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John Topley’s Weblog

Updated: 2014-08-09T18:00:00Z


Side Project Software


A few years ago I decided I wanted to try my hand at iOS app development. In January 2012 I started working my way through the excellent iOS Apprentice tutorial series, which I completed three months later. Straight afterwards I started work on my first app, named Daily Offers. After more hard work than I’d ever imagined would be necessary, Daily Offers 1.0 finally went on sale on the UK App Store on 4 February 2013 and I achieved what I’d set out to do. Since then I have released eleven updates to the app as well as a version tailored for the Australian App Store named Grocery Offers. I have learned quite a lot about iOS app development, some of which I think is worth sharing.

When you submit an app to the App Store you have to choose a so-called bundle identifier, which should use a reverse Internet domain-style name. For Daily Offers I chose com.sideprojectsoftware as that’s what it was; a project on the side of my day job. All of which leads me to introduce my new iOS app development blog at Side Project Software.

What Steve Jobs Meant To Me


Every year the same films tend to be shown on British terrestrial television during the Christmas holidays. You know the ones: The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno, The Italian Job and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory amongst others. I guess they’re shown because they’re family favourites and indeed I like all of those films. I mention this because Steve Jobs’s incredible run of keynote presentations introducing new products in recent years somehow made me feel like I was Charlie Bucket being given a tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory and the delights within. The similarities don’t end there: Wonka was a charismatic leader and the chocolate factory a secretive place that rarely opened its doors to outsiders. I didn’t set out to become someone who considered Apple events to be so compelling, but it’s been such an incredible run that the best way I can think to describe it is like watching an amazing sports person pull off a once in a lifetime feat. With Steve Jobs at the helm it just kept getting better and better, one brilliant keynote and product announcement after another. A juggernaut that saw Apple go from the verge of oblivion to financially the most valuable company in the world. I never really imagined that I’d get to own an Apple computer, because the idea of owning a Macintosh in the 1980s when a Sinclair ZX Spectrum was my home computer was preposterious—they were just far too expensive. The same held true when I got into the PC in the early 1990s. I loved the industrial design of the Mac and its integrated GUI was obviously superior to the MS-DOS and Windows combination, but at that time in my life I couldn’t afford one. I’d read plenty about Steve Jobs and the founding of the company and I was vaguely aware of what it was up to and its products, but it wasn’t then part of my life. That would have to wait a few years until I got a job and starting earning some disposable income. Like many millions of people, my route into Apple product ownership was the iPod. I bought one of the fourth generation hard drive and click wheel ones in 2004. At that time the iPod range had only just diversified into the wildly successful and surprisingly short-lived iPod Mini. I still have that white and chrome iPod and it still works perfectly. From there, I bought laptops and a desktop—leaving behind the home PC forever—and an iPhone and most recently an iPad. I didn’t intend to end up with so much Apple kit, but I use and treasure all of it. It strikes me that Steve Jobs was all about removing things, both figuratively and literally. With the Apple II he removed the prerequisite that you had to be useful with a soldering iron to own a personal computer. With the original Macintosh you no longer had to remember a list of obscure commands to use a computer. With the iPod, you didn’t have to carefully trim down your playlists so they’d fit on a memory card or deal with temperamental syncing software (both problems my pre-iPod Diamond Rio MP3 player had). With the iMac, you no longer needed to have a separate bulky system unit cluttering up your desk. With the iPhone and iPad he removed the stylus that got in the way between you and the computer, and in doing so created a much more intimate and immersive experience. As a leader he removed the barriers to those under him doing the best work of their lives. Steve Jobs wasn’t God and he certainly wasn’t a saint. We’ve all read the stories about how demanding he could be to work for and how ruthless a businessman he was. The question of his apparent lack of philanthrophy also comes up regularly. However, we’ve also all read the stories about how inspiring he was to work for, pushing those who worked for him to not be satisfied with just good enough and to do insanely great work. Those stories put me in mind of a spec[...]

