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This week in TidBITS, Jason Snell, former lead editor of Macworld, takes a look at the beta release of Apple’s new Photos for OS X, which will be replacing iPhoto and Aperture later this year. In a surprise decision, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler came out in favor of Title II reclassification for broadband providers (and they’re not happy about it) — Geoff Duncan examines the potential ramifications. Rumors are swirling about an Apple-branded stylus, and Josh Centers explains why he thinks an Apple Pen could be in our future. Mariva H. Aviram concludes her series on computing for the visually impaired with a look at hardware, ergonomics, and innovations that can help low vision users. Finally, we’re pleased to announce a new version of Charles Edge’s “Take Control of OS X Server” that’s updated for Yosemite Server, along with a new chapticle from Joe Kissell’s streamed “Take Control of Security for Mac Users” that walks you through quick security fixes every user should take. Notable software releases this week include Evernote 6.0.6 and Mellel 3.3.8.

Adam Engst No comments

Chapter 3 of “Take Control of Security for Mac Users” Available

It’s time for a new chapter from Joe Kissell’s in-progress “Take Control of Security for Mac Users!” I hope everyone enjoyed last week’s Chapter 1, “Introducing Mac Security” and Chapter 2, “Learn Security Basics.” This week, we have Chapter 3, “Perform Quick Security Fixes,” which provides a few simple things everyone should do (with small variations depending on risk level) — they’re a bit like locking your door when you go away for the weekend. In particular, Joe talks about staying current with important security updates and configuring a few essential security

This chapticle, and all subsequent ones, are available only to TidBITS members, so if you want to read and comment on them, you’ll need to join the TidBITS membership program. If you’re already a TidBITS member, log in to the TidBITS site using the email address from which you joined. The full ebook of “Take Control of Security for Mac Users” will be available for purchase by everyone in PDF, EPUB, and Mobipocket (Kindle) formats once it’s complete.

Other benefits of TidBITS membership include a 30 percent discount on this and all other Take Control books and discounts on leading Mac apps, a full-text RSS feed, and a banner ad-free version of the TidBITS Web site. Becoming a TidBITS member helps us keep bringing you the kind of content you’ve been reading here for years, and if you join now, you can learn about Mac security at the same time.

Jason Snell 81 comments

Initial Impressions of Photos for OS X Beta

On 5 February 2015, Apple released a beta version of its new Photos for OS X app to developers and select members of the press. Announced last year as a replacement for both of Apple’s other existing photography apps, iPhoto and Aperture, Photos had originally been promised for early 2015 (see “Apple Unveils iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite at WWDC,” 2 June 2014). With this release, we now know that it’s coming this spring as a part of the OS X 10.10.3 update.

The prospect of moving photography apps is daunting, but even die-hard users of iPhoto and Aperture would probably admit that the old versions had become increasingly slow and wonky. Rather than rip them apart, Apple decided to start fresh, which may sound familiar to users of many other Apple apps, including Final Cut Pro and both the iLife and iWork suites.

A Bridge to a New Land — When you launch Photos for the first time, the app will automatically upgrade your iPhoto library. (If it notices you have more than one library, it’ll prompt you to choose which you’d like to upgrade.) After the import process, not only will all your photos and videos be present, but albums, folders, books, cards, calendars, and slideshows will also make the transition.

Imported iPhoto and Aperture libraries remain intact and usable, but it’s a one-way import — the older app’s libraries don’t sync with the Photos app, so if you add a photo in one place it won’t show up in the other. The Photos import process is friendly when it comes to disk space — it doesn’t duplicate the photos it imports from iPhoto and Aperture, so you don’t lose precious storage space.

Some aspects of iPhoto and Aperture won’t make the move to the new app. Photos replaces star ratings with favorites (indicated by a heart icon). Star ratings and flags from iPhoto and Aperture (as well as color labels from Aperture) will be mapped into keywords and assigned to each photo, so you can still search for images containing that information.

Photos feels more like the Mac version of the iOS Photos app than either iPhoto or Aperture, at least when browsing your photo library. Zooming out (which you can also do with a pinch on the trackpad) presents you first with a series of short events defined by location. Zoom further out and you’ll see larger spans of time and a list of locations. One more zoom and you’re left with a giant wash of photos separated by year.

Underneath the Albums tab (or, alternatively, in the sidebar if you choose Show Sidebar from the View menu) you’ll find your media organized in a few different ways. All the various media types supported by iOS cameras — panoramas, videos, and slo-mo videos — are segmented into their own smart albums. There’s also an automatically generated Favorites album, an album containing your most recent set of imported media, and the familiar Faces tab that’s been more or less brought straight over from iPhoto. Gone is the capability to show all photos by location on a map, but you can click any event in the Photos list to see a map containing the locations of all the photos from that particular event.

Photos in the Cloud — The banner feature of Photos is its integration with Apple’s iCloud Photo Library service. You can (optionally) set Photos to automatically upload your photos to Apple’s iCloud servers, where they’re backed up and accessible from iOS devices. (iOS device access will be included in iOS 8.2, an update that will presumably be delivered around the same time that Photos is released.)

When you sync Photos with iCloud, you have two options regarding photo storage: Download Originals to This Mac ensures that a full-quality original version of every file you have in iCloud will also be stored on your Mac; Optimize Mac Storage keeps full-resolution photos and videos in iCloud, though they might also be stored on your Mac “if you have enough space.”

