Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2014

The Problem With Payments

Fantastic, infinitely-quotable post from Ben Thompson. This bit is particularly insightful:

This is the blessing and curse of building on credit cards: you get instant ubiquity, but massive competition. The end result means Square is unprofitable, and getting the scale to make these numbers work – or, as Square tried to do, the user experience that makes paying these fees worthwhile – is a challenge that would be faced by anyone looking to build a payment system on top of credit cards, including Apple, Amazon, or Google.

The alternative is to go around credit cards and build something completely new. This leaves much more room for a sustainable margin, but then you’re left with the absolutely massive network problem. If you think getting a social network off the ground is hard, when the only obstacle is getting people to enter in an email address and password, imagine having to simultaneously distribute a means of accepting payments to merchants and a means of making payment to consumers, all at the same time, because if you only have one you basically have nothing.

This is why I, for the foreseeable future, expect to see little if any progress in the United States.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that these companies couldn’t build a payment system on top of credit cards. It simply means that…

…[T]he reason that contact-less payment systems have taken off in sectors beyond transportation is that their relevant competitor was the obviously inferior cash, not the slightly less-good credit card. The gain was worth the pain of creating a new two-sided network of merchants and consumers.

While Canada isn’t as advanced as Hong Kong or Japan in terms of alternative payment methods, contact-less payment was given a real boost a couple of years ago when Tim Hortons added it as a payment option for their stores. They had resisted any sort of card-based payment in the past because of how slow it typically is, but contact-less payments are even faster than cash.

This is a great article. You should make time to read it.

Android Silver

The Information has some details, summarized here by TechCrunch on a new program which will give Google greater control over the way Android is implemented by third parties. By the sounds of it — and I’m sure we’ll know more after I/O — this program will be entirely optional, but will carry with it some major promotional benefits.

Now, a more cynical version of me would suggest that this is Google’s way of buying its way out of the more uncontrollable aspects of making open source software. Or, perhaps, this is Google’s way of continuing to be able to brag about the “openness” of “Android” when, in truth, the open source version of Android continues to get shafted. Or, maybe Google was getting spooked by Samsung’s continued development and promotion of Tizen, their in-house operating system, and Samsung’s overall leverage and control of the Android ecosystem.

But I am not that cynical. I’m trying to see this as simply a way for Google to reduce the fragmentation of its platform. That other stuff is somewhere in the back of my mind.

iOS 7 “Brought About Only Superficial Changes”

This is a tough read from Jared Sinclair if you’re someone — like me — who thinks that iOS 7’s visual changes beget functional changes. Consider this:

Fast-forwarding a year, the effect that iOS 7 has had on third party development is disheartening — which sounds like a fatuous thing to say, since there have been so many well-liked redesigns over the past year. But that’s the rub: the vast majority of third-party developers’ time has been spent redesigning and reimplementing apps to dress the part for iOS 7. Many shops, such as Tapbots and Cultured Code, were forced to delay new products indefinitely while they scrapped ongoing work in favor of reboots. I suspect that many other developers had to make similar decisions.

That’s fair. Aside from rumours, developers had about three months to create an iOS 7 version of their apps if they wanted day one availability. Many chose to work longer and harder to create their iOS 7 updates, significantly delaying other feature additions and ideas they had in the pipeline.

But, then, consider this:

Some folks argue that the iOS 7 “flattening” was an urgent need. iOS 6, they claim, was looking long-in-the-tooth compared to Android and Windows Phone. They might be right from an informed designer’s perspective, but they’re wrong if they think that this was an urgent problem. Apple’s most important indicators for the success of iOS software, install base and customer satisfaction, were extremely high with iOS 6. It was a popular OS that showed no signs of waning in popularity. A total redesign of the OS — especially one that abandoned key visual brand elements in favor of an aesthetic that looks like every other popular OS — was an unnecessary risk.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the install base and satisfaction scores. According to Apple, iOS 7 is on 87% of devices as of the beginning of April;1 this is only a hair lower than the 93% adoption rate of iOS 6 as measured just before WWDC 2013. As for satisfaction, one survey performed soon after iOS 7’s release found that users were generally happier on iOS 7 than on iOS 6. If these are the “most important indicators for the success of iOS”, it appears that they have at least retained them — and possibly improved them — with iOS 7.

