Siri Needs Better Data Sources

Poor ol’ Siri has had a lot of criticism in recent years and unfortunately almost all of it has been well justified. Hopefully the recent announcement that former Googler John Giannandrea is taking over as head of the machine learning and Siri teams at Apple will mean good things for the beleaguered virtual assistant’s future. For now though, let’s face it, when compared to the competition (notably Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa) Siri is just plain average.

One aspect of Siri’s struggles that doesn’t get much attention is the sub-par data sources it has has to draw on. While it is admittedly difficult to go up against the data king, Google, in this space, sometimes mistakes are laughable and completely undermine any confidence one might have in Apple’s vocal helper.

One example first discovered by my dear mother towards the end of last year is Apple’s mistaken belief that the upcoming Grand Final Friday public holiday for the Australian state of Victoria is on October 5, which is presented to users as fact both through Siri interactions and via the company’s built-in calendar application. The correct date however, is September 28, as is listed by Google and every other reputable source of public holiday information.

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Siri Gets It Wrong

In an effort to help out the Silicon Valley giant — and anyone planning a vacation around the holiday — I reached out to Apple’s Twitter support team in early February with details of the issue and was told it had been “forwarded to the proper team for investigation”. Sadly it seems that investigation has gone nowhere, leaving the Apple-toting contingent of the 6,358,900 people that call Victoria home having to wait an extra week for their next day off.

You need to do better Apple, please fix this and give Siri the resources it needs to succeed.

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→ Disposable America - A history of modern capitalism from the perspective of the straw. Seriously.

Alexis Madrigal:

A straw is a simple thing. It’s a tube, a conveyance mechanism for liquid. The defining characteristic of the straw is the emptiness inside it. This is the stuff of tragedy, and America.

If you didn’t already see this on Daring Fireball or elsewhere, you should give this fascinating, in-depth history of the disposable drinking straw a read.

The Asus PB3 is an Excellent Portable Projector That Doesn't Cost the Earth

After spending more time than I care to mention researching the vast and difficult-to-decipher world of projectors — following the fantastic suggestion to maybe look into getting one from my darling girlfriend — I finally pulled the trigger on an Asus PB3. Asus' epic naming aside, I must say I'm thoroughly impressed with the surprisingly compact unit.

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Selection

Having never before wandered into the realm of projectors and after getting my head around what lumen levels, key-stoning and throw distance really mean I was surprised to find a huge number of projectors with few clear recommendations. The list of criteria I started to build up as my understanding grew were the following:

1. Must be portable (both because it's handy having something that can be toted around and because for the moment neither mine or my girlfriend's apartment have space for a dedicated home theatre setup)

2. Must be bright enough to be easily viewed in low light and not require complete darkness (while watching movies in the dark can be great, it's often good having the option to wander around, eat food etc. during less serious screen time sessions)

3. Must be easy to get content on to (while this may mean different things to different people — depending upon your preferred content and source — for me this essentially meant being able to stream Netflix, YouTube and the like from my phone)

4. And lastly, it had to *not* be insanely expensive (as I've learnt, projectors range wildly in price from tens to many thousands of dollars).

Initially, I was drawn to the so-called pocket or pico projectors because of their fantastic portability and relatively low cost, and while I still believe many of these are great options, my favourite perhaps being the Sony MP-CL1A, they all fall down when it comes to my second requirement. Bear in mine I've not personally tested any of these but they all range between 50-200 lumens, which from everything I've read leaves me to believe would produce unsatisfactory results in anything short of near-total darkness.

Having ruled out these tiny options I began looking at larger units, those mostly aimed at office use, and quite frankly was unimpressed. At the lower end of the price spectrum many of these produce a picture at a resolution of just 480p and have the older 4:3 aspect ratio. Higher resolution projectors in this space of course exist but price increases quickly and at the end of the day while they are technically portable (weighing in at around 2kg or so), they are all rather bulky and very bare bones in terms of features.

