The Micro.blog experience and a few thoughts on the open web

This post started as a response to a thread on the Macpowerusers forum asking any users of the forum to share if they were users of micro.blog. As users chimed in with user names some also offered opinion and critique of micro.blog. It was something I’d thought about quite a bit myself and as I typed this I realized it should be a blog post rather than a forum post.

So, about Micro.blog I’ll start with a few specifics but then I’ve got a few things about the larger “open web” context that I want to begin working out.

I’ll start with the micro.blog interface! Yikes. Too clean, too simple. And somewhat dysfunctional. The official iOS app and website seem so devoid of personality. Some like a simple white page and I understand that appeal. It’s much better that than the cluttered mess of ads and wasted space on FB and Twitter. In fact, much better than most websites generally. I think this nice tidy look is at least in part due to the fact that micro.blog is a paid service and so, no ads! Also, as it’s been built from scratch I’ve seen in mentioned by it’s creator, Manton Reese, that he’s been very intentional and careful about adding new features. A good move I think.

But the iOS app is just too plain and, on the iPad, somewhat dysfunctional. When in full screen or split screen there are two columns, and the left column is mostly wasted space. In split screen the results are terrible unless it is made to be the smallest portion of the split screen, the iPhone pane size, in which case it’s not bad. But at 50% split screen the left pane persists and takes up far too much space leaving too little space for content. Another weird behavior is scrolling through posts, one has to be careful not to accidentally tap into a post as it stops further scrolling until tapped again. Tapping into the post is necessary to interact with a reply or to view a conversation, favorite or share. It’s a choice that keeps the interface clean but can make actual use a bit frustrating. Also, anytime I leave and return to the app I’m back at the top of my feed. Also frustrating.

A third party iOS app, Icro, is much better in its use of space. BUT, the website and both apps limit the reading of the “Discover” feed to 50 posts. That’s it. It just stops. The “timeline” of people I follow allows for unlimited scrolling. But it’s an smaller pool of people. It’s hard to discover new people when the discover feed is so limited. Why not an unlimited discover feed. Let me scroll for days if I so choose.

The community is, er, intimate? From what I can tell, it’s very small. TINY. I pop in every so often and near as I can tell, it seems like the same 30 users on my discover feed. It feels like a club or a big Slack channel. That’s not a bad thing but it feels like the opposite of the “open web”. The upside is that it always feels very polite, positive and affirming. There’s little to no snark. I love that. The overall result is that it feels like good, interesting, healthy sharing but really limited in diversity and because it’s such a small pool of people it doesn’t feel real. It feels too curated, controlled. Again, it feels the opposite of the open web.

My understanding of the open web is that, contrary to social media like Twitter and FB, it is meant to be something that is owned by creators and more openly accessible from anywhere on the web. And it’s true that in the case of micro.blog, posts can be viewed outside of the micro.blog website or apps. If I find a user that that I want to add to my RSS reader to follow via an RSS app I can do that. Or, I can just bookmark accounts. But RSS is something I do as an individual reader. It’s my RSS feed. But a part of the point (I think?) of the micro.blog experience is to help create a cohesive, connected community for source material that is both within the officially hosted micro.blogs as well as those from outside. It creates a community commenting system that sort of ties the sources together. And really, it seems to work very well. But did I mention how few people seem to be there?

People go to twitter and FB because it’s a convenient place to go where they can easily connect with a larger group of friends, family, etc. Micro.blog feels like a place to go to connect to a small group of strangers that are polite and have good taste. And I think micro.blog really lacks a certain stickiness for this reason. It seems many users set-up accounts and try it out for a few weeks and then disappear. Once set-up micro.blog is pretty easy to use. Creating a post, commenting on posts are easy. But the mass of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram seems to pull most most people away. Certainly something is missing as the user base of micro.blog seems stagnant. At least from my own observation which is, to be sure, very limited.

