Best iOS App Updates of 2012

I gave you my Favorite iOS Apps of 2012 earlier and one of my criteria for that post was that they would all be apps that either came out in 2012 or that I discovered in 2012. But there are a few additional apps that have been around for a while and saw huge improvements in usability and/or functionality with new versions that came out in 2012. Some were already great and are just even greater, while others weren’t quite ready for primetime until now.

N.B. Click the images for larger versions of the screenshots.

1Password 4.0 for iPhone and iPad

1PasswordWhen I setup a new computer or iOS device, one of the first pieces of software I install is 1Password from Agile Bits. they make it for all the major platforms, Mac, Windows, iOS, Android. 1Password stores all your online passwords, credit card numbers, software serial numbers, and sensitive notes in a secure database. But it does so much more. The idea is that it allows you to create long, random passwords that are extremely difficult to crack, and allows you to use them in software protected by a more memorable password that unlocks 1Password. That password is theoretically more secure because it nevers leaves your computer or device. 1Password on your Mac or PC also integrates with your web browser so you can login to websites with your secure passwords right without leaving the browser. That’s it in a nutshell.

They’ve had a couple different versions of 1Password for iPhones and iPads with one kind being called Pro and being a Universal app and it was all kind of confusing. Now with 1Password 4.0, it’s one app for all. And it’s even better than ever.

First, it syncs your passwords with 1Password on your computer as it always has, and now allows you to sync either through Dropbox[1], if you use that service, or iCloud.

Second, because the Safari web browser in iOS doesn’t allow the external hooks that web browsers on the Mac do, 1Password can’t work from within Safari on iOS. Instead, they built a web browser into 1Password. This browser existed in previous versions, but the new one works even better. It now allows you to keep multiple tabs open and could even be your every day web browser.

The new 1Password also allows you mark certain password listings as favorites so if you find yourself consulting the same entries again and again (Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, etc.).

The interface also got a much-needed overhaul to make it sharper and more useful and the syncing works faster. Your master password is also the same across platforms now. It used to be that you could have different passwords on Mac, iPhone and iPad. And on the iPhone you had both a 4-digit PIN and the master password. Now it’s all much more convenient and consistent. had a comprehensive first look at the new 1Password that’s worth checking out.

1Password is currently $7.99 for the iOS version for a limited time.


EvernoteAnother piece of software that’s in the first five applications installed on any new device is Evernote. It’s also available in Mac, Windows, Android, and iOS versions, plus a few more. Evernote is your second brain or external memory. It comes in both free and paid versions and it let’s you store text and images (and other kinds of documts in the paid version) and then indexes all the text (including text in images) to let you search for it later. It, too, integrates with web browsers to make it easy to store and retrieve information. I wrote about Evernote’s desktop version about 18 months ago, but it’s gone through several important revisions since then.

The biggest improvement in Evernote for iOS has been the speed boost. Everything is much snappier now. Searching for a note or opening notebooks used to take a long time, especially when you first opened the app and it was downloading the latest updates from your Evernote notebooks in the cloud. But now you can open it up and get to work searching right away without hardly any lag.

The next big improvement is the stability. There were times when I’d tried to capture a photo of something with my iPhone into Evernote and just after I’d snapped the picture and was trying to type a title for the note it would crash. Crashes are much less frequent these days.

The new layout is also great. You can now see your most recently accessed notes as you start the app and you can easily browse by notes, notebooks, tags, and now places. Yes, you can now see all your notes that were created in a particular place, which could useful for, say, when you’ve been to a conference. For example, if I go to Macworld Expo every year, I could gather all my Macworld-related notes from all the years I’ve gone, just by looking at notes created at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

There are a lot of other improvements in the app and a big new area is Evernote Business, which is designed for, you guessed it, companies and organizations to use collaboratively. I don’t use it myself so that doesn’t enter into my calculus for why this is one of the best app updates of 2012.

Evernote is free to download and use. A premium account is $45 per year and gets you more file types that you can upload and larger upload quotas.

Evernote Food 2.0

Evernote Food Another Evernote product is Evernote Food. No surprise, I love food, both cooking it and eating it. And I’m obviously not alone to judge by all the food blogs and photos of dimly lit restaurant entrées posted to Instagram and Facebook.

The idea behind Evernote Food is that it helps you document the food-related parts of your life, whether it’s a meal you cooked yourself or an outing to a restaurant or food-related business. The first version of Evernote Food was just okay at this, but version 2 goes much further to add an element of food and recipe discovery, especially in the iPad version.

It offers four sections now: My Meals, in which you document meals with location, photos, and captions; Restaurants, which lets you find food business around your current or another location; My Cookbook, which uses some intelligence to sift through your full Evernote account for food-related articles you’ve saved; and Explore Recipes, which offers up recipes from a panoply of food blogs.

The Restaurants section is powered by Foursquare and it will show either places you’ve saved in Evernote already, places you’ve documented in My Meals, or places you search for based on a keyword and location. Once you’ve found a place, you can call up details and save it to your Evernote. Of course, being powered by Foursquare, the reliability is subject to the overall reliability of Foursquare’s database. I found several outdated or inaccurate listings in my small hometown.

However, the sections I use the most–after the somewhat foodie self-centered My Meals–are Explore Recipes and My Cookbook. I’d saved some recipes in Evernote in the past, but not too many only because we have a dedicated recipe program that we use on our kitchen Mac called MacGourmet. But with this easy discovery through this app, I can see adding many more recipes here through a quick clip from my web browser as I come across them. And Explore Recipes is a fun glimpse at an interesting an eclectic mix of recipes that you won’t find in any established cooking magazine.

Evernote Food is free to download and use.