Before going on with my impressions of the P3B I will just give a quick mention to BenQ's GS1, which has many of the advantages of the projector I ultimately went with but was just more expensive enough to sway me towards the Asus. One notable feature the GS1 offers over the P3B is splash resistance (when paired with its included rubber case), which could offer some good piece of mind should you be looking to host a mini movie night at the beach or by the pool.

P3B Overview

Having assessed the options I went ahead and purchased the P3B, and was immediately impressed with not only the very compact size of the unit (weighing just 750g) but also the bundled accessories. Fitting for a portable projector, Asus decided to include a nice fabric carrying case as well as a little remote control, which provides access to all settings (volume, brightness etc.) without needing to interact with the controls on the unit itself.

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Performance

The PB3 produces an excellent image. While it is only 720p, the picture is sharp, has a good contrast ratio (100000:1) and gets plenty bright enough (rated at 800 lumens) to be easily viewed in a moderately-lit environment where the main projection surface isn't subjected to many competing light sources (ideally indoors at night with ceiling lights off, one or two floor lamps are not a problem). One thing to note is that while on battery power (yes, the PB3 has an internal rechargeable battery) the unit is restricted to an output of 300 lumens, presumably to save power, which is still usually sufficient but not nearly as pleasant to look at in non-ideal situations. The battery is rated at 12,000mAh, which Asus states is good for up to three hours of projection, and in my experience is easily enough for at least one movie of sensible length.

The P3B offers auto keystoning, and if that means nothing to you don't feeling too bad, I didn't either not all that long ago. What this essentially means is that the unit is smart enough to adjust the image it projects (in the vertical plane) to ensure that the image isn't distorted no matter how the unit is placed or the angle it makes with the projection surface. It seems this feature is fairly prevalent these days and I can understand why as without it you would need to manually adjust the image every time you set up the unit, which would certainly impact the convenience of its portable nature.

 Chromecast projection in a bright room

Chromecast projection in a bright room

Another handy feature not standard on all projectors is the PSB's built-in speakers, they are by no means home theatre quality and I do wish they could get just a smidge louder, but they get the job done and are perfectly serviceable for causal Netflix binging. On the subject of audio output I will say that for those wondering the unit doesn't run completely silently, its internal fan will spin up pretty quickly once powered on and continues to emit a fairly quiet but not unnoticeable whitenoise throughout operation (to be clear I don't find it bothersome but it is noticeable during quiet scenes). Should the built-in speakers prove insufficient the unit thankfully includes an audio out jack, meaning external speakers can be easily connected with a AUX cable.

Perhaps thanks to the audible fan the P3B stays surprisingly cool, it definitely gets warm to the touch but never uncomfortably so even after extended viewing, something I was not expecting given its incredibly compact nature (and not something I could say about a great number of laptops I've owned throughout the years).

The P3B retails for over AUD$1,000 and as that was more than I was willing to pay I eventually decided to bring one in from the states (via Amazon) for under $600. While I certainly prefer to support local retailers and buying internationally also leaves you more vulnerable warranty wise, at nearly twice the price it's a difficult sell. For those looking to do the same and wondering about the power situation, rest assured that Asus bundles one of their common laptop power adapters (INPUT: AC100-240V - 50-60Hz 1.5A, OUTPUT: +19V, 3.42A) — suitable for most regions around the world (although definitely do your own research) — that has a detachable mains leads with a IEC standard C5 or "Mick Mouse" connection, meaning you should be able to replace the included lead with one that works with your sockets easily and at minimal cost.

As mentioned previously, being able to effortlessly get content onto the projector was an important selection criteria, and while not unique to the P3B the ability to easily connect a Chromecast made it an attractive option. Just about every half-decent projector on the market these days will have an HDMI input (which the Chromecast outputs to), however what Asus' offering has that not all do is a powered USB-A port that's capable of powering a first or second generation Chromecast. Asus also sells a WiFi dongle, which when coupled with Asus' WiFi Projection software is advertised to provide a direct wireless connection to PC or phone, but given the success of the Chromecast approach I haven't bothered to get one to test.

