Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for September, 2013

Is Thunderbolt “Doomed” to Be the New Firewire?

Ben Lovejoy opines on 9to5Mac:

A fast, clever technology developed by Intel and enthusiastically marketed by Apple ought to stand a fighting chance at mass-market adoption. Sadly, there’s so far not much sign of this happening. It’s all looking rather reminiscent of Firewire…

(The ellipsis is his, by the way.)

I think it is destined to have a similar adoption strategy as Firewire, insomuch as it’s a connector designed for niche use cases. Thunderbolt is not designed to replicate USB; USB 3 may have fast transfer speeds, but it’s nowhere near as speedy as Thunderbolt. Combine that with the variable-speed implementation of USB and you have a recipe for a peripheral connector that works well for the mass market, but is poor for those who need fast, consistent speeds in both directions.

Lovejoy trips on that here:

But we all know that technological superiority is no guarantee of commercial success. The mass-market went with USB. Partly because consumers buy numbers without necessarily knowing what they mean, but mostly because it was cheaper. […]

Intel intended it to be the new USB. Optical thunderbolt was supposed to take over from copper, and there was supposed to be a Thunderbolt port in every PC. Neither has happened.

Thunderbolt was never designed to be a mass-market standard in the way USB is. USB works extremely well for connecting devices which require low power, are simply transferring data (not an audio or video signal, for instance), and aren’t dependent on constant transfer speeds.

Thunderbolt is also based on PCI Express, which means that Intel couldn’t have intended for it to replace USB. Aside from some hard drives, USB peripherals typically aren’t based on PCIe, and adding it isn’t a trivial matter.

Thunderbolt is an expensive connector standard, but it’s the very best. It doesn’t need to be cheap because it’s not for your smartphone or SD card reader. By putting it in every new MacBook and the iMac, Apple is ensuring that more people are exposed to it, generating a higher likelihood of third parties producing peripherals. They seem confident enough in this strategy to make the new Mac Pro a central hub to which users can add a series of peripherals designed for their line of work.

How BlackBerry Blew It

This report from the Globe and Mail is punctuated by the occasional historical error (you’ll see what I mean), but the depth of its investigation is profound:

Publicly, Mr. Lazaridis and Mr. Balsillie belittled the iPhone and its shortcomings, including its short battery life, weaker security and initial lack of e-mail [sic]. That earned them a reputation for being cocky and, eventually, out of touch. “That’s marketing,” Mr. Lazaridis explained. “You position your strengths against their weaknesses.”

Internally, he had a very different message. “If that thing catches on, we’re competing with a Mac, not a Nokia,” he recalled telling his staff.

There was also talk of licensing the BlackBerry Messaging service to carriers and pitching it as the second generation of SMS. This plan was canned when Thorsten Heins took over the CEO reins, as the company felt like it would detract from sales of BlackBerry devices.

All of this speaks to a corporate culture of scrambling panic lacking in any understanding of the situation they faced after the launch of the iPhone, and the later introduction of the Android platform. People were demonstrably less interested in retaining their BBM PIN than in the app stores of iOS and Android. Customers were simply bypassing BlackBerry; the BBM service did not provide a great enough draw, and neither has BlackBerry 10. In the BlackBerry holdouts of corporate Canada, I’ve seen one Z10 in the wild, and a handful of Q10s. Most others have a recent iPhone, and a few have an Android product of some type or another.

BlackBerry appears to be relenting. Last weekend, they began to launch a BBM app for iOS and Android, only to pull it later that day:

There were too many simultaneous users, the company says; with over 1.1 million active clients in the first eight hours, the messaging service just wasn’t ready to handle the load.

Apparently, they’re still planning to roll out the app to those platforms, but no timeframe has been announced. But this launch comes very late: as fewer BlackBerry phones are sold every year, more people have switched to other platforms and have migrated their contact lists over to competing proprietary messaging services like iMessage, Kik, and WhatsApp. They’re trying to claw back users with a product which does nothing more than those offerings. What would compel users to switch?

