Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2013

Consumer Reports: “Water is Wet”

Apple’s in-house technical support service, the Genius Bar, rated as high as support provided by phone or online. Whatever way readers asked for tech help—by phone (the most common way), online, or in person—Apple was also able to solve more computer problems. Independent shops that make custom computers came closest to Apple.

No kidding. According to Consumer Reports, Apple makes “the worst” of the top smartphones, but at least they have good customer service.

Genuine question: where does one take a Nexus, or a Samsung, or an LG for service? Best Buy? Your cell carrier? The list seems to be filled with companies that are annually ranked as some of the worst in terms of customer service.

What a Stupid Idea

Jon Bell, on his “McDonald’s Theory”:

The next time you have an idea rolling around in your head, find the courage to quiet your inner critic just long enough to get a piece of paper and a pen, then just start sketching it. “But I don’t have a long time for this!” you might think. Or “the idea is probably stupid”, or “Maybe I’ll go online and click around for-”

No. Shut up. Stop sabotaging yourself.

Dustin Curtis, on a similar theme:

The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present. It’s very easy to unconsciously dismiss the first versions of something as frivolous or useless. Or as stupid ideas.

Both are excellent articles centred around early drafts. Bell’s tackles the internal perception of an idea, and the difficulty in making that a reality. Curtis covers others’ initial derision to unique ideas.

I recently had experience with both of these facets. A few months ago, I began work on a sculpture which polled Twitter in real time, looking for tweets containing phrases of a confessional nature. It would then print a tweet every thirty seconds using a receipt printer, which would be hung well above the gallery floor to create a cascade of others’ anonymized confessions.

I didn’t know where to begin this piece. Initially, this was going to output to a display because it would be easier, but I knew that it was a cop-out. Finding a receipt printer was massively difficult, too: receipt printers are designed to have bulletproof reliability, so they’re around $300, and most still use a parallel port. Throughout the development process, half the people I told this idea to wrote it off, or were uninterested. Even hanging it in the gallery was more difficult than it needed to be.

Everything seemed to conspire against this project, but I eventually finished it. “Confessional” was done.

Confessional

When the gallery held the reception for this group show, this piece was widely admired. Crowds gathered around the bottom to read out old tweets from the pile that built up. It satisfying and thrilling to see my stupid idea become a fairly respectable reality. That’s the reward I received for sticking with something I knew to be worth the effort. I highly recommend the resulting feeling.

An Anecdotal Observation on How Google+ Is Doing

David Chartier shares his observation that Google+ seems like a ghost town. I’d agree, but I haven’t opened Google+ apart from to check the reviews page of a restaurant near me which, incidentally, I didn’t realize Google had migrated away from Maps.

“Tablets Are Not a Good Business Model”

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins, in an interview with Bloomberg:

“In five years I don’t think there’ll be a reason to have a tablet anymore,” Heins said in an interview yesterday at the Milken Institute conference in Los Angeles. “Maybe a big screen in your workspace, but not a tablet as such. Tablets themselves are not a good business model.”

I think there’s another company named after a fruit that would disagree with you, Mr. Heins. Maybe your PlayBook didn’t sell because it was terrible.

Path Texts My Entire Phonebook at 6:00 AM

Stephen Kenwright:

When I was asked about inviting people to Path as I installed the app I said no, and without entering much in the way of personal information Path decided to text my entire phone book for me the day AFTER I uninstalled it from my Android.

Maybe that’s the real reason Path CEO Dave Morin doesn’t have a ringtone.

Update: Path told The Verge that it’s a feature:

By default, Path assumes you want to send a message to all your Facebook friends, displaying a list with every name checked. The user must then tap “unselect all,” or Path will text a signup link to every friend. This configuration has been in place since Path’s last release on March 6th.

Between this, the location data controversy, and the infamous automatic address book uploading, Path has a solid track record of user-hostile behaviour.

Donald Trump Offers Some Unsolicited Apple Advice

Donald Trump:

I have a lot of @Apple stock— and I miss Steve Jobs. Tim Cook must immediately increase the size of the screen on the iPhone. It should be slightly larger than the Samsung screen- and they better get it right fast because they will lose a lot of business. I like the larger screen.

The iPhone’s screen “must immediately” get bigger because Donald Trump likes a bigger screen. Also, it must be slightly bigger than “the Samsung screen”, but it’s hard to know which one he’s referring to. And you can trust Trump on this because he misses Steve Jobs.

If Trump has a lot of Apple stock, wouldn’t he like Tim Cook a lot more than he apparently does? The stock under Cook has risen far higher than it ever did under Jobs.

Flat

The usually well-connected Mark Gurman, 9to5Mac:

According to multiple people who have either seen or have been briefed on the upcoming iOS 7, the operating system sports a redesigned user-interface that will be attractive to new iOS users, but potentially unsettling for those who are long-accustomed to the platform.

The new interface is said to be “very, very flat,” according to one source. Another person said that the interface loses all signs of gloss, shine, and skeuomorphism seen across current and past versions of iOS.

