On the Road, Part I

“Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.”

Rumi, Persian Poet (1207-1273)

I sat across the table from my good friend Mike during lunch, completely absorbed by what he was sharing with me. “I’m a writer”—he said. For some time now, he had been writing his first novel during his spare time while maintaining his software engineering job. This happened a year ago. Today he is a published author. When is the last time you met somebody who clearly knew what his or her purpose was, and who was actively pursuing it? “Read this”, he recommended, “for inspiration”. He pointed me to a book titled “The Crossroads of Should and Must” by Elle Luna. I finished it before sundown.

In her book, the author shares the story of how she reached her own epiphany and began to follow her true passion in life. In the last year I have read similar stories of people who have discovered their own road and have taken their first steps in it. People like Ben, Becky, Casey or Natasha, to name a few. I credit them and many others for the inspiration. When my sister told me that she was switching careers to become a full-time developer, I knew that life was trying to tell me I had reached my own crossroads. Have you reached a moment when you realize that you have to take action to do what you love in spite of the many hurdles that life keeps placing in your way?

Crossroads
Are what you do and what you love pointing in the same direction?

There have always been two roads ahead of me. One on which I keep doing what I have always done without changing a thing, and one on which I get to do what I love. And what I love is creating. I still want to write software that helps others; but after two decades in the enterprise I now know that I must write my own products and be the creative force behind them. So while I may not be quitting my day job any time soon, I am nonetheless happy to share with you that I have recently taken my first steps on this new road, and that is the story coming up on Part II. However, I decided to write these lines today because this happiness is contagious. If you haven’t yet discovered the road you love, I invite you to search for it. If you know what the road looks like, then what are you waiting for? Follow it!

One Word

I was at a tech gathering when somebody said the following joke: “Do you know how to fix your iPhone if you ever drop it in a pool? You leave it inside a bag of rice overnight. Why? Because that way Asians show up at night and fix your phone.” What happened next was fast: First there was quick laughter, moments later that turned into snickering and finally that turned into an awkward pause. Seconds later people began to look around the room. That’s when they noticed in silence that there was a gentleman of “Asian” descent in the back. Realizing the joke had been offensive, they quickly rushed to another topic. The awkward looks continued for a few minutes as the gentleman pretended to not have listened to what was said.

Emily Austen, a 27-year-old Fox Sports reporter was fired earlier this month after making racially-charged, insensitive remarks. Miss Austen was filmed commenting on the Texas valedictorian who declared in her graduation speech that she was an undocumented immigrant. “I didn’t even know Mexicans were that smart”, Miss Austen can be heard saying on the video. “You guys know that the Chinese guy is always the smartest guy in math class.” The footage is cringe-inducing.

This week, the United Kingdom had an historic referendum and voted to leave the European Union. The week before the vote, I learned via John Oliver’s commentary on Last Week Tonight that there is a growing anti-immigration sentiment that has polarized their country. This is very similar to the way the United States has been polarized in recent months by the Republican presidential candidate. I have seen multiple statements of his where the words “Mexican” and “Muslim” are used derisively.

And while all of this worries me, I believe that this is nothing new. I have been thinking a lot recently about how some people can reach adulthood and still carry negative attitudes towards others just because they don’t speak the same language or look the same to them. The more I think about it, the more I believe that these attitudes are formed early in life. Popular culture plays a big role in propagating ethnic stereotypes. We have been forming ethnic misconceptions for decades. It is time we take a closer look at how we communicate to each other about ethnicity. Let’s make ethnicity great again.

Stereotypes from Childhood

"Arriba, arriba, andale, andale!"
Speedy Gonzalez promotes popular Mexican stereotypes.
For many people, the first exposure to ethnic differences happens in childhood through television. For decades, animated characters like Speedy Gonzalez perpetuated the stereotype of the unsophisticated, poor, lazy Mexican (who steals your food). Today there is a word association between some of these negative traits and the Spanish language itself. I am not saying everybody does this, but I still listen to people on the street who refer to any Spanish speaker as “a Mexican” regardless of nationality. What does “Mexican” mean these days?

"You may be a redneck!"
The “gringo”. Pictured here is the redneck stereotype.
In Mexico we use the word “gringo” quite often, and we also infuse it with a negative sentiment. Historically, the word “gringo” comes from illegal immigrants at the border warning each other about the (green-uniform-wearing) Border Patrol by saying “Green! Go!”. This eventually became the word “gringo”. From its inception, this word has had an undertone of the oppressed versus the oppressor. Today many people still resent the United States for the way on which Mexico lost over half its territory to the U.S. after the Mexican-American war. So while many use the word “gringo” almost as a synonym with American (“ropa gringa” means “American clothes”), many others use the word as a pejorative (“pinches gringos”).