Put another way, when I’m browsing Micro.blog I am keenly aware that I am in a very tiny subset of humanity. If I’m browsing Twitter or Instagram there is the sense that I am tapped into all of humanity. Yes, of course it is a subset, but it is a very large subset and it feels expansive, open. That said, big is not necessarily better.I quit Facebook 4 years ago and have never regretted it. I’m still on Instagram though I spend very little time there and I’d like to quit and probably will at some point. I’m on Twitter and would also like to quit that and probably will at some point though I actually do spend a good bit of time there. I’m not satisfied with any of these options as it seems they are opposite extremes with no middle ground.

So, what is to be done? I don’t know. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have quite a bit of gravity on the web and they have a role that many people consider important. Not only that but they are perceived to be “free”. Those users are not likely to leave because they have nowhere to go that is as easy to use and equally important, no perceived cost. Those that I know and with whom I have talked about all of the many negatives have expressed little interest in leaving the services even with those known negatives.

As a builder of the web dating back to 1998 and a blogger dating back to 2002 I’m forced to conclude that as of this moment there are no viable, meaningful alternatives for the less technical, “average” users of the internet. . In recent days we’ve seen the sale of Tumblr to Automatic, the makers of WordPress. Many hold out hope that this might develop into something meaningful for the open web and perhaps it will. I’m far from being an expert and am not an active part of the open or Indy web communities. But the sense that I have is that ultimately the solution is growing the plurality of “open” options for users as creators and consumers. Perhaps, if viewed as an ecosystem, the outlook might be more hopeful? That is, after all, the original ideal is it not? Open and wide access to the web to everyone? There will be no one answer, no one challenger to the gravity wells created by big social media entities.

I write this and mull it over from the perspective of a creator and as a longer-term user of the “old web”. I have, at least, a basic grasp of the ideal (and importance of) the open web, ownership and access. I write it as someone frustrated with the nastiness of the business practices of the corporate entities that own the big social media as well as the lack of moderation on those sites making them potentially dangerous places. But even amongst the relatively tech fluent (and likely, financially affluent) community of tech/apple oriented users that I follow on Twitter, there is little impulse to move to alternatives such as Micro.blog or Mastodon. I’ve seen evidence of an almost complete lack of interest.

My hope is that more in the tech community might begin to take an interest and make more of a consistent effort to slowly fill in these alternative spaces. Additionally there are old-fashioned websites and moderated forums. These spaces already exist but they need to be consistently inhabited and expanded. Over time, technical capacity and mind/user share have to be consistently grown and grown in such a way that they are also an ethical improvement that is also sustainable.

Claris!

As a longtime user of FileMaker Pro and an Apple user since 1993, I’ve got fond memories of Claris. I loved those apps and used them often. The news that FileMaker is transitioning back to its original name Claris is bringing back some warm fuzzy nostalgia.

Finally deleted Ulysses

Finally got around to copying over all my Ulysses documents to iA Writer. It’s been two or so years since Ulysses was transitioned to a subscription model and I immediately made the switch to iA Writer. I’m still very glad I did. Moving all my remaining documents over today reminded me of one of the other good reasons: Ulysses kept it’s documents in an iCloud database as opposed to actual files. Rather than selecting them all and moving them at once I had to go into each one and export it or copy paste. Yuck.

By contrast, all my iA Writer documents are actually .txt files. So much better!

iPad Journal: iPad Keyboards

Okay. I have to admit I have a problem. Keyboards. Possibly cases too. And stands. Just, in general, iPad configurations. The beauty of the iPad is that as a computer it is not hard wired to a keyboard. That, along with iPadOS, is what I love about this device. But, along with this freedom from the keyboard comes the possibility of seemingly endless configurations.

I’ve written recently about this obsession. And now I’m writing about it again. Here’s the thing, I move around a good bit when I’m using the iPad. I use it on my porch, on my futon, my bean bag, at a desk/shelf thing, at the library and when I’m visiting my folks. Much of the time I’m happy using it with Apple’s Smart Keyboard Folio. But not always.

