Archive

August 30, 2014

SansAnandTech

Anand Lal Shimpi:

I’m 32 now. The only things that’ve been more of a constant in my life than AnandTech are my parents. I’ve spent over half of my life learning about, testing, analyzing and covering technology. And I have to say, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

But after 17.5 years of digging, testing, analyzing and writing about the most interesting stuff in tech, it’s time for a change. This will be the last thing I write on AnandTech as I am officially retiring from the tech publishing world.

I wish Lal Shimpi the very best, but I’m going to miss his fastidious, detailed, unique take on the tech world.

August 27, 2014

“Wipe My Ass With Your Feelings”

Nilay Patel is grouchy:

Today, my friends at Vox.com published a terrific 5,000-word feature about the legacy of the Sopranos, framed around one very exclusive piece of reporting: series creator David Chase told reporter Martha Nochimson whether Tony Soprano dies at the end of the show, a question that fans have debated endlessly in the decade since the series famously ended on a hard cut to black.

It’s terrific, and the Vox.com product team engineered a fantastic presentation where the screen blacks out before the reveal. It’s everything a feature on the internet should be: thoughtful, concise, exclusive, and interactive.

But because the headline was phrased in the form of a question — the question of the entire series — Jake Beckman, who runs the Twitter account @savedyouaclick, decided that it wasn’t worth it. He “saved you a click” and tweeted the reveal.

This is bullshit.

No it isn’t.

If the article is so dependent on the teaser headline that a single tweet can bust the whole thing up, then Beckman did save people a click. If the article is not dependent on the teaser headline and it can stand on its own, why use that particular headline? It attracts clicks, but at the cost of feeling a little trashy.

Put another way, imagine if the Wall Street Journal redesigned their paper to look like the National Enquirer. Would you find it as trustworthy?

August 25, 2014

Facebook to Reduce Click-Bait Headlines With This One Weird Trick

Khalid El-Arini and Joyce Tang of Facebook:

So how do we determine what looks like click-bait?

One way is to look at how long people spend reading an article away from Facebook. If people click on an article and spend time reading it, it suggests they clicked through to something valuable. If they click through to a link and then come straight back to Facebook, it suggests that they didn’t find something that they wanted. With this update we will start taking into account whether people tend to spend time away from Facebook after clicking a link, or whether they tend to come straight back to News Feed when we rank stories with links in them.

Facebook’s tracking code makes this sort of thing possible, which seems both more useful to me than serving me ads, and edging closer to the creepy line. But this serves to reiterate the point Zeynep Tufekci made in her article about the algorithms used by Twitter and Facebook to highlight stuff we might be interested in: what makes this code ideal to decide what is important to us? There’s a lot of responsibility inherent to a deployment of an algorithm update used for user feed selection and sorting, but it increasingly feels as though it’s not being given the respect it deserves by Facebook and Twitter staff.

August 22, 2014

Samsung’s Ice Bucket Challenge

This is a pretty slick ad: take a very current “viral” thingy and spin it in a short time to point out a great advantage Samsung’s product has over its competitors’. And they apparently gave a very generous donation to charity, so it’s good all around, right?

Gruber notes two things, though: it’s more like a promotion of the Galaxy S5 rather than truly dedicating itself to the charitable cause, and the status bar changes midway through the ad. Regarding the former point, I don’t see how this is much different than the Product Red campaign and its associated products. Regarding the latter, I would hope that this is due to a filming error or something. But knowing how unscrupulous Samsung has been in the past with regards to their ads, I wouldn’t be surprised if this whole thing were faked.

PS: If you want a better ice bucket challenge video, Jeremy Clarkson’s kids have you covered (NSFW language, obviously).

August 19, 2014

Your Twitter Timeline Is More Than Just Tweets From People You Follow

Dan Frommer, Quartz:

In addition to the basic, essential definition of a Twitter timeline — “all Tweets from those you have chosen to follow on Twitter” — plus retweets and ads, there’s a new section:

Additionally, when we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting.

In most cases, these seem to be tweets favorited, but not retweeted, by people you follow.

The official Twitter apps and website are becoming increasingly worse; it’s no wonder users are flocking to third-party apps.

Ferguson and Police Militarization

Speaking of Ferguson, here’s John Oliver’s thorough, thought-provoking and — occasionally and blessedly — hilarious take on the shameful reaction by the police department and public officials so far.

August 18, 2014

What Happens to #Ferguson Affects Ferguson

Zeynep Tufekci:

Maybe, just maybe, there can be a national conversation on these topics long-ignored outside these communities. That’s not everything: it may be a first step, or it may get drowned out.

But at least, we are here.

But I’m not quite sure that without the neutral side of the Internet—the livestreams whose “packets” were fast as commercial, corporate and moneyed speech that travels on our networks, Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms but my own choices,—we’d be having this conversation.

There are already a lot of conversations surrounding the tragic and complex problems in Ferguson, but plenty more need to happen. The White House has pledged to investigate the militarization of local police, for example. But it’s worth asking how many of these conversations would be happening had the algorithms that inform our conversations selected otherwise.

August 15, 2014

California Über Alles

Peter Christiansen commenting on Hacker News on my little ditty about diversity:

I wish they would have included demographics for the Bay Area, not just the USA. From Wikipedia – 52.5% White, 6.7% non-Hispanic African American, 23.3% Asian, 10.8% from other races, 5.4% from two or more races, 23.5% Hispanic or Latin. (Incidentally, this almost exactly matches Apple’s numbers, except for Hispanic). Comparing tech worker demographics to Bay Area demographics, It’s kind of a chicken vs egg about whether the demographics precede the jobs or vice versa, but given how geographically concentrated the tech industry is, this seems like a bad oversight.

This was by far the most common critique I received about the piece: why did I compare tech company demographics against the US as a whole, and not just California?

While it’s true that the American West Coast has typically had a much higher Asian population than, say, Cleveland or Mobile, it’s hard to say whether it has grown disproportionate to the rest of the United States, as records have been pretty poorly kept. This is what Christiansen alludes to in his comment: is the tech industry responsible for the demographics of the Bay Area, or are Bay Area demographics fairly represented by most of these companies?

Apple on Diversity

Khoi Vinh on Apple’s (and others’) employee diversity figures:

[M]ost retail employees are likely part-time and/or relatively low wage earners; what would these numbers look like if they were segmented so that we can see how well Apple’s diversity initiatives are faring for full-time workers earning over $100,000 a year? Or full-time workers earning more than $200,000 a year? I suspect the numbers would then look less encouraging, maybe even starkly different from what’s being reported here.

Vinh makes a good point — employees in “leadership” positions are universally more white than employees in tech or non-tech; similarly, they’re also typically more male than non-tech (though not more male than tech workers). The stereotype is that Silicon Valley is run by white men; these figures are the proof.

August 13, 2014

Diversity of Various Tech Companies By the Numbers

With Apple’s report today (finally), major tech companies have all published information about racial and gender diversity. I thought it might be useful to run the numbers and compare them against the demographics of the United States as a whole, for reference. All data is as-reported from each company.

Gender Diversity

Almost all available data in this selection of companies solely reports a male/female split. Yahoo is the only company that has an “other/not disclosed” option.

Update: Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have retail operations which are not made distinct from the corporate side. (Thanks to Krishnan Viswanathan for pointing this out.)

Gender Diversity, USA
Category Male Female
USA Overall (approx.) 49% 51%
USA Workforce (PDF) 53.1% 46.9%
Gender Diversity in Tech Positions

Microsoft does not separate tech and non-tech workers, so their data in this table is the same as their data in the next one.

Company Male Female
Apple 80% 20%
Facebook 85% 15%
Google 83% 17%
LinkedIn 83% 17%
Microsoft (see note) 76% 24%
Twitter 90% 10%
Yahoo (see note) 85% 15%
Gender Diversity in Non-Tech Positions

Microsoft does not separate tech and non-tech workers, so their data in this table is the same as their data in the next one.

Company Male Female
Apple 65% 35%
Facebook 53% 47%
Google 52% 48%
LinkedIn 53% 47%
Microsoft (see note) 76% 24%
Twitter 50% 50%
Yahoo (see note) 47% 52%
Gender Diversity in Leadership/Executive Positions

The “USA” row uses the “management occupations” data from the BLS document above, as a rough and imperfect approximation.

Microsoft’s data is too poor to use for this table, as they lump ethnic minorities and women into the same statistic.

Company Male Female
USA (PDF, pgs. 21-23) 62% 38%
Apple 72% 28%
Facebook 77% 23%
Google 79% 21%
LinkedIn 75% 25%
Microsoft (see note) N/A N/A
Twitter 79% 21%
Yahoo (see note) 77% 23%

Ethnic Diversity

The “USA Workforce” row uses data provided by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (PDF). Their demographics information (indicated page 9) is kind of a pain in the ass, though: the unemployed column is a percentage of the labour force, but the employed column is a percentage of the total population. I’ve done the math, though, and the results are what’s shown below. In addition, the BLS does not separate out those of Hispanic descent because “[p]eople whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race.” As such, the row will not add to 100%, but the percentage of Hispanics in the workforce has been noted per the table on page 10.

Similarly, the “USA Overall” row uses data from the CIA World Factbook, and they, too, do not note those of Hispanic descent separately. This row will also not add to 100%.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft all have retail operations which are not made distinct from the corporate side.

Ethic Diversity, USA
Category White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
USA Overall 79.96% 4.43% 15.1% 12.8% 1.61% 1.15%
USA Workforce (PDF) 80.5% 5.4% 15.3% 11.1% 1.6% 1.2%
Ethnic Diversity in Tech Positions

Microsoft does not provide a thorough breakdown of their racial diversity data; their data in my table is lumped into the “Other” category. They also do not separate tech and non-tech workers, so their data in this table is the same as their data in the next one.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
Apple 54% 23% 7% 6% 2% 8%
Facebook 53% 41% 3% 1% 2% 0%
Google 60% 34% 2% 1% 3% <1%
LinkedIn 34% 60% 3% 1% 1% <1%
Microsoft (see note) 61.8% N/A N/A N/A N/A 38.2%
Twitter 58% 34% 3% 1% 2% 2%
Yahoo 35% 57% 3% 1% 1% 2%
Ethnic Diversity in Non-Tech Positions

Microsoft does not provide a thorough breakdown of their racial diversity data; their data in my table is lumped into the “Other” category. They also do not separate tech and non-tech workers, so their data in this table is the same as their data in the previous one.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
Apple 56% 14% 9% 9% 3% 9%
Facebook 63% 24% 6% 2% 4% 1%
Google 65% 23% 4% 3% 5% <1%
LinkedIn 63% 26% 5% 3% 3% <1%
Microsoft (see note) 61.8% N/A N/A N/A N/A 38.2%
Twitter 60% 23% 3% 4% 5% 5%
Yahoo 63% 24% 6% 3% 2% 2%
Ethnic Diversity in Leadership/Executive Positions

The “USA” row uses the “management occupations” data from the BLS document above, as a rough and imperfect approximation of the broad US national trend.

Microsoft’s data is too poor to use for this table, as they lump ethnic minorities and women into the same statistic.

Company White Asian Hispanic Black Mixed Other or
Undeclared
USA (PDF, pg. 24) 85.7% 5.1% 8.8% 6.9% N/A N/A
Apple 64% 21% 6% 3% N/A 6%
Facebook 74% 19% 4% 2% 1% 0%
Google 72% 23% 1% 2% 1.5% <1%
LinkedIn 65% 28% 4% 1% 3% <1%
Microsoft (see note) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Twitter 72% 24% 0% 2% 0% 2%
Yahoo 63% 24% 6% 3% 2% 2%

Analysis

Let’s get something out of the way: I’m a white twenty-something Canadian who graduated from art college. Analysis of statistics of racial and gender diversity at American tech companies is not exactly my strongest suit. But, hey, you’ve made it this far. I want to be as fair as possible to everyone represented in these stats. If there’s a problem, please let me know.

