Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2013

Enough With the Surveys

John Moltz:

This thing of glibly taking press releases or articles about survey results as anything meaningful? This has got to stop.

Please.

Facebook’s New Home on Android

Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Facebook just invited press to an event at its headquarters on April 4th to “Come See Our New Home On Android”. Sources tell us it will be a modified version of the Android operating system with deep native Facebook functionality on the homescreen that may live on an HTC handset.

Evelyn M. Rusli and Amir Efrati of the Wall Street Journal have more details, and less speculation:

The social network has been developing new software for mobile devices powered by Google’s Android operating system that displays content from users’ Facebook accounts on a smartphone’s home screen–the first screen visible when they turn on the device, people familiar with the situation said. Facebook will initially demonstrate the capability on smartphones from HTC, these people said, but has been working to reach similar arrangements with other device makers.

I’m going to take a guess that this is similar to HTC’s “BlinkFeed” feature from their One phone: live, streaming Facebook content on the home screen, just a tap away. And, knowing Facebook’s monetization and mobile strategy, ads on your home screen. Yippee.

The Verge Is DDoSing My Brain

Russell Brandom of The Verge has dutifully covered the internet crisis that never was. If you found the story via Facebook, you would have seen this headline:

There was a massive internet outage this weekend — here’s what happened.

In this context, “outage” apparently means something other than what’s in the dictionary. At least, that’s what the article explains:

The good news is that the web is built on redundancy, so the extra terabit-per-second of bandwidth could be spread across the network without any catastrophic failures, but the wake-up call for telecoms is real.

Translation: no outage.

will-h in the comments is apparently Will Hargrave of LONAP:

The graph you show is a classic ‘monitoring outage’ – i.e. the attack affected the monitoring infrastructure of the IX, not the IX itself.

I advise several LINX members on network operations and none saw a decrease in traffic. There are operators out there with over 200G of capacity onto LINX (yes, that is 20×10GE ports or 2×100G or similar) each who saw no traffic decrease.

This incident has generated a surprising number of headlines due to significant misunderstandings of what many of the cited metrics actually mean. I still think Gizmodo’s reporting is the most accurate and best-researched.

Google Promises Not to Sue You if You Violate One of Ten Patents Regarding Large Data Sets

Duane Valz, Senior Patent Counsel at Google:

Today, we’re taking another step towards that goal by announcing the Open Patent Non-Assertion (OPN) Pledge: we pledge not to sue any user, distributor or developer of open-source software on specified patents, unless first attacked.

We’ve begun by identifying 10 patents relating to MapReduce, a computing model for processing large data sets first developed at Google—open-source versions of which are now widely used. Over time, we intend to expand the set of Google’s patents covered by the pledge to other technologies.

This would mean a lot more if Google were to freely release patents that were meaningful to their business, like targeted advertising or search.

Any way you cut this, it comes down to a simple question: how much do you trust Google not to sue you?

“A Convenient Whipping Boy”

Vijay V. Vaitheeswaran, the Economist:

On March 15th, World Consumer Rights Day, a much-watched annual programme on CCTV, the official broadcaster, attacked Apple’s policies and practices in China. The suggestion was that the greedy firm treated locals as second-class citizens. This week, the People’s Daily, a party mouthpiece, launched a series of vitriolic attacks that accused the firm of “unparalleled arrogance.”

It is not unusual for foreign companies to come under occasional attack in China. Sometimes, this is well deserved—as when, last year, KFC was exposed for supply-chain lapses that led chickens of dubious quality to be served in its restaurants. But the CCTV exposé, which discussed warranty-repair policies, did not find anything remotely as rotten at the core of Apple’s China business. So what is really behind all this?

That Internet War Apocalypse Is a Lie

Earlier today, you may have read reports from the BBC and the New York Times that the internet was under attack, at scale. The only problem is that it was a complete myth. Sam Biddle of Gizmodo investigated:

Why are the only people willing to make any claims about the validity or scope of the attack directly involved: Spamhaus reps, the group’s leader, and most dubiously, CloudFlare, the anti-DDoS firm Spamhaus enlisted to ward off the attack. And it’s that last party that’s responsible for the sky-falling internet weather report, the party that stands to profit directly from you being worried that the internet as we know it is under siege.

Great reporting from Biddle.

But this should be concerning for the health of the BBC. This is the second story in a week of essentially repackaged public relations. It’s shameful for such a preeminent media organization.

The Kone Brewing System

Shawn Blanc just got a complete Kone set, which I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never seen before — I’ve only ever seen the filter component used with a Chemex. A very thorough review.

Why Developers Shouldn’t Use iCloud Syncing

Brent Simmons (via John Gruber):

How comfortable are you with outsourcing half your app to another company? The answer should be: not at all comfortable.

