I'm a cell phone refusenik

About the usability of a handheld when it's not a phone

image: mozilla moz

Contents

Abstract / bottom line:
This is an iPod touch (G6) review from my own perspective  - with a subtext of cultural criticism.
What is the smart part of a smartphone, apart from the phone? [1] 
For checking offline usability I installed the app Coda for iOS to browse my locally stored knowledge base (HTML pages) and I installed the app Big Photo to navigate through large maps and plans (containing small-scale labeling text). – With the result it's all tricky (useless rather).
 Essentially the purpose of my new iPod touch is to have it (you can apply my verdict as well to a middle-sized iPad). At home and at work I have the Mac, I don't need the iPod – and on the go I can't find a practical application for it.
 So the question is, was it just nothing that killed the old industy, the mobile phone? [2] 

My concern with handheld devices

I'm a freak in terms of using a cell phone - I don't do it.
In my view, not having used handheld devices or mobile phones ever is not a crime. And it's true, I really do not get the point of a mobile.
To check out my bias is right or wrong, I bought 09/2015 (ten years after iOS was introduced) an iPod touch, my first iOS device.

Here is my view on mobile apps and iOS.  (Of course the phone part of iOS is not a subject.)  I wrote this review as an explanation to myself why I spent (sadly) so much time (several weeks) to find something useful.
Today I use the iPod touch as an alarm clock and that's it.

Use cases sorted by task and file kind :

1.  Reading locally stored webpages

A handheld is i.a. a device to carry all your important informations with you on the go – e.g. all the hundreds of HTML pages you collected over the years, self-written or stored from the internet, well-named, well-categorized and well-searchable. – Stored locally for offline use, as your personal knowledge base.

I never used a handheld so far. But I have heared enough about it to know, smartphone manufacturers have an idea of a handheld very different from that above.
The question is:  Is it really for technical reasons and reasons of security when they hinder the local storage and offline use of webpages [3]  or is it just policy against the users? – I bought an iPod touch to find out.

I installed the app Coda for iOS.
Besides providing tools for editing HTML code the installation proved this:

  • It is no problem to run two different browsers with different permissions on the iPod. One for browsing the internet and one for browsing local files (as Coda does).
    There is no technical drawback and no security risk doing this.
  • It is no problem to run a webserver on the iPod that provides a localhost (as Coda does).

Coda for iOS provides both as secondary tasks – rendering and viewing HTML pages is only for check purposes.  So it needs 6 or 7 taps through the hierarchy of the app's panels to render a locally stored page you want to view and read – not very convenient. [4] 
But the same could be done just as well with one tap, with a less complex application. It would be a $100m business for a developer to say: Our wonderful app makes it a snap to render, tag, search and sort all your locally stored HTML files (manuals, novels, your notes, dictionaries, cookery recipe books, whatever).

So, why does that not happen? – Because that would massively compromise the business model of some of the biggest companies in the world. This business model is about online selling of content and services, about advertising, subscriptions, streaming, being online, being tracked etc. – that is not a $100m business but a $100b business.
Sad, the first (and for me most essential) use case failed.

2.  Viewing hi-res images (10-20 megapixels)

I do not expect I could process 20-megapixels images on a little iPod. – But I would expect to use my handheld as a storage and viewer.
It seems natural to think first of the Adobe Lightroom Mobile  app when you want to sort and view hi-res images on an iPhone. But it got around that Adobe's mobile apps are not real tools anymore but doorbusters for signing Adobe's CC. Adobe's mobile apps are good for a drill. But for hi-res you always have to repeat or complete the work on a desktop. Images in Lightroom Mobile are low-res images - unusable for my purpose.
I experienced the same when I tried to import images via the iTunes app of my Mac: the resolution of the images gets damaged. Furthermore, Camera Roll images have no file names. It is impossible to retrieve technical drawings among others that look as thumbnails the same. Apple's Photos app can't find files and it is NOT a viewer. You can't zoom in beyond 1:1. Small labeling text and dimensions in a drawing are unreadable.
At my next step I discovered the Big Photo  app that does not reduce the resolution and provides unlimited zoom (+ maintains hard pixel edges so small-scale labeling text stays readable). I managed to transfer hi-res images into the Camera Roll and everything worked fine. – Now, a few weeks later, I can't remember how I managed the import (did I use an older version of Dropbox?, of iOS or Google Photos?). I can't reproduce that triumph (having bypassed built-in limitations of the Camera Roll remotely).
The tests took days. – What an effort for such a basic task - and still unsolved.

An additional eye-opener was this (I put it here on top, although it happened at the end):
As a preparation for a bicycling tour I stored scanned topographical hiking maps on the iPod. - It failed. I was a newbie and didn't know sunlight in the open is much too bright to see anything on the screen. Luckily I carried also the high-end (printed) version of the map with me.
It was stupid. But this experience helped to stop wasting my time with trials to provide the iPod with usability.

