Monthly Archives: August 2017

The iPhone home button

There is news today that Apple’s next-generation iPhone—the rumored high-end one—is not only going to remove the physical home button (everyone has assumed that for a while), but it will also not replace it with an on-screen simulacrum (people like me have expected a circle icon to act as the home button). The plan, apparently, is to kill the home button entirely, and replace it with a dock of icons, like the iOS 11 betas have on the iPad. That is a bit surprising to me. Whether it is true or not, this news made me want to pause a minute and reflect on how brilliant Apple’s home button was.


As the one, single button on the front of the phone, it was the ultimate escape key. Can’t find an exit app button onscreen? Did an app hang? Does an app confuse you? Is the screen black for no reason? Just press the only physical button on the front of the phone and return to the home screen.

It sounds so simple and obvious, but no one else had anything quite like it. (OK, Samsung copied it soon afterward, but that barely counts.) Most Android phones came with “soft buttons”, onscreen buttons or tap-able areas below the screen. But there were more of them–remember back, home, menu, and search?–or they had weird, almost meaningless icons-square, circle, triangle-that you had to figure out.

Physical orientation

A side benefit of a physical home button was that you could feel it with your thumb, and always know which way you were holding the phone by touch alone. When it inevitably goes away, I will miss the familiar sensation of finding it when the phone is in my pocket, to orient my hand and to use as a pivot as I swing the phone around to use it.


Over time, the home button was overloaded to do multitasking and Touch ID, but it always served its original purpose, and Apple never screwed it up, even with its non-moving, Taptic Engine-driven style in the iPhone 7. (That phone’s haptic feedback feels incredible.)

Obviously, Android’s early move from physical buttons to soft-buttons approach worked out all right, but, to me, Apple’s stalwart refusal to ditch the physical home button over many generations of iPhone reflected, in my opinion, a design ethic centered upon simplicity and humanism, which I really respected.

I’m not sorry to see (presumably) the home button go, but it was definitely one of the reasons I admired the design of the iPhone, and ditched my Android phone for one years ago.

Programming on the iPad

It seems that many programmers who are actually programming on iPads are writing code that runs elsewhere, either on a web server, or on a remote system they SSH into. That doesn’t describe what I do anymore. My non-work programming has shifted almost entirely to Swift, due to my obvious love of Apple platforms and my love of the language. This makes the iPad Pro less than useful for my programming needs.

I code in Xcode. Developers have been awaiting Xcode for iPad for years now, despite nearly nothing coming out of Cupertino to indicate that this will ever happen. Xcode on iPad would be great, I guess, but it seems too big and too complicated for me to even contemplate on iOS. I don’t think I would even want to develop full apps on the iPad, but I would love to work on models, custom subclasses to iOS controls, and creating unit tests, even when I’m away from my MacBook.

I know Swift Playgrounds exists, but I really wish there was something more fully-featured than it available. It doesn’t let me export my work to anywhere I can use it, which is the largest problem. I know I could code Swift on an simple text editor on the iPad, but what I really want is a compiler. Coding in Xcode is like having a conversation with the compiler, and seeing what it will allow you to do. I like that. I wish I could do that on the iPad, perhaps in a multi-file playground and export it to a Git client like Working Copy. I could get a ton of work done that way, without even trying to build and test a full app.

Perhaps Apple will make me happy this fall, when iOS 11 is finalized, or next year with iOS 12.

Setting up a new iPad

Setting up a new iPad is an opportunity to start over with a clean slate, and fix whatever problems you have on your old device’s setup. Fortunately, operating stability tends not to be a problem these days. What is a problem, however, is the sheer number of apps you can end up having installed, and the many notifications that come with them.

An app strategy

The App Store started out with a Unix-like philosophy about software. Remember the phrase “there’s an app for that?” Most apps did one thing. Most people do a lot of things, so we end up with a whole lot of apps. Not much has changed over time. Springboard, the launcher on iOS, is deliberately primitive. All your apps are spread out across various home screen pages. Once you have more than two or three pages, it is really hard to remember where all your apps are. Apps can be grouped into folders, but once in folders they are harder to find, unless you have a good organizational strategy.

With a new device, such as my new iPad Pro, I simply don’t install apps unless I need them right then. For those apps that get installed, I reduce their notifications to a bare minimum. If you get notifications on your phone, and you always have your phone with you, do you really need them on your iPad? Probably not.

Even after doing these smart-sounding things, I have 72 applications on my iPad Pro (and this is a machine with zero games on it!). Because of this, I often use Spotlight search to launch apps. I do this on my iPhone, too, where it feels inferior to tapping an icon. I’m learning, however, that on the iPad, just as on my Mac, it’s the right way to do it.

(I probably use about ten productivity apps most of the time, and those apps will likely be in the Dock once I install iOS 11, but I still use at least 20 of those other apps on a daily basis for reading, scanning, and videos.)

How do you launch an app on an iPad?

