Automatic app updates out, this method in.

Automatic app updates are a bad idea. Apple should recognize this by now. In case you, dear reader, aren’t convinced of that, here are some simple reasons why automatic app updates are just no good –

  1. Software is buggy – how many times have you heard that “we shouldn’t get the dot zero version of that software”? It’s almost a maxim in the enterprise world – unless you deeply trust it to not break your current setup, don’t get that update. So why should we be so cavalier about software updates for our personal devices? We shouldn’t let developers decide the de facto time when we get an update.
  2. It’s a vehicle for disruption – and not the good kind. App updates are great if they’re well thought out, streamlined, and work. But more often than not, they introduce changes which wouldn’t sit well with you and your workflow. How many of us regret updating to some version of iOS that slowed down our devices to hell and there was no recourse? Why do we trust third party developers more than we trust Apple in this instance? If I don’t know exactly what is going to change in the update, why should I update it? Which leads me to the next point…
  3. Automatic app updates are evil – Yes, they’re evil. How many times has Facebook slipped in something nasty and you didn’t even know it till you got the update? There are two types of nasty Facebook has slipped into your devices over time – the first is when they change the user agreement. So often, we would go to the website and Facebook would make us check a box and hit Accept before letting us burst out our Likes and jealousy. We’ve all brushed past those to chat with our friends. The same applies to app updates. You open the app to answer the call of a notification and an annoying pop up tells you to just say YES before you can do what you came here to do. What option do you have other than to stab that yes button? The second nasty is the more insidious version – Facebook has been able to slip in all kinds of dirty code, tracking features, and nasty experiments into our apps simply by adopting frameworks that let them remotely update our apps, and by using vague release notes that just said “making some improvements”, even when they were shipping major changes to your Facebook and Instagram experiences. This must stop, and the easiest way to make them stop (even though we’re too far gone now thanks to their remote app update frameworks), is to stop automatic app updates.
  4. It’s bad for security – This goes against everything you’ve ever heard. “Automatically updating software is great! It keeps things secure!” Until, it doesn’t. Software is eating up our life and yet, pretty much all of us are rather careless about the security of our apps and services. For most technophobes, automatic app updates are both a boon, and an excuse to hide behind. “Hey, I keep my apps updated, but I still got hacked!” Well, did you consider 2FA? Did you try to understand whether you’re using insecure communication over insecure networks? Did your app have the requisite features to protect your privacy, like data encryption? Are you using the same password for fifty services? We would all be more knowledgeable about all those questions if we bothered to understand what goes on in the making of our apps, the design decisions taken by the devs, and the shortcuts they take to ship sooner. Which leads to the next point –
  5. It’s a surprise! – it feels great to open an app the first time in the day and notice that something has changed overnight, but more than once, I’ve been bitten by apps that changed their business models, removed features, and made decisions that affect me, without so much as bothering to explain that a change is coming. This attitude is a right that a developer feels about a piece of code that they’ve written, but it’s a piece of code that I licensed from them and is running on my machine. They should not be able to decide how that code changes for me. By removing automatic updates, we’re forcing developers to explain why we should be getting this new update, rather than letting them get away with “we removed bugs!” or the boilerplate crap big tech companies throw at us.

Until things change and developers become better documentation writers, and tech companies stop lying about the code they’re sneaking into our machines, I have one suggestion –

Don’t do automatic app updates. Do expiration-based ones instead.

Right now, automatic app updates are an all or nothing deal. You either trust Apple and third party devs completely, or your don’t. I fall in the latter category and I couldn’t be happier! I know that I’m gonna get exactly what I paid for an app (especially if it’s free), and it’s going to work exactly as I expect it to for a long time to come.

Well, almost. Apps often have massive API changes, or security updates that are absolutely essential. The only way for devs to push those through is to expire the version of app currently installed on your devices, and force you to update (when you open the app the next time, at the crucial moment when you actually need the app). I’ve seen a lot of important updates like this, like when my banks update their APIs, or my insurance firm tells me to get the update else I won’t get continued service, or my grocer decides that I can’t get to my weekly ‘one dollar off’ coupons until I get the latest and greatest app update they’ve pushed out.

OK, that last one is silly. Apps like my grocer and my insurance app should always work. If I’m in front of a cop who’s asking for my insurance info, it would suck if I have to tell her that I have to update my darn app before I can show it to her. Also, why the heck does my grocer need to update the app once a month? Haven’t they heard of APIs?

