Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2012

Sweep the Sleaze: Critique

Oliver Reichenstein replies to some of the critics of his “Sweep the Sleaze” article:

What we suggested is not cutting social media off, but integrating it more selectively and consciously. To further careful social media interaction and conscious debate. This is how we think social media works.

@2x Pedantry

In less than two weeks, Tim Cook will be kicking off WWDC 2012 with a keynote that’s expected to include details about iOS 6, the first public showing of Mountain Lion, and perhaps something related to a television set. If the rumour blogs are to be believed, Apple will also launch Macs with higher-resolution displays.

There’s plenty of evidence for a transition to Retina displays in shipping versions of Apple’s products. The programmatic user interface, with PDFs in many places instead of images, is just one example. If you poke around in Safari, you’ll find more references. Many of the CSS files used to style the Extension Builder (available in the Developer menu) contain blocks of code that look like this:

@media (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio:2) {
    .extension-settings .error-message::before {
        background-image: url(ErrorSmall@2x.png);

The PNG files referenced in these CSS files are not currently shipping in Safari, but they’re referenced throughout. The @2x nomenclature suggests that these files will be exactly double the width and height of their current counterparts, as with iOS Retina assets.

The first line of that block is also important. @media (-webkit-min-device-pixel-ratio:2) looks for Webkit browsers with a 2:1 pixel ratio, as above, and applies the styles in that section. I use it on this website to deliver a higher-resolution magnifying glass in the search field. Apple is using it here to send higher-resolution icons to high-res displays. Since these are referenced in files that are styling the Extension Builder, we can safely assume they aren’t cross-platform, and intended for the iPad. They’re for Retina Macs.

But, as John Brownlee has noted, “Retina” Macs are nearly here, and without doubling the pixels in each dimension. That’s because computers are used at a much greater viewing distance than iPhones or iPads. The 13-inch MacBook Air currently has 82% of the pixel density that it would need for a Retina display, for a viewing distance of 22 inches. To qualify it as a “Retina Display”, it doesn’t need to have a doubled 2,880 by 1,800 pixel display—a 1,920 by 1,200 display would be more than sufficient.

We’re faced with evidence of Macs with displays of greater pixel density. The available information suggests that they do not need to double their pixel count in each dimension, yet Apple seems to be targeting those displays. My bet is that the 2x nomenclature and 2:1 pixel ratio are becoming metaphorical. It won’t literally mean a double-resolution display, but rather a higher resolution display than what is currently expected.

As the Brownlee article notes, it simply isn’t necessary for such a vast number of pixels to give the illusion of solid curves at the typical viewing distance of desktop or laptop displays. Furthermore, such an increase in pixels will have a significant effect on battery life. An increase in pixel density represents a decrease in the amount of light that will pass through any given physical area, which means a corresponding increase in the amount of backlighting is necessary. This is why the new iPad has a battery with a capacity nearly 70% greater than that of its predecessors’.

A 2,880 by 1,800 pixel MacBook would be incredible, though, wouldn’t it?

Can We Please Move Past Apple’s Silly, Faux-Real UIs?

There’s some great stuff in this article. Tom Hobbs does a good job breaking down the difference between simplicity, and the appearance thereof. I’d like to see more innovative interface design come out of Apple, but I think they’re making a solid compromise in the end.

Where interfaces are going is closer to the iPhone than the Mac. Voice controls are inherently more simple than onscreen ones when you’re able to trust them.

Every Steve Jobs Appearance at D

There’s lots of video of the late Steve Jobs, primarily from his famous introductions of Apple products over the years, and from his oft-quoted Stanford commencement address.

But by far the largest trove of video of the legendary innovator candidly answering unrehearsed questions and explaining his views on technology and business comes from his six lengthy appearances at our D: All Things Digital conference, from 2003 to 2010.

The joint Bill Gates/Steve Jobs appearance and the one from D8 were both available previously, but the rest are finally available. I know what I’m doing this evening.

Guessing WWDC 2012

John Gruber:

Second, there are an unusually high number of “To Be Announced” sessions on the WWDC schedule this year. There are always TBA sessions on the preliminary schedule, because there are always some sessions pertaining to new stuff that will be announced on Monday. But this year there seem to be more TBA sessions than usual — particularly in Presidio, the aforementioned biggest room for sessions in the building. […]

To me, this is what a preliminary WWDC conference schedule would look like if Apple were set to announce a new developer platform, like, say, apps for Apple TV. Apps for Apple TV is just a guess — I’ve heard not a single whisper about such a thing from any Cupertino area little birdies. (Cf. the aforementioned Tim Cook quote about Apple doubling down on secrecy.) But it’s one of the few things I can imagine would that would be big, new, and different enough to warrant that much attention at WWDC. Combine these holes in the session schedule with Jonathan Geller’s report today at BGR — “Apple to Demo New TV OS at WWDC in Two Weeks” — and I’ll put five bucks down on this actually happening.

