kottke.org posts about iPhone apps
Sad but not unexpected news: Facebook is shutting down its Paper app.
When it was introduced in January 2014, Paper signaled the beginning of a design renaissance at Facebook. The look and feel of the app were orchestrated by Mike Matas, whose design firm Push Pop Press was acquired by Facebook in 2011. Paper was notable for the novel animations it used to guide you through the app - tap on a link and it would unfold like a letter; pull down on the story and it would fold back up, returning you to the feed.
They say the app is shutting down on July 29th, but my news feed has already stopped updating.
I love Paper. The look and feel of the app is amazing; it’s still one of the best apps ever for reading things online. Paper was the only way I read Facebook…I guess I’ll either d/l the Facebook app or stop reading?
One of my all-time favorite iOS games1 receives a big update today. Alto’s Adventure has added two new modes, an endless relaxing Zen Mode and a Photo Mode for sharing your favorite moments.
Zen Mode is a new way to experience the game. We’ve stripped away many things from hillside; no scores, no coins, no powerups, and distilled the game down to its purest elements. There’s no on-screen UI competing for your attention — it’s just you and the endless mountain.
The developers were persuaded to add this mode because of letters from fans who liked the relaxing aspect of the game. An excerpt from one such letter:
I play games as a way to calm me down when I’m feeling anxious or down. But it’s been difficult to find games at the moment that don’t feel aggressive and violent (not that I’m against dealing out justice as Batman or taking out bad guys as Nathan Drake, they are good fun!)
Your game offers something different. Alto’s Adventure doesn’t make me more stressed than I already am. Skiing down a mountain is calming (especially helped by the music, props to your music maker!). It makes me feel as if I’m progressing and being productive without the frustrations of getting to that next level in narrative games or other mobile games.
I’ve played Alto’s Adventure a lot over the past year and a half. Like very a lot. At first, I played because the game was fun and I wanted to beat it. But eventually, I started playing the game when I was stressed or anxious.1 It became a form of meditation for me; playing cleared my mind and refocused my attention on the present. Even the seemingly stressful elements in the game became calming. The Elders, who spring up to give chase every few minutes, I don’t even notice anymore…which has become a metaphorical reminder for me to focus on my actions and what I can control and not worry about outside influences I can’t control.
So thanks to Snowman for building such a great game…I truly don’t know what I would have done without it.
Update: From Sherry Turkle’s 1984 book The Second Self, a video gamer talking about how playing games make him feel:
Well, it’s almost, at the risk of sounding, uh, ridiculous, if you will, it’s almost a Zen type of thing… where I can direct myself totally and not feel directed at all. You’re totally absorbed and it is all happening there. You know what you are supposed to do. There’s not external confusion, there’s no conflicting goals, there’s none of the complexities that the rest of the world is filled with. It’s so simple. You either get through this little maze so that the creature doesn’t swallow you up or you don’t. And if you can focus your attention on that, and if you can really learn what you are supposed to do, then you really are in relationship to the game.
And Turkle adds (emphasis mine):
When he plays video games, he experiences another kind of relaxation, the relaxation of being on the line. He feels “totally focused, totally concentrated.” And yet David, like Marty and Roger, indeed like all successful players of video games, describes the sense in which the highest degree of focus and concentration comes from a letting go of both.
I feel exactly that while playing Alto’s Adventure. Total relaxed concentration.
Also, after this post alerted Corey Glynn to the existence of a global high score list (on which he held 15th place), he went out and absolutely crushed the high score by more than 2 million points. I bow to your superior skill, sir. (via @mznewman)
The app Flyover Country, built by a team at the University of Minnesota, uses GPS to tell you what interesting features you’re currently flying over.
Learn about the world along the path of your flight, hike, or road trip with GPS tracking. Offline geologic maps and interactive points of interest reveal the locations of fossils, core samples, and georeferenced Wikipedia articles visible from your airplane window seat, road trip, or hiking trail vista.
More on the app from Fast Company. (via @feltron whose book came out the other day!)
