Saturday, March 30, 2013

Is it supposed to work like that? #1 iTunes and app data.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of articles addressing the question:  How can we make things more useful, learning lessons from what has been tried in the past.

My dad was an artist, tool maker and master craftsman.  He had a powerful ability to find what was wrong and a powerful desire, once a wrong thing was found to make it right.  He worked very hard to instill these aspects into me.  Even though I've specialized in the computer realm, I find myself all too often exclaiming in my dad's invective how wrong some tool, appliance or computer program is, and how much I wish it could be made right.

My challenge here is to distill suggestions for affirmative action to take rather than to merely complain.

At the very least, to those with less technical insight than I, I propose to answer the question, "Is it supposed to work like that?" with answers of the form, "Not really.  Here's why.  Here's what can be done.  Here's what you can do."

So on to our first exploration:

Is it supposed to work like that? #1 iTunes and app data.

Today I wanted to copy some sheet music I'd scanned onto my iPad for use within the amazing and wonderful forScore app  ( I use this app in Chorus rehearsal instead of paper scores.  I don't drop pages on the floor, and I can make extensive annotations when needed.

My problem is that months elapse between each update of music.  Every time, I have to re-learn how to copy the the scores in:

  1. Open iTunes
  2. Plug my iPad into my Desktop computer.
  3. Click on the iPad button to get to the contents of the iPad
  4. Click on the Apps button
  5. Scroll past the list of apps to the bottom "File Sharing" section
  6. Click on the forScore icon
  7. Drag my scores into the "Documents" window.

Apple is supposed to have the simplest and most usable interfaces.  Is it supposed to be like this?

Not really:  This is an example of how if you haven't thought carefully about how a person will end up using your simple idea, the result is overly complex and not very usable.

Here's why: Indeed, organizing objects -- papers, books, music, etc.  is a difficult and complex process. 

Something that made sense to computer folk, a tree structured generic filesystem, proved mystifying to non-computer people.  The developers had spent a lot of time trying to organize stuff, and as a consequence when the interface of, "a display that shows the files in this folder, and where this folder sits in a hierarchy" they were happy, and thought they were done.

But lots of people who use computers don't even have a lot of experience of filing papers in a folder in a filing cabinet.  And presented with the computer equivalent, they get confused, and lost.  Things seem too complicated.

Perhaps the developers of iTunes thought, "If we just have a few simple folders, people can drag the few things they want to where it belongs, and they won't have to master that hierarchical filesystem thing."

That worked fine when it was just music, and then when you added a couple different other kinds of media, audio books, books, podcasts.  But now we have "anything an application might want to use" has made that a long list of places, and the iTunes interface is just a messy hierarchical filesystem, with stuff jammed into strange places that are more an artifact of when that kind of new thing was added, than to where it intuitively would belong.

Here's what can be done:  iTunes needs to be simplified, and not try to provide individual, "obvious places where each little thing should go," because that list has gotten too long.  Everything that's pretending to be a filesystem interface should be stripped BACK out of iTunes, and you should go back to the regular hierarchical filesystem.  Let people learn ONE hierarchical filesystem instead of having to learn the iTunes one in addition to the native one on the computer.

But that'st not all.  A simple interface for each app needs to be provided so that people who only want a couple things, they can get directly to what they want to do, without having to master a computer's hierarchical filesystem.  There should be file sharing that can be "pulled" from inside the apps running on the iPad. Perhaps iCloud will grow into being able to do this.

Here's what you can do:  Use Dropbox as a rendezvous point.  

Sadly this is complicated initial startup.  You need to create a drop box account, and get the dropbox app running on your computer.  (If people would like instructions on this, reply in a comment, and I'll dig out what I did.

  1. Make sure the iPad is on the network.
  2. Drag the relevant scores to the Dropbox folder.
  3. From inside forScore click on the Toolbox icon.
  4. Under "Add Scores" click on Dropbox
  5. Pick the scores you want from the Dropbox folder.
Although this seems like almost as complicated an act, 5 steps, versus 7 steps, I just remember one thing:  "Use Dropbox as intermediary."  Because there's only one Dropbox folder, I don't go through the complicated mess of remembering where to find the place inside iTunes to drop my application-specific data.

Bottom line:  By trying to eliminate the complexity of a hierarchical filesystem, but desiring to have a specific landing point for particular application data, file sharing has become too complicated.  The remedy is to take a step back and say, "Let's have a generic rendez-vous point where sender and receiver can still think simply within their mindset."

Does this make sense, Gentle Reader?  What do you think?


Reading on the iPad Part 9: Forbes Revisited: Still a bit of a disappointment.

I originally wrote about the experience of Forbes magazine on the iPad back in August 2011. Slightly more than a year and a half later, there is news to report: There is now a Forbes iPad app, but it is not as good as what was available from others a year ago.

I opened my original review of Forbes on the iPad mentioning that they had written excitedly in July 2010 of big changes at Forbes embracing the digital age. But the focus seems to have stayed almost exclusively with content production rather than dissemination. It has taken until 2013 for Forbes to offer a bona fide, "Forbes on the iPad experience."

The nitty gritty:

In comparison to the previous iPad Forbes experiences of the web site, which sacrificed the magazine layout and the otherwise excellent article ordering, and Forbes via the Kindle which pretty much sacrificed everything except the barest of article content and a few color plates, the Forbes iPad app is a dramatic improvement.

