First impressions on Apple Watch.

I’ve been very busy lately, so I’ve been detached from a lot of the discussion surrounding the Apple Watch. This has actually been an interesting scenario for me, since I’m usually soaking in information by the time a new Apple product reaches me, but it’s left me with a feeling of being a bit of a blank slate this time around. I’ve been able to approach the Watch with fresh eyes for the most part, experiencing it in as close to a normal fashion as possible.

As such, I didn’t read everything I could find in advance. I didn’t watch walkthroughs, I didn’t read a single review. I got my Watch late yesterday evening, and finally sat down with it after the day’s events had wrapped up. Slowly, methodically, and for the first time with almost no background knowledge on the device save for what I saw in the keynotes, I opened the box and began exploring.

It goes without saying that this is an entirely new interaction design that will almost certainly confuse people out of the gate. I say this as someone deeply entrenched in the thinking behind software interfaces–it’s not terribly intuitive when you first lay eyes on it. Which is not to say it’s bad/wrong/doomed/etc., merely that it’s different enough from the iOS conventions so many people are familiar with, that there’s a definite learning curve. I think in-person sessions may go a long way to alleviate those adjustments, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of those happening at Apple Stores over the coming months.

Say what you want, it’s extremely polished for a 1.0 product. Coming from a Pebble Steel, this feels like a quantum leap forward. The ability to interact bidirectionally is fantastic, and changes the utility of having a small computer mounted to your arm at all times. I’ve already delighted in dropping quick reminders or text replies, and then immediately returning to the task at hand.

I’m still uncertain as to the overall connections between apps, glances, and notifications. I understand what each is for, but moving between them doesn’t feel clear to me yet. I’m beginning to see why some apps only need to be a glance, whereas other apps have no reason to use a glance and just need to be on there somewhere. I’m fairly certain that these will become more useful and refined now that developers have hardware in hand. As with the original iPad, you do the best you can in the vacuum of the simulator and hope for the best to hit launch day. Cheers to anyone who pulled it off, because there are some great implementations already, and they’ll only get better.

I’m a righty; I wear my watch on my left hand. The first thing I did was flip the body and reorient the Digital Crown. It feels far more comfortable on the lower left, as you don’t need to contort your right hand to manipulate it when you need to access it. Scrolling it is a little tougher in this position, but that’s an action I haven’t seen a need for (yet) apart from gazing at the UI as it shrinks and grows. It’s a nice trick, and I’m sure someone will manage to find some utility for it, but it seems superfluous to me for now. Tapping and swiping feels much better.

That said, tapping and swiping isn’t super easy. Touch targets are sometimes extremely small, and the slight delays involved in transmitting controls back and forth to the phone–as brief as they are–sometimes leads to a disjointed feeling within parts of the UI. It’s a 1.0 thing, sure to be alleviated as the OS matures and developers’ comfort with it grows, but it’s noticeable now. There will undoubtedly be many things that still feel faster to accomplish by picking up your phone, and that’s fine.

Which brings me to my final point: this device is so not a replacement for your phone. It’s a satellite, a small, intelligent drone dispatched to move with you when your phone is pocketed, on a table somewhere else, or otherwise out of reach. As a user, set your expectations accordingly, and as a developer, understand that you absolutely don’t need to build a multi-level navigational stack to accomplish what you think you need to. Isolate a core set of tasks, refine them, and present them in the simplest way possible. Make what you send to this device as concise as possible. Your users will appreciate the value in the tightened experience, and you’ll save yourself some headaches in this early incarnation of the Watch OS. As capable as it is, it’s glaringly evident that it’s only a stepping stone to something more right now; adjust your targets accordingly.

Overall, after only a few hours with it, I can safely say I really like it. I have some serious reservations about specific design choices within the OS (creepy Mummenschanz emoji being a big one), and I’m not sold on some of the purported interaction choices yet. But I grew to like the Pebble, having been a longtime fan of traditional watches and a serious smartwatch skeptic prior to that. This is a fantastic extension of iOS with incredible potential for the future. It’s not the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s a really cool first step and that’s how the most interesting things always start.

Things I like this week, volume 4.

OmniFocus for iOS
I’ve been using OmniFocus on and off for years. It’s such an amazingly powerful platform for task management, but it comes with a learning curve. But once you get it, it’s seriously transformative in how you think about your time.

The Omni Group has been going through a process of making all its apps universal and OF got the treatment last week, bringing feature parity to iPhone and iPad. This new version of the app is absolutely fantastic. It adds some new customization abilities, and if you go Pro, you can do some seriously advanced stuff from anywhere now, including your phone.

The company has also been terrific and transparent about assisting with upgrades, free Pro unlocks for previous users, and rebates for folks who’ve already purchased parts of the suite. The people at Omni truly care about their users, and it shows in every interaction, and shines through in the choices they make for their software.

