Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2013

Welcome to Google Island

Mat Honan, Wired:


The soft, froggy voice startled me. I turned around to face an approaching figure. It was Larry Page, naked, save for a pair of eyeglasses.

“Welcome to Google Island. I hope my nudity doesn’t bother you. We’re completely committed to openness here. Search history. Health data. Your genetic blueprint. One way to express this is by removing clothes to foster experimentation. It’s something I learned at Burning Man,” he said. “Here, drink this. You’re slightly dehydrated, and your blood sugar is low. This is a blend of water, electrolytes, and glucose.”

Cameras Everywhere

Nick Bilton, New York Times:

Yet when it was finally my turn to approach the rows of white urinals, my world came screeching to a halt. There they were, a handful of people wearing Google Glass, now standing next to me at their own urinals, peering their head from side to side, blinking or winking, as they relieved themselves.

Auto-uploading to Google+ for all the world nobody to see.

The Neighbors

Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon:

“The Neighbors,” currently on display at the Julie Saul Gallery in Chelsea, is, at first glance, a quiet, painterly collection of intimate yet semi-abstract images. A seemingly nude male figure stands illuminated behind a curtain. A woman sits serenely, holding a menacing pair of scissors. A lone figure naps on a couch. A figure in a green dress crouches on the floor, her rear pressed close to the glass.

None of the photos show the subject’s faces, but the residents of the luxury condo across the street from [artist Arne] Svenson are understandably none too thrilled to see their asses turned into artwork — that’s fetching up at up to $7,500 a print, all without their consent.

This is something I constantly question when I’m making work: the difference between implicit and explicit consent. Anything visible within a public realm is typically fair game, but it’s uncomfortable. Anything on Instagram that’s public is, in theory, alright to appropriate (provided you follow their terms of service, naturally), but is that fair to the subjects? Are public tweets of private matters okay to more widely broadcast? Consider the @NeedADebitCard Twitter account, for just one example.

In these cases, it’s not a legal question, but an ethical one. In the meantime, if you live across from Svenson, you might want to close your blinds. Via Dave Pell

Gullible Finance

On Tuesday, a little-known trader from Nashville named David Trainer wrote a blog post claiming that Apple stock is worth around $240 per share.

Ethan Jewett decided to fact-check this bit of speculation:

Turns out, the analysis is based on a “what if” scenario assuming that Apple had a Return On Invested Capital (ROIC) for 2012 of 70% and for 2013 (to date) of 52%. These drive a calculated Economic Book Value per Share around $240, which is apparently Trainer’s target.

Because the media loves controversy, Trainer appeared on CNBC and was featured on MarketWatch, despite his calculations lacking any factual merit whatsoever, and nobody promoting his theory questioned nor double-checked his math. Asinine.

Google Urges Fast Adoption of VP9 Video Compression

Stephen Shankland, for CNet:

“If you adopt VP9, as you can very quickly, you’ll have tremendous advantages over anyone else out there using H.264 or VP8, (its predecessor),” said VP9 engineer Ronald Bultje in a talk here at Google’s developer conference. “You can save about 50 percent of bandwidth by encoding your video with VP9 vs. H.264.”

From what I can find, the only widely-used products with VP8 implemented are YouTube and Skype, but the former also supports H.264-encoded video. The latter must also partially support H.264 because its iOS app appears to use the Core Video framework. Why would VP9 be adopted greater than VP8 has (or, for that matter, get greater play than Theora, Lagarith, OpenAVS, or any of the other free video codecs)?

Furthermore, why doesn’t Google spearhead the adoption of the codecs they proselytize by encoding their Play Store’s movie library in VP8 or VP9 format?1 Why doesn’t Google recommend VP8 or VP9 to their Android developers?

Standards are great; that’s why we have so many of them.

  1. Google doesn’t publicly acknowledge what video format their Play videos use; however, their requirement for Flash Player strongly suggests H.264 encoding. ↩︎

Everything Apple Needs to Introduce at WWDC to Appease the Internet

Justin Williams:

With WWDC just a few weeks away, I thought it’d be beneficial to the Internet at large to compile a working list of everything that is expected of Apple during their Keynote and subsequent “State of the Union” addresses in order to appease the Internet. Failure to introduce each and every one of these features and updates will result in another stock price plummet, calls for Tim Cook’s ouster and an infinite amount of comments on tech blogs decrying that Android is superior to Apple’s iOS.

No pressure.