Situations like those cause me to propose the solution I’m presenting, though, it’s obvious that it should be taken with a pinch of salt, since it’s not the perfect solution.

Here’s what we should do –

Apps shouldn’t get auto-updated. Instead, this should be a deliberate process. We need to be able to approve everything that goes into our devices. Yet, some apps are essentials, and though I don’t open my insurance app every day, when I open it, I expect it to work instead of showing me a banner to update the app before I can continue. So those essential apps should have two options – either I let them auto update completely, or I let them update only when the app is marked as ‘expired’ by the developer. The benefit of the latter approach is that devs should have a legitimate reason, such as changing their API drastically, that should drive app updates. Does this put more strain on Apple’s app approval process? Yes. Let’s make them earn that 30% they take from the devs, and the hundreds of dollars of Apple tax they collect from us.

I’m not interested in the smaller updates. I’m interested in keeping my apps available when I need them. So if I can skip the small ones and only get the big, breaking news updates, I’ll be a happy camper.

But this may not suit everyone. Some people don’t care about how and what changes are coming to their devices, but that’s what got us into this mess before with Apple and the battery issue which Apple effectively cheated and lied to us about, and Facebook and every privacy scandal they’ve been able to walk away from.

I believe that if you want to remain that kind of person, you have the full right. So I would love to see all of these options incorporated into the next iOS, or the one after that. The future is customization and personalized feature sets for everyone. It’s more expensive due to that, but that’s just where we’re headed. Hopefully, we’ll get to enjoy some good software on the way.

Squarespace is the best and the worst at RSS

Within the last 12 hours, I’ve come across two websites hosted on Squarespace that portray how one mustn’t do RSS. Sadly, at some level, it’s not necessary that the owners of these websites even know what I’m talking about.

I’d like to name these sites –

Soup

and

StephenMarche

These are nice sites – well designed, purposeful, vibrant. But their content is so pitifully inaccessible through RSS. Here’s why –

With Soup, I really wanted to get RSS access to all of the topics they cover. These are Culture, Food, Interviews, Features, to name a few. Usually, when I’m on a site that has RSS feeds, the SubToMe extension tells me how to get to it. In the case of Soup, it failed. The content is visible on the homepage, but the RSS feed that it picked up was blank –

http://thesoup.website/index-rally?format=RSS

‘rally’ is what piqued my interest. What is this CMS?

WhatCMS says that it’s Squarespace.

Well, what do Squarespace’s docs say about RSS feeds? Do they even support them?

As it turns out, they do, and quite well! (or so say their docs)

So I opened each of the ‘topics’ I wanted to subscribe to on Soup’s site and found their RSS feeds using SubToMe. One example –

http://thesoup.website/culturesoup/ -> http://thesoup.website/culturesoup?format=RSS

I immediately noticed that the content is there in it’s entirety! That’s amazing. It almost never happens on commercial sites that the RSS feed carries the entire content.

Good – RSS feeds contain entire content

Bad – I had to subscribe to eight different feeds. There’s no parent or ‘all’ feed

 

Later, I came across Stephen Marche’s writing in NYT and that led me to his site. Again, beautiful site, really modern, really functional and pleasing. I jumped to the Essays -> Recent Work section but alas, SubToMe didn’t find any RSS feed!

By now, I’d wizened up. I know that on most pages, just adding ‘?format=rss’ at the end will get me the RSS feed. So I did that. Nothing. Why is that? Perhaps because the recent work page isn’t really a traditional list of items that Squarespace converts into RSS. It’s a static page which the Admin just adds URLs to the top of. But how would I know the difference? There’s no way. So as of right now, I’m subscribed to Soup’s RSS but not to Stephen Marche’s. I followed him on Medium, but ugh.

Pro – ???

Con – Maybe the admin turned off RSS on purpose? Maybe the page I’m looking at cannot support RSS?

Now, I can reach out to the owners of these sites to figure things out. Maybe I’ll end up educating them on the importance of RSS and maybe I’ll learn something new about Squarespace (do they even support an ‘all’ RSS feed? I don’t know, I’ve never used the platform). Maybe all they need is a slight push in the right direction, or maybe it’s a long project that’ll require a reworking of their workflow (which, tbh, why would they do that for me?)

