Hal: Open The Air Pod Doors

There are a million reviews of Apple’s new AirPods on the web, so this is not one of those. I have however been so impressed by mine that I just had to write about it. And why you ask? Well I feel like this is the first time in a long while that an Apple product has genuinely wowed me and exceeded my expectations. Everything from how small they are, how easy they are to pair (just open the lid) how well everything they do works, wow, just, wow. The feature where it pauses when you remove one? Works 100%. Instantly connecting to my iPhone when I take them out and put them in my ears? Works 100%. Battery life is great, charging them in the carry case is just genius. This is Apple at their very best, it feels, dammit I’m about to say it: magical.

I think the reason all of the above makes me so happy is that this is what it used to feel like to be an Apple user. Every new product was a chance to experience just a little bit more of that crack like magic. Of course it would always break occasionally (like when my laptop pretended like my AirPods didn’t exist until I signed out of iCloud and back in) but you were always willing to forgive the occasional glitches because the experience as a whole was so good.

Lastly, and really importantly they also pass a pretty high bar in my household: the Michelle Test.

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I occasionally joke (lovingly of course) that I married my biggest critic, but it’s true in a nice way. I trust Michelle to give me feedback no one else would. The second she saw the AirPods in my ears she just laughed. And rightly so, right now it does feel goofy wearing them. So it was rather poetic that when she opened her xmas presents, among them was her very own pair of AirPods which she reluctantly concedes are pretty good. I caught her a few times just opening and closing the lid of the case, watching the little card go up and down on her phone each time she did.

So hats off to Apple for bringing some of that elegance and charm to their product line that wowed me back in the early 2000’s. I hope there’s more where that came from.

It Meshed With Me

Something about the new year makes me look around and want to replace things I own. Out with the old, in with the new! I know, how very first world, 1%, consumerist of me. To ring in 2017 with a bang, the first thing I replaced was something that doesn’t need replacing at all. My recent(ish) Netgear WiFi Router. Apart from the management interface designed in the 90’s by hardware engineers, it has served me pretty darn well. The WiFi is fast everywhere in our house, the routing…well it routes…and it has done the best job it can to distribute the ultra slow Internet we have here at home around my house.

But when Andy Ihnatko (my co-host at Relay FM) told me about his new Google WiFi mesh network, I instantly wanted it. I couldn’t just buy it though, I’m impulsive at the best of times, but at $299USD for a pack of 3 even I needed a reason. Then it dawned on me, sometime this year the new house that we’re building will be finished. This new house as it happens is much bigger and has more bedrooms than our current tiny house. Yes, what this house needs is good WiFi, and it won’t get that with just one router alone! What this new house needs is a new style of router, one that has multiple nodes that seamlessly mesh network together!

Lame attempt at justification over I headed to Amazon and to my amazement found they’d happily ship it here to our Penal Colony in Australia. The first thing that surprised me when it arrived was how nicely it was packaged. The second was just how small each of the units is:

A white cylinder, one LED strip through the middle of it and on the bottom two Ethernet ports and USB-C for power. The USB-C part was really handy since it came with US power plugs. I already own a lot of devices that charge via USB-C so finding a spare adapter or two was easy. From there I installed the Google WiFi app and was impressed with just how easy it was to set up. It got me to scan a QR code on the bottom of the first device and walked me through plugging it in and setting up a WiFi network. Basically the first unit you set up and plug into your router via Ethernet becomes the primary device, any others you add automatically mesh with that first one, or if your house is big enough each other. On being prompted to plug the second one into power it found it straight away. A short mandatory update later and my new WiFi network was live. Being curious I broke out a great app called Netspot and it confirmed that my house was all lit up in sweet, sweet green WiFi.

I tested file copying to various devices and that was fast and error free. Next up was my pet hobby, Rocket League on the PC for a few minutes of gaming. Here I encountered my first and only roadblock. Every minute or so my ping would go from a reasonable 65 to an unplayable 500+. I quickly figured out that my kids were watching YouTube which causes problems at the best of times (welcome to Australia and my 3.5mbs connection). Not to worry though, this was the perfect time to test out the ‘priority device’ feature. This lets you choose a device to give a premium level of access to, in theory allowing the packets it’s sending and receiving to be prioritised over all the others. In fact the Google Help page about it specifically lists gaming as one reason you might turn this on. So I turned that on and my connection…got worse. This part made no sense at all to me…had Google, the fledgling hardware maker made yet another dud? Their previous failures like the Nexus 9 (with it’s frequent unexplained freezes and lock ups) made me all the more nervous. The amazing Pixel phone in my pocket though gave me some hope though, maybe I’d done something wrong? The next day happened to be a Skype recording of Material…and it too went rather badly.