Memin Pinguin, a "negrito".
The “negrito”. Memín Pingüín is a comic book character from the 1940’s.
In Mexico, as David Lida explains, the diminutive form of the N-word is a term of endearment for people of color. During the 1940s and 1950s, there was a comic book in Mexico called Memín Pingüín, which featured a colored boy named Memín. He was mischievous and sweet, and was a beloved character for generations before I was born. Could you imagine any context here in the United States on which the N-word could be used as a term of endearment? Me neither, which is why I believe that Spanish-speakers have to find a more suitable, modern term similar to “African-American”, but for people of color in Mexico. Perhaps a word like “Afro-Mexicano”.

"Welcome to City Wok!"
A Chinese character in South Park.
And this brings me to stereotypes I’ve seen in both the U.S. as well as in Mexico around people from countries in Asia. Similar to how some people mislabel all Spanish-speakers as “Mexicans”, I’ve also seen people refer to anyone with particular physical features as “Asian”. Popular culture, especially cartoons perpetuate this confusion. Words like “Asian”, “Mexican”, “Gringo”, “Negrito” all need to be re-considered, and in some cases eliminated, from our vocabularies.

Forming Better Habits

My point with all of these observations is that stereotypes have been rooted into the joined culture of the United States and Mexico for decades. I would not be surprised if other countries have similar stereotypes as well as the wrong type of words to represent every ethnicity. And when we choose the wrong words we can have undesired side effects in the long term, like with the grown men and women who feel uncomfortable with the notion of a globalized society.

So perhaps you used the word “Asian” or “Mexican” today inadvertently because it made your conversation practical. If you are a Spanish speaker, perhaps you used the word “gringo” because it is what you’ve always done. That is why the next time you are about to refer to a culture or nationality other than your own, I want to invite you to take the time to consider one word: Your next. Is it a word that celebrates our differences or is it one that places them at odds?

If you don’t know which word to use, just ask. Don’t be embarrassed to admit you don’t know how to refer to somebody from Peru or India. Ask people for the demonym of their preference. My guess is that most will happily tell you. You will hear stories about grandparents from Malaysia or somebody’s Chilean heritage. Don’t assume everybody is Mexican because they speak Spanish. Remember that there are multiple nations in the Asian and South American continents. It is worth to take the time to find and use the right demonym. And when you find it, remember it and use it respectfully.

If you have older relatives who are already set in their ways, correct them. The same goes for children. Ask them to find a better word next time. I have asked my family members in Mexico to not use the word “gringo” anymore because of its pejorative undertone. I explained to them that my daughters were born in the United States and that I will become a U.S. citizen later this year, and that I don’t think about any of us as “gringos”, but as citizens of the United States of America. “American” and “north-American” are practical words that are not negatively charged, and it’s okay that they represent only a single nation in the American continent.

Words are powerful. Words matter. Words are transcendent. With the right words we can continue to respect one another as human beings, each worthy of existing in this global melting pot on which we all live. We can all make a difference, especially the young. Let’s become people who celebrate diversity and not fear their neighbors because they don’t look or sound the same. Let’s do this one word at a time. Starting with your next.

I’ll Always Have Zeppelins

The Incomparable
The Incomparable, my favorite podcast.

Hello nerds. Yes, that means you nerds. Jason, Scott, Lisa, Dan, John, Serenity, Glenn, David, Erica, Tony, Andy, Monty, Steve, Chip, Phil and the other Phil. I want to talk to you and the many more hosts and panelists that I am missing. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you and that I have to get off my chest. This will only take a few minutes. 

We have a very peculiar relationship. You visit me a few times a week, we usually hang out at my place. We’ll talk about that movie that just came out, last week’s Arrow or that book that you’ve been reading about that guy stuck in Mars. Sometimes you tag along when I do my grocery shopping, which is always fun. There’s that time I was waiting in the checkout line and the person ahead of me just looked at me puzzled. “What is making you laugh so hard?”, the lady said. My answer was “Skeletor“. A few times I’ve tested our relationship by making you come with me on road trips. San Antonio to Dallas equals any three Star Wars two-parters. Yes, sometimes I’ll even do the prequels because it makes our relationship stronger. Search your feelings, you know this to be true. 