The benefit and shortcoming of that keyboard is that it is attached like a laptop. It’s very stable to use in the lap and fine for a table. Until it isn’t which is usually when I want to elevate it to a higher level, closer to my eyes. At that point there are stands I can use to raise it up. At that point though I need an external keyboard.

So, this is where my various and ongoing experiments come in. Different ways to raise it or position it and the various keyboards to then use with it. It’s a lot of fun and I quite enjoy the many possibilities.

The last time I wrote I was primarily experimenting with the iPad for working on podcast transcripts by flipping the Smart Keyboard Portfolio over into an A-Frame configuration and using the K811 Logitech keyboard with it. It’s a great set-up that I use for podcast transcripts or night-time work because the K811 has back-lighting as well as media control keys. Having the play/pause key on the keyboard is a great help over the course of transcribing 40+ pages of text.

But a few things I’ve tried since that post are different methods for elevating the iPad up to eye level and also adding in two other keyboards for different situations. First, the elevation. I’ve got two things I’m using for this, each to be used in different settings. One is a home-made but very functional stand. It’s made from plywood and is the exact maximum height I want when sitting outside at the table on my porch. I flip the iPad into the A-frame configuration and I’m good to go. Now with iPadOS I can also use a mouse to make it easier for screen taps/clicks rather than always raising my hand up 8 inches. Mostly I try to use the keyboard but still, the mouse might prove handy. In this case I generally use the K811.

However, I’ve got another Logitech keyboard, the K480 which has a slot for tablets or phones. I purchased this a couple years ago for use with the iPad Air 2 and used it quite a bit. I still use it with that iPad on occasions such as this. Two notes about this keyboard. First, it’s HEAVY. This is not a mobile keyboard. It’s great at a desk or even in a lap as the iPad is pretty stable in that slot. Super nice to be able to just grab it and use it in the hand with no need to disconnect. Second, it’s loud and creaky.

As you can see in the image, I’ve got both iPads in action here and it works great, similar to having a Mac with 2 screens. My workflow in this case is that the smaller iPad is my reference screen with a document sent by a client for a newsletter or brochure design. Then the iPad Pro above is where I’m doing the design work. I can copy text on the iPad below then, using the magic of Handoff, paste the text into the document that I’m designing on the iPad Pro. I could use split screen just on the iPad Pro but when I’m doing design or layout work it helps a lot to have the whole screen devoted to just that document. The K480 is also a multi device keyboard so I’ve got it paired with both iPads and can switch between them with a flick of a little dial. Very handy.

I’ve also got a new stand for use when I’m working from my bean bag or the desk/shelf inside the cabin by the window. This raises the iPad up anywhere from 4 to 6 inches. When I’m working from the bean bag I often have a lap desk and this stand is a bit more manageable on my lap than the home-made stand which is way too big and heavy for that. It’s not quite as tall but it’s enough.

Usually, in these situations, I’m using the K811 keyboard. That said, I recently remembered that I also have the Logitech Keys-to-Go keyboard. I bought it three years ago for on-the-go work with my iPad Air 2. It’s an excellent keyboard. Super light, very thin and small. It’s got a similar covering and feel to Apple’s Smart Keyboards but with the benefit that it is completely silent (if you prefer that in certain settings) and also it has the special row of function keys along the top row. It’s smaller and some might think slightly cramped but it’s still very useable and I love it. I type about as fast with it as I do any other keyboard. This is a great keyboard for the library where I sometimes work because it’s so quiet.

The only negative is that after a year of use the top layer of fabric that covers the keys began to bubble up from the keys forming air pockets. It still works pretty well but now the fabric covering feels loose above the keys and it’s a bit of a distraction. But getting it back out the other day I was reminded of how much I enjoyed using it before I got the first Apple Smart Keyboard. It’s $70 at the Logitech website, usually only $45 on Amazon.