3.  Viewing average photos (1-8 megapixels)

For me, the best solution is Dropbox and the Stackr for Cloud app. [5] 
I can sort my images (offline) by name, by date or by file size. I have folders and can view the images list as thumbnails with file name or tiled as small or large thumbs.
The zoom factor when viewing a single image goes up to (estimated) 3x the screen width. (Tip: when you need max. zoom you have to zoom landscape images in landscape view.) Online syncing works well.
It was instructive to me to make a choice which photos should be in the collection and to name them. - But sadly I never viewed them again on the iPod.

4.  Reading PDFs.  Listening to audiobooks

My first purchase of content was an audiobook (Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman), a purchase without having Apple in the middle (I support when possible a decentralized web).

Apple's iBooks app works well with audiobooks on an iPhone (not so on a Mac - there the app doesn't know what a non-iTunes audiobook is). I have no reason to look for a replacement. Additionally it works for reading PDFs. (Albeit I do not really read PDFs on the device. – It's just for the feeling to carry them with me, just for the illusion it's useful.) This are the few I stored:

  • Berlin train schedules
  • Route map of the Berlin underground
  • Manual of my Fuji X camera
  • Some science papers etc.

As a reminder, this is the workflow for downloading PDFs and other files via iTunes:

  1. Connect iPod and Mac via Lightning connector.
    Start the iTunes app on the Mac.
  2. In the Finder on the Mac drag and drop the new files (PDF) onto the folder "Automatically Add to iTunes"  (~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Media/..). The files will be moved into the appropriate folder ("Books")
  3. In the iTunes app on the Mac click the device icon (top left) and then the "Books" section in the Settings (left).
    - Make sure the new files are shown up in iTunes.
    - Ensure the box "Sync Books" is not checked.
  4. Ensure the Mac monitor shows up both, a Finder Window with the new PDFs in the "Books" folder and the iTunes Window.
    Drag and drop the new files (PDFs) from the Finder to the "On My Device" section in iTunes (left). – Done.

5.  Reading my notes (.txt and .md)

The only notes file I have stored on my iPod (via Dropbox) is my good old single-file address book and the appropriate CSS (the addresses are markdown formatted). I described in my post (2013) "How I do bookmarking and note taking" what opinion I have of markdown and how I use it.

On the iOS device I open my address book with the text app Nebulous Notes. It looks well rendered.
But to be honest, I never needed it on the go.

6.  Viewing video clips.  Listening to audio

I could give this a miss, no problem (even though this feature is the origin of the handheld device, the classic Apple iPod). – But if I do not, I would set conditions:

  • plays mp3, ogg and m4a (no matter m4a is purchased via iTunes or not).
  • doesn't connect me to iTunes.

My demand is, the following two parts have to be strictly separated and independent  (commercially, visually and technically):

  • the player, the local media storage/ cloud storage
  • the recommendation system/ the store.

To say it more clear: I want the option to switch off easily the second part. I want no invitations (e.g. to the new Apple Streaming Music) , no adds, no new episodes, not this iTunes fairground stall when I visit the files I like.
You will see what I mean, when you log in at your Dropbox account. - What you see is simply your file collection - it is quiet, clear and cool, and it relates to you. [6] 

For me the VLC for Mobile player is just right (if I would use my iPod). - VLC is not for you when you expect playlists, random play, repeat etc.

7.  Browsing the web

In the first days I checked out the iPod touch I felt as if I had leased it from Apple. I could learn how to operate the device. But it was still a device that is by design controlled by others and still in possession of Apple. — That feeling changed when Mozilla released Firefox for iOS in 2015-09.

Since Apple doesn's allow to save Firefox bookmarks as icons on the Home screen I started to add my favorites at the bottom of this webpage and to use this for a while as my Home Page of Firefox for iOS.  – (Mozilla offers of course an easier service to bookmark in the app or in the cloud.)

Today I'm a bit embarrassed how I expended my effort for bookmarking. But I took Apple's policy personal - Apple should not control how browsers can be used.

Apart from questions of policy I experienced the following (as a newbie):

  • Scrolling and reading webpages, especially news pages, is more appealing on narrow screens than on a wide desktop screen. [7] 
  • A handheld makes rarely sense with webpages that require interactive usage – e.g. request for embedded tweets, making screen shots of Google maps, managing Pinboard bookmarks etc.

Since I browse the internet today solely on my desktop screen the conclusion from the points above is:
It would be great (and the only case I would accept cookies) when a cookie could remember the preferred window width of the browser for that site. - Of course cookies do anything but that.

8.  Using device features
(Alarm Clock, Camera, Maps in offline mode)

I checked the camera (see two fotos) and it works nicely :

an der heide
auf der hoehe

Instead of Apple's Camera.app I used Shoot. Shoot makes it easy to adjust everything manually (e.g. when shooting in low light). Perhaps it was a bit too easy to use and too cool - they kicked it off the Store later.
However (there is not much to say), I prefer my real camera with eyecup/ viewfinder etc. (Fujifilm X).