The Android Detour

Ben Thompson, on the almost complete lack of Android from this year’s very long Google I/O keynote:

For Google, Android was a detour from their focus on owning and dominating web services; it ensured that those services would be freely accessible in this new world of computing, including on the iPhones and iPads that were used liberally in nearly every keynote demo. And, now that Android is successful, Google is back to focusing on “the best of Google”.

Google+ Hangouts Video Chat Disabled On AT&T

AT&T’s statement to Engadget, translated by me:

All AT&T Mobility customers can use any video chat app over cellular that is not pre-loaded on their device, but which they download from the Internet.

Remember that whole kerfuffle over how FaceTime was disabled over cellular unless you bought a much more expensive plan? We liked that PR disaster so much that we’d like to repeat it.

For video chat apps that come pre-loaded on devices, we offer all OS and device makers the ability for those apps to work over cellular for our customers who are on Mobile Share, Tiered and soon Unlimited plan customers who have LTE devices.

Don’t blame us, man. Blame Google. They’re the ones who have the most skin in the game if Hangouts are available over our cellular network.

It’s up to each OS and device makers to enable their systems to allow pre-loaded video chat apps to work over cellular for our customers on those plans.

Seriously — ask Google. File one of those bug reports or something and I’m sure they’ll get back to hey where are you going come back here.

Google Versus

Gruber’s use of the word “fans” in the first sentence is too reminiscent of the “fanboy” word — which I detest — but the sentiment is correct: Google is not a benevolent organization. They are a for-profit company, and behave like it, despite the sentiments expressed by their spokespeople.

“We Already Have Money”

Garrett Murray on Monday:

Here come Amazon Coins! A place to put your money where you can’t get it back out and it’s possibly worth less over time and it can only be used to buy shitty Android games! Sign up today! (Lots of ca-ching! sounds and cheering.)

Tom Warren of The Verge today:

Microsoft is killing off its Points system that’s primarily used for its Xbox console. The death of Microsoft Points has been a long time coming, and follows Microsoft’s move away from the virtual currency towards cash in Windows 8. Sources familiar with Microsoft’s Xbox plans have revealed to The Verge that the software maker plans to replace Points with a new gift card system. […] We’re told that normal cash transactions, using credit and debit cards, will also be supported.

People seem to hate stupid lock-in faux currency. Why would Amazon think this is a great idea?

Google I/O 2013

Google held their long-ass opening keynote today, introducing a myriad of new products and refinements to existing ones. Most of these products are — as you’d expect — dependent on the use of Android and Google+ and the Google ecosystem, so they are less interesting to me. The improvements to speech recognition are amazing, but I’ve noted many times my disdain for speaking to my computer. Judging by my Twitter feed, many people are excited by their newfound ability to speak to Google, so it’s probably a personal issue.

There were some notable standouts, though. Maps received a massive overhaul, making for a beautiful product which is much more user-friendly than the current iteration. While I haven’t had significant issues with Apple’s mapping software for a long time, Google shows a significant advantage — particularly on the web.

Less nice is Google’s new multicolumn Google+ design. Lead designer Fred Gilbert explained in a profile with GigaOm’s Om Malik:

Gilbert explained that when Google started working on the new look, the idea was to take a lot of information and show it in as simple a manner, giving the eye the visual cues to understand the importance of content. Bigger photos, for instance are indicative of their importance. Photos become bigger based on analysis of past relationships to the people and the content and their ensuing interactions, Gilbert explained.

This seems clever, until you actually use the product. The multicolumn layout creates clutter, making it difficult to navigate, read, or interact with content.

Facebook attempted a two-column interpretation of profiles last year which they called “Timeline”. Coincidentally, Facebook just finished migrating all user profiles to a single-column version of Timeline yesterday. There’s a very good reason why they reverted: time is linear. A single column in reverse chronological order is a natural way of organizing data that is updated over time.

The other standout product was the launch of Google’s Spotify and Rdio competitor. Dubbed “All Access”, the service costs $10 per month, and is available only for Android users in the United States. Google did not announce which labels had signed with the product, nor a rollout timeline for other countries or platforms. The price point is the same as both Rdio and Spotify, both of which are available in plenty of countries outside of the US and have much larger music catalogues. It’s hard to see why anyone would choose All Access over the other two products.

All of this is without mentioning Larry Page’s bizarre question and answer period following the nearly three hour long keynote. From The Verge’s liveblog:

It is really hard to explain this experience. Larry is just quietly riffing on the future of computers and the world, and this giant room with 6000 people in it is pin-drop silent.


In the Living Room, Still No Sign of Google

Nick Bilton, New York Times:

While the company has been successful with its mobile offering, it can’t seem to figure out how to enter the living room. Or at least find a permanent home there.

