Software: Thoughts on Facebook’s “Paper”

Full disclosure:

I am not a Facebook fan. At all.

I pretty much have an account for the few dear friends that continue to use the service to contact me via messaging and for me to stay abreast of all things “social” for my day job and freelance gigs. I use it sparingly and when I do I rarely enjoy it. The UI/UX (user interface and user experience) on their website has been a veritable, well-documented train wreck for years now. And when you add in the convoluted, borderline impossible privacy settings… it elevates the FB experience from nuisance, to possibly damning in every social regard.

High drama I know, but in my defense, the “content” (if you can call it that) is a far pinker elephant in the room than my disdain.  In my humble opinion Facebook will end up being one of the biggest missed opportunities my generation will have to fess up to before we die.

Why we changed one of the greatest opportunities in history to connect with each other into an open forum to show our ugliest selves will always bother me.

It’s not ALL like that of course. But come on… We all know what I am taking about.

A new take on a hopeless problem.

So while we won’t ever change the way FB churns its gears day in and day out, that hasn’t stopped the social juggernaut from attempting to change the way we look at it all.

Over the years, they’ve iterated on their official app several times with limited success in changing anything I’ve listed above. But this week? This week was different. On Monday they launched a reimagining of their service, a not so cleverly named app called “Paper”.  And, by golly, all of that developer poaching they did over the years has finally paid off!

Making Lemonade.

The first thing you’ll notice right out of the gate while using Facebook’s Paper is that this is a far cry from the Facebook you use on an hourly basis. In fact, I would go as far to say that if it wasn’t for the ill-placed “Facebook” at the top of the initial feed you see in Paper, that you wouldn’t even know you were using a Facebook app. This is a good thing.

Gone are the columns, the click-bait ads, the blue, the shotgun blast of options, the overt notifications, the noise (dear god the noise)… pretty much everything I didn’t like about the UI/UX of the original Facebook app, has been replaced by something entirely different. You launch the app and after you get through the initial onboarding process, you are met immediately with pictures of your friends (and their kids/infants – no, that hasn’t changed), clean lines, clean fonts, very little chrome and an intuitive navigation that is almost entirely gesture-based.

It took me roughly 5 minutes to find literally everything I needed to make Facebook work as it always has for me in the past. Even though everything had changed, miraculously, nothing had been taken away. And just like that, the overall experience of using Facebook had been made exponentially better! This isn’t another rehash of the Facebook a lot of us apparently love and adore – this is its reinvention, and if I was a betting man? I’d say this is what Facebook will be in a few months.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Facebook replaced their official iOS app entirely with Paper. If only to get rid that awful app icon that Paper currently has, but I digress.

Is there anything else? What’s up with these other news feeds?

I almost didn’t mention the fact that Paper also has a limited number of “feeds” that deliver content from external sources like CNN, NYT, The Verge, The Wire, Politico, etc… covering a range of topics like “Tech”, “Creators”, “Planet” and “Ideas”. Why? It’s because, frankly, I already have several tried and true, thoroughly enjoyable ways to syndicate and consume information from those kinds of channels. Facebook is immensely late to this game and adding it in now (as pretty as it is) seems like gross afterthought on their part and it definitely, unfortunately for them, comes across that way.

Will you like it better than the zillion other ways you can consume headlines on the computers on your desk and in your pocket? I highly doubt it. But they do exist in Paper if you want to check them out. Just follow the steps during the setup process when you fire up Paper initially.

Like everything else the developers did with Paper, it’s pretty, and straightforward.

So why continue using Facebook’s official app?

That’s an excellent question. After a day of use, I’ve already deleted the official FB app from my iPhone and made my Facebook mobile experience solely Paper-based. And guess what? I’ve used Facebook more in 48 hours than I have in the last 3 months. No joke.

Yes the content is still the same, a lot of what I dislike is still there (I can’t blame Facebook for my feed’s complaints, topics, taste, or… well, you get my point), but man is this a great study in how changing something as subtle (and immensely complex) as an experience can change the way something old can feel.