But I don’t want to do any of this. RSS is the perfect stalker medium on the Internet. Facebook and WhatsApp show you read notifications. On twitter and Instagram you’d end up hitting ‘like’ by mistake. But RSS is one-way (depending on which RSS reader you use) and so it’s perfect for people like me who just want to cultivate their little corner of the Internet.

There’s a post out today by Brent Simmons talking about an article that’s talking about the demise of RSS. Brent points out that RSS doesn’t need to be the ‘default’ for everyone and RSS readers don’t need to be installed on every device on Earth for this to be a successful technology. It already is.

This is most visible with beautiful walled gardens such as Squarespace. Most people who host with Squarespace do it because it’s commercial and aligns with their interests. The primary method of communication for consumers is the newsletter. There are options for eCommerce shops, podcasting, and email campaigns. Much off this could happen without RSS. But Squarespace took the basic RSS technology and chose to use it as the back-end for most of these things. Podcasting is basically an RSS feed with audio attached, so there really was no choice but to use this open standard. Wherever RSS feeds are available, they’re full length and rather useful. So could RSS have a place on the Internet? It already does.

A note about people taking the time on the Internet

I read a very interesting post through one of the linkblogs I follow. This link, through the blog kateva.org talks about how Facebook is experimenting with linking Groups and Pages, the two ‘community’ offerings by Facebook with the use of Saas affiliate marketing software. I’m part of a few groups and a few pages (I’ve cut down on the latter a lot in recent years because it’s mostly noise) and I see real value in merging the two and creating a single entity that simplifies group interactions on FB.

But what was interesting to me was John Gordon’s comment on the link – “I miss blogs that used to explain things like this.” Of course, he’s not talking about the change FB is bringing but the blog he’s linked to. The comment resonated with me because there’s something along those lines that I’ve been thinking about since some time now.

When the Internet began, people started filling out blogs and sites talking about the most mundane of things – small changes in their favorite newspapers, versions of textbooks and differences between them, software and the differences between versions, events of their days, to name a few. These discussions were then swept up by sites who collected these minutae, stripped out all ownership information, and presented the collected works as their own. This has been acceptable practice and what certain sites are borne out of (cough cough). This practice both helps grow the Internet at an exponential rate and harms the original authors as their work and name gets lost along the way.

So people on the Internet slowed down. Content creation moved from everywhere on the Internet to either large syndications or small blogs or forums. The large swathe of users on the Internet became consumers. This is part of the problem for most social networks – when a majority of people are consumers, only a choice few are creating value. Thus is born the consumer’s content creation – likes and shares and retweets and reposts. These became the content of today. I don’t have a problem with this.

My problem is with the loss of the minutae. That value that was once created on blogs and static pages is now created on reddit and stackoverflow and obscure forums, if at all. That often means that the type of value creation that I (and Gordon) am looking for has just about disappeared. If no one asks the question on Quora or Stackoverflow, no one answers what the changes FB is making look like.

What I’m looking for is even more specific. I am often faced with a very difficult choice – whether or not to update a particular software. With apps, it’s much more difficult because we notice those changes quickly and it is almost a split second decision whether to update or not (click that button!). Further, there are so many apps that we use and so many updates that get pushed through that it would be draining to discuss what each update brings to the table and whether it is destructive in any way for any specific scenario. For updates on a computer, there’s still some open discussion one can find. People take these a little more seriously and often it’s easy to find information about version changes and impact on systems similar to one’s own.

Let’s take a few examples –

I recently updated to the latest version of the WordPress app on iOS. It was on a whim and I paid dearly for that. The new update brings the ability to manage plugins on your WP blog. But the update is borked. One of my blogs has well over fifty installed updates (not all are enabled) and when I go into that blog, the app crashes and then keeps crashing. I’ve seen no update for this issue in the last two days and haven’t bothered to write up a report to WP for it. I learnt after a few tries that if I don’t open that blog’s admin page from my app, the app doesn’t crash (letting me use the app for other blogs). Presumably this has something to do with not loading the plugins list from that site. I wouldn’t know, I’ve not explored the issue further. Funny thing is, if I’d have waited a little and read a few reviews, I still wouldn’t have come across this issue because people usually don’t blog about specific versions of an app and I’d have to trawl through a bunch of issues pages on GitHub to find some mention of the issue.

