News sites, can you at least stop nagging distant readers to get your local-update newsletters?

With my industry becalmed in its current horrid economic state, you’d expect news sites to strive to make new readers welcome. Instead, they keep resorting to clingy, creepy behavior that must send a large fraction of those new readers lunging for the back button.

I’m speaking, of course, of the giant sign-up-for-our-newsletter dialog that pops up as you’ve read a third or half of a story, encouraging you to get that site’s latest updates in your inbox.

This is dumb on strict user-experience grounds–at a minimum, you shouldn’t see this until you’ve read to the end of the story. Would you like NPR affiliates to run their pledge drives by sounding an air horn in the middle of Morning Edition and then asking for your money? No, you would not.

But the newsletter nag looks especially dumb when a local newspaper greets a distant reader with this interruption. The odds that I’m going to want daily updates about developments in Richmond, Buffalo (as seen above), or some other place where I do not live are just about zero. And the fact that I’m reading hundreds or thousands of miles away should be obvious to every one of these sites via basic Internet Protocol address geolocation.

I’m willing to click or tap those dialogs closed and keep reading, because I don’t want to sandbag the journalism business any further. But it’s hard to blame readers who instead respond by switching to the stripped-down reader-view option of Safari or Firefox. Or by running an ad blocker.

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iTunes (2001-2019-ish)

With Monday’s news that Apple is finally retiring the Mac version of iTunes, there’s been a lot of “good riddance” chatter about the impending demise of this music/video/download-store/backup/kitchen-sink app.

I get it. For years, iTunes has been a glaring example of Apple forgetting one of Steve Jobs’ rules about the importance of saying no to things. But I also have a long history with this program–I’ve been using it continuously for as long as I have any app, maybe longer. And it hasn’t been all bad.

It’s easy to forget today how bad the music-player landscape was before iTunes, full of apps deliberately limited in features and larded with upsells. If you wanted something decent, you had to pay for it upfront–the app that became iTunes, Casady & Greene’s SoundJamp MP, was a $40 download.

And even after iTunes arrived, competitors didn’t take the hint. Typical headline, from a 2006 review of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 11: “Nice Features, But It’s No iTunes.” So when I finally set aside time to rip every CD I owned, iTunes did the job. And it was through iTunes that I bought the vast majority of my music downloads–and then paid $25 for iTunes Match to get legit copies of the MP3s I’d downloaded off Usenet newsgroups and file-sharing apps in the days before paying $1 a song was an option.

Most of two decades since my introduction to this app, I no longer use one of its original flagship features, easy music sync. I don’t own an iPhone, and since Apple has held fast to ignoring other mobile devices in this app, I copy the songs I want to store on my Android phone via the Finder.

The new Music app that will replace iTunes may be just as good at the core tasks of music organization and playback, but I won’t know for a while. The iMac on which I’m typing this–kept in service largely because I replaced its sluggish hard drive with a solid-state drive last year–can’t even run the current Mojave edition, much less the upcoming Catalina.

And iTunes for Windows will remain–but that app looks like such a stranger in Windows 10, I can’t deal with it. Instead, it looks like I’m stuck with two other choices with their own issues: Microsoft’s Groove Music, effectively retired after a series of feature removals, and the privacy-hostile Spotify. It looks like Apple isn’t the only large tech company that needs to reboot its desktop music-player strategy.

First impressions of 1Password

After several years using the same password-manager service–and then paying for its premium version–I’ve spent the last few weeks trying an alternative.

I can credit a sales pitch that included the italicized phrase “completely free” for this departure: 1Password’s offer of a free membership to journalists, in celebration of World Press Freedom Day this May 3. But I was also overdue to spend some time in a password manager besides LastPass.

So far, I’m impressed by the elegance of the interface but a little put off by how persnickety 1Password can be to set up. You don’t just create a username and password, you also have to type in a complex and random secret key to get going.

Having read this Toronto-based firm’s documentation of how this extra step helps ensure that a successful guess of your password still won’t compromise your account, I get where they’re coming from. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it to just anybody, especially not when LastPass’s free version suffices for many casual users.

Further time with 1Password’s Mac, Windows and Android apps has revealed other things I like:

This time has also surfaced one thing I don’t like: an incomplete approach to two-step verification that seems to require choosing between running an authenticator app on your smartphone or employing a weird Yubikey implementation that requires running a separate app instead of just plugging a standard USB security key. That’s no better than LastPass’s inflexible notion of two-step verification.

I’d like to see 1Password improve that and support the WebAuthn standard for security-key confirmation. But I’m prepared to give them some time, based on everything else I’ve seen so far.

Ugh, Washington Gas is the worst at customer experience

We got a message on our home phone yesterday from Washington Gas, and even by voicemail standards of annoyingness it was unhelpful: “We value you as a customer. Please contact us for an important message.”

Right, I’m going to listen to a voicemail and call a company back in 2019 to get a message that it could just put in my account online. Unfortunately, that is not at all out of character for how the D.C. area’s gas utility operates. Even when its customer site hasn’t been in the grip of a relaunch meltdown that left me unable to login for weeks, it’s mainly functioned as an exhibit of how not to run a payment portal.

The single biggest failing here comes if you choose to pay your bill via credit card–as you absolutely should, since there’s no surcharge compared to a bank deposit and you can make 2 percent cash back on each payment via a Citi Double Cash card. (I will set aside for now the fact that we’ve just had to get this card replaced for the third time in four years after some joker tried to make yet another fraudulent purchase on our number.) But clicking the button to pay via credit yields a dialog from the previous century: “A popup blocker is currently enabled. Please switch this to disable for Credit Card payment to function.”

