Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for October, 2013

Kicking the Can

I know you love it when I discuss video codecs. After all, what other subject could be more exhilarating?

Mozilla CTO Brendan Eich:

As I noted last year, one of the biggest challenges to open source software has been the patent status of video codecs. The most popular codec, H.264, is patent-encumbered and licensed by MPEG LA, under terms that prevent distributing it with open source products including Firefox. Cisco has announced today that they are going to release a gratis, high quality, open source H.264 implementation — along with gratis binary modules compiled from that source and hosted by Cisco for download. This move enables any open source project to incorporate Cisco’s H.264 module without paying MPEG LA license fees.

Pretty good solution, right? H.264 is, by far, the most popular video codec on the web, so it’s good that Firefox can finally play it in a way that’s largely in-line with their philosophy. They’re going to build it into Firefox, and any open source project can use the BSD-licensed version of H.264.

Free software proponent Monty Montgomery doesn’t see it as great news, though (ugly-ass LiveJournal warning):

Let’s state the obvious with respect to VP8 vs H.264: We lost, and we’re admitting defeat. Cisco is providing a path for orderly retreat that leaves supporters of an open web in a strong enough position to face the next battle, so we’re taking it. […]

Fully free and open codecs are in a better position today than before Google opened VP8 in 2010. Last year we completed standardization of Opus, our popular state-of-the-art audio codec (which also happens to be the best audio codec in the world at the moment). Now, Xiph.Org and Mozilla are building Daala, a next-generation solution for video.

In simpler terms, the decade-plus-long battle to have an open, free, and patent-less video codec on the web has, once again, failed. Therefore, the proponents of such measures are going to try again with a brand new and different codec.

At what point does someone realize that this is a fruitless endeavour?

H.264 is extremely popular, and compatible products (read: nearly every piece of video-playing gear or software released in the past five years) will be transitioned to HEVC, which significantly improves upon the compression/quality ratio of H.264, therefore being suitable for much higher-resolution video.

Meanwhile, there’s VP8 (otherwise known as WebM), which is used almost solely by Google. This succeeded Theora, of which the only major user is Wikipedia. Theora is old, and has a relatively poor quality-to-size ratio — this much was admitted when VP8 was released. VP8 still doesn’t compete with H.264 in terms of quality. Now, some in the open source community want to put both of these behind them as they develop a brand new codec, with the goal of beating HEVC and VP9.

I simply don’t see this endeavour being meaningfully more successful than past efforts to create an open source, free, and patent-less1 video codec for the web.


  1. The claims of Theora and WebM being unencumbered by patents are also suspicious↩︎

The New Rules of Tech Journalism

Harry Marks:

Things have gotten out of hand. Tech writers are given far too much freedom to perpetuate inaccuracies and falsehoods, as well as a generous helping of incompetence these days. That’s why it’s time to put a bit of structure in place for those publications that don’t understand good work from bad work.

How I wish everyone followed these basic, simple rules. If a website does not follow at least a majority of these, it’s a pretty accurate indicator of the quality of the news.

Android for Some

Google’s SVP of Android, Sundar Pichai:

Building a platform that makes mobile phones accessible for everyone has always been at the heart of Android. Until now, some lower-end Android phones couldn’t benefit from more recent Android releases due to memory constraints. With KitKat, we’ve slimmed down Android’s memory footprint by doing things like removing unnecessary background services and reducing the memory consumption of features that you use all the time.

Brad Molen, Engadget:

Google has taken to its Spanish support pages to announce that the Samsung Galaxy Nexus is not on the list of devices to receive Android 4.4 KitKat. This seems a bit odd, given the new update’s focus on “the next billion” and offering solid performance to other budget devices, but at the moment things aren’t looking up for owners of the phone — or any older Nexus devices, for that matter.

The Galaxy Nexus was released in 2011, about a month after the iPhone 4S. Google cites an eighteen-month update cycle (phones released more than eighteen months ago don’t get updates), which is an odd choice when most carrier contracts are still two years long. I’m still using an iPhone 4S, and I know loads of people still using their iPhone 4, both of which received the iOS 7 update. I don’t know about you guys, but an eighteen month upgrade cycle seems needlessly expensive.

KitKat brings some new features to supported devices, as Darrell Etherington and Greg Kumparak of TechCrunch explain:

Aside from making KitKat the One OS To Rule Them All, Google has also introduced a number of new features with this update. Album art is displayed full screen behind the lockscreen when music is playing, for instance, and you can scrub the track without unlocking. There’s a new launcher, with translucency effects on the navigation bar and on the top notification bar.

How original.

Android now offers up a new dialer, which incorporates search for easy reference. This means you can enter the name of a business even if you don’t know it’s number or have it stored in your address book, and then the dialer will retrieve it from the same database that powers Google Maps. This also allows the phone to provide caller ID information for incoming calls, too, and there’s a new auto-populating favorites menu that builds a list of your most frequent dialled numbers.

