the TrueDepth camera in the then-new iPhone X, Animoji were designed to bring regular emoji to life … or at least a dozen of them.

Animoji
GIF courtesy of Emojipedia.

The images mirrored the user’s face, making it easy to send custom responses to someone quickly, complete with audio. Any user running iOS 11 or newer could see them, but creating them required the iPhone X, so in a way, sending an Animoji to a friend was a pretty big flex there for a while.

In the years since, Apple has added additional characters, but I believe the feature has been passed by Memoji, which gives users the ability to create animated figures of their own faces. Again, Federico Viticci:

The most important addition to Animoji in iOS 12, however, isn’t the inclusion of new built-in characters. It’s the fact that you can now create an Animoji for yourself through a new mode called Memoji. I believe that this feature will singlehandedly convince existing iPhone X owners to upgrade to iOS 12. I also think it will turn out to be one of the most popular social functionalities bundled with iOS and Messages, perhaps second only to new emoji.

I can’t speak to how widely used Memoji are, but I bet they are way more popular than the original Animoji.

I think I’ve ganged up on iMessage enough for today, so let’s look at some other failure-to-launch features from Apple:

Apple Music Connect

In 2015, Apple announced Apple Music Connect, apparently having forgotten the nightmare that was iTunes Ping just five years earlier.

Connect was part of the original version of Apple Music, earning a mention in the press release about the service:

Artists and fans now have an incredible way to connect with one another directly in Apple Music with Connect. Through Connect, artists can share lyrics, backstage photos, videos or even release their latest song directly to fans directly from their iPhone. Fans can comment on or like anything an artist has posted, and share it via Messages, Facebook, Twitter and email. And when you comment, the artist can respond directly to you.

I think Apple was hoping that music lovers would see Apple Music as not just a streaming service, but a one-stop shop to keep up with their favorite artists. Right away, many found that turning the feature off made Apple Music a better app, and pretty quickly after launch, it was clear that most musicians (or rather, their publicists) were not super interested in the platform, deciding to stick with more mainstream — and vastly more popular — social media outlets.

It staggered on for a few years, before Apple killed it at the end of 2018.

MobileMe

Nah, I’m just kidding about writing this section. No one wants to relive that.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: A Tour of System Preferences in Big Sur

Any time there is a big set of UI changes in macOS, I like to see what Apple has done to the System Preferences app. As you can see, Catalina and Big Sur’s versions of the app are pretty different:

Big Sur is still pretty early in its beta lifecycle, so some of these decisions could change over time (and I’m sure the Notifications icon will be swapped for a high-resolution one) but I think we can get a good feel for where Apple is going here.

First, the application still has the sam structure that Apple introduced lat year, with the Apple ID and Family Sharing preference panes taking up the top of the window,1 with the other panes filing in below in sections that were stripped of their names after Mountain Lion. System Preferences even retains the Spotlight-style search UI:

This year, many the icons have been revisited to better match Big Sur’s more colorful and lifelike palette of application icons. General is more colorful and includes the stoplight buttons, Network is a lot more vibrant and even Displays got a slight update, with thinner bezels on its on-icon display. Others, like Sound and Screen Time go a little far for my tastes, but like everything in Big Sur, I’m sure I’ll get used to it with time.

The changes are more than skin deep, though. Many of the preference panes themselves have been updated or reworked, and I want to point out a few of the changes.

Continue reading “The Hackett File: A Tour of System Preferences in Big Sur”…

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Life After WWDC

WWDC 2020 has come and gone, and for the first time in the event’s 31-year history, the conference was entirely online.

In the Ye Olden Days, developers could get copies of WWDC sessions on VHS or DVD, and eventually watch them online. Over the last few years, Apple has worked hard to get session videos online faster and faster.

Of course this year, none of those edit-and-upload-as-quickly-as-possible skills were needed, as the entire conference was done in advance, ready to stream online like content from Netflix or Hulu.

This revised format, forced upon Apple and its community due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, worked very well. Session videos were shorter and tighter, and since they can be watched whenever it’s convenient, developers don’t have to worry about juggling sessions to fit their schedules.

Then there’s the much more important topic of access. Apple has bajillions of developers, but WWDC is impossible to attend for most of them. Ticket availability and the lottery system aside, spending a week in San Jose is prohibitively expensive for a huge number of people, and the social issues around it can be worrisome.

I really have no idea on what a post-pandemic WWDC will look like, but I feel like the scale may be tipping slightly to the new virtual format, both inside Apple and out.

If WWDC goes online-only, the serendipity of running into people in San Jose will be lost, as will fun things like live podcast recordings, meetups and seeing friends from all over the world, but the truth is that these things have been reserved for the fraction of the Apple community that could afford both the time and money it takes to be in San Jose for a week.

A virtual WWDC allows everyone equal access, but it does leave a hole on the calendar, just like the demise of Macworld Expo did years ago.

This, combined with the death of many smaller Apple-focused conferences, leaves an opportunity for people to create smaller relevant, inclusive and exciting events around the world for Apple nerds.

The conference business is notoriously difficult one, which is why I think a regional approach could be the way to go. If Apple was willing to do road shows, touring countries showing off products and connecting with developers and users, it would make this easier, but I don’t see that coming to pass.

