Words From Rob

Thoughts about writing, tech, and life

Author: Rob

New Apple Gear

I watched the Apple special event last week, even though there were so many leaks that I didn’t expect very many surprises. To me, one of the great things about Apple’s events is the story they tell and how they show their hardware and software working together in ways that solve problems for real people. So, while knowing (or at least, having a very good idea) of the hardware and some of features that were going to be a announced, I was excited to hear what Apple had to say about it all.

Overall

Apple announced new iPhones, Apple Watches, and a new AppleTV. This was an update event with no new product categories announced. Apple showed an evolution of several of their products. While many are calling the iPhone X a revolutionary product, to me, it’s also just an evolution over what came before. All the updates look great. More on those below.

I was very impressed, even touched, with how Tim Cook opened the event and dedicated the Steve Jobs Theater at Apple’s new corporate campus, Apple Park. It was a wonderful tribute to Steve Jobs and his legacy. And, it was a great reminder about how Apple approaches product development, focusing on creating great products that customers love. I know there are many who are quite cynical about Apple and other large companies, believing that their only purpose is to take our money. Certainly, Apple is in the business of making money. But, having followed this company for many, many years, as well as working at its main competitor for a couple decades, I can tell you that money is not the only, nor even the main, focus of this company. I truly believe that they want to make great products first, and that they care about what their customers think about those products. All those years at Microsoft, it was very rarely the same. There are major differences in the products these companies produce and the way people feel about them.

iPhone

iPhone 8

Apple announced some solid updates to the iPhone line. I expected the mainstream phones to be called iPhone 7S and iPhone 7S Plus. Instead we got iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus. I believe this is because they changed the body of the phone by adding a glass back. All past “S” models kept the same body and focused only on internals. These new iPhones follow a familiar update history: many updated components making the device clearly better than its predecessor. The main updates, in my mind, are (as always) the cameras, wireless charging, and the updated displays.

The iPhone has become the most used camera in the world. Each new generation of iPhone improves on the camera in various ways, but until the iPhone 8 is released and put through its paces, we won’t know exactly what these improvements mean for picture quality. I can’t wait to see.

Wireless charging is an interesting feature to add. Android phones have offered this feature for some time. For me, this is not a killer feature and not a reason to upgrade. I’m sure it will be nice to simply lay your phone down on the (not included) power mat and have it charge. But I’ve never found it that difficult to plug my devices in. I can even do it in the dark! Still, this will appeal to a lot of people. And, when Apple ships is own AirPower mat next year, with the ability to charge your phone, Apple Watch, and AirPods all at the same time, that may well change my mind.

Apple hasn’t told us very much about the new screens on the iPhone 8. They’ve added True Tone, a feature they first introduced on the iPad Pro. This feature uses a sensor to match the colors of the screen to the ambient lighting conditions. It sounds kind of hokey, but it really makes a big difference. When I first got my iPad Pro, I coudn’t believe how much better the screen looked. And, when reading on my iPad, if I pick up my phone, the difference in screen color is amazing.

iPhone X & Cameras

The iPhone X looks like a fantastic phone. The design is stunning and I’m sure it’s much better in person. It has a beautiful large screen, great new cameras, and a new way to unlock the phone using your face. While I think it’s a great phone with amazing updates over previous iPhones, I do think Apple is over-hyping it a bit. It still seems evolutionary to me. Oh, it’s certainly more evolutionary than the iPhone 8, and more so than any previous year’s new models. It’s just that Apple makes it sound as if this is a groundbreaking new product, and I don’t think it is. It’s a better iPhone. And I am excited about it and where Apple is taking smartphones.

There are a lot of great new features in the iPhone X, but I want to focus on one: photography. I’ve loved photography for a long time. Years ago I wanted to learn more about photography. I bought a DSLR, took a photography class and really got into the whole process. I loved it. I would spend time around town taking photos. I took my DSLR, along with tripod and various lenses & filters, on vacation a few times and loved setting up shots and capturing our adventures. What I didn’t love was lugging all that equipment around. I also didn’t love that when I wanted to take a picture, that involved getting the camera out of my over-full backpack, maybe changing the lens, maybe setting up the tripod, taking off the lens cover, and then framing the shot and capturing it. And once all that was done, I had to do the reverse and put all that equipment away. Oh, and then there’s the process required to get the photos onto my other devices. I got a lot of great pictures but the entire process felt too heavy and too slow.