This is really clever. Until just recently, I wasn’t aware that cell companies don’t have access to the caller ID information of landlines. Even if your cell provider is also a landline provider, there’s some sort of technical restriction which prevents them from accessing the same database. I’d really like this feature in iOS.

Measuring Google+ Activity

In July, I undertook a casual survey of web pages which included sharing buttons for Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. In nearly all of my sampled pages, the counter on the Google+ button was in last place, often by a wide margin. This didn’t jive with the claims from some analytics firms that Google+ was the second most popular social network.

In that article, I derived from the sharing data that people weren’t using Google+ in the same way that they would use their Facebook profile. The lack of activity on Google+ suggested that it was not the second most popular social network around. What I didn’t know was how Google measured activity on Google+.

Amir Efrati over at Jessica Lessin’s new project1 has a well-placed source:

In the past, statistics about active users in the stream included anytime a person clicked on the red Google+ notifications in the top right corner of their screen while they were using Web search, Gmail, or other Google Web services. The person didn’t actually have to visit plus.google.com to be counted as “active.”

Google doesn’t want you to think of G+ as a Facebook competitor, though:

During [the May 15] Google I/O developer’s conference keynote address, Google+ played a big part in many of the more exciting product announcements, even though it wasn’t always called out. The redesigned version of Google Maps will recommend restaurants based on what your Google+ friends have reviewed and visited. The new Google Music All Access service will also use your social graph to hone in on music you might enjoy.

“That unification of Google, of bringing Google together, makes for amazing things,” said [Vic] Gundotra.

If that’s the case, though, why does the Facebook-ish component of Google+ exist?


  1. Lessin and Efrati both left the Wall Street Journal; Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher are severing ties with the Journal at the end of the year. I wonder if they’re going to build something together. ↩︎

Searching for Ads

Claire Cain Miller, a week ago on the New York Times’ Bits blog:

On Wednesday, Google confirmed that it was testing new ads with images atop search results. They are a major departure from its earlier advertising and from its past promises to users.

The banner ads are part of an experiment involving several advertisers, including Southwest Airlines, that has been running on desktop computers in the United States for about a week, according to a person with knowledge of the ads. They come as Google battles a slowing desktop search business and falling ad prices.

These ads push actual non-sponsored Google results to the bottom 12% of an HD-resolution browser window.

Lame. Guess I’ll just switch to Bing, then?

Microsoft Bing is piloting a new form of search advertising in Windows 8.1 — allowing advertisers to promote themselves with bold photography, custom links and other visual elements when users search for the names of their brands.

Well, crap.

And you read that right: these are ads within Windows. Microsoft wants to thank you for spending $120 or more on Windows by showing you ads.

These Bing ads will only show for Windows 8.1 users, but if Google brings these ads to more users, I’d be willing to bet Microsoft will bring banner ads to Bing on the web, too. I certainly hope that these ads don’t make their way into Siri.

Why the NSA Wanted Back Door Access to Data Centres

The revelations about exactly how much data the NSA scoops up is getting steadily creepier. This morning, the Washington Post revealed that the NSA has more-or-less direct, secret access to data centres belonging to Google and Yahoo. The WaPo has an infographic which explains the interception, if you’re more the visual type.

“Hold on,” I hear you mutter, “didn’t the PRISM program already give them this access?”

Not exactly. PRISM gave them access from the front door, with secret court orders which couldn’t be fought. This is back door access.

Andrea Peterson of the WaPo explains:

But the NSA may have preferred its back-door method of accessing the data because it was less visible to the technology companies holding the data. By accessing data without the knowledge of tech companies, it didn’t have to worry that the volume of data iit was accessing could raise privacy alarm bells within those companies.

I feel safer already.

OS X 10.9 Brings Thunderbolt Networking

Speaking of OS X 10.9, Iljitsch van Beijnum of Ars Technica:

If you open your network settings in the System Preferences after upgrading to OS X 10.9 “Mavericks”, you’ll be informed that a new “Thunderbolt Bridge” network interface was added to the system. So it’s now possible to network two Macs over Thunderbolt. Let’s take our new network for a spin.

Cool. That said, van Beijnum’s testing showed an inconsistent transfer speed between a MacBook Pro and Air, but only in one direction. Odd.

Finder 10.9 Disk Space Embellishment

Jonathan Rentzsch:

Sure enough Disk Utility reports 29GB free (about what I had before upgrading to 10.9) while Finder is reporting 38GB free.

Looks like Finder 10.9 now deducts the space taken up by Mobile Time Machine backups on the theory that they’re purgeable under disk-space pressure.

It’s a small change, but I think it’s for the best.

