July 1, 2015

Why I Buy “All Those Apps”

Ever since my fascination with technology became known by my colleagues, I’m often asked for my opinion regarding all sorts of quibbles and buying decisions. Most of the time, I’ll do it willingly, as I enjoy talking about this stuff anyway.

There’s one type of conversation, though, that usually leaves me a bit… frustrated.

Oh, that’s very cool. But I wouldn’t pay for it.”

Who pays for apps these days?”

I don’t work hard just to spend my money on this stuff. Besides, there must be a free version that does the same thing.”

See, it’s not like I walk around, stomping my feet and mumbling grumpily; I couldn’t care less what apps individual people choose to buy.

In the abstract, though, I do.

The opinions above are a symptom of a broader underlying issue: we still look at these ever-shrinking machines — our phones and computers — as harmless toys. And logically, if you think of something as wielding little influence in your life, it can neither benefit nor harm you too much.

And I care because those who under-appreciate the benefits of technology often fail to notice or take seriously the potential hazards of the march forward. We know intellectually that technology affects every single aspect of our lives, but this fact doesn’t hit home on a visceral level.1

Let’s zoom out a little.

Money

What is the purpose of money?

Why do we go to work? Why do we need money? Why do we want money? Why do we want more money? Why do we save, invest, why do we start businesses?

The purpose of money is time.

Nope,” you might say: For the poor, the purpose of money is survival.” To which I would counter: Survival is the continuation and extension of life, and life is made up of amounts of time. When you die, you have no more time.

Almost everything we buy or do with our money is a way to give ourselves more time.2

Time

What is the purpose of time?

The purpose of time is self-actualization.

The term was originally introduced by the organismic theorist Kurt Goldstein for the motive to realize one’s full potential. Expressing one’s creativity, quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society are examples of self-actualization. In Goldstein’s view, it is the organism’s master motive, the only real motive: the tendency to actualize itself as fully as possible is the basic drive… the drive of self-actualization.”

Self-actualization can mean a variety of different combinations of the following (and more):

  • Living as much as you can among your loved ones
  • Becoming the president
  • Writing a book
  • Helping those in need
  • Inventing a revolutionary product
  • Buying a Picasso
  • Becoming a Picasso

In many instances, self-actualization will result in financial prosperity, but again, only as a by-product: A successful entrepreneur who enjoys innovation and business is bound to be well-off.

Time vs. Money

Time is more important than money. But why?

Because time is irrecoverable: unlike your bank balance, your time balance is always going down, no matter how you are spending it. And once it’s spent, it’s gone forever.

Because time cannot be generated: And money can. There is no mix of two or more ingredients out there that will yield you time. You can’t go to the store today and ask for two hours of life. You can ask a bank or a friend to lend you money, but they can’t give you time. You can’t make” more time in the literal sense, no matter what you do.

Because time is limited: and money isn’t.

Whatever self-actualization means to you, you need time. You might need money, but you must have time.

Today, the End, and the In-Between

In the Druze religion, it is believed that both the time of a person’s birth and the time of their death are predetermined. That’s quite an incentive to spend time wisely, if you ask me. But you don’t have to be Druze or even religious to understand that the time of your death is predetermined, in a way.

Am I forcing religion on you? God forbid! I’m only suggesting that you are going to die. Maybe you’ll live a whole century, and maybe tomorrow a car will have smashed into yours and killed you. We don’t know. But however far or near the day of your death is, you have exactly the amount of time between now and then — that unknown point in time — to live.

And so if the purpose of time is self-actualization,3 one should want to spend as much of it as possible on this purpose.

Time Now for More Time Later

The good news is that — within the remaining quota — time can be traded profitably. A profitable trade is when you invest a certain amount of time that yields you more than that amount in the long-term. Optimization, delegation, automation. This is the essence of productivity. (It’s also possible to make unprofitable time trades, like the time yours truly spends fiddling with this website’s design.)

Take a look at this ingenious chart from xkcd, titled Is it Worth the Time?:

is it worth the time?

To the left of the chart is the time you can save on a certain task, and above it is how often you perform that task. So, if it’s possible to save one minute from a task you do 5 times a day, you can (and should) spend six days of your life to attempt that.

You can also convert one or both measures in this chart from time units to currency and estimate whether a product or service is worth the price. It’s most obvious for freelancers, where theoretically almost every hour can be a work hour.