Some quick googling of my setup afterwards revealed a few things that might be wrong and needed investigating. The first one being that when I’d plugged it into my router, I hadn’t changed any settings on it at all. So my router was both handling the ADSL connection and routing traffic through its LAN ports. The Google WiFi was trying to do the same, on it’s own 192.168.86.x subdomain while my router and devices attached to it were on 192.168.2.x. There’s no point in having two routers going like this (and it can sometimes cause routing issues like ‘Double NAT’) so I changed my router into ‘modem only’ mode, and re-configured the Google WiFi to handle that change. A quick trip to Rocket League revealed a drop in my ping from 65 to 52…a small but seemingly positive change. The frequent and unexplained lag spikes (even when quitting YouTube on the other device) also seemed to be gone. The final test though was what originally had me so excited about setting this up even before moving house: could I play a game like Rocket League (that is incredibly dependent on the latency of your Internet connection) while other people were also doing things on our Internet? Previously I had tried to configure the Netgear QoS settings that were meant to allow this and it didn’t seem to make a lot of difference. So I tried the priority device settings on Google WiFi again with this new setup…and lo and behold it now seemed to work! Even when everyone else in the house was doing things on the Internet the game would still mostly be responsive. I say ‘mostly’ because I was still getting occasionally slowdowns and spikes in ping, but it was night and day compared to what it had been like with the Netgear. The takeaway for this feature seems to be: it’s not magic, if something like Google Photos saturates your upload bandwidth during a backup for example, even the priority device will be affected. However if a few people are browsing or playing other online games, it seems to make a big difference.

All in all I’m really happy with Google WiFi, and I haven’t even mentioned things like being able to pause the Internet on a device (or a group of devices that you label) or just how smooth and seamless the app for it is. Literally the only change I feel like I’m missing is the ability to schedule these pauses: it would be great to kill the Internet to all the kids devices in the evening, and only have it turn back on in the morning at a reasonable hour. But this for me ticks all the boxes otherwise, the units are small and elegant so you can place them anywhere you have power. If you have a router that’s many years old or you have dead spots in your WiFi connection, then it’s definitely a worthy upgrade.

My Next Mac Mini

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I think I might be getting old, but it took me completely by surprise that the Mac Mini we use in our lounge room as our TV was 6 years old. It’s been such a great little machine. It lets us watch content from all over the Internet no matter where it is or what format it’s in. Netflix, YouTube, perfectly legit Open Source documentaries distributed on Bittorrent, iTunes, Amazon Video, catch up TV stations and even regular old terrestrial TV that is being beamed into our house. I know various nerds and geeks out there each have their own preferred setup for how to get this content onto a screen, but this was ours. One Mac Mini, one wireless keyboard and mouse and one 40″ TV. Perfect.

Well, perfect except that six years in this machine is very creaky. It needs a reboot every week or so (otherwise it will refuse to launch anything). The once super stable TV program we use (EyeTV) has started to flake out on us and in general it’s starting to turn into a hassle rather than a joy to watch content on it. No worries you might say, go to Apple and buy a new Mac mini! Except when you do, you quickly realise there’s something up with the Mac Mini:

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Yes that’s right, it hasn’t been updated in 813 days…and the last update Apple made to them was mostly a downgrade in terms of performance. No one except the most desperate of people should even consider buying one of these things. The fact that Apple will still happily sell you a 2-3 year old computer for new prices is beyond insulting.

With the above in mind, I asked myself a question I haven’t really considered since switching to macOS (the artist formerly known as OS X) back in the early 2000’s. Do I actually need this computer to run macOS? I quickly realised I don’t. I need Chrome, I need a few basic apps and I need my Elgato EyeTV Diversity USB stick to be supported so I can watch TV. It turns out there’s another OS that has all those: Windows. I’ve had Windows 10 on a gaming PC I built over 6 months ago and I’ve not had a single problem with it. It’s never bothered me, needed rebooting because it was flakey or even broken a sweat doing all the things I’ve asked of it. I’m not a huge fan of the aesthetic or DOS roots of Windows, but none of those really matter for this device. I just need a small, quiet machine that will do all the things the current Mac mini does. But surely Windows PCs are all great big clunking behemoths that have no place in the living room right? Right?