Flickr for iPhone

Flickr for iPhoneI’ve been a Flickr user for a number of years and I’ve been a paid user since 2006. Similarly, Melanie has been a paid Flickr user for almost as long as she’s had her blog. The service’s strengths are in the ability to organize your photos and to use it as a way to host images for a website. (Melanie uses it this way.)

Unfortunately, with all the turmoil within parent company Yahoo in recent years, Flickr has been somewhat neglected and hasn’t kept pace with other similar services. And even though they’ve had an iPhone app for a few years, it was pretty bad and I never used it.

That all seems to be changing. The new Flickr app for iPhone came out in December, fortuitously, just as Instagram was alienating its user base, and it’s good enough to bring me back to using it instead of Instagram.

For one thing, the app excels at taking photos now and while it offers the now ubiquitous silly “artistic” filters, they are easily ignored. Where Flickr is an improvement over Instagram is that it doesn’t force me to crop all my photos as a square. Plus the presentation of photos is far prettier and user friendly and I can set up sets and collections and manage privacy in a granular way. Yet like Instagram, I can choose to share my photos to Facebook, Twitter, and a Tumblr account.

Of course, another reason for my immediate switch to using Flickr–maybe even the best reason–has to do with the old adage that if you’re not paying for a service, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold. Since I have the option of paying for a Flickr account (and do), I have more confidence that Yahoo won’t try to monetize me and my photos through onerous privacy-stripping means, unlike Instagram which provides no mechanism for me to truly opt-out.

The Flickr app is free, but only comes in an iPhone version at this time.

  1. That is an affiliate link. I earn extra space in my Dropbox account if you sign up for a free or paid account. You also get bonus space too.  ↩



Favorite iOS Apps of 2012

Perhaps the most tired cliché in all of publishing is the end-of-the-year “Best of” list. But since this hasn’t been the most scintillating spot for intellectual conversation in the blogosphere lately, you’ll have to take what you can get.

Actually, I’d written a post like this last year, but I managed to accidentally delete the post–after hours of work–before uploading it. Alas, you will never know what were my favorite iOS apps of 2011. But rejoice, because now you can hear about my favorites of 2012! Let’s get right to it.

N.B. Click the images for larger versions of the screenshots.


Google Chrome

My preferred web browser on all platforms is Google Chrome. Not only is it faster and less prone to memory leaks than either Firefox or Safari, the browser extensions are great (with some that you can’t find for either of the other two)[1] and the syncing among all your computers and devices works great.

This year, Google brought Chrome[2] to iOS and I’ve been using it whenever I have a choice. First, it allowed syncing of tabs before iOS 6 brought it to Safari and since I only use Chrome on my Mac, this is the only way to syncs them. I can also access any individual tab on any of my devices, like my work Mac, my laptop, our kitchen computer, my iPad, or my iPhone, from any of the other devices. Can’t tell you how handy that’s been.

Now the downside. Apple doesn’t allow you to switch default browsers for iOS. While individual developers can choose to you the option, you can’t (unless Apple changes its mind in a future iOS update) have a link in your email, say, open up in Chrome as long as you’re using the stock Mail app on your iOS device. (Of course, you could use the Gmail app, if you’re using Gmail, and then get links to open in Chrome.

Chrome is free to download.

Tweetbot for iPad

Tweetbot for iPad

Tweetbot, the awesome and popular Twitter client, was one of my picks for 2011 for it’s iPhone version, but 2012 brought us the iPad version, specially constructed to take advantage of the larger screen.

I’ve tried many Twitter clients for iOS. (At least fifteen by my rough estimate.) Tweetbot is the one that stands head and shoulders above the rest. The interface is intuitive and makes reading your tweets a pleasure. A very nice feature is the ability to synchronize between devices so you can pick up on your iPad where you left off in Tweetbot for iPhone or Tweetbot for Mac. Also, not to be underestimated is the ability to monitor several separate Twitter accounts which benefits those who have split personalities or who need to access work and personal accounts.

Tweetbot for iPad is $2.99.[3]

Drafts for iPhone and iPad


At first glance, Drafts (for iPhone and iPad) looks like a simple notepad app. When you first launch it, you’re presented with a blank screen and a couple of icons. Each time you open it, you’re presented with a blank slate to work with, while your previous notes are available with the tap of an icon.

Where Drafts really comes into its own is its integration with other apps on your device. Type some text into the note screen, tap the share button, and you can have a long list of actions to take with the text: Email it; Tweet it; post it to Facebook; send as an SMS/Message; Print it; Add as an item or note to Omnifocus; Create a Reminder; Create a calendar event; Save it as a text file to Dropbox or append it to another file; Save it to Evernote; Send it to a dozen different text editors or social media apps. The list goes on and on.

I like to use it to take meeting notes at work and then send them right into Evernote for long-term storage. It’s also handy for quickly creating a calendar meeting or appointment, especially in conjunction with another favorite, Fantastical (see below). And by keeping it in my Dock, it’s available for quick launch. Drafts is just a very versatile toolbox disguised as a simple notepad.

iPhone version is $2.99 and iPad version is $3.99.

Fantastical for iPhone

Fantastical for iPhoneAs with Twitter clients, I’ve tried a number of different calendar apps to find the one that works best. My calendar needs are somewhat complex with my personal calendar in iCloud, another personal calendar in Google that subscribes to my wife’s Google calendar; and a work calendar in Google, plus any number of subcategories in each. Getting all of my calendar items to show without having any duplicates has been difficult for most apps to accomplish.