The other example I have is of a BIOS update. I have the option of pulling in this update and I know that if I want to go exploring issues around it, I’ll find at least a few pages talking about people’s positive or negative experiences around it. Why the difference? Apps affect our lives just as much as BIOS updates do, because they take up more of our time now than computers do. The only thing is that BIOS updates are infrequent and cause system-wide failure. Plus, the BIOS update has been out there for a while and if it had been problematic, I would be able to find more information about it, and is a big problem since people love to use computers, for work, game or even listen to music using the 5.1 computer speakers 2017 that give the best audio quality to any computer.

There’s a hundred other things associated with these scenarios which I’ve ignored to simplify them – iOS is a closed garden, so the number of users who get affected by an individual app are much fewer than from any BIOS update; app updates are now automated so people don’t even have this dilemma that I have; there is a lot of software out there no one talks about and I’ve not included in my examples.

(By the way, I feel Apple should go the WordPress.org way. It should allow people to report back on app versions with respect to iOS versions, to say that, e.g. “2000 people report 100% compatiblity with iOS 11.2 for version 1.3 of this app”. This will give both us and them so much more information about how stables apps and updates are.)

People have stopped taking the time to talk on the open Internet about changes that affect us all. That’s because the return on investment of time and effort is all but enough to warrant this approach to life – documenting every small change.

That’s somewhat sad, frankly.

Everything wrong with Google Play Music’s iOS app

I’m not much for introductions on such topics. The following is part kvetch and part bug list about the Google Play Music iOS app. It’s a crappy app with a lot of problems.

 

1. Oh Playlist, where art thou?

I like listening to reading music while I’m reading. So one day, I searched for such a playlist (aptly named “reading music”) and added it to my library, marked it for download and started listening to it. After that, I didn’t listen to it for a while and moved on to some other music.

The playlist effectively disappeared. The My Library tab has these options – “Recent Playlists”, “Auto Playlists”, and “All Playlists”. Once the reading playlist was no longer a ‘recent’ playlist, I assumed I’d find it in the All section. Nope, not there.

It’s not my own playlist. It’s a playlist that I’ve effectively subscribed to, downloaded, added to My Library (three separate actions they made me do to ensure I have easy access to the playlist). But if I don’t have ownership, does that mean it’ll not even show up in my library? That’s more horrible a design than Google AMP!

To this day, I don’t know where most of my downloaded playlists are. They’re consuming space on my phone but I don’t even know which ones they are, let alone have a way to play them.

In the end, I had to add the entire ‘reading music’ playlist I like to another playlist I created. That’s the only way to get it to show up in my own collection.

2. When everything is Search, nothing is Search

Google Play Music wants you to Search for everything. The Search button is prominent everywhere but it only does Universal Search. When I’m inside a playlist, it doesn’t search the contents of that playlist. I have a playlist called ‘all’. I dump all my favorite songs in there and then when I’m bathing and listening to music, I know I’m listening to stuff that I like. But every once in a while (once a day) I don’t want to start my music with the first song in the playlist (Taylor’s Look What You Made Me Do). So I go searching for some other song. I have to scroll through the entire playlist and hope to hit on the song I want at random.

Mind you, it took Spotify forever to add in-playlist Search. But isn’t Google supposed to be all about design and iterations and learning quickly? Oh wait, maybe I’m thinking about Facebook (hey google, look what you made me do)!

It’s a simple ask – add Search to your app in a meaningful way. Maybe since they don’t actually listen to anybody, they don’t know that’s an ask.

3. Integration, Integration, Integration!

At the bottom of my ‘all’ playlist is a section that invites me to watch YouTube videos of some of the songs on my list. It’s not a very smart offering – it doesn’t take into account my favorite music, just whatever they want me to watch videos of (I can hit the more button to see loads of videos that might interest me).

So I’m thinking, if they’re so tightly coupled with YouTube, that’s awesome! No. It’s not.

Search for a song that they don’t have and they’re point you to the YouTube video for it. Maybe. This service has gotten better over time but it still doesn’t point me to the right video for a lot of songs. Besides, what’s even the point of this? Do I want to watch the song on YouTube? No, I want to hear it on Google Music. If you don’t have it, just say so and move on! Instead, they show me related musicians, radio stations and then bring up the videos. Also, this brings me to the next one –

4. Competition, Competition, Competition!

Why am I on Google Music? My brother bought YouTube Red’s subscription and liked it so much that he was one of the first people to sign up for the YouTube Red family plan. He got me in and I’ve really started enjoying no-ads YouTube. Experimenting with the options available to us through this, we came to understand that it includes YouTube Music and Google Play Music premium subscriptions too. That’s amazing! But not.

