fence me in

Added on by Ed.

one of the highly touted features of iOS 5 at its introduction was Reminders. the feature that made the WWDC crowd ooh and ah wasn't just an official Apple to-do list, or a fancy timed alarm system (neither of those would be particularly innovative), but the ability to set location-based reminders. buy milk next time you're at the grocery store? get there and *buzz*. or so we thought. then this came across the twitter: [blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/waferbaby/status/124518378076520448"]

[blackbirdpie url="https://twitter.com/#!/dokas/status/124520733496979456"]

hold on. i have to go to the grocery store before i can remind myself to buy something there? what if i want to remind myself to call my family when i arrive at an airport halfway across the country that i've never been to before? well, there's one other option: you can set reminders up for addresses that are tied to one of your contacts. i guess that would be fine if it didn't impede your productivity, but even stranger, it tempts you to violate Apple's aesthetic.

the garden of Apple

anyone who's ever watched an Apple product keynote knows about the perfectly cultivated, mythical world that exists within their demo devices. every photo is in focus with smiles. basic word processing tasks become graphic design projects and suitable-for-framing posters. every item is tagged down to the last iota of metadata. everything is beautiful. in one sense, this is just to put on a good face and show the product in its best possible light. in another sense, you get the idea that Apple actually expects you to use the product this way.



on e57 of The Talk Show, John Gruber and Merlin Mann talked about the similarities between Apple and Disney, particularly in re: the insane attention to detail and upkeep that's required to keep Disney World the most magical place on earth. they mentioned the fact that the Magic Kingdom is never empty; it's staffed 24/7, even if it's only open to the public during the day. keeping everything just so is a literally constant effort, and as such is only possible when done in shifts by a team of workers. Apple may or may not be a 24/7 company (at least not on the design end; who knows when you take into account overseas production by OEM manufacturers). nevertheless, they've shown us that with their own product in their own hands, they can keep up the illusion of perfection, down to a perfectly manicured garden of contacts, faux and real, social and business.

however, Apple isn't in the theme park business. they are in the computing business, which inevitably means handing over their precious product to be maintained by us, the users. we have different tastes. we want to tinker, or hack, or just be plain lazy. we would suck at running Disney World, for the most part. nevertheless, by force of implementation or by mere suggestion, we are still pushed towards The Apple Way.

breaking the illusion

the paint begins to crumble and the facades of Main Street USA fall down to reveal the fluorescent-lit office buildings behind them when the inutility of iOS 5 location reminders comes to bear. the odds of gaining value by setting up a reminder to trigger at the location you're already in, or at the home or business of a friend or colleague, are very slim; chances are a plain or timed reminder would work just as well. what's the workaround? well, you can put that address in a new contact. but then Grocery Store is in your master contact list along with Your Mom (the lack of good nickname support and the notion that you would want to list your close family members as Firstname Lastname is a separate rant).

people do this kind of stuff all the time. people create contacts with first names only; people deliberately put where they know somebody from instead of their last name; people list their best friend as aaaSteve so he's re-alphabetized to the top. but you would never, ever see such a one-off, hacky way of squeezing utility out of the OS put on stage for demonstration. it would be quintessentially un-Apple.

building a better fence

geo-fencing is nothing new, but Apple is just now dipping their toe into it. and, if you still use iPhoto (i'm sorry), you know that Apple's idea of efficient place management is anything but. still, i'm a bit disappointed that i can't set up a reminder of the following type:

remind me to buy bagels at CTB on the second Tuesday of every month only if i'm in Ithaca, NY

i could set up an iOS 5 reminder at my apartment in Ithaca, which would probably trigger on the appropriate day, but that seems like a slightly odd way of doing it. or, if i target the actual bakery, i may never stumble into the arbitrarily sized (and presumably rather small) geofence that surrounds it. i might even have to get close enough to see the sign out on the sidewalk advertising the monthly special before my reminder would be triggered. in that case, a decidedly 20th century reminder would be more effective than my 21st century one.

fortunately, there is hope that we won't have to just build kludgy reminders and faux contacts, while we wait for Apple to catch wind of the fact that we're dissatisfied with the project. the technology that underlies the location-based reminders is a new OS service in iOS 5 that does low-power GPS tracking. and, perhaps surprisingly, it's not a proprietary API call. that means that third party developers are free to use it and put apps in the official App Store that use it. Foursquare already announced a new feature called Radar that uses it to send you notifications based on friend activity in your vicinity. this means that similar functionality, including arbitrary geofencing, ought to be able to be merged into a reminder app. Remember The Milk has already added location services to their Android app; their first priority for iOS 5 and the iPhone 4S was to get Siri working with RTM, but i can only imagine that they'll be adding location support next. and then i will gladly buy their app and subscription service over using a wonky Apple implementation. will i be upset if Apple steals their feature for the next version of Reminders? no, in fact i expect it; it should have been there in the first place. if they can build a better geo-fence than the competition, they will win back my fence-building business.