I used to argue that the value of an app using iCloud for its web back-end was based on the users’ trust of not handing your personal information over to yet another overnight startup to use in whatever way it may. But what the recent shutdown announcement of Google Reader (and the not-so-recent shutdown of iDisk) proved is that big companies are just as fallible to the whims and needs of business as startups (though, perhaps not to the same extent or frequency).

The main advantage that iCloud has is the zero setup configuration — when you launch an app, it provides a dialog for the user to authorize, with one tap, the use of iCloud syncing. But the few additional taps required to set up Dropbox within the app, or to create a new account, are well worth it for most developers to provide the web services they need.

Where in the World Are Windows Phones Outselling iPhones?

Frank X. Shaw, Corporate Vice President of Corporate Communications at Microsoft (no, really — that’s his title, with both instances of “corporate”):

Windows Phone has reached 10 percent market share in a number of countries, and according to IDC’s latest report, has shipped more than Blackberry in 26 markets and more than iPhone in seven.

Woah. Windows Phones are outselling iPhones in seven markets? That’s pretty significant, if those markets include, say, the United Kingdom, or the United States. But that doesn’t seem likely. Which seven markets, then, are Windows Phones doing better in?

Nick Wingfield, New York Times:

According to Kevin Restivo, an analyst at IDC, the countries where Windows Phone shipments exceeded those of iPhone during the fourth quarter were: Argentina, India, Poland, Russia, South Africa and Ukraine. A seventh “country” where Windows Phone shipments beat iPhone is actually a group of smaller countries, including Croatia, that IDC lumps together in a category called “rest of central and eastern Europe.”

India, Russia, and eastern Europe are all big areas with a fairly large combined population, but Apple can’t compete with ultra-cheap phones. And nor, I am sure, do they want to.

Flipboard 2.0

Walt Mossberg, AllThingsD:

One of the best ways of following topics that are interesting to you is Flipboard, a popular app for Apple and Android mobile devices that automatically turns social-network posts and news from online publications into beautiful, magazine-like pages you “flip” through by swiping.

Now, a new second generation of Flipboard, out Tuesday, is extending the app so it allows users to create and share their own handsome digital magazines with a few clicks and without any design talent required. If you make your magazine public, anyone with Flipboard, which is a free app, can read it and comment on it.

Flipboard is one of my favourite iPad apps, and I consistently hear it cited as a reason why people buy one. This is a superb update. And, yes, I’ve tried making a magazine — you can subscribe here.

Sweden Axes New Word After Google Intervenes

In December, the council unveiled its customary annual list of new Swedish words. Among the words that Swedes had begun using in 2012 was “ogooglebar” (‘ungoogleable’).

The California-based multinational soon got into a huff, asking the council to amend its definition. But the language experts refused to bow down to the demands, instead choosing a third option – removing the term altogether.

Possibly the strangest tech news of the day.

Forecast

Approaching 100k sales, [Dark Sky has] been fairly successful; however, we’ve been continually asked for more: international support, longer-term forecasting, an Android app, and so on.

Rather than cram these things into Dark Sky, we decided to do something grander: create our own full-featured weather service from scratch, complete with 7-day forecasts that cover the whole world, beautiful weather visualizations, and a time machine for exploring the weather in the past and far future.

I’ve wanted to use Dark Sky since it was launched, but because I have a condition known as “living-in-Canada-itis”, I couldn’t. But now the same developers have launched a super slick web app and API, and it’s great.

Twitterrific 5.2 Brings Native Push Notifications

Mike Beasley, 9to5Mac:

For the first time since its original release, Twitterrific finally supports native push notifications for new mentions, direct messages, followers, favorited tweets, and retweets. […]

Unfortunately, the notifications aren’t available for all users just yet, and according to the Iconfactory they are being considered a “beta” feature right now. In fact, only 1,000 users will recieve push notification access initially. These users will be granted access on a first-come, first-served basis.

Great update to my second-favourite iPhone Twitter client (and my favourite iPad one).

iPhone to Be Available on T-Mobile

We’ve had the iPhone on all of our major carriers for a few years now here in Canada, and this is great news for my American friends.

T-Mobile’s new contract-free pricing makes a lot of sense, but it might not be successful for the same reason that JC Penney’s new “fair and square” pricing isn’t working as well as you’d think: the perception of a deal is often stronger. Other carriers bundle the monthly cost of the phone into each bill; T-Mobile will be showing the two separately. Even though it will be much less expensive over two years than competitive plans, the breakdown will make it feel more expensive.

Put another way, this pricing strategy is such a radical shift for a consumer base so dependent on advertised sales, deals, and bargains.

Dear Fellow Geeks: WTF?

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, in the wake of the Pycon shit-show:

This isn’t “political correctness,” this is you having the courage to use your words to create an environment that promotes an open exchange of ideas — not alienate people and certainly not terrorize them.

I didn’t write about this because I didn’t think anyone involved in the situation was at their best. But, even though some people got fired and a photo was posted which shouldn’t have been, the worst groups in all of this were the jeering crowds on every social network, aggregator, and comment section.