Fantastical isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. I’ve been using the OS X version for some time and on the Mac, it sits in your menu bar and when you want to add a calendar event, you click on it and then start typing in plain English. The app has enough smarts to figure out the who, what, when, where, and why of your event and parse the different parts into the appropriate fields. The iOS app does the same thing, as well as displaying your calendars in a uninque day-at-a-time view.

Where other apps like Calvetica and Agenda display events in a pleasing manner, entering new events is a much greater hassle than it should be. Fantastical makes it much simpler. And if you have a newer iPhone you can simply dictate the event to the app. What could be easier?

Fantastical is $3.99. It’s not a Universal app and there is no iPad version yet, but the iPhone version works fine on the iPad.

Just Landed for iPhone

Just LandedThis is an app that you’re not going to use all that often, but provides a handy service that most of us can appreciate. Many people have experience with having to pick someone up at the airport and while there are apps that can tell you whether a flight is on time, Just Landed goes a step further.

In addition to tracking a particular flight, it also notes your location in relation to the airport and monitors traffic conditions in between, calculating the best time for you to leave where you are to get to the airport as the plane lands. It even provides notifications to you when the app isn’t open.

While the plane is in the air, you can see it’s estimated time of arrival and even the terminal and gate number, as well as a countdown to when you should leave. When you arrive at the terminal you are given the option of sending a text message to the person you’re picking up alerting them that you’ve arrived. When the plane lands you’re sent a notification and even told which baggage claim area you should go to.

This isn’t a multitasking wonder. Just Landed does one thing and it does it so well, you’ll want it on your phone always.

Just Landed is $0.99.

Day One

Day One for iPad

In a sense, my pick of Day One (iPhone and iPad versions are separate) is for the app on both iOS and OS X. This beautifully designed app lets you keep a journal or diary. You’re not the “Dear Diary” type? That’s okay, because you can use it to keep track of anything that will benefit from chronological entries. Track the progress of projects. Document meetings at work. Keep track of your children’s school assignments. Write drafts of blog posts.

The iOS and OS X apps sync via iCloud or Dropbox so that you always have access to all your entries. (And it’s all password-protected so you can feel free to be as honest as you want to be.) But the iOS version has a few added features, namely it can automatically add the location of your entry as well as the weather. Both versions let you include photos and on iOS you can add snap the photo with the camera right then and there. If you link to your Foursquare account

You can “star” favorite entries; put tags on them for organization; show your timeline as a list or on a calendar or list them by year.

It’s like your a blog or social network for your eyes only.

Day One is $4.99 each for the iPhone and iPad versions which must be purchased separately.

Sara Jenkins’ New Italian Pantry

Sara Jenkins New Italian Pantry

This is a relatively recent addition to my iPad and while I haven’t delved deeply into the recipes yet, Sara Jenkins’ New Italian Pantry still one of my favorite apps of the year due to its beautiful design and unmistakable promise.

Jenkins is a New York chef who owns an Italian restaurant and an Italian sandwich shop. What sets the app from other cooking apps is that it’s designed to help you cook in the classic spontaneous Italian style, where you cook creatively from your pantry and whatever the market has available.

To that end, the app starts with a visual list of 16 core Italian pantry ingredients as assembled by Jenkins that give the mximum variety. The user selects which ones he has in his pantry as well as whatever main ingredients you have or are considering–chicken quarters and asparagus, say–and then the app generates a list of recipes using those ingredients.

Each of the 16 pantry items has an accompanying video narrated by Jenkins explaining the ingredient , how to select it, and her take on it in Italian cuisine. The app also starts up with a video that explains the entire concept and while it’s a good introduction, I wish it didn’t automatically play every single time you launched the app. (You can stop it and move past to the main menu, but it’s a bit of friction in an otherwise nicely designed app.)

New Italian Pantry is $3.99 and is iPad only.

And that’s my list of favorite iOS Apps introduced in 2012 (or that I installed in the year anyway.) Next up is my list of iOS Apps with Best Updates in 2012 and my favorite OS X Apps in 2012.

  1. To be clear, none of the iOS versions of these browsers allow the use of extensions.  ↩


  3. All links go to the iTunes Store.  ↩


  5. Prices were current as of publication date of this post.  ↩



Backup strategy: Protect what’s irreplaceable

Hard drive

A friend recently asked me about backing up his Mac. He’s been using the built-in Time Machine feature that’s a part of OS X, which is indeed a good basic backup solution, but he identified its flaw, which is that if the backup hard drive fails, you lose your only backup. The fact is that while Time Machine is better than nothing–which is what most people have–I don’t think it’s sufficient, especially when so much of what’s important to us is beginning to exist solely in digital form, including and especially photographs, but also email, documents, music, videos, and more.

So he asked me what I do. Here’s what I said: My philosophy about computer backups is that you can’t have too many backups and if a file doesn’t exist in at least 3 places, it may as well not exist at all.

Here’s what I do for backup: [1]

  1. I have a Time Machine[2] backup on my desk here at home. This is for quick recovery of files that I’ve either accidentally deleted or mangled (i.e. saved with a change I later regret). I consider it the least safe in terms of “If everything goes wrong.”
  1. I do, not one, but two clones of my hard drive every day. I have one here at home and one at work. (This obviously works best for a laptop you carry back and forth but you can also do it with carrying hard drives back and forth, swapping them each day on your desktop computer at home). Obviously, this is the most extreme, but if something very bad were to happen to my hard drive and/or computer, it would get me back up and running in the least amount of time. I automate the backups[3] so I don’t even have to think about it, except to make sure the hard drive is attached at the right time. Having one clone at work means if, God forbid, the house burned down or we were robbed, I still have the one at the office.
  1. I use Backblaze for $5/month.[4] This backs up everything over the Internet to a remote server. Keep in mind, when you first set it up, it will take forever to do the first backup. I have a lot of data (about 600GB on a 750GB hard drive), and it took about a month(!) for my first backup. But it all happens in the background and the software is smart enough not to slow you down when you’re actually sitting at the computer, using the idle time wisely. This part of the backup plan is for worst-case scenarios, like if a natural disaster wiped out my home and office or if both clones are corrupted somehow or if I’m on a trip and urgently need to recover a particular file. You can recover files over the Internet if you need to, which you can’t do with Time Machine or clones. If you do need to recover your whole hard drive, they will Fedex a hard drive with your data to you, for an additional fee, so you don’t have to take days downloading it. (Download speeds on broadband are faster than upload but still not that fast.)

