Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, macOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

Retiring TubeUpdates and WikiLocation

Today I’m sad to announce that both TubeUpdates.com and WikiLocation.org have been retired.

TubeUpdates

Started in 2009 as part of the Guardian Hack Day 2, TubeUpdates.com was an API that allowed you to find out the status of each of the London Underground lines. It worked by screen scraping the TfL website every minute of the day and for the past 5 years it has stored data on every status update.

Back in March of this year, the API stopped fetching new data due to changes to the TfL website. As TfL were now providing their own richer API, I announced it would be retired in May.

The API will now return a 404 error for all endpoints. I’d recommend checking out the TfL API as a replacement for live status information. If you are interested in historical information, you can download a MySQL dump of all of the status updates I retrieved during the 5 year period.

WikiLocation

I built WikiLocation in 2010 as I was working on an app which needed to fetch Wikipedia articles that were nearby. As it turned out, I never got around to building that app but the API took off and has been used around the world. At the time of writing, there was only one unofficial API that fetched geocoded articles and it was woefully out of date. I was informed by a Wikipedia staff member recently (quite rudely) that they now have their own API.

I’ve been meaning to retire WikiLocation for a while but some issues with my hosting company this week have accelerated this as some automatic updates they added have killed my infrastructure. WikiLocation was the last site on the old hardware and the time it would take to rewrite it and put it onto new hosting is time I don’t have (especially considering that donations for the service from those who have used it haven’t covered a single week of the hosting I’ve been paying for over the last 4 years).

The API will now return a 404 error for all endpoints. You may want to take a look at the official API from Wikipedia (I haven’t looked into it myself) or you can download the latest MySQL dumps (in 38 languages) of the data I retrieved. Alternatively, you can take a look at the original python script that crawls the Wikipedia linking tables to build your own scraper.

It is always a shame to have to terminate a service and I apologise for the inconvenience this may cause as there was no deprecation time. However, it just isn’t feasible for me to rewrite the entire API for new hosting when there are other alternatives available.

Off on honeymoon!

On Monday, I had the great honour of marrying my beautiful girlfriend Becky at Dodford Manor.

Benjamin and Rebecca Dodson

We are now going on honeymoon to Vancouver, Alaska, and Whistler until August 11th. I will have limited internet connectivity and won’t be checking emails but I’ll reply to them upon my return; I expect there will be a lot and we are moving house during that week so I should have reached inbox zero by August 20th. If you are having any issues with WallaBee, please email support@wallabeegame.com

LEGO MINI Cooper

If you’re a LEGO VIP member (and you should be) then you can now purchase the new LEGO MINI Cooper model which doesn’t go on sale to the general public until August 1st.

This is definitely a must have model for me and I think it’s going to be really popular based on the response to the LEGO Volkswagon T1 Camper Van which has been around for a few years now. The MINI is full of rare pieces (I particularly like the old windscreen pieces sprayed in British Racing Green to work as wheel arches) and nice features such as an engine, detachable roof, cross-check seating, and a picnic hamper in the boot. The design is top notch and I’m really looking forward to building it although I still need to finish R2-D2, the Sandcrawler, and a Rancor Pit so may be a little while!

Interesting observation: LEGO and MINI are the only two companies I know that both have an all-capitalised name which most people ignore (or worse in the case of LEGO, pluralise unnecessary - they’re not ‘legos’!)

kontent

I’m happy to announce that an app I’ve been working on for the past few months has now gone live in the App Store; kontent.

kontent for iPhone

kontent is a great way of sharing valuable content between your friends as it limits you to sending just one link (called a blink) per day. The app has a really nice design in keeping with iOS 7 and the guys running the company are top notch.

The app has been really interesting to work on as I’ve been developing a number of interesting features such as the ability to use the app offline for a large number of actions (i.e. you can send a blink whilst you are offline and it’ll sync up to the cloud when you go online). However, the big piece for me has been the animations; from the moment you open the app you’ll be introduced to a series of delightful and thoughtful animations. Everything has a purpose whilst remaining playful and dynamic. It has been a heap of fun to work on!

I’m really pleased with the way this app has turned out and look forward to working with kontent over the coming months.

You can check it out by downloading from the App Store (it’s 100% free with no ads) or visiting kontentapp.com

Blocks Magazine

I’m very excited to see that Blocks Magazine sold enough copies to prove it as a concept and is now going to be a monthly publication starting in October:

“Blocks magazine is going monthly from autumn 2014. The first issue of this exciting new magazine written by LEGO enthusiasts, for LEGO enthusiasts, is due to hit the shops on Thurs 23rd Oct.”

They’ve started offering yearly and 2-yearly subscriptions on their website - an instant purchase for me!

If you are a fan of LEGO and you haven’t picked up the first issue yet, it is well worth getting. It has a lot more content than I was expecting for a pilot magazine (including an excellent review of the Star Wars Sandcrawler) but the proof reading leaves a lot to be desired. Loads of great stuff though so highly recommended.

The joys of running your own business

When you run your own company, you get to do silly things like this:

Thatcher the Wonder Pug from 'Introducing... The Forager' on WallaBee

Within a couple of minutes, hundreds of copies of this item had been mixed in WallaBee and hopefully bought a smile to our players faces.

Running WallaBee is much like the spirit of this item; joyful randomness without a care in the world. I hope we never lose that as we continue to grow.

