Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for November, 2013

Not Dead; Finished

Dr. Drang, in 2011:

There’s a tendency to think that a program or library that hasn’t been updated in a long time is worthless and has been abandoned. Often, though, it’s because the code is done.

Drang is referring mostly to command line utilities, but software like Things can express this as well. Perhaps — aside from a few interface changes — it is done. Perhaps the developers think they’ve produced a great piece of software that needs no additional features.1 There are two types of response, then:

  1. those who will now abandon the software looking for something more feature rich, and
  2. those who will stick with it because it does everything they need.

Neither of these positions is incorrect, per se, but I don’t think there’s any shame in a software developer stating that the current version of something is complete and that they will only be fixing bugs in future releases. This is especially true for command line programs, but even GUI apps can fall into this category. I occasionally use a couple of small utilities for which the only updates in the past ten years are bug fixes, and to create an Intel binary. They’re fairly ugly apps, but they’re bulletproof.

Consider the inverse effect, though: some software developers feel the pressure to add features to an app which already has most of the features it needs, so it starts gaining features which have no business being in the app. Photoshop has mediocre 3D tools and a janky video editor built in. I see this as evidence of bloat, not progress. I’d be happier if the engineering effort to build 3D tools had gone into fixing some of the egregious, long-standing bugs in Photoshop (rotating a 1 px line 90° should not modify its size, for instance).

Perhaps there’s some nobility in sticking to features which belong in the app, and when that list is all checked off, the software is more-or-less finished.

  1. They’re working on an updated version for iOS 7. ↩︎

Bingers (That Pun Was Less Pathetic Than Microsoft’s Scroogled Store)

Kyle Venhemert, Wired:

The Microsoft Store’s new “Scroogled” section includes eight products that’ll make you blush on Microsoft’s behalf. There’s a t-shirt that shows a Chrome logo in a trench coat and another that casts it as a scary spider. There’s a hat that says “Scroogled” and a mug, again with the Chrome logo, that say “Keep calm while we steal your data.”

So edgy, Microsoft.

I don’t understand why they’re doing this. Microsoft runs a tailored advertising business which collects, aggregates, and uses visitor data in much the same way Google does. True, their business model is not dependant upon ads, but this still looks like a really pathetic pot calling the kettle creepy.

iWork for iOS and Mac Updated

Customizable toolbars are back (huzzah). Like Darby Lines, I’m happy to see this smaller but faster updates. It’s a similar story with iOS: now that they’re delivering delta updates, they’re able to move much faster and address immediate and significant flaws.

Leaving Google Chrome

Federico Viticci has returned to Safari:

The lesson I learned is that it’s never too late to re-evaluate your workflow and the apps you use, especially after Apple makes major changes to an OS. I wanted to make sure that I was still using the best browser for me, and while my growing discomfort with Google helped me take the first step, it was Safari’s feature set and user experience that made me stick around.

After a few deplorable versions of Safari with show-stopping bugs, I’ve found the newest versions for both OS X and iOS to be leaps and bounds better than any other browser. Chrome is too resource-hungry (and ugly), while Firefox retains its decade-old look and feel. Safari really hits it out of the park. If you haven’t tried it lately, I think you should consider it.


Noah Feehan, of the New York Times’ Labs:

Diff is a small device that monitors the internal events stream of The New York Times and prints out a summary each time an active headline is changed. As it runs, it generates a long stream of changes printed on thermal paper: text that was removed from a headline is rendered as inverted, while additions to a headline are underlined.

As someone who has built weird stuff with receipt printers, this is fascinating to me.

Instagram Arrives on Windows Phone Today, Without Camera Support

Tom Warren of the Verge:

Instagram’s Windows Phone app includes all the usual photo filters found on its iOS and Android versions, but it’s missing two big features: video uploading and in-app camera support.


[Instagram is] missing two big features: video uploading and in-app camera support.

What? You’ve gotta be kidding me.

Windows Phone users will be directed to their camera roll instead of a camera interface, where they’ll then have to filter an image and upload it.

This is still a simple, easy photo sharing app, right? Because that sounds awfully circuitous. Maybe Instagram is running for mayor of Toronto.

Stagnation or Stability?

Michael Lopp has held onto using Cultured Code’s Things for a long time, but he’s saying goodbye:

How can I trust that I’m using the state of the art in productivity systems when I’m using an application that took over two years to land sync I could easily use? What other innovations are they struggling to land in the application? Why hasn’t the artwork changed in forever? What is that smell? That smell is stagnation.