It remains to be seen exactly how Photos determines whether you have enough space, and whether it’s just caching photos or if it truly makes a judgment about how much free space you have before deciding to hold onto your files. As someone with approximately 700 GB of family photos and a bunch of Macs with small flash-storage drives, I’m excited by the possibility that I can have access to my entire photo library on all of my Macs and iOS devices, even though they don’t have enough space to hold the entire library.

Photos also integrates with all the photo-sharing features available on iOS. If you check the iCloud Photo Sharing box in the Photos app’s iCloud preferences tab, you’ll see the same shared albums that you see on your iPhone or iPad. And you can use the Share command to share media items with Flickr, Facebook, and Twitter.

Editing Options — Photos has a nice suite of photo-editing features. For people who don’t want to spend time tweaking photos, there’s a one-button enhance, an auto-crop feature that even straightens tilted images, and a set of Instagram-style filters that apply a whole slew of effects at once.

Those who want more control over their images will prefer the Adjustments section, which includes options for lightness, color, levels, white balance, sharpening and definition, noise reduction, vignetting, and black-and-white effects. Finally, there’s a Retouch tool that lets you make very basic edits by clicking around and hoping that it does the right thing.

If you want to edit your photo in an external tool such as Photoshop, there appears to be no way to do that, at least in this beta, beyond dragging an image out, editing it, and then dragging it back in. Here’s hoping Apple allows an external-editor feature or support for image-editing extensions of some sort in the future.

The Need for Speed — With every successive version of iPhoto Apple claimed that it was faster than ever before. Unfortunately, we all kept taking new photos, and our iPhoto libraries kept swelling, and iPhoto never seemed to keep up.

Never say never, but in my tests with a 5,450-image library, Photos seemed downright fast. Scrolling never lagged. Zooming in and out was speedy. Here’s hoping that continues to apply to libraries with tens of thousands of photos.

It’s still a beta version meant only for developers — and it shows. I had problems importing one of my large iPhoto libraries, and the app crashed when I tried to import a few thousand photos from a folder. A few times, I opened the app to find the main Photos view completely empty, though all of my photos showed up when I clicked on All Photos. If you have access to the beta, I strongly recommend that you not entrust your primary photo library to it.

Fortunately, Apple has more than four months until its self-imposed deadline to iron out most of the wrinkles. But right now, Photos looks like a promising attempt to stitch together photo libraries across Apple’s devices and on the cloud.

You may have noticed this is my first article for TidBITS since 1995, and it’s also a good excuse to mention that I’m also diving into my first Take Control book, a Crash Course about Photos. So if you see any particularly cool features or have any significant concerns you’d like me to examine while writing it, let me know in the comments.

[Update: Over at Six Colors, I’ve written more about Photos and hard links and answered a bunch of questions from a variety of sources. -Jason]

[Jason Snell was lead editor at Macworld for more than a decade and has written about Apple and other tech companies for two decades. Now he writes at Six Colors. He’s also the guy who runs The Incomparable podcast network, which is all about geeky pop culture, and hosts the Upgrade and Clockwise tech podcasts.]

Adam Engst 2 comments

“Take Control of OS X Server” Updated for Yosemite Server

As I promised in “‘Take Control of OS X Server’ Ready for Everyone” (24 November 2014), we have now released a new version of Charles Edge’s “Take Control of OS X Server” that is completely updated for Yosemite Server. Honestly, it was an annoying update, since Yosemite’s cosmetic changes forced us to retake nearly every screenshot in the book, and although the changes in Yosemite Server are quite minor, Charles and I still had to pore over every page of the 244-page book to make sure we caught minor differences as well.

More generally, Charles added two new chapters: “What’s New in Yosemite Server” and “Upgrade from Mavericks Server.” He also now explains the new Reachability feature that tells you how your server is accessible from the outside Internet and covers Yosemite Server’s new service-level access permissions. Reachability is interesting because you’ll want to make sure public servers are accessible from the Internet and private servers aren’t — it’s useful for both troubleshooting and security.

The $20 book retains the essential background explanations, step-by-step instructions, and real-world advice you need to set up and run OS X Server successfully in a home or small office environment. With OS X Server, you can share files, create shared calendars, run your own Web server and wiki, cache and coordinate Mac and iOS software updates for your users, manage your organization’s iOS devices, and provide networked Time Machine backups, among much else. Such services can be accessible to anyone on the Internet, or can be limited to users and devices on your local network.

Although we don’t recommend starting with Mavericks Server at this point in time, if you’re already running Mavericks Server, we have a couple of options for you. The 1.0 version of this book, published back in November, focuses on Mavericks Server. So if you want to stick with your existing installation of Mavericks Server — an entirely sensible course of action! — you can buy the current 1.1 version and download the 1.0 version from the Blog tab of the book’s Ebook Extras page. Or, if you do want to upgrade to Yosemite Server, the book now includes a description of what’s new and instructions on upgrading.

Geoff Duncan No comments

FCC Goes All-In on Net Neutrality

After a decade of trying to regulate the Internet lightly, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is moving to reclassify Internet service providers (ISPs) as common carriers. What does this mean for companies whose livelihoods depend on the Internet and — more importantly — for American Internet users?

The FCC has announced its plan to preserve “net neutrality,” and it’s a doozy: the agency plans to reclassify ISPs as common carriers — like phone companies — to ensure that all legal Internet traffic is treated with equal, best-effort priority. At the same time, the FCC is promising to set aside provisions that enable the agency to set rates, impose fees, and require ISPs to share key portions of their networks with competitors.