Time to Make Other Plans

Marco Arment spells it out:

If you have paid apps in the store, you’ve probably seen the writing on the wall for a while.

That model made sense when there were fewer apps available, but now that there are plenty of free and good-enough versions of almost anything, it’s a different game.

I’ve had this article in my Instapaper since it was published yesterday. I’ve read it over and over, trying to come up with a counterargument because I desperately want to believe that there is still a market for apps which cost money up front.

But this market doesn’t exist any more. For every Vesper, there’s a free note-taking app with crappier typography and an ugly interface. For most users, the free Twitter app is good enough that they don’t see the point in spending a few bucks on Tweetbot or Twitterrific. The world of the paid app is now defined by how specialized they are.

It’s disheartening to see software devalued to this extent. I don’t want to shop in an environment of free apps with in-app purchases to unlock certain components, but it appears that this is an outlying opinion.

Perhaps my resistance is simply outdated, and is actually less beneficial to developers. Arment, continued:

The market has shown that free apps will be downloaded at least an order of magnitude more than paid-up-front apps, and smart use of in-app purchase in a free app is likely to make more money.

Recall that in-app purchases were originally launched for paid apps only; Apple felt that users would appreciate that there would be no surprises for free apps. However, this model has changed: users seem happy to find an app in a store which appears free, but requires in-app purchases for full functionality. This still feels icky to me.

It’s going to be a wild and weird ride over the next several years as developers work out how to make money in an environment where free is the default.

“You Lose; Good Day, Sir”

Prior to this past weekend’s iPhone launch, Seth Fiegerman reported for Mashable:

Gene Munster, an analyst with Piper Jaffray, expects Apple to sell 5 million to 6 million iPhones worldwide through Sunday, according to an investor note obtained by Mashable. Munster expects that Apple will sell about 2.5 million iPhone 5S devices and about 3 million iPhone 5C devices, with pre-orders accounting for 1 million of the latter.

The figure turned out to be 9 million iPhones sold, making Munster incorrect by a whopping margin of 80%.

So now he’s trying to dig himself out of the hole he created, as reported by Philip Elmer-Dewitt for Fortune:

Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster told Bloomberg TV that “sell in” for the iPhone 5C could be even higher — as high as 3.5 million — which would mean that only 5.5 million iPhones actually “sold through” to customers last weekend.

Isn’t it incredible how accurate Munster is if he arbitrarily subtracts 3.5 million from the reported sales? And it’s not like Munster has some sort of amazing source or connection which would lead him to believe this, as AppleInsider’s Daniel Eran Dilger explains:

He simply guessed wrong by a huge factor, and yet after the fact blamed Apple for his error. That’s far worse than simply acknowledging that his model was wrong and that Apple turned in surprising, unanticipated results.

Why anyone believes anything Gene Munster says is beyond my understanding. He’s earned (and I do mean earned) an “F” grade from PunditTracker, and he lives up to that grade nearly every time he makes a prediction. In the immortal words of another Gene — Gene Wilder — “You lose! Good day, sir.”

A Beginner’s Guide to Pinboard

Shawn Blanc has compiled a list of fantastic tips for using Pinboard. I signed up for the service back when it cost about $3 for an account; it’s now a little over $10, so I suspect that was a while ago.1 While I have a little over 3,400 bookmarks saved, most are either imported from my old Delicious account or automatically pulled from Twitter.

Right now, my Pinboard sits a bit dormant; I am a bad user. In addition, I seem to throw a lot of stuff in my Instapaper as a way to bookmark it, which also makes me a bad user of that service. Thanks to Blanc’s list, I think I’m going to start being both a better user of both Pinboard and Instapaper.


  1. Pinboard uses a scaled fee↩︎

Optimizing UI Icons for Faster Recognition

Alla Kholmatova:

Above all, when testing the icons, the main focus should be not on the style but rather individual shapes of the icons, how they relate to the concepts they represent, and how they work with each other–visually and conceptually.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire HDX

The other big announcement of the week was Amazon’s new pair of tablets. As with Microsoft, Amazon has absolutely nailed the cover — aptly named “Origami”, it folds up in a crazy way to create a stand. The difference is that Amazon is already (apparently) selling a lot of their line of tablets.