Another handy feature is the 2GB of internal memory (not much I know but it's better than nothing), which can be used to load content on to and have it always accessible. The unit also includes a micro SD card slot that supports cards up to 32GB and provided a further option for directly playable media.

Conclusion

All-in-all I'm thoroughly impressed with this now two-year-old gadget (having been released in 2016) and while I can't directly compare it to any other of the frankly daunting number of competing products out there, I think it's a great option that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone looking at getting their first projector.

WWDC Wishlist 2018

With Apple's annual World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC) just around the corner I thought I'd take a moment to do a little wish-casting, and list a few things I'd like to see Apple announce and roll out later this year.

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General

Developer-Apple App Store split

There's been a lot of talk around this recently, especially after the newly formed Developers Union stated it as the next item on their agena after free trials for paid apps, and like many who are trying to make their living from the app store I'd also like to see developer's share of the proceeds be increased somewhat from the 70% status quo. The move to 85% for subscriptions after the first year, introduced in 2016, was a good first step in this direction. I'm not sure what a fair figure is, but hopefully Apple sees fit to make a few changes to help devs, at least those at the lower end of the revenue scale.

Improved Swift Handling in Xcode

A common complaint is that Xcode's performance is considerably worse when writing a project in Swift than the equivalent is in Objective-C. It was true when Swift first launched and is still true today (although to be fair, it is leaps and bounds better than it was in those early days). I like Swift (not that I disliked Objective-C, gasp I know :P) and have finally embraced it as the language I'll be using for any new work, and I'd love to see Apple double their efforts in bringing their dev tools up to speed.

iOS 12

Lockscreen Complications

I don't know what the odds of this one are but now having spent a few weeks with an Apple Watch I've come to love the platform's complications - the tiny customisable views that sit alongside the time on the watchface - that provide very accessible, gancable information. While arguably less useful on the phone, I still think something similar would be very handy on iOS' lockscreen.

Live App Icons

This is an ancient request that will never happen, but wouldn't it be cool if, like in the complication idea above, apps (with user permission of course) could periodically update their icons to display useful information? Like the built-in Clock, Calendar and Weather apps do already. I understand why Apple hasn't opened up this Pandora's box as it has the potential to overwhelm the user, I think approached in the right way (a limited templating system perhaps?) it would be an awesome addition.

PIP on iPhone

The iPad has has picture-in-picture for years now, and while I can somewhat understand with screen real estate being more of a premium why it perhaps wasn't an obvious feature for the phone initially, the number of times I've wished it was there is ridiculous and I'd use the heck out of it if Apple could find a way.

Notifications Management

When compared to what is offered by even remotely recent releases of Android, iOS' notification handling is a bit of a joke. Having barely changed since the platform's inception over 10 years ago, notifications come in and are presented to the user chronologically. Beyond being able to enable or disable at an app level there is very little in place to help triage, group or prioritise the vast number of notifications that come in on a daily basis. This needs to change. At this point I don't care whether Apple outright copies Android or does things differently but it's past time that more tools for notification management were available on the "most advanced mobile operating system", as Apple has often claimed. However, given they've been absent this long I'm not holding my breath.

watchOS 5

Apple Watch Improvements

Having only very recently got myself an Apple Watch - with the novelty factor not yet worn off - I'm new to realising the potential power of this little platform. I say potential because while the hardware is excellent and very capable for something that can be strapped to one's wrist, the software in places lets it down. To be clear, the built-in in functionality is good and reliable (and reason enough for the watch to exist) but third-party apps are lacking, and seemingly fewer now than they once were. Having spent the last few weeks building my own little transit app (mainly for myself, but it may see the light of day at some point in the future) I've realised what a frustrating experience it can be, explaining the shortage of quality apps. The APIs are mostly well-thought through but are limited, not always reliable, and in parts poorly documented. The debugging process isn't any better, between things working differently on the simulator and the real device and the slow and flasky connection to physical hardware it can be rather painful. In short I'd like to see the good ideas in watchOS 4 tightened up with a focus on making existing frameworks rock-solid and the development experience as a whole a little more tolerable. Some choice new APIs would be nice also, to give devs just a little more power and freedom to make useful watch software.

