Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2012

File Under: Totally Unsurprising

Chris Ziegler for The Verge:

When Google was in the thick of Android’s development in 2006 and 2007 — long before the platform ever reached retail — it was a very different product, almost unrecognizable compared to the products we used today. Documents dated May of 2007 and made public during the course of Oracle’s lawsuit against Google over its use of Java in Android show off a number of those preliminary user interface elements, prominently marked “subject to change,” and you can see how this used to be a product focused on portrait QWERTY devices: every single screen shot is in a portrait orientation, and it’s clear to see how nearly everything could be operated with a directional pad alone.

No provisions for a touch screen either. What a surprise.

My iOS 6 Wish List

With all the buzz surrounding next-generation iPhone hardware, it’s easy to forget that it also runs an operating system. Surprised? Me too. It could be because the next generation of iPhone hardware is likely to be a large upgrade over the 4S, or because most of the major complaints with iOS have been addressed. In any case, I’m perhaps more excited about the possibilities of iOS 6 than about what lies in store for the new iPhone.

Arguably, the largest feature requests have been addressed. Notifications, for example, were dramatically improved in iOS 5, and multitasking support was added in the prior release. Where does iOS go from here? I’ve separated this mentally into two broad categories: fixes, for current features, and new features. It seems like the OS now requires more of the former than the latter.

Fixes

The notification system in iOS 5 has been an obvious improvement over the previous modal dialog. Gone are the days when you had to decide whether to answer the text message immediately, or forget to do it later. However, Notification Centre still isn’t up to the Apple standards of UI design. The most glaring instance of this is the tiny clear button beside each application’s group of notifications. It’s simply far too small to be functional. The solution isn’t to enlarge the button, but rather to remove it entirely. It shouldn’t be necessary to manually manage notifications in 2012. Ideally, each of these notification groups should automatically clear themselves after a period of time. For example, the reminder notifications I cleared earlier today are still present in Notification Centre, for some reason. This isn’t a bug, but a systemic problem with the current handling of all notifications. They’re present until you deal with them, one by one.

Apple’s next fix concerns Siri. I should provide a full disclosure, in advance of my complaints. In my iPhone 4S review, I wrote:

The biggest hurdle, however, is not technical. It’s mostly because commanding a virtual assistant feels very odd, even if it’s in plain language. I’m sure it’s a bit quicker for me to reply to a text message with my voice, or tell Siri to call someone as opposed to finding their name in my list of contacts. But I really, really do not want to. I’m also the kind of person who will find a secluded area to call someone in public, rather than trying to chat while walking down the street.

I am perhaps not the correct person to be writing about what Siri desperately needs. I use it for adding reminders, setting timers, and checking the weather. Nevertheless, I would like to see its functionality improve.

Foremost, I’d like it to be significantly more accurate. The other day I asked for it to remind me to prepare the asparagus. It interpreted this command as “enter the asparagus” which, aside from being a great name for a rock band, is quite useless. Apple assures me that Siri is a personal assistant, which I can use natural speech to command. But it isn’t contextually sensitive in the way that it should be. I admit that I’m not even close to an expert on how speech recognition software works, but this seems like it could be addressed with better recognition algorithms.

The next necessary improvement is for non-Americans, like myself. Siri absolutely needs to integrate with Maps and Yelp like it does in the States. This functionality is what Apple often demonstrates because it’s impressive and useful. Being able to dictate messages is useful, but the ability to ask for things nearby is futuristic.

Finally, I imagine third-party developers would love the ability to integrate with Siri. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, especially from a user interface perspective. Consider scheduling applications. I have three that I use regularly, and targeting each is difficult for a non-human to do. I place appointments with a set time in Agenda, my calendar app. This is easy enough to understand. But it gets tricky for short-form scheduling. I place reminders in the Reminders application, but I place tasks for completion in Clear, my to-do list of choice. The delegation of these tasks is tricky for a machine to understand. It could be specifically stated (“add ‘iOS 6 post’ to my Drafts list in Clear”), but this is inelegant and clunky.