It is time you heard me because most of the time it is you who do the talking. You rarely listen to me, but that’s okay because after all you’re The Podcast and I’m The Listener. That’s the dynamic we have had for the last six years and I’m happy to keep it that way. However, if today is the only time I get your attention, then I want you to know how thankful I am that you have been with me through the most difficult period of my life. I say this without hyperbole. I have learned in recent years that I’ve been struggling with forms of depression and social anxiety. Different people experience these ailments in different ways. Unfortunately for me, my most common symptom used to be mismanaged anger. As it turns out, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. All of my relationships have suffered as a consequence: Family, friends, my marriage, my relationship with my children. In the last six years, I’ve been divorced, I’ve had a second engagement broken, I’ve lost actual time with my children, I’ve lost long-time friendships. Life can be unbearable when you feel alone. 

The problem with depression is that it can make you believe in the many irrational thoughts our brains tend to have every day (Things like “I’ll never be happy”). The problem with social anxiety is that even if you want to stop feeling lonely, it can be physically difficult to be among other people. You fear crowds like the Serenity crew fears the Reavers. That is why I sought the help of a psychologist and a psychiatrist as soon as I realized I had a problem. In the last three years I have had remarkable breakthroughs. I now have genuine control of my emotions, including anger. This allows me to experience life in a healthy manner. To anybody who struggles with depression, I recommend that you find a psychologist that will teach you how to think rationally. It will change your life.  

I’ll never forget the way in which podcasts like The Incomparable kept me company through thick and thin. When my problems were at their worse, I never felt completely alone thanks to “the gang” being at my fingertips. Sometimes their voices would be quite literally the only ones I would hear in days, because of not being able to leave the house. On those days, episodes like the Star Wars Holiday Special or the “Rocket Surgeries” made a real difference for me. Laughter is a great medicine. Also, thank you for sharing your love of nerdy things with me. Your passion is contagious, and this has helped me gain self-confidence as I now proudly identify myself as an adult that likes nerdy things. It’s more than okay, it’s who I am. Thank you for taking me out of my comfort zone and getting me to try things like comic books, old movies or cheesy time travel shows from the sixties. Your taste in books, movies and TV has shaped mine in a very positive way. I am a better critic of the media I consume thanks to the show. With its breadth of topics and panelists, each episode of The Incomparable has something familiar, yet new and exciting. I look forward to each week’s show as well as to the many I haven’t listened to because of potential spoilers.  

For all of these reasons and many more, I am happy to support the show. Many times I genuinely feel bad of only buying the Incomparable T-shirts and not being able to give back more to Jason and his fellow hosts and panelists. With the announcement of the new Incomparable memberships, I am happy to finally have a way to support them periodically (Especially after I think of the bandwidth costs from all the times I’ve downloaded and re-downlaoded the episodes). That is why on the occasion of becoming an Incomparable member, I felt compelled to write this ode to my favorite podcast and to the many wonderful people who take time out of their days to record and edit all the shows on the network. So with a heartfelt thank you there’s only one more thing to say: Goodbye nerds.  

Microsoft Signature Edition

Following up on my recent purchase of a Windows 10 computer at the Microsoft Store, I want to comment briefly on one of the tentpole features of buying directly from Microsoft: The Microsoft Signature Edition program.

All computers sold at Microsft Stores and through their website are part of this program. These are computers that are advertised as not including any third-party middleware. You know the type of programs I’m talking about if you ever purchased a computer on the nineties: Anti-virus trials, registry cleaners, America Online and CompuServe offers, web browsers, mail and chat clients, card games, etcetera. Back then we even had a name for these programs. We called them “crapware”. That is why the Microsoft Signture Edition experience was a major selling point for me—especially after having to deal for years with low quality software from Dell, Compaq, Gateway, and many others.

The good news is that Windows 10 already includes very good mail, calendar and contacts clients out of the box. These are first class citizens just like in Apple’s OS X. I’m happy with the system apps after only a few weeks of use. Good bundled apps is something Windows had needed for years and I’m glad it’s finally here.

The bad news is that I still found applications on my system from Dell. Two apps, one for the audio card and one for contacting Dell support, were bundled in to my surprise and disappointment. And while the annoyance to uninstall them only lasted a few seconds, I can’t help to think that they should not have been included in the first place.

Sins of the Father

Also included in the Microsoft Signature Edition computer were two promotional “installer launchers” for Office 365 and Skype that Microsoft itself includes on the system. These apps are represented by an icon on the Start Menu and they are not traditional Internet shortcuts. They are not application trial versions either. These launchers are something in between. Their purpose is to find the installer for the promoted app, download it and run it. These are not just shortcuts, but rather small executables. Even after installing the promoted app, the launcher maintains its icon in the Start Menu as well as its entry in the Add/Remove Programs section of the Control Panel.