I’ve ordered another one and expect it will mostly get used when I go out to public places where a quiet keyboard is of benefit. Though, to be honest, I like it enough that it might get used a fair bit even at home. The great thing about the iPad is getting to choose what way I want to work and what tools I want to work with on any given day! I’ll also be watching it for signs of the above mentioned defect. Logitech offers a 1 year warranty and I’ll take them up on that if I have issues.

Which brings me to yet another keyboard related point that almost requires it’s own post but I’ll try to fit it in here. Namely the question of durability of these fabric covered keyboards. I love both Apple’s new folio and this Keys-to-Go. While they’re both missing back lighting and Apple’s offering is also missing the top row of special function keys, I’ve really come to enjoy the feeling of the fabric covering as well as the weather/moisture/dirt resistance they offer. That said, I think a keyboard should last more than a year. My previous Apple Smart Keyboard needed to be replaced after about 8 months. I suspect the current folio version will also need to be replaced before a year of use. As stated, the Keys-to-Go, while it still works, should not have the issue it has. It was only in use for about a year when I put it on the shelf.

Perhaps it’s just not possible to design a keyboard of these kinds of materials and have it stand up to 5+ hours of daily use for more than a year. I don’t know how widespread the issues are but I know that I’ve seen several references online to exactly the same issues I’m having so they’re likely not rare. I hope that Apple, Logitech and others can sort out the problems because I think these kinds of keyboards are a natural fit for the tablet form factor. Fabric covered keyboards offer dirt and weather resistance, can be very light weight and a pleasure to type on but if their expected lifespan is less than a year that would seem to be a problem. The lifespan of most of my keyboards, be they Apple or third party, laptop or Bluetooth, has ranged from 5 years on up. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect this new style of keyboard to last a minimum of 3 years.

iPadOs

Wowza. It’s been well over a month since WWDC and all of the fun summer Apple news! I obviously feel no pressure to offer my opinion on these things. There are more than enough hot takes out there. I’m not sure if it’s my getting older or what exactly but I’m happy to just sit back and take it in. I mostly regard my opinion as I regard all the others out there: not that important. I’m happy with the iPad and iOS 12 and as expected, I’ll be happier with the iPad running iPadOS 13.

It’s not that I don’t care or that I’m lacking enthusiasm. On the contrary, I’m super excited for what’s coming and have been happily playing with the iPadOS public beta since it’s release. I initially installed on my iPad Air 2 and after a month I also took the plunge and with the release of the third public beta installed on my iPad Pro. I normally would not do that on my work iPad but I have everything backed up and verified that my essential work apps are working fairly well on the beta.

Even in it’s rough around the edges beta form it’s great and an improvement over iOS 12. But I’m not all that interested in rehashing what everyone already now knows (assuming they have an interest in the topic) and what’s available to read on Apple’s iPadOS website.

What I will say is simply that iPadOS makes a lot of sense as the next step for this device. I think Apple’s done a great job of adding features for power users while maintaining a surface level simplicity for the users that are fine with the basic iPad feature set. Users like my parents can happily go on using the iPad as they have in the past and will probably not notice much of a difference. To them it will be the same iPad they are comfortable with. Before the iPad my elderly aunt and uncle did not use a computer and had never used email or the web. Now they, like my mom and grandmother, are daily computer users. They’re happy and comfortable sending email, messages, photos, and so on. All thanks to the iPad.

For those of us looking for “power user” features, well, now we have more of those. My three favorites: Widgets on the home screen, improved Safari, and the more fully featured Files app. I’ve tried the mouse support and suspect that will come in very handy too for those of us that would like to put our iPads up to eye level or hook up to mirror our iPads to a second display.

The iPad was released in 2010, intended to be a friendly, easy to approach and use device. In 2019, we can look back and see a slow but very steady evolution of the hardware, iOS, and the available apps. I think in retrospect, this has been about as much as anyone could ask for. In 2010 I was a happy Mac user and the iPad entered my home as a fun, pleasant to use browsing device. Today, nine years later, the iPad has become my favorite Apple device and is now my daily computer.

