What’s so Neue about Helvetica?

So, I was just reading Rani Molla’s post on GigaOM called What’s all the fuss about Apple and Helvetica Neue? and I felt compelled (as I so often do, about so many things) to comment on the issue here.

Contrary to how the GigaOM article seems to frame it, the controversy — the, if you will, fontroversy (I regret it already) — when Apple demoed iOS 7 at WWDC last month was not that they were switching to Helvetica Neue as the iOS 7 system font. It’s that they were switching to Helvetica Neue Ultra Light, a particularly delicate weight of the general Helvetica Neue font family. (I’ve read some things that suggest they’re reversing course on that decision based on developer feedback, but the GigaOM post doesn’t even touch that.)

The fact is, Helvetica Neue has been the iOS system font ever since the introduction of the iPhone 4. When the iPhone was first introduced, it used plain old Helvetica as the system font. But with the introduction of the Retina Display, Apple switched to the slightly more refined Helvetica Neue.

So the concern with iOS 7 is not Helvetica Neue itself — that’s been working out just fine. It’s this extra thin weight of the font, which becomes difficult to read at smaller sizes.

Personally I like Helvetica Neue Ultra Light. I think it continues the trend towards refinement Apple began with the switch to Helvetica Neue itself, and is demonstrated effectively in Cabel Sasser’s animated GIF featured in the GigaOM article. The version using Helvetica Neue Regular feels heavier and clunkier to me. That said, I do understand and appreciate the legibility concerns with Ultra Light at very small sizes.

I’m not sure how this will work itself out. I doubt Apple will switch to a different typeface, though they may increase the weight of the font in the final version of iOS 7. But part of the reason Apple went with Helvetica in the first place is that it’s neutral (at least in principle). It gets out of the way and isn’t distracting. It doesn’t convey any particular personality. It’s a “blank canvas” of a font, which makes it a perfect fit for iOS devices, where the device itself disappears and becomes the app you’re using. Developers don’t have to use the system font in their apps, but a lot of them do, and by keeping the system font as neutral as possible, Apple avoids predisposing apps to a certain personality or style.

This is exactly the opposite of the opinions expressed in the closing of the GigaOM article, and is I think the opposite of Apple’s intentions with the iOS experience. Using a custom font that “reinforces a more distinctive brand voice” would be the equivalent of sticking a big Apple logo on the front of the iPhone. Apple’s branding goes on the back (where it can be an effective marketing tool). It’s never a part of the user experience.

Can a developer use an iPad as their only portable “computer”?

I am at a crossroads in my work situation. Since 2008 I have worked as a freelance web developer, which naturally meant using a laptop as my primary/only computer. I worked mostly from home, but I would frequently go to coffeehouses, and occasionally work on-site at client offices. A portable computer was a must.

The same week that Steve Jobs announced the 11-inch MacBook Air, I went out and purchased one. It was exactly what I wanted: a full-blown Mac, (almost) as small as an iPad (which of course I already owned as well, but mainly used for testing, occasional gaming, and watching all six seasons of Lost in the span of a month on Netflix, not for “real work”). I loved the MacBook Air. I said it was the best Mac I’d ever owned, though I admitted it was a tad underpowered. Enough so that when SLP needed a new computer 6 months later, I gave her my MacBook Air instead and bought myself a new, slightly more powerful version of the same.

That MacBook Air has been my only computer ever since. In fact, shortly after switching to it full-time, I wrote a glowing review of it right here. But last April I moved my business into a storefront studio space. I’m not going to coffeehouses anymore. Now, more often than not, clients come to me instead of the other way around. And all of this time I’ve been sitting at a desk, with that same 11-inch MacBook Air hooked up to an HP 23-inch LCD. (Yes, HP. I may be a self-proclaimed Apple fanboy, but even I can’t justify the expense of one of their Cinema Display monitors.)

It’s in this context that I’ve finally really become aware of the performance limitations of the 2010 MacBook Air. It’s unbearably slow with Adobe Creative Suite apps. It’s even unbearably slow running Panic’s Coda. And no computer today should choke up on what is essentially a glorified text editor. (That said… As much as I love Coda, it does seem bloated and slow almost everywhere I’ve used it. There’s no comparison to the blazing speed of BBEdit, which I also love, but Coda has some features I prefer, so it remains my main coding tool.)

Over the past few months, as my workload has increased and my patience has diminished, I can no longer pretend that the 2010 MacBook Air’s performance is adequate for my needs. I know the 2012 Airs are at least 3 times faster than the one I have, and I’m sure this year’s will be even faster, and maybe even have a Retina display, and therein lies the problem: I’ve been desperately wanting to upgrade my Mac, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one of the current 11-inch Airs (the only portable I will consider) when they’re getting so close to a refresh.

At the same time, I have a major crunch at work over the next 3 months. I couldn’t afford to wait on my creaky old Air anymore. So last weekend I settled on a compromise, borne of the fact that I almost never touch my MacBook Air outside of the studio anymore. I got a Mac mini for the studio. I went with the more powerful quad-core i7 model, which is rated on Geekbench as at least 6 times faster than my old MacBook Air, and almost twice as fast as the current ones.