  • As noted above, the data available from all companies only reports a male/female split. While it would be imprudent for an employer to ask for more information, it does misrepresent individuals of other genders.
  • It will come as no surprise that all of these companies are boys’ clubs, particularly tech workers and those in leadership roles. This is one of the biggest issues facing the tech industry right now.
  • Stereotypes are proving quite strong with the significant over-representation of those of Asian descent at all companies surveyed.
  • Black employees are, on the other hand, significantly under-represented. Like the under-representation of women in tech companies, this suggests a much larger and more overreaching issue. I’d argue that this is another of the biggest issues facing the tech industry.
  • Only a single data point was typically made available in a given category. Microsoft was an exception, showing how their diversity has changed over the past few years. I think it would be valuable for the surveyed companies to release similar data from past years. I mention this not because I want a feel-good kind of statistic, but because I’d like to see if progress is, indeed, being made, and at what rate.
  • Generally, only ethnicity and gender data was provided by the companies surveyed. As several of the reports stated, diversity is so much more than just these two genetic features. It would be inappropriate for employers to ask about sexual orientation, childhood household income, and so forth, but these qualities are part of what shapes internal diversity. Poor families — or even most middle-class families — can’t afford to send their kids to Stanford.

August 12, 2014

Opinionated Software

Guy English:

[B]eing opinionated isn’t the goal. Being useful is.

Being opinionated and shipping the truest form of your vision of software doesn’t assure success. I understand the amount of heart, soul, concentration and perseverance it takes to ship a piece of software that really makes you proud and hits all of the marks you’d set for yourself and your team. It can be a really great piece of software.

That doesn’t mean it deserves to be a hit.

I agree with English, but developers who do release “opinionated” software have got to be aware that the more specific they make their software, the smaller the market gets. If you’re a developer and you’re putting out a sweet new app that’s “opinionated” and you don’t recognize that you’re therefore limiting your market, you’re lying to yourself.

What It Was Like to Do Surprise Improv With Robin Williams

Chris Gethard, writing for Vulture:

But this show also stresses me out. Because I now organize it, I put a lot of pressure on myself to put together the best possible casts. So I am always bothering the improvisers who are on Saturday Night Live, the writers from Colbert Report, and the guys from Conan’s staff to come do it. And they’re busy people, and I hate being the one that bothers them each week with my dumb text messages begging them to come do this show, because not only am I being very annoying, it’s also a weekly reminder that I’m not quite where I want to be. I would like to be the person who gets annoyed, not the person who does the annoying.

And on this night, I’m in the back of the theater, tired and stressed out by all this self-defeating thought, exhausted by it before the show even begins.

And Robin Williams walks into the green room.

August 11, 2014

Robin Williams

There are probably half a dozen things that I’m thinking of posting today, but this rose right to the top of the queue. It isn’t often that the death of a public figure really gets to me, but this is one of those occasions. It’s like losing your best friend; Robin Williams often felt like everyone’s best friend. It’s a tragic way for a brilliant mind to go.

August 10, 2014

Ten Years of the Impulsive Buy

Impulsive Buy editor-in-chief Marvo who, like Madonna, has no apparent surname, is celebrating ten years of reviewing mostly junk food:

Here are other numbers that might interest you: 3,306 posts, 1,671 reviews, and 30 pounds gained over the past 10 years. Man, if only I took pictures of my belly every day for the past 10 years, it would’ve made a great YouTube video. And when I say “great,” I mean “gross.”

The Impulsive Buy is one of my very favourite regular reads. Congratulations to Marvo for ten years of showering clothed and brushing your teeth with wasabi in the name of making the best grocery reviews on the web.

August 9, 2014

Researching Link Rot

Maciej Cegłowski will be using a large pool of Pinboard’s bookmarks to gather data on link rot, and I’m pretty excited for the results. I know of things I’ve bookmarked from just a couple of months ago that have already been moved, and things that I’ve bookmarked from ten or more years ago that are still around at the same link. My own anecdotal evidence suggests that links from 2007-2011 or so are frequently rotted, probably due to rapid changes in site architecture best practices during that timeframe.

This post also illustrates how to research user data without being a dick about it. Cegłowski is upfront, is going to ensure that links are not associated with user names, and is offering a clear, simple way to opt out.

The Lie Behind 1.2 Billion Stolen Passwords

Pretty good counterpoint to both the New York Times’ story on this and Brian Krebs’ post. Krebs has more to lose here: the Times is a mainstream publication, but Krebs’ credibility in the computer security industry has been astonishing so far.

The other credible media-friendly security dude Bruce Schneier is also not convinced:

I don’t know how much of this story is true, but what I was saying to reporters over the past two days is that it’s evidence of how secure the Internet actually is. We’re not seeing massive fraud or theft. We’re not seeing massive account hijacking. A gang of Russian hackers has 1.2 billion passwords — they’ve probably had most of them for a year or more — and everything is still working normally. This sort of thing is pretty much universally true.

August 8, 2014

Unprepared

About a week ago, I spent my first night in my first apartment. It was a big change — moving out of the house I grew up in, with the same view outside my room all my life. It was equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking.

I’ve had a pretty late bedtime for as long as I can remember. So, on my first night in my new place, I decided to head to bed at about 1:00 AM. I put some flannel pants on, washed my face, grabbed a glass of water, and then went to brush my teeth.

And I had no toothpaste.

Where does one find toothpaste at 1:00 on the Sunday of a long weekend in downtown Calgary? There’s a 24/7 convenience store chain here called Mac’s, and I’m pretty close to one of the more famous locations in Calgary: the lovingly-dubbed “Crack Mac’s”, for its rather specific clientele. It’s not dangerous, really, but you’ll often find people nodding off or completely fucked-up just outside its front door.

I changed into proper clothing, popped into Crack Mac’s, and looked around for toothpaste. Couldn’t find any. I asked the clerk who — and I shit you not — was fully Jamaican, “could you please show me where the toothpaste is?”

He takes me to the place I had already been looking. “Looks like we’re out, mon,” he said, “but there’s another location nearby. You know it, mon?”

So I began walking the eight-or-so blocks to the other Mac’s location downtown. About halfway there, a police car drove by, and I couldn’t help but think of how they would not believe a single word of this story so far, should they have stopped me to ask: I’m looking for toothpaste at 1:00 on a Sunday and a Jamaican guy just told me to head in this direction. What’s the matter, officer?

I got to the other store, found what I was looking for, put all $2.51 of it on my Visa — because cash is for chumps — and walked home, the new proud owner of a tube of toothpaste.

“Unprepared” is right.

August 7, 2014

Schiit Happened

Really good post from Schiit Audio’s Jason Stoddard over on the Head-Fi forums (via Marco Arment). It’s ostensibly about the sales effect of a review in an “old media” publication, but this part struck me more:

Or, if someone says, “We can’t convert new audiophiles,” laugh louder. We absolutely can. We just need to get more attention in the mass media. And continue our inroads on sites where younger people discover stuff, like Reddit.

And that can be done.

But it won’t be done with $40,000 preamps, $3,000 USB cables, and $500 magic pucks. It won’t be done with aspie-level obsessive in-fighting about formats and provenance. It won’t be done with religious fervor to spread the word about the One True Sound or the One Perfect Measurement.

It’s too bad the term “audiophile” has been hijacked by technological homeopaths. It’s time to take it back.

Suitable Disruption

“E.W.”, the Economist:

People who value disruption and unconventionality are more likely to interpret these signals positively. They work where deviations from the norm are lauded, and the interpretation says as much about the viewer as the wearer. But as waves of hoodie-wearing 20-somethings flood companies, sartorial deviation is poised to become the new norm. When everyone wears a T-shirt to lectures and board meetings, how do you tell who is truly innovative and who is just posing?

I’m not sure how many of you had a group of punk rock fans in your junior high school, but I did. They were my favourite group to hang out with because they listened to the best music, but you wouldn’t know it based on the way I dressed. Or, for that matter, the way I dress now. But there were also those in the school who did the opposite: they had a bunch of chains and patches, but they couldn’t tell the Dead Kennedys from Fear.

Does it really matter? Can someone dressed in a suit not pitch venture capitalists nearly as effectively as someone who looks like they rolled into the meeting directly from their futon? Does someone who’s wearing Chucks automatically get a 10% bonus because they’re “unconventional”? The big question: should anyone make their investment decisions based on the cut of the investee’s jeans?

August 5, 2014

Russian Gang Amasses Over a Billion Internet Passwords

David Gelles and Nicole Perlroth, New York Times:

A Russian crime ring has amassed the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials, including 1.2 billion username and password combinations and more than 500 million email addresses, security researchers say.

The records, discovered by Hold Security, a firm in Milwaukee, include confidential material gathered from 420,000 websites, ranging from household names to small Internet sites. Hold Security has a history of uncovering significant hacks, including the theft last year of tens of millions of records from Adobe Systems.

I’m hoping that this is just the setup to yet another Die Hard film.

“It’s Not A/B Testing. It’s Just Being an Asshole.”

Tim Carmody on Kottke.org:

We all buy in to Facebook (and Twitter, and OKCupid, and every other social media network), giving them a huge amount of personal data, free content, and discretion on how they show it to us, with the understanding that all of this will largely be driven by choices that we make. We build our own profiles, we select our favorite pictures, we make our own friends, we friend whatever brands we like, we pick the users we want to block or mute or select for special attention, and we write our own stories.

[…]

This is why it really stings whenever somebody turns around and says, “well actually, the terms you’ve signed give us permission to do whatever we want. Not just the thing you were afraid of, but a huge range of things you never thought of.”

It’s an inherent problem in the way that the social web works today. Experiments with exchanging less personal information and therefore being less susceptible to these kinds of activities, like App.net, have proved largely unsuccessful. So far, we have elected to sacrifice more of our control in exchange for no-monetary-cost services. What’s the point at which we — the user base — will collectively decide to back away?

August 4, 2014

I Want It, and I Want It Now

Liz Gannes of Recode is writing a multipart series about instant gratification services for physical products and services. The first article, posted today, is full of examples of all kinds of services that will deliver goods to you on demand:

[J]ust last Monday, a mobile medical-marijuana delivery startup called Eaze launched in San Francisco. Not only was Eaze open for business, it was open for business 24 hours a day.

Bootstrapped by an early Yammer employee, Eaze’s site promises delivery to our office in seven minutes. I don’t have a medical marijuana card myself, but my friend Joey at our co-working space does, so I get permission from the bosses to subsidize a minimum order of “Berry White,” described as a “mix of legendary White Widow and Blueberry strains.”

We submit Joey’s doctor’s letter at noon, and are verified by 1:20 pm. We place our order via mobile Web on Joey’s iPhone.

A black Lexus pulls up outside the office 42 minutes later. We have been told to have cash on hand, because Eaze’s online payments system isn’t fully in order yet.

Our “caregiver” — a guy named Loreno who says he found the Eaze gig on Craigslist — opens the trunk and sorts through piles of Tupperware to find the baggie of Berry White. Joey gives him our $40, and instant gratification is delivered.

It’s both odd and perfect that this example of instant gratification — this particular version of which has been around pretty much since all kinds of instant communication methods were invented — is now legitimized.