The fact that this same device can serve a user such as myself and at the same time be used so easily by non-technical users says a lot about what Apple has accomplished.

iPad Journal: Pages Summer 2019 Status Update

It seems I’ve gotten in the habit of writing about my use of Pages once or twice a year and it would seem now is time to update. Past posts:

I’ve been using Pages since it was first released way back in 2005. In that time it’s been one of my favorite apps and one of my most used both on Mac and now on iPad. I know the app pretty well and as time goes on I only grow fonder of it. I’ve used it to create countless flyers, brochures, reports, newsletters and even used it to help a friend publish her first book. It seems inevitable that logging that many hours with an application is likely to lead to strong feelings and I’m happy that in this case they are positive feelings. I wouldn’t want to be in a position to have to spend a lot of time with an application (or operating system) that I didn’t enjoy using.

As I write this Apple’s current website for the Pages App has as it’s second section headline: “A canvas for creativity.” I think that’s an apt description for the app. I’ll go further and say that one aspect of what Apple has accomplished with Pages is gradually build an app that not only works the same (mostly) across all devices, but one which will empower a broad group of users in creative endeavors. Of course, like any deeply featured app, the more you learn the more you can do, but Apple has done a great job of making this app one which is easy to approach for novice users. I’d say the interface is very well designed to appear simple at a glance. But with a few taps or clicks the powerful features are easily revealed.

I might go so far as to say that, to some degree, the design philosophy of Pages parallels that of the iPad. And by that I simply mean that on a surface level it is simple and friendly. It is approachable. Apple has done the same with the iPad. With iPadOS 13 we have something that will continue to be easy for novice users or users that just want easy, basic computing. Most of my family will never use the advanced features of the iPad (or, for that matter, Pages). But those features are there for those of us that take the deep dive, those of us that want the advanced features, have them there waiting for us.

My last update was October 29, 2018 and there have been updates! The march towards feature parity with the Mac continues though we’re not there yet!

What’s still missing?

  • Line spacing is still limited to pre-set increments. I can have 1 or .75 or .5 but not .9 or .8 and sometimes I need .9 or .8. This seems like something they should be able to fix.
  • Spacing between characters.
  • More keyboard shortcuts.
  • Shapes are now partially editable but not fully. It’s possible to combine shapes using different modes but it’s still not possible to make the various individual shape “nodes” editable as is possible on a Mac.
  • Multipart lines are still not possible. With the Mac I can create a line with the pen tool that has many different points which can then be curves or straight and the positions moved around. With the iOS version I can create a line with just one adjustable point.
  • Advanced gradient fills are not possible. Included in this would be a gradient with transparency.
  • It’s not possible to edit the color, angle, distance or spread of drop shadows.
  • When exporting to pdf it would be nice to have the ability to choose the quality of the images.

What’s fixed or new?

  • Yay!! We can now change a document type to “Page Layout”.
  • Formatting table borders is fixed! We can adjust style, color and width!
  • A new and welcome feature: new styling features for text! Namely, it’s now possible to have text with a gradient fill and with new stroke options. Also possible is using a texture or image for text fill. This will come in handy!

Something I wrote last time which still stands:

“One last bit. Apple has positioned the iPad Pro as a pro device. Not only should they finally fill in the above mentioned gaps between the Mac and iOS versions, but it might be nice to see a few advanced features added that would bring it more on par with apps like InDesign. For example, drop caps! Sure, I can create those with text boxes but I shouldn’t have to work around this. One feature that might be considered more advanced would be the option to have an art board around documents. A place off the document that allows for storing bits of text, shapes, images, etc. I don’t expect it but it sure would be helpful. More advanced PDF export would also be nice.”

And, just to be clear, in the past 10 months other features HAVE been added that I’ve not covered here as I don’t use them. Most recently new Pencil features such as animating a drawing which might be very useful for some. New and powerful ebook creation features which again, are probably great for those that have a use for them. I have not, as of yet, had need.

Big day today for Apple Nerds.