That aside, I do think there’s a market for these sorts of smaller events. They just need to be designed to correct the issues that have plagued so many of them in the past.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The battle for the next iPhone connector

Since USB-C first appeared on the 2015 MacBook, Apple users have seen it appear on more and more products, usually with its more powerful friend Thunderbolt 3 along for the ride into battle.

USB-C met a fierce adversary on its road to total control, though: the Lightning port.

Lightning first appeared on the iPhone 5, and quickly took over as the default connector on just about everything Apple sells that isn’t a computer. On my desk alone, I have Lightning ports on my keyboard, Trackpad, AirPods case and iPhone.

There’s only one realm where Lightning has fallen to USB-C: the iPad Pro. That change has made using audio interfaces, external storage and other accessories much easier to use with the device, even if other, lesser iPads are still under the iron fist of Lightning.

The truth is, many of us would like to see USB-C take over everything in the Land of Apple. There’s a thin line between a universal standard and port tyranny, but outside of the dongle tax, USB-C has been a fairly gracious master.

The strongest soldier left wearing the colors of Lightning is a true device god among mortals: the iPhone. But, according to rumors, like any good fighter, the iPhone may have a secret weapon up its sleeve—reporting that the iPhone 12 will use Lightning, but the iPhone 13 will use a combination of wireless charging and a Smart Connector to remove ports entirely.

Talk about cutting USB-C off at the knees. The iPhone could be poised to avoid a battle entirely. What a power move.

I worry, however, it’s a move that the world isn’t ready for. There’s no doubt that changing the connector on the iPhone is a massive deal. For years, every holiday meal was complete only once a family member pointed to their photo of the 30-pin Dock Connector on their mantle and wished for the “good old days.” Now with hindsight, it’s clear Lightning was better equipped to lead Apple into the 2010s, but the 2020s may end up being a totally different landscape.

USB-C proponents praise the port’s universality. “A single cable can charge anything!” they cry, carrying their reversible banners through the cities.

I stopped some of these ardent USB-C fans on the street and asked them about this report. “Being stuck with wireless charging, or using some weird Smart Connector charger makes the iPhone less useful, especially when traveling,” one said. “At least Lightning means you can charge your phone while laying in bed.”

Another fan shared their concerns about how to use a port-less phone in their car, or how external battery banks would work.

“I don’t want something even more proprietary than Lightning,” said another fan. “The Smart Connector may be cool, but if Apple uses it to make some Surface-like connector to charge, I’m just going to switch to the—”

The end of this comment was cut off when the speaker was distracted by a passerby holding a sign that read “Death to the Smart Connector!” (Stephen, this is why you should never visit Dongletown.—j.s.)

The future of the iPhone connector strategy is unknown. While USB-C has become the standard in far-away phone provinces, some want to see it come to the iPhone’s corner of the world as well. But I think even USB-C fans would agree that a Lightning port is better than no port at all.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Revisiting Twitter.app

For the last month of so, I’ve been using Twitter’s official apps for iPhone, iPad and Mac. I’ve used Tweetbot for years, but as Twitter has continued to hamstring third party clients, I can’t help but think that sooner or later, the company will pull the plug on them altogether.

I have found the experience of Twitter’s official apps to be a pretty mixed bag. One on hands, I can see polls and create threads easier than ever, and when I’m in the mood to see what’s trending, the experience is much richer than in Tweetbot.

As someone who has their DMs open, this experience is also better in Twitter’s apps. Not only do push notifications work instantly, but Twitter will separate out “Requests,” or DMs from people you don’t follow. This has caught a fair bit of spam or other messages that would just be right in-line in Tweetbot.

…aaaaand that’s about all the upsides I can think of in switching to the Twitter app.

For me at least, I don’t like how Twitter constantly wants to switch me to its algorithmic timeline. Throwing the switch to view latest tweets first wouldn’t be a big deal if it would actually stick. If I haven’t looked at my timeline in a few days, it always reloads with what Twitter wants to show me first, not what is newest.

I also dislike how a reply from someone I follow will re-insert the original tweet (or thread) into the timeline. I much prefer to see replies to other people in-line. If I want to see the conversation, I’m fine tapping to see what’s going on. I don’t necessarily want to see so much chatter between the 431 accounts I currently follow. I can’t imagine what this must be like for people who follow thousands of accounts.

The third strike against Twitter’s apps is what Twitter thinks I should care about. I personally have very little need to see who liked or retweeted a specific tweet, but Twitter wants to put that front and center in its notifications area.

The fourth strike — YES JASON I KNOW THERE ARE ONLY THREE STRIKES IN BASEBALL JUST LEAVE ME ALONE — is that the Twitter apps are just kind of … bad. The phone app is the best of the three, but on the iPad, its layout is laughable. Why can I see so few tweets on a 11-inch iPad?

iPad Twitter is bad.

The Mac app famously is a Catalyst version of the iPad version, and as such, it carries with it a lot of weird things like iOS-specific language and settings. The team behind the app has done a lot of work cleaning this up in the months since it launched, but it still feels way too much like an iPad app on the Mac.

It’s been buggy in various ways since launch, but as I write this, trying to view a Periscope live stream in the app, it just crashes. Which is fun.

