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On Intentional Subscriptions

There is a concept in user interface design called the Principle of Least Surprise, where you want to design systems in such a way that they surprise their users least. I think a similar concept applies to subscription pricing. The ideal (from a user friendliness perspective, not best business perspective) system for customer subscriptions should never surprise the customer with a charge. The customer should always be happy to see a charge appear on their credit card.

In other words, their subscription payments should always be Intentional.

via David Smith

I mostly agree with David in this piece on Intentional Subscriptions. I have a few thoughts, however.

First and foremost, I love the idea of a system-owned screen for confirmation of subscriptions. Apple has made the guidelines for the subscription presentation page so muddy that almost no developer I know is ever confident that the requirements are being met by their apps. Let Apple design this page exactly how they want it, and let every app get the exact same screen. More consistency for customers, leading to fewer surprises. No more fearing I’m going to get rejected. Apple saves money on App Review. It’s a win all around.

Let us upload Terms and Conditions text and a description of each subscription item directly into AppStoreConnect. Then, Apple can pull everything it needs right off its own servers. All a dev would need to do is ask to pop up the SubscriptionConfirmationViewController, or whatever they call it. Similar to asking for a review prompt. When dismissed, we get a completion handler with confirmation that they subscribed and an ID for the item to which they subscribed, or a notice that the customer cancelled or that the transaction failed. Devs could even update their text descriptions this way without having to upload a new app binary. They’d have to get the new metadata approved, of course. Which would cut down on fraud as well.

Please, please, Apple. Do this.

Next, notifications. I agree that a notification makes more sense than an email on renewal of subscriptions. However, I get hundreds of notifications every week. And I’m pretty careful about turning off notifications for many apps. Ideally, these renewal notifications would be on by default, but they should only fire at the end of trial and at the first renewal after. And I should be able to opt out of them on an app-by-app basis. I don’t need to be reminded every month for every one of my apps separately. (There’s a fine line between not surprising a customer and treating them like a child who can’t be responsible for their own finances.)

Curtis Herbert said it better on Twitter (thread):

As far as being able to cancel your subscription right from the notification itself is concerned, I think this sounds better on paper than it would be in practice. People don’t read their notifications carefully. I see a ton of people accidentally unsubscribing to apps, then getting super confused when their apps no longer work. This would lead to increased support load for everyone. Tapping on the notification should take you directly to the subscriptions page on the App Store, however. (See Curtis’ thread linked above.) Then you could unsubscribe, intentionally, with another tap or two.

As far as auto-renew happening a the end of the trial, I think a lot of developers don’t realize how common this is in most markets. Yes, it’s different from the shareware days of yesteryear, but auto-converting trials are a practice with which most people are very familiar. Magazines have been doing this for decades, for instance. And it makes sense. For every customer who we might be saving from an accidental payment by disabling auto-conversion, we’re annoying ten others who already indicated they want to keep using the app and don’t want to verify yet again.

As long as customers are getting notifications before the trial ends, and they get a 24-hour grace period to cancel (another good idea from Smith) I don’t see any need for Apple to remove the convenience of auto-renewal after the trial ends.

Especially for apps like my own RECaf that almost never get launched (you can interact with it primarily through Siri), having to manage subscription renewal in the background could get hairy quickly. I could see tons of customer support issues stemming from this.

Any developer who doesn’t want to have a trial auto-subscribe at the end has the freedom to do that right now. Just don’t use Apple’s trial system. Track how long the customer is using the app yourself, then just present the subscription without a trial at the appropriate time.

Lastly, and I’ve written about this before, I think Apple should require apps to provide a link to the subscription management page inside our apps. We have the ability to do that (I do it inside RECaf), but few developers actually do.

And that subscription management page also absolutely should be linked at the top level in Settings.app with the title “Manage Subscriptions.” I don’t know any non-developers who know where that page is buried inside the App Store and iTunes settings.

Release Notes 2019

Tickets are now on sale for Release Notes 2019. Our show is already pretty close to sold out, but there are still some available spaces left.

Charles and I are really excited about this year’s show. We took a year off after our successful Chicago 2017 event. And that extra time gave us the chance to rethink some things and try something even more ambitious.

If you’re interested in the business of selling software, or just bootstrapping businesses in general, there’s a lot going on at our show you might find interesting.

