Category: Software

It's time for Apple to bring Automator to iOS

Have you noticed that, for the first time in recent memory, Apple seems to have pulled back on its blistering rate of new, innovative product launches?

Consider the fact that although the company refreshed virtually every product in their line-up this year, and even introduced a new, smaller iPad, not one of these products is an innovation in the market. They are evolutionary, not revolutionary.

This innovation “lull” comes at a dangerous time for Apple. Its core product lines: the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac (including desktop and laptop models) are under the kind of competitive pressure that hasn’t been seen in years. Android as a mobile OS has finally come in to its own, and is seeing huge success, especially in its Samsung Galaxy SIII guise which, for the first time since the iPhone’s debut in 2007, has outsold Apple’s flagship.

At the same time, Microsoft is taking the enormous gamble of leap-frogging Apple in the desktop OS market with Windows 8 – an OS that fuses touch-based computing and classic mouse-and-keyboard computing into a single experience.

Some might say that this situation is a natural part of the technology life-cycle. Product innovation happens in waves, especially at the hardware level. Perhaps we’re simply in the trough of a hardware innovation wave.

That being the case, the obvious place for Apple to try differentiating itself (until its next revolutionary product) is with software. The company already enjoys an enviable ecosystem where hardware and software are designed in lock-step, ensuring that the one always complements the other. But it’s time to do more.

Apple seems to have overlooked one of the most promising areas of mobile computing: contextual task automation. In some ways, it’s hard to believe that they’ve missed this boat. After all, Mac OS X has some of the most powerful automation tools of any OS: AppleScript and Automator.

Between these two tools, users can exercise almost any level of control they desire over the functions of their Macs. Automator provides a graphical way of doing so, and requires no programming knowledge whatsoever. AppleScript can fill in the blanks, giving power-users even greater control.

If you’ve never heard of these tools, or you have but have never used them, there’s a good reason: task automation on computers is largely used by professionals to speed up workflows by having the computer complete certain repetitive tasks. But its power is limited by the number of contexts users find themselves in. Given that the average PC, whether desktop or laptop, has no GPS, accelerometer, compass, barometer, phone or proximity sensors, it’s almost deaf, dumb and blind compared to a smartphone (bad analogy given that all PCs have webcams, mics and speakers, but bear with me).

But mobile devices are a different story. They’re with us wherever we go and connect us to every type of information imaginable. Best of all, they have a high degree of contextual awareness thanks to the various sensors mentioned above. This fact has not been lost on the Android camp.

Recently, two examples of contextual automation have caught my attention. The first is the Motorola ATRIX HD LTE, an Android smartphone that Motorola has customized with various options including something they call Smart Actions. At their core, Smart Actions are simply a way for a user to create “if/then” conditions for just about any situation s/he can think of. One fabulous example: IF I’m driving and someone texts me THEN send the following automatic reply “Thanks for your text. I’m currently driving and will respond when it’s safe to do so.”

There are dozens of such useful conditions that users can customize (the phone ships with several pre-programmed options).

The other example was demo’d for me last week: Sony’s new “Bond Phone”, the Xperia T, comes with Smart Connect, a free Sony app that can be installed on any Android 4.0 device. Much like Smart Actions, Smart Connect lets you script trigger events in addition to managing certain external devices like Bluetooth headsets.

So why then, has Apple ignored such a fantastic opportunity to be the dominant player in contextual automation?

Not only does the Cupertino juggernaut have a wealth of experience in this area, they have a uniquely synchronized set of hardware, software and services. Imagine the possibilities for a customer who is fully committed to Apple’s ecosystem and owns an iPhone, iPad, iMac, Apple TV and several AirPlay-compatible speaker systems.

Here’s just one scenario…

Our happy-go-lucky Apple user is strolling home after getting off the bus/streetcar/subway, while listening to her favourite podcast on her iPhone. But as she arrives at her front door, the podcast still has 10 minutes left. As soon as she unplugs her EarPods, her iPhone automatically routes the podcast over AirPlay to her speakers in the living room. A text message is sent to her boyfriend who is working abroad, letting him know she’s home if he wants to FaceTime before he turns in for the night. Because the time is now 5:30 p.m., her notifications preferences switch so that new emails from work no longer trigger sounds or vibrations, but personal emails still do.

Needless to say, that was the best I could do off the top of my head, but clearly the possibilities are endless. But there’s no reason why Automator for iOS shouldn’t be social too. I could see an entire scene developing around such an app, with users sharing their favourite scripted events and even in-app purchases, so that developers with a knack for AppleScript could sell advanced Automator processes designed for professionals of all stripes.

So readers, what say you? Would Automator for iOS be the kind of thing you’d like to play with? Or are you content with the existing automatic processes within iOS? Or does Siri do all of your bidding?

Let us know!

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Air Display: The perfect $10 gift for an iPad owner

air-display-iconScreen real-estate is a lot like money, there’s really no such thing as too much. So if you’ve every gazed at the screen of your iPad and thought, “it would be so awesome if I could use this thing as a secondary monitor,” you’re not alone.

