Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2014

Trip Chowdhry Is My Favourite Analyst Ever

Look, I know Gruber linked to this, and so you’ve probably read this already, but I’m going to link to it, too, because it amuses me to no end:

Apple needs an iWatch sooner rather than later, or the company will risk losing its innovative edge to rivals, analysts say.

“They only have 60 days left to either come up with something or they will disappear,” said Trip Chowdhry, managing director at Global Equities Research.

“It will take years for Apple’s $130 billion in cash to vanish, but it will become an irrelevant company … it will become a zombie, if they don’t come up with an iWatch.”

There are real people in this world who see Chowdhry’s analysis as astute financial advice, and trade real money based on it. There are also real people who send money to “Nigerian princes” they meet via email.

On Preview, Tags and iOS 8

I think Stephen Hackett is onto something with regard to inter-app file management in iOS. As Android has shown, it’s a really hard user interface problem to solve; they’ve taken a good crack at it, but it’s still not great for users.

I’ve been thinking about file management in the future for a while now. One of the things I think might change is a shift from a file/folder metaphor to a project-based metaphor. Files from one project, regardless of their location in the system, could be grouped together, and the same file could be shared between multiple projects. That’s kind of what tags in Mavericks does, but I imagine a much more intensive implementation.

Apple Launches Cheaper 8GB iPhone 5C

I’d still love to know what the mix of 5C to 5S is relative to the mix of 4S to 5 was this time last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 5C were selling better in that context, but dramatically below Apple’s expectations.

Also, remember how Apple “had” to introduce a cheaper iPhone because the cheaper competition was selling well? There are two scenarios here:

  1. the pundit- and analyst-friendly interpretation is that the 5C wasn’t cheap enough; or,
  2. iPhone buyers aren’t cross-shopping with less expensive smartphones, and aren’t that interested in a budget version of the iPhone.

I think the latter is far more likely.

Dumb

Shawn Blanc likes his watches dumb:

My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.

There are people who like constant notification. They might have a smartphone with a little light on it which blinks different colours to tell them what has arrived since they last looked at its screen, or they might have six different news apps, all with breaking news notifications turned on. And, therefore, they might enjoy a smartwatch which buzzes their wrist every time someone mentions them on Twitter.

I kind of get this philosophy; I am, after all, someone who has toyed with the idea of hanging one of those ultra-slim-bezel televisions vertically above my desk with today’s weather, email, and newsy things on it. But I haven’t actually proceeded with that idea. It’s a distraction, and it’s unnecessary.

A 26-Story History of San Francisco

Alexis Madrigal, the Atlantic:

There’s a sense, perhaps, that this latest round of young people to inhabit the shell of the city are somehow not of it, that these tech kids don’t appreciate the the city like the artists and weirdos do. And therefore they don’t deserve it. 

I’m suspicious of those who would exclude the latest wave of arrivals, no matter how boorish or inelegant or rich, especially in San Francisco, a place that has historically been defined by greed and relentless desire for self-creation.

This is the story of 140 New Montgomery, but the building is also a way of thinking about the history and future of the city. 

Why Do Big Magazines Hire Hacks for Big Tech Stories?

Jeff Carlson, on the Sunday Times Jony Ive interview:

I really do wish I knew why such high-profile, information-rich interview opportunities like this one are squandered by big magazines. I’m sure it will get lots of page views and maybe newsstand sales, but the editors at Time (and The Sunday Times Magazine, which originally ran the piece) should be embarrassed. I’m not optimistic on that front.

We react this way to tech stories because those of us who understand technology recognize just how flawed they are. But perhaps other stories — arts and entertainment, world news, etc. — are covered in a similarly flawed fashion, and we don’t know where they falter because we’re not sufficiently knowledgeable.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. Michael Crichton:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Android Coming to Wearables With Moto 360

The promotional video and photos show a simulated display, which is par for the course for marketing materials. Yet, despite a scheduled release for several months away (“Summer 2014”), I can’t find any real-world examples of its use, or even any tech specs. The promo video doesn’t show any product examples, only mockups and a 3D-printed shell.

However, the immediate and predictive qualities of Google Now creates a much more intriguing to-be product than most other smartwatch concepts I’ve seen, but this is still, at its core, a dedicated screen for notifications. I’m interested to see what third parties can do with the form factor as well.

It’s also worth noting that Motorola is introducing a new product in the midst of being sold to Lenovo. I wasn’t expecting that.