I’ve already noticed a huge difference. Adobe Creative Suite is way faster, almost to the point of no longer being infuriating. (But that’s another story.) Coda is still occasionally sluggish, but that may have more to do with the fact that I’m working with files on our local file server over a questionable WiFi connection. I should try putting the files directly on my hard drive to see if it makes a difference.

But now I am faced with a weird dilemma. This is the first desktop computer I’ve owned since the Dell I had back in 2001, and the first Mac desktop since even before that. (It was a Bondi blue G3 tower, if you were wondering.) The dilemma is this: in a world of iPads, where I am already pretty much never touching my MacBook Air outside of work, do I really need a portable Mac at all?

I still have the Air, of course, and have continued to lug it around next to my iPad in my Tom Bihn bag this week. But why? In the two meetings I had this week at client offices, I only used my iPad. Maybe the iPad is really all I need. Maybe?

I have a few months to find out. I won’t consider buying another MacBook Air until the new models are out, so in the meantime I will experiment. I will try only using the iPad for any and all computing tasks outside of the studio. I’ve begun that today, by typing this blog post on it as I sit at the kitchen counter with my Saturday morning coffee. It’s been a bit of a challenge. I gave up on using the WordPress web interface and switched to the (marginally better) dedicated iPad app. And I’ve made lots of typos… some that iOS auto-corrected, some it didn’t, and some false positives it shouldn’t have. (C’mon, iPad… use some context, would ya? Why would anyone ever write “you we’re”?)

The biggest challenge will be if I have to write some actual code. But it’s a far different world for that than it was even a year ago. I have a handful of coding apps on my iPad, though nothing I have could be more valuable than another pair of apps from Panic: Diet Coda (great name, BTW) and Prompt, a terminal app. I haven’t had much call to use either of them… yet. But I’ve been comforted knowing they’re there.

At the end of this month we’re planning a family vacation to Utah. That may prove to be the ultimate test. Do I dare leave for a week with only my iPad? Honestly, I’m not sure I can. It will depend on the state of my various work projects at that time. But I’d like to be able to give it a try.

I’ll post follow-ups here as the experiment continues.

Defense Against the Dark Arts (of iMessage Configuration)

Ever since upgrading to iOS 6, I’ve had a problem. The glorious promise of iMessage with its seamless integration of SMS/MMS and Apple’s messaging services between iPad, iPhone and Mac has mostly worked, with one infuriating, deal-breaking exception.

Texts to my phone number go to my iPad and not to my iPhone.

Look, all of this integrated messaging is cool. Being able to have text messages show up not only on my phone but on my other devices is awesome. But they have to at least show up on my phone or the whole thing is a failure.

I’ve researched the problem and found some people with somewhat similar issues, lots of stuff involving jailbroken iPhones (which mine is not), etc. but no clear answers to my exact problem. Several people in forums suggested shutting off iMessage on the various devices, deleting accounts, full-blown factory restore, you name it. All of which were either things I tried and found didn’t work, or wasn’t willing to try due to the amount of time and tedious work involved.

iMessage SettingsSo I began experimenting. There was one distinct problem I could see in settings. On both iOS devices and my Mac, the Messages app was showing both my phone number and email address. But in some cases one was grayed out. Infuriatingly, on my iPad and Mac, the phone number was grayed out and checked, and on the iPhone the phone number was grayed out and not checked. I could easily add or remove the connection of my email address to any of the devices, but my phone number was stubbornly locked into my iPad only. (Or, well, my iPad and my Mac… I guess. Honestly I hardly ever use Messages on my Mac so I haven’t really paid attention.)

I wish I could give a clear account of what came next, but I started tapping various buttons and clicking various boxes with such a fury that it all became a blur. What I do remember is that I clicked the checkbox next to my email on my Mac, which un-grayed the phone number. I was then able to uncheck the phone number, and the email now became grayed out.

So, if I understand correctly, the way iMessage settings work, at least one receiving phone number/email address must be checked at all times, so if only one is checked, it’s also grayed out so you can’t uncheck it. Then, if you check the other one, you may be able to uncheck the first.

That wasn’t working on my iPhone, however. Strangely though (at least as I recall from the aforementioned blur), when I repeated the process from my Mac on my iPad, then took a look at my phone, it was already switched to having the phone number checked and grayed out.

So then I began running some tests. This is where things get muddy, and since all of this just happened a few minutes ago, I still may not have a complete solution. I tried sending a text to my phone number from SLP’s iPhone. Never got it. Then I tried sending a text to my phone number from my iPad and it went to my phone within seconds. Cool. Then I tried sending a text to my email address from SLP’s iPhone, and it immediately showed up on all three of my devices.

Everything then is working as expected except that I did not get the text from SLP’s iPhone to my phone number at all, on any device. It’s hard to say what that’s all about. Are things working now? I don’t know.