Money for Time

And the Jobs to be Done with Productivity Apps

Where financially possible, people also trade money for time. We hire assistants, maids, secretaries, gardeners, and babysitters. These are very common and legitimate money-for-time trades. We also buy products to save us time: microwaves, espresso machines, clothes dryers…

So why don’t we hire” apps for the same purpose? Among the people I know, there aren’t many whose time (and money) couldn’t be better utilized with a simple automation trick or a dirt-cheap app.

One obvious reason is the maturity of the industry. Applications are much younger than the products and services I’ve mentioned above.4 Even amongst younger people today, there’s still some sort of psychological block associated with paying for intangibles. If you can’t grab it, it’s not real, and if it’s not real, then you certainly shouldn’t pay for it.

Ultimately, most people are skeptical towards buying apps for utility because they perceive that the jobs to be done with apps are still limited to the entertainment and leisure categories.

This is economically irrational, of course. If we remove the prejudice and examine these icons on the screen as money-time propositions, much is to be gained:

  • I introduced Hazel to a friend of mine, a successful voice actor, just a few months ago. He says it has saved him hours on uploading, editing, and sending recordings to his clients. And Hazel costs $29, mind you, which is considered expensive for an app. In the long-term though,not buying it would have been a costly decision on his part.5
  • Fantastical saves me a lot of time arranging my calendar and maintaining a sense of control over what needs to be done.
  • Overcast, with its Smart-Speed feature, has saved me over seven hours of listening time. Why have 1 hour of Horace Dediu when I can have 1.3 hours of Horace Dediu?6
  • TextExpander makes sending a quote to potential clients a matter of seconds, not minutes; even from a smartphone.
  • Scanbot/CamScanner let you use the iPhone camera as a scanner.

Notice that most of the above have very clear (and much more expensive) tangible parallels: personal assistant, secretary, photocopy/fax machine.

Not only do they save time in the obvious sense, they also spare stress and frustration that could’ve been regarded as unavoidable. The impending yearly car test, why do you need to remember when that is? The house insurance you need to renew, the phone call you promised to make for a friend, your mobile plan expiring soon, the meeting you just agreed to. You think you don’t spend time thinking about these little, mundane bits, but they are there, accumulating brain-cruft at the back of your head, not letting you achieve a mind like water.”

I hope it’s clear I’m not blindly advocating paid apps over free ones. Here too, there are unprofitable trades (and please don’t remind me how many text editors I’ve paid for.) I certainly don’t expect anyone to pay for something if they can get it elsewhere for free. But the idea that applications can’t be worth your money just because they’re imperceptible, again: plain irrational.

If You Just Want to Win the Argument

So next time somebody says nobody should ever pay for apps, send them this article.

Or, just ask them this insightful question from David Sparks7:

Imagine you’re on your deathbed and you’re told you can live another hour and that it’ll costs you four dollars. What are you gonna say?

I haven’t tried this one yet, but I’m sure not many people would answer with a no.”


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  1. Think privacy. ↩︎
  2. One rather sad exception to this rule are the group for whom money has become the purpose, even if they’ve got plenty. It’s not their sheer greediness that bothers me, it’s the irrationality. At a certain point, the amount of time spent trying to save or make more money does not yield you enough time in the long term to justify the effort. At this point, one should be spending more money buying time than time trying to make money. ↩︎
  3. Which might be a fancy term in this essay for self-fulfillment, which might be just a fancy term in for things you care about.” ↩︎
  4. The microwave oven was first sold right after World War II. ↩︎
  5. That’s another distinction people fail to make: expensive vs. costly. ↩︎
  6. Every minute spent listening to The Critical Path is self-actualization time to me. ↩︎
  7. Around the 1h:12m mark of his debut on The Talk Show” ↩︎
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June 24, 2015

The Price of Music

David Pakman in a guest piece for Recode:

The data shows that $120 per year is far beyond what the overwhelming majority of consumers will pay for music, and instead shows that a price closer to $48 per year is likely much closer to a sweet spot to attract a large number of subscribers.