Fantastical 2 for iPhone

Shawn Blanc:

The more we become familiar with a calendar app’s new-event interface, then the faster we can navigate it. However, as my Twitter poll hints, people entering in just one event or less per day is not much usage to learn an app’s interface.

I’ve been using my iPhone to enter calendar events since 2007, and the default new event entry sheet provided by iOS has always felt like an obstacle course. If most of us are entering one event or less per day on our iPhones, then are we ever really learning the event input interface of our calendar app?

Federico Viticci:

Fantastical’s natural language parser was already superior to the one seen in other calendar apps, and it gets even better in Fantastical 2. Aside from reminder creation support, Flexibits has enhanced the parser to make it smarter with repeat settings: you can now write something like “Team meeting at 9 AM on the second Tuesday of every month”, and Fantastical will pick up your sentence correctly and parse it to set an advanced repeat pattern.

In addition, Fantastical 2 retains the (utterly amazing) DayTicker at the top, reminders are baked into the app, and you get a new light theme if you’re the sort who prefers a lighter UI. It’s just $3 to upgrade from the best calendar app for iOS 6 to the best calendar app for iOS 7. The dudes at Flexibits have knocked it out of the park again.

The iPad Air Reviews Are Rolling In

If you want the best straightforward review, you’ll probably like Ben Bajarin’s:

My kids use the iPad to play games, read, create movies, make music, paint and draw, and a host of other things they would never be able to do on a PC with its mouse and keyboard input. The iPad is not computing dumbed down; it is powerful computing simplified. And simple solutions require sophisticated technology. That is exactly what the iPad and the new iPad Air is–powerful computing. For many consumers the iPad Air will be the most empowering personal computer they have ever owned.

But because you’re reading this site, I anticipate you’ll want to know how the iPad Air fares on the Sunspider Javascript benchmark, and how calibrated the display is. Luckily, Anand Lal Shimpi’s got your back:

In fact it’s the first tablet of this size to really feel right. The first iPad looked great but needed improvement on so many vectors. The second gave us a size and weight reduction but lost some of the luxury feel in the process. We know the story of numbers 3 and 4 which amounted to a set of tradeoffs in order to accommodate a Retina Display, but with the iPad Air Apple hits a balance of features, design and ergonomics that I don’t think we’ve ever seen in the iPad.

Despite the thinness of the iPad 2, 3, and 4 industrial design, I’ve always preferred the original’s flatter edges for inexplicable and probably strange reasons. Lal Shimpi has a photo on the first page which shows that the new design is much closer to that original. It looks stunning.

This year’s iPad lineup is exceedingly simple, despite having the most SKUs Apple has ever offered. Ask yourself two questions:

  1. Do I want a big one or a little one?
  2. Do I want a retina display?

Easy, right? Then pick your colour, your storage, and whether you want another cellular bill.

You wanna know what I’m buying? I’m holding out for a black — excuse me — slate grey iPad Mini with a retina display, in a 16 GB WiFi-only configuration. That seems like a sublime combination.

Samsung’s Developer Strategy

Kevin C. Tofel, Gigaom:

The overall strategy Samsung has employed so far is clever: Build up a massive global audience for products using someone else’s software while also creating your own apps to start taking the place of integral Android features across smartphones, tablets, televisions and even smartwatches. Thanks to Android, Samsung hasn’t needed to develop an operating system of its own. Why should it when it can slowly transition developers and users to create software for its own hardware?

Interesting development in the wake of last week’s Ars Technica article. Samsung won’t have to fold any of their work back into the official Android project if they fork it. If this goes the way Tofel speculates it will, there will be a third major mobile OS in several years’ time: Android, iOS, and sAndroid, or whatever the hell they’ll call it.

The Problem Isn’t Technology; It’s You

Mat Honan for Wired (via Shawn Blanc):

Getting away from technology by leaving it behind becomes a pointless exercise in competitive reductionism. Where do you draw the line? Your smartphone? Your GPS? Your compass? Your tent? Fire?

Here’s a better idea: Shut up and bring your iPhone into the backcountry, but resist the urge to open the email app. If you can’t manage that, delete or turn off the account. Don’t worry, it’ll come back.

My stats tell me that a lot of people read this site on their smartphone during their commute. Try this: at the end of this paragraph, sleep your phone. Put it in your pocket, and don’t touch it until you get home and plug it in. During your commute, look out the window, and really notice the endless scroll of passing scenery. Take a glimpse at your fellow passengers. The world is fascinating, and on this Tuesday afternoon, you probably don’t need the internet at your fingertips right this second.

Apple Doesn’t Want to Bust Your iPhone

Jeff Porten, TidBits:

At first, I thought it was my imagination. I noticed the sad old New York Times was becoming a bit sluggish, as if they’d publish whatever came to mind about Apple, without any kind of fact-checking or editorial oversight.

