Opinion: iOS notification center still sucks

Screenshot of iOS Notification CenterI was overjoyed when Apple said they had completely reworked the notification center in iOS 7. Then I updated my phone and actually used it… the joy quickly faded.

It’s now been months and I can officially say, the iOS notification center still sucks. I waited to write this, hoping that I was just overreacting and/or the 7.1 update would address these issues. They haven’t. Here is why I can’t stand it:

Missing features

I love upgrades, but please don’t take away useful features from an earlier version. Why are the Twitter and Facebook shortcuts gone? I used to tweet or post messages all the time from the handy little buttons at the top of my notification screen in iOS 6. It was a huge blow to my workflow to lose shortcuts. Maybe the notification center isn’t the right place for actions like that, but couldn’t they at least be moved to a more appropriate section (perhaps the new control center tray)?

Less useful features

I’m not sure if this is better or worse: taking a feature and making it less useful. I’m leaning towards worse. The “Today” tab is great in concept, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. In previous versions of iOS, there was a handy weather widget which quickly told you the weather conditions at a glance. Important info like temperature and an icon showing if it was sunny or snowing were easy to read. Now, iOS 7’s notification center replaces this widget with a line or two written about the weather today. It’s not necessarily the current temperature (sometimes it is, but not always, why is that?) and it certainly isn’t as easy to process at a glance.

Same old problems

While made slightly bigger, the clear buttons are still a pain to use. Why must I clear all notifications for an app? I’d love to just swipe one or two things away or maybe the first tap of the clear button shows clear buttons next to each item, allowing you to tap single notifications or all of them. In fact, why isn’t there a master clear button. After your phone has been off for a while (say during a movie) you end up with a ton of notifications from various apps. It’s a little tedious to tap twice for each application’s notifications. I’d like to see one option at the top to “Clear All.” Options are good, and the notification center is lacking them.

On the home screen, a swipe of a notification will bring you to that notification’s app, but once you’ve pulled down the notification center, swiping moves you between the tabs at the top. Why does the act of swiping a notification change behaviors? It just seems strange to change that on something so closely related.

Wish list

So what would I add? I’d love to see widgets. I’m certain Apple will never allow home screen widgets (at least third-party ones), but why can’t they open up the API for a few notification center widgets. Then we could get a more useful weather widget back, or perhaps a quick Foursquare check-in. The Today tab has a lot of potential and I’d like to see where that could lead with some third-party integration. The larger screen real estate on iPads could open this up to even more innovations. Please unlock it, just a little, and let developers show us what’s possible, Apple.

This one is more notification related in general, not just for the notification center. I want custom alert tones that can be assigned on a per app basis. Some apps use custom alerts but you can’t customize it yourself. Again, Apple, options are good, please let us have some. One of the few things I miss from my old Android phone was the ability to change the sounds of each app’s alerts. Then I knew if it was a new email, a text or just some dumb game trying to get me to play. It’s useful for discerning if it’s worth checking your phone.

I’m pretty sure I remember hearing something about the Mac notification center integrating with the iOS notification center. This seems to have never really come about. It would be useful, however it would HAVE to synch cleared and read notifications across devices. There’s nothing worse than having to clear hundreds of notifications, except having to do that on two or three devices.

What’s your experience with the iOS notification center? What would you like to see added or removed? Sound off in the comments.

Opinion: Why I prefer eReaders over traditional books

I’ve never been much of a book reader (I stuck mostly to online articles, blogs and magazines), but eReaders always intrigued me. It’s not that I don’t like reading; I read many articles everyday. Most of my biggest complaints against books were mostly because of the physical books themselves. I don’t like that you have to hold the book open, often with two hands. I don’t like that you could easily drop the book and lose your page. If you wanted to lay down and read, most books are a bit too heady to hold overhead, and putting them on their side isn’t a workable option either. Overall, I just hate reading a physical book. I knew I was missing out on some great literature, but that wasn’t enough for me to give in and deal with it. For all the reasons so many people love their physical books, I hated them.