It makes me sad that I think the time is ticking on the likes of Tweetbot and Twitterrific, given that Twitter seems fine with giving some of its most loyal users a mediocre user experience, driven by big data. I know I’m in the minority, but I’ll be sad when I’m forced to use Twitter’s own apps for the service.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: After five years, Apple has restored MacBook clarity

iPad with trackpad

Five years is a long time, especially in consumer electronics. The iPhone went from the original model to the iPhone 5 in as many years. Just think about how many changes took place in that time frame; the iPhone 5’s screen was both larger and more dense than the original, and it packed in LTE, a Lightning port, a much better camera and shockingly better performance in a chassis that weighed less, was thinner and much better built.

Likewise, the 12.9-inch iPad Pro was introduced just five years after the original iPad, and the entire run of pre-Retina MacBooks lasted just five years.

That brings us to the 2020 MacBook Air, which Jason recently reviewed. Due to the current situation we all find ourselves in, I haven’t been able to play with one in an Apple Store, but I did buy my wife a 2018 MacBook Air a few months after it was introduced, and in my review of that laptop, I praised Apple for bringing the MacBook Air into the modern air, but raised concerns about the keyboard.

The new MacBook Air seems to fix all the complaints people had with the 2018-era notebook. It has the Magic Keyboard, multiple CPU options, more generous default storage tiers and starts at $999 once again, unless you’re in education, in which case it’s just $899.

All of this is great, and I think it is fantastic that Apple has restored the MacBook Air not only to its former glory, but its former position of being the default Mac notebook that one can recommend to friends, co-workers, students and more.

The bigger story is a little more interesting though, and it has to do with how long the Mac faithful had to wait for this machine.

Way back in 2015, when Apple introduced the now-defunct 12-inch MacBook with Retina display, I think Apple hoped it would become the de-factor heir to the Air’s throne, but that just didn’t happen. While the form factor is still impressive five years later, that machine was underpowered, introduced the worst keyboard in Apple’s history and had just one USB-C port, limiting its usefulness in the real world.

In 2016, the cracks were already beginning to show, when Apple introduced the Touch Bar MacBook Pro line, which included a low-end model with two Thunderbolt ports and traditional function keys. I owned that machine for a while, and as I wrote at the time, it was a notebook much closer to the MacBook Air than the its Pro-named siblings.

I think Apple hoped this notebook would become the de-factor heir to the Air’s throne, but that just didn’t happen.

From 2016-2018, Mac users who were in the market for an entry-level notebook faced a confusing product line. The 12-inch MacBook and the low-end MacBook Pro had big overlaps in price, but not performance, so many just opted to pick up the still-for-sale non-Retina MacBook Air, forgoing the mess of Apple’s other machines.

In 2018, the company began to clear the mess with the new MacBook Air, but here in 2020, it’s finally clear. If you need a Mac notebook, buy the Air, unless you know you need something more.

It’s been a long five years, but the MacBook line makes sense again. Let’s hope Apple keeps things clear from here on out.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Changing the Virtual Channel

For All Mankind

I watched and enjoyed both The Morning Show and For All Mankind. In fact, I’m excited to see where the shows go in their second season this year.

…and I haven’t looked at Apple TV+ since.

My wife and I are going to start the second season of Jack Ryan sometime soon, so the Amazon Prime app will see the light of day for a little while, and if something pops up on Netflix, we’ll then spend time there.

I hadn’t thought about this phenomenon until Jason and Myke answered a question about it on Upgrade #282, but I definitely hop around from service to service as we find things to watch on them.

We’re aren’t even cord-cutters — we have never paid for cable — but this is all starting to feel like cable. The abundance of content across the services we pay for is simply astonishing, but we are probably paying for things we don’t need or probably even want.

In this way, Apple TV+ is a little unique, as a large number of people — myself included — aren’t actually paying for it. Apple is giving away one year of Apple TV+ with the purchase of an Apple device.

The longer I think about it, the smarter this move seems to me. With its lack of back catalog or third-party content, there’s not much of a reason to return to Apple TV+ until the second season of its headline shows start. If customers were paying $4.99/month for the service, I think the majority of people would move on, and possibly never come back.

My assumption is that season two of the big shows on TV+ will begin a few weeks before the initial round of users signed up, prompting us all to pay to keep seeing what will happen on our favorite Apple-made shows.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Room for a larger MacBook Air

Apple’s laptop lineup is in a very different place than it was just a few years ago, when the largest notebook you could get was 15.4-inches in size, and the smallest came with a 12-inch display and just one lonely USB-C port.

Both of those machines are gone. The 16-inch MacBook Pro looks like a great option for those who need a lot of power on the road. If you were a 12-inch MacBook kind of user … well … uhhh. Hmm.

I don’t know if Apple would ever make a MacBook Air smaller than its current 13.3-inch size, but I do think it should make one that’s bigger.

For years, if you wanted a big notebook from Apple, you had to pay for power and features that you didn’t necessarily need. Lots of people would like something larger than the Air, but don’t have any need for stuff like 6-core i7 processors or the Touch Bar.

Over on the PC side of things, moderately powered notebooks can be found in all sorts of screen sizes, to meet the needs of all sorts of users.

I can envision a future with two lines of Apple notebooks:

  • MacBook Air: 13 and 15 inches
  • MacBook Pro: 14 and 16 inches

A MacBook Air with a larger display could enjoy pretty spectacular battery life if Apple scaled the battery with the chassis, and more screen real estate would be welcomed by many home and office users who don’t lug their notebooks with them everywhere they go.