Turns out that it wasn’t my imagination, because Apple doesn’t want to bust your iPhone, despite what Catherine Rampell’s New York Times Magazine article, “Why Apple Wants to Bust Your iPhone,” has to say.

Truly atrocious reporting, especially for the Times.

Adobe’s Giant Security Breach is Even Gianter

Brian Krebs:

The recent data breach at Adobe that exposed user account information and prompted a flurry of password reset emails impacted at least 38 million users, the company now says. It also appears that the already massive source code leak at Adobe is broadening to include the company’s Photoshop family of graphical design products. […]

At the time, a massive trove of stolen Adobe account data viewed by KrebsOnSecurity indicated that — in addition to the credit card records – tens of millions of user accounts across various Adobe online properties may have been compromised in the break-in.

Both of my Adobe IDs were compromised, though only one had an associated credit card (which is now expired, thankfully). But imagine the corporate accounts with credit cards attached that may be implicated in this. While the credit card data may be encrypted, it’s only a matter of time before it’s cracked. What a shit show.

On the bright side, maybe these hackers will fix a few long-standing Photoshop bugs.

“A Year to Forget”

Street Insider, with some commentary from my favourite analyst:

Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Brian White is not happy with his Q4 estimates on Apple into tonight’s print [sic]. As a result, the analyst raised his revenue estimate to $37.49 billion from $34.57 billion and is increasing his EPS projection to $8.06 from $7.23. […]

“After a year to forget in FY:13 with our forecast for EPS to fall for the first time since FY:03, we expect EPS growth to return in FY:14 for a year that we believe will prove to be one of innovation,” White comments.

I wish I had years to forget that looked like Apple’s. He nailed his revenue estimate, though.

Apple Should Spend Its Money on Its Future

Farhad Manjoo, for the Wall Street Journal:

Apple now has $147 billion in cash, a number that could rise in Monday’s earnings report. But [Carl] Icahn’s demand that Apple use all that money (or get a loan) to buy back its stock is just about the worst use of its cash I can think of. If Jony Ive designed a new iPhone out of $100 bills—the iPhone 5$—even that would be a better way to spend Apple’s boatloads.

A Mysterious Black Tube Appeared in Jeff Carlson’s Mailbox

Inside the tube were four posters with glamour shots of the new Mac Pro, with this text on a separate sheet:

It’s the computer we were insane to build. The one that turns conventional thinking on its head, then kicks the living $#&% out of it. We challenged all our assumptions. Abandoned our preconceptions. And blew away limitation after limitation. This is the new Mac Pro. It’s like no Mac we’ve created before. And we can’t wait to see what you create with it.

The first two sentences are very un-Apple. They sound like they were written by one of Eddy Cue’s shirts. But do I want a set of these posters? Absolutely. Am I ever going to get a set of these posters? Hell no.

Samsung Galaxy of Weird

Truthfully, this ad is pretty tame for Samsung.

The Galaxy Round strikes me as an interesting product, though. It should be easier for thumbs — Samsung is able to retain the display’s size while shrinking the distance that thumbs need to travel. The roll effect seems too slow and tricky to be useful, however. This is probably one of the most innovative things Samsung has done in a long time.

iPad Mini for Creation

While most others think that the bigger iPad is better for — ugh — creating content, Federico Viticci thinks the opposite:

Judging the “creation” capabilities of the iPad by its screen size misses the point. The iPad mini is a great device for content creation – in fact, I’d argue that because of its smaller screen, lighter body, and higher portability, the iPad mini can be better than the full-size iPad Air for work and productivity tasks. And, because of the larger screen, I could argue that the iPad Air is more suited for activities that benefit from a larger viewing area, such as playing games, watching movies, or browsing photos.

Viticci is so damn smart.

By the way, I’m on the retina iPad Mini bandwagon all the way.

Likely Justification for the New iWork File Formats

I haven’t heard anything more official, but this is a smart theory proposed by both Carter Allen and Lou Miranda:

Battery life is critical on a mobile device, and it’s clear that Apple puts a huge premium on battery-saving technologies and techniques. Processing a native binary format is much more battery-efficient than parsing, re-parsing, generating, and re-generating XML or some other human-readable format on the fly.

This is the likeliest theory I’ve heard. It’s disappointing that it isn’t human-readable, but it’s also disappointing that it’s undocumented. I’m doubt there’s going to be a mad rush to ensure that third-party apps can read it in the way that they can read Word documents, too, which is also disappointing.

But if you use Pages on your iOS device and Pages on your Mac, as I do, you’ll be happy with the ostensibly-improved sync.

Update: Drew McCormack has a similar theory:

They have split that potentially large XML document into many small binary files. Each file can now be loaded in isolation, and this is much better for iOS. Effectively, they have built a partial-loading document format.

Makes sense to me. The part of me that hopes for inter-app compatibility and future-proof formats is a bit bummed, though.