Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2011

Visualizing How A Population Grows To 7 Billion

As NPR’s Adam Cole reports, it was just over two centuries ago that the global population was 1 billion — in 1804. But better medicine and improved agriculture resulted in higher life expectancy for children, dramatically increasing the world population.

Take a look at the chart. No, really, take a good look at it. That is one hell of a steep slope. Just a hundred years ago, the global human population was a third of what it is today.

Klout is Odious

Nelson Minar:

As with most social media you and I aren’t the customers of Klout, we are the product. Only with Klout you can’t opt out of being packaged and sold.

That’s pretty horrible. I also have a profile on Klout that I never created nor want. There doesn’t seem to be a way to remove it either.

I suppose that there’s no harm, per se. It’s an external catalogue of my public Twitter feed and the topics I write about. But somehow it feels wrong that they’re able to hijack that information for no other reason than to target ads.

Google’s Moral Duality

Platform wars are stupid. Trying to convince everyone that one OS, one phone or one game console is better than another is preposterous, as everyone is looking for a different set of features. If you’re someone who wants to endlessly customize your phone, you probably won’t be as happy with an iPhone as compared to an Android device, at least in an out-of-the-box kind of way. If you want to run a new version of the OS that isn’t officially supported on your phone you will, again, be happier with Android. And if you want an unregulated free market of apps, you have to go for an Android phone.

It is against Google’s morals to monitor or curate the apps that appear in Android Market. That’s fine; that’s their call. But copyright and trademark holders would likely appreciate a cursory glance at submissions to ensure their intellectual property isn’t being ripped off and re-sold by some jerkoff.

In a few minutes’ search of the Android Market, I found a Tron theme (and another, and another). I couldn’t find any indication on Disney’s site, the app pages on Market or on the developers’ sites that these are licensed applications. Likewise for this Toy Story app, this Disney songs app and this throwing Coke in a trash can app. If you visit the last one, you’ll note that the developer has a number of similar apps available with different company logos.

Apple is, of course, not spared. This live wallpaper depicts an Android logo peeing on an Apple logo. Very clever. So clever, in fact, that someone ripped him off with a slightly different version. There are also a number of iPhone themes available that use the original iOS icons.

This is a bit of a problem by itself, but I would side with the recent Canadian Supreme court decision that merely linking to something does not constitute collusion or liability. But these applications are being hosted by Google. Google is paying for any hosting fees and transaction fees that may be incurred. But what makes this especially infuriating is that Google takes a 30% cut of application sales. You’ll note that throughout this post I’ve only been linking to paid apps. Google will happily take 30% of the sales of applications that infringe upon copyright and trademark. I can’t even see ignorance as a defence here. Google knows what’s in their store, and they’re not taking reasonable steps to ensure infringing material isn’t allowed.

The sixth point on Google’s company philosophy states that they “can make money without doing evil.” They don’t seem particularly attached to that notion. Now that Android is no longer some pet project, Google has something of an obligation to make the official market for it free of malware and property infringement. Android is the most popular smartphone operating system, and Google should act like they know what that means for users.


Sarah Lim:

Twenty minutes later, I was standing diagonally from Powell’s, walking up to Neven Mrgan in the flesh.

“You look like your avatar too,” he said to me.

This is such a great story, told exceptionally. I wish I could have written like this when I was fifteen.

Apple Acquired 3D Mapping Company C3 Technologies

Apple would clearly like to have as much control over their properties as possible, so any way they can distance themselves from reliance upon Google is better for them. The examples that are provided show just how good C3’s results are. At the same time, I really wish there was a better lo-fi version of Maps.

Visions of the Present

The ever-increasing progress of humanity over the last few centuries is remarkable. The difference in where we are today as compared to a hundred years ago is scarcely believable, to say the least. All of those “visions of the future” videos made in the 1950s are, by and large, reality. A newspaper, a friend’s face and your favourite song are just a click away.

I’ve been thinking a fair amount about similar projections of the future by Microsoft and RIM (and the other) in this context. These are broad ideas of the future and, while I may joke about the lack of basic physics in each, I genuinely think there are many approximations of where things are headed (unlike Microsoft’s old “visions” video).

Many of the technologies in these films already exist. Real-time collaboration, video chat, dictation and remote hotel check-in are all with us here, today, now. But the real magic of these videos is in the seamless integration of these things. This idea is one that seems to work best on Android devices. Since any application can tap into a contextual menu, it becomes trivial to move documents around between apps on the same device. But Apple is more in tune with seamless integration across devices; iCloud can sync everything down to the position of the text insertion cursor. The other aspect of the videos that I noticed was the forward-thinking user interfaces. Many of the interfaces shown are completely impractical and utterly inefficient, but there’s an overwhelming sense of flatness [1]. There’s no texture in the future, no gloss and no opacity. Everything is flat, geometric and simple. This seems to be a common thread amongst the current technology companies: Microsoft and RIM show it in their videos (and Microsoft is implementing it in Metro) and Google is building it into Android 4. Apple, however, is moving in a more tactile direction, increasingly using real-world, realistically-rendered textures (as I’ve previously discussed). It remains to be seen which is the better approach. Also a constant across these future visions videos are frameless, print-quality displays. All the pieces exist to make these displays today, including non-reflective glass, high-DPI panels and optical lamination to fuse them together. It’s an expensive prospect right now, but within a few years these monitors will start appearing.