OmniFocus for iOS / OmniFocus for Mac (MAS) / OmniFocus for Mac (Omni Store)

Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
I’ve written about how much DCFC’s Plans means to me. I love many of their other recordings, but some didn’t quite land with me in the same way. Could be a product of timing, mood, or almost anything else, but I don’t love everything the way I love Plans.

Kintsugi has some potential. I’ve listened to it a few times since picking it up last week, and I keep coming back to it. I’m still in the phase where I’m listening for patterns and things I like in the music more than the lyrics, but it’s good. Really good.

Plans / Kintsugi on iTunes

Private APIs aren’t open to interpretation.

There are a lot of political injustices imposed on people around the world every day. Suffering is nearly limitless, and horrible problems erode basic human needs and rights almost everywhere. Developers misusing a service’s APIs and then being shocked when their behaviors are called out is not among these injustices.

Ars has a story about a kid who built an app to upload photos to Instagram being “threatened” to take it down. At first glance, a lot of us that don’t work in the corporate world or for a large company see this and would probably think, “Man, that sucks. Boo, Instagram.” The problem is that Instagram’s API has never allowed for uploading to the service. That’s why you could only ever use the main app to send pictures in. Caleb Benn decided that when he saw all the other Mac apps that didn’t have this functionality, he had a market opportunity on which to capitalize.

As a developer, he had enough savvy to hook into the service and build and release a functional Mac app. But whether out of naiveté, ignorance, or disregard, he decided to use a private API to do something the service didn’t permit. The story on Ars positions him as a pawn entangled in a corporate maneuver to oppress independent developers. It talks about how he’s headed off to UC Berkeley to study CS, and he was just solving a problem.

If you read the API terms of use, it doesn’t explicitly say you can’t upload, which may be the problem. But any developer who sees over a dozen apps for a photo service that all don’t do what seems to be the obvious thing they need to do has to then ask “why is that?” and be prepared to do a little digging, and potentially not like the answer. That the company came after him is unsurprising, and well within its rights. That he’s disappointed with this outcome is within his rights. It’s a lesson. That it’s being picked up as a David and Goliath story is bad journalism.

The EFF is now weighing in on this, which really saddens me.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Coders’ Rights Project” suggests that Benn might be within his legal rights to make the app.

“According Instagram’s [sic] website, reverse engineering the API is indeed a violation of the terms of use,” Corynne McSherry, the legal director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Ars in an e-mail. “That said, the general terms of use refer in turn to an API ‘license.’ Whether or not an API is copyrightable expression as opposed to a method of operation, is by no means a settled question.”

“It’s shameful that Instagram is trying to use its its [sic] terms of service to impede users’ fair use rights and stifle add-on innovation,” she added.

The EFF has many, many, MANY better battles to fight around the world. That it’s deciding to spend its resources re-interpreting the language of an API optionally provided by a service that does not need to do it at all is troubling.

Believe me, in 99% of these matters, I’m almost always in favor of the little guy getting a shot to do something. But this is either a) careless development and unfortunate overall, or b) a calculated stunt by a smart kid who wanted some attention. It’s not political oppression, and it’s not worth the EFF’s time. It’s business, and it’s totally reasonable, although maybe not what you’d want.

Life isn’t always what we want it to be.

Things I like this week, volume 3.

Here’s a few things I’m enjoying this week.

Carousel by Dropbox
When Carousel launched, I’ll admit I was underwhelmed. I have a lot of pictures stored in Dropbox, and they’re all neatly organized into folders (big surprise there, I’m sure). Initially, Carousel’s performance seemed lacking with massive libraries, and the app would pick up images from throughout your Dropbox, with no way to specify which folders to use. The option to proactively pick a “photos” directory is still missing, but the app did get the ability to hide entire folders from the web. Previously, it was possible to hide individual images from the iOS app, but now if you visit on the web, you can right-click to select an entire folder to disappear as well. There’s also a “flashback” feature which we’ve seen with other photo services before, but which is a nice addition since I used it last. This stuff, plus some nice speed enhancements, which make it very usable with my large library, have given me a reason to throw it a second look.

Amazon Music with Prime Music
Another app that’s improved over time is Amazon’s music offering. While the title evokes a Microsoftian naming convention, the app’s UI has gotten a little better over the past few months, and the Prime streaming service, while nowhere near as comprehensive as Spotify, Rdio, et. al., has improved a bit as well. It still lacks the super deep catalog of those other services, but I have been pleasantly surprised at what I did find as I browsed. The curated playlists and recommendations are pretty good (for me at least), and it’s gotten more fun to use, with some swipe controls to move through the different sections of the app. If you’re a Prime member, it’s worth taking another look. If you have little kids, there’s a ton of great music on there that you can stream and add to your library for free.