All the details are available on our new site. I hope you’ll check it out and join us in Mexico this October.

I Now Have a Cardiologist

With Apple’s release of watchOS 5.2, I see the ECG feature is now more widely available throughout Europe and other regions. That’s great news.

I want to encourage those of you with Apple Watch devices in those supported regions to go grab the update and try out the ECG. Not just because it’s extremely cool tech. But because, well, let me put it this way:

I now have a cardiologist.

That isn’t a statement I was planning to make in my forties. But there it is. And it’s only true because of Apple Watch.

Let me back up.

Last fall, when the ECG feature was finally released, I couldn’t wait to try it out. I’m a total geek for this sort of thing, and I believe health is the next big thing as far as technology is concerned.

I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than good old-fashioned Sinus Rhythm. I didn’t know what a good heart rhythm was supposed to look like as it was being recorded, really. So I was just enjoying the cool animations, not noticing the strange pattern. Then the recording finished:

Signs of Atrial Fibrillation.

Hmm. That has to be a bug, right? Experimental new feature. Maybe I was shaking or moving my wrist a bit. So I try it again:

Signs of Atrial Fibrillation.

This time, I read the rest of the text more carefully. I didn’t write down the exact wording, but it read something like: “If this is a surprise, you should contact your doctor and talk about it.”[1]

Now is a good point in the story to point out that at the time, I didn’t have a doctor. I’m an indie software consultant in his mid-forties, living in the US, the world’s worst industrialized country for health care. Since I don’t have a “job job,” I pay roughly $500 a month for “health insurance” out of my own pocket. But for most things, this insurance is essentially useless. My deductible is so high that pretty much any doctor visits I make are out of pocket.

I continue to pay for my insurance because thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I have to. It’s the law. And I’m okay with that. Because I know paying into the system helps others who make less money than me have access to care.[2]

It’s worth noting that having this insurance also protects me against very serious costs from various serious illnesses, or accidents, etc. If I had cancer, I’d eat through my deductible pretty quick. But that’s the thing. I’ve never really had any serious health issues.

That’s actually an understatement. With the exception of appendicitis when I was about 13, I haven’t been to the hospital since I was born. I’ve never had any drugs prescribed to me for more than a few weeks. I barely take aspirin when I get the occasional headache.

This year, I had my first common cold in fifteen years. This is how not prone to health issues I am.

I had no need to go to a doctor beyond the occasional physical, is what I’m saying. Until now.

It’s also worth noting at this point in the story that Atrial Fibrillation is extremely rare in men my age. Less than two percent of people in my demographic have it.

Go figure. When I do something, I go big I guess.

So I found a primary care physician and set up an appointment for a routine physical. It had been a while, anyway. I asked him to take an ECG (an official one, with all the wires and stuff). That was going to cost me extra, as it’s not part of a routine physical, but I told him about the watch readings, and he agreed I should take a look.

The results? While admitting he was no heart specialist, the primary care doc said my ECG results were definitely a bit of a concern. “Your heart is a little fast, and little irregular.” He was trying not to scare me. I wasn’t going to drop dead that day, but something was definitely up. My watch wasn’t lying to me.

So then he sent me to the cardiologist.

When the cardiologist asked why I came in for a visit, I told him about my Apple Watch ECG. “I know, this is new tech. And maybe it’s not scientifically as accurate as the real thing, but it told me I should come in. And I thought I’d better not take a chance.”

The doctor didn’t scoff. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“Oh yeah? Can I see how it works?”

He was fascinated. I started up a new ECG reading, and within seconds, he said “Yep. That’s AFib.”

Persistent AFib, in my case. Over the course of the next month or so, as the doc prescribed some beta blockers and instructed me to continue monitoring my condition, I continued to take readings. No doubt about it. I was in a constant state of AFib. The doctor is still at a loss as to why. (I have none of the genetic indicators and no habits that would increase my chances of this happening.[3] I just have a heart that wants to beat in odd time, as I’ve gotten into the habit of saying.)[4]

More alarmingly, I had very few symptoms that I could easily identify. I felt a bit more sluggish than usual (a direct result of my resting heart rate being in the 113-120 bpm range). But I’m not in the best shape, so sluggish isn’t exactly strange for me. I had the occasional discomfort in my chest. And even more occasionally, I’d feel my heart fluttering a bit, as if I had just watched a scene in a scary movie. But it would pass in seconds.