4Chan Conceptual Artwork Reaches $90,000 on eBay

Sarah Cascone, Artnet:

Online message board 4chan, notorious for its irreverent sense of humor, has spawned what is either a bizarre art project or a massive flipping of the bird to the art world: a photo of a 4chan post, being auctioned as art on eBay. The auction item, Artwork by Anonymous, reads “Art used to be something to cherish. Now literally anything could be art. This post is art.” The existentialist musing could prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, with bidding rapidly approaching six figures and just under seven hours left to bid.

I’m not sure whether this piece deserves a proper critique, or even if it can be taken seriously enough to warrant one. As an artwork, it reads like a second-year student’s work, produced just after they learned about dadaism. As a statement, it’s played.

But its presentation — a photograph of an anonymous message board posting that automatically deletes itself after inactivity — speaks volumes: it’s a captured version of something designed to be temporary. It’s a moment captured in time that would otherwise likely be overlooked. It’s a bold statement that’s completely unoriginal, presented within a fairly original contextual framework.

It’s not a very strong piece on its own. But with a potential price tag of $90,000 attached, it becomes an extremely strong statement. It’s, at the very least, intriguing.

August 3, 2014

Macintel: The End Is Nigh

Interesting speculative “Monday note” from Jean-Louis Gassée:

Furthermore, it looks like I misspoke when I said an An chip couldn’t power a high-end Mac. True, the A7 is optimized for mobile devices: Battery-optimization, small memory footprint, smaller screen graphics than an iMac or a MacBook Pro with a Retina display. But having shown its muscle in designing a processor for the tight constraints of mobile devices, why would we think that the team that created the most advanced smartphone/tablet processor couldn’t now design a 3GHz A10 machine optimized for “desktop-class” (a term used by Apple’s Phil Schiller when introducing the A7) applications?

Today’s ARM chips are decidedly optimized for mobile usage because — spoiler alert — that’s where they’re used. But, while the architecture of the chip was decidedly built in favour of mobile and low-power usage in the beginning, today’s ARM chips are a completely different species. Imagine what kind of power an A-series chip could turn out if it were not encumbered by the power constraints of a smartphone (or a tablet, at the highest end of the available mobile power envelope).

August 2, 2014

No Permission Necessary

Robert McGinley Myers:

The remarkable thing about the internet is that you don’t have to wait, you don’t need anyone’s permission to put your creative work out in the world, you can just do it.

I’m just getting around to reading Clive Thompson’s “Smarter Than You Think” — I’m about halfway through — and Thompson has devoted a large chunk of the first half of the book to almost exactly this. Myers and Thompson are, of course, not the first to notice the magic of having a largely-democratic widely-accessible platform.1 But it’s something that cannot be overstated: no matter how much crap gets produced and released as a byproduct of so many people having access to the tools, there’s so much more amazing stuff being written, filmed, photographed, recorded, and made every day.

July 31, 2014

Roboto Puffery

Thomas Phinney busts up a Wired puff piece on Roboto, but makes a much greater, more valuable point near the end:

Now, if Google/​Android and Apple want to claim that they are making their UI font choices for design reasons, that’s fine. But when they (or Wired) start touting the awesome legibility of their choices, I have to call them out on it. Nonsense.

Yosemite’s switch from Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue1 is obviously controversial. It may create some consistency on Apple’s platforms, but at the cost of being less legible at UI sizes, even on a high-resolution display. No matter how much I like the way it looks, I can’t deny the decrease in legibility.

In addition, it’s strange how Phinney himself confuses “design” and “aesthetics”. If Apple were to choose a UI typeface for design reasons, it wouldn’t be Helvetica. Where’s Apple Sans when you need it?


  1. Actually, a slightly customized variant. 

Square Adding EMV Chip Support

I took the liberty of rewriting Wired’s headline for this article — “Square Bets Big on Next-Gen Credit Card Tech” — because the rest of the world has used EMV cards for at least several years.

Square’s implementation is as you would expect from a team fronted by former Apple hardware designers: elegant in its simplicity. It’s not as nice as the current reader, mostly because of all of the additional hardware required to read chip cards, but it’s certainly more refined than a chip-equipped PIN pad.

This looks really promising to me as Square tries to up their international game. Not only is this going to mean greater security for Americans, it’s going to allow more international users to feel more comfortable using Square to pay for stuff.

July 29, 2014

How the Sausage Gets Made

Fortune’s Philip Elmer-DeWitt, quoting an anonymous former IDC researcher:

Even the growth rates are fiction. The fudge is in the “others” category, which is used as a plug to make the numbers work out. In fairness, we did do survey work, calling around, and attending white box conferences and venues to try to get a feel for that market, but in the end, the process was political. I used to tell customers which parts of the data they could trust, essentially the major vendors by form factor and region. The rest was garbage.

Colour me surprised.

Apple Hit With Location Services Class Action Suit

Paul Carr of Pando Daily, quoting from Chen Ma’s suit:

…Plaintiff alleges that while using her iPhones, including her current iPone [sic] 5S, she was not given notice that her daily whereabouts would be tracked, recorded, and transmitted to Apple database to be stored for future reference. She was not asked for and thus has not given her consent, approval and permission nor was she even made aware that her detailed daily whereabouts would be tracked, recorded and transmitted to Apple database.

Apple, in the Terms and Conditions that Ma agreed to when setting up her iPhone:

By enabling Location Services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to the transmission, collection, maintenance, processing, and use of your location data and location search queries by Apple and its partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based and road traffic-based products and services.

It’s not going to be this cut and dry — these things never are — but this seems so frivolous to me. This is the most interesting part of this suit:

According to belief and information, Plaintiff further alleges that Apple has released and disclosed the above described private information of iPhone users to third parties, including but not limited to US government who, according to information, has made more than 1,000 information requests to Apple.

Isn’t this legal effort better directed towards the NSA who issued those information demands? National Security Letters are essentially orders, not mere requests.

July 28, 2014

Needs Must

Number of instances of selected words and phrases from a 1,560-word article by the Verge’s David Pierce, entitled “7 Things the iWatch Needs to Do if Apple Wants to Win”:

  • need: 29, excluding title
  • should: 12
  • has to: 2
  • have to: 2
  • going to: 10
  • could: 2
  • think: 3, two instances of which are from a quote
  • believe: 0

But you know what? Perhaps there’s some substance to this. Let’s take a look at the seven things the iWatch “needs to do” if Apple would like to “win”. Whatever the hell that means.

It has to be a watch. First, tell the time. That’s the ballgame. It’s why the Pebble Steel, despite its remarkable lack of functionality, is the best smartwatch currently on the market.

Even the Nike FuelBand — Pierce quotes Tim Cook’s praise of it at the top of the article — tells the time. But the iPod Shuffle has been super successful without a screen. I think it’s more likely than not that the hypothetical Apple wearable will sport a display and will tell the time, but who knows?

My iWatch should be MY iWatch. As time goes on, Android Wear’s inability to let developers build custom watch faces frustrates me more and more. Apple should take note: any watch made mostly from a screen ought to be infinitely customizable. If I can’t choose my own watch face or download one from the App Store, Apple blew it.

Actually, I’m a little stumped on this one. After all, it was acceptable to launch the iPhone without a native SDK because it was an entirely new platform.1 A wearable product would be something new, but it might not be an entirely new platform (that is, it could conceivably run an iOS variant).

But if you were only able to use, say, a selection of ten watch faces that came with the device and there were no additional faces available for download, would that be blowing it? How many sales would Apple forego if that were the case?

Personalization is about more than just software, too. Apple needs to conform to standards: include swappable watch bands or get out.

Yeah, Apple’s known for ensuring that they stick purely to existing standards. They’ve never had any success with introducing their own standards.

It has to be part of a bigger connected picture. Apple’s always been uniquely good at building devices that work well on their own and better together, and the iWatch needs to be the best example yet.

No, Apple’s not going to make an iWatch that plays nicely with your Android phone or your Windows PC. That’s fine. What it needs to do is build a device that is powerful and useful in its own right, and becomes even more so when it’s paired with other Apple devices.

This, I agree with. It makes complete sense. Remember Apple’s early-2000s “digital hub” strategy? As much as the proverbial cloud is the replacement for that, the iPhone is the new local hardware hub. It’s your instant messenger, your news reader, your iPod, your casual gaming machine, your satellite navigation unit, your camera, and your phone. And it’s always on you.

At the same time, I’d think that an Apple wearable could stand on its own. Joggers would appreciate not needing to take both their iPhone and wearable with them.

I should be able to use Evernote for taking notes, Lyft for calling cars, Spotify for music, Google for maps, and anything else I choose. A watch is personal; it’s not good enough if it doesn’t work the way I do.

Good luck with that, Pierce.

It needs a killer app — and a lot of other ones.

[…]

But at first, the iWatch also needs a single primary raison d’être, a reason for being in the first place. […] The iWatch needs a single revolutionary story Apple can tell about what it is, why the world needs smartwatches — and why they need this one.

Agreed. That’s what Apple’s really good at, which is what Pierce appears to be hinting at:

No other manufacturer has figured out how to sell their smartwatches, how to convince users they need one. Apple needs to get it right.

But this is entirely backwards. The meeting for any product like this wouldn’t start with Schiller standing up and saying “Hey, guys, let’s build a watch!” but rather a problem. For example, that could be a question of whether fitness tracking devices are as good as they should or could be. Only after the product goals are established does it take shape.

Take the development of the iPad, too. Steve Jobs:

It began with the tablet. I had this idea about having a glass display, a multitouch display you could type on with your fingers. I asked our people about it. And six months later, they came back with this amazing display. And I gave it to one of our really brilliant UI guys. He got scrolling working and some other things, and I thought, ‘my God, we can build a phone with this!’ So we put the tablet aside, and we went to work on the iPhone.

This is an idea that can be traced back to a speech Jobs gave in 1983:

Apple’s strategy is really simple. What we want to do is we want to put an incredibly great computer in a book that you can carry around with you and learn how to use in 20 minutes. That’s what we want to do and we want to do it this decade. And we really want to do it with a radio link in it so you don’t have to hook up to anything and you’re in communication with all of these larger databases and other computers.

The iPad was born from this idea; the idea was not grafted to fit a 10-inch piece of glass. It’s a subtle but critical difference.

It should do things for me, and make it easy for me to do things too.

I like things. And stuff.

Whether I’m opening apps, making phone calls, or just turning on Airplane Mode, I’ve come to rely mostly on Siri.

Siri’s cool, but you rely upon it to open apps? Really? Okay.

Apple can’t win without good battery life. There’s only one spec that can singlehandedly prevent the iWatch (or any smartwatch) from ever being mainstream: battery life. A device that lasts a day or less is going to be forgotten on the bedside table one morning, the habit lost, the device returned.

I agree that it should have great battery life, but I disagree that it needs more than a day of typical battery life. Most people I know who wear a wristwatch take them off before bed, including myself. Remember that cellphones used to last a week or more on a single charge; now, we’re accustomed to plugging them in every night or so.

Most of the time, the iWatch should do nothing. It should sit forgotten on your wrist, alerting you only when there’s something worth paying attention to. And that won’t be every notification, every alert, every message. The iWatch needs tools to be finely tuned, and needs to be smart enough to tune itself to show me only what I need to see right now.

Entirely agreed.


  1. It wasn’t, however, acceptable to launch the “sweet solution” Apple promised at WWDC 2007. By the way, if you haven’t seen that keynote recently, check it out. It’s, uh, not great, to say the least. 