As for iOS 7 looking “like every other popular OS”, I, again, disagree. On a superficial level of the OS being less gradient- and shadow-heavy and free of photorealistic textures, sure. But in every other aspect — typography, colour palette, layout, iconography, and so forth — it’s very much still iOS.

This segues nicely into Sinclair’s argument that it “abandoned key visual brand elements”. That’s true. But abandoning them was for the best. What iOS lost in its own identity it gained in conforming greater to Apple’s overall identity. iOS 6 always felt like a visual anomaly in Apple’s design language, but it makes historical sense.

Around the time of the launch of iOS, its desktop counterpart was OS X Tiger in which Apple made some curious interface design decisions. Some of these — like the capsule buttons in Mail — were outright poor choices; others — like brushed metal windows — added some interest to the interface, but added clutter. Over time, of course, OS X gained a weird reflective Dock and leather in the Calendar. In Snow Leopard, all of the different window themes were unified and made consistent; in Mavericks, the textures were removed from Calendar and Contacts. At heart, though, OS X has always been had a very clean design language, largely devoid of unnecessary dressing and clutter.

The other contemporary (post-1997) user interface Apple developed was for the iPod. Again, it’s uncluttered, direct, and clear. And, of course, Apple’s hardware design has — since Ive has been running the show — been clear, direct, and premium in its simplicity.

That’s what makes iOS 1-6 — and the curious interface decisions in OS X — so perplexing. The hardware is designed to be neutral, so anything looks great on it. But shouldn’t the design language of the OS bear some resemblance to the design language of the hardware? They both come from the same company, after all, and they both perform similar tasks: they’re a stage and a format for content.

Which brings me to the question of how urgent such a change be. While the vast majority of iOS users and developers would probably be fine with iOS 7 if it contained no major UI updates and simply contained the technical improvements, when would be the right time to pull the trigger on a UI update?

Does Apple wait until there’s a mass-exodus of iOS users? That’s too late.

How about if it were delayed until iOS 8? Sure, that buys them a year for Ive to get comfortable and for potential issues to be seen internally. But not all issues can be seen internally — that’s why Apple releases developer betas. Even three months of developer betas is also not enough to discover all problems before release — consider the parallax animation issues.

iOS 7 was a reset. It caused headaches for developers, but it also opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Smart designers rethought their apps and reconsidered the necessity and design of every feature — the interface changes were decidedly not superficial. It’s given Apple a new bowl of low-hanging fruit to sort out. iOS 7 was a rough update in a lot of ways, but it was a necessary one. I’m excited for WWDC.


  1. According to Mixpanel Analytics, iOS 7 is on 93% of devices, but I’m not sure how accurate their stats are compared to Apple’s (just a hunch, but I’m guessing “less”). ↩︎

The Verge’s Moto 360 Feature

I find this feature really interesting, for a number of reasons. Chiefly, though, my interest lies in Motorola and Google’s marketing strategy around this watch.

Let’s get something out of the way real quick: while Chris Ziegler tried to get more information on the so-far largely-hypothetical Moto 360, he was unsuccessful:

As we chat, he’s “dogfooding” a beautiful 360 on his wrist in steel with a tan leather band, but declines to show it to me (after my desperate final attempt to get an up-close look, he hurriedly shuffled away). […] And although he wouldn’t let me play with it, the display turned on a couple times while we were chatting; it looked bright and crisp, the Android Wear UI simple and purposeful.

This is only slightly more information than was gleaned from Joshua Topolsky’s “Fireside Chat” with Matias Duarte: that is, still almost nothing. No real information.

This is a pretty strange promotional strategy. Companies these days often seem to be emulating Apple-level secrecy — to only show the product when it’s done, or very nearly so. Of course, this doesn’t always pan out, and leaks do happen, but it’s a strategy that can work very well.