A couple years ago I decided that perhaps the iPhone had a good enough camera that I didn’t need to lug my DSLR around anymore. I figured I’d try to live with my iPhone as my only camera on several trips and see what happened. If I really missed being able to zoom way in on something, use a tripod, or use some filter, I’d revert to taking my big camera. Guess what? I have not missed my big camera. Sure, there have been a few times where I would have liked to have it. For example, we recently took a three week trip to the UK and drove around the country. There were a couple times that having that big camera would have allowed some pretty spectacular shots. Instead though, I was able to pull out my iPhone at a moment’s notice, snap a shot, and continue on. I would not have wanted to carry around all that extra equipment just for those few times.

Returning from that trip and reviewing the hundreds of photos I took put it all in perspective for me. I had a lot of great photos. I actually enjoyed that trip more without my DSLR. I was more present, able to move quickly to capture something, and then continue on. I could easily view, edit, and share my photos instantly, no matter where I was. It was clear: I was done with the big camera for good. I have not used it in over two years.

All that leads me to iPhone cameras. Shortly before the trip to the UK I bought the iPhone 7 Plus. Since I was giving up my DSLR, I wanted the best phone camera I could have. The camera in the iPhone 7 Plus was amazing. I loved having the optical 2x zoom and it really captured stunning photographs. But, that phone is so big! It didn’t bother me too much while on the trip, as I was always wearing pants that had pretty big pockets. But, when we got home and I started wearing normal jeans again, it became a bother. It didn’t fit well in my pockets, was uncomfortable when sitting down, and I was noticing how difficult it was (for me) to use one-handed. One night I picked up my wife’s iPhone 7 and was reminded of how much better that size felt in my hand. I guess I had forgotten how perfect that size is for me. I had had the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6S prior to the iPhone 7 Plus, and was ready to go back to that size. It was an agonizing decision as I really didn’t want to give up that camera. But in the end comfort and day-to-day use won out.

Now, with the iPhone X, maybe I can have a comfortable size with the best camera. The phone is only a little larger than the existing iPhone 7. The cameras sound awesome. Not only does the phone still have two cameras, allowing for a 2x optical zoom and portrait mode, but both cameras have optical image stabilization. This means clearer zoom shots, better portrait shots, and overall better low-light pictures. There are myriad other updates to the camera as well, that suggest some amazing new possibilities. The iPhone X is going to be an awesome camera!

There are many other new features in the iPhone X: a new OLED high-resolution screen that is edge-to-edge, True Tone, Qi charging, and many of the same features found in the iPhone 8. And, of course, there is FaceID to unlock the phone. There is much to digest and I’ll talk more about these things in a future post.

Apple Watch

Apple announced the Apple Watch Series 3. The biggest news here is that Apple Watch gets cellular connectivity. There’s also a new processor that is 70% faster than the series 2, which allows Siri to finally talk on your watch! The new watch also has a built-in altimeter. The series 3 is available in both cellular and non-cellular versions.

I have an original Apple Watch and love it. When I first got it I wasn’t sure what I would end up using most. After almost three years of ownership, the main things I do are: check the time, weather, and date, get notifications, track workouts and fill my rings, and use ApplePay. I don’t really use apps on the watch per-se. Of course, some apps provide richer notifications, which I like, but I don’t spend any appreciable time using the watch with apps in the way I do on my phone. It’s really a way to get quick information, whether the time or to see who is messaging me. I’ve worn a watch since I was a kid and this watch really has become indispensable as a way to get information quickly.

I think the addition of cellular to Apple Watch is the main draw for the new watch. While I don’t see this as replacing an iPhone in any way, there are a couple scenarios where I think this will be a huge new feature: workouts, running out for quick errands, and those times you just forget to grab your phone. All of these situations will become better because you can stay connected and not worry about being able to be reached.

Apple TV

Apple also announced the new Apple TV 4K, which supports 4K resolution with high dynamic range (HDR). HDR in particular will provide a greatly improved picture for movies and television with its ability to show more colors and higher contrast. I think the biggest surprise here is that Apple is upgrading movies & television shows you’ve purchased to 4K for no charge. And, the price going forward for that content will be the same that we’ve been paying for HD content. I think this is a big win for 4K content and will help drive adoption.

What Will I do?

Every year Apple releases great updates to some set of their products. And every year I struggle with what to do. Since I retired I’ve been living a more frugal life. My wife and I downsized homes (quite a major downsize), got rid of a very large number of our possessions, and have focused on traveling and living a simpler life.