No Skin Thick Enough

Brianna Wu, in a guest article for Polygon:

The industry is currently in the midst of a massive cultural shift. There’s a growing disconnect between the nearly half of gamers that are female, and overwhelmingly male population of games journalists and game developers.

When you wonder why women aren’t rushing to fix that balance, remember this is the fucking emotional and even physical minefield they’re signing themselves up for. Growing a thicker skin isn’t the answer, nor is it a proper response. Listening, and making the industry safer for the existence of visible women is the best, and only, way forward.

This is a tough read. I can’t begin to imagine what women are subjected to on a daily basis in any context. This is just a small look at an obviously more enormous problem.

July 26, 2014

The Apple Backdoor That Wasn’t

Violet Blue, ZDNet:

When Apple explained the diagnostics toolset and published a detailed support document, Zdziarski said that Apple’s acknowledgement of its not-secret developer tools only proved him right, and that this meant Apple was admitting to his claims of making iOS vulnerable to authorities’ snooping by design.

Zdziarski says he “doesn’t believe for a minute that these services are intended solely for diagnostics.”

And with one word — “believe” — we have the nut of what’s becoming a big problem in the state of security and journalism for everyone.

July 24, 2014

Pedro de Noronha “Might Become Obsolete in Three Years”

Pedro de Noronha, in an interview with CNBC:

Pedro de Noronha, managing partner at hedge fund Noster Capital, said he was unsure about the Silicon Valley-based company’s long-term potential.

“I need to know where a company is going to be in 5-to-10 years. I mean look at Apple, a company we all admire…I don’t know where they are going to be in three years,” Noronha told CNBC in a TV interview.

“It’s a very competitive landscape. They might become obsolete in two-to-three years, as we’ve seen with dozens of technology companies.”

Or space aliens that look like poodles but are the size of elephants may pop up in three years. You just don’t know.

That’s why I’m bullish on poodles the size of elephants.

Topolsky Leaving the Verge

Fresh scuttlebutt. Apparently, Nilay Patel will be returning to take over as Editor in Chief, after his recent brief stint at Vox. Topolsky, meanwhile, will be going to Bloomberg. I doubt the direction of the Verge will change substantially because of this change of editorial staff — Patel has been at Topolsky’s side since the Engadget days, so his editorial direction will likely be similar to Topolsky’s. If there are substantial changes, I think they will be more due to external factors or for traffic reasons, not because of this change of staff. Unfortunately.

Update: Here’s Patel’s official announcement post on the matter.

July 23, 2014

Yosemite Public Beta

Apple’s going to be posting a public beta of Yosemite tomorrow for members of their AppleSeed OS X Beta program (which has, confusingly, not replaced the standard invitation-only AppleSeed program). As best as I can recall, this is the first time Apple has released a public beta of OS X since Mac OS X, well, Public Beta. It’s probably going to be the same build as the current developer build, which is still somewhat buggy, but nowhere near as bad as it was before. I wouldn’t yet use it in a high-risk production environment, but it’s stable enough that you can put it on a machine that gets used mostly for web and email stuff.

July 22, 2014

Stickers, Scratches, and Dings

Jeff Carlson:

What caught my eye, aside from the glimpse of the old six-color Apple logo at the end, was the fact that each sticker is clearly on a different, real machine. It would have been easy for Apple to position one blank MacBook Air in front of the camera and then digitally add the stickers. But no: each sticker is affixed to a different MacBook Air. You can tell by watching the bottom edge, which shifts slightly, and also by the scratches and dings that appear on some models.

Apple is getting better at showing their products in non-showroom condition. Consider the iPhone cases in the “… Every Day” ads, or the iPads in cases in the “Your Verse” spots. But these are super used MacBooks. They’re in worse exterior condition than my (admittedly babied) seven year-old MacBook Pro. But this is clearly how they’re intended to be used. I’ve heard a fair number of people complain about the use of aluminum, and how it doesn’t stay “perfect”. That’s the point.

Also interesting to note is the third-party customizability Apple is showing in a lot of their ads as of late. Whether it’s apps, or cases, or stickers, it seems like they’re getting more comfortable with the idea that people will use these products every day, and not necessarily with the default setup. (Though, I don’t think I’ve seen any ad that features apps that replace the defaults.)

Canvas Fingerprinting

Julia Angwin, reporting for ProPublica:

First documented in a forthcoming paper by researchers at Princeton University and KU Leuven University in Belgium, this type of tracking, called canvas fingerprinting, works by instructing the visitor’s Web browser to draw a hidden image. Because each computer draws the image slightly differently, the images can be used to assign each user’s device a number that uniquely identifies it.

[…]

Rich Harris, chief executive of AddThis, said that the company began testing canvas fingerprinting earlier this year as a possible way to replace “cookies,” the traditional way that users are tracked, via text files installed on their computers.

“We’re looking for a cookie alternative,” Harris said in an interview.

Clever.

And wrong. Consider the two main ways you may attempt to avoid being tracked by advertisers on the internet:

  1. using the Do Not Track setting in your browser; and,
  2. changing your browser’s cookie settings to block third party cookies.

The first setting is completely optional for advertisers to follow, rendering it effectively meaningless. The second setting does not impact this fingerprinting scheme in any way, which means that this is similar to Google’s workaround for Safari’s default setting to block third party cookies, for which they were fined $17 million.

So how do you opt out of this? Well, cookies are back in style:

He added that the company has only used the data collected from canvas fingerprints for internal research and development. The company won’t use the data for ad targeting or personalization if users install the AddThis opt-out cookie on their computers, he said.

In essence, you’re not opting out of the collection of your data, but instead hoping that AddThis won’t use the data it collects for anything other than internal research. Which is soothing, isn’t it?

July 20, 2014

Here’s Why Your Comcast Rep Is Yelling at You

You know how I (and so many others) thought that Ryan Block’s terrible Comcast service call was symptomatic of greater institutional issues at the company? Turns out that’s right. Adrianne Jeffries, the Verge:

[T]he incentive structure [for retention specialists] is really about punishment. Reps start out the month with a full commission, but every canceled product deducts from that amount. Once reps fall below a certain threshold, they get no commission at all. That means a rep could get all the way to the second-to-last day of the pay period only to have a customer cancel four products. Suddenly the rep is below her goal, losing $800 to $1,000 off her paycheck.

Deplorable. And, in many markets, Comcast has no competition — not “virtually no”, but none. Why would they even try to make their customers happy?

July 19, 2014

12333

John Napier Tye, in a guest column for the Washington Post:

Issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 to authorize foreign intelligence investigations, 12333 is not a statute and has never been subject to meaningful oversight from Congress or any court. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has said that the committee has not been able to “sufficiently” oversee activities conducted under 12333.

Unlike Section 215, the executive order authorizes collection of the content of communications, not just metadata, even for U.S. persons. Such persons cannot be individually targeted under 12333 without a court order. However, if the contents of a U.S. person’s communications are “incidentally” collected (an NSA term of art) in the course of a lawful overseas foreign intelligence investigation, then Section 2.3(c) of the executive order explicitly authorizes their retention. It does not require that the affected U.S. persons be suspected of wrongdoing and places no limits on the volume of communications by U.S. persons that may be collected and retained.

The means of intelligence gathering have changed substantially since 1981, but this loophole remains open.

July 17, 2014

Translation of Stephen Elop’s Memo to Microsoft Employees From Weird Corporate Euphemisms to English

Stephen Elop:

Hello there,

Greetings, earthling. ’Sup, chump?

Microsoft’s strategy is focused on productivity and our desire to help people “do more.” As the Microsoft Devices Group, our role is to light up this strategy for people.

I haven’t talked face-to-face with anyone in a non-managerial position since the mid-2000s which explains my jilted language here.

To align with Microsoft’s strategy, we plan to focus our efforts.

Good luck with the job hunt.

The roots of this company and our future are in productivity and helping people get things done.

The Office productivity suite includes Word, which is great for putting together your résumé.

Our fundamental focus – for phones, Surface, for meetings with devices like PPI, Xbox hardware and new areas of innovation — is to build on that strength.

The wide variety of game titles available on the Xbox will help out when you’re waiting around to hear a callback from a potential employer.

While our direction in the majority of our teams is largely unchanging, we have had an opportunity to plan carefully about the alignment of phones within Microsoft as the transferring Nokia team continues with its integration process.

I am burying the lede.

It is particularly important to recognize that the role of phones within Microsoft is different than it was within Nokia. Whereas the hardware business of phones within Nokia was an end unto itself, within Microsoft all our devices are intended to embody the finest of Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences, while accruing value to Microsoft’s overall strategy.

I am stalling.

Our device strategy must reflect Microsoft’s strategy and must be accomplished within an appropriate financial envelope. Therefore, we plan to make some changes.

So many of you are fucked.

We will be particularly focused on making the market for Windows Phone.

My announcement of these layoffs will be drawn out like an X-Factor season finale. Here’s the first commercial break.

In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia. In addition to the portfolio already planned, we plan to deliver additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We expect to make this shift immediately while continuing to sell and support existing Nokia X products.

I’m using the word “we”, but there’s a really good chance you’re not part of this “we”.

We expect these changes to have an impact to our team structure.

Pack up your desk.

As part of the effort, we plan to select the appropriate business model approach for our sales markets while continuing to offer our products in all markets with a strong focus on maintaining business continuity. We will determine each market approach based on local market dynamics, our ability to profitably deliver local variants, current Lumia momentum and the strategic importance of the market to Microsoft. This will all be balanced with our overall capability to invest.

I was allowed approximately one thousand words for this memo and I intend to use that entire length.

We plan to right-size our manufacturing operations to align to the new strategy and take advantage of integration opportunities.

We are voting “manufacuring” off the island.

We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 factory direct and professional employees over the next year.

Eleven paragraphs in, here’s the news. I am currently updating my LinkedIn profile to add “buring the lede” to my list of skills. Speaking of LinkedIn, hope yours is up to date.

We recognize these planned changes are broad and have very difficult implications for many of our team members. We will work to provide as much clarity and information as possible.

We will work to provide as much clarity as business majors who use the word “synergies” three times in a short memo realistically can.

The team transferring from Nokia and the teams that have been part of Microsoft have each experienced a number of remarkable changes these last few years.

I’m still spending the $25 million I made a few months ago, and a private villa on Lake Como sounds pretty nice right about now.

Regards,

Stephen

Barely dodging my own firing,

Stephen

July 16, 2014

Quick Note Regarding Post Frequency

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, the past several weeks have seen a reduction in the number of posts published daily, and a difference in the typical timing of those posts. I respect your time, reader, so I feel like I owe you an explanation.

I recently completed my post-secondary studies and have begun full-time employment. This has been the single largest factor, among several, that has contributed to the odd and infrequent post schedule.

I intend to keep writing Pixel Envy on a regular (week-daily) basis, and I’m excited to share some longer-form articles that I’ve been drafting. Becoming a moderately-functional adult has slightly got in the way, though. I’m sure you understand.

Thank you, as always, for reading.

Overcast

Marco Arment has released his much-anticipated new podcast app, Overcast, and Macworld’s Jason Snell is mighty impressed:

I’ve used just about every iPhone podcast app out there, most of them for fairly large amounts of time. Overcast is the one I’m going to stick with—for now, anyway. The podcast-app space keeps changing and is quite competitive, but Overcast best fits the way I listen to podcasts today.

Arment also wrote up a fascinating inside look at the development of the app and the theory behind it:

Podcast adoption has always been driven primarily by ease of listening, which has improved dramatically with the rise of smartphones, podcast apps, and Bluetooth audio in cars. When it’s easier to listen, not only do more people listen, but listeners find more opportunities to listen. There’s still plenty of potential to help people who already like podcasts listen to more of them.