What you choose to do depends on your level of paranoia and comfort. I’ve had drives fail and have lost irreplaceable files in the past–the name “Zip drive” still makes me shudder–so that’s why I’m so anal about backups.

I should add as an appendix that I use Dropbox[5] to store all my documents and files for both home and work. On the one hand, it means they’re available on any machine I’m using at the moment (including my iPhone and iPad), but also they are backed up in the cloud and versioned so that if I need the version of the file from three changes ago I can get it. So it’s a kind of backup. However, it’s only for documents. Even with the 100GB, $10/month service that my work pays for, I can’t fit my music, videos, or photos in there. Nor can I put all my system preferences and all that in there either.

So, in order to do all this, you’ll need at least two hard drives (Time Machine and clone) or three if you want an offsite clone too, plus Backblaze. Also, you’ll want to test your hard drive backs up every once in a while to make sure they’re not dead and are still backing up.

Does it sound complicated, time-consuming, and expensive? It’s only time-consuming when you set it up, but in practice it’s nearly invisible. The expense depends on how much your data is worth to you. Our photos of the kids are priceless so the cost/benefit analysis is highly weighted in favor of my solution. What I end up with is peace of mind and the ability to be like Star Trek’s Scotty, able to pull a miracle out of my hat when all seems lost.

Illustration: Public domain image

  1. While Time Machine is Mac-specific, cloning and online backup are available for all platforms. A quick Google search reveals lots of software that claim to be like Time Machine for Windows, I have no information about them.  ↩


  3. I should add that in the latest version of OS X, Mountain Lion, software can take advantage of a feature called Auto Save, which is sort of like a kind of Time Machine inside of files. Your documents are constantly being saved instead of you having to remember to save them, and when you need to go to an earlier version you get an interface just like Time Machine’s. Melanie uses this when Anthony gets his little fingers on her unattended MacBook and “retypes” whatever she’s working on in Pages.  ↩


  5. The software I’m currently using is SuperDuper from Shirt Pocket, but you can also use Carbon Copy Cloner. With the latest updates, I’m thinking of switching because of the new features in CCC. In any case, both do a “smart update” by updating only the files that have changed since your last clone, thus drastically reducing the length of time each successive cloning takes.  ↩


  7. I picked Backblaze over Carbonite, because I wasn’t a fan of Carbonite’s software, although it does have a nifty option to back up to a hard drive you store at a friend’s house; a sort of compromise between #2 and #3.  ↩


  9. I’ve written before about Dropbox and it’s only improved in the three years since then, including dropping its price.


The Nest keeps our nest warm

Ever since I heard about the Nest Learning Thermostat (Amazon affiliate link)
a couple of years ago, I wanted one. But I knew I wouldn’t get one because it just seemed so expensive compared to all the other $250+ things that we truly needed. Happily, I recently came into possession of one and didn’t pay a dime.

The Nest is unique among thermostats, not because it’s programmable (there are plenty of those), but because it’s designed as a consumer electronics appliance. You could compare the state of thermostats before the Nest to the state of MP3 players before the iPod and smartphones before the iPhone[1]: Clunky, requiring an investment of time and effort to use, and not for the mainstream. Most people wouldn’t bother with programming their thermostats, but would just continue to manually adjust them as they felt the need.

The Nest is different because:

  • It is designed to be extremely simple to install. They take great pains to make each step dead simple with a great instruction booklet, videos online if you need something a little more detailed, and even include a screwdriver with the perfect size bits.[2]
  • It learns. The system includes an artificial intelligence that can learn from how you set the controls and eventually begin anticipating your needs while encouraging you with small prompts to save a little more. When you first install the Nest, you set it manually, just by turning the dial a bit to change the temperature. Over time, it begins to learn your patterns: what time in the morning to turn on the heat and how high; when you go to bed and how low you want it set; when the house is unoccupied and the heat can be turned low or the air conditioning turned up. The great thing is that as the seasons change, the Nest learns from you and adjusts accordingly. And if you feel particularly cold one day, your manual adjustment won’t throw off what it’s learned.
  • It’s connected. The Nest has wifi built in so you can connect to it remotely via an iPhone or iPad app or from your web browser. So if Melanie’s on the couch nursing a baby and needs to turn the heat up, she doesn’t have to yell for a child or get and disturb the child. She can do it herself remotely. Or if we go visit a relative for the day, I can turn down the heat before we leave and then, when we’re say 20 minutes away, I can access it remotely and turn the heat back up.

The Nest is fantastic. Like I said, I’ve wanted one since I’d first heard about it, but it was just too expensive for me to justify. So when I was able to get one through Amazon Vine[3] I jumped at the chance. The thermostat was so easy to set up, it took just 20 minutes. I had a few problems, mainly due to my house and the bizarre renovation decisions made by previous owners (the old thermostat had a big hole behind it so I had to fudge a bit on the Nest’s install) and I had a brief problem with a wire that I didn’t seat all the way in the Nest, which interrupted the setup process until I quickly reseated it, but other than that installation was a breeze. The videos online were a great help in explaining how to do this very easily.