So, what does that mean for buying new technology? We have a simple test, or rule, we try to apply to help us overcome the desire to just always upgrade: is there some meaningful feature or benefit that we really will use? I know that it’s easy to construct a yes answer to that question in almost any circumstance. But we really try to stick to that

For example, earlier this year when Apple released the new 10.5″ iPad Pro, we both looked at it and asked that question. I decided to upgrade because I was moving away from my Mac and going to be writing. Spending all my computing time writing on the iPad lead me to want a larger screen for the work I’d be doing. My wife, on the other hand, did not upgrade her 9.7″ iPad Pro. She loves it and uses it for almost all her computing needs. But she didn’t see a compelling upgrade. She also has a MacBook Air that is seven years old. She’s held off upgrading that for the same reason: for what she needs, it’s perfectly suited.

That said, we have decided that we will be buying some new products this year. We both are getting new Apple Watches. The scenarios I mention above are ones that we both run into. Always being connected will be a great feature for both of us. I’m also looking forward to being able to swim with my watch, since we spend a good deal of time visiting family in Florida every year.

We are also buying an Apple TV 4K. We use our Apple TV all the time. We don’t have cable (another one of our downsizing decisions) so NetFlix, Hulu, and iTunes provide a lot of what we watch. When we moved, we had an old rear-projection big-screen television that we used for movies. That would not fit in our new, smaller place, so we bought a new 4K television. I’m looking forward to seeing what 4K and HDR will mean for picture quality.

I usually upgrade phones every year. As always, there is no real need to upgrade. My iPhone 7 works perfectly and I love it. It’s the best phone that I’ve ever owned. But each year, the call of the camera is the thing that eventually leads me to getting the new phone. This year is even harder to resist, because I know I can get back to the plus-sized camera without having to get a plus-sized phone. I’m not sure yet if I’ll upgrade, but I have a month or so to decide. My wife has already decided that she is not upgrading her iPhone 7. She loves it and doesn’t see any new features that are compelling enough for her to make the switch.

As some of this new equipment arrives, I’ll update you with my impressions. Until then, I hope this post gave you a high-level overview of what’s coming from Apple.

Hurricanes, Nerves, and Technology

As hurricane Irma heads toward Florida, my wife and I are worried. We both have family living there and they’ve all decided to stay during the hurricane. We’re concerned about how they will fare during and after the storm. We feel so helpless because we’re on the west coast of the US and aren’t there to help them. However, it’s been amazing how technology has been able to help us feel just a little less helpless.

There is so much our families need to do in order to get ready: stock up on food & water, make sure they have gasoline for their generators and vehicles, put up storm shutters and cover windows & doors, remove possible projectiles from the house and yard, as well as help their friends and neighbors. That is more than enough to keep them all busy morning and night.

In addition to all that work, there is a lot of information that is not only useful, but essential, to have in order to be prepared for such a major event. So, my wife and I decided that one way we could get involved and help was to become what you might call data providers.

Initially my parents were going to evacuate. They knew the roads were clogged and gasoline was getting hard to find. And, they didn’t know where to go. While they were getting their house ready and packing, my wife and I scoured the internet for hotel rooms. They were filling up fast throughout the region. We found a place outside of Atlanta and booked it for them. Next, we helped them make a travel plan. My parents are not super-tech savvy, but my mother does have an iPhone. She would be driving, so couldn’t be distracted using the phone. We set up Apple’s Find My Friends app to allow us to see where they were at all times and my wife and I installed the app Gas Buddy. We agreed that my father would call us when they were at about half a tank of gas. When he called, we’d be able to see exactly where they were and could use Gas Buddy to find a gas station nearby for them and direct them there. They didn’t have to try to explain to us where they were or drive all over looking for gas.

What an amazing feeling to be able to help in a way that reduced a huge burden from them. And it helped us feel as if we were able to do something! My parents decided against evacuating because the traffic was so bad and the gasoline shortages seemed to getting much worse. They were afraid of getting stuck on the highway in the middle of the storm. I don’t blame them!

Since everyone had decided to stay, we decided to gather and monitor as much information for everyone as we could. While they all continue preparations for hunkering down, we looked at where each family member was staying and what evacuation zone they were in. We made sure they had that information. We are gathering the list of emergency shelters in their areas so those are handy. We are following all the various emergency accounts on twitter and Facebook and are relaying relevant information to them using iMessage. This way they can focus on their preparations and we can get them important information quickly.