I’ve been noodling around with Overcast since it was released today, and I am absolutely smitten. I’ve made known my disdain for the rambling style of so many podcasts, so I only really listen to a handful, and not on a regular basis.

For a start, Overcast is an exquisitely designed app. There aren’t many apps this well designed in any category. There are the big things, like the excellent typography and the gorgeous directory view. But there are littler things, like the ability to “scroll” the album artwork on the playback screen and see more information about the episode, as culled from the RSS feed.

There’s one notable design oddity: the toolbar at the top is a little reminiscent of a Mac app’s toolbar rather than an iOS app. I understand the limitations of integrating the playback bar into the lower portion of the app, but that doesn’t make it not entirely odd. Not bad, just different.

Your standard podcast app stuff is all here: subscriptions, time skipping, sleep timer, and so forth. But there are much smarter features, too. Most podcast apps have a playback speed control, but it’s kind of “dumb” — it just makes things go faster. Which is what you kind of expect, but perhaps it doesn’t work quite right. Say you’re listening to an episode of the best podcast of all time, and you notice that Merlin Mann talks hella fast, and Adam Lisagor talks hella slow. Mann squishes words together, while Lisagor tends to leave long gaps. Wouldn’t it be awesome if your podcast app could compensate for both? Overcast has a really great feature called Smart Speed which does exactly that. It works by reducing the amount of dead air, and it’s constantly changing its playback speed to compensate. It’s really, really nice.

The real test for me is going to be over the coming weeks: will I listen to podcasts more? Of course, there are a lot of reasons I haven’t been listening to podcasts; a lack of a favourite podcasting app is just one. But I’ve put Overcast on the first page of my home screen (sorry Strava) and I’m going to give it a try.

Apple and IBM Sitting in a Tree, Again

Apple’s on-again-off-again relationship with IBM is on again, for the first time since the switch to Intel. This time, it’s a huge partnership between the two companies for big enterprise support. Apple PR:

Apple and IBM’s shared vision for this partnership is to put in the hands of business professionals everywhere the unique capabilities of iPads and iPhones with a company’s knowledge, data, analytics and workflows. Specifically, the two companies are working together to deliver the essential elements of enterprise mobile solutions.

Yeah, I know — *snore*. This is a huge opportunity for Apple to increase their enterprise footprint, which has traditionally been one of Apple’s weakest sectors. As the press release notes, Apple has an okay hold on that market:

[O]ver 98 percent of the Fortune 500 and over 92 percent of the Global 500 [use] iOS devices in their business today.

But this doesn’t say how popular iOS is these environments, just that iOS devices exist in enterprise. This IBM partnership sounds like it’s going to make things better for existing users while significantly increasing adoption among holdouts.

Update: MacStories’ Graham Spencer has a much more comprehensive collection of links and quotes regarding this deal.

July 15, 2014

Comcast ‘Embarrassed’ by the Service Call Making Internet Rounds

By now, I’m sure you’ve cringed your way through Ryan Block’s painful Comcast cancellation request call — if you haven’t, check it out. Elise Hu of NPR has a statement from the company:

Comcast says it’s very, very sorry. “We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and are contacting him to personally apologize,” the company said in a statement.

“The way in which our representative communicated with him is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. […] “

It’s vague, but this sort of statement usually means that they’ll reprimand or terminate the employee. While it’s unlikely that this particularly aggressive rep is the standard for contract cancellation calls, it’s also unlikely that this is an isolated case. This is endemic of much greater institutional problems at the worst company in America.

Also, why is Comcast using the word “embarrassed” for this call? That’s the same word I use when I tell the story of the time I was caught eavesdropping on someone in the eighth grade. This is so much greater than petty embarrassment.

July 14, 2014

Standard Controls

Brent Simmons:

Here’s how I think about this to myself: the Romantic era, which started with the Delicious Generation and became dominant with the early iPhone apps, has given way to the Modernist era. Grandiosity gives way to sleekness and honesty.

Remember Disco and its stupid smoke effects?1 There was something fun about seeing particle smoke come off a disc burning app, but it’s the kind of thing that feels more like a trend than a lasting piece of good design. Put another way, does the leopard print iMac feel as lastingly beautiful as the iMac G5? Thought not.


  1. Remember burning CDs?2 

  2. Remember CDs? 

Inspector Gadget

New York Magazine’s Kevin Roose asks “Does Anyone Outside Silicon Valley Even Want a Smartwatch?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: noooooooooooooooooooo.

Longer answer:

Despite all the buzz surrounding wearables, it isn’t clear who’s supposed to be buying them. Fewer than half of the respondents to a recent Accenture survey said they would consider buying a smartwatch, and even the most optimistic experts predict only 20 million smartwatch sales this year, a pittance compared with phone and tablet sales. The market’s skepticism might be a function of how early smartwatches fared (few lasted more than a year or two before being pulled from shelves). But more likely is that today’s smartwatches remain mysterious, somewhat redundant gadgets. Even the most sophisticated models don’t do anything a phone can’t do, except sit comfortably on your arm. And the Dick Tracy novelty factor is still high. Silicon Valley code jockeys might appreciate being able to order pizza from their wrists—which is, by the way, a real Android Wear app—but the rest of us don’t have much need for another device to lug around, keep charged, and worry about breaking.

Shorter version of the longer answer: not yet, no.

I, as much as anyone, have dismissed the current generation of wearables. They’re basically second notification screens which, for some, makes sense. But I still don’t get their utility for my own use.

But perhaps it’s still too early. Take, for example, this article by Matthew Miller in ZDNet, in August 2009:

I have tried different tablet devices in the past and I see very little benefit from them for the majority of people. The iPhone/iPod touch seem to be just about as big as you need for a productive web surfing and media consumption device and a tablet Apple really does not make much sense to me.

Or this lovely pile of something from CNet editor Michael Kanellos, in December 2006:

But the iPod looks like it may turn out to be a non-repeatable experience. Look at the historical record. When the iPod emerged in late 2001, it solved some major problems with MP3 players.

[…]

Unfortunately for Apple, problems like that don’t exist in the handset business. Cell phones aren’t clunky, inadequate devices. Instead, they are pretty good. Really good. Why do you think they call it a Crackberry? Because the lumpy design and confusing interface of the device is causing people to break into cars? No, it’s because people are addicted to it.

Or this legendary Clifford Stoll bit in a 1995 issue of Newsweek (remember “issues”?):

The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Or let’s go waaayyyyy back to 1977, with your host Ken Olson:

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

So, let’s not get too hasty, now.

July 11, 2014

I Am One of the Lucky Ones

“The Typist” shares their story of why they use a case on their iPhone, and it’s really good. It’s the main link for this post, but I can’t quote anything from it because it’ll spoil everything.

Allow me to share one of my stories, though. In summer 2012, I was walking through Century Gardens when I received an email that I just had to check. I started skimming the email on my iPhone 4S when my foot got caught on a bit of uneven brickwork and my phone was launched into space. I fumbled to catch it and didn’t get a good grip on it, so it flew out of my hand, bounced on a rock, and fell straight into the water feature in the park with the requisite cartoonish bloop. I looked in and it had fallen in screen upwards, and I could read my email through the water. I stepped in, grabbed my phone, and immediately tried to turn it off.1 For some reason, it powered itself back on — a worrying sign.

As soon as I got home, I dropped it into a bag of rice and left it overnight. The following morning, I pulled it out and checked it out. Aside from a few nicks and bumps on the antenna, there was almost no damage. The only major issue was that some sounds weren’t playing through the internal speaker. Here’s a fun test for you, reader: under what conditions would an iPhone play all system noises out of its speaker after being locked for a couple of minutes, but would only do so for a few seconds? Under what condition would the Siri noise always play through the internal speaker, but almost no other system sounds would be audible, despite the phone not being in silent mode?

(dramatic pause)

Answer: when the phone thinks it’s playing audio through the dock connector. It turns out that the dock connector’s audio out pin sits beside one of the ground pins, and these were shorting out. A quick brush with a little bit of rubbing alcohol and my phone worked as good as new for two more years, before I replaced it with a 5S. I still don’t use a case.

I’m usually fairly careful, but when I screw up, I really screw up. I have also rolled my DSLR down a very, very steep hill. Yet, like my iPhone, it emerged pretty much unscathed. I am far too lucky.


  1. In a sobering and slightly embarrassing reminder of financial access, I retrieved my expensive pocket computer in full view of a couple of panhandlers. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any cash on me at all. 

July 10, 2014

Apple’s App Review Should Test Accessibility

Marco Arment:

Poor or broken accessibility is exactly the sort of problem that Apple’s App Review team should check for: many developers forget to test it, it’s easy for Apple to quickly test when reviewing each app, and it’s easy to fix.

Instead of arbitrarily enforcing silly rules, the Review team should absolutely be testing every app for full accessibility. iOS and OS X may lead their competition in accessibility support, but a similar level of commitment is necessary from third-party developers for the platforms to be truly accessible for all.

Lightroom Never Fully Expires

The perpetuity of lock-in is a big problem with most cloud and subscription products. Not so here. Good on Adobe for largely solving this in a really elegant way.

The Stories Behind Six Film Studio Logos

Michael Cieply, New York Times:

On screen, the major studios now open almost every film with a proud, graphic statement of identity. At 20th Century Fox, the motif involves searchlights and a bold fanfare. Universal circles the planet. Disney, in a logo that was clocked by Variety at a full 30 seconds, among the longest, pans a Magic Kingdom, with its fairy tale castle, misty hills, meandering river, fireworks, shooting star and puffing locomotive.

Not to be outdone, Hollywood’s more powerful production companies and financiers have increasingly followed suit with elaborate cinematic logos of their own.

For an independent film with multiple production companies, the identifiers may come in a parade, three, four, five at a time. With studio movies, by contrast, only the very biggest players are typically allowed a logo (and not always, since a filmmaker’s plans for a picture’s opening moments may actually trump branding and vanity).

There’s something about seeing a really great studio logo — the cited 20th Century Fox one, or the early-2000s United Artists logo come to mind — that sets the tone for the film. The classic THX logo and sound is the kind of thing that makes you reach for something with which to strap yourself into your chair.

July 9, 2014

I Am the 14%

Libby Kane, Business Insider:

Some of us have more to fear than others. According to a Business Insider survey, nearly 14% of people choose to go case-less, risking the destruction of their $400 pocket computers at any moment.

Disregarding the fact that the survey’s methodology is, par for the Business Insider course, suspect, I was interested in this because I am one of those 14%. I haven’t used a case on my phone in four years. Why? Well, let’s let Kane explain:

Of the 14% of survey respondents who don’t use a case, most cited aesthetic reasons — 43% because “I like the look of my iPhone without a case,” 50% because “cases are too bulky.”

Avoiding bulkiness isn’t an aesthetic decision, it’s a practical one. I don’t wear super skinny jeans by any means,1 but adding thickness and weight is unwelcome.

Even if you can afford to have your phone fixed or replaced every time it hits the cement, it’s still going to cost you hours of your life securing the fix. And if you’re well enough off that the cost of a few iPhones a year doesn’t phase you, is loitering in the Apple store really worth your time?

I can’t afford to have my phone fixed multiple times per year, yet I have always gone case-less. It’s just nicer.