If you are a fan of Facebook or if you’re simply curious about what the future of the service will more than likely be, I encourage you download Paper from the app store today and see for yourself.

Tips: Stretching an iPhone 5 Battery Through a 6 Day Hike in Yosemite National Park

This will be a quick one folks! I just wanted to share how I made a stock iPhone 5 battery stretch 6 days on one full charge while using it only as a camera.

When traveling, I really love using my iPhone as my main point-and-shoot. Does it best my wife’s DSLR? Hell no, not even close. But it does take decent photos if you’ve mastered its quirks and the portability of it is second-to-none.

Upper Cathedral Lake

But what about on hiking trips? Not car-camping mind you, but hiking out in the middle of nowhere, where the nearest power outlet is literally days away?

In those cases you could either bring one of the many portable solar chargers that are now available at any camping/outdoor gear store, or even a hand-crank generator, but that’s just extra weight for me to lug around, not to mention misplace or lose. So when my week-long hike in Yosemite came along, I wanted to see just how far I could stretch a single charge on my iPhone 5, all while using it to snap frequent pics of the stunning beauty out there (and man, there is SO much!).

Now, on a typical day I use my phone to such a degree that I rarely get through a full 24 hour period without plugging it in. I am sure many of you can relate. So how did I accomplish 6 days straight? Let me tell you!

Dim Your Screen Brightness

Brightness Settings

Go under “Settings” and tap “Brightness & Wallpaper”. In that menu, use the slider to bring your brightness down to 50% (or as low as your poor eyes can stand).

Airplane Mode is Your Friend!

Turn off Airplane Mode

Tap “Settings” (if you aren’t still in there) and right up at the top you’ll see a toggle for “Airplane Mode”. Turn this bad boy on and leave it. This turns off your cellular service, WIFI and your Bluetooth connectivity. With this turned on, your phone stops continuously looking for something that, out in the middle nowhere, it will never find. If it was constantly searching? Your battery would be dead in way less than a day. So at the very least, switch Airplane Mode to the “on” position.

Turn Off Location Services

Turn Off Location Services

Tap “Settings” again, go down to “Privacy” and in there you will find “Privacy Services”. Click on that and hit the toggle at the top to turn that off. You will lose the geolocation of the pictures you snap, but the accuracy of that gets dodgy anyways when you are that far off of the grid.

Basically an iPod Touch…

That’s all I turned off! With all these services off, you’ve basically got an iPod Touch, but you can still utilize your camera (which I used continuously from the slider on the lock screen), snap a pic, check it out and lock the phone immediately afterward.

So how did this all work? Quite well! So well in fact that I took well over a hundred shots (a bunch of panoramas too) and, with less than 48 hours until I was back in civilization, I still had 50% battery left! I know! Not bad!

I am sure a lot of folks have tried this combo with varying degrees of success, but sometimes it’s good to read about a use case that actually occurred and worked. If there are any other services I missed let me know!

A Bit on Common Sense

I know it goes without saying but… I when I was hiking, I was with 4 other people who all had charged phones, compasses and maps on them… in other words: don’t take chances. If your phone is the only thing you have as a link to possible rescue, don’t try this out. It’s not worth it.

But, if you are properly prepared, I whole-heartedly recommend leaving your iPhone charger back in the car.

Out there it’s not going to do you any good anyways. ;)

Have fun and be safe!

Software: How and Why I Use Vesper…

UPDATE: On February 27th 2015, Vesper is officially universal! More info here.

UnknownWhen Q-Branch dropped its note taking app “Vesper” weeks ago, it caused quite a splash in the tech community. Mostly because of the design team behind it (John Gruber, Brent Simmons and Dave Wiskus) but also because of how divisive it was on a functional level. Everything it did right (and there’s a lot) was somewhat obscured by everything it didn’t.

What I am NOT going to do…

To date, if you Google “Vesper App” you’ll get 589,000 results, most of which crab about the app’s faults and what’s it’s missing or extol it’s design achievements thoroughly. My opinion? For a variety of reasons, both camps are right, so I won’t waste anyone’s time going through the arguments on each side. You can read those elsewhere (don’t worry, you’ve got a lot of articles and posts to dig through).