In the three weeks since I installed the thermostat, our weather hasn’t been that extreme so Nest hasn’t had a chance to do a lot of auto adjusting of the temperature. However, there has been enough variation for the thermostat to begin to learn our patterns, and for it to teach us when we can lower the temperature for savings. (It shows a little leaf graphic when a particular temperature would be a good one and it gets brighter as we home in on the sweet spot.)

If I could do anything differently, I would have installed it higher on the wall because it’s very tempting for the kids to touch and play with. It’s just very cute and friendly and approachable. The old clunky thermostat never elicited any interest like that.

I just can’t think of anything I would improve about this thermostat. It’s well worth the price, even taking into account that I got this one for free. I can’t imagine what they’re going to do for their next product.

  1. The iPod/iPhone analogy is apt as the founder of the company formerly worked at Apple and was one of the guys who developed the iPod.  ↩


  3. As an example of their attention to detail, they suggest you put a small label on each wire as you disconnect it from the old thermostat. The sticky labels are provided, not on a slip of paper in the package, but right in the instruction manual at the point you will read that you need them.  ↩


  5. I might have mentioned before that Vine is an invitation-only program from Amazon that allows participants to receive free goods in return for promising to write a review. They’ve had everything from books to major kitchen appliances. I’ve gotten a lot of great stuff for free in the past few years, including a $1,000 home theater receiver, a $300 auto GPS, the Nest, software like VMWare Fusion and Dragon Dictate and quite a bit more. You’re reviews don’t have to be positive if you don’t end up liking the product and there’s no deadline on the reviews, although you have to review 80% of your items after receiving the maximum of five before you can request more. A new list of available Vine items comes out monthly.  ↩


My iPhone 5 review

IMG 0017

I purchased a new iPhone 5 last month[1]. I don’t want to do a full review–there are plenty of more qualified people who have done those already–but I wanted to touch on a few highlights and some things have struck me as I use it.

Much has been written and said about how this is not a revolutionary upgrade over the iPhone 4S. I think they’re right, but they’re also wrong in what that means. They acknowledge that the iPhone 5 is thinner, lighter, and taller with a bigger screen, but that there’s not much else new. But where I think the critics are wrong is in the comparison to last year’s model, the iPhone 4S. Unless you happen to make your living writing about technology–that is, if you’re not a normal consumer–you don’t upgrade your phone every year. Instead you don’t upgrade until your carrier gives you the okay, which is every two years. Thus the proper comparison is to the iPhone 4 and from that phone this is a big upgrade: The processor is much faster and everything about the iPhone feels zippier; I finally get access to Siri; The camera is a huge improvement.

In fact, I would say that there hasn’t been a truly revolutionary year-to-year upgrade since the iPhone 3G brought 3G speed, a real camera, GPS, and everything else. (Some might argue the Retina display upgrade from the 3GS to the iPhone 4 was revolutionary.) Since then it’s been incremental and evolutionary from year to year with enough features for the typical upgrader to buy a new phone.

Even though I do think the iPhone 5 is a great upgrade, I still might not have upgraded this year, except the home button on my iPhone 4 had stopped working.[2] That’s not to say that I don’t love my new iPhone. Like I said, evolutionary.

Improved features

IMG 0025

That said, it looks gorgeous. I opted to get the all-black version and it’s sharp. The aluminum back will be more durable than the glass, undoubtedly and the sharp, deep blacks of the Retina display blend seamlessly into the black bezel that surrounds it so that the display almost feels like it’s floating in space. The gorgeous contrast and brightness of the display almost demands a great black and white photo as your lock screen, like mine.[3]

From a more functional standpoint, I’m finding that I love Siri. Sure, it’s not perfect, but my understanding is that over time it will gain more and more functionality as Apple develops the server side[4]. Even now it’s very useful. Ironically, it’s restored a workflow I had four years ago that stopped working. I wrote in 2008 about how I used the now-defunct web service I Want Sandy and the now-defunct voice recognition service Jott to send stuff I wanted to remember to my task management app Omnifocus from my ancient Nokia dumb phone while on my interminable commute. Now, with Siri and the Omnifocus iPhone app (which work together), I’ve got that back and even better. I just tell Siri, “Remind me to…” or “Remember…” and it goes to my Omnifocus in-box.

I find Siri to be very useful in other ways as well. Launching apps with it can be faster than hunting among the several hundred apps in dozens of folders on multiple pages on my phone. Playing music can be good too, although sometimes Siri has difficulty understanding what I’m asking for. For instance, when I ask for “Matisyahu”, she[5] thinks I’m saying “modest Yahoo”. If I ask for his song “Miracle”, she plays Kenny G’s “Miracles”. If I ask by the iTunes partial album “Miracle-Single”, I get Darlene Zschech’s song “Miracle” on her iTunes partial album “Miracle-Single”. I have too many songs in iTunes that refer to miracles.

When introducing iOS 6, Apple made a big deal about Siri being better at sports, movies, and restaurants. Since Melanie and I almost never get to go to the type of restaurant at which we can make reservations, that part goes unused as does the movie theater bit. (We go to the movies about as often as we go to fancy restaurants, which is to say never.) But I regularly make us of her ability to tell me about the weather or to give me information about sports.[6] She’s also great at providing random information, such as the kind the kids ask for, like what time is it in Australia right now and is it daytime or nighttime there.

What else do I like about the iPhone 5? As I said before, the camera is a big improvement, especially in low light conditions. (There have been some complaints about purple hazing under some conditions, but my solution is simple: Don’t do that.)