Talkshow has launched. It’s an iOS messaging app for having conversations in public.
People text amazing things.
Talkshow is a simple messaging app that allows you to text these things in public. With Talkshow, individuals, groups of friends, entertainers, creators — anyone! — can have conversations in public, to be viewed by others in real time or after the fact. Every Talkshow can be shared outside the app and embedded into other websites.
Talkshow was built by Michael Sippey, who has recently been at Medium and Twitter and was a formative influence in my early days online, and Greg Knauss, who loves the web down to his bones and has pulled my own personal bacon out of the system administrative fire more times than I can count, so I am predisposed to like this app and also to recommend it to you.
Back in 2007, riffing on some thoughts by Marc Hedlund about turning Unix commands into startups, I suggested choosing web projects by taking something that everyone does with their friends and make it public and permanent.
Blogger, 1999. Blog posts = public email messages. Instead of “Dear Bob, Check out this movie.” it’s “Dear People I May or May Not Know Who Are Interested in Film Noir, Check out this movie and if you like it, maybe we can be friends.”
Twitter, 2006. Twitter = public IM. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the people responsible for Blogger is also responsible for Twitter.
Flickr, 2004. Flickr = public photo sharing. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake said in a recent interview: “When we started the company, there were dozens of other photosharing companies such as Shutterfly, but on those sites there was no such thing as a public photograph — it didn’t even exist as a concept — so the idea of something ‘public’ changed the whole idea of Flickr.”
YouTube, 2005. YouTube = public home videos. Bob Saget was onto something.
Talkshow, 2016. Talkshow = public text messaging.1 I am delighted to see that this approach still bearing fruit.
Some iOS apps still seem like magic. Case in point: PhotoMath. Here’s how it works. You point your camera at a math problem and PhotoMath shows the answer. It’ll even give you a step-by-step explanation and solution.
Alto’s Adventure just came out this morning and is definitely my go-to iOS game for the foreseeable future. The game is a cross between something like Monument Valley (the audio and visuals are beautiful) and Ski Safari, which is still one of my all-time favorites.
Earth Primer is an upcoming iOS app that bills itself as “A Science Book for Playful People”. It looks amazing:
Earth Primer is a science book for playful people. Discover how Earth works through play-on your iPad. Join a guided tour of how Earth works, with the forces of nature at your fingertips. Visit volcanoes, glaciers, sand dunes. Play with them, look inside, and see how they work.
Earth Primer defies existing genres, combining aspects of science books, toys, simulations, and games. It is a new kind of interactive experience which joins the guided quality of a book with open ended simulation play.
Here’s a quick preview of the app. Can’t wait to explore this, with and without the kids.
Update: The Earth Primer app is now available on the App Store.
Ok, so New App Friday isn’t a thing, but it is today! Three apps from pals launched yesterday:
From the crew at Tinybop comes Homes, an app for kids that lets them explore houses from around the world. Their previous apps, Plants and The Human Body, are favorites in our home.
Neven Mrgan and Matt Comi have been working on Space Age for several years and it shows…this game is immaculate. The soundtrack, by Cabel Sasser, is worth a listen on its own.
Wildcard is billed as a better and faster way to use the Web for on your phone. I haven’t played with it too much yet, but it seems a lot like RSS for mobile (if that makes any sense). UX was done by Khoi Vinh.
Seeing so many people I know really knocking it out of the iOS park makes me think I should build an app of my own.
Birds Near Me is a “worldwide bird guide for iOS”.
Birds Near Me is a bird guide for everybody anywhere in the world. Find what birds are near you anywhere in the world or find pictures, songs, locations and information about any bird in the world.
Powered by eBird to provide an accurate list of birds that have beeen recently spotted in your exact area.