Why is this junk even needed? A less savvy user is bound to get confused when clicking on Get Skype or Get Office instead of the actual apps. It does not help that the launchers have the same icons as the actual apps and that the launchers are not automatically uninstalled after they’ve served their purpose. Microsoft ought to reconsider this strategy.

But what else can they do? I wish Office and Skype were system apps. Both of these products are the best of their category on the platform, and they are already usable for free with some restrictions (even Office). Making them part of Windows eliminates confusion. Sadly, Microsoft will never take this step because of the ever-vigilant eye of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Conclusion

Third-party bundled software has traditionally been a problem for buyers of new Windows computers for decades. The Microsoft Signature Edition program is a step in the right direction towards solving the problem. If you’re on the market for a Windows PC, this is the best way to buy one. The system apps of Windows 10 are better than ever.

I hope that Microsoft reconsiders the use of installer launchers on Microsoft Signature Edition computers. Unfortunately, anti-trust concerns forces the company’s hand when it comes to bundling apps with Windows. Even if Microsoft can’t include the real apps, they ought to streamline the experience for new users who may benefit from this cross-promotion.

Rethink Different

“We have to forget about this notion that for Apple to win, Microsoft has to lose.”

That was Steve Jobs during the final moments of Macworld Expo Boston in 1997. That was the day that Apple and Microsoft announced the partnership that would eventually save Apple. That day marked the beginning of the most successful turnaround in American business history. However, not everyone received the news well. Audible boos could be heard from the audience the moment Jobs mentioned Bill Gates and Internet Explorer. The tension in the room was high. That is when The Master did what only he could do. He convinced us that it was time for a paradigm shift.

His words always stuck with me. For many others this remained a tough pill to swallow. Many have forgotten that both companies ended their patent disputes as part of this agreement, and that this allowed Microsoft and Apple to have continued cross-team collaboration. I believe that this is one of the main reasons why Microsoft Office has remained a first-class citizen on the Mac since 1997. Today this extends to iOS as well. Excel, Word and PowerPoint are among the best productivity apps on the App Store. Recently I switched from iWork to Office 365 and have not regretted my decision. That is why last week I decided to visit a Microsoft Store. You could say that Office 365 had a halo effect on me the same way the iPod did for me thirteen years ago.

Microsoft Store
Walking into a Microsoft Store is like walking into a Bizarro Apple Store.

In San Antonio, the Microsoft and Apple retail stores are literally across from each other. It is quite entertaining to shop in the Apple Store, walk outside twenty paces and enter the Bizarro Apple Store. Yes, the critics are right in pointing out that Microsoft has flagrantly taken most of the pages from the Appe Store book. But if something is not broken, why fix it? I have to admit that it was strange to be inside a Microsoft Store. The staff wears similar shirts, you sit on similar tables, products are arranged creepily similar to the way they are on the Apple Store. But where there should be a MacBook or an iPhone, you see a Microsoft Surface Book or a Nokia phone. Microsoft’s hardware partners like Dell, HP and Lenovo are equally featured throughout the store. My experience was just as good as the one at the Apple Store, but with a big difference: I did not have to compete with large crowds for attention. Yes, the store was that empty. But once you forget about feeling sorry for the staff, what you get is a decent, personalized experience. The staff member kindly offered me a Pepsi while I browsed the store. I was quite comfortable.

In the end I decided to give Microsoft another chance in a way far bolder than before. I purchased a Dell XPS 13, my first non-Apple hardware product in thirteen years. But why would this long-time Apple user would purchase a Windows PC again? Allow me to explain.

Dell XPS 13
While comparable to the MacBook Pro 13″, this Dell laptop has a more advanced CPU than its rival.

Because sometimes close enough can be surprisingly better: The MacBook’s “unibody” design is unparalleled. You are not going to find such a lightweight, yet sturdy, long-lasting design. But because of Intel’s CPU release roadmap, Apple’s complete Macintosh line is already 18 months behind the latest Intel CPU architecture. This does not happen to Windows PC’s. You have been able to purchase a 6th generation Intel CPU-based Windows PC for months! When Apple likely releases new MacBooks with Skylake architecture this summer, they will be catching up to this Dell laptop. I admit that when this happens, my argument of having to make a tradeoff between “unibody” and latest CPU will be moot. But even then, this Dell laptop will continue to be a workhorse for several years. Dell’s industrial design, while not matching Apple’s best of breed, is finally good enough. I’d sacrifice that for the latest CPU architecture any day, especially if you have budget constraints. The Dell XPS 13 costs $200 less than the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Because being a little bit more of a polyglot is a good thing: True platform agnosticism is a pipedream. The many promises of open-source software have never truly been fulfilled. But while true agnosticism is practically not feasible, the other end of the spectrum is relatively easy to attain. For example, you could experience your whole computing life using nothing but Apple products. However, I now believe that both of these extremes are unhealthy. Just as being completely agnostic or open-source can be impractical, being a complete “fanboy” of a single platform can also be very difficult. Consider my struggles trying to stick with iWork and iCloud. When you pick what works for you from more than one platform, you gain flexibility. Now that I own both a Mac and a PC (with Office 365 and OneDrive), it does not matter which of the two devices I am holding, I will have access to my most important documents on a native UI and I will be fairly proficient in both of them. If I ever lose access to my Mac and my PC, I can use almost any other computer in the world and be competent. Everyone should try this, it’s liberating.