Other companies prefer to develop in the open, by releasing glimpses of what they’re working on in various stages of functionality — consider the number of semi-open “beta” programs. Or, they may choose to use a combination of secrecy and openness: when Microsoft released the Surface 2, they also allowed some journalists access to their design studios to see the work that went into it.

By contrast, Motorola is showing pretty much every stage of the development of this smartwatch except the actual product. The Verge famously has some pretty great Google contacts, so it’s no surprise that they were granted a high level of access not once, but twice, this far into the Moto 360’s development.

I’m intrigued by this strange teaser marketing strategy. It’s apparently working for someone like me, who reads TechMeme and the Verge and so on. And, surely, the first real glimpse Muggles will get of the 360 will be at its grand unveiling. By that point, though, I guess we’ll know better whether this category is the next smartphone — as Ziegler seems to think it is — or the next iPod. Or perhaps it’s a category that’s being shoehorned into existence.

Newsstand Needs to Go Away

Jason Snell, Macworld:

Newsstand was one of iOS 5’s banner features when it was introduced back in 2011, but its time has come and gone. What was intended to be a special collection of apps has, instead, become a second-class collection. That’s why it would be better for everyone concerned — Apple, users, app developers, and publishers (including Macworld) — if Newsstand just vanished.

Newsstand solved a particular problem at a particular time in a particular way. The way (auto-updates and updatable icons) no longer exists, and the time is no longer relevant. The problem is now largely imaginary. In the past year or so, I haven’t seen a good argument for its continued existence. It’s time to get rid of it.

On Peak iPad

MG Siegler:

At first during the earnings call, Tim Cook tried to explain the “miss” on supply chain minutia. That was a mistake. His second explanation was much better:

When I back up from iPad, here’s what I see. It absolutely has been the fastest growing product in Apple’s history and it’s been the only product that we’ve ever made that was instantly a hit in three of our key markets, from consumer to business, including the enterprise and education.

And so, if you really look at it in just four years after we launched the very first iPad, we’ve sold over 210 million, which is more than we or I think anyone thought was possible at that period of time. And it’s interesting to note that that’s almost twice as many iPhones that we’ve sold in a comparable period of time, and over seven times as many iPods as we’ve sold in the period of time. So, I think it’s important to kind of put that in perspective. We’ve come a long way very, very quickly…

In other words, the iPad got too successful, too quickly, for its own good. Or rather, for Wall Street’s version of “its own good”.

Siegler raises a lot of great points in this article regarding Wall Street’s expectations for the growth and sales performance of the iPad. In doing so, he obliquely references articles like that from Jean-Louis Gassée who wrote the weekend before Apple’s Q2 results call about the predicted (not yet realized) decline in year-over-year iPad sales. Intriguingly, though, Siegler directly casts Gassée’s article in something of a negative or critical light, when it argues a complementary (but different) angle:

No, assuming the estimates are right, what we have here isn’t market share dilution, it isn’t a post-Christmas lull, it’s a year-to-year decline in absolute unit numbers.

Why?

I’ll offer an opinion: The iPad is a tease. Its meteoric debut raised expectations that it can’t currently meet.

Siegler attributes the sales tease to the stratospheric rise of the iPad. Remember: the iPad is the fastest-selling device in consumer electronics history. It sold faster than DVD players, the iPhone, the iPod and, obviously, the PC. It was an early and fast sales phenomenon.

Gassée, on the other hand, attributes the decline to a realization that the iPad is not a tool for productivity in the same way that a PC is:

Despite the inspiring ads, Apple’s hopes for the iPad overshot what the product can actually deliver. Although there’s a large numbers of iPad-only users, there’s also a substantial population of dual-use customers for whom both tablets and conventional PCs are now part of daily life.

I see the lull in iPad sales as a coming down to reality after unrealistic expectations, a realization that iPads aren’t as ready to replace PCs as many initially hoped.