The company’s first attempt at connecting the living room to smartphones and tablets was also a flop. Its Internet-connected TV, Google TV, has struggled to sign on programming partners and to get along with hardware makers.

Insert requisite Eric Schmidt quote:

“By the summer of 2012, the majority of the televisions you see in stores will have Google TV embedded.”

Strange Things Are Afoot at AppleCare

Over the weekend, Mikey Campbell of AppleInsider released a report which claimed that iPhones would no longer be regularly replaced through AppleCare. He quoted an Apple employee (punctuation, capitalization sic):

“The way it is now, if almost anything is wrong with an iPhone, iPod, or iPad, the entire device is exchanged for a like-new re manufactured (sic) device, whether brought into an apple store or sent in for mail in repair. Now we are starting to actually repair the products and return the same device to the customer.”

This is a major change in the way in which issues with the iPhone and iPad are dealt. I’m one of many who have been impressed by the speed and convenience of a device swap policy. But this policy is clearly not cheap. Campbell continues his report:

In another huge departure, Apple will reportedly reconfigure its paid AppleCare service as a subscription model, or introduce a new tier, which will be attached to a customer rather than a specific product. Under the proposed system, a customer is entitled to in-store training similar to the One to One program available to new Mac buyers, with each device owned being covered by the warranty. The new AppleCare may also include “exclusive” 24/7 support, though that has not been confirmed as a full set of features and pricing is not yet etched in stone.

This smells of accountant meddling and money conservation, and that hasn’t gone well for Apple in the past. Former Genius Stephen Hackett1 shared his thoughts:

All in all, I’m not encouraged after reading AppleInsider’s report. While AppleCare and the surrounding services aren’t perfect, most of these changes — on the surface at least — seem like moves in the wrong direction.

He also added this today:

If Stores can’t keep up with demand, Geniuses should be able to replace a phone at their own discretion, if that’s what’s right (or faster) for the customer.

From my experiences at Apple Stores, Geniuses seem to have significant flexibility with their decisions. While this has been reduced as Apple has grown and expanded, the Genius Bar still seems like the epitome of a customer-first approach in retail. While they may save one Instagram with these changes, it needs to be balanced in the scope of the future of Apple’s legendary service.

  1. Not that he’s not smart any more, just not a capital-g genius. I’ll see myself out. ↩︎

Design Is How It Works, Edition Number 3911

Matt Gemmell, on the potential for iOS 7’s new user interface direction under Jony Ive:

The reality is that skeuomorphism enshrines and validates a failure of vision, and even worse, a failure to capitalise on the medium. That’s a betrayal of a designer’s implicit duty of trust to make something that is the best, and to treat all other goals as secondary. I think that’s a responsibility that Ive feels very strongly. I doubt that anyone has ever had to remind him of it.

Some of the best analysis of user interface design. From a developer, no less.

Thoughts on the New York Times’ Prototype Article Redesign

In March, the New York Times unveiled a major redesign of individual article pages. The company billed it as an interpretation of the newspaper for the online experience of 2013, replete with a requisite responsive design, web fonts, and bigger photography. In addition, the newspaper eschewed pagination in favour of a single-page format.

I received my invitation to test the prototype earlier today. In the email, the Times promised that this redesign was “optimized for iOS 6 on iPad”, which is an oddly-specific targeting. However, it speaks volumes about the shifting device demographics. The website for one of the most widely-circulated newspapers in the world is primarily targeting iPads — not desktops, not laptops, and not “tablets”. That’s huge.

But a focus on a contemporaneous website doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful web experience. It’s important to keep in mind that this is just a prototype, and is very much a work in progress. But, as of right now, it requires a lot of work in order to progress:

As you can see from the video, the article page uses its own crappy scrolling coefficient. It feels too fast and inconsistent. A visit to the WebKit Inspector reveals that the article resides within its own hidden overflow div which has some scrolling Javascript applied to it. This decision allows the Times to provide navigation between articles by scrolling to the left or right. One side effect of this implementation is that it breaks the native gesture to jump to the top by tapping the status bar. For an experience ostensibly optimized for iOS 6 on an iPad, this is shockingly poor.

A couple of other issues were immediately noticeable: the lack of scrollbars is presumably another byproduct of the odd scrolling implementation, and graphics throughout the prototype are not optimized for a retina display. Finally, the prototype doesn’t work at all on my iPhone.

I must stress that this is obviously a prototype, and doesn’t (yet) represent the shipping product. However, the Times is releasing these early previews in an attempt to solicit feedback and issues. I’m only too happy to oblige.