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Wrong. I tweeted about my dilemma and the suggestions started pouring in. The most common one seemed to be for something called an ‘Intel NUC’. I’d never heard of this thing before, and a different three letter acronym came to mind when people kept suggesting it. At 115mm x 111mm x 35mm it’s much smaller than my current Mac ‘mini’. With the latest Kaby Lake (7th Gen) Intel Core processors in it, it’s much faster than my current Mac Mini. DDR4 RAM and a M.2 drive slot means I can choose from the wealth of suppliers out there in terms of speeds and sizes. 2 USB’s on the front, 2 more on the back. Thunderbolt 3. HDMI 2.0 with 4K support at 60Hz. 1Gbit Ethernet, AC WiFi and Bluetooth built in. Oh my golly gosh. Is this what I’ve been missing all these years as a died in the wool Mac user? While Apple has been trying to flog us a 3 year old giant computer as state of the art, this is what the PC crowd has had access to?

I never thought I’d say this, but, this is my next Mac mini.

Job Opening at Shifty Jelly

I don’t normally cross post from our company blog (something something opinions are not my employers) but we are currently on the lookout for a support person:

If you’re adept at Twitter and Email, if you get along well with people, if you have outstanding written and verbal communication skills then this could be the role for you! You’ll be responsible for managing our Twitter accounts, answering customer emails and helping out in other tasks that go with releasing and managing successful products like Pocket Casts and Pocket Weather.

If this sounds like you, then take a look at the post and apply!

What Did The Dynamite Say To The Fuse?

A little over a year ago I decided that it was a bit odd that I’d never experienced the other side of podcasting. I helped build Pocket Casts, an amazing app for listening to podcasts that’s available on iOS, Android and even the web. I had also made guest appearances on quite a few podcasts for interviews and commentary. But I’d never actually edited a podcast, seen one submitted to iTunes or experienced the regular week in, week out life that podcasters all over the world live.

I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but somehow Jelly and I got together and decided we wanted to try to make a podcast together. I had met Jelly previously at a conference in Melbourne, and he had me once or twice on the Mobile Couch podcast. Long story short Topical was born. Our original idea was that we’d each take opposing sides on a topic, and debate it for no more than 30 minutes. For whatever reason Topical turned into another kind of show altogether, with episode 4 probably being the closest we ever got to that vision. I learnt how to edit a podcast, what goes into publishing a podcast and all sorts of things about microphones, background noise and sound proofing.

It was a great ride, I still remember how much fun it was to record things like Shower Thoughts. Or the time we unveiled Myke Hurley’s killing spree. Casey Liss joined us to talk emotions. Wendy Zukerman (who has the best voice in podcasting, bar none) talked Science Journalism with us. But as with every ride, it had to come to an end one day. In true Topical fashion the episode aptly named ‘The End’ wasn’t the end, the Epilogue was. It’s worth staying right to the end of that one to see what transpires in the future for Topical.

So to anyone that ever listened to our fun experiment, I thank you. I had a blast doing it and I think we ended on a high note. Also if you’re reading this in the future and robots have indeed taken all our jobs, please don’t tell Jelly, I can’t bare the indignity of him being right about that one.

 

Discovering Discovery

As a member of the Pocket Casts team and an app developer who has been in the podcasting space since 2010 I have come to learn a lot about this industry. It started for me in a small bubble in the tech world, specifically on Twit.tv. Over the years though I’ve come to appreciate that podcasting is far bigger than tech, it’s also far bigger than me or the team behind Pocket Casts. I see a lot of commentary on podcast apps being the new ‘UI playground’ and to some extent that’s definitely true. There are new podcasting apps released almost daily on iOS and Android, each with their own take on what a podcasting app should be. It’s amazing to see the variety out there, and the different ideas that developers have. There is however a but coming. A ‘but’ so big it needs a new paragraph.

You see, what constitutes a ‘Discover’ section in an app seems to be neglected, almost universally in these apps. This is odd, considering the only reason a podcasting app exists is to play podcasts. Your app can’t exist just to show off your skills in building a User Interface. It can’t exist just for you to mess with technical doodads. Its very existence in fact depends on an immense catalogue of free content provided by podcast authors. So surfacing that content, making it easier for authors to get noticed and grow their audience should be a key design consideration in each and every podcast app. This to me at least, should be a universal truth.