These new Kindles appear well-designed, if a little chunky-looking, and are equipped with beautiful displays, all at ridiculous pricing. They’ve also implemented a feature called “Mayday”, which is a personal audio chat with a real, live customer service rep. All of these are huge selling points for Amazon’s already-successful tablet strategy.

Ballmer Bids Cringeworthy Farewell to Microsoft

Tom Warren reports for the Verge:

At one point during the meeting, Ballmer chose to play the song he used back at his first company meeting in 1983: Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'”. He then proceeded to jump and dance around the stage screaming at the top of his voice “the sound of Microsoft!” After the song ended, an emotional Ballmer paused to “enjoy this for a minute,” with tears visibly streaming down his face. “You work for the greatest company in the world, soak it in.”

I’m not sure anyone would want to soak in Ballmer’s dance-and-tears juice.

Microsoft Unveils the Second-Generation Surface

In the midst of trying to keep up with a metric ass-tonne of iOS news, a couple of stories slipped through the cracks. First up, Microsoft’s brand new Surfaces were unveiled. They look pretty much the same as the first generation, except they now come in silver. They’re still selling both an ARM-based model and an Intel “Pro” model, which I still find extremely confusing — just imagine how difficult it is for customers, too.

I also don’t fully understand why buyers of the Surface 2 (the ARM one) and Surface RT (which is still on sale), priced at $449 and $349 respectively, receive a free copy of Office, while buyers of the $899 Surface Pro 2 do not. I kind of get that Microsoft assumes that purchasers of the professional product will be more willing to buy it, netting the company an additional purchase. Still seems like a dick move.

There are a bunch of new covers that you can buy for either product. The Touch Cover, with the touch-style keyboard on it, is now backlit, which is extremely cool. There was also a neat cover shown at the unveiling which looked like it was inspired by an old Akai controller. It, apparently, won’t be going on sale. Sucks.

I doubt the bevy of accessories are going to move many more Surfaces, though. I doubt many people buy a tablet because they can buy a mouse for it. On the other hand, if Microsoft made these covers for iPads, I bet they’d sell loads of them.

Also, the well-connected Mary Jo Foley has sources telling her that a smaller variant of the Surface isn’t going to be released until spring of 2014. Microsoft is playing catch-up in the tablet market, and you don’t catch up by going slower than everyone else. That — and keyboards built only for a product which the marketplace isn’t very enthusiastic about — simply won’t be enough to compensate.

FaceTime Audio Over a Cellular Connection

A long review necessitates some followup, and this one’s pretty awesome. I said:

In iOS 7, Apple continues to erode away at their dependence on others: FaceTime now has audio-only chats. You can tap the icon for either a video or audio chat, and it’ll launch just like a phone call. Unlike video calls, which is now available on a cell connection with some carriers, audio calls are WiFi-only for now.

I got this one wrong in the best possible way. In fairness, so did Craig Federighi; at WWDC, he stated:1

… FaceTime audio, where you now can do high-quality audio calls over WiFi on any iOS device.

A few readers wrote me to let me know that FaceTime audio is, indeed, available over a cell connection. That certainly piqued my interest. If most of your friends use iOS devices, you could (theoretically) dump everything except your data plan, and pay as you go for specific instances of SMS messages or phone calls. That’s an intriguing prospect.

Well, I tested it, and it works. Beautifully.

Even over the 3G HSPA+ connection of my iPhone 4S, the audio quality was superb, and I didn’t notice any dropouts. A minute of FaceTime audio consumed 569 KB of data, compared to 3.2 MB per minute for FaceTime with video. Unless you have an extremely low cap on your data plan, it’s almost certainly cheaper for you to use FaceTime, and there’s no additional cost for a long-distance call.

Now that I know this, my only complaint is that calls don’t default to FaceTime, in the same way that Messages tries to send iMessages before using SMS. That, and some form of FaceTime voicemail, would be tempting additions to Apple’s increasingly-robust protocol. This is great news for users.