  1. Nudie’s Grim Tim fit is my favourite, if you must know. 

July 8, 2014

“Time to Scrap the iPod”

An anonymous writer at the notoriously unreliable Seeking Alpha, “Options Calling”, is unimpressed with iPod sales. And who can blame them? Apple’s certainly selling fewer iPods than they were just a few years ago. But this article is so weak. Let’s start with the title:

Time to Scrap the iPod

Why’s that weak? Well…

The reason behind the fall of the Nano and Shuffle could be the release of the iWatch, which is expected to release in October this year.

Because of the iWatch, it’s time to scrap the iPod. Geddit?

Anyway, let’s get to some bar graphs:

In a recent report, Apple Inc. presented its second quarter earnings’ “unaudited summary data”, and the picture it presented wasn’t much like what people might have expected.

The iPod, for one, posted an extremely dismal 53% drop in sequential change in revenue, and a 54% drop in units sold. Apple enthusiasts would argue that the drop in sales from the first quarter onwards is characteristic of the company…

A 54% drop in unit sales is, indeed, surprising, if this were year-over-year. But this is sequential, and Apple’s first quarter is their holiday quarter. It’s not only “Apple enthusiasts” who would argue that a sequential drop in sales between Q1 and Q2 is characteristic — anyone who looks at the numbers would also make that argument.

The author then makes the argument that the iWatch could cannibalize iPod sales, which is actually not a bad line of thought if the rumours are correct. But they’re just that: rumours. So, to then demand that Tim Cook drop the iPod lineup is absurd. And, yet:

So why not scratch a device out altogether that has been reporting declining sales for five straight years? Why not invest in better projects that would ensure better returns to the company – and its shareholders – than the iPod? Apple Inc. CEO, Tim Cook definitely needs to do some brainstorming, and soon.

Why not? Because in fiscal year 2013, Apple still sold over 26 million of the things. It’s not nearly as big of a business as the iPhone or the iPad, but it’s still really big. They’re still building the iPod Classic, too, which is hilarious to me.

It’s clearly not Apple’s primary business any more; they don’t put iPod sales figures in their quarterly financial press releases. But if they’re going to drop models from the lineup, or even drop the iPod as a brand altogether, they’re going to do so when they’re poised for one of their own products to take over.

For an anonymous blogger to advocate otherwise based on rumours, and to suggest that Cook is not doing best for the company or shareholders, is irresponsible.

July 4, 2014

Inspecting Yosemite’s Icons

Nick Keppol of MartianCraft took an in-depth look at Yosemite’s new application icons. Most intriguing? This:

Grey scale is out — warm and cool tones are in. It’s been a popular look in Hollywood blockbusters: yellow/orange highlights, blue/teal shadows. The new Yosemite icons use similar tonal shifts with their metal materials. If we consider these icons as materials, this tone represents an environment reflection — not merely a color effect.

Don’t necessarily think of Yosemite’s new iconography as a simplification or reduction of the previous OS X pseudo-photorealistic aesthetic. Think of this design language as pushing the definition of “idealized reality”.

American Intensity

Cabel Sasser’s annual roundup of ridiculous fireworks is my favourite part of the Fourth of July, because I am Canadian. Happy Independence Day, American readers.

July 3, 2014

A Second Snowden?

Maybe you read today’s edition of Fucked Up Things the NSA Does and silently thanked Edward Snowden for revealing all of this stuff. Funny story: it might not be Snowden who revealed this set of documents. Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing:

Another expert said that s/he believed that this leak may come from a second source, not Edward Snowden, as s/he had not seen this in the original Snowden docs; and had seen other revelations that also appeared independent of the Snowden materials. If that’s true, it’s big news, as Snowden was the first person to ever leak docs from the NSA. The existence of a potential second source means that Snowden may have inspired some of his former colleagues to take a long, hard look at the agency’s cavalier attitude to the law and decency.

This sentiment was echoed by Bruce Schneier:

And, since Cory said it, I do not believe that this came from the Snowden documents. I also don’t believe the [TAO catalog][2a] came from the Snowden documents. I think there’s a second leaker out there.

Curious. Intriguing.

Digression: I know Schneier is a security professional, and that security professionals must be cynical — it’s kind of their job description. But this kind of stuff really gets to me:

I don’t expect this to get much coverage in the US mainstream media.

At best, the “mainstream media”1 just isn’t that interested in covering surveillance of pieces of software that fit into a pretty tight niche. At worst, Schneier is accusing broadcasters of being in league with the NSA to actively suppress this story.

Just for some rationality, this story was covered by Forbes, Wired, and the New York Fucking Times, not to mention the Associated Press, which meant it appeared in a wide variety of publications, large and small.

The advantage of Schneier’s vague cynical sentiment is that it leaves a very wide margin. The links above point to mainstream coverage, but it won’t be sufficient. It never is when the goalposts are so mobile.


  1. And just what is “mainstream” today? What is not? If you listen to the broadcasted persecution complex that is Fox, they claim to be outside of the mainstream media, yet they consistently brag about their high ratings. This phrase is meaningless. 

Goldman Says Google Has Blocked Email With Leaked Client Data

Jonathan Stempel, Reuters:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc on Wednesday said Google Inc has blocked access to an email containing confidential client data that a contractor sent to a stranger’s Gmail account by mistake, an error that the bank said threatened a “needless and massive” breach of privacy.

This is a fascinating story. I wonder what kind of precedent this will set. Stempel, continued:

Goldman did not say how many clients were affected. It has been seeking a court order compelling Google to delete the email, which it said on Wednesday had yet to occur.

“Google complied with our request that it block access to the email,” Goldman spokeswoman Andrea Raphael said. “It has also notified us that the email account had not been accessed from the time the email was sent to the time Google blocked access. No client information has been breached.” A Google spokeswoman declined to comment.

[…]

The bank said a member of Google’s “incident response team” reported on June 26 that the email could not be deleted without a court order.

If Google initially declined to block access to the email without a court order, what made them change their minds? To the best of my knowledge, this is unprecedented. What’s the threshold for Google to block access to a mistakenly-sent email? Is exposing confidential client data from one of the world’s largest banks the bare minimum?

“Homebase” May Become Reality

Craig Hockenberry in January 2012:

Let’s imagine a new feature in iOS called “Homebase”. A user would be presented with a simple UI that lets them select a location that’s a “safe” environment. After the setup is complete, your Homebase would be recognized by GPS coordinates and/or available Wi-Fi networks. The important thing here is that the user gets to define where they feel safe with their device.

[…]

The lock screen doesn’t need to display a Passcode lock at Homebase. People who use the Remote app with their Apple TV will no longer be annoyed by an unnecessary security precaution, nor will folks forget to turn their Passcode lock back on when they leave for the local bar (where they’re certain to get a Poopin’ tweet.)

No matter how convenient and simple Touch ID is, nothing feels more immediate than having no barriers to unlock your iPhone. Unfortunately, that’s also the most insecure state.

I’ve wanted this feature for a long time, but it’s languished on Hockenberry’s site as a mere idea. Now, it may become a reality, if you’re the special kind of optimist who places any faith at all in the reality of Apple’s patents.

Mikey Campbell over at AppleInsider:

[T]he invention delivers a mechanism to adjust iPhone access levels based on its location, meaning different tolerances can be applied based on the relative security of a location. For example, a user may only need a simple four-digit passcode to unlock a device while at home, but authentication via Apple’s Touch ID when in public areas like a shopping mall.

I guess I’m starting my iOS 9 wish list right now.

July 2, 2014

Windows ‘Threshold’

John Moltz, quoting Mary Jo Foley:

Windows “Threshold,” the next major version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system due to hit around the spring of 2015, is coming into focus.

And not too surprisingly, one of the Microsoft Operating Systems Group’s main goals in designing and developing the coming operating system (OS) release — which may or may not ultimately be branded as “Windows 9″ — is to try to make it more palatable to hold-out Windows 7 users.

I know we’ve been over this again and again, but in addition to the conceptual flaw of trying to make one operating system for desktop and mobile, there’s a marketing problem as well. Apple was able to make iOS palatable to its existing customers (as well as others) by detaching it from OS X.

Back in January, Paul Thurrott wrote about ‘Threshold’ in a similar way:

In some ways, the most interesting thing about Threshold is how it recasts Windows 8 as the next Vista. It’s an acknowledgment that what came before didn’t work, and didn’t resonate with customers. And though Microsoft will always be able to claim that Windows 9 wouldn’t have been possible without the important foundational work they had done first with Windows 8—just as was the case with Windows 7 and Windows Vista—there’s no way to sugarcoat this. Windows 8 has set back Microsoft, and Windows, by years, and possibly for good.

And Mary Jo Foley in December, regarding ‘Threshold’ SKUs:

With Threshold, my sources say, there could be three primary SKUs: A “modern” consumer SKU; a traditional/PC SKU; and a traditional enterprise SKU.

To which I responded, and will copy-and-paste because nothing has changed:

Separate versions for touch screens and traditional PCs? Why, that sounds almost as if there are separate requirements for those two input methods. How sensible.

Mike Rundle on Material Design

A dissenting opinion on Material Design from Mike Rundle:

Google’s new aesthetic is iOS 7 with a slightly different color palette and drop shadows. The emperor has no clothes for fuck’s sake.

Google’s Material Design

Khoi Vinh:

Google’s transition from a company that used to think about design the same way as it thought about human resources—as a cost of doing business—to a company that prioritizes design is remarkable, at least insofar as its products look and feel and work so much better today than they used to. The company is writing a fascinating case study for how to reverse engineer design into a tech giant’s DNA.

Apple Assembling More Robust Siri Team to Replace Nuance

This is great news. Siri has certainly gained capabilities since it was launched in 2011, but the accuracy of its speech recognition is still often disappointing. I use Siri fairly infrequently. I understand that its accuracy improves with more use, but how many people want to slog through weeks or months of editing poorly-dictated text messages and emails just to improve Siri’s accuracy on their phone? Siri needs to be super accurate out of the box, otherwise it becomes an exercise in frustration.

Aperture Features in Photos

Potentially good news related to Apple’s shitcanning of Aperture. Sam Machkovech, Ars Technica:

When asked about what Aperture-like features users can expect from the new Photos app, an Apple representative mentioned plans for professional-grade features such as image search, editing, effects, and most notably, third-party extensibility.

With any luck, Photos will allow me to carry over my Aperture library effectively unchanged, with lossless editing capabilities preserved. That’d be nice.

June 30, 2014

Exactly What a Good Computer Should Be

Kirk McElhearn recently picked up a Mac Pro and he’s been using it for a few days:

The Mac Pro has done exactly what a good computer should: it has made itself unobtrusive. I don’t hear it, and it doesn’t slow me down. It’s a shame one has to spend the kind of money this computer costs to get those features, and I hope that, one day, all computers will be like this.

This is what I feel when I’m using my MacBook Air. It may be a couple of years old now, and not nearly as zippy as the Mac Pro, but it doesn’t slow me down. I often forget I’m using it because it’s so unobtrusive and quiet. It’s sublime.

Facebook Doesn’t Understand the Fuss About Its Emotion Manipulation Study

Kashmir Hill, Forbes:

When I signed up for 23andMe — a genetic testing service — it asked if I was willing to be part of “23andWe,” which would allow my genetic material to be part of research studies. I had to affirmatively check a box to say I was okay with that. As I suggested when I wrote about this yesterday, I think Facebook should have something similar. While many users may already expect and be willing to have their behavior studied — and while that may be warranted with “research” being one of the 9,045 words in the data use policy — they don’t expect that Facebook will actively manipulate their environment in order to see how they react. That’s a new level of experimentation, turning Facebook from a fishbowl into a petri dish, and it’s why people are flipping out about this.