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Continued Development for macOS

This is low bar for the Mac, but it is already wonderful and very capable platform, and I honestly can't think of too much it needs. A new UI framework more in line with iOS' UIKit, as has been rumoured, would be nice. The addition of HomeKit would seem sensible, for platform consistency if nothing else. I love the Mac, and I hope Apple makes some solid under-the-hood improvements but really any sign of active development will probably be okay with me.

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Mentioned for Completeness

The Apple TV is a good product, and while apps may once have been heralded as the future more content is really what the platform needs. It will be interested to see what, if anything, in regards to tvOS will mentioned in the keynote on Monday.

Samsung Launches Galaxy S9 with Variable Aperture Camera

While Nokia may have had patents and the potential to bring variable aperture technology to smartphone cameras years ago — back when the Lumia brand was gaining traction and Windows Phone still had a future — it is Samsung that has finally made it a reality with the launch of their newest flagship, the Galaxy S9.

Touting the ability to capture photos at both f/2.4 and f/1.5 apertures Samsung's latest should have a significant advantage over rivals when it comes to shooting low-light scenes. For the uninitiated, the aperture refers to the hole at the front of the lens in which light enters and the f number or stop describes the size of the opening. In general, a lower stop is preferred for low-light photography as it allows more of the limited photons to enter the camera and in turn results in better, brighter images. Higher stops, meanwhile, are used for well-lit situations, as restricting some of the ample light results in greater sharpness and detail. The S9 will intelligently switch between the two apertures by activating its physical shutter mechanism and selecting the best mode of the scene it's presented with.

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Having just two apertures to work with may sound unimpressive, especially when compared to dedicated cameras that have had far more stops as standard since the late 1800s, but this is a first for such a miniaturised module and doubtless only the beginning. I firmly subscribe to the sentiment that the best camera being the one you have on you, and as such am always excited to the advancements smartphone manufactures continue to bring to the table. I eagerly await the early reviews, which should start dropping ahead of the device's release on March 16, to see if Samsung can dethrone Google's Pixel 2 as the phone with the best optics.

iPhone X

As early reviews for the iPhone X start to roll out — seemingly with most of the press having had less than 24 hours with the new device — it is hopefully becoming more apparent to the general population just how much work developers will need to do to support the new form factor.

I have recently been spending some time updating my own apps for the "eared" screen of the X, and while Apple’s related APIs are very good there are significant challenges not just in dealing with the notch but also the very rounded corners and – I think most significantly – the home indicator at the bottom, which replaces the iconic home button of iPhones past. As easy as it is to move lower controls out of the way of this small, constant line, doing so while maintaining an aesthetically pleasing design can be far from simple, depending on the app.

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Many very popular apps have yet to be updated, the result being either that run floating, banded by black at the top and bottom in a familiar-sized centre rectangle or – perhaps of more concern to early-adopters – fill the screen in unintended ways that look broken and in some cases are.

The updates coming in the next weeks will understandably focus on basic compatibility with iPhone X; ensuring apps fill the screen inoffensively and behave as intended. While the potential innovative uses for the new found real-estate won't be realised for months to come, the X certainly has injected a healthy dose of enthusiasm back in to the iOS community and I'm looking forward to seeing what my fellow developers and I can come up with.

If you're looking for a good iPhone X review try Matthew Panzarino's one over at TechCrunch, he's had his review unit longer than most.

