Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2014

Apple Steps Up Payments Push

There are some speculating that Apple might buy Square. I don’t see what that acquisition would buy Apple — they already know how to process credit cards and have loads on file. Square’s hardware is nice, but swiping credit cards is either on its way out, as in the US, or gone completely in most parts of the world. Sure, Square has a prominent retail deal with Starbucks, but that’s the first deal Apple would sign, too.

This report from Recode, though, seems much more Apple’s speed: rolling an in-house payments system. It’s the obvious missing part of Passbook. The question now — aside from the credibility and actuality of this report, obviously — is whether there will be NFC support in the next iPhone. Ming Chi-Kuo thinks it’s coming, for what it’s worth. (To quash one oft-cited reason for a lack of NFC — the metal back — that’s what the top and bottom cutout windows are for and, potentially, the Apple logo.)

It Was a Good Day

Speaking of Beats, the service has released the footage from an hour-long show from earlier this year, and it’s amazing. It’s all of your favourite 90s hip-hop legends (less Biggie and Tupac) performing on the same stage, one after another.

Beats Music’s First Hundred Days

Yinka Adegoke and Alex Pham of Billboard:

Label sources estimate the Beats Music subscriber count to be in the “low six figures.” Beats representatives declined to comment for this story, but company insiders argue that subscriptions and consumer reaction has met expectations and that the “millions of people” trying out the service exceeded internal projections.

The editorial portions of this story describe Beats’ numbers as “disappointing”, but getting a few-hundred-thousand paying subscribers in three months sounds pretty great to me. Consider the article’s own comparison with Spotify:

Spotify has just over 2 million subscribers in the United States, according to people familiar with the company’s data. They point out that it took two-and-a-half years of educating the U.S. market and giving away millions of dollars’ worth of music for subscribers to reach that number.

Beats is only available in the US, and it’s only been a few months since its launch. I see a lot of expansion potential.

Pono Kickstarter Closes at $6.2 Million

Whenever I bring up the Pono, I always have to second-guess myself as to whether it’s worth investing time and effort into writing about the tech equivalent of homeopathy when it’s probably a niche product that few will ever buy. And then I see that the Pono Kickstarter has closed as the third highest-grossing Kickstarter campaign of all time, and, coincidentally, that people actually still buy homeopathic remedies.

Nike Will Stop Making Wearable Hardware

Huge scoop from Nick Statt, CNet:

Nike is gearing up to shutter its wearable-hardware efforts, and the sportswear company this week fired the majority of the team responsible for the development of its FuelBand fitness tracker, a person familiar with the matter told CNET.

“As a fast-paced, global business we continually align resources with business priorities,” Nike spokesman Brian Strong said in an email. “As our Digital Sport priorities evolve, we expect to make changes within the team, and there will be a small number of layoffs. We do not comment on individual employment matters.”

It’s worth remembering that Tim Cook is on Nike’s board, and that Nike and Apple have long collaborated on fitness. Nike+ has been preloaded on iPhones and iPods Touch since the 2008 models, for example, and has functioned with the iPod Nano for even longer. Cook has also noted publicly how much he likes his FuelBand. I’m not saying this means that anything specific is going to happen, I’m just saying that it’s interesting.

Facebook Launches Optional Nearby Friends

I recall a similar feature being in the Facebook app about four years ago, but it relied on your friends to manually check in. This new interpretation is more like Find My Friends insomuch as it’s a passive location feature. Unlike Find My Friends, though, it appears to only require confirmation on one end of the exchange. That is, if you’ve enabled Nearby Friends, all of your Facebook friends can now see your location unless you’ve explicitly blacklisted them. It’s only available in the US right now, but expect it to roll out quickly if Facebook decides to run ads against your location.

Samsung on Design

Samsung launched a website today in an attempt to highlight their design philosophy, presumably to counteract Apple’s assertions in the ongoing Big Company 1 v. Big Company 2 trial. Jony Ive has taken a fair amount of flak for what he’s said in product introduction videos, but it’s nothing on the bullshit Samsung espouses:

Using the idea ‘Make It Meaningful’ as inspiration, we wanted to create a platform to present influential design stories and solutions to be shared around the world. Samsung Electronics’ introduces the meaningful stories behind the design of their products as they strive to create the culture of tomorrow.