Enter digital books… Finally they were making books for me. I’ve always been a technology person and along with the aforementioned reasons, I also preferred my text to be digital. For some reason I found it easier to read on-screen than on paper. I’m sure I’m in a minority here, but it’s true. I started reading a few books here-and-there on my computer, and then a few more (and more often) once I got an iPad. I actually got a taste of an eReader last summer at the beach, thanks to a loan from a friend. I had finally found a way to read that suited me. I could hold the tablet in one hand, easily save (and synch) my last read page, and best of all, carry tons of books with me without the bulk and trouble of heavy, physical books.

I knew eReaders were for me and often considered buying one for the last year or so. I rarely jump into a purchase like that, so I started studying what was out there. Just as I was about to put down the money for a Kindle, I got my iPad mini. It seemed like a good enough format to read on so I thought maybe I didn’t need a dedicated device for reading.

Then it started warming up. The sunshine was luring me out of the apartment more and more, and the iPad’s screen, while great outside, just wasn’t the most pleasant thing in the sun. After reconsidering my options, I thought a cheaper, more sun-friendly device would be a better outside companion. I wanted something that could be taken to the beach without the fear of having it stolen (or filled with sand). Something that could be used day or night, inside or outside, just for reading. I ended up with Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite. I’m very happy with the decision, and will be reviewing it soon.

Another advantage to a dedicated eReader, one I didn’t even think about ahead of time, is distractions. When you’re on a tablet, it’s easy to get away from your book and surf the Web or check your social media. With an eReader, you’re pretty much locked into a device that only lets you read. In a world with no shortage of distractions, this can actually be a feature and not a limitation.

I have the ability to carry hundreds of books with me at anytime now. I can switch between books with a couple of button presses. I remember reading this on feature lists of eReaders, and thinking it wouldn’t be a big deal. It is though. Especially if you’re away from home. It’s nice to know if you start a book and it sucks, you have other options right there with you. Better yet, if you’re away for an extended period of time, you know you won’t run out of reading material.

So there you have it. Just a few reasons why eReaders rock. Do you agree? Have you had a similar epiphany with the eBook revolution or are you a hardcore, old-school physical book person? Let me know why you think I’m wrong or right in the comments.

Opinion: How to improve iOS

I know, I know, just what the world needs, another article on how to make the iPhone (and other iOS devices) better. Well, it’s true there’s no shortage of user dreams for iOS, but that doesn’t mean I can’t throw my two cents in. Here are a few ways how Apple could improve iOS to keep it current and improve the overall user experience.

Screenshot of iOS notification with delete button mocked up.Swipe to clear notifications: Have you ever not paid attention to your phone for a while? On occasion, I’ll leave it sit in my pocket on a long drive or while I’m in a meeting. Afterwards, I’m overwhelmed with the number of notifications on screen. Usually I’ll try to delete them, but Apple tiny little “x” doesn’t like my man-sized fingers. Furthermore, I don’t always want to delete all of the notifications from an app. Wouldn’t it be nice if Apple added support to “swipe” across a particular notification and a delete button popped up (think of the experience in Mail; see mock up at right)? I’d like to see this functionality in both the notification center and the lock screen.

Set your own default apps: A few years ago Apple apps were top notch. Now they’ve seemingly remained stagnant, and there is a wealth of better designed, easier to use and all around more enjoyable third party apps. It’s time Apple opens up a little and lets users set their own default apps. I’m in love with Mailbox and already use it as my main mail app. Wouldn’t it be great if iOS knew and respected that? I hate being in another app and trying to share something via email only to get Apple Mail app. Same goes for browsers, maps, etc. You can still ship your stuff, Apple, but let me choose what to use.

Siri API: Oh, Siri… I had such hope for you. Siri in theory is a really useful assistant. But in practice, she leaves a lot to be desired. Turn by turn directions are finally there, and you can look up movie showtimes, but I want more. Obviously setting your own default apps would take use a step closer to usefulness but I want a full-fledged API. I want developers to have access to Siri so she can do wonderful things. “Siri, check me into Starbucks”

iWatch: So this isn’t so much an iOS request as it is a new product, but I see them closely related. I want a watch that will make Siri useful (talking to my wrist is better than talking to my phone, which if in my hand, I can easily type on). I want the ability to easily glance at my watch to see who’s calling or texting or emailing, maybe even let me use canned responses right on the device. The Pebble is a start, but I think only Apple can make it a truly seamless experience.