Agreed. Regardless of Facebook including “research” as one of thousands of words in their terms of use policy, an explicit checkbox allowing the use of this information for academic research purposes would both comfort users, and likely meet the standards for informed consent, thereby making the data collection more legitimate.

June 28, 2014

Let’s Talk About Market Segmentation Vis-a-Vis iPhone Storage Wait Where Are You Going Really It’s Interesting I Promise

Rene Ritchie, iMore:

Years and years of storage based segmentation has shown Apple that $100 increments based on storage capacity is a model the market can and will bear. Scratch that — the market will reward with astronomical amounts of money. That doesn’t make it right or wrong, sane or insane, comforting or maddening. It just makes it what it is. And Apple likely won’t change it unless and until we all agree on something better.

I was among many when I wondered if the $50 price increments for increased storage in the tweaked iPod Touch lineup foreshadows a similar change to the iPhone and iPad lines. Ritchie makes a solid case as to why it likely won’t unless there’s another way to compel people to choose between the models.

The only thing I can think of is a change to the physical sizes of the device. The rumour mill says that Apple’s working on iPhones of 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch display sizes, or something like that. Perhaps Apple keeps the 4-inch model around as the “base” model, and those two become the mid- and top-tier models, respectively?

I’m just spitballing, though.

Facebook’s Mood Manipulation Experiment

This story was first broken by Sophie Weiner of Animal:

Using an algorithm that can recognize negative or positive words, the researchers were able to comb through NewsFeeds without actually viewing any text that may have been protected under users’ privacy settings. “As such, it was consistent with Facebook’s Data Use Policy, to which all users agree prior to creating an account on Facebook, constituting informed consent for this research,” the study’s authors wrote. That’s right: You consented to be randomly selected for this kind of research when you signed up for Facebook. Might want to check out that User Policy again.

James Grimmelmann, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, on the ethical and legal implications of this study:

A stronger reason is that even when Facebook manipulates our News Feeds to sell us things, it is supposed—legally and ethically—to meet certain minimal standards. Anything on Facebook that is actually an ad is labelled as such (even if not always clearly.) This study failed even that test, and for a particularly unappealing research goal: We wanted to see if we could make you feel bad without you noticing. We succeeded.

So, this study is legally dubious, ethically bankrupt, and made a bunch of people miserable without telling them. But what else would you expect from Facebook, you “dumb fuck”? (And, yet, here I am with Facebook open in another tab.)

June 27, 2014

Apple Stops Development of Aperture

Jim Dalrymple:

Apple introduced a new Photos app during its Worldwide Developers Conference that will become the new platform for the company. As part of the transition, Apple told me today that they will no longer be developing its professional photography application, Aperture.

[…]

The new Photos app will also replace iPhoto, giving users a more seamless experience on Apple devices.

Shit.

I mean, the new Photos app is really impressive, but it’s not Aperture. It absolutely looks like a valid replacement for iPhoto, but not Aperture. I could switch to Lightroom, but I hate its editing workflow.

Shit.

Spokesdouche

Let’s talk about Robin Thicke. Actually, I’m sure you want to talk about wearable tech devices; conveniently, we can talk about both at the same time because Samsung made Thicke their spokesdouche for the Galaxy Note 3 and the Galaxy Gear combo. First order of business: does Thicke actually use a Galaxy Note? Uh, nope.

With that out of the way, let’s forget about the horrible scrolling on the promo site and chat about this one ad. Three women in a convertible are stopped at a light and singing along to “Blurred Lines”, when Thicke pulls up beside them. They take a couple of photos, then he asks for their phone and writes down a number for a “music video casting call”. Given that “Blurred Lines” is a song about how confused Thicke is by the concept of consent and that the video features full nudity (NSFW, obviously), do you get the feeling that this, as an ad concept, is somewhat tone deaf?

(Thanks, Jonas Wisser.)

June 26, 2014

Mike Daisey Is Feeling Himself

The Verge’s Adrianne Jeffries reviewed the newest monologue from Mike Daisey — infamous for being a root cause of This American Life’s sole retraction:

There seems to be the germ of an interesting idea there, but like the rest of the parts about women, Daisey had the right vocabulary and no thesis. Throughout the show, he tosses out perfunctory lines like “50 percent of you are treated like shit,” and “I am sexist. I see it too often,” and “I can’t even imagine what it is like to be Hillary Clinton,” and “That’s patriarchy!” In the end, “Yes This Man” turned out to be a perfect title for an hour of introspective riffing. Just don’t expect much else.

Ouch.

Apple Tweaks iPod Touch Lineup

The most intriguing thing about this new lineup is the pricing, which now increases in $50 increments. It’d be neat if that carries over to the rest of the iOS device lineup.

June 25, 2014

Introducing the New Gmail API

Eric DeFriez of Google:

For a while now, many of you have been asking for a better way to access data to build apps that integrate with Gmail. While IMAP is great at what it was designed for (connecting email clients to email servers in a standard way), it wasn’t really designed to do all of the cool things that you have been working on, which is why this week at Google I/O, we’re launching the beta of the new Gmail API.

Google’s Gmail API documentation says that it “should not be used to replace IMAP for full-fledged email client access”, but my question is “for how long?”. If a greater number of people use IMAP clients to access Gmail, fewer ads are seen. If fewer people use IMAP, Google has a shrinking reason to keep supporting it.

Everything You Need to Know About Google’s I/O Keynote

I joked a little about this on Twitter but, really, I’m not surprised to see both platforms converging. iOS comes from a philosophy of adding features slowly and trying to do it well from the start — the copy and paste UI hasn’t changed since it was introduced, for example, but it took three full versions to get such “basic” functionality. Android comes from the school of adding as much as possible, and then refining as many of them as possible over time.

In iOS 8, Apple is adding interactive notifications and a much more extensible experience. Meanwhile, Android “L” (Lollipop?) has a completely reconsidered design language and lock screen notifications similar to iOS. It’s therefore no surprise, in my mind, that there’s some convergence happening.

There’s even a common theme this year at Apple’s and Google’s developer conferences: continuity. With iOS 8 and Yosemite, Apple has a vision of customers completing tasks on the right device for the right occasion, with smooth transitions; so, too, does Google, with Android everywhere. But there’s a noticeable difference in execution between their two strategies: Google is using the same OS everywhere with the same user interface design principles. You’ll even be able to run Android apps on a Chromebook, for example, but why would you want to run software designed for touch on a largely keyboard-and-mouse system?1

But, contrary to what you may think, I’m not necessarily knocking Google’s strategy. I’m interested in seeing how it pans out. It’s obviously far too early to tell, as these are developer betas and previews, but quite a lot of what was announced today feels a little underbaked. It may simply need more time for this strategy to be fully fleshed out.

As for the presentation itself, it was long — over two and a half hours — and felt even longer. Presenters were interrupted by protesters on two separate occasions, and someone at Google decided to run the code debug demo over two hours into the presentation. Really tiring.

Now, Apple and Google have both laid out their product strategies for the next year or so. It’s showtime.


  1. Yes, the Chromebook Pixel has a touchscreen, but how many people do you think bought one? 

Google TV Turns On at I/O

Nilay Patel:

As expected, Google just announced Google TV at I/O. There’s four billion TV viewers worldwide, making it the biggest market in the world, and Google’s after it in a big way — it’s a $70 billion ad market in the US alone, after all. According to Google, “video should be consumed on the biggest, best, and brightest screen in your house, and that’s the TV.” The idea is to merge the web and TV without compromising on either the web experience or the video experience, with a focus on discovery and personalization.

About time they launched this thing; it’s been rumoured for so long and I wa— hang on a minute. Keep talking, Patel:

Since it’s Android, there’s a version of Android Market — any app that doesn’t require phone hardware can run on Google TV. There will also be a Google TV-specific Android SDK launching in “early” 2011, along with the Android Market for Google TV.

Huh? What’s the date line on this thing?

4 YEARS AGO

Oh.

Uhm, my mistake. How embarrassing.

Ryan Lawler of TechCrunch:

Contrary to reports, Android TV isn’t a set-top box like Apple TV or Amazon Fire TV, but a software system that will be embedded into the smart TVs and other devices from third-party OEMs.

[…]

Android TV will play movies and TV shows, and users will be able to control it via mobiles phones and tablets. Google Engineering Director Dave Burke showed off how the system works to enable search and navigation either via text or voice.

This is, like, the same thing.

Material Design

Google is launching a new design language at today’s I/O, but the spec sheet has already been posted online. They’re referring to this as “Material Design”, and it’s an evolution of their existing “white cards” style that you’ve probably seen across their main app portfolio. Google wants you to think of it like “active paper”.

This is a language that’s defined by typography, grids, and animation. The type is still all Roboto all the time, but it has been updated — it now has a bunch of different weights and, best of all, it loses the Helvetica ripoff leg on the R. The grids are just as essential to making things look strong when the interface is so sparse.

The animations in Material are huge for Android. It’s a platform that has felt sometimes static, and other times like the animations are entirely arbitrary. The guide Google has provided should encourage developers to make meaningful, high-quality animations between elements and screens. Combine that with dynamically-rendered lighting, and you can bet this is going to feel like a much higher quality platform.

It’s refreshing to see this focus on a consistent interface design from Google. It’s a little odd to see them want to make it entirely consistent — they claim that this design language works universally on every device from phones to desktop web UIs. They’re also claiming that the animations that are integral to this design language will run at sixty frames-per-second, even on the web. That’s impressive.

I’m looking forward to seeing the products of this design language in practice. Like iOS 7, this is one of those interfaces that, I bet, must be seen and used in person to really understand. Good stuff.

…And I Know My Rights, So You Gonna Need a Warrant for That

Lawrence Hurley, Reuters:

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that police officers usually need a warrant before they can search an arrested suspect’s cellphone, a major decision in favor of privacy rights at a time of increasing concern over government encroachment in digital communications.

Any ruling otherwise would be completely boneheaded.

iWatch Thoughts

Yours truly, on the weekend:

I don’t doubt that there are uses for wearable devices. All the wearables I’ve seen so far fall into two categories: pure fitness devices, and secondary notification screens. The former are more focused, easier to understand, and feel more valuable as a result. Is it any wonder that the latter category hasn’t really taken off, but fitness wearables are pretty popular?

It’s relieving to hear that all around smart guy Jean-Louis Gassée has similar thoughts, in much more granular and considered detail:

The iWatch hubbub could be nothing more than a sort of seasonal virus, but this time there’s a difference.

At the WWDC three weeks ago, Apple previewed HealthKit, a toolkit iOS developers can use to build health and fitness related applications. HealthKit is a component of the iOS 8 release that Apple plans to ship this fall in conjunction with the newest iDevices. As an example of what developers will be able to do with HealthKit, Apple previewed Health, an application that gives you “an easy-to-read dashboard of your health and fitness data.”

The rumor that Quanta will soon begin “mass production” of the iWatch — the perfect vehicle for health-and-fitness apps — just became a bit more tantalizing… but there are still a number of questions that are left unanswered.

Gassée also touches on forecasts of sales. I highly doubt that this will approach iPhone levels of sales; perhaps even iPad levels are overestimates. Lots of smoke; no fire. Yet?

June 23, 2014

Inside Out

Kyle Buchanan, Vulture:

After delivering its first female-led film with 2012’s Brave, Pixar brass came down to Los Angeles last night to preview their big title for next year, Inside Out, which is completely princess-free. It takes place in the mind of a little girl named Riley, but she’s not exactly the lead; instead, thanks to the ingenuity of Pixar, Riley is more like the setting.