The latest rules come after a decade of failed attempts by the FCC to regulate the Internet with a light hand for fear of burdening a new, rapidly growing, and increasingly important segment of the American economy. However, the FCC’s previous efforts were challenged in court — and ultimately defeated — by telecommunications providers Comcast and Verizon, who argued that the FCC’s “open Internet” rules exceeded its legal authority. The result has been that no legal framework has ensured net neutrality, leaving ISPs free to block or throttle traffic they don’t like, and pursue controversial business relationships like paid-prioritization deals with Netflix.

No more. This time around, the FCC has brought out its big gun, proposing to reclassify ISPs from lightly regulated “information services” to full-blown “telecommunications services.” The classification change removes ambiguity about the FCC’s legal authority and brings the broadband industry under a broad range of regulatory powers, some of which admittedly date back over 80 years. Moreover, the FCC’s new rules would also apply to mobile Internet — which today handles over half of all Internet traffic worldwide — as well as interconnection points between networks and “edge providers” like Google,
Facebook, and Amazon that provide content and services but don’t sell Internet service.

New Rules — We can’t see the new rules yet: they total 332 pages and will apparently be available to the public only after the commission votes on them on 26 February 2015. (How’s that for government transparency?) However, these are the main points:

  • ISPs may not block, degrade, or limit any lawful Internet content or service. Similarly, ISPs may not create “fast lanes” or engage in paid prioritization deals that grant preferential treatment to selected lawful Internet traffic. These restrictions preserve the central key aspects of net neutrality or the “Open Internet.”

  • In a new move, open Internet requirements wouldn’t apply to just fixed-line Internet providers like telephone and cable companies, but also to mobile Internet, interconnection points, and so-called edge providers. These segments had been exempt from previous net neutrality rules. ISPs could still charge companies like Netflix, Cogent, and Level 3 for access to their networks, but the deals would only be allowed if the FCC finds them “just and reasonable” under Title II. However, content delivery networks (like Akamai) that try to optimize how data gets to individual users would still have free rein in charging their clients.

  • ISPs may engage in “reasonable” network management — which could include blocking apps, capping data, or limiting performance — so long as they disclose the practice and it’s not done for their commercial benefit.

  • ISPs will continue to be held to transparency requirements to provide accurate information about their services to consumers. Transparency rules aren’t new — they survived Verizon’s most recent court challenge — but the FCC says they’ll be augmented under the new rules.

  • ISPs may offer private-networking services that don’t use the public Internet (like voice service over cable), but they’re subject to transparency requirements and cannot be used to create de facto “fast lanes” or undermine net neutrality.

  • ISPs will be subject to Title II provisions enabling the FCC to guard against “unjust and unreasonable” practices, hear consumer complaints, ensure “fair access” to poles and conduits, protect access for people with disabilities, and protect consumer privacy.

  • The FCC can ignore (or “forbear”) aspects of Title II it feels aren’t in the public interest. ISPs will not be subject to Title II provisions that would enable the FCC to regulate rates or require broadband providers to contribute to the Universal Service fund. The new rules also won’t apply any new taxes or fees to broadband, and ISPs will not be required to “unbundle” the last mile of connectivity to homes and businesses for competitors to use.

What It Means — “Open Internet” doesn’t mean “free Internet.” The new rules won’t make your Internet service any cheaper, nor will they eliminate bandwidth caps, or get rid of those annoying slowdowns when all your neighbors start binge-watching streaming video.

Instead, it means that ISPs won’t be able to set up sweetheart deals with their preferred business partners to deliver content and services to their customers. Comcast wouldn’t be allowed to (say) favor Bing search services over Google if Microsoft throws extra money at them, nor could it slow down Netflix to make its own video-on-demand services look better in comparison. Similarly, if a hot new startup comes along — think the next WhatsApp, SnapChat, Etsy, Tumblr, or Pinterest — it doesn’t have to worry about ISPs blocking or slowing down its traffic because they don’t like it or because its business competes with an ISP’s services. As long as apps or services are legal and not damaging, ISPs would have to treat them the
same as anyone else.

Savvy Politics — If you’ve been following the net neutrality debate over the last year, you’ve realized that the FCC’s new proposal is much closer to what President Obama called for (see “President Obama Weighs In on Net Neutrality,” 14 November 2014) than the approach FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler previously proposed (see “FCC Moves Ahead with Internet “Fast Lanes”,” 16 May 2014). Wheeler had previously worked as a lobbyist for the cable industry, and was widely expected to make a third attempt to regulate broadband without reclassifying ISPs as common carriers —
although he consistently left that option on the table (see “FCC Hopes Third Time Is the Charm for Net Neutrality Rules,” 20 February 2014).

Why the change of heart? One factor was the decidedly negative reception Chairman Wheeler’s “fast lanes” plan received from all quarters. However, Obama’s move seems to have played a role too. Although the FCC is an independent agency and the President cannot mandate FCC policies, Obama’s public call for ISPs to be reclassified under Title II seems to have put Chairman Wheeler in a box.

The FCC has five voting members: Chairman Wheeler and four commissioners. Commission membership is non-partisan, but it’s widely known two commissioners are Democrats (Clyburn and Rosenworcel) and two are Republicans (Pai and O’Reilly). Here’s the catch: only the Democratic commissioners (halfheartedly) voted for Wheeler’s “fast lane” approach. By openly declaring support for reclassifying ISPs as common carriers, Obama gave those Democratic commissioners grounds to stand firm on net neutrality. If Wheeler pushed ahead with “fast lanes,” he would likely be shot down four-to-one. But if Wheeler went with Title II reclassification, he was virtually guaranteed two votes in his favor.

The Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has announced an investigation (PDF link) to determine if President Obama exerted undue influence on the FCC’s decision-making process.

Reception — Response to the proposed net neutrality rules has been predictable. Organizations like the Free Press and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have voiced support, while industry groups like the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation have come out against it. Almost all have noted the devil will be in the details and — since the commission has
not published the proposed rules — right now only the FCC itself knows the full details.

ISPs, not surprisingly, are against being reclassified as common carriers, arguing it will dampen investment and unnecessarily restrain them from creating new business models. Verizon CFO Fran Shammo recently characterized reclassification under Title II (PDF link) as “an extremely risky path” that would cause the company to “completely change the way we view our investments in our networks.”

From the point of view of multi-billion-dollar businesses, the FCC’s promise of forbearance — that it won’t set rate caps, impose new fees, or force ISPs to open up their last mile of connectivity — rings hollow. Just as the FCC doesn’t have to go through any formal proceedings to grant forbearance, it doesn’t have to go through any proceedings to take it away again. Investors might be understandably wary of betting big on businesses whose regulations can turn on a dime — and who knows what future FCC chairpersons or presidential administrations will bring.

What Happens Now? — The FCC has tentatively scheduled a vote on the new net neutrality rules for 26 February 2015. If the new rules pass, they will be published in the Federal Register, and anyone with a problem has 30 days to file a Petition for Reconsideration. But we’re down to brass tacks: this is the end of the FCC’s rule-making process and there won’t be another months-long public comment period. The FCC could make adjustments on the basis of petitions, but the agency isn’t even obligated to respond to them.

Assuming the FCC passes the new rules, the telecom industry will eventually sue: the question is when, and on what grounds. If you’d like an early preview of possible arguments, AT&T may have already posted some on its public policy blog.

Congress could also get involved. Unlike the President, Congress can tell the FCC what to do. Republicans have been circulating a draft bill that would add a “Title X” to the Communications Act that would authorize the FCC to regulate an open Internet without reclassifying ISPs under Title II. However, it’s not likely to go anywhere soon: although Republicans have a majority in Congress, they don’t currently have numbers to override a Presidential veto. But who knows what the next administration may bring.

In the meantime, treating ISPs as common carriers looks like it’s going to be the law of the land. At least for a little while.

Josh Centers 4 comments

How Likely Is an Apple Pen?

Steve Jobs once said, in reference to the iPad, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” Some have cited that quote to dismiss rumors that Apple is working on a stylus for the iPad.

Many of those commentators also missed the fact that Jobs also said, “In multitasking, if you see a task manager… they blew it,” even as he was announcing iOS 4 with a task manager. And then there are the other things that Jobs railed against — perhaps as misdirection — before Apple released just such a technology, including video on iPods, ebooks, and iTunes for Windows. But if you’re a TidBITS regular, you know that I’m just beating a dead horse in front of the choir.

While we at TidBITS don’t pay much attention to rumors, this one stands out for three reasons: Apple has the necessary technology, there is a business advantage in offering a stylus, and there are compelling benefits to Apple customers.

Let’s look at each of these. For the moment, I’ll assume that it will be called “Apple Pen,” which seems to fit Apple’s current naming conventions.

Where There’s Ink, There’s a Pen — Unlike many Apple rumors, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Apple is investigating styluses.

Apple filed 11 stylus patent applications in 2014 alone: 10 through early December and one more just before the end of the year.

Apple filing a patent isn’t necessarily evidence that the technology will ever see the light of day. Business Insider documents some of Apple’s wilder patents, including virtual Mac keyboards, a 3D iPhone interface, a smart bicycle, touch-sensitive bezels, and even “shake to print.”

Also, bear in mind that every major tech company either files or buys patents for as many technologies as it possibly can. This is mostly for legal reasons, both to make it more difficult for competitors to develop new products and to defend against patent litigation. Patent trolls — companies that hold and defend patents but make nothing (but trouble) — have sparked a patent arms race.

But it’s interesting that Apple has such a voluminous collection of stylus patents, dating back well before 2014. The company has long been interested in the technology, though no one outside Apple knows if it will ever leave the lab again.

Again? Yes, in case you’ve forgotten, Apple has been in the stylus game longer than almost any other tech company, with a little device called the Newton that debuted in 1993 (for the history of that influential failure, see Michael Cohen’s “Newton: The Greatest Flop of All Time,” 9 August 2013).

While the early Newton’s handwriting recognition was the butt of many jokes (“Eat up Martha,” “egg freckles”), it improved rapidly, though not quickly enough to salvage its reputation.

But that refined technology made its way into Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar, in the form of Inkwell, later rebranded as Ink. It still exists to this day in 10.10 Yosemite, although the preference pane is hidden unless a supported device is connected. Rumors of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

The bottom line is that if Apple wanted to release some sort of digital stylus, it has all the tools and resources to do so.

Finally, we have the source of the latest rumor: Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities. Kuo has a sterling reputation for his Apple predictions, thanks to his sources within Asian suppliers. His previous predictions included larger iPhones, the gold iPhone 5s, and the iPhone 5c replacing the iPhone 5.

Despite some accurate insights, Kuo is only about as accurate as a coin flip, according to an analysis of his 2013 predictions by TUAW. His most recent miss was claiming that the Apple Watch would arrive in March 2015 (he was a month too soon, see “Big iPhones Mean a Big Q1 2015 for Apple; Apple Watch Date Revealed,” 27 January 2015).