Better app management: I literally have a dozen pages of apps on my phone. Needless to say, I’m not even sure what’s on there beyond the first couple pages. I’ve tried to organize, but it’s a daunting task, and it should be so much easier. For starters, don’t make my apps slide to the upper left corner. I want to place apps in specific spots and have them stay there. Sometimes I might want a gap between apps, it’s no big deal, just let me do it! I’d also like to see the ability to move more than one app at a time. I think there are jailbreak tweaks to do these things, but I shouldn’t have to do that. It should be easy and standard.

Alert sounds: The thing I miss most about Android is being able to customize every single little sound my phone makes. I customized apps to have alerts that let me know what was happening and whether or not it was worth pulling my phone out of my pocket. To some extent you can customize sounds on your iPhone, but it’s very limited. I hear the same ding for most apps, and it’d be nice to know if a game wants my attention or if it’s something more important. It seems this is left up to individual developers to add their own sounds right now, but I want to take it further, let me set the sound. I want to do custom sounds, so I know exactly what I’m being pinged for, and it’s not the same default sound that everyone else in the room has.

Web app notifications: Sometimes a native app isn’t the answer. One of the downsides to a Web app, however, is the inability to send users notifications. With modern browsers like Chrome and Safari allowing Web apps to take advantage of desktop notifications, why shouldn’t your phone or tablet? Hopefully this would cut down on some of those “native” apps that just wrap up a website. I saw a good mock up of this recently but I cannot seem to re-find it.

There are plenty of other ideas I didn’t add, but the above are some of my biggest desires. What would you like to see added in iOS 7? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please comment below.

Opinion: TV Ratings are Broken

I’m an avid television watcher. At any given time, I’m actively following 10 or more shows. I just love TV. All kinds of TV. I’m not alone either. TV is big business and brings in billions of dollars to networks every year. This is why I can’t believe those networks are completely ignoring the people who actually follow their shows. You’re canceling the wrong shows!

You’ve probably heard the term Nielsen Ratings thrown around. Nielsen is a company that’s been around pretty much since the dawn of TV giving the networks a magic number that’s supposed to represent viewership. Their system to do this? Basically, it has not changed for decades. Nielsen essentially puts a magic recorder on a several thousand TVs in households around the country. Despite being an extremely small percentage of the population, Nielsen claims they have a sample size that is representative of the nation.

So these recorders keep track of what the families are watching (TV shows, commercials and recently even same day DVRed shows). Every night Nielsen collects the data, packages it up in fancy charts and sends it off to the networks. For a more detailed look at how this all works check out this article I found quite helpful.

This all sounds straight forward, and I’m sure 30 years ago it was a very good way of knowing what people were watching. My problem is, not everyone watches TV like this anymore. Their data is skewed and in my opinion irrelevant in today’s TV watching landscape.

Think about this for a minute… do you watch your favorite show when it’s on TV? Sure I love to watch Community, but I’m usually not home on Thursday nights, so I always catch up on Fridays via Hulu. I’m not alone. A great number of people are changing the way they consume TV shows. Hulu, Netflix, iTunes and even on-demand cable are options many people (especially the younger generations) are using daily. Only measuring shows based on “live” viewers is ridiculous and archaic.

As the earlier mentioned article points out, neither Nielsen nor the networks really care. They want to sell ads, and everyone involved is used to the current system and just take it at its word. They have no intention or desire to change. As a TV fan, I’m outraged.

This is exactly why great shows like Firefly and Friday Night Lights get canceled while complete crap shows like Two and Half Men or Mike and Molly stay on the air. It’s just not fair to television viewers, show creators and even network executives for such lousy data to be making such big decisions about what’s on TV.

This is my plea for a new way of measuring viewership. It’s time internet streaming, iTunes downloads and cable on-demand viewers get their proper say in what stays on the air. Who cares if I’m watching ads on Hulu versus live TV. You can still make money off of my TV show addiction; you just need to think bigger. Let the music industry’s inability to change and embrace technology be a cautious tale of what staying with the status quo will bring.

All I know for sure is Nielsen clearly doesn’t represent me, and I know I’m not the only one. Here’s to major change in the TV ratings game!