New Features

As I said, I can’t think of any glaring omissions in iOS. Apple added WiFi syncing, a better notifications system, multitasking, copy & paste, and third-party development. The requested features seem to concern current features that are being asked to do more than they shipped with, like the iPhone’s home screen. It’s not a bad system, but it has become cumbersome with a veritable plethora of third-party applications. I have only 67 on my iPhone, but it feels like too many. Folders are a hacky workaround. There has to be a better way.

Shawn Blanc wrote an exceptional post on why this is a big deal:

Rebuilding the Home screen isn’t just about increasing usability. It is also about innovating at that “front-door interface” of how and where we get to the stuff on our devices (you can hardly do anything on your iPhone without going through the Home screen). Moreover, the ramifications of a reimagined Home screen go beyond iOS. As we are now learning via Lion and Mountain Lion, innovation on iOS is a setting of the stage for innovation on OS X.

In a post from earlier this year, Federico Viticci argued the same:

The concept of the Home screen we interact with today is broken because the Home screen wants to be a real, physical, tangible surface while providing access to the gates of the intangible: apps.

It’s a multifaceted problem, and one that cannot easily be solved. I don’t have any ideas on how it could be fixed, but it’s something that Apple is likely concerned with.

In a similar vein, I feel compelled to address home screen widgets. In his “Back to the Mac” keynote, Steve Jobs addressed the concept of OS X and iOS feeding each other. With this in mind, I think widgets would occupy a similar place as Dashboard does in Lion. If Apple does implement widgets, I think they would be placed on a screen to the left of the first home screen, in the area where Spotlight currently sits. The Spotlight interface would likely be integrated into this new screen.

In the Fixes section above, I pointed out the challenges of machines making decisions in a way that us human beings take for granted. I don’t think this is possible quite yet, but my “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-as-shit” idea borrows from Microsoft’s Future Vision video. At 1:26, a “5 Minute Focus” menu is shown, with tasks that the phone thinks can be completed in five minutes. As I noted when the video was released, this would be a great idea to borrow since Microsoft probably won’t ship it.

Others’ Thoughts

Aside from complaining about the current iOS home screen, Federico Viticci has a great iOS 6 wishlist, too. Features that he wants and which I’d agree with include iCloud tab syncing (coming), all-mailbox search, AirDrop, and better multitasking.

Craig Hockenberry, like the rest of us, is tired of having to enter his passcode when he’s at his desk. He’s come up with something called “Homebase” which would adjust settings based on device location. If, for example, your iPhone is within range of your home WiFi base station, it doesn’t require a passcode to unlock it, or for Find my Friends. Very clever.

Lastly, Neven Mrgan is annoyed by the grippers introduced in iOS 5. I’d like to see these improved as well.


That’s my iOS 6 wish list, then. It’s not complete, it isn’t particularly unique, and it likely won’t be fulfilled. But it’s what I believe would dramatically improve my iOS user experience. To what extent these changes will be improved will likely be known in the first half of June, at WWDC, and I’m excited.

New York City, a Century Ago

Almost a million images of New York and its municipal operations have been made public for the first time on the internet. […]

Taken mostly by anonymous municipal workers, some of the images have appeared in publications but most were accessible only by visiting the archive offices in lower Manhattan over the past few years.

These photographs are absolutely breathtaking. Via Rob Sheridan.

Clicky Keyboards

Shawn Blanc reviewed some very noisy, enormous, and downright ugly keyboards. The Das keyboard is intriguing, but it’s hideous, noisy, and not wireless.

Is my Apple wireless keyboard the most accurate, or the fastest to type on? According to Blanc, it isn’t even close. For my money, however, it’s the best balance for the things I care about, namely quietness and a wireless connection.

Apple Reports Second Quarter Results

The Company sold 35.1 million iPhones in the quarter, representing 88 percent unit growth over the year-ago quarter. Apple sold 11.8 million iPads during the quarter, a 151 percent unit increase over the year-ago quarter. The Company sold 4 million Macs during the quarter, a 7 percent unit increase over the year-ago quarter. Apple sold 7.7 million iPods, a 15 percent unit decline from the year-ago quarter.

