The Yellow Pages

The Yellow Pages as a business has stagnated for years, failing to keep up with the times and try new things as everyone moved towards a digital world. The inception of the iPhone in 2007 reinvented what we thought a smartphone could be. In 2014 it’s difficult to go anywhere without seeing people of all ages transfixed to their smartphone. Most of us now use some sort of location aware app to find what we need, so why is is the Yellow Pages still in business? I remember getting a Yellow Pages delivered to my door back in the 90s. My parents and I used it often to find businesses that offered services we needed, be it home repair or pizza delivery. Sadly, even with the ubiquity of mobile phones in modern times, I continued to have the Yellow Pages delivered to my door, which I never requested. The only place I felt the book deserved to be is in the recycling bin, so that’s exactly where I placed it.

Long since forgotten, it was only earlier this year where I started to notice the Yellow Pages again, which they’ve now quaintly rebranded as “YP.” Suddenly bus stops, billboards, and even stalls of mens washrooms at local pubs were plastered with ads for the new YP iOS app. I gave these ads nothing but a passing thought at first, until I repeatedly starting seeing them, week after week. The ads mentioned you can discover interesting places around you, which is what Yelp offers, so why care? Yelp and YP are going after the same market, however, perhaps I would get better local results since this is the “Canadian YP”. You can use the YP app to discover shopping, restaurants, gas stations and other services based on your geolocation.

The 4.2 update recently added integration with StreetFood so you can locate your favourite food trucks, or find new ones–something that slightly differentiates with Yelp (for now). Yelp has been a great service which I’ve relied on for years. One thing I like to do is read some of the user reviews for a business I’m unfamiliar with. Reviews don’t define whether or not I will give them a chance, however I take them into account in my decision making process. The discovery aspect of the YP app seems to work well enough, however, there’s fewer data available, such as business hours, and reviews are few and far between (I anticipate this will improve in time with increased adoption).

Yelp still leap frogs YP because it simply got its start years ago. Its curated user reviews have taken time to build, and this is something that is sorely lacking from the YP database. From a design perspective, it’s pleasant to look at with its mute yellow colour theme. It conforms to the iOS 7 design aesthetic, but also adds some nice translucency and transition effects when tapping on the hamburger menu (the main view shrinks to reveal settings and other options. There are some egregious interaction issues and one standard swipe gesture missing (more on that later). iOS 7 introduced single finger swipe gestures for navigating back and forth between views. Being able to swipe to move back and forth between a view is especially necessary on larger screens like the iPhone 5/5s, which is too tall to comfortably reach the top edges without shifting placement of the device in hand. It’s frustrating that I have to reposition my device in order to tap a button at the top left of the screen in order to go back. I trust that the developers will fix this in a future update. The top portion of the app features a menu bar that has your typical hamburger button as well as search filters for business, person, or reverse phone lookup. The problem I encountered was when scrolling down, the top bar disappears. When you’ve scrolled half way down and want to access your settings or try one of the search filters, you’re forced to scroll all the way back to the top (annoying). What I’d like to see is that top bar have a fixed placement.

What spurred my interest was two fold: curiousness and a relentless well designed marketing campaign. There’s no barrier to entry either as the app is free. For the moment, I don’t see a large enough benefit to switching from Yelp completely, however, I plan on continuing to use YP as I remain cautiously optimistic about its ongoing development.

YP iOS
YP iOS hidden menu
YP iOS profile

Music Player Apps on iOS

Apple’s own music app has never been what I would consider a shining example of what any music player should aspire to on iOS. I suppose that’s why there have been many attempts by third party developers to fill this void.

Apps like Ecoute, Track 8, and Groove are examples of apps that all have their own unique UI/UX, some of which stray far off the beaten path from the stock iOS 7 aesthetic. Since as far back as iOS 6, I’ve bounced back and forth between the stock music player and third party varieties, all while never quite being perfectly happy with any of the choices.

For a while both Ecoute and Groove were pretty nice, both of which had some unique features, such as being able to pull up song lyrics (lyrics) or Rdio-like stations (Groove). Eventually I ended up giving up and switching to Rdio. Their respective web and mobile apps have received much polish and feature enhancements over the past year alone, so they’re worth a look again if you previously jumped ship.