The good folks over at Avatron have, in fact, been secretly reading your mind via Wi-Fi, and have come up with a brilliant solution: their Air Display app.

In truth, it’s more than an app. It’s the combination of an app that runs on your i-device and program that you install on your PC or Mac that runs invisibly in the background. The magic happens in the communication between these two chunks of code, over your home Wi-Fi network.

When everything is setup and configured correctly, you can extend your desktop onto the target device with a couple of clicks. As long as your gadget is running the Air Display app – zap – there’s your background wallpaper from your computer magically rendering itself on your iPad, iPhone, etc.

If this was all that Air Display could do, it would be worth the price of admission right there. But wait – as I wade dangerously into infomerical territory – there’s more…

The Air Display app extends your desktop via Wi-Fi onto an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. You can even use the touch screen to interact with whatever is being displayed. Image courtesy of Avatron Software. (click for larger image)

The Air Display app extends your desktop via Wi-Fi onto an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. You can even use the touch screen to interact with whatever is being displayed. Image courtesy of Avatron Software. (click for larger image)

Air Display automatically recognizes the orientation of your secondary display and rotates the contents of the screen to match. You can also – via the server software on your computer – designate where in space, relative to your primary monitor, you’ve placed the iPad. If you’ve ever used dual (or multi-) monitor mode in Windows or in Mac OS, this will be completely intuitive for you.

Finally, and possibly the coolest part of the whole package, you can actually interact with the content being displayed on the i-device. Browser window? You can scroll and click with your finger. Calculator? Tap those number buttons. Painting program? Paint away my friend.

The first time you try it out, you’ll get that same giddy feeling you probably got the first time you surfed the web on your laptop via Wi-Fi without a single cord restricting your movements. It’s really that great. At least, it is when it works. Keep in mind there are several things that can influence the performance of Air Display, such as the number of apps running in the background of either your i-device or your computer, the network activity on your Wi-Fi network and other factors.

If there’s one thing I’d change about Air Display – and this is going to sound a little silly given the app’s name – I’d like the option to connect my device via the USB cable for a truly bullet-proof experience. I don’t know if this is even possible within the limitations of the iOS SDK, but it would be a welcome upgrade.

So if there’s an iPad owner on your holiday gift list this season and you’re looking for an inexpensive gift that will elicit a disproportionately large amount of gratitude, I humbly suggest Air Display. It should fit the bill nicely.

On a somewhat related note, readers, do you find app reviews like this one valuable or not? We’re thinking of making it a regular feature here on Sync, but not if you think it’s a waste of pixels. Please take our poll below, or just leave us a comment.

If you’re an app developer and you think your work is so ridiculously awesome that the whole world (or at least the Canadian part) should know about it, drop us a line and we’ll be sure to check it out.

A Skater's Take on Tony Hawk Ride

Activision's new video game, Tony Hawk Ride, comes with a wireless skateboard controller

Activision's new video game, Tony Hawk Ride, comes with a wireless skateboard controller

Tony Hawk Ride is a ground-breaking game that seeks to bring the virtual a real worlds ever closer by introducing a special skateboard-deck controller into the gaming arsenal. So while traditional game reviewers can certainly weigh in on what they think of the game, someone needs to ask the question: What do real skaters think? So I asked. The answer came from my colleague, Matt Forsythe, editor over at Push.ca and no stranger to the asphalt-and-road-rash-real world of skateboarding. Better yet, Matt has clocked some serious hours with previous titles in the Tony Hawk game franchise. Here is his take on THRIDE for the Xbox 360…

Despite the Tony Hawk games turning into roller coaster simulations over the past few releases (boring, over-the-top, easily setup tricks [see chart]), I’ve got a soft spot for the series. Being the first game to do a decent job of representing skateboarding, I put more playtime into the demo of the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS) than I have into other full games, sticking with the series until Tony Hawk’s Underground. After losing ground to EA’s competing Skate franchise, the Tony Hawk team has gone for broke with a complete reboot of their series in Tony Hawk Ride. You won’t be able to miss the package in stores: the calling card of Ride is the included motion-sensing skateboard controller that’s a requirement. It seemed like as good a reason as any to give Tony another chance.

Like anyone who skates, first thing I wanted to know right out of the box is if you could actually get some pop on this thing. Thanks to a solid build and some weight, the board doesn’t feel like a cheap toy; you don’t want to shin yourself with this thing. Four visual sensors on the top of the board give it a serious “this thing is high-tech and I shouldn’t break it” feel. I passed on the ollie in case the safety warnings were true (and it wouldn’t be possible to review the game with a broken fake skateboard).

Some advice when getting started: make sure you’ve got a controller handy because if you’ve ever tried navigating a menu with a skateboard, it’s not easy. The inconsistencies of when you can and can’t use the board to get around make things worse. The board has full buttons and a d-pad, but if you’re reaching to the floor for that, you may as well grab your controller (or turn it into a sweet “multiplayer” game. I call menu guy, dibs!).