If this is true, WWDC is going to be packed this year, with iOS 6 and Mountain Lion, plus the rumoured MacBook and iMac updates. To fit a brand new platform into an already-stuffed keynote seems unlikely, and that’s the only reason I’m doubtful of this.

Lovely Disguise, Read Between the Lines

Dan Frommer listens to what Tim Cook didn’t say at D10, and there’s a lot of it. As many are reporting, it looks like Apple is considering killing off Ping, and perhaps the iAd program as well.

Based on Cook’s comments, it’s easy to surmise that Apple is looking at making a television set. I stand by what I previously wrote: if it happens, its success depends on its ability to provide the same passive experience as current televisions while improving the rest of it.

Nobody has cracked the future of TV yet. We could be looking at either the first breakthrough, or the first failure of a product of this scale in Apple’s recent history.

Sweep the Sleaze

Oliver Reichenstein on the overabundance of sharing buttons:

Don’t worry. These buttons will vanish. The previous wave of buttons for Delicious and Digg and Co. vanished, Facebook and Twitter and G+ might vanish or they might survive, but the buttons will vanish for sure. Or do you seriously think that in ten years we will still have those buttons on every page? No, right? Why, because you already know as a user that they’re not that great. So why not get rid of them now? Because “they’re not doing any harm”? Are you sure?

These buttons are the contemporary equivalent of those hit trackers from the Geocities days, except they’re slower and more pervasive.

Let Me Teach You About this Thing Called “Context”

I get that Mike Masnick is just baiting for clicks, but that doesn’t excuse such blatant stupidity. First:

He compared patent infringement to signing one’s name on a painting that someone else put energy into finishing. Cook stressed the importance of companies building their own stuff so that Apple would not be “the developer for the rest of the world.”

Kinda like, you know, how Apple “signed its name” to the graphical user interface developed at Xerox PARC? Or the mouse developed at SRI?

When you use the PARC or SRI comparison, you’ve lost. It’s like Godwin’s Law, but for tech.

Of course, then Walt Mossberg brings up the fact that Apple is, in fact, the target of many patent lawsuits as well… and suddenly Cook’s tone changes, insisting that those cases are different:

“The vast majority of those are on standards-essential patents,” he said, adding that it’s an area where today’s patent system is “broken.”

Now, to some extent he’s correct that patent battles over “standards-essential” patents are particularly nefarious, but it still seems like quite the double standard to insist that the patents that Apple has asserted against various makers of Android tablets and smartphones aren’t equally silly and destructive to basic market competition.

Equating trade dress patents with those for standards-essential practices is twisting facts so blatantly that any editor should have spotted this. Apple, understandably, doesn’t want other companies making products that look like knockoffs of their own. However, these patents are not essential to connecting to a cell network, for example. That’s the difference.

Masnick seems to think that equating the two isn’t an issue. I think it’s obviously disingenuous.

Lineups for the Samsung Galaxy S III

Zach Epstein, for Booger 1:

Samsung’s recent run of television commercials depicted iPhone owners as mindless hipster sheep who line up for days just to get their hands on a boring incremental update. While Samsung and its advertising firm had some fun poking at Apple and its legions of dedicated fans, the truth was made known during an interview earlier this year with Samsung marketing boss Younghee Lee: Samsung wants people to be obsessed with its products just like they are with Apple’s products.

Now they have their wish: there are lineups for the Galaxy S III. What’s to bet they still keep calling people who line up for the new iPhone “sheep”?

Tim Cook’s Interview at D10 Conference

This is ongoing as I write this. Tim Cook has a fantastically dry sense of humour:

Walt: One thing that’s been happening a lot on the Android side, they’re looking to make fewer models.

Cook: I wonder where they got that idea.

Donald Trump’s $3 Billion Name

Dave Gilson, for Mother Jones:

Now, according to Trump’s book, he’s worth more than $7 billion. Of that, $3 billion is the value of the Trump brand, i.e., his name.

How do you get your name to be worth a purported $3 billion? First, you slap it onto every kind of product imaginable, from hotels to perfume to a vanity beer label. [This is] a selection from the more than 200 trademark applications The Donald™ has filed in his own name.

Of note, “to trump” is Northern English slang for “to fart”. Consider that while reading the list. For instance, “Tour de Trump”, or “Trump Air”.

Ads in Your Face

Brett Simmons:

I don’t think a Facebook phone is any kind of answer. It will have to be super-cheap to compete. After all, why buy a cow (a Facebook phone) when you can get milk (a Facebook app) for free? A Facebook phone looks like an expensive distraction, a war of choice.

I don’t understand how a Facebook phone would be an appealing choice. They would have to make it extremely cheap, and completely ruin the Facebook app experience for every other platform.