It’s also important to note that Kuo’s best reports include citations of his Asian supplier sources, something that wasn’t included with his stylus prediction.

Going beyond Kuo’s somewhat overstated record, I think the best evidence of an Apple Pen is the solid business case for it.

The Business Case — When the Apple Watch debuts in April 2015, Apple will be offering devices with screen sizes from 1.5 inches up to 27 inches. If you count the Apple TV, you can have an Apple device with any size screen you can buy.

Where does Apple go from here? Outside of an iDoor or an Apple Car, the only apparent way to expand is horizontally, into accessories. The Apple Watch is a clue, as it will initially be an iPhone accessory. Another clue is in Apple’s purchase of headphone designer Beats Electronics (“Apple Buys Beats for $3 Billion,” 28 May 2014).

Apple aficionados have a certain affection for writing implements. Myke Hurley, a popular Apple podcaster, even has a show dedicated to them: The Pen Addict. Many prominent figures in the Apple community are in love with the Field Notes brand of pocket notebooks, including Daring Fireball’s John Gruber and The Loop’s Jim Dalrymple.

A well-designed pen is as much a work of industrial art as any existing Apple product, and a pen can be just as much of a fashion statement as a watch. Of course, for someone to want to carry a stylus all the time, it would help to do double duty as a normal pen that could write on paper.

See where I’m going with this? I bet Jony Ive would jump at the chance to design a pen again — he has already designed two. And I bet Apple retail chief Angela Ahrendts would love to sell an Apple Pen. By all reports, she’s gearing the Apple Store up to be a chain that sells small, high-end products like watches — a perfect niche for a high-end writing implement.

Just imagine the upsell opportunities! Like a watch, a pen can be developed from a variety of materials. Apple could offer the Apple Pen in aluminum, stainless steel, or gold, just like the Apple Watch. Since Apple went out of its way to develop a new gold alloy, you had better believe it will find new uses for it.

Plus, styluses are already a proven product category. Apple even sells a few already, including the FiftyThree Pencil and the Livescribe 3 Smartpen Pro Edition. The Pencil has been so well-received that FiftyThree is betting the company on it.

These products share a key disadvantage: they each work in only a single app. Less-sophisticated, more universal styluses often have squishy tips designed to work with capacitive touchscreens. These squishy tips can be frustrating to use, like trying to draw with an eraser. Some styluses have firm tips, like the Studio Neat Cosmonaut, and are reportedly easier to use, but still suffer from other issues.

Here we have a perfect formula for an Apple product: a proven market category filled with flawed products. Apple is known as an innovator, but the company is better described as a renovator. Apple didn’t invent the personal computer, MP3 player, smartphone, tablet, or smartwatch, it made them better. It’s sort of like the old BASF ad: “Here at Apple, we don’t invent the gizmos you buy. We make the gizmos you buy better.”

Apple has even more impetus to introduce an Apple Pen: slowing iPad sales. Rumors of an Apple Pen have often been presented alongside rumors of a larger iPad Pro. While a full analysis of an iPad Pro would require another article, it makes sense. Check out the latest iPad ad.

What do we see? Musicians, woodworkers, mechanics, designers, photographers, and other professionals. Apple has been aiming the iPad at the professional market for a few years now. Plus, Tim Cook keeps talking about the iPad’s penetration into Fortune 500 companies in Apple’s quarterly earnings calls.

I’m certain that an iPad Pro would sell. I still hear from people who have fallen for my Mavericks/iPad mashup joke for April Fools Day last year (see “Install and Run OS X 10.9 Mavericks on the iPad Air,” 1 April 2014). It even fooled a couple of pundits. That just shows how hungry people are for a more functional iPad.

A larger screen “canvas” makes more sense in light of a stylus — giving artists, designers, and writers more room to work. While I doubt that Apple is quaking in fear of the Microsoft Surface tablet, it has proven popular with a market Apple covets: artists. When Mike “Gabe” Krahulik of Penny Arcade extolled the virtues of the Surface Pro’s pressure-sensitive stylus for artists, that had to have stung some higher-ups at Apple.

The Apple Pen would likely be a niche device, so expect to pay a premium. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it cost at least $100. Luxurious gold models could retail for more (I could see these taking off with executives who favor the iPad).

For professionals looking for accurate input on their iPads, the premium would be worth it, as Apple could offer benefits no other vendor can.

What We Could Expect from an Apple Pen — Beyond possibly being among the best ink-on-paper writing implements anyone has ever used, the main advantage Apple could offer with the Apple Pen would be functionality throughout iOS, with any app. It could offer the precision and pressure-sensitivity of FiftyThree’s Pencil without being tied to a single app.

Naturally, the Apple Pen would connect via Bluetooth 4.0, but how would you charge it? Perhaps via a Lightning connector, or it could use a version of the Apple Watch’s inductive charging, sharing a similar adapter. Apple might even include a handsome desk charger, reminiscent of traditional pen holders.

I’d like to see an Apple Pen come with a removable, replaceable tip, which would create an accessory market around the pen. Apple and its partners could offer tips for fine work, broad strokes, and even brushes. Calligraphy tips would be a must, given that Steve Jobs studied calligraphy like a monk, with a monk.

Speaking of calligraphy, I think it’s a given that the Apple Pen would offer handwriting recognition in iOS. But to be truly unique, it needs more than that; it wouldn’t be an Apple product without an innovation that sets it apart.