With the keyboard, just like on a Mac. Simply hit Command+Space to launch Spotlight, type the first few letters of an app’s name, and hit Enter. Without a hardware keyboard, pull down on the home screen to launch Spotlight, and type with the onscreen keyboard.

This behavior is fast and efficient. As a side benefit, it drastically reduces the need to organize apps efficiently on the SpringBoard.

Home screen organization with activity-based folders

I tried briefly to not organize the Springboard at all, but I ended up with several pages of apps and it looked like a jumbled mess. So I went into the other direction: I put everything into folders, all of which fit on one screen. The folder names are all verbs, based on activities:

  • Configure (iOS Settings, IoT device settings, and apps related to fixing things on my home server)
  • Secure (VPN, and password and other authentication-related apps)
  • Plan (Calendar, Reminders, Maps, brainstorming apps, etc.)
  • File (cloud data providers)
  • Communicate (Mail, Messages, FaceTime, etc.)
  • Scan
  • Photo (“photo” is stretching it as a verb, I admit)
  • Draw
  • Eat (MyFitnessPal, recipe apps)
  • Program (my BitBucket app and Pythonista, for now)
  • Shop
  • Read
  • Write
  • Watch
  • Play (this one would be there if I had games on my iPad Pro)

Other verbs, such as “research” and “listen”, may be useful for folder names in the future, if my hobbies and/or media diet increase.

The apps within the folders are not organized. Unless I have more than 16 apps in a folder, all the icons are visible at once, and their order does not matter to me.

My Dock contains the six apps I use all the time throughout my work day: Safari, Overcast, Music, SwiftoDo (my todo.txt task list), Drafts, and Ulysses. When I put iOS 11 on this machine, my use of the Dock will change somewhat, mostly by allowing me to put more apps in it.

(I don’t have a junk or “Apple” folder for unused and unloved default apps anymore. Since iOS 10, you can remove (hide, really) Apple’s default apps that you don’t use. I just do that.)

After a couple weeks of this

This organization scheme is working out very well for me. It helps keep me focused on what I’m doing and what I intend to do, and kind of forces me to use Spotlight to both launch and switch between apps, which is the behavior I want to reinforce. (It is still ingrained in me, based on how iOS worked prior to multitasking, to close an app and go to the home screen to switch apps, but it is not necessary to do so, and it is faster not to.)

Choosing an iPad Pro Case and Stand

Having given up on a keyboard case, I felt adrift in subpar options for an iPad stand and case. I admit, it is not that hard to get something decent; most people would just buy an Apple Smart Cover (or a decent knockoff) and be done with it. I, however, wanted something very specific, something I had in my old iPad Air 2 case, which is apparently rare: a kickstand.

The reason is that the kickstand made my iPad feel rock solid. It never moved or wobbled on a table. It never fell down because the folded up case collapsed beneath it. It felt real and solid, like a high quality tool rather than a fragile slice of glass and metal.

The Logitech Create keyboard case (which I didn’t like) had a kickstand, but nothing else I could find at the Apple Store or on Amazon did. Apple’s Smart Cover seemed expensive and far worse as a stand than what I had for my old iPad. There was a charging stand, the Logi Base, that looked like a good, sturdy platform, but was overpriced, had a number of unfavorable user reviews, and was not a case at all, so it was an incomplete solution. I basically didn’t want to spend so much on either case or stand, but after lots of thinking and comparison shopping, I bit the bullet and bought them both. I am very happy I did.

An extravagance, but a nice one

The Logi Base, once you get over the initial cost of it, is unexpectedly great. It’s a stand that charges the iPad through the Smart Connector. Unlike a folded-up Smart Cover, it is rock solid. It basically sticks to the desk, and provides the iPad a secure backing. You can bang the screen with your fingers and it would not move. That, for me, is key. A wobbly iPad feels like a toy. A secure one feels like the future of computing.

Docking and undocking are simple: a strong magnet helps keep everything in place. Charging through the Smart Connector works just fine. Numerous product reviewers complained that charging is slow and doesn’t support fast charging. Perhaps that is true, but charging is fast enough to keep up with battery use, and then some, which is all I actually need.

The final thing that delights me about the Base is that it actually gives me a place for the Pencil. It has a tiny amount of ledge space in front of the iPad that is just big enough for the Pencil to rest on its side. There is just enough magnetism there (it is near the Smart Connector) to keep the Pencil there rather safely.

Necessary protection

While a stand is nice for desktop use, you still should have something to protect the iPad’s screen sometimes. I bought the Apple Smart Cover for travel, whether around town or around the house. I actually take it off (you have to) and store it in a desk drawer when the iPad Pro is on the Logi stand. I did spend more on it than it is worth to me, but when I ordered it, cheaper third party cases were not widely available yet. I find that I take the Smart Cover off when actually using the iPad, and put it back on when I put the iPad away. That’s different than how I’ve treated every other iPad/case combination I’ve owned, largely due to the difference in size and weight between the 9.7″ and 12.9″ iPads.

All in all, I am happier using the iPad with no case, and it stays on the Logi Base at my desk most of the time anyway.