Making Espresso for Milk Drinks

Canadian barista champion Ben Put of Phil & Sebastian writes about how they recently dialled in their espresso shots when pulling for drinks which include milk:

Espresso can be a very intense and acidic drink if it is not properly brewed. In order to create a balanced espresso, baristas will often adjust how much blonde they add to the end of the shot. The blonde is low in acid and does not contain much coffee solubles so it does a very good job balancing the espresso. Generally, the espresso parameters used to dial in are designed to create this style of espresso: straight espresso for drinking.

Lattes and cappuccinos present a different acidity/bitterness ratio because they contain a third ingredient: milk. Because the milk is sweet and is not acidic it does a very good job softening the intensity and acidity of the espresso. Now a smaller, less extracted, more intense shot is a good thing. The lower amount of extraction will ensure that there is not any perceivable bitterness in the latte and the lower amount of total water in the espresso means that the milk isn’t getting too watered down, which maximizes the sweetness of the drink.

Letting the Machines Mess With Your Text

Harry Marks took at look at two apps which are supposed to help improve writing:

What these apps have taught me is no application can make you a better writer. No application is going to examine your work with an editor’s eye. If you don’t adhere to a series of set black-and-white rules administered by dumb machines, your prose will be considered ill-written and marked for further edits, or worse yet, deletion.

For a fun time, try feeding these apps text from your favourite classic authors to see how their writing could be “improved”

Sniff Petrol’s 2014 Formula 1 Guide

If you’re having trouble remembering what the teams are this year and what kinds of engines they’re using, Sniff Petrol has got your back with their hilarious guide.

In related news, Daniel Riccardo, the second-place finisher of this past weekend’s season debut race in Australia, has been disqualified for exceeding the maximum fuel flow regulations. Red Bull is blaming this on an FIA-spec sensor problem, but no other teams had a similar problem. It’s too bad — Riccardo had a spectacular race.

Introducing OneNote for Mac

Microsoft’s OneNote team:

We’ve seen the countless requests for a Mac client of OneNote, and we’ve been hard at work to deliver it. We’ve been counting the days to finally share with you that OneNote for Mac is now available and you can download it from the app store for free today!

A highly-anticipated Microsoft product that’s available for free on the Mac? Up is down. White is black. I’m so very confused.

There’s a bit of the Microsoft you know and sort-of-admire in OneNote for Mac. Window redrawing is still the pits, and the interface design still leaves a lot to be desired — I’ve always hated the cluttered “Ribbon” toolbar design. But it’s a really unique application that a few of my Windows-to-Mac switcher friends have long wanted back.

Perhaps this signifies the beginning of a new era of Microsoft; one where they become a cross-platform services and products company that happens to have the world’s most popular desktop operating system.

The Jonathan Ive Interview

The Sunday Times yesterday published an in-depth interview with Jonathan Ive, but it was behind a paywall. Time has now published a copy of the story not behind a paywall and it’s, well, an okay interview. In many places, interviewer John Arlidge resorts to tech journalist tropes:

But critics complain about the built-in obsolescence of Apple products, its hermetically sealed operating systems, the need to buy new chargers for new products and the prices it charges. Oh, the prices! $20 for a plastic charger that probably costs less than $2 to make!

Or, take this:

Since Jobs died, Apple has hit a rough patch, at least by its ludicrously high standards. It has not had a break-out hit. There has been no Apple TV set to revolutionize home entertainment. No spiffy watch. (Yet.) The firm’s share price has slumped and it has lost its title of the world’s most valuable firm. Some speculate that, without Jobs, Apple has lost its golden touch.

There’s arguably reasonable justification for including this commentary: Apple, of course, hasn’t launched an all new category since the iPad, and the legacy of Jobs is obvious and irreplaceable. But these tropes illustrate that there’s a disconnect between what some journalists want Apple to be (a lucky fluke) and what it actually is (smart).

There are other points of contention, too — Arlidge writes “[the] titanium Powerbook, the first lightweight aluminum laptop …”, which is just boneheaded. But the interview includes gems of quotes from Ive, like this one:

“We’re surrounded by anonymous, poorly made objects. It’s tempting to think it’s because the people who use them don’t care — just like the people who make them. But what we’ve shown is that people do care. It’s not just about aesthetics. They care about things that are thoughtfully conceived and well made. We make and sell a very, very large number of (hopefully) beautiful, well-made things. our success is a victory for purity, integrity — for giving a damn.”

Design is what Apple knows very well, and it’s not a superfluous thing. It requires a comprehensive understanding of people, materials, behaviour, and so much more. This is what so many fail to understand about design, and it’s why so many tech journalists scoffed when the iPod, iPhone, and iPad were introduced. And, they’ll do it again when Apple introduces its next product because it won’t stack up in a feature checklist. But Ive gets it, and Apple’s customers have proved that they get it, too.

