The blog experiment so far…

Around the end of November, I decided to relaunch my blog and see what would happen if I actually updated as close to daily as I could.

It’s been about a month so far, and I’m fairly pleased with the results.   Visits and page views are climbing, and at least one of my articles has had over 800 hits, due to search relevance.    My bandwidth usage is actually lower now since I removed some mp3 files from my site that aren’t even linked to these pages — apparently there are a lot of spiders finding all the mp3s out there, so some of my music has been linked from a number of mp3 sites.  Traffic has doubled over October, even considering the mp3 files that I removed, which were Christmas mashups that got 3000 hits each in the 2 days in December I had them up.

It’s taking a while to get a rhythm going.  It’s now been 2 weeks since my last update,  which is a bit disappointing but I have some excellent excuses, like updating my laptop to OS X Mountain Lion and finally getting all my devices synced properly through iCloud.  And then there were job interviews.   The fun thing is that all of these occurrences have inspired me with topics for future posts.    My last post, the announcement of WordPress 3.5, has opened a can of worms — my upgrade process is going to be non-trivial, so I should have a lot to share as it goes.

My first long-form article, the iTunes 11 review, took days to complete, while I’ve been able to get out a number of short useful articles in no time at all.   A lot of this has to do with the workflow behind collecting links and using screen grabs.  I have made some strides in collecting links, but am still having some issues with my workflow for media.   I am hoping the WordPress 3.5 authoring tools will improve this, soon as I do the update.

I’m not expecting to build an audience overnight, it’s going to take time, and more compelling content, but I’m optimistic that things will grow.

Some insights I’ve gotten so far:

  1. Regular updates are really important, both for getting return views and for maintaining creative momentum.
  2. For a blog like mine, it’s important to mix it up between bite-sized posts and longer-form articles.   Holding off for 5 days to finish a long story doesn’t help you be a daily resource for people.
  3. Longer form articles can take a lot of time to research, fact-check, and do screen captures.  You need to nail down a workflow that won’t get in your way, especially for your screen captures, which often will need annotations.
  4. Relevant post titles and content will get you good search engine placement.  The most popular article so far in December was ‘changing font size in itunes 11’, which was also the search term.  You just have to title and write your posts clearly to get this benefit.
  5. Analog seems like a more detailed web statistics package, but I’m not sure it’s more useful than Webalyzer.  I will probably switch back soon.  Whichever you use, seeing the needle move day to day based on your posts is a powerful motivator.
  6. It’s not cheating to blog about process.  Really.

Let’s see what Month 2 brings.

WordPress 3.5 released.

WordPress 3.5 released yesterday. This looks like a big update, with better media handling capabilities.

I could have really used better media handling capabilities to do the iTunes 11 article — getting screenshots into my current WordPress version was tedious and error-prone.

I’m using version 2.8.2 of WordPress currently, so the update is long overdue.  However, since this is a big point release, it may make sense to wait on 3.5.1 for bug fixes.  This is the eternal dilemma with maintaining your own WordPress site — do I need to install the new version that just came out, or can I wait?    Clearly, I’ve waited too long to embrace 3.x, which has better tools and improved architecture, as well as better mobile support.

Not everyone has this issue — you automatically have the latest and greatest if you have a WordPress.com site,  and web hosts now are supporting it. My Web host has an option for auto-installing it (and other popular open-source packages like PhpBB) that keeps it up to date, for an additional $3 a month.  WordPress also has the feature to update from the admin panel, but that requires your hosting service to support it, and you to set up certain permissions that may be a security risk.   I wouldn’t depend on this feature for a major update like this anyway, the database migration is risky, but it would be great for updating a minor version change.

Look for some changes as I update the site.  It’s pretty likely I”ll need to re-think the site theme (skin), the plug-ins I use, and the content that I expose via widgets.   WordPress widgets have gotten much better since this version — WordPress.com, for example, supports several new widgets that can be put on your sidebars, such as Twitter feeds.

I’m hoping that the authoring workflow is better.  I like the WordPress post editor overall, but it does have room for improvement.  The 2.8 version is pretty clunky if your post is longer, and working with media is awkward.  I’ve been considering using BBEdit to do my writing and just pasting things in, but that isn’t nearly as convenient as just logging in from a web browser, writing a post and hitting Publish.

Getting used to iTunes 11

I’ve had more time to spend with iTunes 11, and have to say that I’m impressed. The new version dramatically simplifies the clutter iTunes has gathered over the years. Most importantly, the new version introduces a new method of managing song playback that makes iTunes much more usable.

However, this refactoring comes with a learning curve.  The reorganization is actually pretty logical, but for a long-time user of iTunes, it’s going to take a little mental recalibration to find things.

Note that I’m looking specifically at the iOS version of iTunes 11. Some UI elements may be different on Windows.