Post-Publishing Review Notes

Just a few bullet points regarding my review:

  • The traffic I received last week from Reddit, Techmeme, and ZDNet accounted for approximately 12 GB of transferred data over the course of that week. I hosted all images on Flickr, so that’s almost entirely text, plus the few audio files embedded in the post.
  • The traffic I received in the past day or so from Daring Fireball accounted for approximately 40 GB of transferred data, which is insane.
  • The post is approximately 15,700 words long, and took around four weeks to write.
  • I took about a hundred screenshots. Most didn’t make it into the review.

I want to say an earnest “thank you” to each and every one of you who read the review, or passed it along to your friends and followers. I appreciate all of the very kind and thoughtful feedback I’ve received. It means a lot to me.


  1. While transcribing this from the keynote video, I noticed that they immediately switched to a shot of a guy in the audience wearing a Skype shirt. Cute. ↩︎

Can Apple Announce the Rest of 2013′s Products in Just One Event?

Mark Gurman at 9to5Mac doubts that Apple will be able to launch the rest of their 2013 lineup — including “secret Mac-related hardware that nobody knows about”, which is such a tease — in a single event.

I disagree. Apple is getting really efficient with their press events; the iPhone 5C/S announcement took almost exactly one hour, excluding the Elvis Costello performance at the end. The smaller updates on Gurman’s list (iPad Mini spec bump, Haswell MacBook Pros, and Mavericks details) could take as little as five minutes apiece. Others, like the retina iPad Mini and updated iWork suite, might take ten-to-fifteen each. I don’t anticipate a Final Cut Pro update to make an appearance, unless it’s bundled with the Mac Pro bit.

Instagram for iOS 7

From the Instagram blog:

In this update you will find that we’ve increased the size of photos and videos in your feed so that they expand to the edges of your screen. We’re also happy to say that increased size means increased resolution, so photos and videos will be clearer and more vibrant than ever.

This, I like. The edge-to-edge photos are excellent, though it does mean that the 612 × 612 pixel photos will be expanded to fit the 640 pixel wide display of the iPhone. Instagram says that they’ve increased the resolution of the photos, but this photo, posted with the updated version, is at the old 612-pixel resolution. A little bit of URL hacking (replacing the _7 at the end with _5 or _6) reveals thumbnail-sized copies, but nothing larger than 612 pixels wide. Very curious.

This update also feels incomplete. I appreciate the revised profile and timeline views: both look fantastic, and are complementary to the iOS 7 aesthetic. But the camera view hasn’t been updated, and comparatively feels very heavy. Worse still is the icon, which is a relic of the days of iOS 5. I love Instagram, but I have always disliked that icon.

Clear Responds to the Pricing Backlash

Dan Counsell, of Realmac Software:

As a small team, the backlash to the disappearance of Clear for iPhone has been incredibly tough. We’ve been working incredibly hard on Clear for iPad, and simply wanted to offer it in a way that was both sustainable for the team that builds it, and desired by users.

Pretty disappointing that they felt the need to do this. Charging a fair price for quality software shouldn’t be seen as an affront to users, or as gouging them.

There are always going to be users who complain about price, and there’s nothing developers can — or should — do to mitigate that. Developers should charge what they think their software is worth, and people who don’t want to pay that much should suck it up. The Omni Group charges $20 for OmniFocus, and users love it. I don’t see a reason why Real Mac shouldn’t charge $3 for Clear.

Samsung Counters iPhone 5S With a Golden Galaxy S4

Vlad Savov, the Verge:

Two weeks after Apple’s September 10th reveal of a champagne-colored iPhone, Samsung is launching its own golden phone in the shape of a new Gold Edition Galaxy S4. There are two options, Gold Pink or Gold Brown, which Samsung is proudly showing off on its United Arab Emirates social media outlets.

Can’t Samsung do anything unique?

But what this does mean is that the Galaxy Gear is a wearable computer, not a smartwatch. Like other portable computers, the Galaxy Gear is a high-power machine that attempts to clone the functionality of larger devices. It’s infinitely extensible and exhaustively feature-packed at the expense of battery and, I believe, livability.