For a similar take, check out this week’s episode of the Vergecast.

Just Say No to Pizzazz

Lex Friedman used a Nokia Lumia 920 for an entire month, replacing his iPhone 5:

So now, after a month with it as my go-to phone, I’ve powered down the Lumia 920 and returned my SIM card to its rightful place in my iPhone 5. That’s right: I’m back on the iOS-exclusive train, and I don’t regret my decision a bit. But I also don’t regret my choice to give Windows Phone a chance. I think it’s a promising mobile operating system, and I sincerely hope Microsoft keeps lavishing it with the attention it deserves. It’d be a shame for Microsoft to throw in the towel on Windows Phone, given how bright its future could be.

John Moltz also thinks that Windows Phone is the next-best choice:

If Apple does decide to take cues from someone to provide more user feedback, I hope it’s Microsoft instead of Google. I know some find the updating tiles distracting, but to me the Interface Formerly Known As Metro is attractive and provides more functionality without additional complexity.

Springbored

For better or for worse, and to varying extents, the tech community has the power to be tastemakers for the broader masses. What the recent shutdown of Google Reader proved is that while most normal people do not use RSS — I can’t find a single user, even amongst my tech-savvy group of friends — the tech press does use it, and frequently. They love it. The news of the forthcoming shuttering of Reader has struck journalists and writers in a unique way, spawning articles like this one from Ezra Klein:

Together, the Gmail experience, the death of Google Reader, and the closure of Picnik all have me questioning whether I want to keep investing time and energy in “free” Google products or whether I need to start looking for paid services that are explicitly making money off the thing I am paying them to do.

The tech press — the tastemakers — are brewing a sense of distrust of Google after the shutdown of a product used by that specific crowd every day. By emphasizing that Google is about to discontinue a product which they relied on, and that this will cause them to resist using new Google products, they are telling people not to trust the company to make the right decision. It’s the beginning ripple from the group that is trusted with telling normal people how to navigate the complex world of technology.

The tech press also likes to perceive Apple’s iOS as being stale and lacking features that Android and Windows Phone have. Take the home screen of each platform: Android has widgets, Windows Phone has live tiles, and iOS has an automatically-updated Calendar icon. Apple has used the same grid since the beginning, while the others have flirted with varying styles and interpretations.

But don’t confuse a perceived need for freshness with an imperative for change. It isn’t necessarily a good thing that Google likes to dick around with Android’s UI design, or that everything in Windows Phone is all flat and trendy in a digital equivalent of heroin chic. Much in the same way that the press is communicating a sense of distrust of the permanence of future Google apps, they are also parading a perceived need for Apple to replace iOS’s glass icons and textured surfaces.

Keep in mind that if Apple were to redesign the iOS home screen, it would be a Herculean task. They have 300 million users on iOS 6 alone, and they’ve sold around half a billion iOS devices. That means that there are hundreds of millions of people who know how to use the operating system. A complete overhaul could be disorientating to all these users. Christina Bonnington of Wired argues that confusing users could be worth it.

For the sake of “freshness”, the progress of the iOS user experience is perceived to be virtually unchanged from when the platform was first shown in 2007. A cynic would say that this is a sign that Apple is stagnating.1 I think it’s a sign that Apple got a bunch of stuff right the first time around. The 4 × 4 (now 4 × 5) icon grid is such a familiar metaphor that an iPhone can be recognized by it alone. But, as the above comment (and many like it) states, the perception is that Apple isn’t willing to change iOS. So many features have been globbed onto an interface that looks pretty much the same that it’s clear that it’s struggling in some areas.

Take folders, for example. With the advent and rise of the App Store, it became necessary to increase the amount of slots available for apps on each users’ phone. By adding multiple pages and folders, these apps are able to be better-organized in what is effectively the same user interface. The progress is hard to see, but by keeping the home screen roughly the same, they’ve added functionality without changing how straightforward it is to use. But folders merely hide the mess away; they can’t be the best interface for multiple apps.

And, lest we forget, power users want widgets. Yet, according to Drew Bamford of HTC, 90% of their users never use widgets. That’s probably because widgets, in general, are a poor way of viewing content. They’re really only great for glanceable information that requires no user input, like the weather and stock prices. But wouldn’t it be great if the Weather icon updated automatically?

These issues should not be confused with a perceived need to keep the OS looking “fresh”, or conversely, to prevent it from becoming “stale”. iOS has real issues which Apple should address in the future. It would be nice if there were a better way to handle hundreds of apps. It would be delightful if the Weather icon reflected actual conditions. But this isn’t a sign that Apple needs to heed the advice of the tech press and replace every gradient with flatness, and every shadow with a border. The perception of staleness is one created by a press too excited and impatient for their own good by comparing it to companies that chase trends, rather than just making a damn good product.


  1. “This would never happen if Steve were alive.” ↩︎