Because I want to be in other users’ shoes: I have been an enterprise application developer for almost two decades. Most of my work has been on web-based platforms. I aspire to one day write my own software and make it available to users on my two preferred native platforms, Apple’s and Microsoft’s. After being away from Windows for thirteen years, I find it difficult to relate to both the casual and experienced Windows user. There are certain aspects of the OS, like touch screen integration for example, that you cannot emulate fully on a virtual machine. If I wish to write native software for both platforms, I must have native hardware for both of them.

Conclusion

One week later, I am very happy with my purchase. I am not abandoning the Apple platform and that is my whole point here. For me, “Think Different” does not mean what it used to anymore. I am re-thinking Think Different. I want to be able to grab any computer from the two main platforms out there and be productive, because that is a very important step in understanding how to better develop software for each one of these platforms. I want access to my main day-to-day documents using native applications regardless of which computer I am using. The new order is a little bit more agnostic and it exhibits a whole less “fanboyism”. Microsoft’s hardware and software aren’t perfect, but neither are Apple’s cloud offerings. I want to stand on the shoulders of both giants and pick what works best for me from each one. I also want to never fully settle with any of them. I want to try other points of view from time to time. I want to stay hungry, stay foolish.

While My Music Gently Weeps

“We love music, and it’s always good to do something you love. More importantly, music is part of everyone’s life. Everyone.”

This is a quote from Steve Jobs made at the introduction of the original iPod in 2001. On that day, Jobs made a compelling case for why Apple was entering the music player market. We all know the story of how the iPod saved Apple. From hardware and software to marketing, theirs was the right plan at the right time, executed to perfection. With the promise of “a thousand songs in your pocket”, Apple leapfrogged their competition.

My first Apple product was the third-generation iPod from 2003. I realize in hindsight that one of its most special features was not just that it carried a thousand songs, but that it carried my songs. My life’s soundtrack during countless bus rides and multiple road trips, during mundane house chores and boring waiting lines. The iPod deejayed my own wedding. For many people music is something extremely personal.

A Tale of Two iPods

Over the next few years, Apple reminded us that they loved music and the iPod. Every refresh to its product family made us fall in love with the iPod all over again. Remember how much you liked the iPod mini, the iPod nano, and the iPod Shuffle? Unfortunately, the success of the iPhone and iPod Touch in 2007 made the demise of the iPod inevitable. Even its new name of iPod Classic hinted of its ultimate fate.

When the iPhone was introduced, Steve Jobs touted it as the best iPod that Apple had ever made. The first bullet point summarizing its features in the presentation said “Touch Your Music”. The first time the iPod app was demoed on stage, the crowd cheered as Jobs scrolled through the list of songs with the touch of his finger. We had never seen an iPod like this before. That was the birth date of a second type of iPod. The Click versus Touch battle began.

The iPod line-up in 2008.
The iPod family in 2008. We all knew who the winner would be in the battle of Click versus Touch.

With the release of iOS 5 in 2011, the iPod app was renamed to just “Music”. This was the beginning of the end of the iPod ethos. By the time iOS 7 was released in 2014, the Music app had lost some of what made “Touch Your Music” so special. For example, you could no longer scroll through your albums and touch them using Cover Flow. Instead we got an “album wall” view that made landscape use of the Music app useless. I believe that with every iteration the Music app feels less like an iPod and more like something else.

A Tale of Two Music Apps

In the summer of 2015 Apple made an unusual move by introducing Apple Music, a tentpole feature of iOS 9, several months earlier with the iOS 8.4 upgrade. While eagerness to get a new product into the hands of users is not wrong, it was clear that the company’s priorities had shifted. With its subpar quality, this new Music app hid away or removed many features that had been a staple in the iPod days. This did not seem to matter to Apple as much as selling us the new Apple Music service. I believe that with the release of Apple Music the iPod ethos finally died.