It was enough to tell me that something was off, but probably not enough for me to go to a doctor. Seeing the watch reading definitely gave me the push I needed to investigate.

In trying to figure out when this condition may have started, the best we could conclude was sometime during the previous summer. It was post-WWDC; I was running betas of iOS and watchOS, as I was developing a new app and wanted to utilize some of the new notification and Siri features. (ECG wasn’t part of the beta.) Once or twice, while sitting on the couch watching tv, I got a notification on my watch saying my heart rate had suddenly jumped into the hundreds, with no indication of a change in activity on my part. I wrote it off as a beta bug, of course. That was certainly more likely than me having a heart condition. And it only happened once or twice.

My cardiologist now thinks I was in AFib all the way back then. Almost six months before I made my first appointment. Maybe even earlier. That’s how subtle the symptoms were.

Anyway, fast forward to this January. I had an echocardiogram done. (Basically a sonogram for your heart.) Other than the weird rhythm, my heart was perfectly normal. The fast beating and strange rhythm hadn’t caused any muscle or tissue damage—yet.

The next step was to get me out of persistent AFib. This involved what’s called an electro cardioversion.[5]

The issue with an electro cardioversion is that while it will zap the patient back into sinus rhythm in most cases, since we don’t know what caused the AFib, there’s every chance that it will come back in the future.

If it does come back, you can do the electro cardioversion again, but the next real step is something called a cardiac ablation, which involves sticking a probe up through your leg into your heart, and burning the areas where the incorrect electrical impulses are happening. When you hear the procedure described, it sounds super cool; then you realize it’s your heart they want to burn holes in. But hey, it does cure AFib permanently, with relatively low side-effect risk.

If it’s all the same to you, though, I’d prefer to avoid that.

So far, luckily, since my cardioversion in January, my heart has stayed in sinus rhythm. So I haven’t needed to go the ablation route yet. But that remains a possibility for the rest of my life.

In the meantime, I’m off all prescriptions, and I’m taking ECGs with my watch regularly.[6]

All told, I’m several thousand dollars out of pocket, still not having hit my deductible, but my heart is doing what it’s supposed to, so I think I’ll call that a win. My useless insurance will become dramatically more expensive next year, while remaining just as useless.

But still. A win.

“You have all you need to monitor this on your own” the cardiologist told me, pointing to my wrist. “So we’ll know if and when this ever comes back.”

Did my Apple Watch save my life? I think in my case, that’s a bit of an overstatement. I’ve seen a lot of the stories about people whose lives really have been saved by technology. I'm not in their league. My Apple Watch did help me discover a condition that would likely have gone untreated for a long while.[7] I wasn’t going to die that afternoon. But I might have had a stroke (the most likely result of leaving AFib untreated) a few years down the line. So I’m very grateful to the team at Apple who added this functionality. If any of you are going to be at WWDC in San Jose this June, get in touch. I’d love to buy you all a drink and thank you in person.[8]

I’ve seen some news articles where certain doctors expressed concern that false positives from Apple Watches could lead to panic, with patients going to the emergency room needlessly, etc. To those doctors, I have two middle fingers I would happily like to extend. At no point did my watch give me any indication that I was in a true emergency. It just encouraged me to talk to a professional about what seemed to be abnormal heart rhythm. If I had gone to my doctor, and the official ECG had turned up completely normal, the worst thing I’d have to say is that I now had confirmation that my heart rhythm was normal. How could that be a bad thing?

The ECG function in Apple Watch represents the best value for money I’ve ever spent in technology. There may only be a few people like me who are helped out by this, versus the millions who will just run the ECG for fun and get confirmation of their normal heart rhythms. But helping those few is totally worth it. Trust me.

I can’t wait to see even more functions built into wearable technology that will help diagnose even more conditions for others.

Tim Cook believes Apple’s contributions to health will end up dwarfing everything else the company does, when looking back a hundred years from now.

I have good reason to believe him.