For this reason, I believe the market size for these services is limited to a subset of music buyers, which in turn is a subset of the population. This means that there will be fewer subscribers to these services than there are purchasers of digital downloads unless one of two things happens:

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June 22, 2015

President Obama’s Interview on ‘WTF’

I agree with my friend Carl Holscher: This was a fantastic, humanizing interview. As someone who’s been in mainstream radio for the past eight years, I will also add that a well-tamed radio host would have never been able to achieve the level of intimacy Marc Maron did. Never. Even if his editor didn’t remind him about nailing a sync for the bulletin. Even if her Editor in Chief told her to forget about the ratings.

This one could turn out to be a nice growth stimulant for the medium that is podcasts,1 but regardless: it’s great to witness the rise of doctrine-free radio.


  1. The only significant stimulant being friction elimination↩︎
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June 22, 2015

Gmail in a Box

For me, any service that deals with text has to meet an additional criterion: right-to-left support. Luckily, this just happens to be the case with my most valuable app (Drafts). I say luckily because the huge segment of RTLers is consistently left out by most app developers, including those of desktop email apps. You can imagine the tediousness in loading Gmail in a browser.1

This is what Go for Gmail aims to solve: it’s a free Mac app that sits in the menubar and can instantly display your account inside a web-view. You can customize notifications and configure shortcuts to toggle the inbox and compose windows. Clearly, most of this website’s readers only write LTR, but I can see other benefits to having the full web interface available.

By the way, a supposedly supercharged compeer of Go for Gmail is coming out tomorrow, called Kiwi for Gmail. It costs $5 if you pre-order ($10 otherwise) and supports gestures, direct Drive access, and streamlined account switching.

I ordered Kiwi and will do a write-up soon. But if you simply want Gmail inside an app, GfG does the job. (via Matt Gemmell)


  1. Please don’t bring up the native Mail app. ↩︎
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June 20, 2015

A Better OS X Dictionary

James Somers read an essay by writer John McPhee in which the latter mentions how he employs the dictionary in his editing process. The problem was — as Somers details in his own piece — that he and McPhee appeared to be using very different kinds of dictionaries. None of the dictionaries Somers had been using offered the richness that McPhee’s one seemed to. So he went out to find out which dictionary that was, and added it as his default dictionary on OS X.

Being a non-native writer, I followed Somers’ instructions at the end of his post and did the same. The second quoted paragraph below reminded me why I’m so fascinated with English as a language. Emphasis mine:

Recall that the New Oxford, for the word fustian,” gives pompous or pretentious speech or writing.” I said earlier that that wasn’t even really correct. Here, then, is Webster’s definition: An inflated style of writing; a kind of writing in which high-sounding words are used, above the dignity of the thoughts or subject; bombast.” Do you see the difference? What makes fustian fustian is not just that the language is pompous — it’s that this pomposity is above the dignity of the thoughts or subject. It’s using fancy language where fancy language isn’t called for.

It’s a subtle difference, but that’s the whole point: English is an awfully subtle instrument. A dictionary that ignores these little shades is dangerous; in fact in those cases it’s worse than useless. It’s misleading, deflating. It divests those words of their worth and purpose.

(via Brett Terpstra)

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June 18, 2015

Logitech K480 Keyboard: A Review

To be fair, I’ll prelude this review by pointing out that I only bought the K480 because my first choice, Incase’s Origami Workstation, doesn’t ship to Israel. This isn’t to say I didn’t have expectations: Logitech’s keyboard boasts an average rating of 4.2 stars on Amazon and has received generally positive verdicts in other reviews.

The goal with an iPad setup was being able to leave the expensive, heavier MacBook at home on most days. Already in my arsenal were Rain’s mStand and Apple’s wireless keyboard. After crossing out the Origami, it was time to find a different keyboard-compatible case, or a combo proposition.

The criteria (in this order) were weight, comfort, size, and look. If you’ve read other reviews on here, then you know I also aim for pragmatic setups: those independent of future purchases.

On Paper

The Logitech K480 debuted in September 2014 and was marketed as the computer keyboard that also works with your tablet and smartphone”. It’s an agnostic’s wet dream, promising to not only work flawlessly on Windows, OS X, Android, and iOS — but also make switching between devices frictionless.

It currently retails on Amazon at $48, available in white or black.

Weight & Portability

The first thing you notice about the K480 is its weight. As I removed it from its package, my hope was that the cartons accounted for most of what I was carrying.

Nope.

The K480 weighs 820 grams, or 1.81 pounds.