The most obvious way Apple could innovate here is to include a form of the Apple Watch’s Taptic Engine to provide haptic feedback. The Taptic Engine could hypothetically emulate the feel of pen on paper or a brush smearing through paint on a canvas. If Apple could pull that off, the Apple Pen would be irresistible to artists.

Another possibility I pondered was Apple including a Bluetooth microphone in the Apple Pen to act as a remote control for Siri. But I think this would risk taking some of the air out of the Apple Watch. While Apple isn’t afraid to cannibalize its products, I doubt it wants to do so to a brand-new one.

How would you carry the Apple Pen? The traditional solution is a slot in the device to hold a stylus. I can’t see Jony Ive doing this; for one thing, it would bulk up the incredibly thin iPad. A magnetic attachment of some sort, like Apple’s Smart Cover, seems more likely. I can imagine a pen machined to provide a perfect fit with the iPad’s edges. But if it’s going to get the attention Apple would want, you’d need to put it in your pocket like you do any other pen.

What could Apple do to entice regular, non-professional users to pick up an Apple Pen and/or an iPad Pro? Amateur Apple analyst and infrequent podcaster Zac Cichy offered a couple of ideas.

The first is easier input for Asian languages, which would surely be a big hit in the coveted Chinese market. Especially since much of written Chinese (and a good portion of Japanese) consists of thousands of logograms, with each representing a single word or concept. If an Apple Pen could ease the input of these characters, that could be a major accessibility win for billions of people.

The second one is staring us all right in the face: communicating via sketches. Sketch is one of Apple’s much-touted features of Apple Watch, and will enable you to communicate with friends and loved ones via simple, animated drawings. I think it’s a safe bet that this feature will spread to Apple’s other platforms, and what better way to do so than with a pen?

Fashionable, artistic, practical, and profitable. That’s Apple in a nutshell. That’s why I think we’ll see an Apple Pen one day.

Mariva H. Aviram 2 comments

Computing for the Visually Impaired, Part 5

Members of the accessibility community spend a lot of time thinking about the future — what developments are on the horizon in biotech, electronics, robotics, and computer science? This is because, while vast improvements have been made in adaptive tech, there is still a long way to go for every impaired or disabled person to experience the kind of access to the world that able-bodied people take for granted.

In the previous four parts of this series, I covered a variety of visual impairments that affect computer users, advice from eye care specialists, built-in accessibility features, and third-party accessibility apps. Now, in this final installment, I’ll explore hardware options, ergonomics, and new innovations in adaptive tech.

Electronic Devices — Besides software, a number of electronic devices are convenient for low vision users, including text cameras and scanners, video magnifiers, text-to-speech reading machines, specialized monitors, specialized keyboards, and reading tables. For lovers of books, periodicals, and other text materials, ebook readers can be life-changing.

On E Ink in particular, ophthalmologist Dr. Benjamin B. Bert opined:

In my opinion, one of the greatest developments in recent technology is that of the Electronic Ink (E Ink) readers. These are not backlit, so they don’t have as much of the glare issues — yet they have the ability to change the font size, and some can perform text-to-speech. E Ink readers have opened up the opportunity for reading to many of those who thought they would never be able to read again.

(Competent text-to-speech apps, such as KNFB Reader, may be more convenient than carrying a separate reading device. These apps can go beyond just readers — AssistiveWare’s Wrise is a configurable word processor that allows low vision and dyslexic users to utilize multi-word prediction and to choose voice, speech rate, volume, and text formatting. Wrise is on sale for $29.99 through 22 February 2015.)

Monitors — It occurred to me that low vision users might do better if an entire computer monitor were made out of electronic paper, maybe with a corresponding backlit flat-panel monitor or tablet that automatically displayed associated images and videos.

Optometrist Dr. Stewart F. Gooderman assured me that I was onto something, at least with the problematic nature of conventional computer monitors. He said:

The problem with backlit displays is the lack of edge and polarization. Pixels do not have sharp edges; they fade from center to edge, because they emanate light rather than reflect it. So, for those with visual challenges, backlit monitors compound blur over blur.

What I proposed is not a perfect solution, obviously — especially given the low refresh rate of E Ink. The purpose, however, of an entire computer monitor made from a non-backlit E Ink display would be mostly for gleaning text information, which is what most users need most of the time. If users needed to look at an image or a video, a separate conventional display could do that.

In fact, Dasung Tech demonstrated its PaperLike 13.3-inch E Ink monitor at CES 2015 and intends to release it on the market. Reports of the price vary wildly from $645 to $970, which may be a pain point for many low vision users.

But Dr. Gooderman didn’t like my idea of switching between displays to read text and view images: “The problem with what you want to do is that it requires two viewings, which distracts from comprehension, as well as being inconvenient. It’s like constantly having to refer to the back of the book to read the endnotes.”

As my brother has experienced, refocusing the eyes from one place to another and back is especially disruptive to visually impaired users. The Dasung PaperLike could solve this problem, but the user would have to sacrifice a high-resolution color display of images and put up with an exceedingly small screen for a modern computer.

As long as we do use backlit monitors, it’s important to use them properly. Dr. Gooderman advised, “Generally, you get more artifacts when you look at an LCD screen from the sides — superiorly or inferiorly — than when looking straight at it, so that the line of sight is perpendicular to the screen’s surface. And if you are getting numerous artifacts, it may mean you need to get a better monitor.”