Seems confused to me. Perhaps it needs more buzzwords?

Samsung believes in the value of people’s dreams. Therefore, our design should begin with empathy for people’s lives.

I have no idea what that means. I understand what all the words mean, but I don’t understand how Samsung is applying this to industrial and interface design. Maybe it’ll be clearer when it’s explained in the context of a specific product like, I dunno, the Galaxy S4:

Sensory Organic

The design of the Galaxy S4 is an organic combination of rational form and emotional CMF (Color, Material, and Finish).

Still confused.

Contrast, if you will, to the oft-parodied style1 of a Jony Ive video, like the one for the iPad Air. After talking about the engineering required to make it smaller and lighter, Ive explains why this engineering was necessary:

There’s a simplicity to it, but there’s nothing precious about it. This integrity — this durability — inspires confidence in a product that’s meant to be taken places, handled, and really used.

I think this is the essential difference between the two approaches. Good design — like that from Apple — starts with the end goal of how a product will be used, and what the customer will gain from owning and using the product. Poor design doesn’t necessarily consider this, and hopes to justify its choices after those decisions have been made. In other words, the choices are arbitrary, or made with a goal not necessarily driven by the usage of the product. For example, Samsung may choose to make their phones primarily from plastic because it simplifies the production process. But a user doesn’t care about the production process; they’re interested only in how they use the product. Good design is concerned primarily with its function.

  1. I love that parody so much. ↩︎

iPhone, Embiggened

I don’t trust most analysts, but KGI Securities’ Ming Chi-Kuo has ridiculously good sources. While his word is not as golden as that of some other pundits, he’s usually reasonably accurate with product details. So, when he provided previously undisclosed details on the next iPhone, my ears perked up a little:

In line with previous rumors, Kuo believes the new 4.7-inch model will come with a 1334×750 Retina display at 326 pixels per inch, while the 5.5″ will see a 1920×1080 screen at 401 ppi. Both devices will have the same aspect ratio to the iPhone 5, meaning apps will not need to be redesigned for the second time in three years.

As far as I know, this is the first time anyone has mentioned a precise display resolution — other reports have merely guessed at display size. That difference gives me a smidge more confidence in Chi-Kuo’s report.

Now, let’s talk scaling. Apple has been emphasizing the use of auto layout and PDF assets where possible for a couple of years now, but what about bitmap assets, or apps that don’t use auto layout? Barring a ridiculous idea of Apple simply barring the installation of those apps until they get updated, there are two ways scaling could be handled:

  1. Apps could be letterboxed, like when you run an iPhone app on an iPad. That mans that everything stays the same pixel size, and, if the 326 PPI density on the 4.7-inch model is true, the same physical size, too. But, while that looks passable on an iPad, it’s probably a lot less nice on a phone.

  2. Apps could be stretched to fill the display. This seems much more likely, given that it’s what occurred when the iPhone 4 was introduced. But, while scaling non-Retina apps to the Retina display looked gross, scaling Retina apps up by a little bit will probably look a helluva lot better. Consider the scaling options available on Retina MacBook Pros, for example: while non-panel-native resolutions make everything look a little bit blurry, it’s largely masked by the high-density display.

I’m still very skeptical of the 5.5-inch model, though. That seems gigantic, even by crazy huge Android phone standards. It’s going to be an exciting 2014.

New Details on Amazon’s Smartphone

Even a stopped clock is right twice daily. Zach Epstein of BGR got a big scoop on details of Amazon’s upcoming smartphone. Most of it is par for the course for a contemporary phone, but this is new:

Beyond those two units, the device houses an additional four front-facing cameras that work with other sensors to facilitate the software’s 3D effects. One source tells us these four cameras, which are situated in each of the four corners on the face of the phone, are low-power infrared cameras.

