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App beta testing gets better with new TestFlight SDK

Developers looking to beta test their apps before getting them into the App Store have a number of options for finding and communicating with beta testers, but few are as slick and easy to use as TestFlight. Now the provisioning tool gets even better, thanks to a number of updates in version two, which made its official debut on Monday.

The new version of TestFlight comes with an SDK that allows developers to make their beta testing process a lot more involved, and it provides improved tools for gathering feedback. Feedback and communication are key to a successful beta test (which is why I’m not a great tester myself), and the new features available to developers through TestFlight’s API are all about improving information flow between devs and testers.

Highlights of what developers can look forward to include:

  • In-App Questions. Trigger questions at specific checkpoints to get feedback from users as they’re using the software exactly at points where you think there might be an issue.
  • In-App Updates. Make sure your test group is on the same page with in-app update prompts, which also allow you to update to the latest version instantly over the air.
  • Feedback. In-app forms and tester email responses all feed into the developer dashboard and allow for instant replies between tester and coder.

There’s more, too, so be sure to head over to the official TestFlight website and check it out if you’re interested. Developers and testers alike can still sign up for free, too, and all of these new features arrive as free updates for existing and new users alike. Inevitably, TestFlight will have to bring some tiered paid options or advertising to the table to keep things going, but judging by developer response and its adoption by big brands so far, it won’t have too much trouble getting people to pay for the product when it does.

As for general consumers, even if you never actually use or see TestFlight in action, you’ll probably feel its effects: A better beta process with more communication options built in should lead to better shipping products popping up in the App Store.

Related research and analysis from GigaOM Pro:
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App beta testing gets better with new TestFlight SDK

Developers looking to beta test their apps before getting them into the App Store have a number of options for finding and communicating with beta testers, but few are as slick and easy to use as TestFlight. Now the provisioning tool gets even better, thanks to a number of updates in version two, which made its official debut on Monday.

The new version of TestFlight comes with an SDK that allows developers to make their beta testing process a lot more involved, and it provides improved tools for gathering feedback. Feedback and communication are key to a successful beta test (which is why I’m not a great tester myself), and the new features available to developers through TestFlight’s API are all about improving information flow between devs and testers.

Highlights of what developers can look forward to include:

  • In-App Questions. Trigger questions at specific checkpoints to get feedback from users as they’re using the software exactly at points where you think there might be an issue.
  • In-App Updates. Make sure your test group is on the same page with in-app update prompts, which also allow you to update to the latest version instantly over the air.
  • Feedback. In-app forms and tester email responses all feed into the developer dashboard and allow for instant replies between tester and coder.

There’s more, too, so be sure to head over to the official TestFlight website and check it out if you’re interested. Developers and testers alike can still sign up for free, too, and all of these new features arrive as free updates for existing and new users alike. Inevitably, TestFlight will have to bring some tiered paid options or advertising to the table to keep things going, but judging by developer response and its adoption by big brands so far, it won’t have too much trouble getting people to pay for the product when it does.

As for general consumers, even if you never actually use or see TestFlight in action, you’ll probably feel its effects: A better beta process with more communication options built in should lead to better shipping products popping up in the App Store.

Related research and analysis from GigaOM Pro:
Subscriber content. Sign up for a free trial.

How to undo a lot of Lion’s little changes using Terminal

Mac OS X Lion has been out for about a week now, long enough for a lot of us to realize that there might be a couple of essential tweaks we’d really like to make to our new systems. However, if you want to disable some of the new animations, reclaim some lost space in Safari’s bookmarks bar, or try to roll back some of the iOS-ification that has gone on, the options available in those default preference panes just won’t cut it.

Luckily though, the good old ‘defaults write’ command for OS X’s Terminal.app is still around to help us pop open that hood and tweak all the stuff that can’t be configured with just a point and a click. Here’s a quick roundup of a few defaults write commands that might make your early days with the new big cat a bit easier.

A few words about ‘defaults write’

The ‘defaults’ command allows users to interact with their user defaults via the terminal (located in the Applications>Utilities folder). Users can read, write, and delete user preference values that often aren’t available for configuration within an application’s normal preference panel. These commands can all be executed via the Terminal, and reversed by simply repeating the command with the original value swapped in for the replacements below. In most cases you’ll have to restart the application you’re trying to tweak before you can see the command’s effect. If you don’t want to mess around with the terminal, I’m sure many of these commands will soon find their way into an updated version of Secrets, which is a GUI preference pane for configuring this type of behavior.