I’m excited to see this. As I’ve said previously, iOS is used by hundreds of millions of people. They can’t radically change the OS in a way that would disorientate longtime users, but it sounds like they’re trying to hit a sweet spot of redesign.

Then there’s this nugget (emphasis mine):

iOS 7 is codenamed “Innsbruck,” according to three people familiar with the OS. The interface changes include an all-new icon set for Apple’s native apps in addition to newly designed tool bars, tab bars, and other fundamental interface features across the system.

I don’t want to get too speculative, but if the WWDC logo was hinting at anything, it seems to me that many of the default app icons are represented within its colours:

WWDC logo

Orange is Music, green is both Phone and Messages, magenta is iTunes, and red is Calendar. Just something to ponder.

Thoughts on WWDC

After WWDC tickets sold out in record time depriving many developers of their chance to meet with Apple engineers in person, there were cries for the system to be fixed, and even calls for WWDC to end.

Casey Liss an articulate response to these ideas:

If 2013 is the last year of WWDC as we know it, I’ll be sad to miss the sessions. I’ll be sad to miss the access to Apple. But I’ll be most sad to miss having the excuse to get together with my friends — my inspiration.

WWDC isn’t just one thing — it isn’t the keynote, the engineering sessions, the access to Apple engineers, or the community. It’s all of these things.

Apple has recognized that the developer community has outgrown WWDC, however, and is bringing the sessions and the engineers on the road:

For those who can’t join us in San Francisco, you can still take advantage of great WWDC content, as we’ll be posting videos of all our sessions during the conference. We’ll also be hitting the road this fall with Tech Talks in a city near you.

Good news all around. But there’s still a nagging feeling that WWDC needs to be bigger. Moscone is the biggest convention hall in San Francisco, though, so where could they hold it?

A Big Band Plays a Tiny Club

Connor Simpson, The Atlantic Wire:

Last night the Rolling Stones played the ideal show that everyone wants but no one ever gets to see. They played a short set of their best hits and favorite covers at a small, “surprise” gig at the Echoplex, a 700-person Los Angeles club. Be jealous, because you weren’t there.

These kinds of gigs are unbeatable. New York’s Bowery Ballroom is famous for performances from acts big and small, despite having a capacity of just 500 patrons. A few years ago, Nine Inch Nails took the stage.1 In 2010, Kanye West performed his then-new album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” in its entirety. And, just recently, Bob Mould rocked the house with some special guests. (There is a language warning on all of those videos, naturally.)

The Echoplex is a famous venue for Pitchfork-level indie acts, so to see the Rolling Stones play that club would be an incredible experience. Of course, it’s 2013, so secret shows aren’t so secret any more. Indeed, footage from the evening has surfaced on YouTube.


  1. “Acidjack” recorded a great bootleg at this show, if you want it in its entirety. ↩︎

Google Now on iOS

Google Now is a critical selling feature of Android, and to bring it to iOS seems like Google is shooting themselves in the foot. But their revenue strategy relies upon having products on as many platforms as possible, which is why this makes sense. Google is also probably betting on the halo effect to bring more customers to Android.

The product still gives me the creeps, though. Even though it’s automated, something rifling through my email, contacts, and calendar to try to predict what information I’m going to need is unnerving.

The Cheaper iPhone Model Already Exists (and it’s Selling Well)

Chris O’Brien, Los Angeles Times:

After the Apple earnings conference call Tuesday, several analysts noted that the average selling price of iPhones had fallen to $613 from $641 in the previous quarter, the result of what William Power, a Baird analyst, said in a report was “greater focus on the lower-priced iPhone 4.”

The iPhone 4 is still a decent piece of hardware, which poses a difficult problem for Apple: how can they sell more of the recent higher-priced models when the old, less-expensive models are great? Remember that challenge when you consider the rumours of a cheaper iPhone model. Not only would such a model need to be less expensive, it would need to be produced with a bigger profit margin margin, too.

Bing, Skype, and Xbox Rebranding Plans

The flat Windows logo from last year looks like a window, and is successful. This rebrand — particularly the Bing logo — is so abstract as to be meaningless.

“We thought about Nike,” says Simmons.

What creative director doesn’t say that they want their brand to be as simple and effective as Nike’s? This doesn’t have the verve or zest of the Nike logo.

The iTunes Store Turns Ten

On Wednesday, Apple posted an interactive timeline chronicling a decade of easy, convenient, and inexpensive digital music purchases on the iTunes Store.

In the past ten years, the iTunes application has grown from a ghastly brushed metal interface to today’s beautiful Helvetica-and-artwork-heavy interface. Of course, not everyone thinks today’s iTunes package is great. Roberto Baldwin1 published a guide for Apple to making iTunes 11 “awesome again”. I don’t agree with all of his advice; for example, on search:

Now iTunes crams a list of items that relate to your search in a drop down menu instead of the player window. That’s not better. It’s confusing. If you choose an artist it pushes you into the Artists view. Not so helpful if you’re looking for a certain song by an artist where the list view would be a quicker search solution. Roll search back.