The device’s extra cameras are used to track the position of the user’s face and eyes in relation to the phone’s display. This allows Amazon’s software to make constant adjustments to the positioning of on-screen elements, altering the perspective of visuals on the screen.


Windows Phone 8.1 Is Somehow Working With Apple’s Passbook

Well-spotted feature by Tom Warren, as reported by iMore’s Rene Ritchie:

Passbook passes are just collection of data that get rendered into a card and displayed in Apple’s Passbook app. Think of the Passbook files like the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript data that makes up a webpage, and the Passbook app like the browser that renders the actual page. It looks like Windows Phone 8 is taking the same data and rendering a similar card out of it, and then pushing that card to Microsoft Wallet.

Apple could obviously change the PassKit format to block what Microsoft is doing here, and I think they have fair grounds to do so, but I hope they don’t. There are loads of Android apps that support the .pkpass format, and it’s become a de facto standard in the industry. In fact, it’s one of the only standards in the mobile payment solution space.

Time’s Windows Phone 8.1 Review

Windows Phone 8.1 has sort of been released. It’s only available to developers right now, but it appears to be the gold master version that will be installed on new phones starting later this month. The reviews have been rolling in this morning; I liked Harry McCracken’s, for Time. On Cortana, the new virtual assistant:

Cortana understands some complex requests beyond the ken of Siri and Google Now, such as ”Schedule the Reno trip for Monday through Thursday.” It’s also particularly adept at reminders. For instance you can tell it to remind you to buy key lime frozen yogurt the next time you’re at Safeway—either a specific Safeway, or any Safeway. Or to nudge you to ask your boss for a raise the next time you talk to him on the phone.

Also nice for people who think talking to a fake person inside their phone is a bit weird, like me: you can type anything you want to say to Cortana. It sounds like an exciting mashup of Google Now and Siri, bettering both in some ways, and not matching either in other, bafflingly obvious, ways.

The biggest issue with all of these virtual assistants, though, is their unpredictability:

Of course, all three of these assistants are capable of being eerily helpful one moment, and hopeless the next: For instance, none of them gave me a direct answer when I asked “What time is Mad Men on tonight?”

There are commands and queries which feel completely natural for the software to interpret, yet they fail in a strange black hole sort of way.

This update looks huge, and very exciting. Would I switch from my iPhone? Well, not yet. Windows Phone now matches its competition in features you’d expect, but its ecosystem is still pretty weak. It’s an unfortunate Catch 22: users won’t buy Windows Phones because their favourite apps aren’t on it because users won’t buy Windows Phones because…

I’d love to take one of these phones for an extended spin, however. Spending a month with a Lumia would be very interesting.

This Presentation Can’t Be Opened Because It’s Too Old

Michael Tsai:

Apple — and, to a lesser extent, other developers such as Microsoft — cannot be relied upon to support old file formats. The responsibility then falls to the user. If you use an app that creates files in a proprietary format, as soon as a new version comes out you should update all of your documents to the new format. It’s not fun to do this, but there will probably never be an easier time. And it may be a lossy process, so you should also keep the versions in the older format.

At WWDC 2005, Steve Jobs quoted some of his favourite reviews for the then-new OS X Tiger release. One in particular, from CBS’ Larry Magid, stood out to me:

I remember writing an article about Lotus 1-2-3 back when the product was released during the 80s … It may have been nearly two decades since I wrote that column, but it took Spotlight less than two seconds to find it.

Unwavering support for older versions of software has a tendency to produce cruft and bugs, but it also means that old-ass files can be launched without too much hassle. I bet Magid could find that article even faster on today’s SSD-equipped Macs, but he’d be damned if he could open it.

Then again, I subscribe to the school of thought that we’re still trying to figure out this digital archival monkey business.1 In the future, I think we will find ways of recovering data from outdated and proprietary formats if that data is really important.