One could argue I should’ve known this by looking at the specifications. And I did. But like most people, not only could I not translate that number meaningfully, I also did a poor job in estimating its significance by testing against lighter or heavier objects.

Device Weight (grams) Weight (pounds)
iPad mini 331 0.73
Logitech K480 820 1.81
iPad mini + K480 1,151 2.54
13″ rMBP (late 13) 1,570 3.46

The iPad-K480 carry is 419g lighter than the MacBook. While this difference isn’t insignificant, there are two factors the calculation above excludes: the additional weight of an iPad case (if one is used), and the fact that the rMBP is among the heavier laptops within Apple’s current lineup.

There is one very valid argument to be made for this keyboard’s weight: it needs to bear the weight of at least one iPad without things getting shaky.

Look

Reading other reviews, you may notice some complaints about this keyboard’s appearance. Indeed, compared to Apple’s, this one looks a bit…economic. But in fairness, how many other keyboards don’t? The K480 isn’t a sexy device, but I think cheap” is a little harsh here. Its plastic build might make it look a bit toy-ish, but this doesn’t translate to inconvenience, or ostracism.

In hindsight, I would’ve gone with the black version of the K480 instead of Logitech’s definition of white,” as I find the latter to be somewhat dull. No biggie.

The Dock

The dock is about 27 centimeters (10.62″) long; enough to fit both an iPad and an iPhone in portrait mode. The device-slot is deep enough to hold any iPad without completely covering its home button.1 The rubberized inner edges mean you can plug the iPad quickly and firmly — fearing neither a fall or a scratch. However, this also dictates that you’ll have to remove most cases if you want to be able to dock it.

side-view of an iPad docked into the K480 keyboard by Logitech

Because multi-device support is one of this keyboard’s biggest selling points, the slot’s width isn’t ideal for the iPad. In portrait mode — my preferred for writing — I feel the mini leans back a little too much, which doesn’t allow me to lean back comfortably enough. I’m not sure why, but when the iPad is docked horizontally, things get much better.

The viewing angle isn’t as bad as I’m making it sound — it isn’t bad at all — but neither is it perfect.

Ergonomics & Key Build

The above becomes more of an issue when you take into account one additional factor: the flat K480 sports an unadjustable base that sits 20mm above surface, providing a somewhat problematic typing angle.

But the keys..

The keys are where Logitech messed it up.

The first thing you should know about these keys is that they are loud. Not typewriter loud, but definitely the closest to that that I’ve heard from a keyboard. This can be good or bad depending on your taste, but I wouldn’t use the K480 in a classroom or bedroom.

More importantly, the keys are excessively round. If this was a stylistic decision, then may the Lord have mercy on Logitech’s designers. But stylistic or not, there are practical ramifications: keystroke misses and mistypes. The keys seem too far apart, and the space between them is often disorienting. I can’t tell with certainty whether the travel distance is longer compared to other keyboards, but the fact the keys protrude as far as they do makes me instinctively press harder.

The ergonomic experience with the Logitech K480 isn’t great. I don’t know how it compares to other iPad keyboards — and this is important to keep in mind — but while using it, I can’t help but feel I’m adjusting either my neck’s or wrists’ posture uncomfortably.

Button Placement

The switch dial is well-designed and offers just enough resistance to avoid accidental switching. I would’ve liked it to the right side, in-place of (or near) the pairing buttons, but I figure lefties would say the opposite.

What isn’t up for debate is the power switch location: Logitech has decided to put it on the back of the keyboard. It’s somewhere around the upper left side, not overly perceptible. If you’re energy conscious, you may find yourself a little annoyed by this.

Battery Life

But you have to be especially energy conscious to care about the power switch. Logitech claims two AAA batteries should last two years assuming two million keystrokes/year in an office environment”. Eight months in, and my K480 isn’t showing any kind of slowness associated with battery drain. Take this testimony with a grain of salt though, because these days I rarely couple it with the iPad, and instead use it daily with my HTPC.

Pairing and Multi Device Support

This is where this one shines.

Thanks to its pragmatic key-mapping, which was well thought out, the K480 makes for an excellent cross-platform device. It does so without overly sacrificing cleanness or creating confusion.

Pairing new devices is a breeze on all operating systems; so is switching between paired devices and replacing paired slots. OS X and Windows controls work just as expected, and more importantly, so do the iOS controls on the top row. This makes multitasking on the iPad more plausible.