This is (Probably) the Back of Apple’s Next iPhone

When rumour websites get their hands on parts for the next iPhone, it’s usually a good indicator of what the product will look like, particularly if it’s the entire back, sides, and front glass. It looks like 9to5 Mac has done just that, with both a black and white back case, and some black front glass. It matches up with most of the rumours so far, including a taller display area, and a smaller dock connector.

The photos show a brushed metal area in the middle of the back. It looks great on the black model, like a tuxedo jacket, but the white frame looks odd. It’s going to be something that requires seeing it in person, not just in photos.

Shipped and Sold: A Brief Introduction

Horace Dediu helps weave through the accounting mess of shipped and sold units. There are many great points here, and you should read the whole thing, but I’m going to pull out one paragraph that allows for a good segue:

A big gap between sell-in and sell-through might imply large amounts of in-channel inventory. This is product that is sitting either in stores or in warehouses or on trucks in transit. If sales are steady, the inventory is measured in time as in “weeks of inventory”. This means that the excess is expected to be sold within a fixed time frame if shipments were to end. The smaller this amount, the better or “tighter” the operations are. Inventory, as Tim Cooks says, is fundamentally evil. It eats capital and erodes profitability.

And lo’, a segue: RIM’s inventory, for example, grew by 18% last quarter:

The value of RIM’s in-house supplies grew 18 percent last quarter alone, a faster rate than at any other company in the industry, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. And that doesn’t include the BlackBerrys gathering dust at RIM’s carriers and retail partners. Apple Inc., meanwhile, saw its inventory decline 11 percent in the period from the previous three months.

What happens when there’s lots of excess inventory that isn’t selling, Horace?

Sometimes miscalculation of sell-through could result in vast amounts of inventory that has to be returned by distributors. That inventory is either written off or sold at fire sale prices resulting in a “write-down”. This happened recently with both the HP TouchPad and with the RIM PlayBook. This special charge against income is a one-time (usually) incident but it can also affect a firm’s reputation with channel partners for a long time. This type of failure is very costly.

Indeed, this is what Bloomberg is reporting:

Research In Motion Ltd.’s stockpiles of BlackBerry smartphones and PlayBook tablets have swollen by two-thirds in the past year because of slumping sales, raising the chances of the company’s third writedown since December.

That RIM is having its third occurrence of what is supposed to be a one-time incident is disastrous and miserable for the employees. This industry moves fast, and RIM’s management has been unable to keep up.

The 16:9 iPhone

Rene Ritchie imagines an iPhone with a 4-inch 16:9 ratio display. In some cases, it looks alright. Anything in portrait and with a long list of information, for instance. But landscape content, aside from movies, looks awkward. If Apple does go to a 4-inch display, I think this is the way they’ll do it, but it isn’t without its drawbacks.

Redesigning the Hotel Icon

If you’ve perused What Nick Finds, you’ll know that I have something of an obsession with transportation signage, particularly that which is used in airports. There’s still a little magic to airports because everybody there is about to be somewhere else. The DOT pictograms are an essential part of that.

These pictograms are designed for high-resolution printing at larger sizes, and not the low resolution of computer displays. The designers at Cleartrip discovered this, and were faced with the challenge of redesigning the hotel icon to fit. They came up with a really smart, subtle solution.

Speculation on the Next Mac Pro

Marco Arment has a few good ideas of what the next Mac Pro might entail, including concerns that there won’t be another Mac Pro. I take issue with this paragraph, however:

One big question is Retina-display support. If Retina displays are coming to the MacBook Pro soon, would they spread to the rest of the Mac line within a year or two? If so, wouldn’t the next Mac Pro generation need to support them, presumably with the release of a Retina Thunderbolt Display? That’s a big requirement alone, and it would also require special video cards that could drive two or three of them. (The sheer amount of manufactured pixels and GPU throughput required to pull that off makes me think that Retina Thunderbolt Displays might not exist for a while.)

Keeping in mind that we are speculating from a very distant point about Retina Macs, Arment’s concerns may be ill-founded. As John Brownlee explained, Retina displays are closer in Macs than we’ve otherwise thought, as they don’t necessarily need to double in resolution. He notes that the current resolution of the 27-inch panel in the current iMac and Thunderbolt Display is 89% of what, mathematically, constitutes a “Retina display”. He did the math, and worked out that a display of 3840 x 2160 pixels is 133% of a Retina display, which any Mac Pro can comfortably output.


Pat Dryburgh tries to buy Photoshop CS6:

I’m no expert at payment processing, but I’ve bought a thing or two on the Internet. Some of these things have been software applications, and some of those have been from indie development shops run by a single developer. Each of these experiences has been flawless, allowing me to use the software within minutes, if not less.

And yet Adobe, a massive company with thousands of employees, can’t process an order sooner than 24 hours?