WWDC 2019. Looking forward to it. As happy as I am using the iPad everyday I’m sure I’ll find it more enjoyable with iOS 13 installed in the fall. We’re one hour before keynote so lots of surprises to come.

Using the iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard Portfolio in non-standard configurations

It’s been over six months since I posted my thoughts about the 2018 iPad Pro and the new design of the Smart Keyboard Portfolio and my thoughts on the keyboard remain the same. I continue to love it. The design and typing experience are excellent and it is far more stable than the previous version. I regularly use it in my lap with no issues.

That said I still have two gripes: the lack of media control keys and the lack of backlighting. If these two features existed this would be the perfect keyboard for me (and I suspect many others). As we are fresh in the month of May we’ve now seen the release of three different takes on iPad Pro keyboard cases. Actually, I’m sure there are others but these are from three of the better known manufacturers: Zagg, Brydge, and Logitech.

These all look excellent and have those two features I want: backlit keyboards and media keys. I’ve looked at them all and thought about getting one. But there’s one common drawback to all three that keeps me saying no: They are heavier and more importantly, they confine the iPad in ways I don’t like, the Zagg and Logitech require the iPad be held in a shell-type case that’s hard to get in and out of. The Brydge has clips that are very tight and while it’s possible to pull the iPad in and out it’s still quite a bit more effort that releasing it from Apple’s offering. Also, the Brydge design makes flipping the dock up for multitasking more difficult. Also, all three are an added expense of more than $100.

One of the features of the above mentioned Zagg keyboard folio is that the iPad shell which has a kickstand detaches from the keyboard allowing it to free stand so for watching video and/or just using in a different arrangement with the keyboard. I like his and have often done this in the past with various stands and my beloved Logitech K811 keyboard which has backlit keys and the media keys I want for use with the iPad.

I began to wonder, not for the first time in 5 months, how I might make better use of this keyboard. Could it be better used in conjunction with the Apple Folio?

I’ve known of the trick of flipping the Folio backwards and upside down for creating a drafting table sort of angle for use with the Pencil. While it looks a bit odd it works great and it was that sort of thinking I was after. How might the case be flipped or otherwise used in a non-standard configuration with an external keyboard?

The first and an embarrassingly obvious thing to do (and I can’t believe I’ve not tried it till now): I just sat it on top of the keyboard of the Smart Keyboard Folio and started using it instead. I think I’d assumed that there would be issues with the keys of the Folio keyboard registering taps but they don’t. (Well, in my lap they don’t. I noticed that on a hard surface the keyboard does sometimes actually register key presses on the spacebar and the keys on the bottom left and right). But there were also two additional problems. For some reason, if the iPad is docked in typing mode on the Folio the Command-Tab and Command-Spacebar shortcuts for app-switching and Spotlight stop working. Well, that’s no good! I use them far too often and won’t do without. But now I was somewhat hopeful that I might find another configuration.

What if the iPad is used in a sort of A-Frame position? Would it be stable? Yes, this has some real potential.

In my lap while sitting in my favorite work spot, a big bean-bag chair and my legs up on my table. Actually very stable and now I can adjust the angle. Been working this way all morning. I often use a little homemade lap-desk, just a bit of shelf wood that is 12” deep and 20” or so in length. Perfect for having a cup of coffee on my lap next to the iPad. This A-frame configuration also works great on that little desk.

Out on the porch you can see the variety of angels possible. Also, conveniently the Apple Pencil still has a place to sit though it obviously won’t charge. Note, on some smooth surfaces the iPad would probably slide a bit but in my lap and on this table it stays put.

So, now I’ve got a set-up that cost nothing extra, allows me to make more use of a keyboard I already had and which has the added benefit of more viewing angles.

Mind Mapping Experiment

A year or so ago a friend on Twitter asked me if I used or had ever tried any mind mapping apps. I had not. He was pretty excited and suggested a couple. I took a look at a couple and thought they might be useful for particular projects. I downloaded iThoughts and gave it a spin. Then I almost never used it. Why not? The short answer is that I think this is the sort of app that is useful for larger, more complicated projects and those happen to be the kind of projects I don’t take on very often.