It is also “designed and programmed by a birder, for birders”. eBird looks like a wonderful resource as well. Pair this app with DIY’s Ornithologist skill for a good weekend activity w/ the kids. (via @bradleyland)
Update: Merlin is another fine looking bird ID app. (via @willmorris)
I don’t quite know how it happened, but I’m presently addicted to DaisyPop on my iPhone. The gameplay is pretty simple: various flowers and bugs float around the screen and you tap on things to pop them. Popping many things at once increases your score. Taps are limited but you get more the better you play. Unlike many other iOS games where frenetic tapping is rewarded, DaisyPop is a game of patience…waiting for several items to float close enough for the big scores can sometimes take a minute or two.
The best chess player in history, 23-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, has released an iOS app where you can play simulated games against Carlsen at various stages of his career, from age 5 up to the present. The Telegraph has the details.
Anyone who wants to find out more about his playing style can do so with Mr Carlsen’s new app, which allows users to play him at the different levels he has achieved since the age of five.
The app is built on hundreds of thousands of different positions from Mr Carlsen’s games, be they classical, rapid or blitz, to determine what moves he would make at those ages.
The aim is to promote chess among as many people as possible to make the sport more popular and accessible.
“The good thing is that you can play me at any age. At age five, anyone has a chance to beat me,” Mr Carlsen said.
So what is it like for Mr Carlsen to play against his younger self?
“He is really tricky,” the champion said. “Even Magnus at 11 years old was a very gifted tactician. A while ago I played as a test Magnus [aged] 14. I outplayed him at some point positionally. And just boom, boom, he tricked me tactically.
“But he makes mistakes as well, so I just have to be patient.”
Facebook’s new Paper app is pretty good. Once you get the hang of the gestures, it feels natural and very Letterpressy and smooth, which isn’t surprising considering Loren Brichter’s involvement. Check out The Verge’s review.
My pal Greg Knauss has freed his first iOS app into the wild. Romantimatic (App Store) is an app that reminds you to do one simple thing: send your significant other a “I’m thinking of you” note.
We live in a world where it’s easier to communicate with another human being than ever before - a world that also places relentless demands on our time and attention.
Even with the amazing technology we have in our pockets, we can fly through the day without remember-ing to send a simple “I love you” to the most important person in our lives.
Perfect implementation of sweethearting/glancing for the iOS age.
Update: Unsurprisingly, Greg had gotten quite a bit of a negative response to Romantimatic. I love his response.
I knew there would be some have-we-come-to-this tut-tutting. I mean, I’m not that oblivious. You attach software to the expression of romantic love, and some people are going to see it as cynical. We’ve wrapped code around almost everything in our lives, but deeply felt emotion is still supposed to be start-to-finish analog. You don’t put your anniversary on a calendar, because it means you’re a bad person who doesn’t care.
Except it doesn’t. It means you want to remember it. Your calendar is a tool and it helps you do the things you want to do. I see Romantimatic in the same light. If you’re not good at something and want to get better at it, a tool can help. Tools make things faster and easier and more reliable.
See also this guy writing data mining software to find love on OK Cupid.
To Tien Wang, McKinlay’s OkCupid hacking is a funny story to tell. But all the math and coding is merely prologue to their story together. The real hacking in a relationship comes after you meet. “People are much more complicated than their profiles,” she says. “So the way we met was kind of superficial, but everything that happened after is not superficial at all. It’s been cultivated through a lot of work.”
“It’s not like, we matched and therefore we have a great relationship,” McKinlay agrees. “It was just a mechanism to put us in the same room. I was able to use OkCupid to find someone.”
I Pixel U is an iOS app that lets you selectively pixelate people and objects in photos, creating the effect of 8-bit characters in the real world. Many examples are available on Instagram.
See also Aled Lewis’ Video Games vs. Real Life series. (via prosthetic knowledge)
And speaking of new iOS apps, Serious Eats has launched a monthly iOS magazine in conjunction with 29th Street Publishing. Here’s Kenji López-Alt on the app:
So how do we find content for these magazines? It’s a question we wracked our brains on long and hard before deciding that the most valuable service for our readers would be to craft issues around individual subjects — think barbecue, pizza, or pies — by combining the most popular recipes and features in our archives into single, elegant collections.