But Daniel Jalkut sees more careful change as evidence of method, not madness:

This line of reasoning gets my hackles up in part because I’m a cautious, deliberate developer. I tend to add features, rework user interfaces, and adopt new platforms at a pace that frustrates even my most loyal customers. I’m slow, but I’m good! When Lopp attacks Cultured Code, the makers of Things, and questions their core competence, I feel that I am being attacked as well.

Trying to find a position on this issue is something I’m struggling with. I see Jalkut’s point — it cannot be overstated that developing great software is hard work. When you move too fast and change too many things, you risk alienating users and completely messing up their workflow. Look no further than the backlash over the recent iWork updates, or iOS 7, or any minor Facebook update.

But, while I was an early adopter of Things and beta tested their cloud syncing service, it’s a suite of software that hasn’t visibly changed much since it launched in January of 2009. The suite remains a preeminent example of user interface quality and syncing reliability, but iOS 7 changed so much that it looks completely out of place in 2013, much like any app which has used close-to-default iOS 6 UIKit components.

iOS 7 has only been public for about two months, but designers and developers have been aware of it for five. And — much as I am a proponent of the app being released right instead of soon — I’m not surprised at Lopp’s position. While Cultured Code is working on an iOS 7 overhaul, other apps are already there, and doing so very well.

I’m optimistic, though. Things is such a great suite, and the attention to detail from the designers and developers is rivalled by very few apps. I’m hoping to see the same when an update is released, and I don’t think I’m going to be disappointed when it arrives.

WordPress Adds Native Markdown Support

Markdown Extra is the first plugin I install on any copy of WordPress I administrate (I disable it when I’m not using it on copies I don’t actually own). It’s been nine years since Markdown was first introduced as a markup language for writers; though WordPress has substantially involved since then, at its core, it is still a bogging tool. About time. But I’m not complaining.

Cell Carriers Again Prove That They Are Dicks

Brian X. Chen, writing for the New York Times’ Bits blog:

San Francisco’s district attorney, George Gascón, said he had been working on an agreement with Samsung Electronics to include antitheft software with all its phones sold in the United States. Preloading the software on Samsung’s phones would require approval from the carriers that service the phones. The carriers, including AT&T, Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile and Sprint, rejected the idea, he said.

Mr. Gascón said that, based on e-mails he had reviewed between a Samsung executive and a software developer, it appeared that the carriers were unwilling to allow Samsung to load the antitheft software. The emails, he said, suggest that the carriers are concerned that the software would eat into the profit they make from the insurance programs many consumers buy to cover lost or stolen phones.

You’re probably expecting me to point out how there is a “kill switch” in iOS 7 for which Apple, presumably, didn’t need to get carrier approval. But that’s not what I’m trying to do here. Whatever the deal is between Samsung (et al) and the carriers is clearly being taken advantage of to the detriment of end users.

Bob Dylan’s Interactive ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ Video

48 years after its initial release, the Bob Dylan classic “Like a Rolling Stone” has received a music video. Chris Martins, Spin:

On one channel, Danny Brown performs the song straight, wearing hats that could’ve been nabbed from Dylan’s closet. On another, WTF host Marc Maron and comic Ryan Singer chat, but their words are actually the song’s. Yet another includes the hosts of Pawn Stars, who discuss a vintage guitar while mouthing the lyrics. Drew Carey and the Price Is Right audience get in on the fun, too, as do some tennis players, various news folk, a chef, a cartoon cat, and many others.

This is pretty incredible.

The Sweet Setup

Since you’re reading this website, you’re probably the person in your social circles who frequently gets asked for your recommendations on the latest tech stuff. If it’s hardware, you’ve probably consulted the Wirecutter; for apps, though, you’ve never really had a great resource. Until now.

Shawn Blanc just launched his brand new site, the Sweet Setup:

We don’t do fly-by-night scans of the latest apps and then share the top 20 based on which ones had cool screenshots in the App Store. Nor do we recommend apps that we haven’t actually used. The apps we recommend here are the apps we use ourselves. And they’re only recommended after comparing them to the competition, using them in real life, and considering several other practical factors, such as if the price is reasonable, if the app is likely to be updated in the future, etc.

Not only is it a beautiful resource, it’s a reliable one, too. It features reviews by people you trust — Blanc, John Moltz, Dr. Drang — and interviews about how their choice of tools help them work. This is really something special.

FiftyThree Pencil

A new companion product for — and from the makers of — Paper. I love the shape, which looks like a slightly thicker version of a carpenter’s pencil.

$17 Million Settlement With Google Over Tracking of Consumers

From the office of New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman:

The Attorneys General allege that Google’s circumvention of Safari’s default privacy settings for blocking third-party cookies violates state consumer protection and related computer privacy laws. The States claim that Google failed to inform Safari users that it was circumventing their privacy settings and that Google’s earlier representation that third-party cookies were blocked for Safari users was misleading. In order to resolve these allegations, Google has agreed to pay the Attorneys General $17 million…

Google earned $10.7 billion in FY 2012 (income, not revenue), while the median US household income for 2012 was $51,000. That’s the scaled equivalent of an $81 fine.