Most of my work is of a repetitive nature, small one off projects finished in one to three days and most of them come in one at a time so I’m rarely balancing two or three projects at a time. Most of my work is website updates and document designs and layouts. I have no need for mind maps for these things.

In my initial test I came away thinking that mind maps would be great for long writing projects and larger projects that require more steps and ingredients than I usually handle. As it happens I’ve got a potential project coming up that would probably benefit from actually diving in with this kind of app. It’s only a potential project at the moment. It is a volunteer project involving the local library which may involved several people, organizations, and an ongoing and complicated process (compared to my usual).

A few days ago I saw the new version of MindNode was released so I downloaded it for the free 2 week trial. I spent an hour with each app and came away with the impression that iThoughts is a more powerful app in almost every way.

MindNode is better in the area of visual style with a couple of added features. It’s also got newly announced support for second, external USB C monitors which might be nice for some.

But iThoughts seems to be the more capable app. It’s got support for markdown in the notes for nodes, the ability to import a greater variety of objects, and far more export/sharing options. After an hour of using them I felt like I’d gotten a solid handle on how they each work (very similar) but also had the sense that I’d reached the limit of MindNode’s feature set.

With iThoughts there is more to learn and more that I could do. An example, the project I’m mapping, is a collaborative local history project which includes several small non-profits, various resources being digitized, a podcast and a website where the materials will be catalogued. iThoughts has the ability to work with special categories of notes such as tasks with due-dates, resources (people in orgs), cost calculating nodes, and project progress (for nodes that have tasks). Also, I can drag and drop contacts which will add clickable email links for the contact. I can also drag and drop websites and many kinds of files. Some files, such as Pages files, cannot be drag and dropped but can be added via the attach context menu. MindNode does not seem to support any of these features and really, they are the kinds of features I think I’d want to have available for the kind of project I’m likely to use a mind mapping app for.

Back to my case test, as I developed my mind map I wanted to add people to the workflow and add email addresses to those people. Ideally it would give me the option to add a link to the contact vCard but the email is what it attaches and in most cases that’s what I’d want. I’ll also be wanting to add project resources such as forms and documents and as already stated, this is no problem. Also in my case test I added a node for possible project costs. This is a potentially very handy tool! As new child nodes are added a designated parent node calculates the costs listed in each of those children. So, in my case, web hosting has already been added. Any new possible costs can be added as nodes and the parent will keep it tallied.

I’m liking the way this is going and I can see this being a tool I use for future projects of this kind. As this particular project continues, IF this particular project continues, I look forward to continuing with iThoughts.

A few thoughts on Apple News and RSS apps

I’ve been using RSS apps since the early(ish) days of it’s existence. I think it was 2002 or 2003 that it became a habit for me. I’ve had at least one RSS app on my Mac and then iPad ever since. For years that app was NetNewsWire. I’d occasionally try others but that was the gold standard. As I recall there was a time when it became a bit stagnate and then was sold. During that time other apps popped up, namely Reeder which became my RSS app of choice. Then along came the iPad and a flurry of RSS apps along with it. I tried several but when Reeder became available for iPad I settled on that. For many Reeder took the place of NetNewsWire as the new standard.

Reeder 4 on the iPad. There’s a lot of wasted space there.

What’s the point of RSS? Well, it makes subscribing and skimming a large number of publications easy. Scrolling through headlines with article summaries becomes very easy. Rather than load an entire site I can refresh 30 or 40 and then skim through them all at once. I can do this by topic area or with all of them mixed up. In my case I’ve got groups (folders) by categories such as news, Apple, tech, environment, etc. On slower internet in rural areas it’s a fantastic help.