However, in comparison to what was available from others more than a year ago, it is a disappointing also-ran. It that lacks functionality, robustness, and even page turning speed. I hope the folks of are listening.

Lets go to the basic four criteria I used for all the other apps:

  • Did the reader offer a good, "turn all the pages" interface when I wanted it?
  • Did the publication offer a good table of contents summary and easy fetch when I wanted it?
  • Was the content in front of me when I wanted to read it or did I have to wait?
  • Was the interface familiar, sensible, and obvious?

At first glance, the app meets these four criteria. I can turn all the pages. The table of contents is an augmented version of the print magazine's table of contents that enables me to just tap on the article I want to read. There does not seem to be a big delay in rendering and displaying content. The interface is indeed familiar, sensible and obvious.

The interface and behavior is most similar to the qmags interface I reviewed in Part 5. A bit-for-bit rendering of the print edition is augmented with links to other areas of the magazine, additional media, and external content. With the "grow" and "pinch" gestures, one can zoom in and out. The zoom behaves a little strangely in the landscape mode (which shows two pages side by side). Your first "grow" gesture will only expand one of the two pages to a full width. You can enlarge bigger after that in a second gesture, but it's a little more coarse grained that I liked. Still, the rendering is quite fast, perhaps because of this coarse control.

I very much liked how, unlike pretty much every other magazine reading app I've thus far reviewed, the Forbes app gave me a page number indication when I tapped to get to the control interface. Seeing page X of Y at the top is most welcome! The scrollbar provided page thumbnails only when it was manipulated. This too seemed like a superior interface to having them always present.

One feature I would have liked is the overview interface offered in the Wired and Fast Company apps which would let me scan through the articles in a grid.

A feature I desperately needed was a bookmark capability. Now we get to one of the two aspects of the app that made it so disappointing: When I'd pick up reading after a couple days hiatus, the app forgets where I left off!

I often find myself putting a magazine down in the middle of reading and not coming back for a couple days. With the Forbes app, regularly forgot where I left off. This also happens with the qmags app, and I really need to file a bug report with both qmags and mazdigital. No app is immune to crashes, and whenever this one crashes, my location in the magazine is always lost. With the other apps, I work around this by setting a book mark. With no bookmarking capability, I just lose.

The second source of disappointment came with a subtle aspect of, "Was the content in front of me when I wanted to read it or did I have to wait?" With all the other apps, I've gotten into the habit of flicking through pages VERY fast to skip through content I do not want to read. Sadly there is some kind of delay to page turning in the Forbes app that keeps me from turning pages even as fast as I can turn them in the paper edition.

The subscription / business model:

This area continues to be one with a variety of approaches on offer. As of today:
  • The Economist generously provides a free iPad feed to all print subscribers.
  • Wired also offers a free iPad feed to print subscribers but is still saddled with the bizarre cost model (perhaps imposed by Apple) that an iPad-only subscription costs more than a print subscription that includes the iPad feed.
  • Fast Company offers the online version free to print subscribers.
  • With the IEEE, but I have two publications as online-only at no extra charge, and one that is dual print and online at no extra charge.
  • The Wall Street Journal offers online-only at a discount.
When the Forbes app first became available, only the purchase of individual issues and new subscriptions on the iPad was available. Because of early (and subsequently corrected) misbehavior of the app, I was in an angry mood when I contacted Forbes complaining of "trouble" with my subscription, saying that it looked like I was being offered cancellation of my print subscription and starting over as the way to access the iPad edition, and how upset I was that Forbes chose that model in contrast to what Wired, and The Economist did.

The reply I received said that the iPad edition would be available $10 for print subscribers, but that the current issue was available for free.

While I appreciate that production of the iPad edition involves additional costs to add the links and the additional media, I like to believe that going paperless is something to be encouraged, and that the right model at the present time is to get the online edition at no extra cost.

I suspect Forbes may have gotten many angry notes from people like me protesting against the additional charge, because when I went to try out the app, the system told me that I was one of a select group of loyal subscribers who could have the iPad edition at no extra cost. (I have been a subscriber since the 80s.) 


I now read Forbes primarily on the iPad, so the app is pretty good. However I find the slow page turning, and the losing of my place frustrating, and I always think less of Forbes for these limitations in comparison to what I get with the apps on offer for Wired, The Economist and IEEE Spectrum.

To make this a truly stellar and best of breed app I see only three changes necessary:
  • Add a bookmark facility.
  • Let me flip through the pages as fast as I want.
  • Give me the overview interface.
I'd also suggest some more time spent testing and debugging the app. Sometimes the app just crashes, and I lose my place in the reading. The app can get confused as to what to render when one switches between landscape and portrait mode while zoomed. (Still, this is better than Fast Company's app which still is portrait only. Boo!)

I'd give a single bit of advice to anyone considering offering their print publication on the iPad: 

Try the Wired app. It sets the standard against which you will be measured.


I used the "Send Feedback" function inside the Forbes iPad app to let the folks of know that I'd published a review.  The CEO replied thanking me for the detailed review and said that it would be taken into consideration as they evolve the platform.  So indeed they are listening.