There’s precedent for this, of course. Look no further than our own Jason Snell’s office for an 11.6-inch MacBook Air, which was sold for years alongside the 13-inch model.

If we go further back, we encounter the 12 and 14-inch iBooks. The 14-inch was added to the line in January 2002. It was identical to the smaller 12-inch machine, right down to the 1024×768 display … which did not look great when stretched to fit the bigger size. Thankfully, Apple has learned from its past mistakes in this regard.

I don’t know how likely it is that Apple would introduce another size of MacBook Air, but I think a larger consumer notebook would do well for the company — perhaps better than a new, smaller one.

Sorry, MacBook fans.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The year of Macintosh

With the holidays here, it’s always a good time to reflect on what we’re thankful for, remembering the blessings in our lives.

As a Mac user, there’s a lot to celebrate this year. Apple remains dedicated to meeting the hardware needs of Mac users all across the spectrum, from those buying their first MacBook Air to take to college, to the professional who is about to order a Mac Pro next month.

Then there is Mac Catalyst, which should usher in a new era of app development atop macOS, unlocking the riches of the iOS ecosystem for Mac users. SwiftUI, while still a ways off, should continue that work as Apple strives to unify their various platforms in new and interesting ways.

There’s also Apple’s general approach to the Mac and its operating system. While there are those in the community who would like to see Apple move more aggressively in changing the Mac, I don’t see things that way. Change for change’s sake doesn’t make any sense on a platform as mature and relied upon as the Mac has become. Gone are the big updates of the first decade of Mac OS X, replaced by more calculated, steady improvements.

Yes, of course, there are times where I have wished Apple would move faster with certain features or system applications. Look no further than how long it took Notes or Reminders to become good. Apple’s often content to let third parties rush in and figure stuff out, just to come in a few years later with something that works for a lot of users.

In a sense, this protects the Mac from Apple going down too many rabbit holes as things become popular. Just think back to the netbook craze. Many people — including myself and Jason — made Hackintoshes out of tiny laptops like the Dell Mini 9 and the MSI Wind to see what the experience would be like.

It wasn’t great. And time proved that Apple was right to not get into what would end up being a fad killed off by tablets like the iPad.

The trick is knowing what is a fad and what is a genuine change that Apple should bring to the Mac. Clearly, the company still believes touch is not the right interaction for macOS. I’d rather Apple be late to the party — or not come at all — then to do something poorly on the platform I use every day to make my living. I’ll raise my glass to that any time of year.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Apple, the Media Company

When Apple dropped “computer” from it name the morning of the first iPhone keynote, it was jarring for some, and upsetting for others. Mat Honan wrote this for PCWorld and Macworld at the time:

Formerly Apple Computer, the name change reflects the company’s newfound emphasis on consumer electronics. Jobs revealed the change following announcements on the new Apple TV and iPhone, with no new Mac configurations announced whatsoever.

You can sense the saltiness about the lack of Mac announcements. I don’t know if Honan meant for that to be there, but I think a lot of people felt it.

The truth is, “Apple, Inc.” was a better name for the company as it transitions from the Mac and iPod to a wider range of products, which would expand in later years to not only add the iPhone and Apple TV, but the iPad, Apple Watch and audio products like AirPods and the HomePod as well.

However, we have arrived at the biggest departure from the original vision of the company yet — the launch of Apple TV+. Free for a year with the purchase of most Apple hardware products — or a mere $4.99/month — Apple TV+ marks Apple getting serious about making its own content.

Of course, Apple has sold content for years, since the advent of the iTunes Store back in 2003. It has sold countless songs, audio books, TV shows and movies. Apple Music has streamed millions and millions of songs to users since 2015. In those years, the company has learned not only how to serve media files, but how to curate collections of content in ways that consumers find appealing.

The move from selling to creating is a big one, and I think Apple is ready. It is easy to mock Apple’s first TV projects — Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke — because they were pretty bad. Apple learned pretty quickly that a bunch of technology executives are the wrong people to lead up this sort of initiative, and it has hired some major players to run Apple TV+, and that’s before you get to the star power involved in producing the shows themselves.

In August, it was reported that Apple has spent over $6 billion on getting TV+ up and running. That’s an astonishing number, and a real sign that Apple is serious about this.

It’s too soon to know the quality of the content coming with Apple TV+, but clearly Apple is not messing around here. If 2007 was the year Apple became more than a computer company, 2019 is going to be the year it becomes more than a technology company. Meet Apple, the media giant.

Like 12 years ago, there are people who are cranky about the change, but complaining that Apple is too busy making TV shows to fix the MacBook Pro keyboard is short-sighted. Apple is bigger than ever — in just about every single way — and it has hired enough people to create content and keep things like the Mac and iPhone on track.

Maybe with all of this new talent, they can put their heads together and even fix the Siri Remote that comes with the Apple TV.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Amazon’s iOS problem and opportunity

Amazon recently held an event in which the company announced a whole bunch of products, ranging from a new high-end Echo to take on the likes of Sonos, to a pair of glasses that contain a Bluetooth headset and microphone.