***UPDATE—Feb. 21, 2013***

Hot on the heels of my post, Nielsen has agreed to expand its definition of TV viewing. One can only assume they read my post and were convinced it was the right thing to do. 😉

Opinion: Google would be stupid to kill Sparrow

I’ve had a post sitting in my draft box about my favorite email client for months now. I never got around to finishing it and now it looks like I never will. I’m talking of course about Sparrow, the well-designed, simple and easy to use Mac (and iOS) mail client. I started using Sparrow when it was still in private beta, that’s why it pains me to inform you they’ve discontinued development.

According to their website, Sparrow has been acquired by Google. I know the end goal for many startups is to be eaten up by a big-time player but this particular case really makes me sad. They will make Sparrow available and continue to support it but they will be “joining the Gmail team to accomplish a bigger vision.” I’m happy for the team, really. I’m sure that’s a huge opportunity and if in the same situation, it’d be hard to turn down a job at Google. I’m sad for all of us users though, we’ve lost the best email client around. Sure we can still use it but it will never be updated and will slowly become less and less relevant.

Here’s what I think Google (and the old Sparrow team) should do… rebrand it. Make it an official Google product. The iOS Sparrow app is leaps and bounds better than the iOS Gmail app. The only complaints I’ve heard (and share myself) are about the lack of push notifications. Google can handle that, their Gmail app already does. They could easily add that functionality to the existing Sparrow app and package it up as the new Gmail app. It’s a win for everyone. Sparrow users will be glad their beloved email app hasn’t faded to oblivion and Gmail users will be pleasantly surprised by a new (to them) and wonderful replacement. Perhaps they should even consider porting it to Android. Why not share the wealth? It’s a shame to let such an innovative and beautiful product go to waste.

Most importantly, I’d like to see them do a similar thing with the desktop version. Like I said before, I’ve been using Sparrow for quite some time. I love the slick and minimal interface. It’s fast, easy to use and let’s me manage multiple accounts in one place. I love how well it handles Gmail labels and starring. It’s really the Gmail experience I wish the web had, but better because it’s a separate app. I know Google doesn’t have an official desktop email client and they probably weren’t planning to. That said, why not have one? The bulk of the work is already done with Sparrow. If you’re not going to continue developing the Sparrow anymore, at least re-visit gmail.com’s interface. It’s gotten to be unruly and could use a little of Sparrow influence.

Overall I just hope the Sparrow team does well at Google. I’m cautiously optimistic they can influence the Gmail team for the better. On the flip side, I’m a bit irritated that development on one of my favorite Mac AND iOS apps is dead.

R.I.P Sparrow, you will be missed.

Opinion: How to fix Yahoo!

It’s been a while since Yahoo mattered much. You hear about it every once in a while in the news, usually about an attempted take-over or how irrelevant it’s become and how much money it’s hemorrhaging. Over the last few days they’ve actually had some positive press. For the first time in a long time they’ve made a really great choice. They’ve hired Marissa Mayer as their CEO. Mayer is a very intelligent woman who is one of the first 20 or so employees of Google. It’s big news.

I wrote off Yahoo years ago. I figured they had their time and were easily replaced by the likes of Google and other forward-thinking companies. It seemed Yahoo had stalled out. Occasionally they’d do something smart, like buy Flickr but they’d always mess that up too. When’s the last time Flickr was relevant? Yahoo basically bought a great innovative product it and never did anything with it, letting the competition catch up and surpass it.

I’m hopeful that Mayer can turn things around. What I’ve read about her it seems she has the smarts, the leadership and vision to turn it into something useful again. I’m no expert but I have a few opinions on Yahoo. If I were in her shoes I’d concentrate on making Yahoo do one thing really well instead of 60 things just ok. They’ve got a huge portfolio of products but none of them are outstanding. A few of them are decent and if resources were re-arranged and concentrated to those products, they could become great.

Yahoo isn’t going to be Google. It’s just not. We don’t need it to be and they shouldn’t fizzle into oblivion trying to be. I think they just need to re-focus and narrow in on a few things to do. Becoming a news portal or beefing up Flickr to be creative again could be a couple of ways to improve. I just hope Mayer isn’t afraid to really shake things up. It’d be a shame to see such an iconic company such as Yahoo fade away but it needs a lot of work and radical change to survive. I wish you the best of luck Marissa, I truly hope you and Yahoo can succeed.