  1. Note, my watch wasn’t telling me that I needed to run to the hospital immediately. It wasn’t trying to scare me. It just suggested that I talk to my doctor. Kudos to whoever crafted the text on this warning. It triggered the exact correct level of concern. ↩︎

  2. I am the exact person who got totally screwed by Obamacare, in other words. But I supported the legislation as a stop gap until we can move to a single-payer system. When I consider the over 20 million Americans who now have access to care who didn’t have it prior, I figure it’s worth it. It may be a burden, but it’s not a crippling burden. ↩︎

  3. Such as a wild cocaine habit, or a tendency to take prescription drugs in order to stay awake. ↩︎

  4. Couldn’t resist a prog rock joke. ↩︎

  5. You know how on hospital drama shows on TV, they take the paddles, yell “Clear!”, then zap a dead person to get their heart going again? This is sort of like that, only your heart is still beating, and they use less intense electricity. They aren’t restarting your heart so much as trying to zap it back into normal rhythm. The worst part is actually before the zap, when they have to stick a camera down your throat to check for blood clots in your heart. You have to be awake for that bit, though in a very “relaxed” state due to some serious sedatives. I have no memory of it now. ↩︎

  6. I never thought I’d have a use for the Heart Rate and ECG complications; now they are present on most of my regular watch faces. ↩︎

  7. Maybe the sluggishness and flutters would have gotten me back into a doctor’s office a few years from now. Who knows? ↩︎

  8. And if you need a beta tester in his forties with a history of AFib for future products, hit me up. ↩︎

Some Thoughts on Apple’s Services Event:

Branding

Apple is clearly solidifying the  prefix branding for its new products. (The “i” days are long behind us now.)

At the same time, they seem to be introducing + as a suffix. (Suddenly, Teleprompt+ feels ahead of its time.)

tv+ actually gets both.

How long before we just get +?

Seriously. I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. Come up with one monthly figure. Admittedly, it would be high. Probably a three or four hundred bucks or so. For that, you get everything Apple does: iCloud, News+, Apple Music, tv+, Arcade, and so on. And you get one each of the latest iPhone, iPad, and MacBook, which you can trade in once a year for the newest models. Might sound crazy, but I’d probably jump on that.

Apple is well on its way to becoming a bank at this point. Might as well be handling the financing for its products, while greatly simplifying it my payments to the company into one simple bundle.

News+

To be honest, this is one of the things announced yesterday that I’d probably not bother trying, if it were just me. I haven’t read paper magazines in years. I get plenty of news in my News app without having to subscribe to any publications.

But then they revealed the $9.99 price covered your whole family, and that changed the math for me. Others in my household are avid magazine subscribers, and they pay for a few newspapers. Might as well pay the ten bucks and take advantage of being able to read all that material myself, while sharing it around to the entire household.

The News App isn’t perfect, but it’s not a bad reading experience. There are definitely some improvements I’d like to see (such as bookmarking magazine articles to read later) but it’s early days. I’m confident the app will improve over time.

Meanwhile, I’ve already read two or three 3000+-word articles from a few magazines I haven’t perused in years. I had forgotten the joy of long-form, well-sourced and edited investigative journalism. It’s a wonderful respite from the fast food of most news web sites. And it’s a great distraction from toxic social media.

I have a feeling I’m going to be doing more reading in the coming months than I’ve done in years.

Card

I’ve been shopping for a new credit card lately, anyway. I love my little credit union. But the biggest problem I’ve been having lately: my card keeps getting compromised. Four or five times in the last few years alone. And I’m not the only one. Credit card theft is totally out of control.

The bottom line is that handing over your card number to several web sites, or swiping at terminals all over Manhattan from day to day is a security nightmare. I love Card’s emphasis on Apple Pay. No one gets my number. And even the physical card doesn’t show the card number or CVV. So if it’s misplaced, you just shut it off and get a replacement. (You likely won’t even be interrupted from using Apple Pay while you wait for the new physical card.) No yearly or international fees is a big plus. The variable interest rates look like they can get way too high (if your credit sucks) but they start at 13%, which is—not terrible. My current interest rate is lower than that, but here’s the thing. I don’t plan on carrying large balances on this card. Getting back 3% of all my Apple purchases every year alone would make it worth getting this card just to use it at Apple Stores.

I’ve never been able to find one airline that offers flights to all the various places I travel. So saving up frequent flier miles via credit card offers is usually an exercise in frustration, anyway. I much prefer good old-fashioned cash rewards.