It’s the thought that counts.

Earphone ‘Burn-In’ Is Hokum

Bryan Gardiner, Wired:

Shure has tested some thoroughly used pairs of its E1 earphones, which first launched in 1997. And guess what? They measure the same now as when they came off the line. In fact, during the 15 years Shure has been actively selling earphones, its engineers have reached the same conclusion again and again: The sound produced by these tiny transducers during final testing is the same sound you’ll get in a day, in a year, and in five years… unless something goes wrong.

Yet another audiophile myth goes down the tube. How long before this entire industry is revealed for the scam that it is?

Can We Talk?

Andrew Tanenbaum said it best: “The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.”

Just Noise

I checked my analytics today and saw a bunch of incoming links from the Guardian, so I had to check this out. Boy was I disappointed. John Naughton writes:

Someone once said that one of the advantages of religion is that it offers security in return for obedience. This point was not lost on the late Steve Jobs, the co-founder, saviour and high priest of Apple.

Ah gee, an “Apple as religion” comparison. Maybe he should call some people “fanboys” and ask if one button is enough on our mice.1 Oh, wait:

All they had to do to find salvation was to obey the Apple way. All the important choices, including whether a mouse should have one button or two, had been made for them…

Skipping much introductory garbage, I arrive at this nugget:

Recently, the company launched the latest release of its OS X operating system, codenamed Mavericks. What happened was this: one day, while millions of the devout were tapping industriously on their keyboards, a small dialogue box appeared on the top right-hand corner of their screens. It informed them that important upgrades were available for their computers.

For members of the Apple communion, such a message has much the same status as a text from the Vatican would have for devout Catholics. So they acted upon it. And lo! It came to pass that their computers were upgraded. Many of them were then enjoined to update their copies of Apple’s iWork package – Pages (Apple’s word processor); Keynote (the PowerPoint equivalent); and Numbers (the Excel competitor) – and they dutifully complied.

John Naughton — a guy who wrote a book about the internet and another book about the internet — doesn’t understand the difference between an operating system and a suite of software. This becomes clear in the same paragraph where he links to me:

The second response is to ask why weren’t the tech media on to it earlier? Given the remarkable expansion in the number of people using Apple computers, you would have thought that any disruption, intentional or otherwise, in the software ecosystems on which they depend for work would be regarded as news. Serious, careful reviewing of changes in operating systems, for example, doesn’t require rocket science – just hard work and attention to detail, as in Pixel Envy’s review of iOS 7.

Mavericks — like iOS 7 — was available to developers well before its public release, allowing in-depth reviews to be written. And written, they were. The iWork update, on the other hand, was released on the same day it was announced. Those in-depth reviews don’t write themselves, Naughton.

Then he bites the hand that feeds:

But in general, technology sites and newspaper tech sections seem to be still obsessed with gadgets and novelties. This was understandable 15 years ago but the world has moved on. Breathless puffs for a new smartphone or yet another way of “sharing” photographs or movies don’t make up a useful signal any more – they’re just noise.

Perhaps before John Naughton accuses Macintosh users of being mindless sheep or religious cultists, he should do some research, or at least understand the fundamental difference between an operating system and software.

And perhaps before Naughton bitches and moans about the failings of newspaper tech sections, he should take a moment to consider the Apple-as-religion analogy to be dead, inane, dumb, and unoriginal.

Jony Ive and Marc Newson

Paul Goldberger interviewed Ive and Newson for Vanity Fair. In this part, they describe the effort required to produce the one-off Leica Rangefinder camera:

“I found it a very odd and unusual thing to put this amount of love and energy into one thing, where you are only going to make one,” Ive said. “But isn’t it beautiful?” The camera’s dollar worth is hard to estimate, since it is an art piece as much as a functioning object, but the value of the time Ive, Newson, and Leica’s own engineers put into it probably totals well into six figures, and possibly seven. The process of designing and making the camera took more than nine months, and involved 947 different prototype parts and 561 different models before the design was completed. According to Apple, 55 engineers assisted at some part in the process, spending a collective total of 2,149 hours on the project. Final assembly of the actual camera took one engineer 50 hours, the equivalent of more than six workdays, all of which makes Ive’s comment to me that he thought the Leica might bring $6 million seem not so far-fetched.

What’s fascinating, too, about this article is the way in which it contrasts the amount of effort put into producing both these one-off auction items and for Ive to design the mass-produced goods for Apple.