Software subscriptions

I just spent $30 on an annual subscription to Ulysses, my favorite writing app (it is not quite a "text editor") on macOS and iOS. It was a relatively expensive macOS and iOS app for years, and I thought of it as the best buy I ever made on the platform, because I always bought it on steep discount the day it was released, and upgrades have been free ever since. As much as I love it, I have never used it enough, mostly because I spend time programming rather than writing. That may change now, however, because I am paying now a lot more for the privilege to use it. Overall, I decided it is worth my money to continually support the software I love. That said, the much higher cost of Ulysses and other apps I rely on probably means I will be trying and buying far fewer alternatives.

There is a limit on how much I want to pay each year, total, for software. I am not sure what that limit is, however. It is over $100, I guess, based on my spending history. But it's not that much higher than that—and I am a person who loves software. I will have to choose my apps with way more discipline and effort now that many will be an ongoing cost to me. I will be choosing just one text editor for $30 per year, rather than buying the top six of them for $5 apiece and maybe upgrading one or two of them to new versions, for another $5 apiece, after a couple of years.

I hope this arrangement will lead to better software, and more well-supported software, overall. It looks like it will have the side effect of reducing the number of apps on my home screen to an essential, more costly, more sophisticated few. That's not necessarily a bad thing. But it further raises the bar for new indie developers—those without venture backing—who are working on the next new thing.

Choosing an iPad Pro Keyboard

iPads are great for writing, but if you are a touch typist, you need an external keyboard to have a top-notch experience.

I am a touch typist, and used to be a very fast touch typist as well, until RSI (repetitive stress injury) slowed me down to more reasonable speeds. Due to RSI, and the fact that using an ill-suited keyboard physically hurts, I am very picky about keyboards. I prefer a keyboard that is clicky and gives me a precise feeling when the key is activated. Mushy keyboards, by contrast, are awful for me; my accuracy decreases, and retyping increases. Key spacing basically has to be as close to a full-size key board as possible for me, because my hands cramp up when typing on anything smaller than a standard MacBook keyboard. Travel distance is important, too. Too little throw on a keyboard, such as on the first generation 12″ MacBook, makes my fingers hurt.

As I said, I am hard to please when it comes to keyboards.

Smart Connector Keyboards

The iPad Pro comes with a special connector, mostly useful for keyboards, called the Smart Connector. It promises rock solid communication between the iPad and the keyboard, meaning no dropped keypresses, which are my chief complaint about using Bluetooth keyboards. Unfortunately, there are only two keyboards that pair with the Smart Connector on the iPad Pro: Apple’s Smart Keyboard and Logitech’s Create Backlit Keyboard.

Trying out these two keyboards, however, quickly led to disappointment. The Apple Smart Keyboard just felt awkward to type on. It has very little tactile feedback, and almost no throw. It is floppy enough to be poorly suited for use on the lap (which, admittedly, would be rare). The case it comes attached to is slim, versatile, lightweight (for what it is, not overall), andstylish. But, alas, it is not for me.

The Logitech Create Backlit Keyboard, at first, appears to correct all of the Apple Smart Keyboard’s shortcomings. It has real keys! It has decent key travel! It has a sturdy kickstand case instead of a floppy folding case! While it has real keys, and more features plus a lower price than the Apple Smart Keyboard, typing on one for a while felt awful to me. It started to feel mushy to me. It is also much heavier than the Smart Keyboard. I loved the kickstand, but I wanted something I could remove more easily, because the 12.9″ iPad Pro is heavy enough on its own when used handheld.

So, after lots of time trying them out, both Smart Connector keyboards were out of the running for me.

What about Bluetooth keyboards?

While there are hundreds of Bluetooth keyboards you can pair with any iPad, they have a couple drawbacks. The main one for me is dropped keystrokes, due either to flaky Bluetooth connections, low quality components, or the keyboard requiring a keypress to wake from sleep. A secondary one is that they require batteries or recharging of their internal battery periodically, but that period is a few months long. Lastly, Bluetooth pairing can be tricky, especially if you try to use the same keyboard with multiple devices.

After trying out and being disappointed by the typing experience on the Apple and Logitech Smart Connector keyboards, I went back to my favorite keyboard of recent years, the Apple Magic Keyboard. It’s a full-size keyboard, which is comfortable to type on. It has a shallow keyfall distance, but it is not as shallow as the 12″ MacBook. Keypresses feel solid and clicky. The battery lasts for months. Build quality is top notch.

I have not had any problems with dropped keystrokes when waking up the Magic Keyboard, but that is likely because my new iPad Pro itself goes to sleep, which is an option I had disabled on my old iPad. Whatever the reason, a single keypress wakes up the iPad Pro and I go on to typing without thinking about it. That’s good enough for me.

So, after an honest effort to upgrade to on of the Smart Connector keyboards, I passed on both of them, and settled for the Apple Magic Keyboard, because it offers the best typing experience for me. I am actually surprised about that, and a little disappointed that I did not like the other two options. Because I went with a detached keyboard, I had to consider different case and stand options, which I will go into in a later post.