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Say Hello to RECaf

I’ve been talking myself out of building this app for three years.

That’s how long I’ve been logging my caffeine intake with my iPhone and wishing there were a better way to do it. Over the years, I’ve tried just about all the caffeine apps. Most were outright terrible. Some had lots of promise but ended up withering on the vine as developers couldn’t afford to keep them up to date.[1]

So why make this app now? And why should RECaf’s fate be any different?

I generally don’t subscribe to the “scratch your own itch” philosophy of app building. An itch isn’t necessarily the foundation for a good business. I had seen many caffeine trackers come and go, and I wasn’t sure there was a way to make one that would be any more successful financially. Better to spend my time on the next “big” idea that was going to become a full-fledged business, right?

But early this summer, after a few conversations with friends, I finally figured I might actually be able to turn this itch into something at least mildly profitable. And since the “big” idea hadn’t revealed itself yet, and because I had some spare time, I figured I might as well try and see where it leads.

Here’s what a caffeine tracker in 2018 has going for it:

  • Apple’s HealthKit. Apple has invested a lot into health and fitness, and it’s a category that consistently gets a lot of premium shelf space on the App Store. This is an area of growth in the App Store, which is a good thing. Also, the HealthKit APIs are modern and rather well written. I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to pick up and learn. And since Apple handles all the data storage for health data, I don’t need to worry about it. Your data is encrypted, syncs across your devices, and I have absolutely no access to it. Which is exactly how I like it.
  • Siri Intents. The new custom Intents in Siri for iOS 12 are perfect for this sort of app. Any sort of logging/data tracking app’s biggest challenge is making data entry easy enough that you won’t stop doing it. Saying “Log Iced Tea” into your wrist is about as easy as it gets.
  • Intelligence. If I did my job right, RECaf will do some fancy machine learning as you log. That means your most frequent caffeine sources will always be readily available with a single tap in the app, the Today Widget, or your Watch. Over time, RECaf also gets pretty good at predicting when you usually have your morning caffeine fix. Thus, the app can remind you on Wednesday at 10am when you forgot to log that 9:15 latte. And with interactive notifications you can even adjust the time of the log without launching the app. This has been the biggest issue for me as I’ve tried to track my own daily intake. I simply forget to log. RECaf constantly updates its learning engine to create notifications that will be helpful, not annoying. If you skip caffeine altogether on Fridays, you won’t get a notification on Fridays. If you have green tea on Mondays but Earl Gray on Tuesdays, RECaf will adjust accordingly.
  • A sustainable business model. Five bucks a year. If you drink two or more caffeinated beverages a day, that’s less than a penny for every drink.[2] Considering many folks here in New York are paying upwards of $4 to $5 per drink at their local cafe, $5 once a year is quite reasonable, I think. Thanks to subscriptions being pretty much the norm these days, I think many of my customers will agree. With a two-week free trial, I should have plenty of time to convince some of those on the fence that it’s worth becoming a yearly subscriber. Between consistent reminders based on true learning, and the health benefits of knowing the details of your caffeine intake, RECaf is more of a service than an “app” in the traditional sense. (In fact, I suspect you’ll be spending less than a few seconds at a time in the app itself—if that.) The data is the real value. What’s killed every other caffeine tracker in the App Store so far is that super low, one-time cost. There just aren’t enough stats enthusiasts out there to make that sustainable long term. With a subscription, a couple of thousand stat junkies would be enough to keep this app in business.
  • Side-project status. I don’t expect to make my entire living with this app, ever. If it makes me enough to cover a month or two of expenses every year, I’d be thrilled. That would certainly justify keeping it up to date with the latest and greatest advancements from Apple.
  • A singular focus. Sure, there are food-tracking apps that also happen to include caffeine. There are water tracking apps that include caffeine. There are Shortcuts/Workflows that can be customized to track your caffeine, if you’re a complete code geek who wants to tweak for several hours to make the workflow bend to your specific needs. None of these options is going to make your caffeine tracking anywhere near this effortless.

On day one, when I built my first prototype of RECaf, it immediately replaced every other app I’d ever used for tracking caffeine. Now that I have most of the features built out, it blows every other tracker out of the water for me.