The larger screen is nice, although I can’t say I felt cramped on the old screen. Having a fifth row of icons on the main screen does mean I don’t have to dig quite so deep for more of my apps.

Other improvements are due to the iOS 6 upgrade available to many iPhones and iPads so I won’t include those as iPhone 5 improvements.

Like I said it’s not revolutionary. Instead, I would say that iPhone 5 is about polishing the jewel, not mining the raw diamond and cutting its facets. I love this phone. It’s the best iPhone I’ve ever had and part of the reason for that is that it’s not a huge change from what came before. How much more perfect can perfect get in one year increments?

  1. My tale of woe in ordering the phone may amuse you. I tried to order it as soon as pre-ordering opened on Friday, September 14 at 3am Eastern (since Sophia had conveniently woken me up to tuck her back in) and then realized I wouldn’t be able to. We were headed to Texas the following week for my brother-in-law’s wedding and Apple’s order system wouldn’t let me change the shipping address from my billing address to my in-laws’ house. So I went back to bed and got up at 7am and the shipping time had slipped to two weeks by then, at which date we’d be home.  ↩


  3. You can continue to use your iPhone if your home button stops working by going to Settings > General > Accessibility and turning on AssistiveTouch. This puts a movable software button on your screen that when you touch it gives you access to a number of hardware functions, including the home button.  ↩


  5. The image on my screen above is from the awesome historical photo website, This particular image dates to 1943 and shows a dock stevedore at the the Fulton Fish Market in New York holding an immense lobster claw. Compare it to the still-large lobster in his other hand to get an idea of how big this monster must have been.  ↩


  7. Much of Siri’s functionality happens off the iPhone in Apple’s servers somewhere on the Internet, which is why it requires you to have an Internet connection to work.  ↩


  9. Apple officially does not refer to Siri by gender, but it’s a female voice and so I will anthropomorphize it.   ↩


  11. Even here there are limits. She can give me the AFC East standings and tell me who is playing whom, at what time and on what channel, but she can’t tell me when their bye week is. And while she recognizes NASCAR as a sport, she admits she can tell me nothing about it. Way to be all blue state, Siri.  ↩



Catholic New Media Conference 2012 Recap


This past week was the 5th Catholic New Media Conference and it was held in Arlington, Texas, alongside the Catholic Marketing Network trade show and the Catholic Writers’ Guild conference.

This was my third CNMC–my first was in Boston in 2010 and last year I attended in Kansas City, Kansas–and I have to say that each year it improves, not because of some deficiency in the past events, but as a natural growth as more and more people become involved.

I won’t go through a detailed play-by-play of everything that happened, but I’d like to give my impressions. The first day included some Main Track events as well as the first Catholic Tech Summit. The latter was particularly interesting to me because of my work as Creative Director for New Media at the Archdiocese of Boston. Josh Simmons’ talk on the 7 keys to a great organization website was both an affirmation of the work we’ve been doing as well as the source of some good ideas for how we can improve. Pat Padley’s expert explanation of how to create a winning digital strategy (based on his professional work for very large corporate brands) will pay dividends as we implement those ideas for the Church.

The discussion moderated by Matt Warner and Jeff Geerling on Catholic standards and APIs could be just the start of a very important effort that will result in a unity among Catholic developers and end users, including parishes, ministries, and dioceses. During the discussion, I said that dioceses often have multi-faceted needs and we turn to very expensive big-company solutions, which are sometimes too expensive to afford. But if there were a common API and true interoperability, we could break down those problems into smaller chunks that we could address over time. In addition, the software for those smaller parts could be written by smaller developers, opening up the market much wider.

I didn’t stick around for a couple of the late afternoon and evening events because I was meeting my sister-in-law Theresa for lunch. She lives in Plano and works in Dallas now, so we agreed to meet a Chinese restaurant she knows about in Arlington. Unfortunately, rush-hour traffic in Dallas is as bad as it is in Boston, plus she ran out of gas, and oh by the way, there was both a baseball game at the Ballpark at Arlington and a football game at Cowboy Stadium right outside the convention center which didn’t delay me, but all of which in fact made Theresa two-and-a-half hours late. Hunger may be the best sauce, but the food at First Chinese BBQ was excellent. The portions were huge and the price was cheap. Plus so authentic.

On Thursday, Fr. Roderick Vonhogen kicked things off with a retrospective of the past seven years of Catholic new media, by which they are measuring time by their own work in Catholic new media. For some of us, ahem, we’ve been working in Catholic new media a lot longer. After all, Catholic World News began with me and Phil Lawler way back in 1996 and there were others even before that. But I understand that Fr. Roderick was using his own perspective to show how quickly the field of new media changes. For example, seven years ago Facebook was still a quirky little website for college kids.

Elizabeth Scalia’s keynote on new media and the new evangelization managed to be both humbling and inspiring. I am a big fan of her blog The Anchoress for her ability to excel at both the spiritual writing as well as the cultural and political observations, and all her editing work over at Patheos where she has brought an amazing gallery of some of the best Catholic bloggers.

Rob Kaczmark of Spirit Juice Studios, which produces some of the best Catholic videos on YouTube, which isn’t to say they don’t do a lot of other regular commercial work too. Anyway, Rob reviewed the videos of the top ten Catholic YouTube channels and then the top ten mainstream channels. The results weren’t even close. Even for most of the professional Catholic channels, the quality wasn’t as high as even some of the one-man secular channels. Rob drove home the point that (a) details–like proper hair and makeup for everyone in every shoot–matter and that (b) quality isn’t about your budget, but it’s about your attitude and unwillingness to settle for anything less than your best.