What I wanted to do here is pose my argument for buying a note taking iOS, iPhone-only app that is beautifully designed but has no syncing capabilities (to iCloud or any other devices).

Where I fit in

On my iPhone I currently have about six text editors, Vesper makes that total seven. I am one of those geeks/writers who appreciates text editors for the experience they provide. For text that I need sent anywhere I go with the oft-mentioned Drafts . For long-form writing on iOS, I still use iA Writer and Elements. When I need to write a letter to someone, I use OmmWriter. If I have notes that I need to share with my wife I use iOS’ Notes app. Naturally I hedged on purchasing Vesper because if I am being honest, I really didn’t think I needed it.

Why I folded

In the end, it was all of the talk about the UI/UX that got the best of me. Everyone of those apps I listed above I use frequently and not because of the service they provide, but because of how they deliver it. For most people, that aspect of software isn’t all that important. For me though, it’s always had value because it assigns a purpose to its respective app. Because of this, I get better quality results out of different apps for different reasons. And it’s on this point where Vesper ended up performing a sneak attack on me – because of its design, I ended up finding a distinct purpose for Vesper in my day-to-day workflow.

Less is more

Aside from being an absolute joy to use (and the hype on this is thoroughly true), ironically, it was its lack of sync that ended up being the reason I started using it almost every day. Before smart phones and apps, we all carried around Moleskins to jot down thoughts and reminders and we were overjoyed when apps replaced that function; one less thing in the pockets right?

But, the thing is, those apps ended up doing so much more – syncing on other platforms, sometimes with other people. Dead tree notebooks never did those things: they were never backed up or magically synced to other notebooks. When they were burned or dropped in a swimming pool, they were gone completely.

Vesper is very much like that old experience and in a way I find that to be its biggest strength. As a simple app, it recreated that link I used to have with notepads and scratch paper.

Sure, there are excellently implemented search, in-app browser, archive and sharing features mere taps away and you can even tag notes (hallelujah!) and add pictures if need be. But those are options I find that I seldom use (outside of the tagging, which I admittedly use a lot) and I feel the app serves me better for that. Because of its stripped down approach, I don’t write “mission critical” stuff in Vesper. It’s all disposable and very temporary. And the fact that it’s in such a distinct silo (only in one app on my one phone) makes it easier for me to know where I wrote what. In other words, for me, in this case – less is definitely more.

Sledgehammers and tack nails

I am sure I am alone in this, but I actually hope they don’t add much more. Outside a few minor things (at the end of the day, I do wish there was a back up of notes to iCloud, if only for disaster recovery and getting a new device) I find this app to be one of those thoroughly complete iOS experiences that doesn’t really need much refinement.

It’s a total joy to use, is fast, stable as hell, intuitive to navigate, and does exactly what it was advertised to do: help you “collect your thoughts”. There are plenty of all-in-one text editors out there that do a lot of things Vesper doesn’t. But, for me anyways, many of those are heavy lifters and they are two clunky and complex for the tasks that Vesper accomplishes so well. Sledge hammers against tack nails. Some times you just need a tool that fits in your hand perfectly, is counter balanced just right and won’t potentially obliterate your target.

For me, Vesper is that tool for notes and I am glad I finally started using it.

Where you can find it: iOS App Store

Writing: a System I Used to Write a 508 Page Novel…

This last spring I finally finished the first draft on a NaNoWriMo novel I started back in November, 2011. Spanning several years, computers and locations, I thought I’d share the software/hardware system I used for writing it.

The Software:

highres-scrivener-logo

It’s quite simple really (with a few twists), I used Literature and Latte’s Scrivener for almost all of it. Scrivener’s superior handling of MASSIVE documents in tiny chunks (in my case, chapters divided up into individual scenes) is solely responsible for me completing this novel. Period. The ability to manipulate your manuscript on a modular level – dragging and dropping individual chunks to where ever you see fit – completely changed the way that I write long and short form documents.