CarPlay Thoughts

Among the many insightful observations in Jean-Louis Gassée’s Monday Note for today, there’s this:

CarPlay replicates your iDevice’s screen as H.264 video spewed through an intelligent Lightning cable connected to your car’s USB port.

Remember all of the bitching and moaning about how changing to the Lightning port was a hassle, and how the proprietary nature of it was so dreadful?

Are Malls Over?

Amy Merrick writes for the New Yorker:

… Victor Gruen [is] the father of the enclosed mall in America, and the subject of a 2004 Profile by Malcolm Gladwell. Sixty years ago, construction began on Gruen’s most famous project: the Southdale Center, in Edina, Minnesota, which ended up serving as the prototype for what has become the traditional mall. As Gladwell explains, Gruen envisioned Southdale at the center of a four-hundred-and-sixty-three-acre development that would include apartment buildings, schools, and a medical center. “Southdale was not a suburban alternative to downtown Minneapolis,” Gladwell wrote. “It was the Minneapolis downtown you would get if you started over and corrected all the mistakes that were made the first time around.” But the rest of the development never materialized. Years later, Gruen said that he was in “severe emotional shock” to see malls stranded in their acres of parking lots.

While this article is US-centric, I can think of two more examples of this ridiculous approach to retail and, consequently, the creation of communities and (sub-) urban environments. The first is the creation of the “power centre” — disparate stores, typically of big box brands, surrounding an enormous parking lot. While there are arguably major advantages for brands like Costco and Best Buy being able to operate warehouse-sized stores for a fraction of the cost of inner-city real estate, they aren’t inviting places to shop. Tumbleweeds don’t feel out of place in the parking lots, which have optimistically been built for Black Friday and are nearly empty most other times.

There was a great article about this recently — and I’ll be damned if I can find it; if you know what I’m talking about, please send me a link — which mentioned that people think they prefer the wide, open spaces of a park, or a city with enormous roads. In reality, though, these spaces make us feel vulnerable; we are much more comfortable in enclosed, tighter spaces, as long as loads of other people are squished into the same space as well. It seems paradoxical, but think of how a tight street full of cafés and pedestrians in Paris is much more comfortable than an eight-lane highway.

The second part of mall-centric planning which is so asinine is the idea that building something will draw others towards it and create a community around it. This doesn’t seem to be the case. A few years ago, a gigantic mall opened just north of Calgary’s city limits. During the development permit stage, the provincial government made plain that the closest irrigation district to the mall was at capacity; undeterred, the developers tapped into the resources of the next-closest district. Then the developers realized that the only bus that would pass the mall was a twice-daily intercity route, so they petitioned the city to drive another bus out there more frequently. This is unsustainable.

Then there’s the case of the New South China Mall. It’s the world’s largest shopping mall, but it has sat nearly entirely empty for its entire existence. Interestingly, it was built in the middle of the economically-flourishing region of Dongguan, surrounded by an existing community. However, it has remained 98% empty. Sam Green and Carrie Lozano put together an excellent film about it for PBS’ “POV” program.

Much of the research into “Millennials” (I guess that’s what “we” are being called) has revealed that we are increasingly interested in a more urban lifestyle. Malls can adapt to this, but they will significantly change their form. In Calgary’s in-development East Village, there’s an area called the “Crossing” which, broadly speaking, takes the form of an outdoor mall, with retail on the ground floor and offices or residencies on upper floors. It’s not an original concept by any means — European cities have been doing this for centuries — but the meshing of retail, office, and residential is perhaps the mall of the future. Maybe the promise of an indoor racetrack layout series of not-dissimilar stores isn’t that exciting, really.

However, another mall in Calgary — Chinook Centre — opened a huge expansion just a couple of years ago. It’s an upscale addition to what was a pretty generic — if fairly large — mall, with Tiffany’s, Burberry, and Apple locations. Come September, it will be home to Canada’s first Nordstrom location, too. But, for the hundreds of Apple Store locations in malls, the company also has a bevy of unique, standalone stores. These are far more considered, architecturally-interesting, and impressive locations. Burberry and Tiffany’s are the same. All of these companies understand the value that a unique, separated location can have.

Are malls dead? I’m not entirely sure they are. They’re just evolving.

Something That May or May Not Exist Has Been “Cancelled”

Sam Mattera, who you may remember, of the Motley Fool:

This rumored “iPad Pro” (which many sell-side analysts have said is forthcoming) allegedly would’ve sported a 12.9-inch screen. Aimed at enterprise users, it could’ve competed with Samsung’s Galaxy NotePRO 12.2, and may have put pressure on Intel.

But according to DigiTimes, the iPad Pro isn’t coming. The Taiwanese outlet, which has a fairly good track record, has said Apple cancelled the project.