When shopping for monitors, it’s important to consider your own vision needs. The market offers numerous options, each with its own advantages and disadvantages for viewing. LCD panel monitors rely on three general technologies:

  • Twisted Nematic (TN): Competitive gamers appreciate these affordable, widely used monitors because of their fast pixel latency response time. However, viewing angles are limited and color representation may suffer. Colorblind users may fare well with TN monitors.

  • Vertical Alignment (VA): The response time of VA monitors is slower than TN monitors, but VAs are brighter and reproduce colors more accurately. Black levels are relatively low, however, which can produce ghosting. Patterned Vertical Alignment monitors improve black levels, although ghosting may still occur.

  • In-Plane Switching (IPS): IPS is the best panel technology in terms of wide-viewing angles and consistently accurate color representation. However, contrast, black levels, and brightness are lower, and response times are comparatively slow.

Even if you’ve chosen the most appropriate monitor for your vision needs, you may still experience symptoms of Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), such as eye strain, blurred vision, red eyes, and headaches. Computer glasses can help — sometimes immensely. TidBITS commenter Lance Diernback, for example, found that computer glasses eliminated the severe eyestrain and migraines that he experienced with computer use. If you wear corrective lenses, computer glasses can be custom-made for your specific lens prescription.

Ergonomics — When viewing a monitor, Dr. Bert advises, “In normal circumstances, the top of the monitor should be in direct line of sight when you are looking straight ahead. That way, what you are working on is viewable from a slight downward gaze, which is most comfortable for most people.” Proper ergonomics are important for everyone, not just those with vision issues, but poor ergonomics may cause more troubles for those who are already having trouble seeing. These resources can help:

Lighting — Dr. Gooderman stressed the need for ambient light in order to make the entire environment more comfortable and conducive to prolonged computer work:

Lighting should be soft and indirect, without hot spots or glare. It should not be shining in your face or on the screen, nor should it be too bright. The overall lighting should be lower in intensity than in a typical office space. Add soft spot lamps on the desks to see paperwork. Bad lighting should be corrected by a knowledgeable lighting expert who may need to exchange current fixtures with new ones with the proper light source and ballasting. Ballasting in lighting also points to how the light source is spread by the use of accessories like louvers. In a pinch, install a hood over your screen.

For more information, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health & Safety published an illustrated guide to general lighting ergonomics as well as a lighting ergonomics survey and solutions guide.

Print Size — Except for some unique visual impairments (such as my brother’s tiny, but clear, area in his vision for reading small, sharp text), most users find it productive to increase text size on screens (or, when available, opt for larger text in print materials).

From the article preview “Reading From Computers and Print Size” of the American Academy of Optometry’s Optometry & Vision Science (June 2014):

It is known that for the printed page, reading speed increases with print size. But is this true for reading from computers with added glare and other potentially impactful computer screen parameters? Our authors studied young (18-35 year-old) and older (55-65 year-old) participants in their study and found that indeed the same relationship exists. They went further and quantified the relationship. Each 1 mm increase in font size led to a mean productivity and accuracy improvement. Adding reflective glare on the monitor surface led subjects to move their heads forward but had no effect on productivity or accuracy. Age (with appropriate corrective lenses) had no effect on these relationships. Their study suggests productivity and
posture of computer users is enhanced with larger than typical font size.

Low Vision Organizations — For low vision users, these organizations offer assistance:

The Internet of Things — Lest our exploration rest on the idea that participation in the world begins and ends solely with computers, it’s important for developers of all kinds of products to include accessibility features and adaptive tech into the devices and systems that we use in everyday life.

Chancey Fleet, assistive technology coordinator at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library, elucidated:

Most users in the blind and low vision community would welcome robust accessibility features in more kinds of products. For example, it is tough to find a microwave, thermostat, or piece of fitness equipment that has spoken feedback and adjustable color, size, and contrast options. Although most of these devices have gone digital, they mostly have not yet adopted the accessibility that we value on our smartphones and computers. With a little creativity, almost any device could include accessibility, such as the simple accessible touchscreen implemented by the Lighthouse International and Creative Mobile Technologies’ partnership in pioneering taxi technology for visually
impaired passengers in the United States

And, because computers increasingly control appliances that are not specifically computer-centric, Fleet discussed the potential — and the drawbacks — of the “Internet of Things”:

The “Internet of Things” introduces new opportunities to make or break accessibility. The Nest thermostat app, for example, is accessible, meaning that a low vision or blind person can use a screen reader or magnification with it. At the same time, if an app interface is the only way to access a high-tech appliance, and that interface is inaccessible for whatever reason — the appliance may be less usable than a low-tech appliance that could be labeled simply with braille, high-contrast dots, or other modifications.

Fleet then succinctly crystallized the full-accessibility approach to product design:

It’s important to remember that not every low vision or blind person has the desire, budget, or working knowledge to use a smartphone to manage appliances. As long as controls on appliances themselves are still desirable and practical for the general public, then they should be built with universal design in mind so that users with varying abilities can engage with them as effectively as non-disabled users can.

According to Fleet, universal — that is, fully accessible — design has several notable advantages:

  • More users can work with a device that’s universally designed. For example, the iPhone includes features to make the screen easier to see, read content out loud, send audio to hearing aids, and allow people who find it difficult to type to dictate their reminders and text messages.

  • People of varying abilities can support our friends, family members, and colleagues in the use of universally designed devices. For example, if I were to advise my mother on purchasing a computer, I’d choose one with good accessibility features so that I could help her with it in the future.

  • Many innovations that are good for people with disabilities turn out to be popular with “typical” users. Dictation is a great example: while it supports people with fine motor impairments, such as repetitive strain injury (RSI), it’s also useful for anyone whose hands are occupied.