The technology is all there. This is a shippable, reasonable prospect. But it won’t happen because Microsoft is bent on legacy support. Windows 8, for example, has a Metro interface for touch input and is a complete re-think of what Windows should be. But some nosy accountant decided that it needed to support old Windows applications, which is such a shitty idea. It compromises the focus of the OS and renders any attempt at progress null and void. For some reason, the management at Microsoft can’t wrap their head around the idea that revolutionary change doesn’t have to carry the burden of history. Users who need to run old Windows applications should run an old version of Windows. Users who have a touch display and want a new experience should run the new version of Windows. In fact, scrap the Windows brand and call it Metro, to make it less confusing. Don’t stop at the desktop OS, either; brand everything Metro that resembles this new look. Metro and Metro Phone. It doesn’t have to run the old stuff because it’s new. They can keep selling Windows — they have enough manpower to support both paradigms — but there’s no reason to provide Windows users with anything more than security updates and bug fixes.

Once you start removing the Minority Report-esque sheen, the underlying technology of these visionary videos is broadly here already. It just doesn’t work as perfectly as a rendered, rotoscoped, post-produced interpretation. It also can’t exist in a legacy, constantly backwards-compatible world.

  1. And Gotham. In the future, everything is Gotham. I guess Segoe isn’t timeless. [↑]

Broadway: An H.264 Decoder in JavaScript

Well, unfortunately there are browsers like Firefox that refuse to implement the defacto-standard in video codecs in their browsers. […] So what’s the next best course of action?  Well, you can either encode your videos in three different codecs to cover all your bases, or just in H.264 and use the JavaScript implementation to play it.

This is too clever.

Why I’m Kissing Spotify Goodbye

Spotify is great for people who love what’s on the radio right now, but as Brett Kelly points out, it’s less awesome for listeners with more varied tastes:

Bottom line: I’m willing to spend a little more to own the music I want

The free plan should satisfy those discovering a new artist, but it’s better to own the music you like than to rely on a third-party and their licensing deals (c.f. Coldplay’s decision).


Marco Arment:

As I was flipping through it, when I saw the first of many full-page ads, I was offended. I thought, “I paid good money for this and it’s full of ads?”

This is, hands-down, my biggest problem with my Wired subscription. It’s $20/year, but I’d be willing to pay more (and a fair amount more, at that) for an ad-free version, especially since Wired puts the same stories online for free and also with ads.

Minimal Names

For example if I tell you there is a program called Buoh, do you know what its purpose is? What it does? Well, Buoh is a reader for online strips comics. Now, if I tell you there is a program called Rip It, would you venture to guess what it does? Yes, you were right, it rips stuff. Rip It rips DVD’s so you can watch movies everywhere.

I would agree, with a caveat. There are good application names that abstract their concept further, such as Yojimbo or Safari. It might be difficult to guess what each does without knowing anything beyond the name, but they’re memorable names.

RIM’s Look at the Future

In RIM’s future, devices get thicker, data becomes meaningless and power gets lost. In the future, white shapes can be projected onto a wooden surface like a smear of paint. In the future, light doesn’t reflect. Ever. In the future, people never talk face-to-face, they just use augmented reality. In RIM’s future world, everyone looks great, but phones look like they were made in the late 1990s. Everyone is employed as a mid-level businessperson.

To kickstart this trend, they outsourced the design of their new phone to a car company, and it looks like it wants to kill you. This is their vision.

I think I’ve found the source of RIM’s problems.

Subtle UI Tweaks in iOS 5

Everyone noticed the updated toggle switches, but there are a few other tiny tweaks that went unnoticed for most. I didn’t realise the icon spacing was altered ever so slightly.

Productivity Future Vision

There are overwhelmingly great ideas in here, such as the “5 Minute Focus” section on a phone, but they are overshadowed by the fake impression of touch screens on every surface and transparent, borderless phones. From the perspective of usability, an awful lot of these concepts have horribly inefficient interfaces. Per Gruber, “we’ve all seen Minority Report already.”

Android Orphans

There are a number of statistics here that warrant caution to potential buyers, but this one is especially striking:

7 of the 18 Android phones never ran a current version of the OS.

Nearly 50% of the major Android devices sold in the US were never running the contemporary version of the US. This is crappy for users and crappy for developers.