Following up on that talk was Brandon Vogt’s, which in my estimation may have been the best of the conference. Brandon is a rising star in Catholic new media, not least because of his book “The Church and New Media”. (I joked at one point that Brandon was mentioned by name by every other speaker at the conference. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.) That reputation is well-deserved because Brandon is knowledgeable about new media, persuasive in his delivery, and has a knack for explaining things in an accessible way. Brandon’s presentation showed how Mormons, Protestants, and Atheists are using new media in ways that put Catholics to shame, and of course what lessons we could take from them. I was particularly impressed by the work of the Mormons, from their beautiful websites to their incredible work in search-engine optimization to the “why didn’t I think of that” concept of their LDSTech website, which matches up volunteer technology professionals with church technology projects. It’s genius.

Later was the talk by Bishop Christopher Coyne, who has also become a rock star for Catholic new media folk. More than once I saw someone taking him aside to ask him how to approach their bishop about one new media idea or another. Bishop Coyne’s topic was about being the bearer of the Good News within a digital culture, which means we need to stop shooting each other in the foxhole and start treating one another like Christians.

That night was a dinner for both the CNMC crowd and the Catholic Marketing Network hosted by Ignatius Press. There was a little too much talking, but the highlight was the performance by country music star (and Catholic convert) Collin Raye, who also spoke about the brief life and death of his granddaughter from an undiagnosed neurological condition at 10 years old.

Friday was devoted to the topic of blogging and it started with a keynote by Jennifer Fulwiler, who gave an amazing synopsis of the spirituality of blogging. The two other highlights of the day were Dorian Speed’s talk on building a blog community (Dorian is so entertaining, I’d listen to her read the phone book) and Julie Davis’ talk on Catholic bloggers as the 1st Corinthians of the internet. (It’s not necessary a complimentary comparison; go read what those Corinthians were like.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay for what I heard was a great panel discussion on blogging because I had to catch my flight home. But overall, once again, the CNMC has proven to be an indispensable opportunity to get together with likeminded individuals and inspire one another, not to mention to actually see face to face some of these people I’ve been talking with for ages online.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t end without giving a public thank you to our online friend MamaT of the Summa Mamas, who heard my online plea for a place to stay in the Dallas area for the CNMC and opened up her home for me. While I didn’t spend as much time with her and her husband as I could have wished, we did have some very nice late evening conversations. (I was up and out of the house very early most days and back very late.)

So now the CNMC is ended for another year and most attendees are already wondering when and where the next one will be. I know that I for one will be there wherever it is. After all, the lessons learned and the relationships forged are invaluable.

Photo by Flickr user OntheU (Steve Nelson)


How to Keep PowerPoint From Killing Your Business

Audiences Hate Powerpoint

Phil Lawler expresses the same frustration many of us have with dull, droning PowerPoint presentations.

Consider how the omnipresent use of PowerPoint—with its attendant boundaries of bullet points and slides—actually limit innovation and communication in corporations. If it can’t be boiled down to easily digested bits of information—the Ivy League business school equivalent of food-processorized Chicken McNuggets—it can’t be communicated to management and colleagues and clients and thus it it ends up on the virtual cutting room floor. (Ah, mixed metaphors!)

And yet presentations don’t have to be evil. Go ahead and give all the detailed stuff in bullet-point handouts, but keep the presentation light. Use imagery (no clipart!) and headlines instead of bullets or, God forbid, bullets. Talk off the top of your head; don’t drone from written notes.

Heck, I know people who connect their iPad to a projector and *draw* their presentation on the fly! Now that’s creative!

Now some will rightly point out: “But Dom, I’ve seen your presentations and you have bullet points!” Yes, I have done that. And I hang my head in shame because when I’m running out of time and rushing it’s easy to fall back on bullet points (think of that next time you see a heavily bullet-pointed presentation). On the other hand, I never, ever resort to just reading them through. I figure if you can see it on the screen and in your handout, you don’t need me to read it to you.

So for the love of innovation and for the continued patriotic dominance of American industry throughout the world, I implore you to stop reading your bullet points word for word and to break out of the Microsoft PowerPoint box.

N.B. Incidentally I prefer Apple’s Keynote presentation software. For one thing it’s design more readily accommodates breaking from the PowerPoint paradigm. Plus it works more like Mac software.

Photo by Chris Pirillo. Used under a Creative Commons license.

What web designers can do for more password strength


Password security has been in the news lately and so the last few days I’ve been slogging through a long-neglected project replacing all the insecure passwords I’ve used over the years on various websites with new, very strong passwords.

(I use 1Password from Agile Bits Software for my password management. It’s available for all major platforms, Mac, Windows, iOS, and Android. It’s powerful, easy to use, secure, and allows you to sync your passwords across all platforms.)

Something I’ve discovered is a discouraging tendency among the user interface designers for many e-commerce websites to fail to provide a good experience to their users to encourage good password discipline.

For one thing, they often fail to give you any requirements for passwords up front. I typically use a 20-character password consisting of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols. I can’t tell you how many times I have submitted a new password along those lines only to receive an error message that I couldn’t use symbols or that the password had to be shorter. You should never present necessary information for the first time to the user in an error message after their first attempt. In a sense, you’ve created a Soup Nazi customer service experience. It’s a minor annoyance, but the customer’s attempt to do something that seemed completely valid received the equivalent of a hand-smack and makes them feel stupid at some level.

Another troublesome trend is from websites that put an upper limit on the length of passwords. I understand that when you have hundreds of thousands of users, an extra dozen characters to store in a database will take up, oh wait, 3.5 megabytes of disk space. If you have that many users, you can afford the disk space. What’s even more disturbing is that some large sites, like CafePress, which handles financial transactions on behalf of users, puts a maximum length of 10 characters on its user passwords! That’s hardly suitable, according to many security-minded folks. In fact, I think that should be a minimum password length.