Look at those iPad sales. iPhone sales were also pretty impressive, at only two million fewer than Q1, and the declining iPod sales are of no surprise to anyone.

Horace Dediu’s predictions were remarkably close.

Google Drive Officially Launches

Google has traditionally performed poorly in markets where there is a dominant leader that is already well-liked. For instance, Google Buzz flopped against Digg, and more recently, their experiments with Google+. In this category, Dropbox is the leader, and it’s an almost-universally admired product. Aside from more free storage, how can Google change this game?

The Average Font

Dorian Moore:

This is the story of the creation of a new font, Avería: the average of all the fonts on my computer.

Fascinating, if not terribly beautiful nor usable.

Fallacious Logic: Launching

Kai Sunderland and myself are thrilled to be launching a small project we’ve been working on. It’s called “Fallacious Logic” and it attempts to respond to the same: bad logic, poor rhetoric, and articles devoid of facts. We’ll be posting a few times per day, but not in overwhelming amounts. It should be a fun adventure.

The Instagram Investment

Ben Horowitz:

Despite Instagram’s awesome performance and our monstrous return, a number of articles have come out criticizing us for not making even more money on our investment. Ordinarily, when someone criticizes me for only making 312 times my money, I let the logic of their statement speak for itself.

Zing.

The Claude Glass: Instagram in the 18th Century

Anna Laurent:

The Claude glass was a sort of early pocket lens without the camera and it was held aloft to observe a vista over one’s shoulder. The technology was simple: A blackened mirror reduced the tonal values of its reflected landscape, and a slightly convex shape pushed more scenery into a single focal point, reducing a larger vista into a tidy snapshot.

Beautiful images. I would love to get my hands on one of these. Via Jason Kottke.

iPad Text Editors, Reviewed

Good reviews from Rui Carmo. He omits PlainText because it does not fulfill his Markdown support criteria, but it’s my editor of choice. I can’t preview Markdown in it, but it’s okay because I rarely use the more advanced features of it (I only really use links and block quotes).

Carmo recommends Textastic, which I find far too heavy for my needs. I don’t mind additional features that I’ll never use, provided they don’t impede the basics that I will. Alas, it’s much too complicated for my writing needs. It’s probably the closest we’ll get to Coda for iPad, for a while at least.

Don’t Be Evil but Don’t Miss the Tech Train

Quentin Hardy, for the New York Times:

[Google] has been accused of flouting copyrights, leveraging other people’s work for its benefit and violating European protections of personal privacy, among other things. “Don’t be evil” no longer has its old ring. And Google, an underdog turned overlord, is no humble giant. It tends to approach any controversy with an air that ranges somewhere between “trust us” and “what’s good for Google is good for the world.”

But ascribing what’s going on here solely to the power or arrogance of a single company misses an important dimension of today’s high-technology business, where there are frequent assaults, real or perceived, on various business standards and practices.

I’m not sure the direction in which these tech companies are headed is a generally positive one. There has been a fair amount of backlash for these incidents, and it’s going to continue. But that’s okay because we’re in uncharted waters. Things will change.

Facts, 360 B.C.-A.D. 2012

To the shock of most sentient beings, Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.

I love me a good piece of satire.

Time and Taste

Marco Arment:

Improving poor taste in upper leadership is almost as difficult as treating severe paranoia: people who don’t value taste and design will rarely recognize these shortcomings or seek to improve them. With very few exceptions, companies that put out tasteless, poorly designed products will usually never change course.

Nicely put.

The Design of a Signage Typeface

A truly fascinating tale from Ralf Herrmann that is part road trip, part design experience, and partly a research project:

I set off, driving thousands of miles across Europe to explore the legibility of these signs and typefaces, first hand. Once I even ended up in a holding cell at the border crossing to Norway, because the customs officers just wouldn’t accept that someone would drive all over Europe simply to take photographs of traffic signs.

Typornography.