out of the box

Imagine you just bought a toolbox, one that came pre-filled with a selection of instruments you would likely need to get some work done around the house . A portable one, not one of those big red Craftsman jobs that you wheel around your garage when you’re pretending to fix that ‘68 Camaro that is totally going to make you young and awesome again one day.

So anyway, you’ve got this toolbox and inside of it you’ve got a hammer and you’ve got a wrench and you’ve got whatever else one keeps in a box of tools. (I’m not so handy.) Maybe you’ve added a couple of things over time that didn’t come with the basic set and that you need for common jobs.

Unless you’ve got some pre-existing condition, you’re probably not spending a great deal of time contemplating the colour of your tools, their placement in the tool box, or which ones look aesthetically pleasing next to each other. You probably don’t rush to the hardware store every time you read a review of a hammer that may be minutely better than your stock one. You set it up and organize it the way that makes the most sense to you, so that you can get in, grab the tool you need, get the job done, and put the tool away without having to think about it.

I’d like to think that devices like the iPhone and the iPad are toolboxes that can be approached in the same manner.

“…what if when we slid to unlock instead of being met with rows and pages of icons we, instead, were met with Siri? What if our primary interaction with such devices was not touch, but voice? What would that look like? What would that feel like?” - Patrick Rhone on Minimal Mac

A couple of weeks ago, I read this quote and it got me reflecting on my own usage of Siri. Up until this point, I had used it sparingly; a few location-based OmniFocus reminders and to make the occasional hands-free phone call. Not exactly using it to its potential.

Coincidentally, shortly after reading this essay, I saw a post on App.net from CJ Chilvers on the virtue of using Notes.app because it was indexed by spotlight and therefore available for Siri search. Aside from the occasional web or wiki search, I rarely used spotlight. None of my data was referenced by its index, because it was all housed in Dropbox or some other third party application or service. I began to wonder if I was using the tools that came with the operating system on my devices effectively.

All of this led to me ask the question: Does iOS ship with everything you need out of the box?

Is iOS a toolbox that ships with everything you need to get things done?

What if you could eliminate a lot of the friction you might feel when trying out new apps and then deciding on which to use? What if you could save the time you might spend tinkering with third-party apps and their settings?

So two weeks ago, I started this experiment: I’ve reset my iPhone and iPad both back to factory settings, and I’m trying to almost exclusively use the stock iOS apps.

Right at the outset, I added five non-stock apps:

1.Podcasts - I spend a bunch of time listening to two (or three) nerds talking on the internet. Since they’ve taken podcasts out of Music.app, I was forced to use a separate application. I decided to try the Apple offering for the closest “stock” experience.

2.Find My iPhone - I’m super paranoid about losing my stuff.

3.Netbot - The only social network I spend any time on is App.net, and this app for me provides a user experience miles ahead of the in-browser one.

4.The Magazine - I’m pretty sure this is the only reason anyone has ever used Newsstand.

5.Letterpress - Awesome game that finally gave me a reason to sign into Game Center.

That’s it. Everything else comes with iOS.

This means I’m doing all of my writing and taking all of my notes in Notes.app. No Dropbox sync. No Textexpander. No Markdown preview. However, iCloud sync on stock apps is, as far as I can tell, vastly improved. The built-in iOS shortcuts, while limited, are working awesome and now sync between my devices. As nice as a preview function is, you don’t need a special app to write something in Markdown. I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point of it. Hell, I write in Markdown on paper. Also, I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I kind of like writing in Marker Felt on yellow legal pads.

This also means I’m no longer using OmniFocus for task and project management. That’s ok though, as the four list system I talked about on the Enough podcast was simple to set up in Reminders.app, and truth be told, has been amazing. By setting up Notification Center with Calendar and Reminders at the top, I’ve got a built-in “Forecast View” just by swiping my thumb down the screen. I’ve been extremely impressed with this app.

Now that my data is in stock apps, I use Spotlight all of the time. I rarely launch an app to find a pre-existing note or search for anything on the web; I go to Spotlight first. Same thing for Siri. I use Siri to search, launch apps, add notes, reminders and appointments. I’ve placed all of my apps on one screen, with a single folder for unused ones. My Home Screen is empty, so I swipe to the right for Spotlight, to the left for my app screen. Press and hold the Home button for Siri. Simple.

In the last week, I’ve tweaked my setup slightly. I’ve gotten rid of Letterpress which is fun game, but too much of a time-suck and sort of the antithesis to what I’m trying to accomplish with this experiment. I’ve also realized that the safari reading list just doesn’t fit my short-form reader needs. It isn’t indexed by spotlight, so it really offers nothing that isn’t done better by a third-party read-later app. So essentially I’ve replaced Letterpress with Instapaper.

In a moment of weakness brought on by a post by Mike Vardy, I installed the Asana iOS app on my phone. It only lasted ten minutes before I deleted it though, as I immediately felt guilty for cheating.

I don’t know how long this is going to carry on. It’s only been two weeks since the outset of this experiment, but the results so far have been very positive. I feel by learning the OS and becoming more proficient in the interfaces that ship with the device, I have saved myself a lot of time. I am able to get in, get done what needs to be done, and get out as quickly as possible.

And maybe that’s the real reason behind all of this: the less time I spend trying out some new or improved app, the less time I spend tinkering with settings or worrying if Dropbox or iCloud is the better synching solution, the less time I can spend with my eyes glued to a 3” glowing rectangle, means more time I can spend doing things that really matter. Like writing an essay, building a fort with my kids, or enjoying a glass (bottle) of wine (whiskey) with my wife. It’s that simple.

Let me know if there’s anything specific you want to know about the experience. You can reach me on App.net or by using the contact form here.