But it doesn’t even come close to stopping there! Nope, no way! There’s also a place in the app for character descriptions, corkboards for resources, images, notes; anything really. Word and page counts (along with goals), a mind-blowing set of preferences, full screen modes, support for several different coding languages (!?), a character name generator, the ability to add inspirational pictures as backgrounds whilst in full screen mode… the list is genuinely exhausting (in a good way) and I haven’t even brought up the various ways you can export your manuscript once you are done with it (epub, Kindle, pdf, MS Word, rich text, plain text, you name it and Scrivener can export to it)!

highres-3screens

Scrivener’s main strength however has always been in the way that it easily gets out of your way and lets you write. Sure, you can do everything I mentioned above (and WAY more), but you also don’t have to at all. It’s as complex or as simple as you want it to be. It easily and elegantly adapts to you and your workflows. It simply enables you to write.

highres-literature_and_latte-logo

A lot of care clearly went into the making of this software and you can see this attention to detail when you use it.

highres-scapple-logo

For the more complexly layered scenes I also used L&L’s mind-mapping software Scapple. I’ve already written an overview about this software on this very site in the past, so I won’t reiterate it but I will say that if you have any scene that contains a lot of moving parts, I can’t recommend Scapple enough. It really succeeds in getting your thoughts and moments organized and in order. I formed the climax of my novel entirely in Scapple before I wrote it. Because of this, writing it wasn’t nearly the herculean task I thought it was going to be. Sure, working the scene up in Scapple was additional work on top of everything else, but in the end it was absolutely worth it and that scene was much, much better for it.

Add in Scapple’s drag and drop compatibility with Scrivener and you’ve got a one-two punch that’s hard to beat.

highres-paper_to_digital

Those two programs alone did about 90% of the heavy lifting, the rest spanned across two iOS text editors that I took notes, or wrote a few scenes in. In those instances I used Agile Tortoise’s “Drafts” and Second Gear’s “Elements 2”, both of which I have mentioned and written about several times here on this site. What can I say! When I love something, I like to write about it! With the syncing capabilities of these apps, I was able to transfer scenes, notes, outlines, etc… very easily and in plain text/markdown, to where ever I needed them (mostly Dropbox, where I also stored a periodic back-up of the entire manuscript). They played a small role, but were vital to the process nonetheless.

Hardware used:

The novel at any given time could be found on a 7 year old iMac, a Mac Mini and a retina Macbook Pro when I worked through OSX. A small portion of it was written on a 3rd gen iPad with a bluetooth keyboard.

Other tidbits:

  • Music-wise, I wrote this book almost entirely while listening to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ “The Social Network” and “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” soundtracks. It was a work of science fiction and those soundtracks suited the scenes in my head so well that they never got old. They are a good length too, so you know when to take a break when one finishes.
  • When I originally was writing I was compiling weekly .epub’s so that my wife Melinda could read along, but she caught up too quickly and I couldn’t write fast enough so I eventually stopped. She loved the process (and the story) though.
  • I finished the final scene on an Amtrak train heading back home to Durham from Charlotte. I certainly hadn’t planned it that way, but that’s how it happened. Trains here in the states are rarely used when compared to other forms of transportation, so it was a pretty cool and unexpected moment.

***All images in this post were supplied from Literature and Latte’s Press Kits for Scapple and Scrivener***

Software: A Wonderful Passbook Experience…

Taken from Apple's Website at - http://www.apple.com/ios/whats-new/#passbook

A great idea…

When Apple announced Passbook with iOS6 I, like quite a few iOS enthusiasts, was very intrigued.

The idea of going to a concert and, when I got to the venue, having my tickets show up on my lock screen a swipe away from being scannable at the door, was not only an incredible concept, but it was also an amazing convenience!

Then when I saw the companies involved, companies like Ticketmaster and Eventbrite, Fandango, major Airlines, Target and even REI… I suddenly had this wonderful feeling that all of that fishing around in my wallet that I do at the register or at a venue entrance, would finally be done with! It was a nice thought!

So what happened?