  1. One of my professors works at the Government of Alberta archive, backing up and restoring old recordings to a digital format. Since they’re stored on Government servers, the great irony is that these digital files will, inevitably, be backed up to a magnetic tape. ↩︎

“iCloud in Its Current Implementation Is Chock Full of Stupid”

Rob Griffiths has some choice words for iCloud:

iCloud has potential—given the size of the iOS and Mac OS X user base, it’d be stupid to claim it didn’t. But to really succeed, especially if Apple wants it to eventually replace the filesystem, I think iCloud needs to address its capacity and pricing disparity; it needs some way to handle documents outside of applications (an iCloud folder with subfolders would work well), and it needs to be available to all developers, regardless of where they sell their apps.

As a sync service, iCloud spans the gamut of frustrating to sublime, depending on where you live and whether Mercury is in retrograde. As a cloud storage service, it’s woefully frustrating. Griffiths mentions three great reasons why.

For me, the single biggest frustration is the inability to edit a single document with multiple applications, because everything is siloed and segregated. This is great for security, but terrible for much real-world use, especially for so-called “power” users. When I write a longer-form article, for example, I like to make changes on my iPhone and iPad using Byword, but I prefer Markdrop or TextMate on my Mac, because I’m hardcore like that. TextMate doesn’t support iCloud (it isn’t sold in the Mac App Store), but even if it did, I wouldn’t be able to seamlessly edit that file using different apps on different platforms.

Even on the same platform, iCloud makes for a frustrating experience. Imagine a dream world where you’d be able to store your iPhoto library in iCloud, so it’s always backed up and safe. Now imagine editing photos in that dream world, and witness how it crumbles: you make a few basic edits in iPhoto, then you want to remove that distracting telephone pole using Photoshop. What do you do?

iCloud has the potential to be a great product, and it needs to be. It isn’t yet, though.

Behind “Bliss”

With Windows XP having reached end-of-life status, Microsoft took the opportunity to look back at the creation of Bliss, the default desktop picture. It’s too bad that such a beautiful photograph was never distributed in a resolution suitable for today’s dense displays, but it’s the kind of photo that works quite well even on the lower-resolution displays of 2001.

Appeals Court Reverses Hacker/Troll “weev” Conviction and Sentence

There are a couple of reasons I’m linking to this article from Ars Technica’s David Kravets. The first reason is that the headline contains the phrase “hacker/troll”, which is both very apt for weev, and would be pretty great on his business card.

The second reason is far more important: weev was charged and convicted under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, despite him not having hacked anything, really:

His attorneys argued all along that in order for the CFAA to have applied in this case, there needed to be some sort of “password-gate” or other way of keeping someone out of the AT&T website, which was not present here. They maintained that Auernheimer did not hack into servers or steal passwords. Rather, a major network security flaw at AT&T was discovered and exploited.

Basically, AT&T was stupid enough to verify authorization based on the validity of a URL. All weev did was play around with the URL, thereby exposing information that is implicitly public, but should be private. In other words, weev was convicted for an AT&T problem. The reversal of these obviously overzealous charges is very good news.

Memories of Steve

Don Melton generously shared some of his memories of Steve Jobs in Jim Dalrymple’s Loop Magazine; now he’s published those memories in full on his own website:

Ken and I hadn’t seen Bud [Tribble] in months, not since Eazel shut down, so were all making guesses about the reason for his visit. Tiring of the conjecture, I finally just stood up, cupped my hands and called out to him.

“Hey, Bud! Come over and see your old pals when you’re done to talking to that guy.” Bud looked up — slight pause — and “that guy” turned around to stare at me.

It was Steve Jobs. Of course.

I will forever remember his look — a slightly lopsided and tight-lipped half-smile, eyebrows narrowed as if to say, “I don’t know who you are but I won’t forget that.”

Some of these memories — like the one above — are of Jobs’ famously intense personality. Others are relaxed and personal, and quite touching. Well worth the read.

Morning for iPhone

Last year, the two-man team of Tamper released Morning, which was a super nice way to view an overview of your day should you pick up your iPad first thing. However, if you’re like me, you reach for your iPhone first. Happily, the same beautiful experience is now available there.

Ideally, this is the sort of thing which should be built-in. Until it is, Morning is a beautiful way to start your day. It’s a free update for existing users, or you can pick it up for $3.99 (that’s an affiliate link, by the way).