A few examples of defective, missing or hidden features: Sorting by album name only is no longer possible. The previous and next song buttons do not always jump to the right track. The new “Up Next” queue is complicated and unreliable. You must browse through lists containing local and iCloud songs, which is a problem when you are not on Wi-Fi. Many of the settings around new features are hard to find and do not always work.

But the worse offender of them all is the business model for the Apple Music service itself. If you use Apple Music, you are no longer allowed to store music in your device from sources other than the iTunes Store or iTunes in the Cloud. That means that if I sign up for Apple Music and decline to pay for iTunes in the Cloud, I can no longer listen to the thousands of songs that I legally own on a CD (and that are sitting on my Mac’s iTunes library). This effectively means that there are two different Music apps: One that works like an iPod and that allows me to play the songs I already own. The other relies heavily on Apple Music and iTunes in the Cloud.

Apple Music splash screen.
Apple Music splash screen. Notice the smaller size of the “Go To My Music” button compared to the much larger “Join Apple Music” button.

Since iOS 8.4, every update to iOS requires me to bypass a new splash screen in the Music app. This splash screen tells me all I need to know about where Apple’s interests lie when it comes to this app. If you have no interest in signing up for Apple Music, why do I have to continue to tap on this screen? In pushing this advertisement Apple is keeping me away from my content, from my music. The iPod never would have done that.

Missing Ingredients

The way that the new Music app keeps you away from your content violates Apple’s own Human Interface Guidelines. The HIG talks about showing your users a screen-full of content as quickly as possible. This is no longer what happens in the Music app if you are not an Apple Music subscriber. Compare this with Mail, Notes or Photos.

Prior to the release of iOS 5 in 2011, Apple conducted its first ever Apple iOS Tech Talks. My favorite talk was presented by John Geleynse, Apple’s Director of Technology Evangelism. This presentation remains one of my favorite overviews of good app design. The talk was titled “The Ingredients of Great Apps“. With the exceptions of adding textures and realism, many of the guidelines from that session are still valid today. Look at the screenshot below. One of the presentation slides talked about what makes design good:

Ingredients of Great Apps
Slide from “The Ingredients of Great Apps”, part of Apple’s iOS 5 Tech Talks in 2011.

Read that again. Two ingredients of good design are “Efficient interaction design” and “Reflects what is familiar”. I feel the need to spell this out: Forcing your users to acknowledge a splash screen that they have already acknowledged is inefficient interaction design that does not reflect what is familiar to me: Tapping on the Music app to get to my music. It is infuriating to me that an in-app advertisement keeps me away from my content repeatedly on one of Apple’s built in apps. These apps are supposed to be representative of Apple’s best design guidelines. The Music app is everything but.

Conclusion

The user interface of the iOS built-in Music app has continued to degrade over time, particularly since the introduction of Apple Music. The repeated use of in-app advertisements with a splash screen in Apple’s Music app violates good app design guidelines. I believe that the iPhone is no longer the best iPod that Apple has ever made (That title has been reclaimed by the iPod Classic).

So with all of the above, do I believe that Apple still loves music? Sure, as long as it’s not my music and I play it on Apple’s terms.

Reorganizing Xcode Playgrounds

Spring is almost here, and with that comes spring cleaning. That’s the time of the year when I will shed everything I don’t need or reorganize everything I can. Because I am learning Swift, I am reading bits and pieces of multiple books at the same time. One thing all of these books have in common is that they all require you to use Xcode Playgrounds. Introduced in Xcode 6, playgrounds are a fantastic tool to learn Swift. However, it did not take too long before I ended up with dozens of playgrounds scattered around the Finder. So for me that only meant one thing: It is time for some spring cleaning. 

Being the tidy, semi-obsessive-compulsive person that I am, I began to organize my playgrounds in folders according to the book I was reading. And all that seemed to worked fine, but there were a few instances where I felt that two or more playgrounds could be better organized if they were together. I opened Xcode and quickly discovered that playgrounds have no drag and drop support. You cannot move or copy playground pages from one playground into another. That is when I decided to snoop around and take a peek into what a playground actually is, in order to find out if I can merge playgrounds manually. Here is what I learned:

Playgrounds are surprisingly simple. It turns out they are implemented as OS X bundles. You can open them as you do any other bundle. 

How to open a playground
How to open a playground from the Finder.

