Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2014

Google Brings Play Music Streaming to Canada

So far, our choices for streaming music in Canada have been the following:

  • Rdio
  • Xbox Music

That’s the whole list. We now have 50% more streaming services than we did before, but we still lack iTunes Radio, Spotify, Beats, Pandora, and a host of other, smaller services.

Take your time. We’ll wait. We’re polite.

Encrypt What You Can

ProPublica is publishing some excerpts from Julia Angwin’s new book. This particular excerpt deals with encryption, which is generally a good practice. In fact, assuming you’re smart and keep backups, and you have a modern fast hard drive (or, obviously, an SSD), there’s almost no reason to not encrypt your drive.

There is a minor issue with the advice, though:

Apple doesn’t let you encrypt your smart phone’s hard drive or the files on it, though it allows encryption of your phone’s backup files on iTunes or iCloud.

In fact, every iPhone since the 3GS has had hardware encryption enabled by default. When you choose to “Erase All Content and Settings”, it simply throws away the key. Though, currently, there’s a bug: it’s not encrypting email attachments. Whoops.

App.net State of the Union

Founder and CEO Dalton Caldwell:

The bad news is that the renewal rate was not high enough for us to have sufficient budget for full-time employees. After carefully considering a few different options, we are making the difficult decision to no longer employ any salaried employees, including founders. Dalton and Bryan will continue to be responsible for the operation of App.net, but no longer as employees. Additionally, as part of our efforts to ensure App.net is generating positive cash flow, we are winding down the Developer Incentive Program. We will be reaching out to developers currently enrolled in the program with more information.

Disappointing,1 but not totally unexpected: App.net has felt for the past several months as a floundering product, well-intentioned but unfocused. Mat Honan wrote a great article for Wired last year where he explained what the product is supposed to be:

Imagine this. You sign up for Vine, and build up a robust friend network and library of videos. But then you try out Instagram’s new video sharing, and decide you like its editing features a lot better.

Normally, this would mean starting over, with no friends and no files. But let’s say that both of them were just applications that ran on top of App.net. Instead of starting over, when you fired up Instagram for the first time, your friends and videos would be there waiting for you. That’s App.net. Or at least that’s what it wants to be.

This has always been poorly articulated by the App.net team. It doesn’t help that the first product they launched was a Twitter clone, and the timing of its launch coincided with a time when Twitter was making unpopular developer changes.2

App.net wants to be a cloud-based address book for all of your social media connections, with the hopes that others will build dependent social networks on top of it. But they’re not coming. There’s no Facebook competitor in sight, and certainly not one that uses App.net as its backend. There are certainly creative apps that are powered by it, but there’s no technical reason these apps couldn’t be powered by Dropbox or Twitter. There are only philosophical reasons.

Riccardo Mori hasn’t given up hope; App.net certainly isn’t dead. But it’s on life support, and it still feels confused. There wasn’t a big product launch today to win back users, nor has there been one in recent memory. Rather, the company open sourced a bunch of their code. That’s helpful for developers, but it isn’t user-facing. Does App.net have enough inertia for all of this developer assistance to gain new users?

  1. I was an early customer. In case you’re wondering, I chose not to renew my subscription this year. ↩︎

  2. The name certainly doesn’t help, either: “App.net”? ↩︎

Mad Men’s Award-Winning Set Design

The first half of the final season1 of Mad Men is in full swing, and Interior Design magazine got an intimate look at the ridiculously detailed sets that make it such a compelling show:

The plot has top-tier silent characters, too. Fashion-wise, women’s prim shifts evolve into the kind of mod looks popularized by Courrèges. Furniture-wise, the ’60’s were of course mid-century heaven, as evidenced by sets that Weiner, production designer Dan Bishop, and set decorator Claudette Didul conceived down to the most intricate detail. Who knew there was a distinction between East and West Coast mid-century? Weiner did. And he invited Interior Design’s Cindy Allen, the only magazine editor ever granted full access, to tour Draper’s Park Avenue apartment, the agency’s Time & Life Building office, and more on four sound stages in Los Angeles.

I don’t usually link to slideshows, but this is worth it. See also James Minchin’s series of behind-the-scenes photos from a couple of years ago.

  1. Season splitting? Fuck AMC. ↩︎

Galaxy S5 “Explained”

Previous versions of Samsung’s flagship Galaxy line of smartphones were far too confusing for me. You know what I needed? More buzzwords:

To make the Galaxy S5 more ‘Modern Flash’, the designers also designed the basic icons and UX icons in the settings to have a stylish look by creating them in a simpler fashion.

I also wasn’t aware of how much I liked hearing from Derek in marketing:

Talking about the color, the back cover of Samsung’s previous Galaxy series were always “high glossy” or shiny. However, the back cover of the Galaxy S5 is not shiny but shimmery instead, aka the glam look. In fact, to make Galaxy S5 attractive especially to younger users, the designers researched day and night to find the right colors. The white models have a white face, the gold phones are accentuated by a golden frame, and the black devices add depth to their dark exteriors by adding hints of dark grey. After extensive research, they found out that the luster of the color that appeared softly was appealing to consumers in their twenties and thirties.

(Fun side note: does it surprise anyone that Samsung’s “Tomorrow” blog uses a crappy Tynt-esque plugin?)

Despite the buzzword salad, I’m not sure I better understand the design of the Galaxy S5. Perhaps this is because the designers’ information has been filtered through a Samsung Tomorrow blogger. Let’s go to the source: the Samsung Design page for the Galaxy S5:

Verve, vogue and virtuosity have combined to create a new face for Samsung’s iconic GALAXY series. The Samsung GALAXY S5 is the embodiment of a passionate lifestyle.