The roundup

  • Animations. There are a lot of new animations in Lion. New windows will warp into existence from a single point on the screen; email replies will fold their way out of threaded conversations; and desktops will go swishing by as you move from space to space. There’s at least two of these you can put an end to right now if you want:
    • Disable Mail Reply animations: “defaults write com.apple.Mail DisableReplyAnimations -bool YES”
    • Disable New Window animations: “defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticWindowAnimationsEnabled -bool NO”
  • Character picker. If you’ve ever been frustrated by hunting around in the character viewer for accented characters like the “è” or the “ë” then you probably want to just leave this setting alone. If however, if you’d rather be able to hold down a key and just have it automatically repeat, like it used to, then this defaults write is for you.
    • Disable the character picker: “defaults write -g ApplePressAndHoldEnabled -bool NO”
  • Window restore. Want to keep applications like Preview or QuickTime from restoring old windows that happened to be hanging around the last time you quit? Just switch out the name “Preview” in the command below to target other applications.
    • Disable window restore: “defaults write com.apple.Preview NSQuitAlwaysKeepsWindows -bool NO”
  • Bookmarks bar. You can get rid of both the Reading List icon and the Top Sites icon with this quick defaults write command:
    • Clean out icons from Safari’s bookmarks bar: “defaults write com.apple.Safari ProxiesInBookmarksBar ‘()’”
  • Save sheet shortcuts. Lion changes around the default save sheet shortcuts for a little added safety. If you’ve got a lot of muscle memory devoted to “Command-D” as the shortcut for “Don’t Save,” you can bring it back if you want — though to be honest, with “D” and “S” being so close together, I prefer the new settings.
    • Revert save sheet shortcut: “defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSSavePanelStandardDesktopShortcutOnly -bool YES”
  • iOS spell check pop-up. Part of the overall “iOS-ification” effort in Lion was to bring over those helpful but sometimes annoying little spell correction pop-ups you get as you type. The autocorrect can be enabled on a document by document basis with a right-click in “Spelling and Grammar,” but if you just want to kill it off altogether, you can.
    • Disable the iOS-style spell correct: “defaults write NSGlobalDomain NSAutomaticSpellingCorrectionEnabled -bool NO”
  • ~/Library reveal. This last one isn’t technically a defaults command, but it’s too good to leave out. By default in Lion, user libraries are hidden. You can still navigate to the user library by holding down the “option key” while in the Go menu in the Finder, but if you want to restore ~/Library back to it’s proper place, just crack open the terminal and enter in the command below.
    • Restore ~/Library visibility: “chflags nohidden ~/Library”

I’m sure more hidden commands will surface as folks begin to settle into the new OS. I grabbed as many as I could find floating around, but if you’ve got some additional ones you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Related research and analysis from GigaOM Pro:
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Validate Build Product

In the last post, I mentioned Xcode 3.2’s new Validate option that runs the same checks the App Store Review Team will use before looking at the content of your app and which may be used by Build and Archive (or any other Build command, for that matter), I probably should have mentioned what determines whether it will get run. It’s your project settings. To turn it on or off, select Edit Project Settings from the Project menu, and it’s under the Build Options, and it’s just a checkbox you can turn on or off.

Screen shot 2010-05-01 at 10.14.00 AM.png

I would recommend not waiting until App Store submission to run validate. Do it before you send to testers or to your client. It will allow you to address problems before your app gets tested, reducing the need for regression testing.
©2008-2010 Jeff LaMarche.
iphonedevelopment.blogspot.com

My iPad Wish List: 10 App Requests

Watching the iPad’s first television spot on the Oscars Sunday night, I got giddy all over again in anticipation of getting my hands on this hot new product. Though it’s still a few weeks away, I’m even more excited for the applications that will be coming to the platform. Here’s my top 10 list of apps that I want to see developed for the iPad.

Coda

As a graphic designer and web developer, Coda is a staple in my workflow. It features a built-in FTP system, which could be problematic to port to a mobile device, considering there isn’t a traditional file structure to store data. However, perhaps the iPad’s new file storage system will provide an adequate solution. Regardless, as someone who codes, it would be awesome to sit next to a client and modify code and push changes to a site all from my iPad while they load and test the revisions on their own desktop.

Photoshop

Before you laugh, remember that Adobe has already released Photoshop Mobile for the iPhone, and all things considered, it’s not such a bad application. A larger iPad version could allow support for opening and manipulating native Photoshop files as well as working between multiple files. CS4 introduced a new tabbed approach to viewing multiple documents at once. A similar setup could easily be implemented on the iPad.