Rdio’s iOS client is pretty nice, but it like many others, implement search in a sub-optimal way (that’s the way I see it). It causes great frustration that I can’t search easily without resorting to swiping from the left edge. In Ecoute, I can pull down from the top and get access to search. This action is quick and painless. The only argument to this is pulling down from the top is synonymous with pull-to-refresh refresh, which is now baked into some of Apple’s core apps in iOS 7, such as Mail. In Track 8, there’s a permanently fixed search icon you can tap in the tab bar at the bottom, which I love, however, it only seems to search by song title (often times I want to pull up an album and play the whole thing).

To access search in Rdio, it takes a swipe and a tap (one too many moves), and the search bar height seems a few pixels too short, so tapping it feels less easy to me. When I’m in my collection view, I don’t want to have to scroll alphabetically to find the artist I want; I would prefer immediate access to search with just a single tap. I would gladly trade pull-to-refresh for pull to search in apps like Rdio.

There is no perfect solution at the moment, so I keep bouncing between Rdio and Track 8 (mainly because of its social sharing feature with App.net). I hope Apple can once again surprise and delight in a future iteration of their music player. Perhaps in iOS 8 I’ll see that, but not today.

Using Dropbox with Writer Pro

Design and development firm Information Architects, makers of iA Writer, have been under fire lately with their announcement to patent some of the technology behind their new app, Writer Pro. This has been discussed ad nauseam in the blogosphere and Twitter. Since this is the case, I have no intention of discussing the merits of their patent decision.1

I handed over my $19.99 today and purchased the OS X version of Writer Pro. I haven’t spent much time with it and don’t have much to say at the moment. So far it seems like a very nice evolution of iA Writer, which I have loved for quite some time. Writer Pro has beautiful typography and some neat features, like its much touted syntax control. I haven’t seen or used any other writing app that offers these features, and while I can’t say that they will radically change my life, they are certainly helpful. The largest complaint that I have right now is that the iA folks didn’t add Dropbox syncing support. This was a non starter for me, as I prefer not to have my files in an iCloud silo. Whilst I primarily live within Apple’s ecosystem, I have been known to switch back and forth between Android and iOS. This is why Dropbox is crucial for me so I can maintain cross platform interoperability. I’ve heard that Writer Pro will get Dropbox support at some point, but instead of waiting, I came up with my own simple solution.

If you’re unsatisfied with most Markdown based writing apps like I am, you’re likely to enjoy finding solutions to problems you can’t wait for others to solve. There’s a good chance you know about Hazel. If you don’t know what Hazel is, it’s a wonderful utility that allows you automate many tasks on your Mac, such as moving files from one folder to another when certain changes are made. Think of it like using Automator in OS X, but with a lot less fiddling. The Mobile Documents folder in OS X is a special container where your iCloud enabled apps store their documents. Since Writer Pro uses iCloud as its storage backend, all of my Markdown files can be easily located. With Hazel, it took me two minutes to setup a rule that checks for changes in my ~/library/Mobile Documents/27N4MQEA55~pro~writer/Documents directory. I then set a condition that copies any folders/files that are changed over to my Dropbox folder of choice.

Setting up Hazel

The rule I setup works like this:

If all of the conditions are met, which includes kind is folder, then copy to folder ~/Dropbox/Notes/Zero Distraction. This condition now copies over Writer’s directory structure 2 and its files contained within. Before you start, you may want to open Terminal and run the following command to unhide your Library folder: chflags nohidden ~/Library.

Hazel step one

Hazel step two

Hazel step three

Coda

I now have the best of both worlds. I have an excellent writing environment that allows me to have my Markdown files in two locations as a backup. If I find myself switching to any other OS such as Linux, Windows, or Android, I will have no issues editing my writing.


  1. Information Architects made the right move and is not filing for patents. 
  2. Writer Pro creates the following folders in iCloud: Edit, Note, Read, and Write. 

Fitbit Flex

Being fit is really important to me. This is why I, like thousands of other people, use mobile apps or dedicated hardware to keep tabs on things like daily calories burned or heart rate. On a whim, I picked up a Fitbit Flex earlier in the week. For those unaware, the Fitbit is a tiny device that acts as a pedometer that resides inside a rubber bracelet that you wear on your wrist. In addition to tracking the steps you take, the software allows you to set daily fitness goals as well as monitor your sleep patterns — waking you gently via its vibration motor. It does not offer everything I need, but does what it says on the package quite well. Once you get your account setup, you can see a nicely laid out visual dashboard that you can customize to show different kinds of data: e.g., your weight, calories burned, total steps made, water consumed, and much more.