The “embodiment of a passionate lifestyle”, eh? I guess Casanova would have had an S5. And, truly, nothing screams “Passion and Energy” like a settings screen.

I’m beginning to think this is a Joaquin Phoenix-esque long con.

Close the EarPod Doors Please HAL

Some guy on the internet:

You may have seen the story last week about Apple working on new EarPods with Biometric and Bluetooth Location features. All the news items I saw, from the Daily Mail in the UK to the evening news in the US. […]

I made it up. I wrote it 5 minutes after I woke up on the 1st of [May]. I was blurry eyed, I had a headache, I was using the toilet and worrying about my blood pressure.

Here’s the craziest part about this Secret: the day after this was posted, Apple hired a guy whose specialty is working on health monitoring devices worn in the ear.

The other fascinating part of this story — which, sadly, isn’t so crazy any more — can be seen in the number of publications who wrote about this as if it was a legitimate rumour that deserved coverage, without any verification whatsoever.

The Great Smartphone War

Vanity Fair’s Kurt Eichenwald put together a great article summarizing the past several years of patent litigation between Apple and Samsung. I’m sure many of you can skim much of this article, but about a third of it is dedicated to illustrating Samsung’s pattern of ethically- and legally-dubious behaviour.

Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore Talks Windows Phone

Peter Bright, Ars Technica:

Joe Belfiore, who runs the Windows Phone design and definition team, was on reddit today to answer questions about Microsoft’s smartphone platform.

The question Belfiore was most excited to answer was whether Windows Phone would get a File Manager app any time soon. It turns out that it will. Belfiore shared a number of screenshots of the app, and said that he hoped to have it released by the end of the month.

File managers aren’t necessarily the first thing that people think of when it comes to smartphones, but with Windows Phone’s support for microSD cards, a tool for moving pictures, music, and files between internal storage and SD storage makes some sense.

A file manager? Guh-ross.

Tech Companies Defy Authorities, Increasingly Notify Users of Secret Data Demands

Craig Timberg, Washington Post:

Major U.S. technology companies have largely ended the practice of quietly complying with investigators’ demands for e-mail records and other online data, saying that users have a right to know in advance when their information is targeted for government seizure.

This increasingly defiant industry stand is giving some of the tens of thousands of Americans whose Internet data gets swept into criminal investigations each year the opportunity to fight in court to prevent disclosures. Prosecutors, however, warn that tech companies may undermine cases by tipping off criminals, giving them time to destroy vital electronic evidence before it can be gathered.

Fueling the shift is the industry’s eagerness to distance itself from the government after last year’s disclosures about National Security Agency surveillance of online services. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Google all are updating their policies to expand routine notification of users about government data seizures, unless specifically gagged by a judge or other legal authority, officials at all four companies said. Yahoo announced similar changes in July.

Good. Users deserve to know when their private data is being accessed by anyone other than themselves. I want to jump back to something, though:

Prosecutors, however, warn that tech companies may undermine cases by tipping off criminals, giving them time to destroy vital electronic evidence before it can be gathered.

Bullshit. If they’re a dumb criminal, they’ll probably throw some stuff in their computer’s trash, but that data can be easily recovered (and remember that we’re talking about cloud services here, with redundant backups of redundant backups, so prosecutors have multiple vectors to recover “deleted” data). A criminal smart enough to securely erase their local storage would be encrypting things anyway, or, probably, not using cloud services to create backups of their terrorist plots.

The Gladiatorial Virtuoso Who Still Sets the Standard

Twenty years ago today, Ayrton Senna was killed in a massive accident at Imola. Richard Williams, for the Guardian, contemplates the statue erected to commemorate Senna:

That the statue at Imola should depict a pensive figure has seemed particularly fitting since evidence emerged of his mental turmoil on 1 May, 1994. He was deeply unhappy with his car; that much was known. But not until much later would it become clear that the death of Roland Ratzenberger 24 hours earlier, preceded by a spectacular accident involving his compatriot Rubens Barrichello, had led him to serious consideration of retirement, worsening a mood already darkened by angry conversations with his brother, Leonardo, who had been sent from Brazil by the family to dissuade him from marrying Adriane Galisteu, his girlfriend of 14 months.

If you haven’t seen “Senna” or the 2010 Top Gear tribute to him, you should try to set aside some time to see both.

Update: Because of the unique way the BBC licenses music, I selected a version of the Top Gear tribute that’s ripped from the original aired episode, so it retains the original (genius) music choices, not the crappy royalty-free substitutions. Unfortunately, the uploader cut out a great bit from the film where Lewis Hamilton takes the MP4/4 for a spin. You should watch that bit, too.

Burying the URL

There are advantages to simplifying the URL field but, as Allen Pike notes, there are significant drawbacks:

URLs are the essence. They make hypertext hyper. The term “web” is no accident – it refers to this explicitly.

Unlike other modern technologies that have hidden as much complexity as possible, web browsers have continued to put this technical artifact top center, dots, slashes and all. The noble URL caused a revolution in sharing and publishing.

The URL is one of the backbones of the web. Perhaps, in the future, we won’t need an explicit address in the conceptual vein of the URL. But attempts have been made to replace it before — recall, if you will, the AOL Keyword. In the same way that net neutrality is important to ensure ISPs can’t prioritize or demote traffic, we shouldn’t entrust the linked web to search engines and toolbars.