Katamari Damacy

What’s a fun touchscreen device without a fun game? Katamari already exists as an iPhone app so it’ll scale up decently on the iPad. But given the advanced graphics of the iPad and the larger screen, a native iPad version is a must. If you’ve never played Katamari, check out this clip below.

iMovie

Call me crazy (it doesn’t hurt to be wishful) but the feasibility of an iMovie-like app is certainly within the realm of possibility. I would have never expected Apple to introduce video editing on the iPhone. Nevertheless, along with a video camera, the iPhone 3GS allows for simple video edits. Why couldn’t we have a larger implementation of this on the iPad, provided it gains a video camera at some point? With the larger screen, there’s plenty of room to view a larger timeline, add transitions or effects and with one tap, upload your masterpiece to YouTube.

iChat

I’m actually quite surprised this app still hasn’t made it to the iPhone yet, but as a platform that’s designed to be “the best way to experience the web, email, photos and video,” the iPad seems like the perfect device for iChat, especially if a future model gains a video camera.

Screen Sharing or Remote Desktop

There have been a number of third-party developers that have created similar apps for the iPhone, but I’m honestly shocked to see that Apple hasn’t implemented its own solution yet. With a larger screen and almost full-size keyboard, remotely accessing and interacting with other Macs on my network would be a breeze on the iPad.

Preview

While the iBooks application will open books that are in EPUB format, I’d love to see a more robust implementation of Preview available on the iPad (and iPhone). Specifically, an app that is capable of annotating PDF files and provides support for links within PDFs. Since I’m also an academic, some of the journals I read (as PDFs) contain bookmarks to other articles or chapters and currently, none of the built-in applications on the iPhone support interacting with them.

Hulu

I don’t care how it has to happen or if it involves Flash or not. Who doesn’t want Hulu on the iPad? Even if it required a small subscription, I would love to be able to access my Hulu queue on the go. Better yet, since the iPad is a closed system, the app could download and cache content so it wouldn’t necessarily have to be streamed in real time. This could be a great solution to save AT&T’s crowded bandwidth for 3G models and allow WiFi-only models to still play even if a network isn’t around. I’d pay for that; would you?

Bento/Filemaker

Now that we have iWork, how about a real implementation of Bento (or FileMaker if that’s not too much to ask)? The current iPhone version is pretty pathetic and really hard to use to manipulate larger databases. While FileMaker may be a stretch, I’d put serious money on seeing an iPad version of Bento before the year is out.

An Improved iTunes App

It looks as though the new iTunes app represents a step ahead of the current iPhone version, but there are still some missing features that would make this app a rock star on the iPad. Adding support for Internet radio, browsing my other libraries by Home Sharing or support for iTunes Extras and LPs would be amazing. Honestly, why hasn’t Apple announced support of iTunes Extras and LPs? The specs call for a viewing area of 1280×720 (the 720p high definition standard). They also call for building your iTunes Extras with what’s called a bleed graphic, or a graphic that can “fill in the extra space” if you’re viewing it at a size greater than 1280×720. Now given that as a way to compensate for a difference in aspect ratios, if you were to scale down an iTunes Extra for the 1024×768 display, wouldn’t it just make sense? Come on, if the Apple TV can do it (and we all know how excited Apple gets about that product), shouldn’t the iPad as well?

What are your thoughts on apps you’d like to see? Share your thoughts in the comments below. The great thing about Apple’s developer community is that they keep up with what’s discussed in the blogosphere. You never know; a developer might see your suggestions. So, share what you’d like to see on the iPad!

iTunes Provides Browser-Based iPhone App Previews [ITunes]

iTunes is letting more of its content out onto the open web these days, offering up song previews and, just recently, iPhone/iPod app details. You can check out screenshots, reviews, pricing, and most of the other details you’d get inside iTunes from your browser now when you click on a direct app link. Not every direct app link worked in a quick morning test, but over time, expect far fewer grumbles from those who don’t have iTunes installed but want to see just a few things inside Apple’s walled garden. [TechCrunch]






Bad Apple: An Argument Against Buying an iPhone [Rants]

Apple just rejected the Google Voice iPhone application from App Store distribution, the most recent in a long line of questionable moves, and the message is clear: If you want a device that won’t lock you out of innovation, skip the iPhone.

Photo by rore.

Lest We Forget

There’s no question that this brilliant little piece of hardware has sparked a revolution in the world of mobile computing and cellphones, and, likewise, there’s no question that consumers have benefited from that. I’ve been a believer in the iPhone from the start (hell, I even co-wrote a book on the stupid thing), but despite all the missteps Apple has made along the way, it always at least seemed plausible that they were holding out on apps or making unpopular decisions with some sort of good reason. (That was probably always willful ignorance, and Apple’s culture of secrecy just makes it that much easier to assume there’s some Very Special Reason for their bad decisions.) Still, I’ve never regretted buying an iPhone until now.