My friends at Tinybop have released their first app, The Human Body, in which “curious kids ages 4+ can see what we’re made of and how we work, from the beating heart to gurgling guts”. Kelli Anderson did the illustrations for the app and they look amazing. Can’t wait to try this out with Ollie and Minna.
Related to constant photography is an Phone app called Heard that buffers five minutes of audio, allowing you the option to save if anything interesting happens. (thx, andy)
I have not had a chance to check it out yet1, but any iOS app built by a team of John Gruber, Brent Simmons, and Dave Wiskus has to be worth a look. They released Vesper yesterday:
Vesper is a simple and elegant tool for collecting notes, ideas, things to do — anything you want to remember. Use tags to group related items into playlist-like collections. Vesper imposes no system; organize and curate your notes whatever way comes naturally to you. Eschewing complications, Vesper’s focus is on how it feels to use it.
Available at the App Store for $4.99.
 Busy, busy week…sorry for the slightly slow pace around here the past few days. I haven’t even had the chance to download and play the new Kingdom Rush yet. ↩
Maura Johnston and the folks at 29th Street Publishing have teamed up to launch Maura Magazine, an iOS Newsstand app.
Since then, we’ve been on a path to create what (after, truth be told, some reticence on my part) is called Maura Magazine, a weekly periodical telling stories about the culture around us — whether they’re about music, food, technology, TV, movies, books, or anything else. I’m leaving its purview deliberately open-ended because I want to see where we-the writers, the readers, and me-can take this deceptively simple concept.
Delighted to see Maura continuing to tackle new frontiers.
Your Apple Maps nightmare is over. Google has (finally!) released an iOS app for Google Maps.
Flickr released a new version of their iPhone app today (App Store) and it appears to be a dramatic improvement over their old offering.
We know that some of your best photo moments happen on the fly, so we’ve made it easier to get the perfect shot when inspiration hits. Once you get the shot, there’s a built-in editor to quickly correct, crop, or enhance it with one of the new high res filters.
I haven’t had a chance to check it out in detail yet, but from everything I’m hearing, people are jazzed about it.
I only downloaded Letterpress about 10 minutes ago but I am already hopelessly hooked. The game is a combination of Boggle and Go and was made by Loren Brichter, who made Tweetie back in the day. This is the sort of app that makes me weep because it’s so simple and polished yet endless. Brichter is some sort of iOS wizard and we should have him burned at the stake for his wonderfully addictive magic.
Even after reading this rave review of 10000000, I was skeptical about trying it.
The best part of my job is randomly stumbling across a game no one knows about, by a developer no one has heard of, and have it absolutely blow my mind. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it results in drained batteries and dropping everything to get something on the site about it while I wait for my iPhone to charge only to return to the fray.
It just didn’t look that fun. But I did try it. Once, twice, three times. And it didn’t grab me. Then I picked it up last night and ended up playing for two hours straight. It’s taking all my self-control right now not to play it all day. In conclusion, you should totally not download this game because it will completely disrupt your entire life.
I am pleased to introduce the NextDraft App that will make your iPhone vibrate with awesomeness. You can read this very issue on your iPhone if you install the app now. Be sure to turn notifications on. And let me know what you think. Get the iPhone app here.
Using just the camera on your iPhone, the Cardiio app can accurately measure your heart rate. Here’s how it works:
Every time your heart beats, more blood is pumped into your face. This slight increase in blood volume causes more light to be absorbed, and hence less light is reflected from your face. Using sophisticated software, your iPhone’s front camera can track these tiny changes in reflected light that are not visible to the human eye and calculate your heart beat!
This video shows this process in action (with a short explanatory intro of the mathematical technique):
That is flat-out amazing. (via @delfuego)
Burner is a new iPhone app that will give you a disposable, short term cell phone number to give to randos at the bar, weirdos on Craigslist, and Marlos on the corner.
Disposable cell numbers certainly seem like they might be used for nefarious activities, but founder & CEO Greg Cohn said these numbers can be used for any number of purposes in the era when a cell number is so closely tied a person’s identity.