I prefer the new iTunes search, even though it’s desperately slow with my library. But if you dislike it, you can roll back to the old-style search by clicking the magnifying glass, and unchecking “Search Entire Library”. This, though, I agree with:

Even in iOS, Apple has separated videos and music. Stuffing all the media into the app has led to bloat. Video felt tacked on when it was introduced, and that hasn’t changed.

It’s such a gnarly way of mixing two media. At least iTunes 11 separates out movies with a much different interface, but it still feels tacked-on.

Over at The Verge, Nathan Ingraham has posted a good history of the necessary negotiations, iconic advertising, and key milestones in the iTunes story. Most intriguing is the section dedicated to the fate of various “iTunes killers” that have come and gone over the past decade.

This brings me neatly to Samsung’s about-to-launch media and app store:

Samsung’s relationship with Google in particular is growing more complicated by the day, Mr. Golvin said.

“Google is to some extent reliant on Samsung as the dominant seller of Android phones,” he said. “At the same time, Samsung is reliant on Google for the larger Android ecosystem, people building Android apps and delivering them through Play.”

Samsung is so dominant that this new store might — with emphasis on might — be able to sway control over Android to them. What if Samsung forks Android, and makes a proprietary version? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Samsung’s dominance must scare the shit out of Google.


  1. Pretty sure he’s not one of the Baldwin brothers. ↩︎

The Wirecutter

If you’re sick of tech reviews that don’t provide a solid opinion as to whether a product is worth buying or not, don’t fret. Brian Lam’s The Wirecutter is exactly what you need. It has recently been redesigned, but the recommendations are as good as ever.

Rental Car Companies Are Idiots When It Comes to Keys

Jason Torchinsky, Jalopnik:

As I’m standing here, staring at those two fucking keys laying on the floor of the hatch, mocking me, all I can think about is how much I hate Enterprise and the entire rental car establishment right now. And that squirrel over there, looking at me with that stupid blank look on his smug little furry fucking face. Is there anything stupider than providing two keys with a car, and then joining them permanently together with a piece of braided steel cable? No, there isn’t.

Recommended by 4 Out of 5 Dentists

Quick: what are the top three smartphones that you can buy today?

Now score each of those smartphones on a ten-point scale. Tricky, isn’t it?

There are certain quantifiable metrics by which a smartphone, in this case, can be judged: screen resolution and size, battery life, or cell radio capabilities. But these metrics do not define the whole experience; you’re not just buying a screen or a battery, are you?

This necessitates the introduction of subjective scoring of other aspects, like hardware design, or the niceness of the onscreen interface. Each of these qualities is impossible to score objectively, or numerically, for that matter. What specific qualities separate “8” hardware from “7” hardware? Even aspects of a phone which are ostensibly measurable are no indication of their value to the end product. Processor frequency, for example, can be measured, but it is not the only factor that may influence performance or battery life.

All of these issues were combined recently with The Verge’s review of the Samsung Galaxy S4:

The Galaxy S4 is fast and impressive, but it’s also noisy and complex. The One is refined, quiet, comfortable, beautiful, and above all simply pleasant. I love using that phone, in a way I haven’t experienced with anything since the iPhone 5. That’s why, when my contract is up in June, I’ll probably be casting my lot with HTC instead of Samsung.

Given this summary paragraph alone, you would be forgiven for assuming that this is not a recommended product. It’s unpolished, and full of “noisy” features. But the phone itself received an 8.0 rating which, in a vacuum, you would be forgiven for assuming is a recommendation of it. Both cannot be true at the same time.

Ben Brooks has written about the ambiguity of The Verge before:

The problem is endemic of the industry as a whole. You can say all you want about my opinions — whether I am right or wrong — what you can’t say is that I don’t have one. I will take you disagreeing with me all day long over being a bland yes man.

I think this stems from the notion that subjective qualities can be ranked on an objective scale. This is completely absurd, yet it’s the basis for most popular review sites in the technology space and elsewhere. Pitchfork, for example, ranks albums on a 10.0 scale. What makes Cassie’s RockaByeBaby precisely 0.3 better than Phoenix’s Bankrupt!?

My objections aren’t simply that all of these rankings are opinions. It isn’t even the way these subjective rankings are masquerading as objective scores, though that is certainly part of my objection. Rather, it is the notion that there is some necessity in ranking or scoring things with numbers.

Make no mistake: there is a need to have reviews of the new products, new music, and new whatever that competes for our attention and money. But the idea that they need to be judged on a numerical scale is completely ridiculous. A much simpler and more honest approach would be to either “recommend” a product, or to “not recommend” it. Perhaps there could also be a “highly recommended” ranking, for particularly good things (and, for the pessimists out there, an “avoid” ranking, for truly terrible things). This system appears to be more vague, but it is no less accurate than an arbitrary number score.

Of course, this ranking system would require people to read reviews, rather than hopping to the comments to immediately complain about the numerical score. C’est la vie.

Photos Every Day

This new iPhone ad is perhaps one of the best Apple’s shown in recent memory. Beautiful cinematography paired with minimalist piano music never fails.