Smart Cylinders Finally Coming to Aussie Shores

A couple of weeks ago at the WWDC keynote Apple announced, among many other things, the HomePod; a smart virtual assistant box designed to become a permanent fixture in your home, to which commands can be spoken. In a move likely aimed at taking on the Google Home and Amazon's Echo, two very similar products already on the market.

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The HomePod will come equiped with Siri, Apple's well-known virtual assistant. However, given the impressive competition Apple is positioning this device more as a high-quality speaker, for those that wish to fill their homes with music, rather than Siri for your house. A clever move and a clear selling point over the other smart boxes.

Another advantage the product may have, come its final release in Decemember, is its availbility in Australia. While massive brands, Amazon and Google often ignore markets outside their native US, and are currently doing so with their virtual assistant hardware offerings. It will be interesting to see if either company decides to step up their game and beat Apple to the punch down under, before year's end.

Update July 20
Google Home has officially gone on sale in Aus, managing the beat the Homepod to market by several months. Well done Google.

New Apple Podcasts Spec Coming with iOS 11

Today, at one of the last sessions of WWDC 2017, Apple outlined some big changes to their podcast specification. This spec sits atop RSS and defines the format for delivering content that, for the most part, all podcasters follow and all podcatchers use to consume feeds.

The new changes are aimed at helping creators of seasonal and serialised content better express how their shows should be listened to. With the addition of podcast type and season fields, these podcasts can now be treated differently from their standard episodic counterparts. For example, come iOS 11 new subscribers within Apple's own podcast app will be guided towards the first episode of a run, and not simply the most recent episode overall.

Another welcome addition is the episode field, which means that episodes can easily define a title and episode number without jamming both in together. Episodes can also now be marked as being trailers or bonus content, which should make it easier for creators to promote their shows and provide extra value, without distracting from their main feed.

Apple Podcasts Analytics

Another huge announcement was the addition of podcasts analytics coming later this year. While details around this new feature are scarce, this will give podcasters a better insight into how their content is being consumed, at least through iTunes and Apple's podcast app. Traditionally, podcast creators have relied on download numbers to get an idea of how their show is performing, but with statistics from Apple they will be able to view actual play numbers as well as things like average time listened per subscriber, abandonment point and completion percentage. While more data is often a positive thing, advertisers will likely start expecting to review this information before sponsoring a show, so hopefully this doesn't end up having a negative effect on the industry.

I hope to incorporate some of these changes into the feed of Tangential Soup, the podcast I cohost, in the not too distant future. However, as it's hosted by Squarespace it's really just a wait and see if they decide to adopt the updated spec in a timely manner. It's interesting to note they aren't on Apple's list of podcast partners, unlike the other popular hosts: Blubrry, Libsyn and Soundcloud.

Windows 10 S

Microsoft last week unveiled a new version of their predominant desktop operating system. Windows 10 S is being billed as a boon for students but is really a fascinating product outside of education and may have wide spread ramifications for the desktop software industry.

The "S" in this new variant's name presumably stands for "school" or "secure" and not "speed" as the tech industry typically reaches for, however, "simplified" would perhaps be more appropriate. Unlike the days gone by, Windows is no longer just Windows. Windows 10 S is a locked down version that lacks the ability to choose default browsers and search engines and, most significantly, the ability to install traditional applications outside the Windows app store.

Windows 10 S

It's interesting to note that, at least for the time being, the folk in Redmond are making it an easy process to switch devices away from S to the more powerful and open Windows 10 Pro. In a move likely aimed at curtailing any backlash from the savvy tech media. It is easy though to see these two editions continuing to diverge, potentially even to the point of no longer being possible to swap between them.

While right now the market share of this new OS is zero, as it grows it will be interesting to see how Windows developers big and small respond to this introduced limitation. Should Windows 10 S start gaining significant traction it could lead to a fragmentation of the software market, however, that might end up being a win for those looking for powerful but not overly complicated applications and the stagnating Windows app store.