This is the Apple News page in all it’s glory. Nice images, headlines and pleasant to browse

A couple years ago Apple released their iPad and iPhone take on a news reader called Apple News. They’d dabbled for many years with RSS built into Safari and even the mail app at one point had RSS built in. But with Apple News they built a dedicated app they really worked pretty well. While RSS and Reeder remained my primary tool I found myself gradually using Apple’s app more and more. I really enjoyed the design of the app which presented the news as a full page of news thumbnails each with an image (usually) and the headline broken up into sections and source publications that I could follow or unfollow with the ability to like or dislike stories as well as save them for future reading. Apple throws in sections and stories from other sources to provide variety and the reader has the option to dislike stories or block sources as needed. In theory this is training which is supposed to improve what Apple provides.

That’s a lot of wasted space for what is, essentially, an ad for Apple’s News+ service. I can’t hide it.

What I find most enjoyable with Apple News is the full screen layout of stories, the mix of stories and the reading experience of a story. But there’s a downside (there’s always a downside) and it is three things.

  1. Ads
  2. Apple+ is Apple’s new News and magazine service and the stories are mixed into my feed. Sometimes a new magazine will take up nearly half a page. If I were a subscriber I’d be okay with that but I’m not and I have no option to turn it off.
  3. When sharing Apple News articles the link is a proprietary Apple News format. Fine for sharing to Apple users but I often share to a Slack group that has several folks who don’t use Apple. I’ve got a fix in the form of a Shortcut that converts but I should not have had to do that.
  4. The training is not all that great. I often see stories I do not want to see and it seems no amount of training with dislikes helps. Even worse, when I block a source it often persists for a day or two rather than disappearing immediately. No, no, no, I don’t want to see stories about the British royal family, not interested in sports either!
  5. Last, some stories in Apple News have ads and some stories, if viewed on a web site would have comments I’m interested in seeing. So, while the reading experience is often great, it can also be a bit cluttered and often requires that I load the story in Safari.

But all in RSS land is not perfect. Reeder, was recently updated to support the new iPads and added a few new features. Nothing game changing but still a solid app. Funny though, I had switched to another RSS app, Newsify, which had added support for the new iPads and have come to like it’s interface as much as Reeder’s. It’s not perfect but it works. I spent the past couple days bouncing back and forth between them and found that each had features that I wished the other had. Neither felt complete.

Newsify is properly using the space of my iPad to display a variety of articles with images

After some experimentation I’ve found a solution that, I think, brings the best of all three. My main annoyance with Reeder was its huge waste of space when browsing stories. It only takes advantage of a small column on the left for browsing through articles. The primary part of the app is empty. After months with Apple News this was bothering me immediately. In the time I’d been using Newsify I came to enjoy the fact that while the number of articles displayed was about the same they stretched across the screen and more information was provided about each. Still not as nice as Apple News but at least the screen was being used! But there’s a fix that I discovered yesterday while poking around settings in Newsify: It can be displayed using “Newspaper View”. Perfect. Now I had something that looked nearly identical to Apple News!

Apple News on the left, Newsify on the right. To my eyes both are very pleasing to browse.

So, now I’ve got the article browsing I want without Apple’s ads and no Apple News+ articles I can’t read. What about the reading experience? Close. Unfortunately you’ll note that in Newsify this article does not display the full text but has a “more…” link to click through.

Viewing an article. Almost there but Newsify does not display the full article. Notice the “more…” link

Of course that takes me to the full page on the website which is chock-full of ads. But Newsify has a setting which will load the page in the built in Safari View and switch it over to “Reader mode” which is, of course, the perfect uncluttered display comparable to Apple News. I just tap the article title and I’m ready to read in a few seconds. Side benefit, if it’s an article I want to view comments for I can turn off the Reader mode and they’re already to go.

Apple News on the left, Newsify on the right in “Reader mode”. Perfect.

Newsify does have a premium subscription which includes a full text display for these kinds of articles but either way I have to tap just once to get a result with is nearly identical.

So, with Newsify and a few tweaks to a few settings I’m getting as close to an ideal (for me) RSS reading experience on the iPad.