Inside the playground bundle you will find three different components:

Contents of a playground bundle

  1. A manifest file called contents.xcplayground. This is a plain text file containing XML. It is a list of the different individual playground pages (more on these later). 
  2. A sub-folder called Pages that contains the physical files for each the playground page. Ideally, this folder will contain exactly the same number of pages listed in the manifest file.  
  3. A standard Xcode workspace file called playground.xcworkspace. The workspace file is another OS X bundle that contains user settings as far as I could tell. I have been ignoring this file without any noticeable problems. 

Let’s take look at the manifest file: 

Playground manifest file

On this example, my playground has two pages called Chapter-1 and Chapter-2. That means that there must be two physical playground page files inside the Pages sub-folder, called Chapter-1.xcplayground and Chapter-2.xcplayground

Pages sub-folder

As I’ve said before, this is all very simple. If you want to merge playground pages into a single playground bundle, just make sure to avoid duplicate names inside the manifest file and inside the sub-folder and you’re all set. Use any text editor to change the manifest file and use the Finder to drag the playground pages from one bundle into the other.


Inside Playground Pages

One of my favorite features of playgrounds, or to be more specific playground pages, is that each page is also implemented as an OS X bundle! That means that the same folder hierarchy you see in Xcode exists inside the playground page bundles themselves. This is very different than the default behavior of Xcode project files, on which project “folders” (which Xcode calls Groups) are not physical folders but rather are logical groups of files—while the real files are all contained inside a single folder in the Finder. Playgrounds do not have this problem and that is good news. 

This is very relevant when it comes to the different Sources folders you see scattered around your playground. These are folders that allow you to share Swift files across different scopes. There is a Sources folder that has a playground-level scope as well as individual Sources folders inside each playground page. All of this exists on the file system in this exact arrangement. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at a playground page that uses the Sources folder to share a Swift file called Vertex.swift. This is how it looks like in Xcode: 

Sources folder

And this is how it looks like in the Finder as an OS X bundle. We see that the Sources folder contains the Vertex.swift just as we would expect: 

Playground page as an OS X bundle

I would not be surprised if eventually Apple allowed dragging and dropping of playground pages across different playgrounds. But for now, knowing that it is very simple to do it manually if you ever need to is a very good thing to know. Especially if you love spring cleaning as much as I do.  

Heroes and Businesses

I love super hero origin stories. Whether they are in comic book or TV serial form, you show me a good origin story and you have my attention. Character evolution stories are even more fascinating. Show me an established super hero making a choice I disagree with, and you can lose my affection for that character immediately. It is okay for a super hero to make wrong choices, as long as he or she learns from his or her mistakes. I will give the writers of that story the benefit of the doubt, but only for so long until they either turn things around or lose me altogether. The business world is not that much different to me. I am fascinated by a good business or product origin story (Revolution in the Valley comes to mind). I find myself intrigued by the business decisions that companies make every day. Amazon, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Sony have at different points in my life been super heroes or super villains in my eyes. I love to analyze the rise and fall of their products and of themselves.

I wrote yesterday that Apple needs to show more empathy dealing with customer support and our frustrations with their software quality. I concluded by saying that we should consider the way that a free iCloud service fits into Apple’s overall strategy of pushing hardware sales. The phrase “You get what you pay for” rings true to me when I see the number of issues I experience with iCloud and the lackluster tech support that I get with it. In making iCloud free, super hero Apple has gone down the spiral of super villains Facebook and Google. Apple has turned their cloud services into a commodity, just as it has with their customer support. And while the ancillary nature of customer support has led Apple to a philosophy of opaqueness (where their own support technicians don’t know understand how they can help you) others have taken a different, more charitable approach.

Enter Microsoft

I rely on having access to word processing documents and spreadsheets I use for managing my finances, hobbies and business endeavors. I need access to these documents often and on multiple devices. Almost five years ago I had decided to live without Google because of privacy concerns. So that meant that it was time to give Microsoft Office 365 an honest look. I asked multiple sources and received good feedback on their service. Their new pricing tiers are fair. I paid upfront for a whole year right on the spot. That’s how fed up I am with iCloud. I will not write a review of Office, but rather I will single out what I think is one of their tent-pole features: Customer support. “Find helpful answers. Contact real people”, says their support page. I find a link to their support page from anywhere on their website. It’s as if Microsoft considers customer support to be a first class citizen. A good omen.