It is hard to imagine the Adobes of the world will start bringing their professional applications to Microsoft's store, especially as they have begun finding more success with subscription models. Perhaps though this segment of the market might be addressed in other ways, such as offering cut-down versions of applications that are suited to students starting out and hobbyists alike.

Adobe already do this with Photoshop Express, a lightweight variant of the image editor. Might we see Illustrator, Premiere and tho rest of the creative suite be expressified? Or will Adobe and others simply ignore this new development and potentially destine Windows 10 S to the same fate as the now retired RT?

iTunes Connect App Analytics

At WWDC last year Apple told developers that they’d soon have access to analytics for their apps. On the eve of the 2015 conference the folks in Cupertino have finally made good on that promise, albeit in beta form.

While analytics for applications if far from a new concept, the options on Apple’s platforms have up until now all involved embedding third party libraries at build time and being willing to share your app’s data with the company providing that solution. For both of these reasons the team and I at Armchair Engineering decided not to pursue any of these alternatives, and instead wait and hope Apple would eventually deliver some means of gaining a greater insight into how one’s apps are performing. 

Perhaps the best thing about the new analytics package is that not a single line of code is required to enable it, it just works. Upon launching the new dashboard you’ll be greeted with a colourful and graphic-rich overview of your app’s performance. 

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The data here goes well beyond the standard download and revenue numbers iTunes connect has always offered, providing figures relating to conversion, retention and engagement. The latter probably being the most immediately interesting to a small operation such as ours; its always nice seeing your software finding a place in people’s lives and isn’t simply being deleted moments after installation. Although, as we move forward the conversion information will go a long way to understanding where new customers are coming from and helping to identify areas that can be improved.

One drawback that is probably worth mentioning is that many of these important figures are collected only from devices running  iOS 8 and from those users who have opted-in to share their data with app developers during the initial setup of their device (or potentially, although far less likely found and enabled this option in settings - Settings > Privacy > Diagnostics & Usage > Share With App Developers). The good news though is that despite this the number of users who have done this seems to be surprisingly good. For Temperature Converter (the app associated with the data in the screengrab above), Apple reports that in the last 30 days 22 % of users have in fact agreed to share their data. While this number isn’t quite as good for all of our apps, varying between 15 and 25 percent, there’s still plenty of data to be relevant and potentially very useful.

iOS 8 and Translucent Input Views

As we know the visual style of Apple's mobile OS changed significantly with the introduction of iOS 7, and like most developers the team and I at Armchair Engineering made a concerted effort to update our applications to reflect this new direction. Many of our apps make use of custom input views to provide a nicer numerical keyboard than the default offering, to refresh these we decided to make the number pad partially transparent, taking the lead of the standard system keyboard. 

Both UITextField and UITextView have supported custom input views since iOS 3.2 and implementing them is really dead simple, even with a translucent background. That was until iOS 8 came along, which for whatever reason introduced a solid grey view underneath all custom input views and, as you can see from the screenshot below, completely ruined the semi-transparent effect we were going for.

 Fraction Help screenshot - Before (left) and after fix (right) 

Fraction Help screenshot - Before (left) and after fix (right) 

The first solution we tried was to walk through the view hierarchy, find and alter the opacity of the offending view (UIKBInputBackdropView). While this approach does work, the keyboard is redrawn every time it appears and we often saw a short glimpse of grey each time before being able to hide that pesky backing view, which looked a little too sloppy for us to persist with long.

Both UITextField and UITextView also have an inputAccessoryView property, which is used to place an additional view atop of the keyboard to augment and provide additional functionality. We were already using this to provide a quick way for the user to jump back and forth between the text fields and for the clear all function (also visible in the image above). Unlike good ol' inputView this accessory view was never gifted a grey backdrop with iOS 8. As such the easiest solution turned out to be to just use this for the whole keyboard, and set an empty UIView of size zero as the inputView, bypassing it altogether.