Here’s another weird thing to throw into the mix. SLP and I share an iTunes Store account, but we have separate iCloud accounts. I also have a separate iCloud account apart from the iTunes Store account. The iTunes Store account uses my “real” email address, and I have a separate me.com email address I use on iCloud. So that’s all kind of a big mess, yes I know. Anyway, whenever I made these various changes to my configurations, the iOS devices would pop up alerts regarding the change. These alerts also appeared on SLP’s iPhone, even though her Messages settings don’t have any of my account info associated with them.

The bottom line here, for me, is that Apple really has not dealt with the reality of multiple users on the same device, multiple family members sharing an iTunes Store account but needing their own iCloud accounts, etc. They may be trying to deal with it all, but they’re trying to integrate too many things that had developed for too long as independent products. And they’re not having as much success at it as they think they are.

This post began as many others here do, as an attempt to share my solution to an Apple conundrum. Unfortunately in this case I just can’t quite make sense of what’s happening, and it seems to be one of those dark-clouds-on-the-horizon portents of more trouble to come with Apple’s tendency for its ambitions to exceed its capabilities in the realm of networked services.

I just want it to work. Isn’t that the Apple promise?

Follow up: Just after posting this I had our neighbor — who also has an iPhone but of course does not share our iTunes/iCloud accounts — send a text to my phone number, and I got it. So the problem seems mostly resolved. But let’s leave it at this: if you share your iTunes Store account with another family member and you both have iPhones, you might need to send your text to each other’s email addresses instead of phone numbers, if you’re running into the same problems I’ve been having.

What do Made-in-USA iMacs, fracking in North Dakota, and right-to-work in Michigan have in common?

Yesterday I blogged about the huge glowing area in North Dakota that is experiencing a shale oil boom thanks to hydraulic fracturing (fracking). This morning I tweeted about new legislation passed to make Michigan a right-to-work state. And for the past few days I’ve been reading enthusiastic news that Apple is resuming manufacturing in the United States.

What do these things all have in common? Well… the always insightful Jason Kottke has the answer.

We’re witnessing an interesting cycle in the US economy right now. Changes in China in recent years have presented new challenges to its burgeoning manufacturing base; meanwhile here in the US the combination of Great Recession-related unemployment, the GOP’s 30-year experiment in rolling back labor rights, and (as Kottke notes) the artificially low price of natural gas here due to the fracking boom, have suddenly made the United States a much more desirable place for manufacturing. But will it last, and at what cost?

The real reason Android is (and has always been) in trouble

Over on Daring Fireball, John Gruber links to a Business Insider piece by Jay Yarow, called “Android Is Suddenly in a Lot of Trouble.”

Gruber responds:

It’s not that Android is suddenly in a lot of trouble — it’s that a lot of people are suddenly realizing that Android has been in trouble all along.

Exactly. But he doesn’t go on to mention why it’s been in trouble all along (though as I recall, he has in the past). I’ve seen plenty of reports, like this one from comScore that iPhones use WiFi networks significantly more than Android phones in the U.S. and U.K. This is one way of measuring the qualitative differences in how people use iPhones compared to how they use Android phones. You could also talk about app revenue, for instance.

All of these measurements and analysis revolve around one clear conclusion, especially when one considers how people end up walking out of a store with either an iPhone or an Android phone. Carriers are pushing Android because they can control the experience more. They’re giving away Android phones as stock upgrade models when customers’ contracts come up. People who don’t even care about owning a “smartphone” are bringing home Android phones because that’s just what the sales rep at the store recommended.

Android is in trouble because a lot of its users (the majority? the vast majority?) are just using it as a phone. It’s a commodity. A lot of the people buying it don’t really know or care what it is, and will never actively use its full potential. It’s just a phone. It may be capable of much more, but if it’s not being used for more, what difference does that make?

People who go into a store wanting to purchase a smartphone predominantly choose the iPhone. Not all of them, of course. Tech-savvy people do choose other smartphone platforms, including Android, especially those who want to tinker with the system. But the rest take whatever they are told to buy by their carriers’ sales reps.

This is the biggest reason Android tablets haven’t taken off, and it’s been discussed too. There’s a built-in market for the apathetic purchase of an Android smartphone. But no one (well, I hope) is walking into a cellular carrier’s store and saying “I want a tablet. What tablet do you recommend?” People who want a tablet don’t just want a tablet; overwhelmingly they want an iPad. Most people who don’t want an iPad don’t want a tablet at all. (Almost) everybody needs a phone.

The problem for the carriers, and the reason they’ve been promoting Android, has typically been that Apple retains too much control (from the carriers’ perspective) over the iPhone. That’s not likely to change, but with Windows Phone, suddenly the carriers have other options. Microsoft is definitely keeping a tighter rein on Windows Phone than Google does with Android, but with Windows Phone, the carriers still have options they don’t get with the iPhone. (Not that this lack of control has prevented them from selling millions of the things.)

If Verizon is serious about pushing Windows Phone (along with the fact that they still sell huge numbers of iPhones), then we’ll soon begin to see just how Android was, as Gruber says, in trouble all along. The success it has achieved to date was largely dependent upon carriers pushing it on unsuspecting or indifferent customers. If they stop doing that…