The majority of these products are either powered by, or provide access to, Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant. Take the glasses, for example. Here are Dan Seifert and Chris Welch at The Verge:

The glasses pair with your Android phone and can read out notifications, make phone calls, and play audio, including music and podcasts. You can also ask Alexa for rundowns of your calendar, the news, weather, and the usual things you’ve come to expect. A “VIP” filter will let wearers choose which notifications they want read aloud and which should remain only on their phone for later. However, Amazon notes that iOS is unsupported out this time, leaving out iPhone owners entirely.

If you have a pair of these glasses, you can long press to gain access to Google Assistant, bypassing much of Alexa’s ecosystem altogether. This is cool — Android users like to have options, and Amazon is working to deliver.

Alexa is always going to play second-fiddle to Google Assistant and Siri, which are native to their operating systems. Amazon is stuck in a layer above, having to deal with things like Bluetooth pairing and notification forwarding to remain useful. And as Seifert and Welch point out, Android makes this easier than iOS. Look no further than Fitbit if you want a non-Amazon example of how big of a pain this can be.

This is the dark side of Apple’s ecosystem. It’s fantastic that the Apple Watch is a great wearable iMessage client, but Apple keeps others at an arm’s length. The company says this is to ensure a good customer experience, and I believe that, but increasingly, legislators are raising their collective eyebrows at such actions.

If Apple were to be forces to open up iOS, Amazon could stand to gain a lot of ground. Alexa becoming a true sibling of Siri’s would make some of Amazon’s products more appealing to iPhone customers.

I don’t know what the future of this is, but if I were Amazon, I wouldn’t bet the company on Alexa-infused glasses any time soon.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: What Sidecar says about the future of the Mac

Coming with macOS Catalina and iPadOS 13, Sidecar bridges the Mac and iPad experience, turning for latter into an external display for the former.

For full details, be sure to check out John Voorhees’s article on the subject, but today, I want to talk about Sidecar through the lens of what it could mean about the future of the Mac.

Sidecar will allow you to mirror your Mac’s display on an iPad or use the iPad like a traditional external display. Additionally, any window can be sent to the iPad’s display via a new contextual menu item available when hovering over the green stoplight button on any macOS window. Which is … weird:

On the surface, it would appear that Sidecar basically means Apple is officially supporting accessing macOS via a touchscreen, something the company has not yet done with their Mac notebooks.

The devil, as they say, is in the details.

When the Mac’s UI is presented on the iPad, it looks great, but interacting with it is weird.

No actions are available with a single finger tap or swipe; tapping any UI elements requires the Apple Pencil, while two fingers are required for scrolling content like webpages, documents, etc. The Pencil does pack some fun tricks, like swiping text for selection, but in short, the Apple Pencil acts like the mouse cursor on macOS, and scrolling on the iPad mimics how things work on trackpads.

These gestures are weird to get used to in the context of working on an iPad, but they seem like they are this way due to the inherent limitations — and foundations — of macOS, an operating system born in a time of mice and trackpads, not touch screens. As such, some elements in macOS are comically small on an iPad, and are way too small to be hit with any sort of precision by a finger.

This leaves the Touch Bar in an interesting spot. Many see it as a hedge against touch screen Macs, and while its adoption in third-party apps can be hit or miss, Apple is including it in the Sidecar UI to surface quick actions within Mac apps. I didn’t expect to see the Touch Bar ever show up in a non-physical form, but it works in this context.

I don’t know how widely-used Sidecar will become, but it does raise questions about the future of the Mac. When Microsoft started adding touch support to Windows, it was awkward at first, but over time, the company enlarged common UI elements to make them more finger-friendly. Sidecar shows that Apple will need to do similar work if we ever expect to see a MacBook Pro with Multi-Touch support. macOS may be great, but it’s not ready for touch.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: On the possible return of the six-color Apple logo

There’s a (somewhat sketchy) rumor going around about a very specific detail about (possible) future Apple hardware. Here’s Joe Rossignol at MacRumors:

Apple may be planning to reintroduce its classic rainbow logo on some of its new products as early as this year, according to a well-connected MacRumors tipster, who in turn cites a corporate Apple employee in Cupertino.

When I said this one is a bit shaky, I wasn’t joking. Rossignol goes on:

To be clear, this rumor could very well be untrue. We have elected to share it since it comes from a tipster who has longstanding connections to both Apple and related industries, but no other sources have shared similar information that we know of. And, even if true, the plans could certainly change.

Even with all of that couching, I love this idea.

Of course, there’s the historic use of the six color logo when it comes to Apple hardware. The colorful logo graced just about every computer, keyboard and printer from Apple for more than 15 years, from the Apple II and original Macintosh until the return of Steve Jobs ushered in the Bondi Era.

It even showed up on the QuickTake line of cameras:

QuickTake 100

This logo has quite the history, as Jens Hofman Hansen writes:

It appears that Steve Jobs was in charge of a large part of the work, designing the apple logo. It is difficult to print a logo in several colors, placed close to each other. The four color print technique, that is done in several steps, brings the risk that the different layers may be displaced and thereby overlapping. [Rob Janoff, art director of the advertising company Regis McKenna Advertising] suggested that the colored stripes should be separated by thin black lines, that would solve the problem and make the printing of the logo cheaper. Steve Jobs didn’t care and decided firmly that the logo should be without the marring lines. For the same reason Michael M. Scott of Apple has called the logo “the most expensive bloody logo ever designed.”