The Fitbit hardware and software integration is wonderful. Their iOS app is delightful, providing access the data being collected, but also to the silent alarms that can wake you in the morning. I like the social angle as well. You can invite other friends of that use a Fitbit and see their progress or cheer them on. After using the device for a few days, I found the data it knew about my daily activities quite eye opening. The Fitbit Flex is an entry level product with limited functionality. If all you need is a dedicated pedometer, it works spectacularly well for that. What I really want is a wearable accessory that offers everything the Flex has, plus acts as a watch and can receive push notifications from my iPhone. Fitbit has another product called the Force which offers the functionality of the Flex, with the addition of an OLED display to show time and other future potential information. They advertise that an upcoming firmware update will allow iOS 7 users receive call notifications. Whilst I have no reason to believe they won’t be able to ship this functionaity, I have no intention of purchasing a product that promises undelivered features.

I’m not sure if there are any other good options at this point. I checked out the Nike Fuelband, but that offers pretty much the same feature set as the Force. There’s also the Pebble watch, which does include an accelerometer. My reluctance to get the Pebble is that dedicated devices like the Fitbit or Nike products have solid complimentary web apps that provide ways of storing your health data in the cloud. I don’t want my logged data residing solely on the device, but also accessible online.

Using 1Password And iCloud Keychain

I’ve been using iCloud Keychain in conjunction with the latest version of 1Password on Mavericks. It seems like an odd combination. Why trust Apple with my sensitive passwords and credit card information? After the failure of MobileMe and a rocky start to iCloud, isn’t it true that Apple has shown that they’re incapable of making reliable web services? Isn’t using these two solutions kind of redundant? These are all very valid questions. On the syncing and reliability front, I’m not concerned about iCloud keychain not syncing data between devices properly. iCloud has certainly had its share of issues, but most of those have centred around Core Data syncing, which is a completely different beast and is far more complex to get right — even for Apple.

I still prefer and use 1Password as my primary password management system. There are many reasons for this that go far beyond what iCloud Keychain can offer. Some of those happen to be: cross-platform compatibility, picking password strength, storing encrypted notes and software licences. So even though 1Password proves to be a far more useful and robust application, iCloud Keychain has several important use cases that allow it to be a perfectly acceptable companion to 1Password.

After using Apple’s own solution for the last several weeks, my initial reaction is that they struck a nice balance between ease of use and security. Whether you’re on a Mac or iOS device, you get the same smooth experience when creating new accounts or using login forms. Secure passwords are suggested when you create an account somewhere and immediately autofill for you. You would think iCloud Keychain would be limited to the browser, but it works for WiFi access points as well. By using iCloud to store the same credentials I have in 1Password, that solves one major obstacle on iOS, which is to say that you can’t use third party extensions on iOS to autofill login credentials in Safari. I’d rather not have to open 1Password to copy a username/password to the clipboard and then switch to the app that I need to enter my credentials. Sure, the Agilebits developers were smart to include in in-app WebKit browser that can autofill login credentials, but it’s not as fast as just using Safari.

When setting up iCloud Keychain, you can choose a simple pin code to encrypt your data. It’s important to note that Apple has no way of decrypting your data, even though it’s stored on their servers. The pin code that you’re to configure during setup is essentially your own private key. This private key is what’s used to decrypted your account information, so if you lose that, you’re out of luck. Instead of choosing a simple pin code, I opted to create my own more complex master password (this is available through the advanced options page). I developed my own password creation recipe that allows me to remember my master password, even though it’s quite complex. This method is what I use to create a secure master password for any service that may require one.

To create a secure master password, it’s comprised of five different unique sections. The first section would be a five letter word (the first letter being upper case). The second consists of two numeric characters and one special character. The third uses a four letter word (all lower case). The fourth uses three periods. The sixth and final section contains a single uppercase alpha or numeric character that represents the service it pertains to. For example, if I wanted to generate a master password for iCloud Keychain, I would create something like this: Final10!four…I. If I wanted to create a master password for 1Password, I would generate one like this: Final10!four…1 (note the “I” stands for iCloud and the “1” stands for 1Password).

I tend to live mostly in Apple’s ecosystem, what with my Mac and iOS devices being the primary preferred hardware and software I enjoy using on a day-to-day basis. I have been using Android more and more though, so being able to jump back and forth and have a good cross-platform password management system is essential. The unfortunate news about 1Password on Android is that although the app exists, it has languished and has not been updated since January 2012. I’ve spoken to AgileBits and they have a new version in the works that promises to be far superior. For now, I’m stuck using their incomplete and buggy Android app. At least I can retrieve my logins since it syncs my database with Dropbox.