While we continue to be nervous about the storm and the safety of our families, technology has helped us stay connected and provide support to our loved ones even though we’re thousands of miles away. Yes, today’s technology can be frustrating and bothersome, but it can also make a huge, positive difference in people’s lives. What a great feeling to use technology for something so important.

Be safe everyone.

Apple Special Event

Apple has announced their next special event. While I’m excited to see what new hardware they’ll unveil, I’m really most excited about the launch of iOS 11, which will likely be a week (or so) later.

I never have installed iOS betas on my personal devices. When I was a developer of course I’d install the betas on my test devices. But, when it comes to the devices I use every day, no way. I’d rather wait until they are released.

I’ve read many articles about the new features in iOS 11 and I’m really looking forward to them, especially all the new iPad goodness. Now that I’ve switched to using an iPad as my only computer, I think those features in particular will make the experience that much better.

I know there have been many, many articles about iOS 11 and the iPad, but I plan to write some of my thoughts once I’ve installed it and used it for a bit. Stay tuned.

Alexa and Cortana: Together?

From Recode: Amazon and Microsoft are working to integrate Alexa and Cortana. Apparently they believe that each assistant has something that the other lacks.

The companies say that each voice assistant has its strengths — features like Microsoft Outlook and Exchange email integration for Cortana and smart-home controls or shopping for Alexa — and that customers of both companies would benefit from an integration.

In order for a user to get to the other assitant’s features, they must first tell their current assistant to “open” the other.

owners of Amazon Echos and other Alexa-powered devices will be able to say: “Alexa, open Cortana” to start querying Microsoft’s voice assistant

This seems like a terrible user experience. The user has to know which assistant is good at which features. And what about areas where the assistants overlap, like search, weather, or reminders? That just seems like a recipe for confusion and a bad experience. I guess it’s not a surprise given that neither company is all that great at user interface design.

If Microsoft really wanted its services to be more widely available to other voice assistants then it would integrate these at the service layer, not the voice assistant layer. In this way, Alexa would just be able to handle requests that Cortana would otherwise handle and the user wouldn’t know, or care, about who was handling what.

Of course, that means users would become even less likely to use Cortana. But does anyone really think this approach will cause more Cortana usage?

I wonder if this is yet another case of team politics playing out at Microsoft. I know I saw a lot this type of strange (and bad) decision when I was there.

iPad

As part of my new focus on writing, I’m moving my computing life to an iPad. I’ve used an iPad since it first became available and have always been intrigued by the potential of the device. I think the iPad is at the point where it can fulfill all of my computing needs.

As you probably know by now, I’ve been a geek all my life. I’ve been deeply immersed in technology for decades. I used to love digging into the nitty-gritty of computers and learning about all the ways to tweak settings and personalize things. And, I really liked to dig in and learn the “how and why” of the system. Figuring out the settings, the commands, and why things behaved the way they did was something I relished. I could sit for hours digging into those things. When I switched from Windows to a Mac, learning all about the ways the Mac was different and the new ways to tweak things was a lot of fun for me.

But, as I noted in my post on my change of focus, I’m tired of being so immersed in technology. My desire to dig into the intricacies of a computer system is gone. These days, I just want to use the computer. The need to deal with the system has become frustrating instead of fun.

The last few years of iPad use has been the opposite of frustrating. It has been more about getting things done. I pick it up, do the task I intend, and then set it back down. It’s instantly on, very fast to start the app I need, and very focused. It just works. I find the iPad more enjoyable to use than any other computer I’ve owned. I don’t know exactly what it is, but it feels so personal. Maybe it’s because it is so small that I can carry with me anywhere. Maybe it’s because I can pick it and do something in seconds. Maybe it’s because it seems to become the task at hand instead of just throwing that task in the mix of all the other things going on. I guess it’s really a combination of all those things.

As I make this change I plan to share the journey with you. I’ll talk about what tools I’m using, what’s working well and what’s not. I plan to use the iPad for everything. I believe that inertia is part of what makes changing so difficult. There is a way of working with computers that I’ve learned and honed over the years because that’s just how things worked. In order to truly make the change, I’ll need to learn new ways to do things, and repeat those over and over so that they feel second nature, just as my previous computing life felt. I’m looking forward to it!

Getting Ready vs Getting Started

About a month ago I started my new blog. I set up the site, picked a theme, posted a welcome message, and wrote down several ideas for upcoming posts. It felt as if I was getting started.