Okay, I’m going to stop you right there. The phrase “fairly good track record” doesn’t belong in the same sentence as any reference to DigiTimes. At all.

Mattera, again:

Finding little support among developers, Apple has killed the iPad Pro…

By definition, a product that doesn’t exist will have little support from developers. Developers don’t build for nonexistent platforms.

The Motley Fool is pretty stupid most days (not to mention slimy — check out the paragraph titled “A Better Investment Than Apple?”). But this is a little dumber than their usual analysis, for the sole reason that Mattera called DigiTimes “reliable”.

The End of Trust

Nick Valery, of the Economist:

So, what can be done to prevent another disaster on the scale of the Snowden fiasco, or the recent theft of 110m customer credit- and debit-card details from Target stores that has affected one in three Americans? Best to start by accepting that there is no such thing as a totally secure computer network; that data theft is always going to happen, whether by malicious outsiders or disgruntled employees. The answer (in so far as there is one) is to make the crime as difficult and time-consuming to perform as possible. For those with the know-how, it is laughably easy at present.

Until the first Snowden documents started to trickle out last year, there was a general assumption that many of the software- and hardware-based components of the security chain were fairly secure. Things like HTTPS and RSA keys were regarded as sacrosanct, while the weakest link in the chain was always understood to be people. Now, everything is assumed to be tampered with or totally insecure.

High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy

Kirk McElhearn (via Michael Tsai):

However, if someone really wants to provide “music as it was intended to be heard,” they’d do a lot better to look at the mastering process that’s been destroying music in recent decades. Colloquially known as “the loudness wars,” music producers, prodded by record labels, use dynamic compression to increase the overall volume of music, making it sound horrendous. Since, in general, louder sounds better, or brighter, when you compare two songs, producers have been cranking up the volume to make their songs stand out. But string together an albums worth of overly loud tracks, and it’s fatiguing. But it’s a war of attrition, and our ears are the losers. No high-resolution files will make this music sound better, ever.

I’ve been working on an article of my own on the Pono, but I think McElhearn nails the biggest problem with high resolution audio: the source files directly from the studio are generally terrible. It doesn’t matter if you listen to “Californication” in shitty YouTube quality or via the finest amplifier $150,000 can buy; the original album is mastered so horribly that it’s an affront to proud owners of ears.

Apple iSight

Andrew Kim has started a series of photo essays on early-mid-2000s Apple products. A couple of weeks ago, he published his first on the iPod Mini which, by the way, was my very first Apple product. But the most recent photo essay is of the iSight, which is something really special:

Because electronics have become so miniaturized, I feel like we have lost some connection to our devices. I am typing this on my Retina MacBook Pro and my FaceTime camera is nearly invisible and I have no idea where my microphones are located. Today, we don’t think about turning on our webcam when we call someone – it’s just there. This has put content, and the interactions we have with our computers center stage, but has also made technology more enigmatic.

Flying ‘Internet Drones’ Over Africa Is a Dumb Fantasy

Iain Marlow, for the Globe and Mail:

Let me be even more clear: The Internet already exists in Africa! With few exceptions, no matter where I went in Ghana, I got wireless service – and was even able to tether my laptop to my BlackBerry. All of these experiences, as well as quickly signing up for a pre-paid wireless service in nearby Nigeria, make me deeply skeptical about the much-hyped attempts by massive Western corporations to “bring” Internet service to Africans. Google is planning on floating balloons over unconnected parts of the continent. And now Facebook, according to Techcrunch, is looking at buying a drone company called Titan Aerospace to do much the same thing: Toss up solar-powered unmanned flying craft that will beam down Internet to remote areas – like something out of a remake of The Gods Must Be Crazy.

(Marlow clarifies earlier in the article that his use of a BlackBerry put him as an outsider; even in Ghana, there are plenty of Android phones and iPhones in use.)

The efforts of Google and Facebook to bring internet-beaming aircraft to Africa have been greeted with something approaching applause in the tech press, but Marlow points out the significant flaws in their efforts. It’s a cynical article, and that’s even without Marlow raising the profit motivations for spreading internet access to rural Africa. Despite the cynicism, it’s an article that’s on point.

Candy Crush Maker Decides It Will Be Worth About $7.6 Billion Before Its Collapse

John Teti, A.V. Club:

King has filed a revised prospectus for an initial public offering of stock, and it intends to price its shares between $21 and $24. That means that a single share’s worth of King will cost the same as about 30 chocolate bombs in Candy Crush Saga, a game that nobody will be playing a couple years from now. The $7.6 billion self-valuation is an important public-relations step for the company, as it gives journalists a number they can reference when they eventually write stories about the studio’s sudden and calamitous decline.