Of course, even if the six color logo comes back in 2019 or 2020, most of that history won’t be known to the masses buying the next iPhone, but I think that’s okay. As the color has been drained from most of Apple’s products, they’ve become less whimsical and more utilitarian. The iPhone XS and iMac Pro are stunning products from an industrial design perspective, but they are far from fun. A dose of six colors could help change that in a very Apple-like way.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: No company does transitions like Apple

See, even Steve Jobs’ keynote slide agrees!

Steve Jobs at Intel switch
Steve Jobs at Intel switch

Over the past 30 years, they’ve had several major changes, just in regards to the Mac platform:

  • 68k to PowerPC processors
  • PowerPC to Intel processors
  • MacOS to Mac OS X
  • 32-bit to 64-bit
  • Carbon to Cocoa

Some of these went more smoothly than others — pour one out for 64-bit Carbon, I suppose — but on the whole, Apple has been able to move the Mac through several major changes that may have killed a less-formidable platform.

Here in 2019, it feels like we’re on the edge of another time of change, and that’s ignoring the probable pending arrival of ARM Macs. Apple is slowly drawing back the curtains on its view of the future, and in that future, the Mac is more closely aligned with its siblings in terms of low-level software and the apps that can run atop that foundation.

This time, the dance is a two-step.

First, Catalyst, the program formerly known as Marzipan, or as Apple Developer’s site calls it, “iPad Apps for Mac.”

Catalyst isn’t just one thing, but rather is a set of developer tools and OS-level work that will allow apps written for the iPad to run natively on the Mac starting this fall with macOS Catalina.

Getting an iPad up and running on the Mac will be simple thanks to Xcode, but tuning and polishing an iPad app to make it a good Mac app will require some work by developers. Just like anything else, we will see both good and bad examples of this, and I’m hoping the market will push developers into taking the time to really make these apps feel at home on the Mac. These apps can be sold on the Mac App Store or directly to customers, a move that surprised some of us in the community.

If Catalyst is a success — and I think it will be — we should see a flood of new apps come to the Mac, or in some cases, bad Mac apps replaced with their more full-featured iOS versions.

But Catalyst isn’t the whole story. Apple wants iOS developers to become Mac developers, and it lets that happen, but I think Apple’s ultimate vision is a single unified development toolchain for creating truly universal apps that can run on Apple’s entire breadth of platforms, from the Apple Watch to the Apple TV and whatever comes next.

SwiftUI is the ticket to that future. It allows developers to build user interfaces in a clean, simple fashion, relying on platform-specific frameworks to make that work feel at home on each individual platform.

This is far beyond moving an iPad app to the Mac; it is creating an app that runs on the iPad, Mac, and everything else right out of the box.

Eventually, SwiftUI will replace AppKit and UIKit, the UI development frameworks for the Mac and iOS, respectively. That’s a long-term move; I think it may be a decade before the older ways of doing things fade away.

This is where’s Apple transition magic needs to come into play. AppKit has been around since the 1990s when it appeared at NeXT, and there is a whole generation of developers who have only worked with UIKit, making apps for the iPhone and iPad. Apple needs to convince these developers — many of whom haven’t even learned Swift yet — that this new way of doing things is not only easier than the old way, but better as well.

That will take time, and it will take Apple leading by example. I expect that over the next few years, they will announce, slowly but surely, that they are using SwiftUI to overhaul their own giant codebases, dogfooding the technology in apps like Mail and Calendar at first, with things like iWork and Final Cut Pro X following later.

Comparing this to the Carbon/Cocoa transition is not perfect, but we can look at Finder in those years to see how Apple may do things. At first, Finder was written in Carbon to prove that the framework was a viable bridge from the classic Mac OS to Mac OS X, then in Snow Leopard, Apple shipped a Cocoa version, signaling that the end was coming for Carbon. Most users didn’t even notice a difference, but developers should did.

Like Catalyst, I believe SwiftUI will be successful. Apple’s been around the block more than once, and that experience is about to pay off again.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

Considering Mac hardware at WWDC

Last May, I wrote about my Mac hardware wishes here in this very newsletter, and with the WWDC keynote just days away, I thought I could do the same this year.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. I hope — and fully expect — Apple to unveil the new Mac Pro at this year’s conference. Like the Retina MacBook Pro in 2012 and the iMac Pro in 2017, this machine would receive a warm welcome at WWDC. Developers are probably the largest single segment of this machine’s potential customer base, and impressing them with the ins and outs of a new Mac Pro would be a fun (albeit overdue) way to start the week.

One-year-ago-Stephen wrote this:

[Apple should unveil a] redesigned, more robust keyboard for the MacBook and MacBook Pro. The problems of debris and broken keycaps is well covered, so I won’t re-tread them here, but I really think Apple needs to address the issues with these machines.

That didn’t happen in 2018, and in fact, just a few weeks ago, Apple released new MacBook Pros with 2019, complete with butterfly keyboards. Maybe the company has gotten the reliability issues under control, but even if it hasn’t, people just don’t trust these notebooks, and Apple needs to address that.

Whenever the Mac Pro gets released, I’d like to see a spec bump come to the iMac Pro. I don’t keep up with the details of Intel’s Xeon roadmap, but if Apple can rev its Space Gray all-in-one, it should. Many of us love the iMac Pro, and knowing that it’s not going to be a one-off would be nice.

