Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with Apple News on my iPhone

I love my iPhone. The dangerous problem is that while sometimes I love it the way a writer loves a favorite pen while at other times I love it the way an alcoholic loves beer.

Or like Brokeback Mountain. I wish I knew how to quit you, iPhone.

Today, I had a lovers quarrel with the iPhone.

From nowhere — certainly from no action on my part — the iPhone decided to start sharing notifications from the News app.

There has been no update for that App in the App Store (perhaps because it is bundled with the OS that updated a couple weeks back), and I cannot discern what triggered the change aside from Apple’s business strategy of disintermediating both Facebook and the news properties themselves.

I suffer from acute distractibility at the best of times, which is why I’ve deleted all social media from the iPhone as a portcullis next to a moat around my concentration, such as it is. I get no notifications when an email arrives. I think the new Facebook Messenger app has some nifty “we hate Snapchat” features, but after a five minute exploratory look I deleted it.

My attention is my most precious asset.

So when the iPhone News app started interrupting me to let me know that TIME magazine had a mighty keen article about “5 Tech Predictions for 2017” — this hardly qualifies as urgent — I opened “Settings” and scrolled down to News, whereupon I changed the alert style from “Alerts” to “None.”

Thinking that was it, I went back to my life. Au contraire!

The next time I went to do something with the iPhone and pressed the wakey-wakey button, there was a notification on the lock screen from the Wall Street Journal: “Taxpayers are pouring money into charitable-giving accounts, worried that deductions may not last.” Heaven forfend! Thank the good lord that the iPhone decided that knowing about this was more important than whatever it was that I picked the phone up to do in the first place… which I can no longer remember because of the interruption.

I went back to Settings and looked more closely. Ah ha! What I missed the first time was the faint gray little letters that said, “Alert Style When Unlocked.” I had eliminated the interruptions that would happen when I was using the device, but not when I was about to use the device… which is a vulnerable moment of distractibility.


I then toggled everything off: “Show on Lock Screen,” “Badge App Icon,” “Show in Notification Center” and “Allow Notifications.” That’s a lot of things to toggle, and while I suspect that simply choosing “Allow Notifications” would have done the trick, I’m a suspicious sort of guy and decided to overcompensate.

But that still wasn’t enough.

If I swiped right from the iPhone home screen that took me to a screen where — you guessed it — right up top were two top stories from CBS and Bloomberg and two trending stories from CNN and The New York Times. That’s four opportunities to drop whatever thought was in my head and fall down the rabbit hole into the always-open-all-you-can-eat information buffet: now with unlimited breadsticks!

I’m pretty technical, but it took me a few minutes to figure out that if I scrolled all the way down on the all-the-way-to-the-left screen that had magically appeared with the most-recent iOS I’d find a faint gray “Edit” button that would let me rearrange, add and eliminate notifications on that screen.

It was too much work to limit the notifications coming at me from just one app, let alone managing notifications from all the apps on my iPhone.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of app developers: without notifications an app will wither and die from neglect. But I object to the whole “opt out” presumption of developers that turn notifications on — or make “yes gimme gimme” the “don’t think about it” option to pick — when installing an app in the first place.

I should be able to say, “Hey Siri: I don’t want notifications from the News app anymore” and have that remove everything. When I tried that, though, Siri simply opened the News app.

I think Siri has a learning disability.

Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times recently dubbed the iPhone “the thing that does everything,” which is apt.

But just because a thing can do everything doesn’t mean that it should do everything.

Shameless comment-seeking question: what do you do to eliminate distraction in your environment?

P.S. Don’t even get me started on how angry I am that Uber eliminated the “you can only track my location when I’m actively using Uber” option, so now I either have to let Uber track my iPhone 24/7/365 or I have to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Always” when I’m about to call a Uber and then remember to hit Settings > Privacy > Location Services > Uber > “Never” when I’m done. This is one of many reasons I think that Uber hates people, both its riders and its drivers. Lyft, I hasten to say, retains the “While Using” option.

Two Reasons iCloud Sucks

I’m an Apple user and ordinarily a happy one, but iCloud is an abject failure.

Here are two (of many) reasons why.

Reason #1: You can’t get there from anywhere intuitive or convenient.

Apple insists that you access your iCloud files either through the application or through a browser.  But I might not want to open the application or a new browser tab to manipulate a file.

All I want is a shortcut in the upper toolbar right next to the ones for Dropbox, Evernote and the like.  Not at the browser level– at the OS level. This is easy to do and standard in the industry (see Dropbox, Google Drive and just about every other cloud storage option).

Here’s a mockup of what I mean:


Reason #2: Once you get there, you aren’t really there.

If you finally figure out how to get to the iCloud web page — which is the only place you can see a high-level view of the contents of your iCloud — it looks like this:

icloudsux_browswerwindowWhile it’s nice to have the “Find My iPhone” app here as well as access to webmail, when it comes to the files I might have in Pages, Numbers and Keynote this is terrible.

Where is the total view of all my files?  What if I want to group files from different programs into one folder?

Let’s say I’m creating a project — for my own business, for a consulting client, for one of my kids — and that project includes a spreadsheet for expenses, a word-processing document for all my notes and a deck of slides about the project. With a normal folder or a cloud-based folder from another provider I can toss all three files into one “Project” folder that is intuitively named and easy to find.

That doesn’t work with iCloud.  I have to go searching through different applications to find things, and I’d better be neurotically tidy about file naming conventions or I’m sunk.

Oh, and if I’m composing an email and then decide that I want to drag and drop a file from iCloud into the email to share with my correspondent?  Can’t do it.  I’d have to download the file onto my desktop and then attach it. And if I “Share” the document from within iCloud I am giving my correspondent access to my original, not a copy.

What is so galling about this is that decades ago it was Apple itself (via Xerox Parc) that innovated the graphical user interface (GUI) that employs a spatial metaphor in which you put files inside of folders and then arrange folders within other folders.  This is the “Windows” metaphor that Microsoft later scaled to every corner of the digital universe.

Generally, Apple is great when it comes to my work, my way, in my environment.

But the flip side is that Apple is terrible at anything involving more than one person.  There’s a reason it’s products are called iPod, iPad, iPhone, iMac and iCloud. The “i” may be lower-cased but it’s narcissistically focused on the individual.

What I want is the WeCloud. Fortunately it exists. It’s called Dropbox.

[Cross-posted on Medium.]