After I signed up, I realized that I had picked up the wrong plan by mistake; so I requested a support call through their website. That is when Microsoft began to win me over. It was past 10 PM on my time zone and I received a callback within 5 minutes. The agent was incredibly helpful and walked the extra mile until I had my problem resolved. Within minutes, he directed me to a website on which I downloaded a tool that gave him access to my screen, but not control of it. He guided me through the Office 365 admin pages until we changed my subscription type to the one I wanted. He pointed me to where I could download the client apps I needed. The experience was remarkable for how personalized it was. This reminded me of what I wrote in 2011:

I want to be a partner in the business relationship from which I get my e-mail, or my spreadsheet and word processor software. I do not want to be goods sold.

Back then iWork was a paid offering (MobileMe was not). Since then, Apple has made iWork, iLife and iCloud free of charge. I can’t help but think that when it comes to customer support I am getting from Apple exactly what I am paying for, which is nothing worthwhile. Comparing my recent technical support experience with Apple to the one I had with Microsoft, it is clear who regards me as a partner. Microsoft gave this paying customer outstanding personalized attention and that is the difference that paying for a product makes. When it comes to customer support, Microsoft’s business strategy has earned my admiration while Apple is slowly losing me as a hardcore fan. I can’t want to read what happens next.

Rotting Apple

Much has been said about the quality of Apple’s software. The conversation itself is not new. What is different this time around is that Apple is participating in the conversation, even if is is only from the PR-friendly, comfortable chair of guest hosts to The Talk Show. On a recent episode, John Gruber had the chance to talk to two C-level Apple executives about the topic of Apple’s own software quality. I was heartily disappointed by what came out of that interview, especially when seen in light of the many issues I experience daily with some of Apple’s software products.

While I appreciate the writing of John Gruber tremendously, I believe that his skill as an interviewer is still a work in progress. John is a keen observer of all things Apple, which is why I was disappointed by the soft balls he threw at Craig Federighi and Eddy Cue during their interview. I could not help but feel as if John was carefully treading around the hot topics in order to not to lose his privileged, albeit seldom, access to Apple executives. In my opinion, the type of questions that were asked and the answers given by Federighi and Cue contributed to what I perceive as a condescending tone: “Look at us, we are so big! Cut us some slack!”. There was no empathy and that is a problem worth noting.

To show that the issues I experience with Apple’s software are real, I will begin to document them on my blog. I am certain that there will be other people out there who will recognize these same issues and say “Yeah, that happens to me too!”. Apple may have millions of reference points in their analytic data that tell them they are doing fine, or even that they are improving. But without any empathy towards all of us who depend on their products on a daily basis to operate our lives, I am afraid that the future for Apple enthusiasts like myself will be nothing but bleak.

I will now present you my first rotten apple: Documents in the Cloud for iWork.

iCloud Error
Exhibit A in how Apple’s software quality is not improving.

I have been struggling with this error on and off for about a year. Essentially, without any explanation I will lose access to all of my Keynote, Numbers and Pages documents on the online version of iWork for as long as the iCloud gods decide. Sometimes it will be for an hour or two, sometimes a day or two. While this error is happening, syncing from my Mac and iOS devices will not work. I will log off iCloud on all of my devices, clear my browser data and do a rain dance naked on my living room. No luck. No dice. Nada.

No Numbers for you!
No Numbers for you!

The error always resolves itself without any action from my part, and that makes my support calls to Apple so frustrating. I opened a support case with Apple last week. The staff member that attended my case seemed genuinely empathetic. The problem is that he seemed to have no resources that would help him troubleshoot my issue. “I had never heard of this happening before and neither has anyone I asked.”, he admitted. When a senior support agent tells you that he thinks that the message was correct and that there was maintenance happening, but says so hesitantly and without sign of authority, it only makes you wonder if he even made an inquiry to engineering in the first place.

I do not believe that the Apple technical support staff has a direct line with the Apple engineering team responsible for iCloud-related issues, nor it has access to useful information regarding the health of the different iCloud systems. If maintenance was truly routine, it would have been announced as you see with banks. Furthermore, I am sure Apple has the resources to schedule their maintenance windows at sensitive times according to the time zone of each user. You know, like most other companies do maintenance on the Internet. I do not believe that this maintenance error is accurate, given the consistency with which it occurs. But let’s say it is for a moment. What does that tell us?

iCloud is a service provided free of charge to consumers who purchase Apple hardware. It is reasonable to assume that a portion of the cost of the hardware pays for the iCloud services we consume. You could even say that iCloud operates at a loss and is more of a marketing asset to promote the sale of Apple hardware. All that may be true, but here is the rub: You are not paying for it directly. Apple has campaigned for years against the Google ethos by using the known adage that tells us that “if you are not paying for it, you are the product”. I believe that there is a corollary to this: If we continue to not pay for services like iCloud, we will continue to get what we pay for.