Less Clutter, More Focus

The first thing you’ll notice about the new iTunes is that the sidebars have been eliminated in favor of a segmented control across the top of the window.

iTunes 10 Layout

The old iTunes layout put everything in the sidebar,

iTunes 11 Layout

The new layout uses a horizontal segmented control instead of the sidebar. Cover art is now in the player display, but can be maximized by clicking on the thumbnail image.

Instead of the old control which let you swap between lists, grids, and cover flow, each of the settings in the segmented control has one view optimized for the type of content being displayed.

iTunes11SongView

iTunes 11 Song View

Song view looks relatively unchanged, and the same features for autosizing columns, hiding/showing columns, and dragging and dropping columns into the desired order are still there.

iTunes 11 Album View

iTunes 11 Album View

Album view now incorporates album art into the listing, for example. The use of album cover colors to highlight the current album being viewed is both attractive and visually helpful.

AiTunes 11 Artist View

iTunes 11 Artist View

Artist View not only lists content from the artist, but gives you a quick link for finding the artist in the iTunes Store.

Additional items from the artist, and other recommendations are one click away in Artist View.

Additional items from the artist, and other recommendations are one click away in Artist View.

iTunes 11 Genre View

iTunes 11 Genre View

iTunes 11 Video View

iTunes 11 Video View

iTunes 11 Playlist View

iTunes 11 Playlist View

iTunes 11 Radio View

iTunes 11 Radio View

With the exception of the Radio view, most of these views provide both right-click menus and explicit icons for such functions as adding things to play list, toggling shuffle mode, etc.

Playlist Management

With the old sidebar drag and drop no longer available everywhere, playlist management is now a bit harder to find, but logical.  Most lists, songs, etc. can be added to an existing playlist via the ‘Add To…’ icon or menu item, which presents a pick list of the playlists.

To start a new playlist from scratch, hit the + icon at the bottom of the sidebar on the playlist view.  It’s a little inconsistent to me, but what you use to add songs is the same ‘Add To…’ button.

The "Add To.." button is used to start the playlist building process.

The "Add To.." button is used to start the playlist building process.

Clicking the Add To button causes the playlist pane to slide to the left and puts you in Song View.  Now you can drag and drop songs to your heart’s content.  You can drag album covers or song titles from any of the views, you aren’t limited to Song View.

Creating a playlist.

Creating a playlist. Once you've clicked the 'Add To' button, you get this view.

There are alternate ways to get songs onto a playlist as well:

Most types of content have an 'Add To' function that lets you insert them into playlists.

Most types of content have an 'Add To' function that lets you insert them into playlists.

The Add To function can be used via click on the ">" icons or right-click.

The Add To function can be used via click on the ">" icons or right-click.

Device Management

Device management is done in Library mode via a pulldown on the right side of the horizontal navigation bar.  This pulldown shows each of the devices connected and charging status for those connected by wire.   Clicking on the device gets you the familiar device management page.
iTunes11DeviceList

iTunes11DevicePage

“Just make it work the old way.”

If you don’t care for this reorganization, you can make things look mostly  like they used to.  The traditional iTunes sidebar is still available via the View > Show Sidebar menu item.  This disables the modal Show Store/ Show Library button on the horizontal navigation bar and eliminates the device pulldown, but keeps the horizontal segmented control for the different types of content.

The iTunes Sidebar is still available via the View > Show Sidebar menu item.

The iTunes Sidebar is still available via the View > Show Sidebar menu item.

Library Mode and Store Mode

iTunesStoreStoreButton

iTunes 11’s new interface has two main modes:  library mode, and store mode.  They are toggled via a button on the right side of the horizontal nav bar.  Store mode and Library Mode have distinctly different visual looks:  your library has a light background on the nav bar, the store has a dark background.  Note that this distinction is valid even if you are running iTunes 11 in the “Classic” show sidebar view.

The iTunes storefront is visually different, but functionally similar.

The iTunes storefront is visually different, but functionally similar.

The storefront does add a History pulldown (the button next to the ‘Library’ button) which will show you items that you have browsed recently.

Better control of what you playing

Conceptually, iTunes has always been very playlist-centric, which often would make it hard to know what would be played next when not specifically playing a playlist. This changes somewhat in iTunes 11, though it is easy to overlook at first. Now there is an explicit queue you can use for queueing up your music in advance, called “Up Next.”

Once you know about it, it is a much more intuitive way to schedule playback than the older, more implicit behavior of the playlists. To some extent, this borrows the queue paradigm used by Turntable.fm, but is a much more complete implementation (Turntable lets you add a song to the queue, but always to the topmost next slot).

Up Next not only shows you the future, it will let you change it via drag and drop or a number of menu items.

Up Next not only shows you the future, it will let you change it via drag and drop or a number of menu items.