Obviously, we’re not going to see a new 13- or 15-inch MacBook Pro at WWDC now, but rumors of a mythical 16-inch model have been floating around for a while. As often happens with these things, some expect this new machine to fix every single thing wrong with the current crop of computers, and time will tell if that’s true. However, I think we will be waiting a little bit longer for this. I don’t see a new high-end notebook being unveiled at WWDC 2019.

Of course, there are the low-end notebooks to consider as well. It’s a common belief that the first Mac to get on the ARM train will be the 12-inch MacBook, which, curiously, has not been updated since June of 2017. I don’t know if Apple is ready to make the jump to ARM Macs, but even if it isn’t, an updated MacBook would be welcome.

Then there’s the mystery of the two-port MacBook Pro with function keys. It has also languished since 2017, and in a world with the MacBook Air, I don’t know why it’s still around. Clearing that up would be great.

So, to recap, I think we’ll see the Mac Pro next week at WWDC, and that’s probably it. The messiness of the MacBook line could be cleared up in a press release, but as Apple left both the MacBook and the two-port MacBook Pro untouched in its latest MacBook Pro refresh, I can’t help but think there’s another shoe to drop. Maybe that happens at WWDC.

But still, bring on the Mac Pro.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Ikea: 1, Stephen: 0

In our house, I have several lamps plugged into outlets via iHome Smart Plugs, in order to control these otherwise dumb light fixtures with HomeKit.

Like many of these devices, an iOS application is required, and like many of these apps, the iHome Control app is not very good. Coupled with service outages on the iHome side of things that have left my plugs unresponsive for hours at a time, I have been looking for a new solution.

Then I saw that that IKEA had added HomeKit support to its Trådfri smart plugs, so I dropped by my local IKEA and picked one up, as well as the required $30 Trådfri Gateway hub.

As you would expect from IKEA, both devices are very clean and minimal looking:

Ikea stuff
Ikea stuff

After setting up the gateway on my network with the included power and ethernet cables, I downloaded the Trådfri iOS app on my iPhone. It had me scan the QR code on the back of the gateway, but then the app wanted to know if I was adding a dimmer switch, remote control, motion sensor, or wireless on/off switch.

I had none of these items, and as there was no way forward, I simply closed the app and opened Apple’s Home app, which wanted a HomeKit barcode or sticker to add the accessory to my network.

Which I didn’t have.

I’m a pretty smart guy, and I work with technology like this all day every day, but I was suddenly stumped as to how the IKEA system worked. Then I noticed the “Get help” button in the Trådfri iPhone app. I tapped it and read the following:

Select the input device you want to pair with your Trådfri Gateway. An input device is needed to connect your light bulbs with the Gateway and the app.

So, either the Ikea app doesn’t know about the smart plugs, or they require a third accessory to work. Say what you will about the junky iHome app, at least it was never this confusing.

I did a little more digging and found this on the IKEA site, on the page for the smart plug itself:

You need one of the steering devices in the Trådfri series (remote control, wireless dimmer or wireless motion sensor) in order to connect your control outlet with the gateway and the app.

I got in my truck to go pick up the $16 Trådfri remote control, too far into this column to bail out.

Ikea visit
Ikea visit

After picking up the Trådfri remote control (with another plug, because it’s all they had in stock), I drove home in nerd shame, avoiding my family as I snuck back into my studio to pair the remote control with the Gateway.

The remote paired easily with the Gateway with the in-app directions, but when it came to pairing the remote with the switch, things ground to a halt again until the app could update the firmware on everything.

While that was running, I went into the in-app settings and discovered the required HomeKit code. Not that it mattered, as Home.app sent me back to the Trådfri for “additional setup.”

I assume this was related to the firmware updates, but after waiting overnight and still seeing the “Update Pending” label next to my remote control, I gave up and filed this column.

I have no idea how well IKEA supports HomeKit. Past my initial purchasing mistake, the app was buggy and convoluted, and the need to pair every single piece of hardware simply failed for me.

In short, everything about this was a nightmare. I guess I should have seen this coming from this from the company that expects the average adult can assemble a bookcase with 731 parts.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: The Times They Are A-Changin’

When the original iPod scrolled onto the scene in 2001, some of the Mac faithful were concerned it was going to be a distraction for Apple, a company that was still digging out of the massive hole of the 1990s.

When the iTunes Store opened 16 years ago, I think people knew it was gong to propel the iPod to new heights, especially when it showed up on Windows several months after launch.

The iPod and iTunes were, in many ways, two sides of the same coin. They made each other more valuable, both to Apple and its customers.

That symbiotic relationship is right out of Apple’s playbook, and something the company tries to repeat when possible. After all, it’s the combination of hardware, software and services that makes so many of the company’s products good.

That’s what makes Apple TV, and in particular Apple TV+ so interesting.

The company has spent over a billion dollars on creating its own content for the upcoming streaming service. It is here to play ball with the likes of Netflix, Hulu and others. It has a very impressive roster of Hollywood starpower to draw people in, and what looks to be a wide range of content that should all be family friendly.

The old Apple would reserve this content to its own hardware platforms, letting people stream this content to the Apple TV, iOS devices and Macs only.

But this is not the old Apple. On its website, in 80 point font, Apple says this content will be “Coming this fall exclusively on the Apple TV app.”

While that app is on all of Apple’s platforms, it’s also going to be on streaming boxes built by the likes of Roku and Amazon, as well baked into smart TVs like the ones made by Samsung.