I’m a little surprised that a columnist as well-respected as Gassée resorted to such an overused trope. I’m certainly not under the impression that the iPad should replace the PC in every instance — it certainly hasn’t for me — nor that it should not gain additional productivity and utility enhancements. But Gassée’s suggestions are not, I don’t think, an apt way of addressing these shortcomings:

Specifically, the iPad is a computer, it has a file system, directories, and the like — why hide these “details” from users? Why prevent us from hunting around for the bits and bobs we need to assemble a brochure or a trip itinerary?

I don’t want to rehash my arguments for why users hate file systems. Despite elements of truth, I think it’s an overplayed trope.1 The iPad is in use in environments where the PC has reigned supreme for over a decade, so it’s clearly a PC replacement in some contexts and for some people.

But consider the ways in which the iPad is being used in the “inspiring ads” that Gassée mentions. There are people using the product in loads of strange and wonderful places: on hockey rinks, inside wind turbines, aboard rescue helicopters, and so on. These are places where the PC has never had a stronghold or place, and where Microsoft Office is a hinderance, not a productivity suite. These are not niche use cases. These are places where the iPad shines.

At any rate, we’re talking about one quarter where iPad sales have failed to grow year-over-year, and even then by only a small percentage. Continuing to build a competitive advantage in traditional PC-driven environments is just one strategy, and it’s not a zero-sum one, either. There’s plenty of room for growing a four year old product category that has already found users in places PCs have only dreamt of going.


  1. I do think that inter-app document sharing — perhaps by way of tags and organized around a conceptual “project” structure — is an intriguing potential direction that a file system could be exposed to the user, without exposing the file system. ↩︎

Netflix Researching “Large-Scale Peer-to-Peer Technology”

Today’s theme, so far, is “company x does one thing; company y stops doing that same thing”. On that theme, Spotify is going to turn off its peer-to-peer capabilities. Netflix, on the other hand, is seeking to begin using peer-to-peer streaming to help mitigate its data costs and, presumably, work around ISP-level throttling, according to Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin:

“The foundation for settlement-free peering is you need something resembling a balance [in traffic],” [BitTorrent CEO Eric] Klinker said. “If you could make Netflix traffic look more like that, then you would have an opportunity to ride the same settlement-free economics that all the Tier 1 ISPs use to connect with each other.”

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings himself has made the same point, writing that the company has asked ISPs “if we too would qualify for no-fee interconnect if we changed our service to upload as much data as we download—thus filling their upstream networks and nearly doubling our total traffic.”

The Microsoft-Nokia Deal Has Closed

As Microsoft has finished acquiring Nokia to exclusively manufacture Windows Phone, er, phones, Google is in the process of getting rid of Motorola. Intriguing moves from both companies.

The Net Neutrality Endgame

Matt Drance:

A discriminatory model bakes surveillance into the way ISPs do business. Sure, your provider can snoop on your traffic right now, but nothing in the fundamental concept of delivery requires or justifies that they do.

And then there’s this angle, which I hadn’t even thought of until now. Golly.

Anti-Net-Neutrality “Fast Lanes” Are Bullshit

Marco Arment wrote an astute response to the reporting by the Times (and others) that use the FCC’s “fast lanes” terminology:

Everyone in this discussion has been led, most likely by talking-points marketing by the FCC and ISPs, to describe the destruction of net neutrality as allowing ISPs to “create fast lanes”.

This language was carefully constructed to sound like a positive, additive move: It’s building, not destroying or restricting. They want to offer faster service, not reduce the speed or priority of all existing traffic. Who could possibly be against that?

For fun, let’s rewrite a section of the Times article in a more neutral way. First, here’s Edward Wyatt’s original version:

The Federal Communications Commission said on Wednesday that it would propose new rules that allow companies like Disney, Google or Netflix to pay Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon for special, faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers.

Now, here’s a version that doesn’t use the FCC’s preferred terminology:

The Federal Communications Commission said on Wednesday that it would propose new rules that allow companies like Disney, Google or Netflix to pay Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to prioritize their content over the content of companies who do not pay providers for this privilege.