Something else to be wary of in account security is the use of security questions. The best security questions ask for obscure questions that only you will know. Unfortunately, what you often get asked for is your mother’s maiden name or the city where you were born. In this day of massive Internet databases, that information is all too easily found. Other answers might be similarly easy to mine if you’ve talked about yourself at any length on a blog or social network. In 2008, Sarah Palin’s personal email was hacked because the security questions on her email provider asked for data that was available in her public biography.

The best security questions are open-ended. They let you devise your own questions you will answer. Second best are a large selection of questions that ask you for some obscure information. But even if the site asks for some obvious data, keep in mind, you don’t have to tell the truth. Make up fake answers. Just be sure to remember your mis-answer or record it somewhere secure, such as 1Password.

Far too many people still use easily cracked passwords. Many security studies have shown the most commonly used password is, in fact, password. The rest of the top 25 list is similarly maddening from a security perspective. (Also, I am always appalled at the password-insecurity of even my friends and colleagues who are technologically sophisticated.)

So like with locking your car door to keep your car from being easy pickings by opportunistic car thieves, your goal is not to be perfectly secure from hacking, but making your passwords less hackable than the majority. After all, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the guy whose password is password.

Padlock by zebble, on Flickr

Social networks should be more like email, less like AOL

My social networks

The owner of a company developing a product based on the Facebook Platform has written an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg describing how Facebook, at first, encouraged him to develop his software and then tried to force him to sell or be destroyed by a competing product from Facebook. Dalton Caldwell then goes on to talk about his new quixotic quest to develop a paid alternative social network that treats users as customers rather than the product being sold to advertisers.

It sounds a little ridiculous to suggest that a little company could overtake Facebook with its 1-billion-plus users and Twitter with 500-million and Google+, which is backed by the Internet giant. On the other maybe it’s not that one small company could overtake, but many. Maybe social networks should work more like email.

The situation today is like the old days of Compuserve and AOL and Prodigy. Those of us who were around them can recall that we were on islands on the Internet, in small communities that had minimal connection to one another. I remember the day we could finally email someone at AOL from our Compuserve accounts. It was astonishing to think we could cross over the walls that separated us. We were on the Internet.

Today’s social networks are like that. Facebook and Twitter are giant islands. Sure there’s some interoperability, but it’s at the mercy of FB’s and Twitter’s and Google’s whim. If they decide to an API developer’s business is too good, they just acqui-hire or develop their own version. Think of Instagram’s purchase by Facebook or Tweetdeck’s purchase by Twitter. The big social networks are beholden more to their advertisers than to their users and so they’re more interested in protecting their revenue sources and keeping your eyeballs captured within the boundaries they define. You’re stuck inside their walled gardens.

Maybe social networks should work more like email. We would buy service from an “on-ramp” service, someone who gives us access to The Social Network, not one site but a “cloud” that isn’t under any one person or group’s control, and using common open protocols we communicate with one another. So whether I’m on Twitter and you’re on Facebook and he’s on Google+, we can talk without any funny business from the common carriers. And then each company can differentiate and attract users by offering added value services. Those who want free service can continue to be treated like a commodity on the old guard, just like those on Hotmail or Gmail get free email service at the price of being mined for demographics so that personalized ads can be served to them. Or you can pay for your service, maybe even set up your own little domain, and connect to the wider Social Network that way. And if you don’t like your provider, you switch to a new one. Just like email.

The big social networking behemoths wouldn’t go for it, of course. The status quo benefits them in the short term. But maybe if enough small upstarts worked together to create alternative, they wouldn’t have a choice.

Think it’s unlikely? Remember that AOL used to be the biggest Internet company in the world. Nothing is forever and even the mightiest can be humbled.

(CC) Gavin Llewellyn.

Would you give up some privacy for lower premiums?

So the Progressive insurance company has a new product that lets you earn a discount by plugging in a little dongle to your car that reports on your driving habits. It raises some interesting questions about how much privacy we’re willing to give up, not to the government, but to a corporation.

At first, it’s very off putting because we can imagine how we could be penalized for bad driving – or even the kind of driving we do every day if they deem it to constitute a bad risk. Of course, there’s only so much data they can collect from today’s cars, like engine RPM and acceleration. And Progressive, at least for now, promises that your rates can’t go up based on the data they collect.

On the other hand, let’s take it a step further. What if they could collect data on things like attentiveness, how well you change lanes, whether you’re prone to jackrabbit starts or abrupt stops? (Such things would be possible if the car’s computer collected data like turn signal activation or if an eye-tracking camera were mounted on the visor or rearview mirror.)

Right now insurance companies base their premiums on general demographic data–age, gender, where you live, what kind of car you drive– plus your driving history, i.e. tickets and accidents. But if they had more data about your specific driving, they could better assess how much of a risk you are. There are some people who are effectively a zero risk. I can imagine they might offered a near-zero premium.

Conversely, a driver who is a higher risk might pay a higher premium. However, what if the insurance company could incentivize bad drivers to become better drivers? Perhaps on a month-by-month basis they could provide feedback to the drivers with ways to improve their driving, maybe with free training. And maybe they would say something like, “If you change these factors next month, we will reduce your premium next month by $50.”

Not only would that help reduce the risks for the insurance carriers from those drivers, but they would also reduce the risk for their good drivers as well.

With a few bits of already available technology, this could be a reality. It would take changes in what data cars record, thus how automakers build them, as well as a change in the regulatory environments in most states, but it’s something to think about.