The film’s real protagonist is Joy (voiced by an effervescent Amy Poehler), one of five emotions who steer Riley through life via a control center in her mind that’s akin to the bridge from the Starship Enterprise. Joy and her cohorts — including Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) — all work together to keep Riley emotionally balanced, and for the first 11 years of her life, the primary influencer is Joy, as evidenced by Riley’s sunny demeanor.

I’m really looking forward to this.

Starting Anew

New Apple SVP of Retail, Angela Ahrendts writing on, of all places, LinkedIn:

My father used to always say, “Ask questions, don’t make assumptions.” Questions invite conversations, stimulate thinking, break down barriers, create positive energy and show your willingness to understand and learn. Questions show humility, acknowledgement and respect for the past, and give you greater insights into both the business and individuals.

June 22, 2014

How to Resolve Apple Maps Data Errors

Just follow these simple steps to resolve data errors in Apple Maps:

  1. Notice a ridiculous error — say, for example, a train station that was disused and demolished a year and a half before Apple launched Maps.
  2. Try reporting the error from within Maps. If a lot of people report this error, it may be fixed. But if you, as I, live in a city with a population smaller than that of Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, New York, or San Francisco, this may not help.
  3. Assuming the error remains despite reporting it occasionally for a year, additional steps may be required.
  4. Start a weblog and get various articles linked to from Daring Fireball, Macworld, and others.
  5. Wait until you’ve built up a moderate Cupertino-area readership.
  6. Complain about the mapping error.
  7. Get some attention.
  8. Wait for a week.
  9. Rejoice upon finding out that said mapping error has been resolved.

Rinse, repeat.

Update: Or, perhaps, it was you, dear reader.

June 21, 2014

“Glanceable” Android Wear

Liz Stinson, Wired:

Android Wear’s banner claim is that its interface will free us from the time sucking grid of icons on our smartphones. Instead, the interface will be glanceable; requiring users to engage far less time and attention to get the information they’re looking for.

I wonder if Google will stand behind this claim in a similar way to Microsoft’s “Smoked by Windows Phone” competitions. I just tried a few of the things on my iPhone that are purportedly made faster by a wearable device — checking the weather, upcoming transit times, next calendar appointment, and so forth — and I spent no more than five seconds on even the longest task (checking transit times involved unlocking my phone, opening Transit, and waiting for it to load). I imagine this could be even quicker on an Android phone that has a well-learned Google Now.

I don’t doubt that there are uses for wearable devices. All the wearables I’ve seen so far fall into two categories: pure fitness devices, and secondary notification screens. The former are more focused, easier to understand, and feel more valuable as a result. Is it any wonder that the latter category hasn’t really taken off, but fitness wearables are pretty popular?

Meta: Small Mobile Improvements

If you’re someone who browses this site via your iPhone, you may have noticed a few changes I’ve rolled out over the past couple of months or so. Today, I (finally) made the sidebar menu visible on mobile. I hope this makes your time with me just a little nicer.

Bugs Are Magic Tricks

Oldie but a goodie from Steven Frank (via September 2007 John Gruber, that archive page for some reason bookmarked on Pinboard, and presented here by the Internet Archive since Mr. Frank has changed his blogging software about ten times since 2007):

Bugs thrive on the same human brain deficiencies that earn magicians their living. We are shown something that is apparently impossible — but the reality is that we just don’t have all the information.

I was reminded of this article after I came across a truly bizarre bug today related to some sort of ill communication between the Image Capture app on OS X, the Music app on iOS, and an (the?) iOS SQL media library database. One of the golden rules in magic is to never perform the same trick twice. Sure enough, this is the second time I’ve come across this particular bug, and I finally got around to reporting it. The first time, it was wacky and unexpected; this time, it’s a puzzle in need of solving.

Friending the App Store

Great article from Andy Baio:

Apple’s sole attempt at personalized recommendations—the painfully inadequate “Genius,” which recommended clones of apps you already installed—was phased out last year for the even-worse “Near Me,” showing the same location-centric apps to everyone in your city.

This one-size-fits-all model may have worked in the first year, but as the App Store has grown, it’s created an environment where discovering under-the-radar gems is impossible.

Of the two recommendation engines Apple has created, Genius was the one that worked best for me, in the same way that contracting a whopping head cold for a couple of days is preferable to having the flu for a week.

I never use Nearby. It acts as a divider in the App Store between the four tabs I actually care about. Maybe it’s moderately more relevant if you live in a really dense city like Hong Kong or New York, or if you’re somewhere really specific, like an art gallery or a zoo. But where I live, the Nearby tab has displayed pretty much the same apps since iOS 7 launched: a couple of transit apps, the Calgary Herald’s app, an internet radio station, and a taxicab app. Snore.

June 19, 2014

Sparks to Return to Formula 1

Racer magazine:

It was revealed earlier this year that F1 teams were looking at ways to make cars more spectacular, considering ideas including sparking cars, glowing brake discs and vapor trails. Discussions about the ideas have moved forward, and teams and other representatives on the F1 Commission have given provisional approval for the sparks plan to come into force for 2015.

The current idea is for the sparks to be created by mandating titanium skid blocks within the planks of the cars. Work is now ongoing among the teams to work out where to locate the skid blocks to produce the best sparks.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, F1 cars produced sparks, and it was fucking amazing — like a fireworks show at two hundred miles per hour. These were from parts of the underside of the cars hitting the asphalt race surface.

For the last twenty years or so, though, a wooden plank has been fitted to the underside of F1 cars. Its main function is to provide a reference for race officials to govern how close a car’s underside may be able to get to the track. Specifically, it prevents engineers from designing cars that are too low to the ground — the lower a car gets, the faster it can corner, and the more dangerous the sport gets. By setting limitations as to the maximum amount of wear the plank can endure over the course of a race, cars cannot get too close to the track.

All of this means that the introduction of fakey titanium plates to the underside of the cars specifically to generate sparks is like fitting the cars with fake tobacco sponsorships: it may look a little like the 1980s, but it’s all hollow.

Apple’s HomeKit Hub

Yesterday, I noted that Mike Elgan’s October 2013 post very nearly called Apple’s HomeKit, with one small exception:

I believe the platform for Apple’s Home Automation server will be the Apple TV product everybody’s been predicting for years.

This system is likely to offer an App Store and development platform for existing home automation companies to create products for. And the consumer will probably control it with an iPhone or iPad while seeing the whole system on the TV.

Maybe there is a forthcoming Apple TV that will show the entire network at a glance. But HomeKit doesn’t require any such central server and, so far, leans towards the iPhone as its primary controller.

Well, Christopher Breen of Macworld certainly thinks that your Apple TV could be the central server of such a network:

Rather than each device sending the intimate details of your home to Nest, Honeywell, GE, and—perhaps more importantly—Google and Facebook, how about if all this information is stored on the Apple TV and hashed for security. When you need to make adjustments or receive reports, data is transmitted via the Apple TV. Your smart appliances remain dumb to any interaction other than what’s been carried on with Apple’s home hub. The devices original manufacturer is none the wiser to what youre doing with them.

Intriguing.

June 18, 2014

Adobe CC 2014

Huge news from Adobe today, best seen in video from Adobe design evangelist Terry White. Some really nice integration with Adobe’s cloud services, including (and especially) TypeKit. There are also two new apps for the iPad, and Lightroom is now on the iPhone. Wildly impressive stuff.

I’m still on Photoshop 5.1,1 but the new $10/month “Photography” subscription (which includes Photoshop and Lightroom) looks awfully tempting.


  1. Standalone, not even in a bundle. Cost me just $40. 

Amazon Fire Phone

It seems inevitable that Amazon would jump into the smartphone space, and they did just that today. As rumoured, it has four front-facing cameras to track face position to assist its parallax and 3D UI features, which is unique if not necessarily a blockbuster feature. What is? Well, probably the “Firefly” feature, which allows you to scan objects in the real world to buy them from Amazon. That, combined with a free year of Amazon Prime included in the price of the phone, could be a pretty hot feature.

Then again, Amazon’s business model is such that their phone essentially a box from which you can buy other things on Amazon. Even their famously low margins couldn’t revolutionize the pricing of the phone: the base 32 GB model is $199 on a two-year AT&T contract, or $649 without a contract (but still locked to AT&T).

Maybe this intrigues you. (It certainly intrigues me.) If you live the United States, there’s good news: they’re shipping on July 25. But if you live anywhere else, you’re out of luck. As has become par for the course for Amazon, virtually none of the great stuff they offer in the US is available internationally, including Prime, their MP3 store, and a large selection of electronics.

The always-on front-facing cameras are a little creepy, too.

Update: The unlimited free cloud photo storage is pretty spectacular, though. Makes the free 5 GB included with iCloud feel even more stingy.

Update 2: Matt Sephton has informed me that both Prime and the MP3 store are available in the UK.

Nailedish It

I was tidying up my Pinboard bookmarks today when I came across an article from Cult of Mac’s Mike Elgan, dated October 12, 2013, and titled “Why Apple Will Enter the Home Automation Market”:

Because both crowdfunded and big-brand smartphone-controlled home automation solutions favor iPhone, the Apple will have an ecosystem of hardware, software and service makers in place when it enters the market. Those iPhone-supporting customers will already have a passionate user base of consumers who have already invested in thermostats, LED light bulbs and other physical hardware. The existence of this market will cause new entrants to support Apple’s solutions because that’s where the home automation big spenders will have already congregated.

Good so far. He obliquely and very nearly called HomeKit well before it was launched at WWDC this year. But, then:

I believe the platform for Apple’s Home Automation server will be the Apple TV product everybody’s been predicting for years.

This system is likely to offer an App Store and development platform for existing home automation companies to create products for. And the consumer will probably control it with an iPhone or iPad while seeing the whole system on the TV.

Maybe there is a forthcoming Apple TV that will show the entire network at a glance. But HomeKit doesn’t require any such central server and, so far, leans towards the iPhone as its primary controller. Perhaps it won’t remain that way, though — my favourite analyst Brian “Nostradumbass” White thinks that a presumed “iWatch” device will control the home. Stack that with Mark Gurman’s speculation on how iOS 8 includes the tech required for a wearable product and — just maybe — Brian White and Mike Elgan will see their predictions vindicated.

June 17, 2014

The Uncanny Valley of Personalization

Sarah M. Watson, for the Atlantic:

Uncanny personalization occurs when the data is both too close and not quite close enough to what we know about ourselves. This is rooted in Sigmund Freud’s famous treatment of the uncanny, which he traced to the feelings associated with encountering something strangely familiar. In Freud’s original writing, the uncanny is the unheimlich—literally translated as “unhomely,” and the opposite of heimlich, which is the familiar, comfortable feeling of being at home.

[…]

A friend’s Facebook status update captures this idea well: “I am never quite sure if Facebook’s advertising algorithms know nothing about me, or more than I can admit to myself.”

YouTube to Block Indie Labels Who Don’t Sign Up to New Music Service

Stuart Dredge and Dominic Rushe, of the Guardian:

Independent artists could disappear from YouTube “in a matter of days” after the Google video service confirmed it was dropping content from independent labels that have not signed up for its upcoming subscription music service.

[…]

Artists including Adele, Arctic Monkeys and Jack White could see their videos taken down. The site has become a key promotional outlet for independent labels of all sizes in recent years.

Remember when YouTube once enabled anyone to become a broadcaster? “Don’t be evil” my aching ass.

Written daily by Nick Heer in Calgary, and around the world.

Pixel Envy is on Twitter, and has an RSS feed. I care about your privacy.

© 2014 Nick Heer.