It’s already extremely expensive for companies to deliver content to end users as quickly as possible. Many companies elect to pay for content delivery networks, like Akamai or Amazon, to bring content closer to end users by mirroring data around the world in huge server arrays. Other companies — like Apple, Google, and Facebook — simply elect to build their own data centres. Now the FCC wants to mandate an additional implicit penalty on companies that cannot afford additional costs to ISPs.

Wyatt’s newest Times article on the subject further conflates net neutrality and these anti-net neutrality policies:

In the nine weeks since the Federal Communications Commission said it would try, for a third time, to write new rules to secure an open Internet, at least 69 companies, interest groups and trade associations — over one a day — have met with or otherwise lobbied commission officials on what the rules should specify.

That effort does not count the more than 10,000 comments that individuals have submitted to the F.C.C.

Now the flood of lobbying efforts is likely to increase after the disclosure Wednesday evening that the F.C.C. would soon release preliminary rules allowing for the creation of special, faster lanes for online content to flow to consumers — for content providers willing to pay for it.

The F.C.C. had previously warned against those types of deals, saying they could unfairly discriminate against companies that could not or were not willing to pay. But after a federal appeals court struck down, for a second time, the commission’s earlier regulations, the F.C.C. is trying again.

Those are the first four paragraphs of the article. I might be a little bit tired, but I find parsing this fairly challenging.

The Newly Green Apple

Hey, remember that NCPPR dude who complained to Tim Cook at the Apple shareholders meeting about Apple’s environmental policies? Dr. Drang wrote a great post today about why that guy is — among many things — a hypocrite:

Apple’s green initiatives aren’t being forced upon it by jackbooted government regulators—it’s making these decisions on its own, which should be something free market advocates approve of. If the decisions are wrong, won’t the market—in its supreme and infallible wisdom—punish Apple? Again, the NCPPR didn’t stir this up because of its interest in Apple or free enterprise. It did it because it knows that ranting about Al Gore and the tyranny of the global warming cabal will open the wallets of its neo-Bircher donor base.

Google+ to Become a Platform Layer, Not a Product

Vic Gundotra is leaving Google. You heard that earlier today — I heard that earlier today, but I was at lunch. Good thing you don’t rely on me for breaking news, right? (Right?) It’s only natural to wonder what will become of his pet project, Google+. Matthew Panzarino and Alexia Tsotsis of TechCrunch think they know:

What we’re hearing from multiple sources is that Google+ will no longer be considered a product, but a platform — essentially ending its competition with other social networks like Facebook and Twitter. […]

One big change for Google+ is that there will no longer be a policy of “required” Google+ integrations for Google products, something that has become de rigueur for most product updates.

Google’s apparent philosophy for Google+ has never really matched the way they’ve integrated it into every damn product they make, and I think it’s really hurt their perception. I get that Gundotra and a large team invested considerable time and effort into building Google+, but its integration and Borg-like assimilation of all other products has always felt heavy-handed.

Hey, Remember Net Neutrality?

Edward Wyatt, New York Times:

Companies like Disney, Google or Netflix will be allowed to pay Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon for special, faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers under new rules to be proposed by the Federal Communications Commission, the agency said on Wednesday.

The proposed rules are a change for the agency on what is known as net neutrality — the idea that no providers of legal Internet content should be discriminated against in providing their offerings to consumers and that users should have equal access to see any legal content they choose.

Translation: “I, Tom Wheeler, former telecom lobbyist, am proposing that network neutrality can fuck right off in the United States.” Go on, email him and tell him what you really think. (I can’t, as I’m Canadian.)

Update: The FCC has issued a non-denial denial, for what it’s worth.

Federico Viticci’s iOS 8 Wishes

Federico Viticci, writing on his newly-redesigned and totally gorgeous MacStories:

With iOS 7, Apple profoundly altered the foundations of their mobile operating system’s design and functionality, and I want to believe that iOS 8, likely due later this year, will allow them to keep building towards new heights of user enjoyment, design refinement, and exploration of features suitable for the post-PC era. The transition to iOS 7 hasn’t been perfectly smooth, but, less than two months away from WWDC, there’s clear, promising potential on the horizon: plenty of new iOS low-hanging fruit.