Just a quick note here before we continue: my intention here is not to criticise individual developers of competing apps. I’m friends with quite a few authors of various apps and I consider them almost universally to be great people. That said I think we all can and should aim to do better on this front. Ok, disclaimer aside, let’s explores some interfaces.

Downcast and Castro 2

Downcast and Castro 2

In both of these apps you can search. This is good for podcasts you already know about, or have heard the name of. Outside of that you can browse categories. If I’m being honest this isn’t great. How would I discover new podcasts whose categories I don’t know about ahead of time? It feels like a developers solution to a human problem. Now the authors of these apps may well say “well we see discovery happening outside of the app, Twitter, Facebook, etc”. That’s fine, but that discovery is going to happen whether you enable it or not. I feel like we owe podcast authors more than that.

This then is a slight improvement:

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Overcast

We have a slightly more visual representation and the top part appears to be things the user of the app are actively recommending. It’s still not great though, suffering from two fairly large problems. Firstly if all you’re surfacing is things people are already listening to, what hope do new podcasts have? Secondly the categories seem to be heavily related to the developer of the app, his friends, and things he likes. That’s not great for diversity and introduction of new voices and new podcasts.

I could go on, there are literally dozens if not hundreds of apps in the iOS and Android app stores that suffer from similar problems. To me it stems from the nature of what we’re like as developers. We want to build cool UIs. We want to try new technical things. We don’t really curate or recommend though, that’s not a thing developers do. Ironically for me, here’s the gold standard of podcast discovery:

Apple Podcasts

Apple Podcasts

I say ‘ironically’ because I find the Apple Podcasts app somewhat hard to use and little bit buggy. The discovery section though is, I feel, second to none. It’s constantly refreshed with new shows. It’s bright and colourful. It features a variety of topics and voices (hint: try to spot the 2-3 white guys talking tech podcast on this page. It’s there, but it’s way down there). It doesn’t instantly force you into picking categories, it enables discovery. How is this achieved? I suspect mostly with human curation. An actual human being talks to podcast authors, listens to podcasts, curates lists. Probably more than one. Podcast authors are excited when they are featured in here. They constantly ask listeners to rate their podcasts in iTunes in the hopes of being noticed in this app. It makes a difference.

This is what we’ve been trying to get closer to for the last few years in Pocket Casts. More human curation, more surfacing of diverse and new podcasts. The results of this experiment are very interesting. As of about 12 months ago, we now feature a new podcast twice a week. Every week thousands of people open our Discovery section to see what’s new. Of those people over 15,000 open the featured podcast to see what it’s about. What does this do for authors? The results are amazing: a feature for them results in getting anywhere from 1000 to 10,000 new subscribers in our app. Some of those authors were destined to become big with or without us, but there have definitely been some proud moments where we literally put a new podcast on the map, finding it before anyone else and getting people to talk about it. How did we go about this? Well we put the same level of care and thought into podcast discovery and featuring that we did in the rest of the app. We also went one step further. If a good app requires great developers, then good curation requires a good curator. So we hired one, full time. We employ two developers, we employ a designer, so if we really, truly care about curation we should employ a curator as well. The result is that our discover section is vibrant, it’s alive, and most importantly we’re giving back to the podcasting community to which we owe so much of our success.

Pocket Casts

Pocket Casts

I don’t want to praise us too much, I feel like we still have a long way to go and we have a lot of plans around discovery for the future. That said, If you’re building a new app in this space by all means consider the UI. By all means spend time on the technical aspects of the app, but consider spending equal or greater amounts of time on content discovery. Also be mindful of how your personal tastes in podcasting might be harmful in terms of growing the medium and getting more voices heard. It’s time for us as podcast app authors to do more than the next iteration of shiny app to wow customers with, it’s time for us to give back to the people we owe our livelihood to.

Digital Touch is the New Floppy Drive

Should the analog headphone jack remain on our devices forever? If you think so, you can stop reading. If not, when?

– John Gruber, Headphone Jacks Are the New Floppy Drives

Will your car always have wheels? If we agree it won’t, then why don’t we remove them now? This argument makes literally no sense. Neither the lightning port nor bluetooth are superior replacements for the standard headphone connector. Then again this is from the guy who brought us this unforgettable gem. What a revelation that digital touch on the Apple Watch turned out to be, bringing 16 year olds together the world over.

I literally can’t wait for my Twitter stream to be filled with “What’s the big deal, just buy an adapter” tweets come September.