Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another iPad problem, or rather a 'feature' -- the mute switch

I ran into another issue on the Apple iPad that is another interesting reflection on software and Man-Machine Interface issues that are becoming more and more prevalent and important in our lives.

It appeared that all of a sudden several of my video playback apps on my iPads quit playing audio. The video was streaming fine, but in total silence. Being a standard human user, I immediately and it turns out incorrectly jumped to the conclusion that the apps that were silent had some type of bug.

After taking a step back and turning my 'logic brain' back on, what I have found is that the apps that were silent are the ones working correctly. And the combination of my incorrect operation of a new function on the iPad and other apps incorrectly ignoring this function is the root cause of the 'silence' I was encountering.

With the new release of the iPad's iOS operating system, Apple changed the function of a small switch on the upper right side of the iPad. The switch is just above the volume up/down buttons. Prior to the 4.2.1 release of iOS, the switch locked the screen orientation, so that rotating the iPad did not cause the screen to change orientation. With the latest release of iOS, this orientation lock function was moved to a software button located in the 'task bar' of the iOS system and the function of the physical switch was change to a sound mute function. Moving the switch to the down position, mutes the sound output. Moving the switch up, un-mutes the iPad and allows the volume up and down buttons to change the sound level.

There has been considerable debate online about these changes in these user interface functions. Even to the extent that for jailbroken iPads, there is a way to put the functions back to their original definition. When I started to use the new functions, I found the new definitions to be more useful, but this one of the challenges that UI developers face, there is NOT one standard way that people are comfortable with.

And I believe that this 'multiple ways of doing things' challenge is what has lead, at least partially, to the problem that I encountered with the sound playback on the iPad.

What I have found, is that there a number of apps that are ignoring the mute switch position and generate sound output regardless of the position of this switch. Apps that are ignoring the mute switch, include Apple's own YouTube app and Netflix. I think the first problem is that there is a way outside the operating system to ignore the switches function. Especially in such a controlled hardware/software environment as the iPhone/iPad world, being able to 'repurpose' this hardware does seem to be a bug from Apple's perspective. Second, is that apps are either ignoring the mute switch on purpose or have failed in their updates to correctly adapt to this change in system level UI functionality.

So what I've found, is that thru my own poor 'ass-umptions' that the apps that were silent were the ones with the problem and due to the combo of apps ignoring the new function and Apple allowing this to occur I see another big occurrence of software causing a lot of consternation in the daily lives of people operating electronic devices. We face some big issues as software continues to rule!


iPad button problem, looks like a software issue

This issue I have recently encountered on one of my iPads supports the unfortunate fact that there is a lot of computer and electronic hardware that gets returned because the products seem to exhibit hardware problems. When in fact, there are either software bugs or 'software features' that make it appear that there are problems with the hardware, but the hardware is just fine.

I started to see the home button on the front of the iPad to quit responding. You would push it and nothing would happen, so you could not exit apps, bring up the task manager or any other function that required the button to respond to a push. The problem was very intermittent, sometimes it was completely non-functioning and other times worked fine. I tried cleaning the button area and removing the iPad from the Apple case, at first this seemed to improve the issue. But then it came back. The button does appear to be a mechanical button, unlike the capacitive buttons that many of the Android devices use.

I should note here that, sad but true, I own three iPads, and this unit was the only one showing the problem. This was reenforcing my belief that I had a hardware issue on just the one iPad.

I searched Google and found others with similar symptoms. A number of people were going to the Apple store and getting their iPads replace. I decided to make an appointment with the local Apple Genius Bar at the Santa Barbara store. I went in and the helpful technician was able to duplicate the problem with me there, though I sensed she remained skeptical. Her next step was to request that the iPad be totally reset, wiped and reinstalled as a new iPad. We did this in the store and I gave it another 'button pushing' spin, with the iPad cleared of all apps and data. I thought that I could reproduce the problem still, but it seemed to have significantly reduced. The technician at this point was willing to swap out my iPad for a replacement unit.  She was multitasking and helping another person at the same time, so I continued to test by button. After about 10 minutes, I told her that I felt the problem might have been fixed, and before swapping the hardware I wanted to reinstall my data and apps and test the unit further.

The Apple Guru continued to be very helpful and said that since we had done this first 'software' reset step, and the fact was logged in the Apple Support system for this iPad, I could come back and go directly to the hardware swap step.

Well, two weeks later, I  will report that I have NOT seen the problem again. It has been a real PIA to reinstall apps and data in the unit. The Apple Guru recommended NOT restoring the backup image to the iPad. I think this has been the right route to the solution, it does appear that something in the operating system or in one of the apps I installed was causing the button to misbehave. I had installed beta releases of the iOS operating system on this machine along the way to its current state with a production release of iOS 4.2.1 (8C148).

If the problem is due to a bug in one of the apps I have on the machine, or an interaction between two or more apps, I may not have yet hit this ignition point. And there is still a small possibility that the problem is mechanical hardware related and has just gone into hiding.

However, as I said at the beginning of this post, I feel strongly that my experience and what I read in the press support the fact that there is a huge number of electronic returns that are working just fine from a hardware perspective. Electronic hardware today is amazingly robust!  But us humans are extremely fickle and quick to point the finger at incorrect sources of problems. This combined with the unfortunate fact that it is often simpler, quicker and less expensive to use a 'swap' rather than diagnose and fix route to the solution is a sad truth that poor software is causing.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Case improvements for iPhone 4 and iPad

Putting your iPad, iPhone or Galaxy Tab into a protective case seems to be a have to do. Other than the antenna problems of the iPhone 4, I am sometimes wondering why I spend this extra money.  But I do and  I can cite than I've not broken or badly scratched the viewing part of any of these devices as yet, so I should take that as positive value for the investment.

One of the shortcoming of many of the 1st generation of these cases is that they block, or at least make access difficult, the ports and buttons. I have learned to do as much testing with plugs and connections early after buying a case.

It is good to see generation 2 of these cases starting to come out. These upgrades are starting to do a better job of allowing access to the connections. A leader in this area is the company Speck, they have a new iPhone 4 case and a iPad case that at least allows access to the Apple connector. Have a look at the photo of their new iPhone 4 case below. I was not able to find a good picture of the functioning of the case on the Speck web site, however the web site CoolBeta does a good job of showing it off for them.

The case might work as a stand by itself as well, although no report on this function. I hope that companies like Speck continue to innovate in these areas, these accouterments could really add value to the devices. This should make me feel better about the amount of money I spend on these accessories!


Update, the Speck web site does have a picture of the operation of the CandyShell Flip, but only for their pink version. Guess my 'guy eyes' just did not jump to the pink one, rather the black on.... :-)




Here is another example of a 'added value' case for the iPhone, one that adds a hard keyboard. Again CoolBeta does a good job of showing a picture that tells the story. This add on is from ThinkGeek . Adding hardware peripherals to phones and tablets is going to be another area where cases will augment the core device.