What service would you rather use? Shitty Google Play Music or weird YouTube Music? YT Music is confusing and half-baked. It has nice video/audio modes and background play but it doesn’t support playlists. Google Play Music has tight integration with YT but not YT Music, and it opens the YT app for any video I click on, and starts autoplaying it. Convenient, but irritating. YT Music is essentially Google Music’s own competition and they’re both the worse for it. Neither service is usable. I understand there’s some licensing nonsense behind this, but hey Google, you’re GOOGLE. Getting your way with licensing should be second nature.

5. Tabs. Such useless tabs.

You know what I do when I open the Google Music app? I go to my “Library” tab and look for things manually. If I can’t find them there, I search for them using the universal search. You know what I do not use? Every other tab in the app.

The Browse tab – It has three options – Top charts, New releases, Browse stations. None of these interest me because they’re not suited to my taste. They’re generic.

The Recents tab – what’s the point of this? The Library tab has a Recent playlists section. That’s pretty useless too. So the Recents tab is even more useless. It’s just a list of albums? songs? playlists? I have no idea. There’s no explanation of recent what?

Home – this one is even more weird. It’s got random playlists such as “For fans of blah” and TGIF. No reasoning for these. We’re just supposed to assume that they’re customized to day-of-the-week, listening habits, etc. My top recommendation is Latin Guitar Classics. I don’t know why. I’ve been listening to classical music and I daresay the Guitar is hardly a classical music instrument.

When you look at how good the Google Photos app or the Google Home and Assistant apps (which have some weird overlaps) are, it’s amazing that Google has a division making such a confusing and functionally terrible app.

6. The making of an app

When the Amazon Prime Video Apple TV app came out a few days ago, one of the laments people had was that it looks and acts like a website skinned to work with the Apple TV. It’s not horrible (the Hulu app is horrible) but it’s irksome. The Google Play Music iOS app is a joke. The app regularly forgets state and resets me to Library tab. The settings page is long, confusing and not well sectioned.

The album art is also a joke. Most of the music on there has a YouTube video play button as album art. Is this my personal library scraped over the years or a service run by a multi-trillion dollar enterprise? I wonder.

The display icons for artists under the Library tab are huge and most of the time don’t include any photos of the artists and are either blank or some half screwed up album art. The overall design of the app is not material or bootstrap or anything in between. It’s a monstrosity.

7. Misc.

Can your service one-up other music services? Well, if you can’t sort my playlist by any order (RPM would be nice and Spotify doesn’t have that, but I’d take Alphabetical, frequency, year of release, anything), if you can’t play videos within your app, if your service doesn’t include podcasts (I don’t listen to them. I just know other services have them), if your algorithm can’t predict what kind of listener I am (bollywood music, bhangra, pop instead of OMG this guy is Indian we have no idea what to do) and have music discovery in a meaningful way, what better are you than Spotify or Pandora or, heck, Napster?

Does your service have a landscape view? Most music apps do not. But come on Google. Study your competition and trounce them!

What’s with the name, by the way? Was ‘Google Music’ taken?

Recently, I uncovered another glitch in the app. When the missus tried to airplay a song to the Apple TV, if she airplayed the entire screen, the audio was broken and glitchy, but if she did it from inside the app, it worked fine. You’d think they’d hire a test engineer for these things.

There are so many ways Google Music can be better than Apple Music and Spotify and right now, the only cachet they have for me is that it’s free with YouTube Red. That’s just sad.

 

Epilogue

A few weeks ago, I screamed at Google Music on twitter for these issues. They asked me for feedback but I’d cooled down and didn’t bother to send them the feedback. Now they have the information they requested. Let’s see what they do with it.

You’d be asking me, why are you still using Google Play Music if you hate it so? You know what I hate even more? Paying for redundant services. I’m already slated to get rid of Hulu as soon as this season of Grey’s Anatomy ends. If Google ever gives us the option to drop Google Music from YouTube Red and pay less, I’ll gladly go back to Spotify. Till then, I can kvetch.

Photo by The Logo Smith