Well, I don’t go to too many Ticketmaster-based shows (and my experience so far, a lot of Ticketmaster venues don’t even support scanning tickets on phone screens anyways). I like seeing movies in independently owned theaters. I rarely shop at Target. REI’s implementation is pretty weak (it only displays my member card number), and my main Airline (for better or worse, US Airways), has somewhat of a “if you blink, you’ll miss it” integration of Passbook. So when I do occasionally fly, I completely overlook it.

With the exception of one concert that had tickets setup through Eventbrite (which worked quite well by the way), I had yet to have that quintessential Passbook experience: where several tasks in one outing were completely handled without me having to unlock my phone or print something out on paper.

Not until this last weekend that is. :)

The Situation…

I was getting away for the weekend, for a self-imposed writing retreat in Charlotte. I booked a flat in the downtown area through AirBnB (I’m a HUGE fan of the service) and found the fares for a round trip ticket from Durham on Amtrak to be surprisingly cheap. I knew AirBnB had Passbook integration but I was honestly surprised when I found that Amtrak did too!

Two train tickets, one accommodation reservation and just like that: I finally had my test case!

The game was afoot! :)

All my info in one place!

I added both train tickets and my AirBnB reservation to Passbook a week prior and went on with life until the weekend came for me to leave.

My expectations were fairly basic. I wanted to arrive at the train station in Durham (and Charlotte on the way home), get a notification, swipe the notification on my lock screen, have the conductor scan the displayed ticket, and board the train. Upon arrival to where I was staying, I wanted another notification to pop up when I got close to the address and have all of my reservation info readily accessible, with clickable phone numbers and addresses (postal and electronic).

In fairness, I already knew that the info I needed for where I was staying would be displayed on the AirBnB Passbook card. But what I didn’t know, was if it would show up on the lock screen automatically when I got close to the address.

That all said, how did it work?

Amazingly well! The day of my Amtrak departure, as the time got close, a notification came up telling me the time that my train was supposed to leave. Not only that, it also told me that the train station I was leaving from was nearby (info I already knew, but still)!

Passbook Lockscreen NotificationPassbook Amtrak Ticket to Charlotte!
When the train got to the station and the conductor started asking for tickets, I swiped the notification on my lock screen and there was my ticket, with my name, order number, departure/arrival time and a scannable bar code that worked perfectly with their scanners. I showed the conductor my phone, he scanned my lock screen and I hopped aboard. It was that easy! No questions were asked and many other passengers had the exact same experience.

Next up? My arrival at my accommodations for the weekend.

The place I was staying at was within walking distance from the train station in Charlotte, so I hoofed it. As I got within a half a mile from the address (give or take), I took my iPhone out and, lo and behold, there was the AirBnB reservation notification on my lock screen! When I got to the location, I swiped right on the notification and it instantly gave me my reservation info, including phone numbers to reach the owner and instructions on how to check in and check out. After I settled in, I texted the owner as a courtesy to let him know that I arrived (and on the day I left), but other than that, I never spoke to, or saw him.

Honestly, it couldn’t have worked better! The train ride back to Durham worked just as well as the train ride to Charlotte: without a single hitch.

Such Potential…

The idea behind Passbook is an experience that is totally in Apple’s wheelhouse. They have always thrived on making those mundane, “everyday life” experiences that we simply put up with, easier and better.

With a such a great Passbook experience under my belt, I was instantly left wondering why it had taken me this long to experience it (hard to believe it’s been 8 months since iOS 6 was released into the wild). Though I am sure there are totally rational reasons why so little companies have added Passbook integration to their respective apps, I do think it’s a shame and a total missed opportunity. Because these two companies did, I have even more love for AirBnB’s service and I absolutely look forward to riding Amtrak again. For the first time ever, I went on a trip away from home and didn’t have print a single sheet of paper before I left. I mean, how cool is that?

Until more adoption takes place, I guess we’ll just have to take these great and ultra-convenient moments when we can get them.

If anything, I just wanted to share my experience with you all, so that you know these kinds of textbook “Apple moments” do exist. That they don’t just look cool in the commercials.

What do you think? Have any of you had good experiences with Passbook? Let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear about them!