And all the cool software for clarifying your purchase history, payment options, and so on, is a breath of fresh air in an industry that frankly needs disruption.

At this point, my purchasing decisions are starting to depend on whether or not Apple Pay is accepted, anyway. The added security of not giving a merchant my actual number is that valuable to me. If you don’t take Apple Pay, I’m looking for alternatives. So I don’t think it’ll be long before most of my purchases are done exclusively via Apple Pay, anyway. Heck, even the MTA transit here in New York is supposed to accept Apple Pay by sometime next year. (But I won’t hold my breath.)

Channels

When I heard the rumors that Apple’s video service would “include channels like HBO and Showtime for an extra $10 fee” I knew that couldn’t be the whole story. Apple wouldn’t muddle their brand by tying it in with other providers.

Channels is, of course, separate from Apple’s own streaming service entirely. We don’t have pricing info yet, but if Apple offers me HBO for $10 instead of the $14.99 I’m paying now, great. If it ends up being the same price as HBO on its own, I’ll just keep my HBO where it is.

As far as the Apple TV app is concerned, I’m torn. On one hand, so many of these services have such total crap apps (and remarkably, they get worse with every new version) that an alternative UI is very welcome. In theory, the idea of putting all my shows and movies into one place sounds like an improvement over having to remember which service has a particular movie or show.

But then there’s Netflix. Netflix is never going to allow its content into the Apple TV App. And it’s never going to offer its content as an Apple TV Channel. Netflix has all the leverage in that relationship. So Netflix, which I watch quite often, is going to remain siloed for now, partially defeating the purpose of the Apple TV app.

Meanwhile, I have my doubts as to whether the Apple TV App can actually improve the process of finding what I want to watch on all the other services. Mostly because I find the current Apple TV app pretty useless.

I do like the emphasis on Up Next. But in a multiple-person household, where several people are watching different shows, things can fall apart quickly. At least Apple doesn’t seem to be making the mistake of pushing their own content in my face when all I want to do is pick up where I left off yesterday. So far. (I imagine the release of tv+ might change that a bit.)

I do wish Apple would let you create separate viewing accounts for all family members, so that different shows and movies wouldn’t cross-populate Up Next.

For now, I’m remaining cautiously optimistic that most of what I want to watch will either be easy to find in the Apple TV App, or it’ll be in Netflix, which has one of the better apps, despite its many flaws.

tv+

The presentation may have been a bit awkward to watch on TV (I’ve heard that it was much better to see it live.) But I have to say, given my only exposure to Apple shows prior to this was the dreadful Planet of the Apps and Carpool Karaoke, I was pleasantly surprised with the new lineup. I think the shows they described for the initial lineup are interesting, at least. I have no idea if most of them will suck or not (most likely, many will) but every description of a show I heard (with the exception of the Sesame Street show, since I don’t have kids) sounded like something I’d at least try to watch for an episode or two. Compare that to the latest crop of shows on Netflix, and I have to say, it sounds like Apple is recruiting some real talent, and could end up with a higher batting average than people would expect from a brand new service.

Doing 100% original content is a risk. But given their pull in the industry, their rather large cash war chest, and their hardware income, I think Apple has a good chance long term of funding great shows and competing with other streaming services that have no other income sources. If they loosen up that reputation of meddling a bit and let their creators have a bit more freedom, they could end up being the place people want to take their content first.

Most importantly, the shows Apple has revealed so far all have a different feel to them than most of what’s on Netflix right now. I’ve joked several times that Netflix should rename itself “The Murder Channel.” Just about every show on it involves dead bodies in one way or another. (Even the comedies.) I’m not opposed to a little violence now and then. (Game of Thrones is great television.) But after a while, you just get bored of the same approach to everything. If tv+ turns into a place where creative work that otherwise might get a pass elsewhere can thrive, then that’s a good thing for everyone.

Arcade

I don’t play games much, so this is probably not for me. But the fact that Apple is paying up front in exchange for exclusive rights to games is very interesting. I wonder what it will take to propose a game to Apple? Will you need to submit a proposal? Do you need to be a well-known studio? Can finished games offer to be placed into Arcade as an alternative to the App Store, or will it remain invite-only? And will the payout to game developers be enough to keep this alive? Who knows?