Creativity Over Consumption


I was never one of those children who was steered in the direction of learning a musical instrument, probably because neither of my parents ever exhibited any musical ability. Which is being truthful rather than unkind. Plus we weren’t middle class enough to have a piano. Music wasn’t one of my favourite lessons at school, seeming mainly to consist of playing scales on a glockenspiel. Then one day a change of music teacher ushered in a new regime and the music practice rooms acquired little Yamaha mini-key electronic keyboards, with the result that I got interested in playing music as well as listening to it. I used to relish my time on those keyboards, messing around with the different preset sounds you could get out of the primitive FM synthesizer. For three years afterwards I asked for increasingly sophisticated Yamaha PortaSound keyboards every Christmas. I taught myself to play after a fashion from those “learn to play the keyboard books” that came with an audio cassette featuring some earnest-sounding man cranking out standards such as “Sloop John B” on his Bontempi organ in the front room. When Father Christmas brought me a Yamaha PSS-480, I finally had access to a primitive sequencer and a programmable two-operator FM synthesizer—effectively a third of a DX7, synth nerds!—and after a while I took the next logical step and started to write my own songs. Fast forward a few years and I’d amassed quite the collection of my own material, which existed as atrocious quality home cassette recordings, scribbled down chords and lyrics and even hand-written sheet music if I thought one of my songs was particularly worthy of preservation. When I entered the world of work and saved up some money, I bought the then-new Yamaha W7 synthesizer workstation and some expensive Sennheiser headphones rather than going down the more obvious and practical route of learning to drive and buying a cheap second-hand car—no wonder I didn’t get the girls! The day the W7 arrived was amazing—I couldn’t believe I now had a professional quality studio-in-a-box in my bedroom. I used to spend hours on the thing, laboriously programming in the songs I’d written and saving the results using the built-in 3½ inch disk drive (more on that later). Incidentally, the decision to use headphones with the W7 wasn’t born out of consideration for the neighbours; it was simply because I couldn’t afford an amplifier and monitor speakers. Unfortunately, the early model Yamaha W7s shipped with an unreliable disk drive and to cut a long story short, the drive became increasingly unreliable which meant that I couldn’t load or save my creative endeavours, rendering the W7 effectively useless. Finally, to top it all off the headphones stopped working as well. I was devastated, but was also getting increasingly distracted away from making music by the lure of the PC and the world of computer programming. I still have my W7 in storage i.e. taking up room at my mother’s house. One day I will get around to sending it off somewhere to be repaired, no doubt at great personal expense. I didn’t really do anything with music for the next few years until I bought my first Mac, discovered GarageBand and noodled around creating the odd track here and there. In iPad Too I raved about GarageBand for the iPad and now one month later, it’s the app I’ve spent the most time using, contradicting the notion that you can’t be creative with an iPad. I wrote a new instrumental track that I named Rapture for no other reason than because I started work on it on the 21st of May, which is when some people predicted the world would end. I started the track by “strumming” the Smart Guitar and quickly came across a chord sequence I liked, then I laid down a rhythm track using the Smart Drums. [...]

iPad Too


When Apple announced the original iPad back in January last year I must admit that I was underwhelmed. Watching the keynote presentation afterwards a lot of people present in the room seemed to feel the same way, so subdued was the audience reaction. I’m not quite sure what we were expecting from the long rumoured and awaited Apple tablet, but it was surely more than the outsize iPod touch that Apple had apparently delivered. Had the iPad launched in 2007 before the iPhone then it would have been a different story and I’m sure that the iPad would have received the same rapturous welcome that its smaller cellular brother received when first revealed—although I think the iPhone is all the more impressive for having the smaller form factor. It’s been said that the two devices came to market out of sequence and that the iPad was actually designed and developed first. Whether that’s true or not we don’t really know, but it certainly seems plausible. Perhaps the biggest difficulty I had with the iPad was that I couldn’t quite see what it was for, in spite of Steve Jobs’s speech during the keynote saying that Apple had wrestled with, and solved, the core issue of their tablet’s raison d'être. There was a lot of emphasis placed on how people would “get it” when they actually held an iPad in their hands and used it. We were told that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and that once we’d got to “hold the Web in our hands” the iPad as a proposition would make sense. This was marketing hype of course, but fast forward a few months to my first play with an iPad in an Apple store and I could see that there was actually some substance behind the hype. I was already familiar with the joy of using Apple’s multi-touch interface from my iPod touch and the iPhone that later replaced it, but somehow the larger display added an extra dimension to the experience. There was something intangible but pleasurable about holding and interacting with a live Web page at near A4 size in your hand. It felt as if the whole touch experience had been designed for this screen size all along. It’s very hard to describe, which is perhaps Apple’s biggest challenge when it comes to pitching the iPad. Not too much of a challenge though, because the iPad has been a smash hit with consumers, surprising many so-called industry experts who wrote it off as a mere toy or luxurious frippery. I didn’t buy a first generation iPad. Instead I vowed to wait three years for the third generation model, just as I had delayed my purchase of an iPhone until the 3GS came out in 2009. Having had the chance to try one, I knew that there was undoubtedly something special about it though and I found myself increasingly wanting one as I spent more time playing with it during idle moments in various stores. So I was even more interested than usual in what Apple had lined up for the launch of its successor last month. It came as no surprise that the iPad 2 was thinner, lighter and faster, but it was the software on display that really shone, particularly GarageBand. I spent quite a while evaluating whether I should buy an iPad 2, and in all honesty I think my head said no but my heart said yes. My heart won out, I’d reached that tipping point and decided that I was going to buy one; waiting another year be damned! Purchasing Pains With the difficult decision of whether or not to having been made, it was time to move to the pleasurable and easy stage of actually buying the thing. At least that’s what I thought! Getting hold of an iPad 2 at the moment is not easy. These things are like gold dust. I quickly decided to go for the black 64 GB Wi-Fi model and ordered it online directly from Apple during the morning of the 26th of March—a day after it went on sale in the UK In hindsight I should have ordered[...]