The basic mechanics of the game consist of balancing this mock skateboard to steer, while making different foot motions to pull off tricks while skating through different levels. There’s three options for how much work you’ll have to do: “Casual” keeps you on rails, leaving you to focus on tricks, “Confident” removes the rails, but supposedly stills helps (I did not get that feeling), and “Hardcore” moves when you move. The funny thing is that the “Hardcore” control setting seemed easier than the “Confident” setting, feeling more like the response of an actually skateboard (well, as close as you might get without trucks and wheels…and actually rolling).
Actually getting to the levels is the next trick. The load times are yawn-inducing, with the constant insistence of re-orienting your board (choosing regular or goofy, which should just be a menu option) adding insult to the wait when you think you’re finally ready to play.

When you get to the “skateboarding”, things get weird. Turns out, you’re going to need actual balance skills to make a real go at the game (which is odd, because real world skill and videogames rarely mix), and that’s just to keep you going in a straight line. Tricks, on the other hand, are a shot in the dark. Performing specific tricks is a crapshoot, devolving to strange ritual dance motions that translate to sick moves on screen. It’s supposed to help that there’s a small on-screen display mirroring your motions on the board, but putting your hand over one of four sensors to perform grabs gets old fast when you can see the display registering your movements, but not translating to tricks in the game.

Any hardcore THPS fan will be familiar with the repetitive stress injuries associated with “start, down, X”, the pause/menu combo used to restart a level while trying to complete one particular, stressful thing in early Tony Hawk games. Without having a controller in your hand, and dealing with vague controls, you have to suffer through chains of challenges with one incomplete piece, waiting for the end of a run to start over…again and again.

With so many points working against it, it was no surprise that I saw more kids at the skate park this weekend in below zero temperatures than were playing this game online.

At a $120 admission price, you’ve got to want to go fake skateboarding pretty badly to get on this Ride. And without anything to lose, I did try: you can actually get some pop on the board. It results in some possibly damaging noises, yet it’s still not as fun as the real thing.

— Thanks Matt!

Picasa 3.5 face recognition is a blast – and addictive

I’ve been a Picasa addict ever since I first used the program a few years ago. Most people who have downloaded and tried the free software will agree: its simple, intuitive interface combined with amazing one-click photo enhancement features makes this a must-have app for any photographer.

Even die-hard Mac fans who use Apple’s iPhoto application, grudgingly admit that Picasa’s feature set is hard to beat, and many of them have become converts since Google recently released Picasa for Mac.

Whether you’ve never used it, or you use it daily, you are going to want to check out the latest release of Picasa: Version 3.5.

It was released about a month ago and it contains a number of improvements over previous releases, but the feature that has my family most excited is the new face recognition function.

On our PC I have well over 5,000 photos, most of which are of family – especially our two kids. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you have just as many if not more.

Not only am I the family photographer, I’m also chief archivist and librarian. Which basically means whenever we need a photo printed or sent to someone, I’m the go-to guy. It also means that whenever my wife goes looking for a photo and can’t find it, I get the blame for my poor cataloging skills.

“Why haven’t you labeled any of these?” is something I get asked a lot.

Now, instead of meekly admitting to my shortcomings in the filing department, I simply point to the laptop and say – “Look! Everyone’s there!”

Now I’ve read a review of the new face recognition feature that was less than glowing. In fact the author didn’t seem very impressed at all. But My experience has been the opposite.

Here’s an example:

picasa-babyHere’s a photo of my daughter at 2 months old. Adorable isn’t she? But there are a lot of adorable babies out there and let’s face it parents, they tend to look alike after a while. So I was amazed when Picasa recognized that this was the same person as…

 

 

 

picasa-girlYes, my daughter again, this time over 4 years later. If you had shown me these two images side by side and had they not been of my own child, I would not have been able to say they were of the same person. Could you?

 

As Picasa gets more and more confirmation from you that its guesses are correct, the better those guesses become. I’ve become a little addicted to the feature that lets you see all of the program’s unconfirmed guesses to see what it’s been able to find since the last time.

As you may have guessed, it ain’t perfect. There are a few drawbacks, namely: you get a LOT of faces that Picasa wants you to label. Faces in the background in crowd scenes, faces on posters, even faces of statues or stuffed animals. You can of course safely ignore these, but they clutter up the process of labeling the people you care about.

Also, sometimes Picasa simply doesn’t recognize the presence of a face in a photo. Here’s what I mean:

picasa-familyIn this photo, only the kids were recognized as faces. The adults didn’t register at all even though these same people were recognized and labeled correctly in dozens of other photos. You can add any missed faces manually, but it’s odd that you would need to.

Despite these quirks and few other minor annoyances, facial recognition is a worthy addition to Google’s already class-leading set of photo management tools, and I think once you try it, you won’t want to go without it. I for one, am very happy to have it around.