Oh right. It’s difficult to decide whether Samsung’s level of unoriginality is worse than their clear incompetence at developing something new.

Update: Apparently, this thing was launched on August 27, two days before Apple’s iPhone launch. This is according to a Samsung blog post which reads as oddly defensive.

Unsucking Apple’s Mapping Data

Yesterday, I linked to two articles expressing similar frustration with Apple’s apparently-stalled mapping data. This is in addition to my own commentary:

… pressing and ongoing complaints remain in iOS 7′s Maps application. Most glaring is the persistent inaccuracy of significant amounts of data. Large cities remain poorly mapped, particularly those not in the United States or Canada. Local amenities are poorly plotted or non-existent, even for cities with generally good road data.

Apple’s online services remain their weakest offerings: iCloud is temperamental, Siri can be slow, and Maps contains missing, poor, inaccurate, and incomplete data.

For several reasons, I didn’t expect Apple to talk about the improvements they may have made to Maps in the past year at either of the iOS 7 press events: it’s really unsexy to talk about data acquisition and correction in a public environment, and it’s hard to quantify any improvements they may have made. But it turns out that the reason they didn’t promote this is because the changes they made — if they have indeed made improvements — appear to be insignificant.

The world is enormous, and it’s filled with millions of individual data points: roads, towns, coffee shops, grocery stores, train stations, and so on. Even if every engineer were working solely on Maps for an entire year, I doubt that they’d be able to bring its data up to the quality of Google’s.1 The reason why that is, though, is predicated on a little bit of informed speculation.

I had originally intended to include this post within the context of my iOS 7 review, as I think it’s a relevant topic. I ended up leaving this out because I felt it was important not to delve into this sort of speculative guesswork in my review. But now? Sure. Carpe diem, ‘n’ shit.

From what I understand, Apple’s internal version of Radar, their bug tracker, sort of works like a giant leaderboard. Any time a bug is duplicated, it gets a “vote” — a dupe. The more dupes on a bug — in combination with its priority ranking and severity — determines the amount of time and effort engineers will spend fixing that bug:

  • Is there a gaping security hole in the iTunes Store? That’s a high-priority bug that Apple will try to fix quickly, regardless of the number of reports.
  • Did you dupe that weird bug where Safari’s address bar sometimes activates before you press return? If there are a lot of reports, Apple’s going to prioritize it.
  • Did you report a spelling mistake in Mail’s help index? That’s going to get addressed at 4:30 PM on a Friday. Maybe.

I anticipate — and this is the speculative part — that Apple’s internal Maps error tool works in a similar way, with problems addressed according to the number of people reporting them. Is Times Square misplaced in New York? That’s probably going to get a lot of reports, so it will be fixed quickly. Is the marker for a convenience store in Milk River, Alberta (population 811) across the street from where it should be? That’s going to get fixed in 2017. Maybe.

The problem with this system is inherent to users reporting errors: since the absolute least expensive way of running Maps costs $229, there is a significant barrier to entry for certain groups of people, especially those in developing nations. As a consequence, reports of incorrect data in these regions will be fewer, and they likely won’t be addressed as quickly. (Google Maps is, obviously, free, as long as you have an internet connection.)

If my thesis were true, areas with higher concentrations of Apple products should have better data than areas that do not. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t break down their sales data to the necessary granularity, so to assess this, I need to use information from a group of people I dislike: analysts.

On September 4, Kantar Worldpanel released a report stating that the US smartphone market share of iOS is a little over 43%. In a separate report, the same company claims that 70% of smartphone sales in much of Europe and China were Android-based, and “one in ten” were Windows Phones; according to this data, iPhones must therefore represent approximately 20% of smartphone sales in those regions.2

My thesis seems to be largely corroborated by users in those respective regions in a Branch thread:

Jason Snell: I’ve used them for driving directions a couple of times and in general use around San Francisco, and it’s been great.

Andy Newman: It’s been excellent for me in Columbus, Ohio. The turn-by-turn directions are a welcomed addition.