But, as I sit here today, writing this post, it’s clear that I was really just getting ready. More than a month has gone by, with little output from me. Oh, I’ve saved off a few more post ideas and read through some of the notes I took for one of my novels. But, I have not really started writing. Why?

There are many reasons I could use: I’m busy with other things, I’m not sure where my novel should go, my site isn’t exactly what I want, or maybe, I don’t feel like it. But I think the real reason is that there’s been some kind of wall in my way. A wall of fear perhaps. A wall telling me that if I put my thoughts “out there” then people might actually read them. And if they read them, they might not like them. And if they don’t like them, well then what’s the point?

Yesterday I decided that I’d climb the wall. For me, mornings are the best time for writing. So after breakfast I came upstairs, to the room where my desk is located, and I finished a post that I wrote a couple weeks ago. And, here it is, morning again, and here I am, writing, again.

It’s good to really get started, now that I’m done getting ready.

A Change of Focus

If you read the about me page, you’ll know that I spent my career in the technology industry. I started as a programmer and ended up in engineering management at a pretty senior level. I’ve always been very passionate about technology.

After I retired from Microsoft, the first type of project I wanted to get into was programming. My career had taken me pretty far from my roots as a programmer. It had been so long since I actually wrote code and I really wanted to jump back in. So I started learning about the Apple developer platforms, languages, and tools. I was hooked again!

To me, programming has always been a very creative endeavor. You start with a blank canvas and create something new. Of course, it can be complicated and frustrating. But, that’s part of the draw for me. It requires you to always be learning. And each new problem that comes up can usually be solved in myriad ways. That’s where a lot of the creativity comes in and solving those problems is very rewarding.

I’ve spent the past two years working on a couple of apps while adjusting to retired life. I’ve fit coding in between moving to a new state, lots of travel, setting up a new house, and exploring our new town and the surrounding area. All-in-all it has been a good start to retired life.

When I started these projects, I had two objectives: learn a lot and put a finished app into the App Store. I accomplished one of those goals: I learned much more than I thought I would. I have not, though, finished an app. I’m quite confident that I could finish and list an app, but I’ve come to the realization that I lack the desire to continue right now.

Here’s the thing. I’ve grown weary of being so deeply immersed in technology–immersed in the way one needs to be in order to write code, or for that matter, to manage a large engineering team working on a large project. I’ve spent the last thirty years of my life so immersed. I’m just tired of it.

I still love using technology. And while these app projects were a great way to kick off my retirement, I’m ready to move on to a different item on my “what will I do when I retire” list: writing.

For many years I’ve dabbled in writing: journaling, blogging (I’ve had many starts and stops), and novels. I have several novels started, waiting for me to return. When I’ve been working on those projects, especially the novels, I felt so alive. This was a new form of creativity, similar to programming in some ways and very different in others. The telling of a story, one that was emerging as I wrote, was exhilarating.

So, going forward I’m going to focus on writing, both working on a novel as well as blogging (hence this site!).

This change is kind of scary for me. Deep involvement in technology has been a core part of my life for as long as I can remember: from programmer and tinkerer, to technical program management, and then to large engineering team management. In some ways, stepping away from that deep involvement feels as if I’m losing a part of myself. I worry that a big part of my identity is going away. At the same time, I see a new door opening and something interesting on the other side.

Someone I greatly admire recently told me:

Your identity is something you get to choose, as often as you like.

That is a great way to look at this. I’m choosing to be a writer. Just typing that sentence is thrilling. I am choosing. It’s going to be an exciting journey.

Welcome

I’m glad you’re here. This is a new endeavor for me. Well, if you must know, it’s really another attempt at this endeavor. That endeavor is to write down my thoughts and share them.

I plan to write about a wide variety of topics: tech, life, writing, simplifying things, maybe some travel, and anything else that strikes me as possibly interesting. I’ll try not to become too political and I’ll try not to be too techie. I want this blog to be useful and interesting for a wide variety of people.

In the last few years I’ve made some major life changes: I retired from the tech industry and moved to a different state. I’ve spent the past two years of retired life getting back into programming by working on a couple of apps. That’s been a lot of fun, but I’ve wanted to do some writing for quite some time. In the past I’ve started a blog several times, started several different novels, and worked on some teaching materials. When I retired, writing was one of the top things that I’d tell people I’d be doing when they asked how I’d keep busy. But, so far, I haven’t spent any time writing. So here is my start.

You can read about me and how I got here on the about page.

I hope you find this blog useful and interesting. If you do, drop me a line and let me know. I’d be glad to hear from you.

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