In older versions of iTunes, whatever list of songs was showing in the main window was the queue; the next song to play would depend on where you were browsing at the time and how you had searched or filtered your library. iTunes DJ, formerly ‘Party Shuffle’, was a means of queueing up songs in advance while playing music, but one would have to add the songs they wanted to that playlist, and then arrange them. One needed to be nimble to set up a song as, say, the next one to be played:

  • Find song
  • Add to iTunes DJ playlist in sidebar
  • Go to iTunes DJ playlist
  • drag song to next slot in playlist behind currently playing song

“Up Next” changes this paradigm in a subtle but sensible way. You now have a queue of songs that will be played next, and you can simply add a song to the tail of this queue, or add a song to be played next. Right-click and select ‘play next’. The queue can be explicitly viewed on the control area, and can be rearranged via drag and drop.   The ‘Play Next’ and ‘Add To Up Next’ functions are available in most menus accessed via the “>” buttons, and via right-click.

Of course, you still have the ability to immediately play a song, and if you haven’t explicitly added anything to the queue, iTunes will play songs much as before, basically using the list you have displayed. You will, however, be able to view this in the Up Next window. Should you be browsing music and decide to immediately play a song while you are playing an Up Next queue, iTunes will warn you and give you the option of clearing the queue or just playing the song and continuing with the queue afterwards. You can add entire albums and playlists to the queue as well.

Improved iCloud support

Whereas the old iTunes made a big deal about iCloud,  iTunes Match is no longer spelled out as a separate playlist item. Songs that are on iTunes Match are clearly marked, can be played via streaming, or downloaded to the local machine using the download icon.  Device management pages are clear about whether devices are backed up to iCloud.

The MiniPlayer is more powerful

The iTunes mini-player has always been a good way to get iTunes out of the way while working. iTunes 11 takes the mini-player beyond mere deck control (play, pause, skip) and adds Airplay support, search, and the Up Next interface.

The new miniplayer is small and unobtrusive.

The new miniplayer is small and unobtrusive.

When you mouseover, menu, transport, Airplay, UpNext, and Search controls are visible.

When you mouse over the miniplayer, menu, transport, Airplay, UpNext, and Search controls are visible.

Clicking the Up Next icon gets you a expanded view with the ability to edit and augment the upcoming line-up.

Clicking the Up Next icon gets you a expanded view with the ability to edit and augment the upcoming line-up.

The Up Next icon expands the MiniPlayer into a list view you can edit on-the-fly, bumping songs to the top, searching for new songs or albums to add, and basically the full functionality of the Up Next feature.

Clicking the Search icon expands the MiniPlayer into the same search as the full sized player.

Clicking the Search icon expands the MiniPlayer into the same search as the full sized player.

The MiniPlayer menu gives you a number of options.

The MiniPlayer menu gives you a number of options.

Clicking the Search icon gets you a very smart search which will let you add songs, albums, or playlists to the Up Next.  Songs can be prioritized to play next as well.

This version of the mini-player actually takes up less screen space than its predecessor. One way it does this is through the elimination of the visual indicator of playback progress and the volume control. It’s a trade-off I think I can live with — while you can’t see time remaining or control your volume, you can find new songs, set them to play next or arrange them in the queue without leaving the mini-player.

Another difference of note is that the mini-player is no longer accessed via the standard maximize window control, there is a separate icon on the upper right corner of the iTunes interface that does this. Now the standard maximize button toggles full screen mode, bringing iTunes back into compliance with OS X Human Interface Guidelines. The user can now have both the full-sized player and mini-player visible at the same time as well. Option-Command M toggles between the two views.

Quibbles

Such a huge change is not without its quirks and omissions.  Apple is apparently working to restore the old ‘Find duplicates’ feature already. Cover Flow is gone and probably not coming back, though even that is not necessarily permanent based on the outcry.

Playlists can’t be opened in separate windows for comparison.

Up Next has a little clock icon which toggles you between playback history and Up Next mode.  This is kind of cryptic, though there is a tool tip on the icon. I liked the older iTunes DJ format of being able to scroll back in time before the current song.

Cover Flow, once a much-ballyhooed feature of iTunes, is no longer used.  You may or may not miss it; I rarely used it, and in some contexts, like looking at app icons, it was downright silly.

There are sure a lot of ways to add things to playlists now, but starting a playlist is kind of a ride.  It’s easy to get confused about what you can do in each context, and you never had to think about this nearly so much in the old sidebar-only, playlist-centric days.

Have Fun

To summarize,  iTunes 11 is definitely different, anyone used to the old interface will scratch their head at times.  However, the ability to really DJ live with the player is greatly enhanced by the Up Next feature.  Up Next is a big improvement, and the new mini-player puts a remarkable amount of power at your fingertips.