In the amount of time I have spent playing Kingdom Rush on the iPad, I could have completed a second or even third college degree. So it is with some relutance that I have been made aware of the iPhone version of Kingdom Rush, out today. It’s the same game, optimized for the smaller screen on the iPhone and only 99 cents. Maybe the reason the whole “can’t use the iPad/iPhone for creation” thing persists is that everyone is using the damn things to play tower defense games instead.
Makego is an interesting iPhone app…it turns your phone into a toy vehicle. This short video explains:
Makego turns your iPhone / iPod Touch into a toy vehicle. It encourages fun, open ended collaborative play between parent and child. Combining creativity and imagination with the virtual world on screen. Select your vehicle within Makego, then interact with the drivers and their world through animations and sound. This release has 3 vehicles to play with: a race car, ice-cream truck, and river boat.
I could easily see building a neat case out of paper and having Ollie and Minna playing with it. I could also see Ollie taking the race car over a big jump and smashing it into another car and oh shit the screen is cracked. The Lego case option is cool though…just slap some wheels on it and away you go.
Details are finally starting to trickle out about how various iOS apps use the address book data on your phone. The Verge and Venture Beat both have good article on the subject. What they’re finding is nowhere near the 13/15 ratio that Dustin Curtis reported last week but Curtis has also said:
Second, for obvious reasons, I promised the developers I reached out to that I would never reveal who they are. Many of them have, since last week, changed their practices.
What I like about The Verge and VB articles is that they both end with Apple’s role in all this. In a future release, Apple should make sure that rogue parties can’t do stuff like this. If you’re going to have a store where every app has to be approved for the good of the end users and the integrity of the system, this is *exactly* the type of thing they should be concerned with.
Update: Insider did some digging as well.
Yesterday, developer Arun Thampi noticed that the Path iPhone app uploads a user’s address book to their server without asking the user first. And by address book, I mean all the phone numbers and addresses and email addresses of everyone in your phone’s address book just gets sent off to Path. And not only that, Path stored that information on its server. To their credit, Path apologized and deleted the data from their server.
But this is a larger problem than just Path. In a post from earlier today, Dustin Curtis reveals the dirty little secret of iPhone developers everywhere.
It’s not really a secret, per se, but there’s a quiet understanding among many iOS app developers that it is acceptable to send a user’s entire address book, without their permission, to remote servers and then store it for future reference. It’s common practice, and many companies likely have your address book stored in their database. Obviously, there are lots of awesome things apps can do with this data to vastly improve user experience. But it is also a breach of trust and an invasion of privacy.
I did a quick survey of 15 developers of popular iOS apps, and 13 of them told me they have a contacts database with millons of records. One company’s database has Mark Zuckerberg’s cell phone number, Larry Ellison’s home phone number and Bill Gates’ cell phone number. This data is not meant to be public, and people have an expectation of privacy with respect to their contacts.
13 out of 15! Zuckerberg’s cell phone number! Maybe I’m being old-fashioned here, but this seems unequivocally wrong. Any app, from Angry Birds to Fart App 3000, can just grab the information in your address book without asking? Hell. No. And Curtis is right in calling Apple out about this…apps should not have access to address book information without explicitly asking. But now that the horse is out of the barn, this “quiet understanding” needs to be met with some noisy investigation. What happened to Path needs to happen to all the other apps that are storing our data. There’s an opportunity here for some enterprising data journalist to follow Thampi’s lead: investigate what other apps are grabbing address book data and then ask the responsible developers the same questions that were put to Path.
Update: I am aware of this very confusing display of data from the Wall Street Journal. It indicates that of the ~50 iPhone apps surveyed, only three (Angry Birds, Facebook, and TextPlus 4) transmit address book data to a server. That’s not exactly the widespread problem that Curtis describes (the data sets are likely different)…it would be nice to see the net cast a bit wider.
Update: Oh, and that WSJ survey is two years old. (thx, @marcprecipice)