Thanks to RECaf, I now know how many times in the last week I’ve had caffeine after 2pm (twice), that I’ve averaged about 392 mg per day over the last 30 days, and that 49.1% of my caffeine intake comes in the form of simple black coffee. I know that on Wednesdays my first drink is usually coffee before 8 am, and that 67.5% of my caffeine is consumed before noon. (This sort of fun with stats gets addictive pretty quickly.)

Thanks to HealthKit, I can look at stats from other apps, such as the awesome Sleep++ and compare my caffeine intake with the quality of my sleep. (Turns out, that occasional after-dinner espresso doesn’t effect my sleep at all. YMMV.)

If you’re interested in tracking your health statistics, and you consume caffeine regularly, caffeine tracking should be a part of your daily routine. I encourage you to give RECaf a try when it’s released later this fall. The first two weeks are on me.

If you want more information, or you want to be among the first to get RECaf, head over to RECaf.app and sign up for the mailing list.


  1. RIP, Cortado. I had to give up on it when the iPhone X came out, and I realized it would never be updated to fit my screen. It was a great app for its time. But to me, the focus on trying to predict my coffee logging solely based on location, rather than past logging, was a shortcoming. Sure, it could predict when I made it into a coffee shop. But it never figured out that I make coffee for myself at home every morning. ↩︎

  2. Finally, an app that can be aptly compared to the price of a cup of coffee! ↩︎

Leverage

If you make an app and want people to buy it, you have to link to the App Store so your customers can get it.

If you write reviews of apps, you need to post links to the apps, because your readers will think you’re nuts if you don’t.

Given this, it’s hard to argue that the Affiliate Program, whatever it cost Apple, was the best use of Apple’s money. Apple had all the leverage, and it acted accordingly, as anyone should expect. Continuing the program would be an act of goodwill, maybe, but there are more effective goodwill investments, no?

There are benefits sometimes to spending cash on things that aren’t necessarily profitable. Clean energy initiatives. Matching employee donations. Investing in accessibility. These do wonders for the brand and for the morale of your team. And yes, they actually make the world a better place.

"Keeping review sites and indie devs from going bankrupt" clearly doesn’t quite make the cut. I doubt the average person knows the Affiliate Program exists, and they wouldn’t much care if you told them.

As a friend of some who are going to lose money because of this decision, I feel bummed. No question, it will effect real people in a real way. But let’s face it: any bad PR/backlash is going to be shortlived. And after the few days of rage passes, Apple will have tens of millons—if not more—to invest every year in other things it deems more worthy.

Maybe that’s cold, but business ain’t ever warm and fuzzy.

Tim Cook only gets to say “I don’t care about the bloody ROI” so many times. He’s going to make sure each one counts.

All Demos are Lies

I’m not particularly interested in whether or not the Google Duplex demo was faked. (The fact that Google didn’t even think to address the ethics of the technology was far more interesting—and frightning—to me.)

But if I had to guess: Google made a real phone call, but to someone who had been prepped to follow a very specific script. That way, they were sure to get the responses they wanted. Not so much a complete fake as a contrived circumstance that didn’t demonstrate how this app would behave in the real world.

The call could very well have been to a real hair salon, even. Not hard for Google to call ahead and get someone there to answer the phone in a specific way.

All demos are lies, to some extent. Some more than others.

I guarantee if they called a hair salon in my neighborhood in Manhattan, Duplex would go off the rails fast. I didn’t need someone to cry foul to figure that out.

Call me when Duplex ships. Which could very well be never. Until then, faked or real demo—it’s not a product.

Fin Version 4.7

A new version of Fin is now available from the App Store. It includes the usual set of bug fixes and enhancements, as well as a few new features centered around the end of timers.

When a timer runs out in Fin, an animation sequence begins, with the screen fading from black to red, as the main timer shows 00:00. In addition, a small indicator at the bottom of the screen begins counting up, to indicate how much time has passed since the timer ran out.

Some have requested that this “overtime” indicator be larger, so that presenters can easily see exactly how long they have gone over their allotted time. Instead of showing the 00:00 time in the center of the screen, they would like the overtime to show there. My fear is that while presenting on a stage, a quick glance at Fin where anything other than 00:00 is showing in the center might give the presenter the false impression that time has not yet run out. The overtime, in other words, could be confused with time remaining.