This section isn’t brief because it lacks importance, but I simply have nothing but positive things to say. Logitech gets an A+ here. Period.

Final Thoughts

I’m much less romantic about tech gear nowadays, so when I’m writing about one, I tend to focus more on aspects that I dislike and assume you’ll deduce that everything else works fine.

The Logitech K480 is an excellent multi-device keyboard. Those who use different operating systems will appreciate what it has to offer. Strictly as an iPad companion, however, this keyboard isn’t exactly a match made in heaven. I’m not sure whether I stopped carrying it because of its ergonomic shortcomings, or due to my own unrelated challenges with writing.


  1. The home button shouldn’t be of concern anyway, since it’s one of the custom-mapped functions on the top row. ↩︎
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June 16, 2015 June 11, 2015

‘The Muse’

Eric Lawrence:

There’s a writer living in my head, and he’s a genius.

Or so he tries to convince me, as his prose flows freely day in and out, filling most idle moments– while I’m showering, driving, dining, taking out the trash, or performing any of the other mundane tasks of daily life. His prose is brilliant– his points always well aligned, his recall of long-ago events and facts uncannily perfect, and his agility in seamlessly transitioning from one topic to the next is above reproach. He never needs spell-check or a thesaurus, and he never struggles to find the right way to approach the topic. His efforts are frequently interrupted by periods of basking in the glorious reception he imagines for his easy labors, and is certain that untold rewards are sure to follow.

Unfortunately, this genius is a huge jerk.

There’s a draft I have lying around titled Pilcrow Angst. Had the genius writer in me showed up to write it, it would read exactly like this.

I came across Eric’s weblog because another piece of his regarding Apple’s new ad-filtering API is currently trending on Hacker News. Read it too. And check out his other posts — good stuff.

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June 11, 2015

Apple Music: The World’s Biggest Paid Music Service

This comparative chart appeared in one of The Wall Street Journals articles this week:

The Wall Street Journal's Chart

We’ve seen products create, rejuvenate, and expand small, crowded markets before, but I’m certainly not claiming this about AM at this point. It is also definitely true that Apple Music currently has zero users, free or paid. But looking at the users row in this chart can be very misleading. Here’s Jan Dawson on Twitter:

>400m people with app auto installed plus 3 months free should add up to lots of paying users a few months from now for Apple Music

In this crowded business, Apple also owns one of the platforms on which these services are competing.

Given 400 million iOS users and the day old news of Spotify reaching 20 million paid subscribers, roughly 1 in 20 iOS users would have to renew their 3-month trial for Apple Music to become the biggest music subscription service in the world.

Roughly, but probably not more: this disregards the fact Apple Music will also be available on Android, that 400 million is actually a conservative estimate for the number of active iOS users, and that Spotify — barring any retaliative moves — is bound to lose some of its paying customers to Apple. If we take those into account, and despite Apple Music launching in only” one hundred countries, a conversion rate of 3-4% is going to be just enough.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see this milestone celebrated — surely not outwardly — but I sure do hope Apple is aiming for much more than just the number one spot.

So, the real headline a few months from now would be Apple not having become the biggest paid music service in the world.

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June 10, 2015

Ad-Blocking Could Be Coming to Safari in iOS 9

Nieman Lab:

An Apple partisan might argue it just wants to give users control of their iPhone experience, and having debuted extensions in the last version of iOS, allowing them to alter web content is a natural next step.

An Apple realist might argue that its great rival Google makes more than 90 percent of its revenue from online advertising — a growing share of that on mobile, and a large share of that on iPhone. Indeed, Google alone makes about half of all global mobile advertising revenue. So anything that cuts back on mobile advertising revenue is primarily hurting its rival.

An Apple cynic might note that the company on Monday unveiled its new News app, which promises a beautiful reading experience — and a monetization model based on Apple’s iAds. iAds will, one can assume, never be blockable by third-party extensions available in the App Store. Ads that appear at the operating system level — as opposed to in HTML and JavaScript on a web page — have a rather invulnerable position so long as you keep using Apple products. (It’s good to be the platform.)

They had it coming! was my knee-jerk reaction too, but as I wrote in Adblock & Collective Punishment, I oppose ad-blocking as a blanket policy.

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