We’re not gonna get all of this list — we’re probably not going to get a majority of it — but it’s a thoughtful and comprehensive list of issues Apple could address.

The Genius Estimate

David Sparks is intrigued by the timing of Apple’s new OS X beta seeding program (via Thomas Brand):

A final question I have about all of this is why we are getting this now. It seems there is a lot of rumbling about Apple issuing a re-designed OS X this year to more closely parallel the new iOS look. If that is the case, I suspect they’ll need more testers than ever and WWDC is just a few months away.

Meanwhile, Scotty Loveless questions the potential negative impact of the program:

I can’t figure out the target audience Apple wants to include with this new program. Most Apple fanatics I know gladly pay the $99 for a developer account for the betas alone, even if they aren’t developing any software. I am fearful that removing the paywall from the beta builds is the wrong move, opening up the betas to people who have no business using them.

It’s worth mentioning that beta builds of OS X have been made available for more casual users on torrent sites and Usenet for as long as I can remember. Even the more locked-down beta builds of iOS have been made more-or-less public by unscrupulous developers reselling UDID slots for five bucks a pop.

As of right now, the 10.9.3 build in this program is the same one as the developer seeds. It remains to be seen whether this paralleling will persist. While Apple will likely keep the builds broadly similar, there’s the possibility that the betas issued to those in the program will be slightly different. They could be one step behind, feature-wise, but one step ahead, stability-wise, as the developer seeds. It’s possible, but unlikely. However, this program gives Apple the ability to better-control how beta seeds are distributed.

As Loveless points out, I’m sure this will cause problems at Genius Bars across the land. But, as Apple notes in bullet point nine of their Appleseed terms:

During your participation in the Seeding Program or in a particular seed, Apple is not obligated to provide you with any maintenance, technical or other support for the Pre-Release Software. If, at Apple’s option, such support is provided, it will be provided in addition to your normal warranty coverage for your computer.

In short: don’t be an idiot, have a backup, and assume that you won’t have warranty coverage for software-related matters.

Towards a Better App Store

David Smith:

I’m genuinely hopeful that we will see several improvements to the App Store introduced this summer alongside iOS 8. The App Store has (in part) driven the wild success of the iPhone. Having a great user App Store experience helps everyone. It helps Apple sell more iPhones. It helps customers enjoy their iPhones. It helps developers sustain their development.

Imagine if you visited one of those big box stores — Best Buy or Walmart or something — and every product in the store looked pretty much the same: same size, similar colours, a tight range of prices, and so forth. Now imagine that instead of offering 100,000-150,000 items, the store offered over a million.

The App Store has been overwhelming for a long time, and it only gets worse as more apps are added without making substantial changes. Apple has tweaked a few things over the years, to varying degrees of success. The recent improvements to search are welcome, while the new card-based results UI should probably be reverted.

There are far more significant issues with the App Store, though, and Smith does a fantastic job of outlining ways in which these problems could be fixed. I’m as hopeful as Smith for these improvements, but I’m discouraged by Apple’s record on the App Store.

Nobody Lives Here

Nik Freeman:

A Block is the smallest area unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau for tabulating statistics. As of the 2010 census, the United States consists of 11,078,300 Census Blocks. Of them, 4,871,270 blocks totaling 4.61 million square kilometers were reported to have no population living inside them. Despite having a population of more than 310 million people, 47 percent of the USA remains unoccupied.

A fascinating and strange look at the United States.

OS X Beta Seed Program

Beta seeds of OS X and core apps are now available for free to anyone who signs up. Previously, this program was limited to Mac developers ($99 per year) and specially-selected AppleSeed participants. Still doesn’t explain why the Feedback Assistant app, which only works for authorized beta testers, was included with the general Mavericks release, though.