I’ve always used the overtime counter during rehearsal, just as a measure of how much time I’ll need to cut from my presentation before the next rehearsal. I’ve never recommended using it as a way to distract the performer during the performance.

Nevertheless, since this has been a persistent request for some time now, I finally gave in and decided to make it an option. While I was at it, I also included the option of choosing between twelve different colors to use as an alternate to the standard red for the end timer animation. Since red is used to indicate your last warning color, it may be helpful to use something different for the end sequence. You can even choose to have Fin select one of the twelve colors at random each time a timer runs out. In case you can’t decide.

Combined with the customizable ending message text that appears, and three different styles of end animation (no fading, the classic slow fade, and the fast blinking hyper fade), you now have far more ways to customize the degree to which Fin insists to your performer that they really should wrap it up. If you are using the remote feature, of course, you can always type full-screen messages to your performers as well.

Unfortunately, your iPad still can’t break out the cane or play a gong for you.

Fin version 4.7 is now available for download.

The Face of watchOS

While the toolset is inaccessible, its inclusion in watchOS 4.3.1 suggests Apple is at least considering opening that section of NanoTimeKit to outside app makers.

Whether a full-featured watch face customization toolset will ship to developers in a future version of watchOS, perhaps watchOS 5, remains unknown.

via AppleInsider

Man, I hope Apple doesn’t do this.

I know, it’s conventional wisdom that third-party watch faces would be the best thing since the Destiny’s Child reunion. But I think it would be a terrible mistake.

Designing a good watch face takes time and expertise. If you look at all the faces Apple shipped with the original watchOS, you can see they were all obviously painstakingly thought-out and implemented with care. Check out the custom animations in each one. The attention to detail. Even the faces I tend to never use are at least well-crafted. And there was a nice balance there between the more traditional and modern. More serious and playful.

It’s telling that of all the watch faces Apple has shipped since, only the Explorer is anywhere near the same quality of that original batch. All the others are either derivatives of the originals (e.g. Toy Story, Minnie Mouse, Timelapse), obvious examples of engineering over design (Siri, Activity), or complete WTF? (Kaleidoscope).

If Apple can’t even make good watch faces, what makes us think that random third-parties are going to do a good job?

Now that Jony Ive is back to paying attention to design at Apple again, what I’d like to see them do instead is contract out some experts in watch face design from the industry and have them work with the engineering team to add four or five really good new faces every year. Problem solved.

Flooding the market with crap, as we’ve seen in the App Store time and time again, would do more harm than good.

Do people really want the App Store to be overrun with “20 Awesome Watch Faces” apps?

Take a look at the Android Wear market, if you want a bird’s-eye view into exactly how hideous watch faces can get.

Sure, there may be the occasional winner. But I doubt it’ll be worth the effort of sifting through the garbage.

And given that there’s no way to charge directly for a watchOS app, there will be no financial incentive for anyone with skill to make faces, anyway. So then what? Watch faces with ads? Brand logos from Starbucks, MacDonald’s? It’s bad enough we’ve already got Nike logos.

So what, Joe? Just don’t use any of the third-party faces.

The watch face is the face of watchOS. Imagine Apple allowing third-parties to design macOS’s window style. (Yes, they allowed that many years ago, and it was a design crime of epic proportions.)

When Series 0 was introduced, people made fun of Apple’s attempt to make an elegant fashion timepiece. Apple has since retreated a bit into marketing Apple Watch primarily as an exercise device. I’d hate to see them cede the elegance altogether.

If Apple Watch is going to grow, it’s going to eventually have to get beyond the niche of exercise enthusiasts. That means it has to look good when you’re wearing something other than spandex.

Apple Watch needs to be respected.

I know when I’m wearing my stainless steel Series 3 I’m not wearing an Omega, Breitling, or Rolex. But I do want something that’s going to look nice with a button-down shirt or a suit. Turning the face of the watch into a third-party bottom-feeder billboard isn’t going to help.

Can you imagine Omega letting any Tom, Dick, and Harry design their watch faces?

I’m hoping against hope this was an idea tossed around for a few months, but now that Jony is back it’ll be emphatically squashed. It probably won’t be, but I’m going to keep hoping, anyway.