Just seeing Apple take an interest in games at all is nice, though. Given the history of Apple and games, I can’t say I’m totally optimistic. But maybe they’ll get it right this time and create something good.

Arcade also gives some insight into why Marzipan is important enough for Apple to release before it’s fully baked.

After all, once you start a game, does it really matter if it’s a “proper” Mac app? A game takes over your whole screen and creates its own UI. So having a simple way to ensure all Arcade games work equally on macOS, iOS, and tvOS is a no-brainer.

Other apps can follow later, as Apple improves Marzipan. But it’s clear now that Apple didn’t want to push Arcade back another year just so our social media and utility apps could be ported over in a cleaner fashion.

On the whole “Not Quite Shipping” part

I understand the criticism that so many of these things will not be released until later. News+ was ready immediately. Card is coming this summer. Arcade and tv+ are coming in the fall. It made the whole event feel more like a Google presentation than an Apple one.

But here’s the thing. AirPower jokes aside, does anyone think Apple isn’t going to ship all of these announced services? Arcade and tv+ clearly require macOS 10.15 and iOS 13. That’s when Marzipan proper will ship. So they couldn’t be released until fall, regardless. Meanwhile, so much had been leaked about tv+ already that they had to go ahead and announce it early. Thousands of people are involved in that service. Keeping secrets is out of the question. Might as well introduce it officially on your own terms.

For Card, I can’t see Apple having an event in the middle of the summer other than WWDC; I also can’t see them announcing Card at WWDC. So if they wanted to give it stage time, why not bundle it into a larger “Service-themed” event a few months early? Makes sense.

Conclusion

As a stockholder, I can’t help but be excited about these service offerings. Oprah said it best: “A billion pockets, y’all.” Indeed. If Apple can convince one percent of its iPhone customers to buy into at least one of these services, they will be raking in the dough. And that’s a good thing, for those of us who don’t understand how business works. Because an Apple that keeps growing its revenue can afford to continue innovating.

If you have grown your audience about as far as you can take it, it only makes sense to increase the revenue you get from your current customers wherever possible. So long as you are offering good things to your customers for that extra money, they will only become more loyal to you over time.

This doesn’t mean that Apple is going to “become a services company.” The hardware is not going anywhere, as is evident from the many hardware announcements made the week before this event. It just means Apple is expanding its definition of what creating a great customer experience is and reaching further into more aspects of our lives than before. If they make some extra money doing that, and the services turn out to be great, then how could that be a bad thing? If some of the services crash and burn, so be it. No real harm done.

If the worst thing I can say is that my credit card will get compromised less often, I’ll read more great long-form writing, and I have some new TV shows to watch come fall, I think the event was a pretty big success.

RECaf 1.6

RECaf 1.6

For a while now, I’ve noticed RECaf users had a very different approach than I intended of logging an item from earlier in the day, or from the day before.

The frequents list on the front panel of RECaf is great for one-tap access to your most frequent sources. But logging that way always records the current time and date. If you want to customize the date to say, this morning, my intention was for people to go through the custom logging process. (Push down the frequent and favorites panels, choose your category, drink, amount, and then set the time before logging.)

Instead, what I observed many people doing was simply logging the item with the frequent button. Then, they would slide over to the history screen, tap into the newly created log entry, and edit the date from there. (I’m fairly certain this takes longer, but nevertheless, it seems many believe this is the only way to change the date—after they’ve logged.)

For a long time, I’ve had a quicker remedy than both of these methods planned, and with version 1.6 it is finally ready.[1]

Enter our old friend, 3D Touch.

Now, if you force press on a frequent button (or tap and hold on it on devices without 3D Touch), you can bring up a quick actions menu to change the date (or the amount) very quickly.[2]

I’m sure I’ll still see people in the wild logging, then editing the entry just to change the date. But hopefully this will help some folks log just a bit faster.

I’m hoping to add similar functionality to the favorites menu soon as well. Along with many other improvements in the works.


  1. Special thanks to Curtis Herbert for pushing me to make this menu better than it otherwise would have been. ↩︎

  2. Changing the amount is nice for those of us who usually have a 12-ounce coffee, but today decided to go for the 16. ↩︎