That’s right: Apple content, streamed via Samsung hardware.

Samsung.

S.a.m.s.u.n.g.

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about new Apple, I don’t know what would. Apple is uncoupling its hardware and content, so the latter can spread far beyond the former.

Welcome to the new world.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Lightning is All Around Us

USB-C is slowly but surely taking over the world. From the MacBook to the iPad and beyond, the powerful, flexible interface promises data and power, all through a single connector.

In this world, some have hoped that Apple would replace the port Lightning on the iPhone with a USB-C port. Considering that is a huge topic for another time, but thinking about this got me wondering about how many other Apple products use Lightning. What started as the new iPhone connecter has slowly been used in other Apple products. Once I started thinking about how many, I was surprised to see just how far the connector has spread.

The most important non-iPhone product using the Lightning connector is the entire iPad line, minus the 2018 iPad Pros. Apple still sells the iPad mini, the 9.7-inch iPad and the old 10.5-inch iPad Pro, starting at $399, $329 and $649, respectively.

It is easy to look at this and think that Apple is using USB-C to differentiate the iPad Pro, but until iOS does a lot more to utilize it, I think it’s a point of confusion and frustration for some buyers.

To go with that 10.5 iPad Pro, Apple still sells the original Apple Pencil, with is male Lightning plug for (somewhat awkwardly) charging the Pencil with the iPad. Clearly the new Apple Pencil is superior in about every single way.

Lightning is also present on a wide range of less expensive products, including the newly-revived iPhone Smart Battery Cases, which support the iPhone XR, XS and XS Max.

Apple also uses Lightning for charging the AirPod case, which will at some point earn the ability to charge wirelessly if the Ghost of AirPower ever comes around this way again. Even when (if?) that happens, there’s clearly enough room on the case to move to USB-C if (when?) the iPhone does.

Lightning is present in the Mac ecosystem as well, being venue for charging and pairing the Magic Keyboard, Magic Mouse 2 and Magic Trackpad 2. As someone with one of these keyboards and trackpads on my desk, I love how easy it is to charge them when needed, as I have roughly 137 Lightning cables stashed around my office. I don’t know the last time I plugged my iPhone into a Mac, but I keep a Lightning cable tucked behind my iMac Pro to keep my input accessories topped off.

Even the Apple TV is on the fun. At the bottom of the expensive and not-very-good Siri Remote is a Lightning port, again for charging. I’m not sure there is the thickness required for a USB-C port, but as I believe Apple needs to redesign this input device from the ground up, I’m sure they could make it work.

Interestingly, there was a USB-C port on the back of the 4th generation Apple TV, but it was only used for service and support. With the 4K model, Apple ditched it.

Lastly, we have to consider Apple’s audio products. Of course, the wired EarPods that come in the box with every new iPhone use Lightning, but the connector is also present on some of the company’s Beats products, including the BeatsX and Beats Pill+ Portable Speaker, which I had forgotten existed until I was digging around Apple’s website.

The majority of Beats products still use micro USB to change, despite some of them using the W1 chip for wireless pairing and streaming.

Of course, this list ignores the entire universe of third-party products designed to work with the iPhone. If Apple moves the iPhone to USB-C, it will send shockwaves through an entire eco-system, which is now bigger than the one built for the 30-pin Dock Connector ever was.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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By Stephen Hackett

The Hackett File: Exploring Huffduffer

I, like many of you I imagine, listen to a lot of podcasts. I may go several weeks without seeing a single episode of TV or a movie, but I’m get some podcast listening in almost daily.

Due to my job, I often myself listening to one-off episodes of random shows I am not subscribed to. My iOS podcast client of choice is Overcast, and it makes it fairly easy to download a single episode of a show without subscribing, but Huffduffer makes it even easier.

It’s easy to think about Huffduffer as “Instapaper for Podcasts.” Once you sign up, you gain access to a bookmarklet that you can fire when viewing a podcast episode’s webpage:

Huffduffer
Huffduffer

The bookmarklet will crawl the webpage and load in the title, description, MP3 URL and any tags it finds. Some podcast websites obscure the MP3 URL, so you may to do some digging around to find it, but the bookmarklet window lets you manually add data, which is great.

Once all the data is populated, click the orange button, and that episode will be added to your account.

Here’s where the magic happens. Every Huffduffer account generates its own RSS feed that you can plug directly into your podcast app of choice. This means that everything you add to the service, regardless of its source, shows up in your own personal “Huffduffer” podcast in Overcast, Pocket Casts, etc.

Because Huffduffer just needs an MP3 URL and some metadata, you can use it as a way to get any audio into your podcast player. For example, if you recorded a talk or meeting, you could upload that file to a server somewhere and feed it to the bookmarklet. It’s a great way to sideload audio into a podcast application.

Others online have built tools to get content into Huffduffer. My favorite is named “huffduff-video.” Paste a video link into the free website and after a little bit, the audio from the video will be in your account. I’ve used to this to listen to presentations I’ve found on YouTube several times, and it works quite well.

My only real complaint about Huffduffer is that it is also a social network of sorts. You can search for people, shows and tags, and the service will even show you what other people have added to their accounts. I’d love to have a way to make my account private.

[Stephen Hackett is the author of 512 Pixels and co-founder of Relay FM.]

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