Mobile Links for Dec 2-9 2012

This week’s big news on the app side of things was the imminent closure of The Daily, an iPad-only newspaper.  I can’t even type in all the links analyzing why this failed,  just Google ‘The Daily Closes’, and you’ll see.

Craig Mod, one of the developers of Flipboard,  had a very insightful analysis of why News Corp.’s The Daily failed.   It all comes down to something he calls ‘subcompact publishing.’

The term has taken off to describe a very nimble approach to magazine publishing on tablets — content-forward, rather than trying to emulate the paper magazine experience.   This follow-up article from him summarizes some of the discusssion he’s inspired.
My take on things:

  1. Stop trying to squeeze a magazine down into a tablet.  Tablet software needs to be reductive, think of building the least-instrusive means of getting people to the content.
  2. There is a serious gap on the authoring side of things, especially if you want a truly cross-platform experience.  Any workflow starting with Adobe’s professional publishing tools is going to end up with a heavy, slow, hard-to-use mess on mobile.  There is definitely a need for something which makes ‘selling magazines for iPads as easy as blogging.’

I’m not the only one who was a bit put off by Brent Caswell’s  iOS lockscreen redesign proposal, which started with the very arguable thesis that iOS is slow and boring, and therefore needed a whole new layer of UI added before you even unlock the phone.   Jonathan Sutter also addresses the issue, with some intriguing alternatives. He points out that the purpose of the lock screen is not to display random information, but to avoid butt-dialing. Any information on the screen is gravy at best, but adding additional information from background apps would simply require some modification of the current Date/Time layout, not a whole new set of taps and gestures.  Even the current up/down gesture of the camera grabber complicates the screen and undermines the consistency of the UI.

Asymco had a great article about the dangers of outsourcing too much of your manufacturing, with Asus and Dell’s relationship as a cautionary tale.

Apple is assembling some of their new iMacs in the U.S., and Tim Cook hinted that more Macs will be manufactured domestically.   This would especially make sense for a new Mac Pro line, and help explain why a case redesign has taken so long.  Remember long ago when Tim Cook talked about a pleasant surprise in the Mac Pro line in 2013?  The Mac Pro line is the one that relies most on built-to-order manufacturing, so it would be a good fit.

Tim Cook’s interview with Brian Williams this week was very telling about his efforts to run Apple his own way.

T-Mobile, the one US carrier that actually gives you a plan discount for using an unsubsidized phone, is doing away with phone subsidies entirely. Just in time for them to introduce the iPhone on their network.

Square has just announced support for Apple’s Passbook feature, and for gift cards.

A use for Safari’s “Reading List” feature

Duh, I can’t believe it took me this long to realize it, but Safari’s ‘Reading List’  is the perfect way to temporarily bookmark news stories for blog links.

This is going to dramatically decrease the time I spend making my mobile link posts.   Browse, open Reading List sidebar,  hit ‘Add Page’ for any article you want to read in more detail later or link to.   No more ‘where did I see that cool article about Samsung spending so much on advertising?’.   When done with the articles, remove them from the reading list.

It’s much more accessible than the usual browser bookmarking function, and ideal for bookmarks you only need for a short period.   Come to think of it, this may have inspired the ‘Up Next’ behavior in iTunes 11.     Here’s Apple’s instructions on how to use it.

Update:  Safari Reading List is stored on iCloud, so is accessible across all your devices, which is even better.  I can bookmark while curled up with my iPad, then collect the links on my desktop.

Thoughts about the iOS lockscreen.

Brent Caswell has an interesting proposal for enhancing iOS’ lock screen making the rounds (via Gruber and Dalrymple) today.

It looks very consistent, but seems a bit fiddly. The minute you have more than one of these lockscreen cards, you have too much swiping and too many decisions to make, and this before you unlock your phone. It’s certainly not the ‘glance and go’ promised by Windows Phone.

It’s going to be hard to change the iOS lockscreen after 5 years, it’s become iconic to the brand, so Apple is going to be very cautious. I could see them doing something like this precisely because it doesn’t change the screen. I feel if you have to do anything more than wake the phone up, you’ve failed.

I can get the time at a glance. Anything more than that, and I’m wrapping my car around a tree. That’s my use case for information on the lockscreen. Windows Phone moves more in the right direction, but their asthetic choice of the Metro look makes it harder to pick out information. It’s like having 5 red and white parking signs on the same pole. Each have similar visual weight, and you end up paying too much attention to the phone. Android Live Wallpapers seem too heavy in both information and processing.

A passively scrolling version of the above proposal might work, as long as bites of information transition quickly enough that you aren’t looking at your phone for a long time and the content requires minimal reading. And you probably shouldn’t have more than 2 of these screens alternating, or you will be looking at the phone for too long. The key is that you are getting the information passively — if you need to interact, you should probably unlock the phone.

It’s all about meeting the ‘don’t die in traffic’ test.