Future Tech — The hope for current adaptive technology — screen enhancers and adjusters, screen readers, text-to-speech, dictation, and speech recognition — is that, as good as some of it is, it will continue to improve.

Some low vision users especially await significant advancements in audio-driven interfaces, with hardware gadgetry that could potentially resemble musical instruments. However, the future isn’t always bright: even Apple has slipped somewhat in the quality of its accessibility features (see “Apple Losing Its Accessibility Edge,” 2 February 2015).

Many technophiles are excited about the Oculus Rift virtual reality head-mounted display, although it’s not yet known how it could benefit low vision users specifically. Computerized eyewear is still so novel that those who care about eye health have reason to be skeptical. (Not to mention that these devices inadequately accommodate people who wear eyeglasses, which poses a huge obstacle to visual accessibility.)

Google Glass, for example, is potentially harmful enough to cause concern among ophthalmologists. Steve Mann, electrical and computer-engineering professor at the University of Toronto and computerized-vision system expert, detailed the ways in which devices like Google Glass cause eyestrain.

Some exciting innovations originate from individual tinkerers and social network concepts. 3D designer Michael Balzer, for example, used a 3D printer to model his wife’s cranium so that surgeons could successfully remove a tumor from her eye; in the process, Balzer pioneered a potential new standard of medical care. And then there’s Be My Eyes, a nonprofit social network that enables sighted volunteers to take requests from blind users for everyday information (navigation, product labels, etc.) via a smartphone app.

Looking Forward — My case of viral conjunctivitis was especially fierce, and I developed an allergic reaction on top of it, which complicated and lengthened my recovery process. Despite a several-times-daily dependence on artificial tears, my eyes are back to normal, for the most part. For this, I feel an immense sense of gratitude — and, in fact, I now consider the state of my eyes as a personal touchstone whenever measuring my troubles. (“Is this more important than the health and function of my eyes? No? Well, then let’s keep it in perspective.”)

Our faculties, especially our sensory organs, are, like life itself, precious and fragile. We take them for granted until they’ve been threatened or harmed. This experience has taught me, among other things, the importance of the fundamentals of life that are easy to dismiss and squander.

Let us all take steps to protect our health and safety — and to demand both preventive precautions and accommodative measures from technology developers, institutions, and workplaces. They all need to step up to the challenge of creating safe and fully accessible environments for you, me, and everyone else — because our vision, and our participation in the world, is worth it.

Articles in this series:

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 9 February 2015

Evernote 6.0.6 — Evernote has released version 6.0.6 of its eponymous information management app with improvements for Spotlight search and advanced search, as well as a reduction in CPU usage when indexing. These search improvements will require you to reindex notes, which could impact performance temporarily. The update also improves the reliability of Evernote’s attachment infrastructure, adds a Presentation Mode Auto-Layout feature that easily divides presentations into multiple slides, and fixes a number of crashes. As of this writing, the Mac App Store edition of Evernote was still sitting at version 6.0.5. (Free from Evernote or the Mac App Store, 59.7 MB, release notes, 10.7.5+)

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Mellel 3.3.8 — RedleX has released Mellel 3.3.8 with fixes for some minor memory leaks, as well as for crashes that occurred after receiving updates from iCloud and when handling documents containing many citations. The update to the word processor also fixes an issue that caused artifacts to appear when working with longer documents at zoom levels other than 100 percent, fixes a bug that could cause a crash when pressing the arrow keys in the Find field, and resolves an issue that occasionally caused the iCloud menu to be empty. ($39 new from RedleX and the Mac App Store, free update, 97.5 MB, release notes, 10.6+)

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ExtraBITS for 9 February 2015

In ExtraBITS this week cloud backup service Backblaze has released the raw data from its hard drive reliability studies, Verizon is bulking up its data plans, The New York Times examines Apple’s victory over Microsoft, and President Obama has announced modest NSA reforms.

Backblaze Releases Raw Hard Drive Reliability Data — Cloud backup service Backblaze has been releasing hard drive reliability data for the past year, but now they are making public their complete data sets from both 2013 and 2014. The data comes in comma-separated values (CSV) format for each year, ready for you to plug into the statistics program of your choice. The company plans to release data for future years as well.

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Verizon Beefs Up Data Plans — Verizon Wireless has announced that its More Everything plans with data allowances of 1 to 3 GB will receive an additional 1 GB of data for the same prices (or you can remain at the lower level for $10 less per month). The carrier is also offering new 6 GB ($70), 12 GB ($110), 14 GB ($120), and 16 GB ($130) data plans. It appears that subscribers must switch plans manually to take advantage of the change.

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How Apple Beat Microsoft — At the end of the 20th century, Microsoft was the unstoppable juggernaut of computing and Apple was on the ropes. Not only did Apple recover, but it’s now twice as big as the Redmond giant. James R. Stewart of The New York Times looks at what caused Apple’s rise and Microsoft’s relative descent. In short: Apple had a better sense of vision and wasn’t afraid to cannibalize its own products.

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President Obama Announces Modest NSA Reforms — If you have followed our Keeping Up with the Snoops series, you know all about the National Security Agency’s mass collection of civilian data. Now President Obama has announced a couple of minor changes to how such data will be collected and stored. U.S. intelligence agencies will be required to delete irrelevant data on Americans, and will be allowed to keep similar data on foreigners for no more than five years. There will also be regular White House reviews of what intelligence agencies are gathering.

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