Garrett Murray: Here in LA the POIs have been relatively accurate for my purposes. I’ve used Maps to find a few restaurants (all of which were correctly reflected), but noticed it has a harder time being accurate with generic searches.

On the other hand…

Federico Viticci: It gets worse with POI names. In my town, Viterbo (a relatively small one compared to Rome or Milan, for sure, still one with its own province), I find Apple Maps to have outdated business listings or simply missing stuff.

And my own take, from my review:

For my use, Maps is decent most of the time, and only occasionally maddening. Calgary’s data is generally accurate, but it’s on the sparse side. Some locations remain stubbornly misplaced despite myself and people I know reporting these issues.

There are a couple of anomalies in that Branch thread: Mark Gurman — who lives in Michigan — found Maps lacking, while Karan Varindani — who lives in Ghana — found it better than Google’s. But based on all the reports, tweets, and blog posts I’ve seen, Apple’s mapping data is much stronger in areas with higher iOS device ownership. Therefore, a reasonable question might be “how can Apple improve their data for regions where their products aren’t as popular?”

One way is to acquire data from established services, either by licensing it, or by buying the entire company. Apple is already doing this: amongst others, they bought Hopstop and Embark, and are rumoured to be in talks with Foursquare for a licensing deal. In addition to Foursquare, several of Apple’s confirmed deals are cross-platform, which means a broader potential user base from which to collect data.

Another way might be to compete with Google on the web. I have no indication that Apple is even considering this, but it would be a reasonable way for them to get more people to report more errors in their data. Of course, Apple uses their hardware sales to provide software to their users at a lower cost, or even for free. Providing non-buyers with access to a product which requries a not-insignificant amount of bandwidth, plus a bunch of engineers and QA staff to attend to problem reports is not cheap. But it is perhaps a reasonable way to gain users in places where Apple products are not as popular.

I’m sure there are loads of other ways to get better data. Apple’s putting people on the ground, and they’re beefing up their data through acquisitions of key companies. But I have no doubt that this is frustrating for users, like Michael Tsai:

Back with iOS 5, it was possible to ask Siri or tap on a contact’s address and have it open up in a top-quality map. This is no longer possible today, because although Google Maps is in the App Store, all the OS services are hard-coded to use Apple Maps.

No map is perfect. Apple went through a giant executive reorganization last year, resulting in a version of iOS which has been redesigned and largely rebuilt. But it’s hard to look back on the past year of that progress and not wish that some of that effort had gone into Maps. It’s a beautiful product, but it’s not done yet, and that’s hard to reconcile with Apple’s penchant for releasing great stuff.


  1. Feel free to substitute this with whatever company provides the best data for your area. ↩︎

  2. A footnote in that report states that Kantar considers the term “global” to refer “to USA, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Australia, Japan and China.” I hate analysts so much. ↩︎

Naming Overcast

Marco Arment expands a little on naming his new app:

I couldn’t get the .com — its squatter wants $100,000,000 for it. That’s right, a hundred million dollars. I tried to get him to come down a bit, and he said he’d take $95 million. I offered him $1,000, which quickly ended negotiations.

I love the name. Even though I don’t regularly listen to podcasts, I’m tempted to buy this when it’s released just to have its name (and icon) on my home screen.

Obtrusive

Venu Satuluri, of Twitter:

With this new feature, you’ll receive personalized recommendations when multiple people in your network follow the same user or favorite or retweet the same Tweet. […]

Twitter for Android and Twitter for iPhone users will receive recommendations via a push notification.

Sounds terrible. It’s a good thing you can turn these notifications off, but it’s yet another reason why I’m happier using a third-party client.

Twitter user “Sacha” is quoted in the post:

So @magicrecs is a little bit magic. Unobtrusive, and quite cool.

It’s not unobtrusive any more.

Why PopSci Is Shutting Off Their Comments

Suzanne LaBarre, Popular Science:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to “debate” on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

There’s certainly room to debate areas of even the most solid of sciences, but these debates must be participated in by only those qualified. Anything else is just noise. This is a great move by one of the world’s most-read science topical publications.