Refusing Competition

Over the course of the day, most people have speculated that Google Voice was rejected from the App Store at AT&T's behest. The reason? Apple's official line is that Google Voice duplicates features already on the iPhone—namely the Phone and Messages app. Of course, none of that holds water, considering the App Store is already full of alternate SMS apps and apps like Skype that sport a telephone dialer.

So what separates Google Voice from the other, already-approved tools that offer similar features to the iPhone's default apps? As far as we can tell, the main issue is competition. AT&T doesn't see Joe Schmoe's SMS Big Keyboard Deluxe (it's a real app) as much of a threat to the colossal ripoff that is text messaging, for example, but people may actually want to use Google Voice.

From another angle, Apple only seems concerned with duplication of features if an application competes with an app that they already made. If you're competing with another non-default third-party application, you can go and duplicate all you want (hence the oft-cited Fart apps). Still, if a Google Voice app actually does duplicate the functions of the telephone/SMS applications that ship with the iPhone, I want to know how I can use my iPhone to check my Google Voice inbox, send messages via Google Voice, or get my voicemails transcribed with what Apple and AT&T are offering. And do not send me to a crappy iPhone 1.0 webapp.

The real problem, then, is that Google Voice, and all it offers, is actually much better than what AT&T offers.

Forget About Innovation

It's unfortunate, of course, because Google Voice doesn't actually stop anyone from using AT&T. It's not a VoIP app (yet), so you still need AT&T for it to work at all. Again, it simply improves on what the iPhone already has. It would actually make AT&T—and the iPhone—better. From my perspective as a consumer, that in turn makes the iPhone a much more attractive device. Since it's been rejected on the iPhone but approved for Android phones and BlackBerrys, that in turn makes both of those devices that much more attractive.

Sure you can switch carriers if you're not happy—as long as you're willing to empty your pockets to drop out of your contract. That's always been the case. But Apple/AT&T have never sent such a clear message in the past about just how restrictive they'll get if they feel threatened by an application. Those of us who were once excited at the seemingly limitless potential of the App Store now know where we stand.

Apple would like you to believe that the goals of the App Store approval process are lofty ones—that they're only approving innovative apps and that the only reason they don't approve apps is to protect you from bad software or, horror of horrors, confusion. Because god knows it’d be confusing as hell to use a better phone application than what came with the phone. Meanwhile, thank god we can pass our time with iWet T-Shirts (borderline NSFW).

It’s All About the Software

As far as I’m concerned, there’s two things that set the iPhone apart from its competition: 1) It’s got great hardware, and 2) It’s got the most third-party applications.

The first issue is a hurdle for other phone providers/phone manufacturers to figure out; some already have matched the iPhone’s hardware (as far as its guts go, the iPhone and the Palm Pre aren’t all that different) and others will eventually.

The second is where Apple is really asking for it. The more alienated developers feel—especially good developers who're trying to build something new and innovative (as opposed to those looking to join the Fart app gravy train)—the less time they're going to spend playing iPhone App Store roulette. Which means that if you want a phone where you can expect some real innovation, you should probably skip the iPhone.

Isn’t This a Bit Familiar?

The iPhone is a full-on computer in your pocket, and in many ways is more capable than your regular old PC. Imagine, if you can, that Microsoft tried dictating what browser you had to use on Windows. Oh right, that happened. Except they didn’t refuse to allow you to use any other browser just because it duplicated the features of their default browser. And as Wired points out, Apple is inviting all kinds of regulation with this kind of mindset. And it hasn’t just been about Google Voice:

Apple and AT&T are living dangerously though. Apple has also forced video services like Slingbox to cripple their applications because of purported concerns over data usage, while approving ones from paying partners (e.g. Major League Baseball) that would put more strain on a network than Slingbox's would.

If the iPhone's default applications were better than those submitted by Google or by some other third-party developer, then people would use them. If not, then that's a sign that they need to make them better—not a red flag that they should start pulling apps left and right from the App Store because of "duplication."

Why You Should Care

At the end of the day, this isn't simply a Google Voice/iPhone problem—it's a concern for everyone, iPhone owner or not, with an interest in the latest and greatest crop of smartphones. Google's Android OS may be open source, but that doesn’t mean they’re above pulling apps when pressured by carriers. Right now the non-iPhone manufacturers and carriers are much more willing to allow anything on their platform because, frankly, they’re desperate to get some of the attention the iPhone already has. That doesn’t mean that’ll always be the case.

Every now and then, we like to go on grumpy, long-winded, opinionated rants. We’re far from the definitive voice, and your feelings may differ, so feel free to air your thoughts in the comments.





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