9.  Using apps

A general principle:  when an Internet service works well in the browser I do not install the app. (The best UX is not having to leave the browser.)
Examples: YouTube, SoundCloud, HypeMachine, Flickr, G+, Twitter, Pinboard (how Facebook works I don't know, I never ever opened a page).
The ratio of (alleged) 1,500,000 available apps for iOS to 2-3 apps people (statistically) use on their device (aside from far more than 100 they install) tells the real story of the handheld device:  it is not strange, it is sick.

home screen The apps I use
(occasionally) – that's all.
(+ the swipe up panel)

10.  Writing notes

It happened once or twice that I wrote some words on my iPod.
In my view, an app for personal notes on an iPod touch - that is mainly for reading the notes, not writing, it is about obtaining informations that are already stored.
I wouldn't commit my data to an app like Apple's Notes.  (I know, it's paranoia, but when I write text it is always text that I can read and edit with any text editor.) Apple's Notes is a proprietary rich text format - in my view nirvana land. So I prefer the text app Nebulous Notes  (if I would write on the go).

11.  Playing games

iOS games are too poor in some aspects - I don't speak of CPU/ GPU limitations but of the general approach.  20 years ago when I used to play games occasionally (on a Mac), games provided option panels where I could adjust/ switch off e.g. the volume of sound effects, voices, music etc. independently from each other. Today with iOS games I usually can't - meaning the games provide not an atmosphere I like. So I don't play games.

These two apps are exceptional and art:

icon grimfa icon boog

12.  Viewing stored animated GIFs

As with all points, I not need animated GIFs on my handheld. But I stored some ("Wow, it works!") from here:

A dedicated Gif app is not needed. - Just tell the Dropbox app to save the gifs locally (offline) and the animation runs well.

Conclusion

In early times the goal to develop the classic Mac was to free users, to become independent from mainframe computers, from established publishers and press ("The personal computer is a bicycle for the mind"). For the user it was about creating own content.
Today the opposite happens. For Apple it's not about freeing users but about binding users, turning them into consumers of prefabricated content, about establishing dependencies - from an "ecosystem", from being online, the cloud, monthly fees, IDs, logins, being tracked etc. [8] 
The demise began 2011 with the introduction of the Mac App Store - the executor of the "ecosystem" (intriguingly Steve Jobs' last big performance as CEO).
It's disgusting. It is enslavement - not enforced by Apple but by the whole industry.
(So, I put a short strip of Scotch Tape centered on the iPod back with a _different_ sign written on it.)

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[1]  I think, in it's general substance the smart part of a smartphone is a bit like the early Windows:
The attraction of the early Windows system (compared to a native system, the Mac in those days)  was the effort needed to master it. You could say "Phew! It works. I'm smart." – You could solve problems with it (problems you wouldn't have without it).
Similarly the purpose of my new iPod touch is to have it and to check out all the apps I don't need  (statistically 100+ per user).

[2]  Apple knows the trivial nature of the present iOS. They are bound and determined to change that. – One part of the change are Pro apps on IBM/Apple tablets. The bigger part is this:  When you suddenly can't pay at the cash desk anymore or you appear to have no identity at the border checkpoint (perhaps because you recently made some unwelcome statements about the OS of your handheld or about the government), then you know the times of trivial OSes are over.
(But that's not the topic of this blog post.)

[3]  Among the 1.5 million iOS apps available are some so-called 'HTML viewers' or 'Page readers'. These turn HTML into locally stored screenshots, PNG, PDF etc. - nothing you could call a HTML browser or you would want to use. (And no software developer calls this restriction terror against the user absurd.)

[4]  Coda for iOS is perfect for its purpose and in particular perfect in managing files (remotely and locally). But the viewer is by design kept in the background of the app.

[5]  Apple bans or approves third party services and apps variously. The circumstance that I can choose a cloud service like Dropbox freely, shows that iOS is quite open and liberal at the moment. – By comparison a user of a Google Chromebook is completely a prisoner of the Drive cloud storage.
Update 2016: My footnote was too optimistic about Apple. The developer account of the Stackr for Cloud app was suspended by Apple. The app is gone, the last feature that added value to the iPod touch is gone.

[6]  In case Apple would acquire Dropbox , I guess, the aspect of enjoying openness of a system would disappear.
Of course, how I myself use/not use the device is the smaller part of my contract with Apple.
Apple could inversely disable me (my accounts, or even the device) anytime if I not perform/ agree.

[7]  When The Guardian  changed its page design to serve also mobile devices (2013), it was one of the few that became unfortunately less clear and readable on the wide screen.
The second case that was noticeable: Ycombinator's Hacker News was one of the Websites that were very late in becoming mobile friendly. And they did not really explain why. - I guess when the earnings are beyond 1,000 USD/h the motivation to work on something below that is zero. (And their paranoia doesn't admit a low-paid subcontractor having a look inside the ranking algorithms of HN.)

[8]  Being offline is not a mode, it's an infringement. 'No offline' is a doctrine, an intended conditioning - and not for technical reasons.