Apple TV gains iTunes Extras

One of my pet hates is purchasing DVDs and Blu-Rays. It seems so clunky and out-dated in an age where nearly everything I consume is stored on my hard drives. I also have a real problem with paying for a physical product and then having to wait an average of 70 seconds to start playing the movie due to sitting through either adverts bundled on the disc or anti-piracy messages that can’t be skipped (or elaborate menus that take 20 seconds of animation before you can select “play film”).

The only time I ever buy them these days is when there is a film I really loved and has extras that I want to watch. Most recently, this has been The LEGO Movie and The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Today I was able to cancel my pre-orders of both from Amazon thanks to iTunes Extras now being re-enabled on the Apple TV. iTunes Extras are essentially small HTML5 apps bundled with movies you buy from iTunes and act as the “extras” piece you usually get with a DVD or Blu-Ray. Until recently, they’ve only worked on Mac (and for a while on the original Apple TV) so I haven’t really spent much time with them - I don’t watch films on my computer.

I’ve only had a quick play with them but I’m liking what I see already. Both films were cheaper on iTunes (HD) than buying on a physical disc and came with the same extras as far as I can tell. In addition, The LEGO Movie was available today whereas the Blu-Ray isn’t available for another 2 weeks here in the UK. Best of all, when you start the film, it starts immediately with no anti-piracy notices and nothing that can’t be fast-forwarded; you get exactly what you paid for.

The Grand Budapest Hotel iTunes Extras on Apple TV

So how does it work? Simply press “play” on a movie with iTunes Extras and you’ll be shown a splash screen where you can then choose to watch the movie as usual, view the extras that are available, view a cast list (along with other films they are featured in), or view similar films. One strange thing I found was that the extras for The LEGO Movie didn’t show up on the Apple TV and looking at the listing within iTunes it says “Available on your Mac or PC”. The movie is featured prominently in the marketing material for the new extras so I have to imagine that it just hasn’t rolled out fully yet.

For those that don’t have an Apple TV yet, this is another feature which might persuade them. However, I’m still anticipating an updated model later in the year with some form of game support; the combination of an A8 chip, the new Metal framework, and the controllers introduced with iOS 7 seems to point to what could be a very nice, if simple, gaming machine.

To get iTunes Extras, simply apply the update that has appeared on Apple TV today. Lots of films have iTunes Extras with them and many previous films have had extras added which you get automatically if you already own the film. iTunes Extras are also coming to iOS 8 when it launches later this year.

Awesome Client

I’ve been working on an app for a client for the past few months that is due to launch very shortly. To thank me for my work, they bought me this. I love my clients!

LEGO R2D2 from awesome client

I’ll post a review once I get around to building it - I’ve already promised them they’ve delayed any bug fixes until it’s built…

Update: the app is now live and I can now reveal that my awesome client is kontent.

Dropping non-retina support in iOS 7

Back in June 2011, I posited that Apple should remove the 1x/2x toggle on iPhone apps running on the iPad and instead just use the retina versions at fullscreen. I’ve mainly been working on updating apps to be compatible with iOS 7 over the past month and I noticed that this change had been made and non-retina iPads (namely the iPad 2 and iPad Mini) now just use retina assets. The 1x/2x toggle is dead!

The previous behaviour for iPads was that they would run a 320x480px boxed version of your app in the center of the display. If you pressed the 2x button, the app would be enlarged to 640x960px but would still use the same assets leading to a fuzzy mess. The retina iPads had it slightly better as they would use the larger assets and retina font smoothing leading to a better experience. In iOS 7, retina iPads (currently the 3rd and 4th generation) still allow this same toggle but the non-retina iPads (only the iPad 2 and iPad Mini on iOS 7) are now locked at 2x using your retina assets and font smoothing.

This is fantastic news as it signals the end of non-retina device support. If you are making an iPhone app that is iOS 7 only (sensible if it’s a new app), you no longer have to worry about supporting non-retina devices as the iPads will use your retina assets. For developers, this has 3 key benefits:

  • You only need @2x files in your app bundle: This leads to smaller sizes for your app bundle and less hassle in creating all of your 1x assets in the first place.

  • Less complex code for images fetched over network as you only need one size: For example, in WallaBee I have a UIImageView subclass that fetches images for me based on the scale of the UIScreen. If the UIImageView is 100 points square, it would download a 200x200px image on retina devices and 100x100px image on non-retina devices. This is no longer necessary saving some complexity.

  • You can use finer design elements: for example, using 1px (rather than 1pt) dividing lines. You can also use images that have an odd number of pixels (previously a 99px image was generally forbidden as you’d need a 49.5px image for non-retina displays which wouldn’t work). Nearly every designer I’ve worked with has designed at retina resolution with odd numbered sizes for key elements so this is very welcome!

I’m really excited that we can now drop support for non-retina displays; it’ll definitely speed up some of my workflows. You will obviously still need to support non-retina devices if you are building a Universal or iPad only app though.

Dr. Frasier Crane

I’ve been rewatching Frasier recently (just finished the 7th season) and it is still an absolutely fantastic show. Witty writing, great characters, and very few bad episodes (rare in most comedy series - there are usually a lot of duds as they age).

In any case, one of the episodes I’ve just watched, They’re Playing Our Song, has Frasier composing his own theme tune for his radio show. Rather than being a 10 second jingle, it turns into a 2-minute orchestral track with a voiceover from Niles.

Watch and enjoy:

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