Fortunately, you can disable pop-up blocking for a specific site in Chrome and Safari. Doing so will allow the Washington Gas page to launch a full-screen page from a service called Kubra EZ-Pay. EZ, this experience is not so much: It breaks the entry of your credit-card across two screens, which seems to stop Google Pay from auto-filling the second one, then asks for a phone number and e-mail when neither should be necessary in this transaction.

It’s all a pain, yet I keep taking this payment option because I don’t want to give Washington Gas the satisfaction of knowing that I gave up a 2 percent return because of its janky user interface. The only problem is that because I can’t automate a credit-card payment, I sometimes forget about this bill… which is what I suspect that call was about, not that the Washington Gas payment portal had any message of its own following up on the call.

Finally, an obvious upgrade from Apple

No computer I own has aged better than the iPad mini 4 I bought at the end of 2015. But that device’s days as my work tablet are now unquestionably dwindling.

That’s Apple’s fault and to Apple’s credit. The updated iPad mini the company announced last week may look almost identical (I’ll know for sure when I can inspect it in a store), but it includes a much faster processor and a better screen and camera. Reviewers I trust have essentially been saying “yes, buy this.”

The new iPad mini also doesn’t exhibit two of Apple’s least-attractive habits, in that the company resisted the temptations to remove the headphone jack and sell it with inadequate entry-level storage. So instead of paying extra for a 64-gigabyte model as I did before, that’s now the base configuration.

I wish the new tablet retired the proprietary Lightning cable for a USB-C connector that would let me recharge it with my laptop or phone chargers. But if I must choose, I’d rather be inconvenienced by having to fish out a different cable once every other day than have to remember to bring a headphone-jack dongle everywhere I take the tablet.

If only the the Mac part of Apple would learn from the mobile-device part of it and not gouge buyers who want a reasonable amount of storage! I’m typing these words on a 2009-vintage iMac that I have yet to replace because of this problem. The finally-revived Mac mini would be a logical successor to this iMac–I can’t see buying another all-in-one when its 4K screen should far outlast its computer components–but it starts with a 128 GB solid-state drive. And upgrading that joke of an SSD to a 512 GB model costs an insulting $400.

So I continue to trudge along with a desktop that will turn 10 years old this November–although the 512 GB SSD now inside it is only a year old–instead of paying that Apple Tax. With the new iPad mini, meanwhile, the only real question will be which retailer gets my money.

Why has Google News gotten so useless?

The one thing you should be able to count on Google doing–with robotic if not remorseless consistency–is finding things on the Web. But the Google News site it launched in 2006 keeps going from useless to more useless as successive redesigns purport to improve it, and I’m giving up on asking why.

First, sometime in the second half of 2017, the desktop version quietly dropped the “Search Tools” menu that lets you search by date. That right there is a dealbreaker in any newsroom: If you want to know which publication got to a story first, you must be able to limit your query to articles posted before a day, month and year.

Then Google’s mobile and desktop searches started not matching–at all.

Later, the mobile version of Google News went on the same feature-starvation diet as the desktop edition, leaving it just as woeful in everyday use.

More recently, Google News has stopped showing snippets of stories, as you can see in the first screengrab here. It only offers headlines–which, now that search-engine optimization has boiled much of the creativity out of that exercise in compressed prose, may not even be that fun to read.

The crazy thing is that you start a Google search at the company’s home page, then click or tap the “News” tab atop your first results for ad-free, news-only results, you will get the old version of Google News. That still lets you focus a query by date, still provides a preview of a story’s text, and still doesn’t make me long for the metadata that I’d get in an analog, paper-based library.

So why does Google foist this impostor news-search site on us and insist that we click to a second page to access a functional version of it? I have no idea. I’ve tweeted about this too often, including tagging Google’s news v.p. Richard Gingras, and I’ve personally lobbied Googlers (most recently at last year’s Online News Association conference) to fix the damn site, but nothing has changed.

I’m left to think that Google just doesn’t care to make a news-search site that journalists–or any involved citizen–would want to use. So I’ve been increasingly leaning on Microsoft’s Bing News, which does offer the minimum-viable-product functions of a date-limited search and story-snippet previews. I suggest you go and do likewise.

This is the worst interface I’ve ever seen

Our water heater broke sometime Monday, and we found out the analog way: Only cold water came out of the tap.

A visit to the basement revealed that the heater had already been reporting a problem in the least intuitive way possible. A single green LED on an assembly near its base was blinking out a pattern–eight flashes in a row, followed by a pause of a few seconds and then two more flashes.

That sequence, a small sticker explained, was the heater’s way of saying “Temperature sensor fault detected.” This same sticker listed 17 other sequences of flashes and pauses that could report anything from “No faults” to “Flammable vapor sensor fault detected.”

(The temperature sensor had indeed gone bad, although it took multiple visits by techs to confirm that and then return with a working replacement. This has left me with a renewed appreciation for household modern conveniences.)

That’s an awful user interface. It’s also what happens when you supply a single, single-color LED to display the status of a fairly complex home appliance. Bradford White, the manufacturer, could have put in a light that changed color–seeing a once-green indicator turn to red is usually your tip that something’s changed for the worse–or put in two or more LEDs.

Or that firm could have splurged on a digital readout capable of showing numeric error codes, bringing the discoverability of this interface up to that of the “DSKY” control of the Apollo Guidance Computer that NASA astronauts sometimes struggled to decipher on their way to the Moon.

Instead, sticking with that sole green LED and offloading the work of discovering its Morse-code-esque interface to customers may have saved Bradford White a dime per heater. On the upside, I’m now pretty sure I’ve seen the worst possible UI. I mean, not even Lotus Notes got this bad.